Thursday, March 04, 2010

Projection in psychology and myth

I've been thinking a lot today about the nature of psychological projection, and the role it plays in mythological thought and imagery. This was probably set off by an essay by Alan Dundes on the subject, Projection In Folkore: A Plea For Psychoanalytic Semiotics, which is a great deal more interesting than the title might imply. Dundes is in many ways a master essayist, portraying fairly complicated thoughts in a very straightforward manner, and making what could be very dry subjects interesting. So I will directly turn to a couple of his thoughts on the subject as I continue to process what I've read today:
"In psychology, projection refers to the tendancy to attribute to another person or the environment what is within one's self. What is attributed is usually some internal impulse or feeling which is painful, unacceptable, or taboo. The ascription of feelings and qualities of one's own to a source in the external world is accomplisehd without the individual's being consciously aware of the fact. The individual perceives the external object as possessing the taboo tendancies without recognizing their source in himself. I might mention Charles S. Peirce was aware of the existence of projection. He wrote, 'I think it is probably true that every element of experience is in the first instance applied to an external object. A man gets up out of the wrong side of the bed, for example, attributes wrongness to almost every object he perceives. This is the way in which he experiences his bad temper.' Despite the triviality of the example, the aptness of the insight remains valid. Of course, Freud said it too and with specific reference to folkore: 'As a matter of fact, I believe that a large portion of the mythological conception of the world which reaches far into the most modern religions is nothing but psychology projected onto the outside world.'"
It is funny to me that today, after reading this section, I got into a conversation on Facebook about this very tendancy and its role in myth, and following that, went to yin yoga class and our instructor commented repeatedly on the nature of projection, and how the negative sensations that we might experience in our daily lives arise within ourselves, even if they are triggered externally. This is further emphasized by the fact that one can contort their body, and experience an unlocking of energy (of one kind or another), that triggers these latent or "trapped" emotional responses. In fact that reaction can be so intense and surprising to many beginning practicioners that they assume something is wrong with them, and cease practice immediately!

This is really worth emphasizing. It is essentially impossible for any external event to in itself cause anger, grief, happiness, despair, or any other emotion that exists in the continuum of possible human emotions. Impossible. What is triggered is MY anger, MY fear, or desire, or so on. Yoga is especially direct in its ability to throw this in our face, but it is certainly not the only process whereby one can slowly, inch by agonizing inch, peel back the curtain obscuring this psychological sleight of hand. Doubtless completely removing this process would make us something other than human. But making us conscious of it-- that is part of what distinguishes the "sleepers" from the "awake." (To that, for my part, all I can claim is: I'm working on it.)

In regard to myth, there is another level that should be considered: all imagined and historic events serve simply as triggers of psychological symbolism, which is to say projected symbolism. Don't gloss this over, accept or reject it out of hand. Hidden within this statement is the reason that Christian mystics have visions of the Virgin Mary, and Hindus see Shiva. This is not ruling out the possibility of a vision or experience from outside ones direct culture, or even ones direct personal experience, though it is far more likely that this will be the source that the vision is construed from.

Much, if not all of this process occurs under the water, as it were. (And of course, the waters, ocean, and so on are almost always a reference to the boundary between conscious and unconscious.)
"It is my contention that much of the meaning of folkoristic fantasy is unconscious. Indeed, it would have to be unconscious- in the Freudian sense- for folkore to function as it does. Among its functions, folkore provides a socially sanctioned outlet for the expression of what cannot be articulated in the more usual, direct way. It is precisely in jokes, folktales, folksongs, proverbs, children's games, gestures, etc. that anxieties can be vented. If a person knew exactly what he was doing when he told a joke to his boss or to his spouse (or if the boss or spouse knew what he was doing), the joke would probably cease to be an escape mechanism. Man needs such mechanisms."
"The unconscious nature of so much of folkore makes the study of meaning difficult though not impossible. It is difficult because it is not easy to elicit native testimony about such meanings. Unconscious symbolism is just as hard for informatns to articulate as is the grammar of the languages they speak."
This immediately poses another quandry. The unconscious itself is a fairly recent myth, historically speaking. And it is one that some schools of modern psychology question. This bears more thought for me, certainly, though as always it can easily be bypassed with the question: "is it is useful myth?" And that question can only be answered within a specific context and frame of reference. In regard to the issue of projection, which we can consider a psychological fact on experiential grounds, it is not only a useful fiction but also a requisite one. So that will need to do, for now.

1 comment:

  1. You do not go far enough as to the inherent ubiquitous of projection. It is impossible to see the world outside of your own perspective. There exist no possibility of stepping outside the "I", the observer.



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