The Paradox of Cultural Complexes

Sun. November 18, 2007
Categories: Research

Any discussion of cultural trauma must not pass over the idea of cultural complexes in one’s identity, which arise out of the cultural unconscious. Thomas Singer in The Emerging Theory of Cultural Complexes (Singer & Kimbles, 2004) says “cultural complexes are not the same as cultural identity, although sometimes they can seem impossibly intertwined” (p. 185).

Complexes facilitate the individual’s relationship to the group and can provide for a sense of belonging, identity and historical continuity, and are usually ethnic, religious, racial, and gender-based (Kimbles, p. 188). In that regard, they are necessary to us in that they bind us to each other unawares and lead to “narrative and rituals passed from generation to generation.” When operating negatively, this psychological matrix intuitively informs us who is different and does not belong in the group. “These different ones are generally pathologized or demonized but rarely idealized,” says Kimbles.

Cultural complexes are self-protective mechanisms meant to protect the ego from annihilation and they contain defenses that are “archaic, typical, and archetypical” (Singer & Kimbles, p. 190). Archaic defenses cause a “false self [that] takes up residence in the outer world which can function well enough in ordinary situations, although it is most likely to break down in intimate relationships” (pp. 188-189). While the false self takes up residence, the true self goes into hibernation.

How can I become more my true self within the culture? It requires some separation, does it not? It is possible to know who I am when I dis-identify with the narratives and rituals being handed down to me that keep me oppressed. This means that, in terms of individuation, both dis-identification and identification are inseparable. Dis-identification, similar to a proton leaping into a higher orbit, is when I dis-identity with one group (i.e., all women) and merge into a larger identification (i.e., all humans) while still containing the sub-culture of “all women.”. Once a larger identification is achieved, I still must recognize that each level of identification will have its own complexes and traumas. This process is called ‘interpellation,’ a concept developed by Althusser in Marxist theory – the process by which we internalize cultural and/or ideological values – and it co-exists, I would say, with Jung’s idea of the individuation process, that is, individuation is the reverse of interpellation. As I individuate, I would consistently question the cultural identifications that have left me feeling repressed.

Trauma is when “the psyche shatters itself through its own self-defense system” (Singer & Kimbles, 2004, p. 190). The resulting complex is psychic scar tissue “based upon repetitive, historical group experiences which have taken root in the cultural unconscious of the group” (p. 187).

Cultural complexes arising out of the cultural unconscious can be activated…and take hold of the collective psyche of the group, and through this channel the individual psyches of the member may become impacted. The inner sociology of the cultural complexes can seize the imagination, the behavior and the emotions of the collective psyche and unleash tremendously irrational forces in the name of their ‘logic.’ (Singer, p. 187)

In New Orleans and elsewhere, we should ask which cultural complexes are being activated. Are complexes related to failed Re-construction, which included the hope that race as the basis of identity would be eliminated, but was not and here lies the “roots and routes of cultural trauma” says Ron Eyerman in Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (2001)? From a failed post-emancipation reconstruction to current de-construction in New Orleans, cultural traumas trigger cultural complexes.

However, it is a paradox because cultural complexes can be negative or positive.

The social construction of race was reclaimed in a positive way by W.E.B. Du Bois, who connected race to a larger, transcontinental history (interpellation?) thereby turning the weapon that had been used against African American identity into a concept involving “mission and duty, giving a message to the world, producing the ‘greatness’ that a great race is capable of” (Eyerman, 2001, p. 62). Du Bois’ cultural project was to restore their psychological well-being (pride) in an economic system that enforced inferiority (poverty). Race, then, can be a negative complex or a positive one. Thus, the paradox of cultural complexes.

Not only that, positive cultural complexes were activated at the same time negative ones were in response to the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, as we see in grassroots relief organizations like Common Ground which formed after the flooding:

“The part of Common Ground based out of Houma, La seems as though it was specifically created as a “second chance” location. ..Life is too short to be so selfish and self-involved, like we people are right now. A little country air and a lot of country lovin’ can help anyone’s soul recover from the horrors that are self induced. I learned …that there are people who do care and risk their own sanity and lives to make sure we, as people keep our sanity and lives. For this I give eternal thanks and the promise to all that I [will] strive to be that person I know I can be and that I want to be.” (Anonymous, 2006)

Organizers gathered to ensure an effective source of support was provided in the absence of State support. The timing was critical and their labors effective in restoring the hope of survivors, as the gutting of houses was begun, food and clothing provided, and in terms of restoring identity the portrait story project was started alongside projects for bioremediation of soils and the use of efficient microbes to deal with mold.
“Thursday, August 3, 2006 was the Jewish Fast day of Remembering the Destruction of the 2 Holy temples that were Destroyed thousands of years ago. I have Been Many Places for this Day Such as Israel, Russia, and many more. But this time I was in New Orleans.

And this time I really felt what it was to lose the Holy temple. Our group of Jewish teens went to Beth Israel on this day. Beth Israel was Destroyed by the storm. We went inside and it was something my eyes have never seen before. It was worse that the temple I saw in Poland the ones the Nazis destroyed. We meet someone from Beth Israel. Someone who has been a member his whole life. He told us stories that would make you cry. The joy was hearing they will move on and live on. They will rebuild. History proves that no matter what hardship the Jewish People go through they stick together and live on. I see this in New Orleans. I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death I should fear no evil. “

Is it enough that the stories are disseminated on social media? Or do people require theoretical and constructivist interpretations of the survivor stories to carry the memories forward?

To constructively codify the stories requires an analysis of structure, i.e., the formation of categories, for instance: survivors vs. volunteers, renters vs. homeowners, and then the coding of their narratives. It may sound de-humanizing but this would be done in order to present results statistically and form conclusions for shaping policy. Analysis that deconstructs cultural identity instead of restoring it may temporarily distance us emotionally. Given the passion in these stories, it appears doubtful. Jonathon Culler in Barthes: A Very Short Introduction writes “the structuralist attempt to understand how we make sense of a text leads one to think of literature not as a representation or communication but as a series of forms produced by the institution of literature and the discursive codes of a culture” (2002, p. 69).

Are the portrait stories literature? Are they to be taken literally? No more, no less than what the government and corporate mass media “feed” via the news, because you will find what appear to be contradictions, and responses that are so different from each other one wonders if they lived through the same storm. Survivor stories reflect unique identities as one truth eclipses another – whose truth is it that you believe? Why not all since ultimately the portrait story project is about recognizing the power residing in people’s memories versus the State’s power to control identity.  Francesco di Santis writes,

In twenty-first century society with a. . .burgeoning spectrum of media sources, we become more responsible in our maturity for what kind of history we create and what kind we internalize: for who we listen to, who we believe and why [more] than previous generations could have been. Sometimes we know of as many mirrors being held up to the world as there are hammers attempting to shape it. . . these “hammers and mirrors” have come closer to being the same tool, for when we consistently pay attention to a medium or media source, however we intake it, we begin to allow it to define us. . . These stories come from those who essentially serve as actors writing their own script on a vast transformative stage with no director. In reading their stories deposited in prosperity’s commonwealth, we respect these subjectivities and perpetuate them, making space in our mind for them to exist as individual people. (di Santis, 2006)

How does a culture resolve complexes and heal traumas? Perhaps it is through dialogue instead of dialectic.

Finally, these stories are a part of the public conversation as are films, literature, and art which have the potential to heal our collective psyche. Even though  not every individual “portrait” has a beginning, middle, and end yet when taken collectively one can feel a sense of wholeness, which is the secret of stories.

Comments are closed.