Why Are Images So Dangerous?

“A psychic entity can be a conscious content, that is it can be represented, only if it has the quality of an image.”
Jung, CW 8, para 322
 “An archetypal image is not only a thought pattern…it is also an emotional experience—the emotional experience of an individual.”
von Franz, Interpretation of Fairytales, p.10

Why are images so dangerous? Why would ISIS smash the Assyrian statues, or the Taliban the giant Buddha’s, or the Protestants the icons and frescos in churches all over northern Europe in the 1500’s? What is threatening about pieces of stone and surfaces of paint? What ISIS did, what the Taliban did, what the Protestants did, was not wonton destruction. It was purposeful annihilation –of images. What is it about images that pose such a danger?

One answer is that images, such as the Assyrian statues, relativize; they remind us of the grand sweep of history. They put the moment’s concerns in relief. He/she who controls the images controls the ideology. No leader allows the images of his predecessor to remain; the more ruthless the leader, the more images are destroyed. More civilized ways of demonstrating a change of power include taking down the loser’s flag and putting up the winner’s, or changing the corporate logo or, as in the case of civil rights movements, making sure that there are images of African Americans and women on the government’s sites.

But I suggest that the savaging of the Assyrian statues and artifacts by ISIS is not just a propaganda move and an attempt to control the conversation, although of course, it is clearly propagandistic.  Rather this destruction is a deeper, more profound attempt to try to cut people off from the wellsprings of the numinous.

Images carry history with them; images carry meaning as well. Whether they are rebuses as in hieroglyphics or carefully crafted icons for use in devotion and prayer, images put us in touch with dimensions both personal and archetypal. Images encourage us to fall into reverie and to encounter ourselves in non-verbal ways. Images, such as those destroyed in Iraq, remind us of myth and metaphor, and cause us to be humble in the face of their vast Otherness.

Each time in history when images have been destroyed, the excuse has been that the worshiping of idols misleads the people. Yet, that has never really been the case.  Take the story in Genesis for example.

The Golden Calf was not an arbitrary image of greed or an idol to be worshiped. The cow is the symbol of the extremely important Egyptian Goddess Hathor, Goddess of fertility and abundance. The Hebrews were evoking the Goddess of the land they just left—at a time when they were hungry, frightened and in need of abundance. Moses had to smash that symbol—not because it was an idol, but because it was an authentic object of devotion and worship. Moses had to break it to bits because of what it stood for, what it evoked, what it engendered in the spirit of the people. He was trying to establish Yahweh as the one God; the power of the Egyptian Gods had to be undone in the hearts and minds of the people.

I am certainly not equating Moses with ISIS, but rather seeing that tale as an example of how powerful images/symbols are, how dangerous they can be felt to be, and how essential it can be to do away with previous power-laden archetypal images when trying to change the power structure.

Another example: In Bern Switzerland in 1528, Ulrich Zwingli proclaimed, “That to set up pictures and to adore them is also contrary to Scripture, and that images and pictures ought to be destroyed where there is danger in giving them adoration.” (from the 10 propositions of the public disputations, Bern 1528) His reform movement caused thousands of religious paintings, frescos, statues and devotional objects, including pipe organs, to be destroyed—all across Europe. Countless artifacts were annihilated; countless images lost to humanity forever. (see The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580,  by Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 1992 for an wonderful and excruciating exploration of this movement in Europe)

Certainly, praying to an idol misdirects devotion away form the numinous god—if one thinks the statue or picture is the god or spirit itself. However, devotional images are not inherently idols. The relationship one has to an image is personal and profound. Images inspire us, they focus us, and they offer us glimpses into what is both universal and specific at the same time. Images transcend language; they transcend understanding. “ When the archetype manifests itself in the here and now of space and time, it can be perceived in some form by the conscious mind. Then we speak of a symbol.” ( Jolanda Jacoby, Complex Archetype Symbol, page 74)  When we make paintings and statues and images, we give the archetypal images a form and the possibilities for symbolism and meaning. Jung also states:  “Whether a thing is a symbol or not depends chiefly upon the attitude of the observing consciousness.”   (Jung, CW6, para. 603)

Jung says, “The psyche consists essentially of images.” (CW8, para. 623) We are made of images, we communicate with images and we thrive in the presence of images. We wither without them. Images hold people even more than words. Images precede thought and remain when words fail. Images become symbols. ISIS knows this, I suspect. They know very well how to manipulate images (just look at their horrific videos). They know that smashing these images will affect us all profoundly, emotionally and spiritually, regardless of our personal religious beliefs and traditions.

ISIS wants us to be afraid. And, it is right for us to be scared, for to be cut off from images is to be cut off from ourselves.

To see the images being destroyed:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-31660944


Margaret Klenck, MDiv, LP is a Jungian Analyst in private practice in New York City. She is a graduate from the C.G. Jung Institute of New York and holds a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, where she concentrated in Psychology and Religion. Margaret is the President of the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association (JPA) in New York, where she also teaches and supervises. She is also a member and on the faculty of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts and has served on the faculty of the Blanton-Peale Institute. Margaret has lectured and taught nationally and internationally. Recently, Margaret co-wrote, with the cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, the opening essay in the second volume of Jung and Film, edited by Chris Hauke and Luke Hockney. Margaret is currently the JPA’s representative on the IAAP executive council.

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