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Star Trek’s Borg: symbol of the collective unconscious in its devouring and annihilating shadow aspect (1/3)

In light of Jungian analyst Erich Neumann’s approach we explore the collective unconscious in its devouring and destructive shadow aspect, as illustrated by the Borg in Star Trek.

The Borg are a cybernetic pseudo-species that actively strips each alien society they encounter from their individuality in order to make them part of the Borg Collective.

French version of this article

This article is based on Jungian analyst Erich Neumann’s book Depth psychology and a New Ethic (1949).

Erich Neumann

Erich Neumann was a German psychologist and prominent student of Carl Jung who fled to Tel Aviv in 1934 out of fear of persecution of the Jews. His later theories about the Old Ethic and New Ethic were written in an attempt to make sense of the atrocities that happened in WW2 and to propose a better way forward. He writes:

“But in every case it [the old ethic] involves an assertion of the absolute character of certain values which are represented by this old ethic as moral “oughts”.” (p. 33)

In any culture certain values and ideals emerge as absolute values: one hundred percent good and thus ethical. The reasons for a particular choice of values might be consciously thought out or arise out of unconscious fears, defenses or desires. They are often historical in origin and sometimes no longer valid. Occasionally they are completely arbitrary and the result of chance events. Other ideals have only ever been useful for the people who promoted them.

Individuality as highest value

In our modern western era one of our most important values is our individuality and the idea that each of us is unique and important in our own right. We should therefore have equal rights and opportunities, including the freedom to choose our own unique path to a fulfilling life.

One of the greatest TV-shows and spin-offs ever conceived in terms of creatively portraying Jungian and other depth psychological concepts is Star Trek. Set in the future with the capability of faster-than-light space travel, the different series (1966-2023) explore and amplify dynamics of both personal relationships and whole civilizations with unlimited creative potential for exotic humanoid physiology, psychology and societal structures.

In the Star Trek universe the United Federation of Planets is an interstellar union of multiple planets under a single central government, founded on the principles of liberty, equality, peace, justice, and progress. In the Federation, which includes Earth, these values extend to intelligent life of all sorts: alien species and even artificial intelligence in the form of holograms, androids and synthetics. Many episodes are dedicated to exploring the issue of equal rights in all its different facets.

So how can we create a society according to the values that we have chosen? Neumann writes:

“It is always held that the ideal of perfection can and ought to be realized by the elimination of those qualities which are incompatible with this perfection. The “denial of the negative”, its forcible and systematic exclusion, is a basic feature of this ethic.” (p. 33)

Suppression and repression

He further states that there are two possible mechanisms to eliminate that which conflicts with our values in order to “achieve adaptation to the ethical ideal”. The two methods are suppression and repression.

In suppressing certain parts of ourselves, we make a deliberate decision not to allow those parts to be expressed or fulfilled. Our sacrifice is conscious and through our suffering we retain a conscious connection with those rejected parts. We remember that these parts belong to us.

When we repress those incompatible parts, we completely forget that they were ever part of us. We lose contact with them completely. They are no longer under our conscious ego-control and lead a life of their own in our unconscious.

Shadow and persona

Neumann continues:

“The natural result of this attempt is the formation of two systems in the personality, one of which usually remains completely unconscious, while the other develops into an essential organ of the psyche with the active support of the ego and the conscious mind.” (p. 37)

These two systems are:

  • the shadow, which is unconscious and contains the repressed parts,
  • the persona, which is the part of us that we show to the world. It is very important to develop an adequate persona or adaptation to “the requirements of the age, of one’s personal environment, and of the community”.

Consequences for the collective unconscious

The individual person who suppresses the incompatible content is better off than the person who represses it, as the latter will invariably be attacked and overwhelmed at some point by “the dark forces of the unconscious”.

But for the collective unconscious, both methods are disastrous:

“In both cases the collective has to pay for the false virtue of the individual. Suppression and, still more, repression result in an accumulation of suppressed or repressed contents in the unconscious.” (p. 48)

Furthermore, these contents do not remain unaltered, but instead start leading a life of their own, regress, and in general become more primitive and destructive than what was originally suppressed or repressed.

The Borg as symbol for the collective shadow

Considering the great emphasis of our modern western society on individuality, it comes as no surprise that the Borg, symbol of the collective shadow in Star Trek, contains the extreme opposite.

The Borg originated as normal life forms but evolved into a mixture of organic and artificial life with cybernetic enhancements. They do not exist as individuals, but instead are part of one big collective. Each Borg drone is connected to thousands of voices in their head, which allows them to communicate efficiently and work as one. When they are cut off from this hive mind, the Borg drones become anxious and lost and will do anything to reconnect.

The Borg’s main purpose in life is to seek perfection, order and efficiency. There is no place for messy feelings, attachments, emotions, individual thoughts, or a soul. They show complete disrespect for even the most basic rights of individuals, most of all for freedom.

In order to reproduce and grow as a civilization, they assimilate other species. Whenever they encounter a new species, they speak in a robotic emotionless voice in unison.

“We are the Borg. Existence, as you know it, is over. You will be assimilated. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.” (Star Trek: Voyager)

They then proceed to inject their victims with nanoparticles from their cyber-enhanced body that will convert said victims into new Borg drones. Any knowledge and memories that were once part of these individuals then become part of the Collective.

Assimilation amounts to a forced total annihilation of the individual. To us it’s worse than death. It can be compared to a kind of zombification.

In Jungian terms being assimilated by the Borg corresponds to being taken over entirely by the unconscious shadow components that the Borg represent. It amounts to losing all ego consciousness and being possessed by the collective shadow.

As is the case for unconscious shadow elements, the Borg are close to invincible. They have superior strength, technology and travel capabilities, enabling them to appear in an instance anywhere in the galaxy. When a defense is developed or a new weapon is used on them, they collectively adapt to it within minutes.

Early on in the Star Trek narrative the Borg are completely undifferentiated. They are a collective being of pure evil, and to be assimilated means you are lost forever. Borg drones, even newly assimilated friends, are not considered lives worth saving.

But gradually we learn more about them. In the series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) we learn to value the lives of drones whose link to the Collective was severed.

Getting to know the Borg

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “I, Borg” a lone and injured adolescent Borg survivor is found at a crash site. The crew wants to leave it to die, out of fear of being found and assimilated by the Borg, who are known to “collect their dead”. But Dr. Beverly Crusher insists that he should be saved.

A plan is set into motion to develop a computer virus, upload it into the Borg drone, and then send it back to the Collective to infect the Borg. Again, it is Dr. Crusher who represents the voice of empathy:

Geordi (engineer): “If this works the way I think it will, once the invasive program starts spreading, it’ll only be a matter of months before the Borg suffer total systems failure.”

Dr. Crusher: “What exactly is total systems failure?”

Data (lieutenant commander): “The Borg are extremely computer-dependent. A systems failure will destroy them.”

Dr. Crusher: “I just think we should be clear about that. We’re talking about annihilating an entire race.”

Picard (captain): “Which under most circumstances would be unconscionable, but as I see it, the Borg leave us with little choice.”

Riker (first officer): “I agree. We’re at war.”

Dr. Crusher: “But even in war there are rules. You don’t kill civilians indiscriminately.”

Riker: “There are no civilians among the Borg.”

Picard: “Think of them as a single collective being. There’s no one Borg who is more an individual than your arm or your leg.”

Dr. Crusher: “How convenient.”

Picard: “Your point, Doctor?”

Dr. Crusher: “When I look at my patient, I don’t see a collective consciousness. I don’t see a hive. I see a living, breathing boy who has been hurt and who needs our help. And we’re talking about sending him back to his people as an instrument of destruction.”

Picard: “It comes down to this: we’re faced with an enemy who are determined to destroy us, and we have no hope of negotiating a peace. Unless that changes, we are justified in doing anything we can to survive.”

On the subject of war Neumann writes:

“All wars (…) provide examples of this coexistence between a good conscience in the conscious mind and a breakthrough of the shadow on the level of action.” (p. 55)

The crew effectively rationalizes their plan to commit genocide by their need to survive and by the viewpoint that the Borg drone is not an individual, but rather a body part of a larger being.

But from a psychological viewpoint, they are using any justification to release their collective suppressed and/or repressed feelings of hatred, cruelty, violence, and general lack of respect for life forms and cultures that are different from their own.

With the exception of Dr. Crusher, the crew is largely unaware that their proposed course of action is in fact contrary to their highest values.

And then things get complicated as their justifications start falling apart. As the members of the crew tend to the drone’s medical and cybernetic care, they interact with him, get to know him, influence him. Before their eyes, he slowly transforms into a hurt adolescent boy who feels homesick and scared. He becomes close to Geordi, the engineer, and he is given a name: Hugh.

Despite the growing unease of the crew regarding the ethical implications of using him as a weapon, Captain Picard holds on firmly to the fact that the Borg are the biggest threat to their existence. He knows from firsthand experience that not taking advantage of this opportunity would be a grave mistake.

Recovering from shadow possession

In the previous season Picard was abducted by the Borg, assimilated and given the designation “Locutus of Borg”. While part of the Collective, he led a Borg attack on Earth, which destroyed 39 starships and cost 11 000 lives. Picard was subsequently saved, and had to go through the difficult process of “recovering one’s individuality” and thereby “the ability to feel the trauma of assimilation” and “the guilt of one’s association with the Borg’s atrocities”.

Being assimilated by the Borg is analogous to being overcome or possessed by some part of the unconscious. It could be a part of the personal unconscious (an autonomous complex) fueled by a part of the collective unconscious (the archetype behind the complex). These possessions can be short-lived and relatively common, as in a sudden fit of rage. Or they can be long-term and more serious, as in certain psychotic states.

Recovering one’s individuality after assimilation is then understood as regaining ego control. Once we come back to reality, we must face what happened while we were possessed by the complex and/or archetype. We must take responsibility for the damage we did, and this might involve guilt, loss and grief over the consequences of our actions.

Although Picard is in no way personally responsible for the atrocities he committed as Locutus of Borg, the theme of Picard’s guilt is explored in several episodes and over several Star Trek series: at the start of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), and in Star Trek: Picard (2020-2023).

In order to become less vulnerable to these possessions, we must become conscious of the triggers and origins of our complexes. We must integrate our shadow. This work can be done for example in analysis or therapy.

Likewise, in order to become less vulnerable to the Borg assimilation threat, the Federation must somehow make friends with the Borg, and integrate the shadow components that they repressed.

With great trepidation Picard finally meets with the Borg drone, who instantly recognizes him as the former Locutus of Borg. As a test, Picard orders him to help the Borg in assimilating the entire ship. But uncharacteristically for a Borg, he objects:

« They do not wish it [to be assimilated]. … They will resist us. … Resistance is not futile. … Geordi would rather die than be assimilated. … Geordi must not die. Geordi is a friend. »

Upon Picard’s further insistence we observe an important turning point in his thinking process:

Picard: “You will assist us to assimilate this vessel. You are Borg. You will assist us”

Borg drone: “I will not.”

Picard: “What did you say?”

Borg drone: “I will not assist you.”

Picard: “I?”

Borg drone: “Geordi must not be assimilated.”

Picard: “But you are Borg.”

Borg drone: “No. I am Hugh.”

Instead of saying “we”, as the Borg usually do, he now speaks for himself and says: “I”. He no longer identifies with the Borg or the Collective. He is no longer a Borg.

Once it is firmly established that Hugh is now an individual with rights of his own, the plan to use him as a weapon is abandoned. Instead, Hugh is given the choice of either returning to the crash site where the Borg will collect him or being granted asylum and staying on the Enterprise. He responds:

“Choose what I want… I would choose to stay with Geordi. But it is too dangerous. They will follow. Return me to the crash site. It is the only way.”

He acknowledges, and subsequently sacrifices, his personal wish to stay on the Federation starship and be an individual in order to protect his friend Geordi and the other crew members from assimilation by the Borg.

Holding the tension between opposites

His answer shows the transformation that can happen when it becomes possible to hold the tension between opposites. In this case the opposites correspond to the two diametrically opposed value systems of the Borg and the Federation. The Borg value community and order above all else, whereas the Federation values individuality and subsequent freedom.

Hugh is able to hold the tension between opposites by acknowledging his personal attachment to his friend Geordi, and at the same time honoring his sense of community by his sacrifice for the greater good.

It is Picard’s hope that the knowledge of Hugh’s journey will have a moderating influence on the Collective:

“But perhaps, in that short time before they purge his memory, the sense of individuality which he has gained with us might be transmitted through the entire Borg Collective. Every one of the Borg being given the opportunity to experience the feeling of… of singularity.

And perhaps that’s the most pernicious program of all: the knowledge of self being spread throughout the Collective in that brief moment might alter them forever.”

The courageous journey of one individual can forever change the collective unconsciousness and moderate its devouring and annihilating shadow aspect.

The next article in this series on shadow and evil in Star Trek illustrates the Jungian concepts of persona identification, collective shadow, inflation and the notion of scapegoating.

A more academic version of this work has been
accepted for publication
in Psychological Perspectives.

September 2023

Article 2/3  Article 3/3

Peggy Vermeesch, PhD

Peggy Vermeesch is a Jungian-oriented therapist in private practice, who works via zoom in English, French, and Dutch. She teaches English for psychologists at the University of Western Brittany, and is a former researcher in geophysics at Imperial College London and the Universities of Texas and Southampton. She publishes articles in French and English, and acts as bilingual liaison between Jungian Psychology Space (JPS) and its Francophone mother site Espace Francophone Jungien (EFJ). She is also the author of the book Making informed decisions on childbirth: One scientist’s international perspective, published under the pseudonym of Sofie Vantiers. 

For more information, see her webpage.

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