The Function of Images

An area of interest that has captured my attention this term has to do with the autonomy of the unconscious and the power it wields over us through its images. I had not considered before what the function of images might be, I had just accepted that images are spontaneously produced by the unconscious and that they are its language. But this term, I have learned about the function of images which, to me, seems an important point that deserves emphasis. 

As we know, in depth psychology images are emanations that spontaneously irrupt from the deep psyche. They take a variety of forms including text, creative expression, or even emotions and intuitions. They come at us in our dreams, they come at us in thought formations and fantasies, and they come at us through art, literature, poetry, and dance. The question is, why? Why do these images come at us at all and what are we to do with them? Jung says that the images hold a measure of libido or psychic energy and that they use this energy for their own specific purposes. Furthermore, since autonomous, the images prioritize their own needs above the needs of the ego complex. Our task is to, first of all, allow the images to exist and then to experience and interact with them on their own level—the imaginal level (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 346). The images wield tremendous power over consciousness. They hold this power down in the unconscious and we must interact with the images in order to gain access to that power. In other words, images are libido—they are psychic energy. Which means that our lives as we know them rely upon images for their existence since without energy there can only be psychic entropy—a catatonic state of total inertia. This explains the sometimes overbearing urgency of images and why they often harass us until we meet them on their own terms. They know something we don’t. 

Another interesting feature of images is that they hold a specific message or quality having to do with the situation of the individual who is encountering them. Jung explained that the unconscious is the feminine side of consciousness and that it insists upon a feeling function to restore psychic balance since the ego’s rational and intellectual perspective is usually too one-sided (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 216). The images are thus emissaries of this mission to restore psychological balance and they, therefore, wear outward forms which are most relevant to the individual’s specific issues. Furthermore, psychic balance is not always just a matter of correcting pathological or unwanted psychological manifestations. It is also a matter of individuation, which is to say, a matter of bringing the two spheres of consciousness into proper alignment so that the individual ends up living a life that feels richly endowed with meaning and purpose. The images thus have secret knowledge to impart and play a serious role in the psyche.

Jung further explained that we cannot simply stand back and passively watch the images and hope to understand, much less effect, their meanings, for the images are autonomous, they have a level of unconcern we must contend with. If we hope to access the knowledge they contain we must interact with them actively on the imaginal level, which is to say, inside the image itself, inside the fantasy, inside the dream (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 350). Jung said that by actively participating with the images we “gain possession of them by allowing them to possess” (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 368) us. This method, which Jung called active imagination, makes it possible for an individual to not only experience but also to interact, in a waking state, with the unconscious—to merge with it. In so doing, access is gained to the hidden and secret knowledge of the images and the deeper predilections breeding in the psychological volcanoes of our souls. Without access to this restorative imaginal knowledge, we remain divided, stunted, and incomplete, making titanic blunders as we continue to live a one-sided, egocentric life.  

Jung, C. G. (1966). The relations between the ego and the unconscious (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 7, 2nd ed., pp.  121–241). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1928)