Shadow Coding: the Iowa Caucus and Carl Jung

Original statue of Jung in Mathew Street, Liverpool, a half-body on a plinth captioned “Liverpool is the pool of life”. Photograph Source: Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0 & GFDL

Political observers, media commentators, politicians, citizens. Everybody seemed to have choice words for the 2020 Iowa caucus: Disaster. Meltdown. Debacle.

The Iowa Democratic Party had commissioned a new mobile app, a data synchronization platform, which was supposed to report the voting counts. As we know, what ensued were delays, inconsistencies, chaos, and confusion.

Frustrated presidential candidates, campaign officials, and voters started pointing fingers: A hack, user error, and at last, coding issue.

Heads then turned to the company behind the app, Shadow, Inc.

Remember Shakespeare: “What’s in a name?”

I am the first to admit that I do not know anything about software technology. I do not even know enough about the workings of the Iowa caucus to explain the utter disarray. But having a background in psychology, I know about Carl Jung and his theories on the shadow. So please allow me this digression.

One of the founders of modern psychology, Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, wrote extensively on the shadow—which he defined as the unrecognized and incompatible, and thus unconscious, part of one’s personality. According to Jung, the shadow was composed of repressed desires, uncivilized impulses, morally inferior motives, resentments. All that one is not proud of. All that one would rather deny, project, disown.

When it came to self-awareness and self-actualization, Jung believed that the shadow had a crucial purpose. “It is a therapeutic necessity, indeed, the first requisite of any thorough psychological method, for consciousness to confront its shadow,” he wrote. He warned that this confrontation could at first produce “a dead balance, a standstill that hampers decisions and makes convictions ineffective or even impossible.”

A dead balance. A standstill. Hampered decisions. Ineffective convictions. As Shadow, Inc. managed to do in Iowa.

Just as the shadow challenges the whole ego-personality, the collective shadow can and will challenge an entire nation. The polarized state of our politics unleashes shadow projections everywhere, both between and within party lines. It is always the Other that is self-serving. Incompetent, immoral, ignorant. A threat to democracy.

Bound and blinded by prejudice, righteousness, hate and fear, one becomes unable to see their own shortcomings. The dark side of their own motives and ideals. Their own selves as imperfect wholes.

This is exactly how the shadow operates.

Shadow, Inc. is a company name. But if we reflect on it and amplify its psychological meaning, what may seem like a trivial or coincidental marker may open the gates of our imagination and, perhaps, help us arrive at some deeper, collective truth.

And that is exactly what I am attempting to do, and why I am doing it—not to merely psychologize a political event, but for the sake of a speck of meaning in this mess we call politics. I am following the breadcrumbs—words, symbols, images. After all we are told that what happened in Iowa was a coding issue, and what is a code but a system of symbols? And what are symbols but that which, by representing or referring to other things, aid us in making connections, associations?

So I took the leap: Politics to psychology. Iowa to the collective unconscious. The coding issue became an opportunity to contemplate on larger cultural, sociopolitical matters.

It is absolutely wise to take this moment to think about cybersecurity.

It is absolutely crucial to take this moment to think about the nature of American civic elections.

It is also absolutely necessary to take this moment to think critically about the ideological and psychological integrity of the nation.

For the shadow works in disruptive, and at times truly self-destructive ways, and its reach goes without a doubt far beyond Iowa.

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Ipek S. Burnett is a depth psychologist and Turkish novelist living in San Francisco. She’s the author of A Jungian Inquiry into the American Psyche: The Violence of Innocence (Routledge, 2019).  

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