The Cultural Complex in Theory and Practice

Thomas Singer
San Francisco, California
Society of Jungian Analysts of Northern California, San Francisco


Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the binary world view of conflicting global superpowers that it symbolized, an endless parade of ethnic, racial, religious, gender, national and regional factions have emerged on the world stage with their long simmering feuds bubbling over. Everywhere, disadvantaged groups have been crying out for justice, healing or vengeance – or all three simultaneously. Peoples from every continent have been caught in a newly energized round of conflicts that run the gamut from local and tribal skirmishes to international hatreds. As these group conflicts flood relationships with highly charged emotions at every level of human exchange we seek explanations and remedies.

The concept of the cultural complex offers a new perspective on the psychological nature of conflicts between groups which is modeled on Jung’s theory of complexes. Our modern version of Jung’s original idea makes no special claim to having the answer to what causes – or might heal – group conflict, but it offers a point of view that may be useful to some as they ponder the forces that invariably seem to thwart human attempts to bring a collaborative spirit to the unending strife between groups of people.

Cultural complexes are every bit as real, every bit as formative, every bit as ubiquitous, and every bit as powerful in their emotional and behavioral impact on individuals and groups as are personal complexes. Indeed, cultural complexes may present the most difficult and resistant psychological challenge we face.

The Jungian Attitude to “The Collective”

In the Jungian tradition, complex theory has been a cornerstone for understanding individuals. But, when it has come to analyzing broader collective experience, analytical psychologists have relied on the theory of archetypes. Archetypal possession of the collecctive psyche is an all too real and dangerous psychic phenomena, but there are a host of potent group phenomena that may be more fruitfully and accurately explored by thinking in terms of cultural complexes. This may also help avoid our tendency to reductionism that archetypal interpretations of group phenomena frequently suggest.

Jung himself was suspicious of group life and the danger of archetypal possession. He bore witness to the terrible side of collectivity through much of the twentieth century. As a result, the vitality of collective life has often fallen into the Jungian shadow. Our psychology has tended to collapse the experience of life in the group between the more “meaningful” archetypal and individual poles. The notion of a “cultural complex” may lead to an enhanced capacity to see the shadow of the group in its cultural complexes more objectively, rather than the Jungian tendency to see the group itself as the shadow. A Jungian psychology of group complexes as distinct from and yet interrelated with personal complexes has not been elaborated.

Characteristics of Cultural Complexes

Personal complexes and cultural complexes are not the same, although they get all mixed up with one another. We suggest that personal and cultural complexes share the following characteristics:

  1. They express themselves in powerful moods and repetitive behaviors.
  2. They resist our most heroic efforts at consciousness and remain, for the most part, unconscious.
  3. They accumulate experiences that validate their point of view and create a store house of self-affirming, ancestral memories.
  4. Personal and cultural complexes function in an involuntary, autonomous fashion and tend to affirm a simplistic point of view that replaces everyday ambiguity and uncertainty with fixed, often self- righteous attitudes to the world. Fundamentalism – be it Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Jungian or any other variety – can be seen as an expression of a complex at the cultural level.
  5. In addition, personal and cultural complexes both have archetypal cores; i.e., they express typically human attitudes and are rooted in primordial ideas about what is meaningful, making them very hard to resist, reflect upon, and discriminate.

Cultural complexes can be thought of as the fundamental building blocks of an inner sociology. But this inner sociology is not objective or scientific in its description of different groups. Rather, it is a description of groups as filtered through the psyches of generations of ancestors. It contains an abundance of information and misinformation about the structures of societies – a truly, inner sociology – and its essential components are cultural complexes.

Cultural Complexes/Cultural Identity/National Character

“Cultural complexes” are not the same as either “cultural identity” and/or “national character,” although there are times when cultural complexes, cultural identity and national character can seem impossibly intertwined. Groups struggling out of long periods of oppression must define new identities for themselves which are often based on long submerged traditions. The struggle to form a new group identity can get mixed up with underlying cultural complexes which lie slumbering in the cultural unconscious, waiting to be awakened by the trigger of new trauma. For some people struggling for freedom for oppression, their complexes – cultural and personal – are their identity. But, for many others, there is a healthy cultural identity (or “cultural ego”) that can be seen as separate from the more negative aspects of cultural complexes. Jung was getting at the idea of a cultural identity in his discussion of national character, but that notion took an ugly turn when the discussion of national character got confused with anti-Semitism.

The Bi-Polarity of Cultural Complexes

Another way to make the distinction between cultural complex and cultural identity and/or national character is to use the idea of the “bipolar complex” that John Perry introduced in his seminal paper on complexes (Perry 1970: 1-12). Perry spoke of the everyday ego as being different from the ego which has been taken over by a complex. When a complex is activated in the unconscious (for instance, rebellious son and authoritarian father), one half of its bipolar content with its potent affect and one sided perceptions of the world takes hold of the everyday ego and creates what Perry called “the affect-ego.” The other part of the bipolar pair is projected out onto the person with whom one is caught in the complex and they, in turn, become what Perry labeled an “affect-object.” Ragged and highly charged interactions between an “affect-ego” and an “affect-object” are the result. This notion of “affect-ego” and “affect-object” can be carried over into our discussion of cultural complexes to help make the distinction between cultural identity and cultural complex clearer. An individual or group with a unique cultural identity that is not in the grips of a cultural complex is much freer to interact in the world without being prey to the highly charged emotional contents that alter perception and behavior. Once the cultural complex is activated in an individual or a group, however, the everyday cultural identity can be overtaken by the affect of the cultural complex and one is in the territory of “affect-ego” and “affect-object” – but at the level of the cultural complex rather than personal complex.

Islam and the West: An Example of the Cultural Complex

The calling card of a cultural complex is its emotional reactivity. Consider the response to such trigger words as “George Bush” or “Osama bin Laden” or “war on terror” or “holy jihad” or “colonial empire.” Everybody reacts to these trigger words – and at least some of these strong reactions belong to “cultural complexes”.

Cultural complexes enshrine and encrust themselves in the consciousness and unconscious of groups of people.

The intertwining and affect laden energies of conflicting unconscious cultural complexes can form the pre-conditions for human events to unfold with a fury that can be likened to the natural forces portrayed in “The Perfect Storm” – when all of the climatic conditions off the eastern seaboard of the United States were uniquely positioned to come together and cause a storm of huge proportions. It is no stretch of the geopolitical, psychological and spiritual imagination to say that we are living in a time when a rare configuration of swirling cultural complexes have been aligning in just the right combination to unleash massive destructive forces.


In thinking about Islam and the West for the Barcelona Congress, the date of 1492 sprang to mind. This is not just a historical date. It is an embodiment in space and time of profound symbolic shifts in the collective psyche that have taken shape in the form of cultural complexes. The year 1492 marks the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews from Spain and the end of Islamic power in this part of Europe; it also also marks the discovery of America by Spanish ships under Christopher Columbus (although this date does not stand out as a landmark of either discovery or celebration in the cultural consciousness or cultural complexes of contemporary American Indians).

This watershed date marks both the beginning of the predominance of the West and the beginning of the decline of Islam – a parallel and contrary movement which has been going on for at least the past 500 years and the swirling affects and effects of which threaten to engulf us today. The bipolarity of this movement is compelling and characteristic of how groups get caught in cultural complexes. Beginning in the 630s, Islam’s rise was lightning quick and triumphant. But, by 1492 that movement began to reverse itself and the Islamic world began to shrink, a process that has continued until the present. Now, some five hundred years later, the tide may be shifting once again. I am not equating the origin of cultural complexes with the geographical expansion and contraction of civilizations, but one can see 1492 as being a critical date in the rise of the West and the decline of Islam. This coincident interlocking of date and place helped shape the conditions for the genesis of potent cultural complexes.

The Cultural Complexes of Islam and The West

To say that the rise of the West is at the core of one cultural complex and that Islam is at the core of another is, of course, a gross oversimplification. There are multiple local and regional complexes that get caught up in these mega-cultural complexes. In the West, for instance, old French, German, English, Spanish and American rivalries and hatreds have been stirred up, just as in the Islamic world, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and other tribal feuds have been activated. All of these cultural complexes – Western and Islamic –have been thrown together to form the conditions for a global “perfect storm” of colliding cultural complexes.

We can begin to sketch in the broadest of strokes some of the characteristics of these cultural complexes:

  1. On the one hand, 1492 marks the of the New World with its “discovery” of the Americas. In addition to providing the right climate for the creation of a set of remarkable values such as democracy, freedom, and the sanctity of the individual, the New World has also given rise to a particular type of cultural complex characterized – especially in the United States – by:
    1. addiction to heroic achievement
    2. addiction to height
    3. addiction to speed
    4. addiction to youth, newness and progress
    5. addiction to innocence
    1. and, most importantly, a profound belief in the resilience of the Western – and especially, the American – group spirit which can easily translate itself into arrogance and grandiosity
  2. (These “addictions” are well documented in Michael Gellert, The Fate of America: An Inquiry into National Character, Brassey’s Inc., Washington, D.C., 2001)
  3. On the other hand, 1492 also marks the beginning of a long decline in Islam’s ability to take creative initiative in intellectual, economic, and social realms. This decline in Islamic influence has led to a cultural complex – especially virulent in its radical fundamentalists – that can be characterized by
    1. adherence to purity
    2. adherence to absolutism
    3. adherence to tradition
    4. adherence to incorruptibility

These first four characteristics of the cultural complex of Islamic fundamentalism are mirrored in their bipolar opposite, i.e. the cultural complex of Christian fundamentalism in the United States. The next two features are more unique to the cultural complex of Islamic fundamentalism:

  1. renunciation of materialism (as so awesomely symbolized and concretized by turning America’s addiction to speed, height, and material success against itself in the attack on the World Trade Center)
  2. and, most importantly, a profound wound at the center of its group spirit that has given rise to despair and suicidal self-destructiveness. Repeated humiliation is at the heart of the Arab world’s experience of itself. Fear of and rage at humiliation constitute dangerous core symptoms of the Islamic cultural complex.

If we mix these ingredients together, we have a horrific recipe for a witches brew of cultural complexes that has mobilized huge energies in the life of nations. These aroused cultural complexes activate what I have described elsewhere as the “archetypal defenses of the group spirit.”

Archetypal Defenses of the Group Spirit

When a group has been attacked at the core of its being and values – as the United States was on 9/11/2001 – or when a group has been corroded at the core of its being and values – as Islam has been for the past 500 years – archetypal defenses of the group spirit are mobilized to protect the vulnerable and injured group spirit, much in the same way that Donald Kalsched has postulated happens to the personal spirit of the traumatized individual. These daemonic defenses are ferocious and inhuman. They often direct their primitive aggression back onto the wounded spirit of the group as evidenced in the self-mockery and self-denigration entrenched in the humor and self-perception of many oppressed groups. Just as often, these same archetypal defenses of the group spirit turn their savage aggression out onto whomever appears to be a threat to the spirit, basic value, or identity of the group. Individuals who become the human embodiments of the “archetypal defenses of the group spirit” torture people in prison; they behead people; they blow themselves and others up without regard for their own personal being or those who happen to be in their path. As defensive agents of a wounded group spirit, they are not constrained by normal human values or concerns. They are truly impersonal representatives of the group and its wounded spirit.

The Axis of Evil

Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda are the avenging angels of the long traumatized spirit of the Muslim world. Their possession by a cultural complex automatically triggers its bipolar, reciprocal opposite in their Western counterparts – creating a nightmarish merry-go-round. It is no accident that George Bush made a slip of the cultural unconscious when he first referred to a “crusade” as the American response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. Bush’s slip was reflexive and automatic, backed up by a centuries-old memory. A crusade is the West’s cultural complex answer to a holy jihad or vice versa.

For many in the West, the Islamic terrorists have become the Daimones – what Bush calls “the evil-doers” who are seen as linked together in a global “axis of evil” that includes Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. For most of the Muslim world and many in the Western world as well, George Bush is the arch Daimone. It is precisely at this intersection – where the Daimones of the spirit of one group’s cultural complex trigger the Daimones of another group’s cultural complex – that I think we can locate a real “axis of evil” – be it the daimonic forces of Sharon aligned against the daimonic forces of Arafat, or the daimonic forces of Bush aligned against the daimonic forces of Osama bin Laden. These negative alignments form a true axis in the sense that a direct line is drawn between the Daimones of one group, protecting their sacred center, and the Daimones of a rival group, protecting their sacred center. Out of such negative alignments springs an “axis of evil” that is founded on the archetypal defense patterns of interlocking cultural complexes – for instance, of fundamental Islamism, of fundamental Christianity, and of fundamental Judaism.

Christians, Jews, and Moslems have been at it for 1200-2000 years. Blacks and whites in America have been at it for over 300 years. Freudians and Jungians have been at it for almost one hundred years. What makes the complexes that drive these conflicts so potent is that they take on a life of their own, not only in the group’s response to attacks on its collective spirit, but also in the way that these complexes seem to take up permanent residence at the cultural level of the psyche in the individual members of their respective groups.


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