Theory

benfell's picture

The idea of 'theory' is pretty basic stuff taught in undergraduate methodology classes. We speak of a circular process, in which observations lead to a hypothesis, which is tested, with the results forming new observations and a refined or revised hypothesis eventually developing into and being recognized as a theory, but with the circular process continuing. This is part of the positivist paradigm but forms of it can be found in non-positivist approaches to inquiry. If there's any controversy about this, I'm unaware of it.

I gather psychological theories are not so much that way. At hand, I have Esther Harding's The I and the Not-I: A Study in the Development of Consciousness, which relies heavily on Harding's experience, her acquaintance with Carl Jung, and her knowledge of his work.1 I should caution that I am only part way through this work and that this work constitutes my only serious exploration of Jungian theory.

I'm reading this book because I am enticed by the idea, offered by a therapist I know, that political polarization might be a manifestation of Left and Right projecting their shadows onto each other. Readers who are familiar with Jung's work probably know more about this than I, but as I understand it from Harding, the shadow essentially consists of attributes we deny in ourselves but project onto other people.2

To offer a personal example, I had a father and a grandfather who were adamant about doing things 'right,' that is, doing quality work or paying to have it done. My father was an instrumentation engineer for a firm that designed a number of sewage treatment plants. These plants are usually ordered by governments, which often meant that contracts were awarded to low-bidders, which my father held in considerable disdain because he believed the work would not be done well.

I inherit this emphasis on quality. In general, if I don't think I can do something well, I won't do it. In Jungian theory, the emphasis on quality would be what I acknowledge in my personality and any tendency toward stupidity or slipshod work would be in my shadow, which of course I disdain in other people and almost never recognize in myself. The truth, of course, is a bit more nuanced. Sometimes I overreach and the results aren't so hot. Sometimes I take a shortcut that turns out to be flatly wrong. Sometimes, I just plain fuck up.

And when I realize I have done such a thing, I roll my eyes, generally (I hope) acknowledge my error, and move on. I'm a lot less forgiving of these faults in other people, possibly not realizing how often I might be screwing up myself. As I'm understanding Jungian theory, a Jungian psychologist would suggest that at least some of that may be projection, that maybe those other people aren't so incompetent as I think, but that I am instead assigning my own faults to them.3

One of the more curious points in this theory is that the person whom we project our shadows onto should be the same sex as ourselves because our projection really is from ourselves, so the subject of our projection has to match our self-image. Harding does not mention race,4 but my therapist friend concurs that it would make sense that the object of our projection would also need to be of the same race.

This would seem to suggest some limitations in applying Jungian theory to our present political discourse. Barack Obama, for example, was clearly the victim of racism. As I pointed out in my dissertation, "Some of this [antipathy toward Obama] is clearly racist and it does not help those who would deny that it is racist to question the fact of Obama’s birth in the United States, to allege that he was born in Kenya rather than in Hawaii, or to call him a monkey (Davis, May 21, 2015; Dees, 2014; Gibson, January 13, 2013; Koppelman, 2009; MacAskill, 2009; Maraniss, 2012; New York Times, April 11, 2015; Pugh, January 12, 2012; Younge, October 26, 2009)."5 Current disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement is sometimes manifest in claims that "all [emphasis added] lives matter," which obscure the particular claims of Blacks and, by the way, American Indians in service to a police emphasis on protecting "blue" lives, even at the expense of civilian lives.

The dichotomy between "Black" and "blue" lives is, of course, is false, but each side accuses the other side of recklessness toward their own lives. The Blacks who have fallen victim to police violence have often been unarmed so, if I can apply Jungian theory here, I might say that police project their own recklessness onto Blacks, magnifying by orders of magnitude the threat they perceive from Blacks, and thereby rationalizing their disproportionate violence toward Blacks.

But if my and my therapist friend's understanding of Jungian theory is correct, we cannot apply Jungian theory here because the white cops who shoot Blacks cannot project their own recklessness onto subjects of different races. It is inadequate here to acknowledge that some of the cops doing the shooting happen themselves to be Black. But I'm wondering if this constraint or, really, even the one about sex is in fact appropriate.

My attraction to this idea, you will recall, is that I'm interested in the U.S. political Left and the U.S. political Right projecting their shadows onto each other. Harding specifically allows for group shadows and group projections, citing a presumably all-white European example of Jews and Gentiles.6 Jews have been repeatedly subject to pogroms in Europe, of which the Holocaust is only a more recent example, and this helps to rationalize the founding of Israel, and to rationalize that country's political view of any challenge to its policies and practices toward Palestinians as anti-Semitic. And if we allow as how each the Left and Right are of mixed gender and race, I suppose Harding would permit the application of Jungian theory to this discourse.

Which would be to say that projection can, after all, cross lines of gender and race.

But more fundamentally, Harding's book lacks the rigor I expect. I do not share many of her premises, both stated and unstated. Many of her examples do not clearly correspond to people I have encountered in real life. Her reliance on her own self as an expert on Jungian theory thus falls short for me. I cannot really see here that the circular process I mentioned at the beginning of this post has been followed. Which would mean that Jungian theory is not a theory in the sense I have come to expect.

Which has me thinking again about theory.

When, having recently arrived at Saybrook University's Human Science program, I was casting about for a dissertation topic, I initially was curious about the turn from a relative Ice Age egalitarianism among societies that lived more or less in harmony with their environments to an authoritarian exploitive system of social organization.7 I had read Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade8 but as I dug into the archaeological work that she based her work on, I couldn't get anything to line up.9 My advisor, Bob McAndrews, disparaged that archaeological work and, as I found out later, my department chair, JoAnn McAllister, had apparently been around for the controversy that flared up when all this had come to light years earlier. I still don't know the full story there, but my impression from conversations with her is that this is personal for her.

Trying to figure out what the fuck was going on, I eventually reached out to one Andrew Gurevich, who had found me through my former association with the Ph.D. program that was the wrong program for me, Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Gurevich was the one who filled me in on the discrediting of that archaeological work that Eisler had based her entire work on. But, Gurevich added, there needs to be room in inquiry for speculative work and he credited Eisler for opening a valuable line of inquiry.

So here I am today, years later, with Harding. And I am asking myself, what if a theory doesn't have to be empirically grounded in the way that I had learned in my undergraduate methodology classes? What if it can just be a source of insight? Jungian theory certainly meets the latter criterion. And that would open the door for me to be less stringent about Harding's claim that the shadow can be projected onto one's own sex.10

I'm still thinking about how I would defend such an approach. But I do think I need to open that space that Gurevich suggested.