Erich Kahler and The Foreign Installation
I’ve been reading Erich Kahler’s book (1956) The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into the Transformation of Man, and I’m finding it quite engaging. There are a couple of quotes I’ld like to share that are relevant to themes we’ve raised here in The Chrysalis and in the earlier Dark Age Blog.
The first passage from Kahler’s book pertains to what we’ve taken to calling “the foreign installation” — the occupied psyche or mind. Here, in speaking of “collectives”, Kahler is referring to great institutions become immortal persons such as State, Church, Corporation, and so on; institutions which seem to have gained a large degree of functional autonomy and are no longer rooted in community (the German distinction, from which Kahler may be drawing, is that between what is termed “Gesellschaft” and “Gemeinschaft“, and is sometimes rendered as a distinction between Zivilisation and Kultur).
“Collectives are the only groups which function primarily as groups. To be sure, a family or a nation is a group as well, but its primary function is internal; it acts upon the individual through common feelings, dispositions and habits. Whenever a community acts as a group, this function is derivative; whenever a nation acts as a group, it becomes a state. Conversely, the influence of the collective is an external one; and its internal effects on the individual are derivative. Its standards and stereotypes intrude on the personality from without. Substantially alien to the personality, collectives may, if powerful enough, cause it to split. Collective influences are therefore much more dangerous than those exerted by genuine communities; they may break up the individual form. They invade the psyche of the individual from consciousness, in a rational or pseudo-rational way, through the innumerable abstractions of modern life. From consciousness, dim as it may be, these abstractions gradually sink into the unconscious, and in this manner they disrupt personality – for no crucial changes occur in a human being without the medium of the unconscious. The unconscious is the formative, the creative ground of the personality, and not until the unconscious has been affected, can any change take roots in a human disposition.
In this way a layer of the unconscious forms that can rightly be called collective unconscious. Here is stored up the residue of a host of mass stereotypes, slogans, conceptual simplifications, suggested or imposed attitudes, which by various means have sunk from consciousness into the unconscious.
We are all aware of instances of this process. Business advertising, for example, starts out from some very simple rational, quasi-argumentative appeal. ‘Live modern,’ it tells you, and smoke L&M filter cigarettes which ‘taste richer, smoke cleaner’; Ballantine beer has ‘purity, body, flavor’; American Airlines ‘carries more passengers than any other airline in the world.’ Once these motives for buying are established, compulsion through ubiquitous, noisy repetition sets in. Constant pounding drives the slogans down into the unconscious where they gradually lose their argumentative character and become immediately, mechanically compelling. Novelty, too, starts out from a thrill of sophistication and ultimately becomes one of the most compulsive unconscious motives for buying.” (pp 10-11)
It should be pointed out that in the quote above, Kahler uses the term “collective unconscious” in a way quite distinct from C.G. Jung. What Jung terms “collective unconscious” Kahler prefers to call the “generic unconscious”, and this generic unconscious seems quite the same as that which Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin.” Kahler prefers “collective unconscious” to describe the external influences of the great collectives on the psyche, and in that sense it means what we have called “the foreign installation.”
The second passage from Kahler I wanted to share with you pertains to what I’ve been calling “ironic reversal”, as a catch-all phrase to cover other, identical reversals known as “perverse outcome,” “unintended consequence,”, “blowback,” “revenge effect,” “enantiodromia” (C.G. Jung’s term following Heraclitus), or just plain old “reversal of fortune”.
“It is essential what we acknowledge the paradoxical ‘law of history’ – if we may call it that – or, to put it even more broadly, the ‘law of life’: that any living thing or movement has beneficial as well as harmful effects; that bad and, indeed, perilous effects are inextricably interwoven with the good, productive ones…. Any living thing or movement carries its life and its death within the same body [or process]: what drives life to its climax is the very impulsion that fosters the seeds of death. Any principle, therefore, that is pushed to its extreme and loses its resilience, its adaptability to changing conditions, reverses and defeats itself.”
This passage, describing “ironic reversal”, ought to be compared also with that oft-quoted statement, here in The Chrysalis, from Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin concerned the current human condition,
“The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient, that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavor.
Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient” (p. 3).