Synchronicity: Media’s Inability to Duplicate the Acausal
Synchronicity is a spontaneous and meaningful coincidence, reaffirming the importance of the individual as governed by a larger frame work of universal order. While it was speculated that media technology would increase the amount of synchronous events, ultimately media is tied to the causal sphere. Furthermore, media seeks to absorb the senses where synchronicity instigates new processes of thought. As an artist, I am compelled to connect with others; however, I want to turn away from the media model of engaging through sensuous perception. Though synchronous events are rare and uncontrollable, they appeal to me as a much more powerful form of connection. When an individual finds meaning in an acausal coincidence it is more likely to have a transcendent effect, my hope as an artist then is to not so much capture an audience but rather participate in a universal order and connect with others in a way that reaffirms their individual significance. My hope in reference to my research is to explore the importance of synchronous events and what place they fall into (if any) within our seemingly endless media highway.
Synchronicity is the conception of Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung. Also referred to as an “acausal connecting principle,” Jung believed that not all events result from a cause and effect. It was not a rejection of the causal, but rather an explanation for certain coincidences, which carried more meaning than random chance would allow. Rather than disregard these ‘meaningful coincidences’ as statistical error, Jung set out to explain this phenomenon. Inspired by modern physics, Jung questioned the absolute validity of the causal. With the arrival of Einstein’s theory of relativity, natural law no longer held- up as absolute. If something as fundamental as natural law is valid only under certain circumstances then perhaps coincidences too require several principles, apart from the causal, for explanation (Jung 5-6).
Jung concluded that there must be something “apart from the cerebrum, that can think and perceive (93).” This idea comes together as Jung’s ‘collective unconscious,’ a collection of living awareness, capable of transcending space and time, separate from sensory perception and organic process. From this model an individual, whether conscious or unconscious, could have access to all knowledge past, present, or future. One of Jung’s most famous examples of synchronicity is that of the scarab beetle:
A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the windowpane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment (Jung 22).
This event was not a simple fleeting moment in his patient’s life. Jung had hit a wall with this young woman. Due to her brilliant education she was suffering from her own shrewdness. Jung realized prior to the event that something irrational and unexpected had to occur in order to break her thought process. The moment Jung stated, “Here is your scarab,” the patient transcended her rational resistance and embraced her treatment (Jung 108).
It is interesting to note that at its conception, Jung’s patients considered synchronous events the subject ofridicule, therefore not something they readily talked about (Jung 4). Though astonished by the amount of people who had experienced the phenomenon, Jung noted individuals where often hesitant to speak of it. Jung himself jeopardized his reputation by delving into the parapsychological. However, Jung found these experiences had a profound impact on his patients, far too profound to ignore. His interest then was not just in scientific advancement but also in the advancement of the overall human condition (Jung 4).
While to this day synchronicity remains subject to criticism, it is not subject to ridicule. Jung’s brave venture into synchronicity brought this once esoteric concept out of the guarded sphere ofsecrecy, allowing the advancement ofits study and influence. Without Jung’s affirmation, individuals might have continuously disregarded monumental synchronous events. What I find most captivating about synchronicity is its ability to reaffirm the individual’s importance. As with most life-altering events, synchronicity can “exist only in relation to the individual who experiences it (Jung 12).” However, synchronicity needed to be presented seriously, to be lifted from the realm of taboo (at least in Western society).
I cannot overlook however, that even Jung needed reassurance in his principles. He found poise in Richard Wilhelm, a German scholar and spiritualist who translated and introduced Chinese wisdom literature to European culture. The I Ching served to be not only a source of influence but also a source of clarity for Jung. Furthermore, Chinese thought demonstrated a key principle of synchronicity: the ability to transcend thought patterns, raising Western attitudes “off[their] foundations (Stein 219).” It is this complexity and global diversity that maintains the integrity of synchronicity (Stein 209).
It was Jung’s aspiration that synchronicity ultimately alluded to a “pre-established harmony,” an order to the universe individuals are ordinarily not privy to (Jung 12). Indeed his theory provided pragmatic evidence for the unus mundus, a speculated state where an individual becomes unified with all existence (Donarti 713). Again the power of synchronous events comes from the individual realization, and that perhaps she or he is contributing to the overall order of things.
This aspect of synchronicity continues to be subject to debate; however, the importance of synchronous events remains evident. Though outside the Jungian school of thought, modern day psychoanalyst Annie Reiner has also encountered in her treatment of patients remarkable events of synchronicity. She touches upon Jung’s preoccupation with ‘wholeness,’ and sees synchronous events as opportunities for unconscious conflicts to manifest themselves physically, an event described by Reiner as the union of mind and matter (563).
Synchronous events are opportunities for mental growth. Reiner describes one particular case study where the synchronous events were too overwhelming to overlook. A woman who had experience at the hands of her family violent and traumatic abuse was now experiencing, decades later, harassment from her neighbors.
Reiner describes the scenario:
The neighbors’ names, like her brothers, were James and Tom; her angry dismissive landlord, like her father, was named Doug, and the mediator had the same name as her mother (561).
The strange coincidences of the case continued to unfold. Reiner took full advantage of the situation. She realized these events had the power to heal previous unresolved conflicts, perhaps because synchronicity works within a time-space continuum. She also suggests that synchronous events allow an individual to develop mentally, in order to endure transcendent realizations (569). In reference to Wilhelm Bion, Reiner recognized the thought process as a difficult one, often detested by humans (568). However, she acknowledges a need for unmentalized thoughts to break into the conscious realm (569). As with her aforementioned patient, while struggling for transcendence and unity, an individual’s ‘system’ of thought process can cease to function (558-559). Synchronicity then, offered an alternative to the old system, establishing access to vital information her patient might otherwise be unable to mentally actualize.
This last point brings to mind an anecdote of my youth. As a child I was at once horrified and consumed with the supernatural, more precisely, ghosts. Though it frightened me, I would go out seeking apparitions. However, I knew fully well I could never encounter a spook. This was not because, deep down, I did not believe in their existence. Rather, it was because I realized as a young child, that my mind was not capable of grasping the full implications of knowing that ghosts existi. The human mind is limited yet resourceful. It has boundaries. Synchronicity is not necessarily a way to surpass those boundaries but a provider of safe passage around the organic process of consciousness.
There is a delicate astonishment to the ephemeral nature of synchronous events. At once, they are not subject to statistical analysis, yet they undoubtedly take place. Reiner, despite openly admitting a lack of knowledge towards the meaning of synchronous events, refuses to dismiss their existence and their importance (569). She even acknowledges that applying causal principles to synchronous events may damage an individual’s mental development (570). Ultimately, Reiner, like Jung, concludes synchronicity cannot be confined to psychological principles and recognizes that this phenomenon may offer a peek into knowledge beyond the realm of human capacity (570).
In contrast to synchronicity, media is the summit of human capacity. Although media technology is constantly expanding, it remains to be argued whether this technology expands the capacity to think. It was Marshall McLuhan who incited that media could actually pattern and accelerate certain processes of thought. However, he remains critical of this ability and ascertains the consequences in his landmark book Understanding Media: The Extension of Man.
McLuhan saw media as an extension of the nervous system, a simulated form of consciousness (McLuhan 9). Prior to McLuhan, few questioned whether or not this extension was a positive one. Furthermore, McLuhan prompted that media was not neutral, not simply an addition to what individuals already are (27). Media carried weight in itself, regardless of content. This point is captured in McLuhan’s prominent slogan: “the media is the message.”
While media technology enabled a new found ‘global involvement’ a seemingly more sinister effect also took root. Media compels commitment and participation, however the individual complies with the notion that her viewpoint or opinion is the ultimate resolution in participating. This exchange concludes in what McLuhan refers to as ‘Narcissus fixation.’ According to McLuhan, “we become what we behold (33).”
It is this severance from awareness that most concerns me. According to psychoanalyst Wilhelm Bion, mental growth is simply an increased ability to recognize reality and a decreased ability to be influence by illusion (Reiner 570). Therefore, media has the power to cutoff mental growth while enveloping the individual in a chamber of heightened importance with no relative connection to the universe. As McLuhan poignantly states, “We live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily (39).”
Despite encompassing the earth, media cannot provide global unity. With progress comes an unaccounted for ‘numbness,’ what McLuhan alludes to as the modern need for a larger whole (21). Individuals have become preoccupied with content while media has infiltrated and altered the relationship of their senses. Perhaps the individual has become integrated with the structural and configurative nature of technology and has ultimately lost her sense of ‘wholeness’ (32).
The numbness McLuhan mentions can be associated with what Walter Benjamin coined as a loss of aura. Aura, Benjamin states, is the experience of acknowledgment, “the power of returning glances (Donati 708).” Media can enrapture the senses but it cannot recognize an individual (outside of perhaps programmed algorithms, which most individuals recognize at a basic level). Therefore, media functions only to serve a specific material need, however, the illusion of aura is present. Despite being an ‘extension of man’ media in itself has no aura. It can convince us we are participating in something; mainly the movement of information, but without direct interaction cannot provide totality. Therefore, as media technology develops so does our sense of insignificance (Donati 708).
Carl Jung also mentions Benjamin’s concept of aura; however, he refers to it as ‘numinous,’ derived from the Latin word meaning ‘to show signs.’ Synchronous events are considered numinous (Donati 708). Jung once wrote, “How does it come about that even inanimate objects are capable of behaving as if they were acquainted with my thoughts?” Synchronicity provides a means for objects to reciprocate a glance otherwise unattainable, however, this numinous or auratic experience also unveils a substantial connection between individual, environment, and time, therefore offering a glimpse into our participation with universal order. It provides reassurance in a world populated by fragmented information and objects, the likes of which are deemed useless if they are unable to serve a relevant purpose (Donati 708).
Where does this leave me, the artist? In an age of fragmentary involvement, where purpose has become the highest order and media provides the illusion ofunity, it is unreasonable (yet reinforced) to believe we can attain wholeness. I do not want to perpetuate this illusion of wholeness, yet I can only create with causal logic. However, synchronous events are not limited by causality (or technology) and can incorporate and reassign meaning to any media. Where media aims to establish its own wholeness synchronicity combats the reinforced appearance of “simulated consciousness,” providing a glimpse into true universal harmony.
My thesis consists of experimental videos based upon repetitive symbols and synchronous events within my own life. They are not literal representation of these theories, but rather studies of personal events. They represent moments of recurrence, of being trapped in repetitive cycles, cycles often stopped by synchronicity. My favorite form of ‘storytelling’ is the loop. Much like synchronicity, my hope is to break away from the limitations of linear time. The loop has no formal beginning or end; however, in my work there is a central event, a meaningful event that provides relief from the repetition.
For example, in my video And There You Are, I am spinning in the middle of the woods when, at the moment I come to a brief halt, my friend accidentally appears in the background. The loop then continues. This was not a staged or planed event but very much spontaneous and coincidental. Another video is of my dog running in a circle. Though not apparent at first, my dog is stuck in a loop. Just as the viewer realizes this the cycle changes. Though alluding to Jung’s fox in the woods, this video plays on the haunting yet dreamlike elements of repetition. My goal with this video is to make the viewer uneasy yet entranced, though perhaps cognitively unaware of the cause. In the midst of this tension, there is a brief moment of clarity when my dog runs in slow motion alongside the camera, after which the loop continues.
Marshall McLuhan poignantly states, “The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception (33).” In accordance with McLuhan, my work relies heavily on my senses though I struggle for tangible clarity. This search for clarity is often a search for reassurance, a literal explanation to validate what an artist intuitively feels. Therefore, the act of creation becomes a search for synchronicity itself, a hope to participate in higher universal order amongst causal and structural demands.
From its conception, video art was heavily influenced by the writings of Marshall McLuhan. Artist saw his critique of media as a call to action. The ‘father of video art,’ Nam June Paik, recognized the importance of television from a very early point. Paik understood that television could be transformed from a mass commodity into a social presence capable of reorganizing and transforming society (Oppenheimer 17).
Of particular interest to me is Paik’s 1969 work, “Participation TV .” The piece was presented in the landmark exhibit “TV as a Creative Medium” at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City. It involved the distortion of several live camera signals displayed on several television monitors. The name, “Participation TV” is an ironic observation as television media ultimately lacks individual participation (Oppenheimer 17). Paik’s work often carries a heavy amount of irony and a disregard for film convention, mainly suspension of disbelief. It is this blatant disregard for reality I find most influential. Video art is its own convention, though often clouded with the history of film and relentlessly compared to mass-market television content. Paik fought the illusion presented in television by making the illusion completely obvious. His work never sought to recreate reality but rather to point out the intrinsic illusions of video.
In regards to his work Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Paik wrote the article, La Vie, Satellites, One Meeting-One Life. The work was the first international satellite video installation, which took place on New Years Day 1984. A live broadcast, conceived and coordinated by Paik, simultaneously played in New York, Paris, and South Korea. In the article, a reflection on the satellite’s potential, Paik states:
Thanks to the satellite, the mysteries of encounters with others (chance meetings) will accumulate in geometric progression and should become the main nonmaterial product of post-industrial society. God created love to propagate the human race, but, unawares, man began to love simply to love. By the same logic, although man talks to accomplish something, unawares, he soon begins to talk simply to talk (Paik 221).
Paik’s work was in opposition of Orwell’s dystopian predictions of 1984. While Paik’s vision is often positive and embracive of new media he also points out that with technological strength there must come a protection of the technologically ‘weak.’ For example, Paik eloquently points out, “… Ancient traditional culture is in danger of being rapidly crushed by the bulldozers of Hollywood (Paik 222).”
It is true that new media has provided access to seemingly endless information. However, the threat of media control is continuously prevalent. As Frank Gillette pointed out, power no longer belongs to those who control resources, but to those who control information (Horsfield 8). It is important that with the ability to access information comes the ability to decipher reality from illusion. While synchronous events perpetuate the latter ability, I do not believe technology perpetuates synchronicity. Ultimately, the chance meetings Paik believes will “accumulate in geometric progression” are causal events outside of synchronous phenomena.
However, Paik creates an intriguing detail by highlighting the human instinct to transcend purpose (see quote 221). On the one hand there is the human desireii to seek purpose and order, while on the other is the human impulse to surpass purpose. This is in direct conflict with what the material world of mass media tries to propagate, a purpose in place of the lost aura. Perhaps this dilemma is at the heart of synchronicity, an event that both provides and transcends purpose.
Another artist who has influenced my work is contemporary video artist Bill Viola. Where Nam June Paik wanted to unveil the illusion of video, Viola instead, is driven to created a complete and encompassing illusion (Oppenheimer 18). Viola often aims to evoke spiritual experiences through sensuous awareness (Strickland). One work that encompasses this principle is “Going Forth by Day,” a five-panel projection which topped the dome ofthe Guggenheim Museum in 2002. The work was a “meditation on the epic themes of human existence (Glueck).” A common characteristic of Viola’s work, individuals must enter the space and pass through several panels, dealing with themes of individuality, society, death, and rebirth (Glueck). The installation strives to encourage participation by immersing the individual in a fabricated space.
Driving Viola further from most video artists is his keen sense of aesthetics. Where much video art is sarcastic and satirizing of media, Viola’s work approaches video with the aesthetics of fine art (Glueck 2). Furthermore, there is a deep sincerity to his work, rare in many forms of contemporary art. Though my work aesthetics are very different from Viola’s I find his work very encouraging. To this day I encounter individuals who questions the value of video as an art form. His presence has cemented both a path and a history for future video artists.
It is interesting to note Viola’s relationship to vision. He claims to have acquired an “understanding of the nature and function of visions and prophecies and their relation to art making (Glueck).” It is an admirable accomplishment for an artist to sincerely look inward for inspiration. There often exists a societal pressure to doubt vision, alongside the onslaught of external distractions provided by media.
In reference to the time-based nature of video medium, Viola makes a motivating point: “You need to spend your own time with the work. Some walk by; others stop and study it.” Viola wants the meaning of his work to appear at an unconscious level (Strickland 2). This requires time, patience, and a willingness to interact (Strickland 2). The artist can only hope that by providing such an immersive environment, an individual will become aware and reacquainted with her senses.
The need to repair our senses invokes McLuhan’s idea of the fragmented mind. McLuhan suggests that as a means of survival, individuals became capable of fragmenting their minds, developing a faculty ofdetachment, separating themselves from their senses. Media relies on this detachment, procuring “involvement though noninvolvement” (McLuhan 20).
The fragmented mind can be traced back to the Cartesian duality of mind and matter. Though the mind is often treated as a substance, a representation of the intangible, much has change in our approach towards matter. For instance, certain matters consist of invisible fields of energy with no specific path or particles. Physicist and synchronicity enthusiast F. David Peatiii suggests that mind and matter cannot be categorized as substances but rather orders emerging from a common order. In this model, the two are no longer distinct substances but instead “inseparable manifestations of one undivided whole (Peat 153-154).” This unsolved larger order, what physicists call the Theory of Everything, is constantly present but rarely apparent. However, the theory of everything is not limited to issues of the mind, the main goal is to explain contradictions between quantum mechanics and relativity. Peat suggests that synchronous events provide a loop whole to human limitation, where principles outside the causal have a primary effect. By understanding synchronicity we can begin to understand a final universal order.
There exists in our American society a focus on unity, a desire, whether instilled or biological, to seek wholeness. It is improbable to attain unity where the psyche is segregated from the physical world, just as it is impractical to attain unity where the psyche is constantly divided and segregated from the sum of its whole. What began as the Cartesian duality of the mind has taken root and diverged in a media centered culture unintentionally encroaching the severance of mind from matter, mind from senses, and mind from mind. Just as brilliant minds are needed to drive human advancement, so too, are sensitive minds needed to bridge the gaps created by progress.
ii As I was wrapping up this paragraph I managed to scare myself by thinking about apparitions. I kept imagining that at any instant a ghost would appear. I felt my awareness heightened and even the slightest sound made me jump. To calm my nerves I turned on the television (which is odd in itself). What came up was an episode of “Family Guy” in which the characters decide to spend the night at a haunted house but are quickly scarred off by a ghost.
ii I am unsure whether the desire for purpose is truly a desire or instead an expectation. There is much pressure on the individual (especially on the artist whose work is often devalued from lacking “a point”) to find purpose in order to fulfill greater societal demands. Furthermore, I believe purpose is not always causal.
iii It just so happened F. David Peat was giving a lecture on synchronicity in New York City on November 9, 2007. On my way to his lecture, I stepped into the subway car and as it cleared I noticed sitting across from me, the person who first introduced me to F. David Peat, my thesis advisor Julia Heyward.