Persona, Ideology, the Egregore, and Social Media
Something has never sat well with me when people announce their ideological allegiances in conversation, or even in the informal setting of social media. When people drop identifiers along the lines of “as a Roman Catholic,” “speaking as an Orthodox Christian,” “as a feminist,” “as a vegan,” “as an atheist,” "as a Catholic feminist vegan," and so forth, as much as I try not to, I cannot help but interpret everything that follows as talking points grounded in ideology.
The extent of self-fashioning, of creating a persona, in our society is greatly underestimated, methinks. It permeates so much of human culture and has only been compounded by social media. We tend to jockey our social media avatars, our posts, and photos with (1) some notion of a “self” we seek to project; and (2) some, albeit abstract, concept of an intended audience. I think, in terms of social media, this self-fashioning is nearly inescapable. Being aware that it is happening (and trying to at least mitigate some of its influences) may be the best we can do outside of completely getting away from social media.
But nobody needs social media in order to be enthralled by a persona. Stephen Greenblatt wrote an outstanding book on the phenomenon as it appeared in early modern England. And psychoanalyst C.G. Jung was acutely aware of the danger of confusing the persona for the self. In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Jung writes about what happens when we mistake the mask for the self in “the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world.” It is a danger we all face (and most of us ignore):
Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona…. A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavor to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography…. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. In any case the temptation to be what one seems to be is great, because the persona is usually rewarded in cash.
It is no accident, I think, that in his introduction to this passage, Jung describes this phenomenon as a “possession” by the persona. And I also think he points to something deeply (and troublingly) significant, when he marks that the persona is rewarded in cash.
This is certainly true is nearly every profession I have seen at close range. People get along—and move up—when they conform to the stereotype. Professors, mechanics, biodynamic farmers, homeschool families, young Republicans, Progressives—I don’t care where you look—have a tendency to behave according to the character description handed down by central casting, even to the point of dress. Likewise, the social media persona will often likewise acquiesce to the dictates of whatever groups it (unconsciously) wishes to please. In this context, “likes” are as good as cash. We’ve all seen this.
With this unconscious subservience comes the absorption of ideology. Conform to the opinions of the group, get the requisite pat on the head, and inclusion among the elect is assured. It’s rather like the scene from The Life of Brian when Brian tries to get people to stop following him. “You’re all individuals!” he exclaims. To which they all answer, in unison, “We are all individuals!” People prefer ideology (even if it is an unconscious preference). Independent thought is too difficult—and is usually not rewarded with cash.
Ideology, then, becomes a variety of superego. As Slavoj Žižek observes,
Is this not how ideology works? The explicit ideological text (or practice) is sustained by the ‘unplayed’ series of obscene superego supplements…a set of implicit (unspoken) obscene injunctions and prohibitions, teaching the subject how not to take some explicit norms seriously, and how to implement a set of publicly acknowledged prohibitions.
We’ve all been there. In my own milieu, people are not supposed to like or even consider certain thinkers. Jordan Peterson immediately comes to mind (people on social media get downright weird in their anxieties about him). But I’ve seen the same phenomenon with regard to Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Friedrich Nietzsche, and, come to think of it, Žižek. This is the brief list.
A term I have used in my own work to describe this phenomenon is egregore. The idea of the egregore comes from occultism and describes the generation of a demon (more or less artificial) by a group which in turn becomes the group’s “guiding spirit.” This does not need to be an occult group. Indeed, any group—even, and probably especially, a church—can create an egregore. I would suggest that nearly every group, from a PTA to a university department to a fraternity, and so forth, creates its own egregore, albeit unconsciously.
We have all experienced an egregore, usually in the form of knowing what to say or what not to say in a given group experience. We’ve felt this presence.
Freud was very interested in the psychological implications of the egregore, which he termed “mass psychology.” His was not a positive assessment. We can easily point to the mass psychological manipulation of Hitler’s Germany as an example of this, but it also manifests on a small scale in association of far fewer members (certainly less than ten). It’s a form of psychological complex and runs upon a continuum from the almost harmless to extraordinarily dangerous.
A psychopathological complex, even on the individual scale (as Jung’s observation of “possession” indicates) can be construed, even if only metaphorically, in terms of the demonic (don’t an astounding number of preachers describe Jesus’s various demoniacs as “people with psychological problems”?). Jung’s description is very apt:
[The psychopathological complex] appears as an autonomous formation intruding upon consciousness…. It is just as if the complex were an autonomous being capable of interfering with the intentions of the ego. Complexes do indeed behave like secondary or partial personalities possessing a mental life of their own.
Psychopathological complexes (or egregores, if you prefer) can also behave as autonomous beings capable of interfering with the intentions of the individual ego in your local Facebook coterie. In fact, social media may make such generation both more prolific and more effective.
The problem, of course, is we tend to think that this kind of thing happens to other people, but never to us. But how do we stay awake?
 C.G. Jung, The Collected Works IX.I: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R.F.C. Hull, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 122–23.
 Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 366.
 C.G. Jung, The Collected Works XI: Psychology and Religion, trans. R.F.C. Hull, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 13–14. My emphasis.