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Film as meditation and sandplay featured at Jungian conference on ethics, arts and nature

Therapists and scholars from around the world gathered Aug. 10-14 at Cornell for a unique conference on Jungian studies with some 80 presentations on ethics, the arts and nature -- from creativity, politics, trauma, education and clinical practices to healing, language, adolescence, film and choreography.

"On the Edge: Psyche in Ethics, the Arts and Nature" was the first joint conference of the Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies and the International Association for Jungian Studies (IAJS).

Until about eight years ago, there was no academic Jungian organization, said conference host Don Fredericksen, Cornell professor of film and chair of the IAJS. "I've been waiting 30 years for this," he said of the conference.

His session, "Jungian-Peircean Semiotics: A Jungian Approach to Film Eco-Criticism," focused on a unique nature documentary, "Sunset Earth," that Fredericksen calls "a form of televised meditation."

To illustrate his point, Fredericksen shared a five-minute segment in which a bison herd grazed, calves frisked about and the sun rose. The program has no narration, no plot and few cuts from one shot to another; the events onscreen unfold of their own accord.

To explain the film's effect, Fredericksen explored Jung's definitions of a symbol, "a known thing that stands for a relatively unknown or unknowable thing," and a sign, "a known thing that stands for other known things."

To clarify how one thing stands for another, Fredericksen quoted 19th-century American philosopher Charles Peirce, whose system has been applied to film analysis since the late 1960s. When one things stands for another in the same direct, causal way that a fingerprint stands for a finger, such that here is "a direct, discernible and credible relationship of cause and effect between one's thumb and one's fingerprint," Peirce calls it an index.

Interpreting the film through a Jungian filter enabled Fredericksen to raise profound questions such as whether a modern film is an index of reality, like a fingerprint, and why the apparently indexical imagery of the bison grazing carries so much symbolic potential. Is what we see and hear when we watch "Sunrise Earth" something literal or something more?

Fredericksen believes this type of documentary enables us to recover our lost capacity for religious experience. "Religious experience is symbolic experience, and wilderness enables us to recover it because wilderness itself is symbolically indexical, the 'fingerprint,' as it were of a hidden hand," he said.

"To cinematically redeem physical reality from a Jungian point of view is therefore to open the window to its symbolic reality," said Fredericksen. "Ecocriticism is a way to begin to redeem the physical reality of which we are a living part."

Fredericksen said his ultimate goal is "to show how Jung's psychology can contribute to the just-now-being-born area of film eco(logical)-criticism; film's relationship to nature. I will be offering a first-time seminar on this topic in spring 2011."

Fine arts graduate student Ruth Oppenheim spoke at the conference about her use of the Jungian therapy tool of sandplay to create sequences of animation with stop-motion. "The ability to form endless amounts of universes within the given frame of the sandbox echoed my interest in the de/re/con/struction of colliding narratives," she explained in her the abstract for her lecture, "Moving Universes-Sandplay as a Site of Animation."

Other topics presented included the ethical aspects of Jungian clinical work, dream analysis, individuation, the nature and functions of depth psychology, and cultural analysis of literature, film, art and culture from a depth psychology perspective.

Linda Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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