Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I was reading a handout from a National Military Park around here where they pointed out the myth that the injuries of a general could be deciphered by how the horse in his monument was depicted. This pamphlet claimed this was a myth, meaning that it was untrue. This is the common usage of the term myth - we use it to say that a thing is not true, even though people may think it is.

I find this to be a completely unsatisfactory usage of the term myth, and an unsatisfactory understanding of myths and mythologies. First of all, the term comes from religions, and I would argue that it is folly to walk into the Myth of Jesus Christ, or the Myth of Moses, or the Myth of Zeus as a digital True/False kind of question. Such stories arise from within cultures, and help those cultures understand their world in much more subtle, fundamental ways.

Even if the people living in these cultures believe these myths to be factual, the more interesting story is going on beneath the surface. Whatever Jesus is religiously and truthfully, mythologically he is a story of resurrection, salvation, redemption before God. Once you recognize this, one can see instances throughout our culture. One of my favorite examples is Independence Day, where the failure of a father redeems himself to his children and the world by self-sacrifice - he dies so the world is saved. And that Bruce Willis asteroid one too.

These mythologies act at a much deeper level than simply True or False. They inform the way we understand the world and cultural products such as film and advertising play into them as well. Marketers know this all too well, even if they would have different terminologies for it. They would call it "emotional drivers of decision making," but they want to know how to tap emotionally into the stories people tell themselves, in the hopes of inserting a sale into that story. Think of the Jeep commercial with Johnny Cash in the background "We are Americans, We make things. We do well when we make good things." This should play strongly into the mythology behind much of Jeep's demographic. Or the Miller Beer commercial from a few years ago "Let the OPECs keep their gasoline" says a fat guy riding his bike home from the market in the snow, with a six pack of miller in the basket. I'm an average white guy, and these stories play directly into my vision of an ideal America. We don't whine, we're not entitled. We get shit done. And when it gets hard, we do it harder or find a different way. (I figure I'm these guys' perfect demographic).

These mythologies sound like stereotypes, but I would argue they are larger. More like the stereotypes linked together. EG. Middle aged white guys like Jeeps and beer - that's a stereotype. That stereotype seems true enough, but won't sell nearly as many cars as something that taps into their culturally deepest perceptions about America (We Make Things), their views about their role in the world (Let the OPECs keep their gasoline), and their instrmentality in the world (meaning they're not helpless victims) (I'll buy american made, and I'll ride my bike to get the damn beer). All with a Johnny Cash laydown in the background. Now that sells beer!

There are a few mythologies we work with in our culture on a regular basis. Think of how cultural Reds depict the Blues in Left Behind book series. How the cultural Blues depict the suburbs in American Beauty. Think of how easy it is to write a local TV news story of "Helpful government protects little guy from evil capitalists" or "Unusual activity endangers children," or "handicapped person does something totally average (with tinkly feel good music in the background)".

Now, look at contemporary problems such as oil and you will see how our mythologies make understanding the problems at a deep level very difficult. Partly because they make understanding the problems at a superficial level so dang easy.

Take the Protestant Ethic I mentioned earlier. One look at any environmental problem, and we can immediately start hanging the appropriate bits in the appropriate places on the framework provided by this particular myth. There's a lazy and indulgent general population, there is a solution to the problem, there is appropriate sacrifice and hard work utilizing that solution and voila, we've "saved" the earth.

Two others that are particularly important in thinking about oil are the Doomer mythology and the Cornucopian mythology. These two mythologies make it very difficult to discuss these problems with regular people. I spent a whole semester trying to get students to recognize these mythologies, so that they could better understand the problem and better envision potential futures. On the last day's discussion, it was clear I had not done a very good job. The problem is that when we start thinking of the problem, say oil scarcity, we use our preexisting cognitive schemas to understand it. If one tends toward the cynical, then DOOM follows shortly on the heels of any discussion. If one tends toward faith in the free market and human progress, then TECHNO-SALVATION will solve it all.

Now either of these might be true. However, there are also a zillion other ways that this could work out, a zillion other possibilities for the (T)ruth of the situation to exist. And being locked by faith into these this dichotmous pair of mythologies means that we are missing the vast majority of possibilities. And hence we are vastly limiting our understanding and imagination regarding this particular (or in truth any other) problem.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Walked in to downtown yesterday to see the parade for "Bike Week." Because of this there has been an unusually large number of bikers (not the lycra kind) rolling around town, and traffic has been a pain in the ass. We bought some ice cream, sat down on the curb, and waited for the show.

I'm not sure what to think of these guys. Either they are kind of cool, or they're kind of morons. On the one hand, I like bikes, and I like bikes with motors. I like the wind in my hair, I like Gadsden flags. I sometimes like skull art. This lifestyle and community are important to the people who participate in it, and I can understand that. If I didn't like it, then I didn't necessarily have to come and watch it.

But alas, that's also where the problem lies. As my house is a scant two blocks from the town square, I was going to hear their parade whether or not I went to go see it. Living in a town that seems to be a destination for Harley afficiandos, every day, all summer long, I get to hear them rev their engines and roll down my street. Front porch conversations just stop, until the noisemaker rumbles out of sight. For each individual rider, this is not a big deal. But for me living here, it ends up being all summer long.

This is not a personal freedom issue as they sometimes claim it is. Their right to swing their fist ends before it hits my nose, as does their right to an annoying loud bike. There is no way for me not to hear them without actually moving away. They're swinging their pipes and hitting my ears all summer. There is no possibility of "don't like it? then don't listen."

And with that in my head, then the real annoyance starts. These guys are petty conformists just like grown up high school goth kids. They think they're cool because they're different. But in fact, they go out and drop untold thousands of dollars (the naked small sportster only starts at 6000 and the cool ones hit 20 real quick) to look and sound cool just like everyone else. Even the stuff they do to customize puts them more squarely into the "followers" camp. Custom paint? Skulls and Flames! Wow, that is rebellion. Chrome, I never woulda thought of that. Rev it up! Who knew it would sound just like every other Harley out there?

As a matter of fact, at least in the Harley crowd, it seems that every single thing they do to customize their bikes makes them more annoying and less actually useful. Big old monkey bars increasing drag and worsening rider position. Choppered out front ends that means you can't even turn the bike around in less space then is required by a Chevy Suburban.

So instead of being go-your-own way rebels, these guys and their bikes start to look like primping primadonnas. The whole point is to look cool, not actually go faster. A ballet of aural bullies. There's a certain costume. The bike gets trailered in and can't get dirty. This is ok because it's not really good for more than rolling around town blasting its exhaust at every other bike just like it.

And then a walk through town reveals to me the funniest part of all. I'm walking past them as they're stuck in traffic! Take the best part of riding a real bike (being able to shimmy through traffic and go essentially where you want) and throw it out the window. Replace it with the worst part of riding in cars, except remove the air conditioning and filtration so you actually have to breathe everyone else's exhaust. I love it.

From a critical perspective, these folks are spending many thousands of dollars to be different in exactly the same way. They real winners are the banks and the bike shop owners. All the freedom, all the rebellion, just another way to be a serf to the banks. A different flavor of commodotized consumer stuck in traffic.

And why are these guys allowed to run straight pipes anyway? Think it'd be a problem if I set up my truck that way? Vroom baby.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The 4th

A few years ago I bought a book called The American Songbook by Carl Sandburg. This is a book of songs, mostly regional, collected around the country. I would guess the period is 1900-1930ish. Many of them are work songs, poverty songs, love songs, you name it. Most are also gone from the public discourse now, thanks I guess to progress such as Clear Channel and the ipod. Carl Sandburg himself had about a hundred different kinds of jobs and roamed the country himself, and recognizes that these songs tell stories and have meaning to the people singing them.

Incidentally, this is the country I really dig, and the country I celebrate on the 4th. It is a country of people, and a country of many smaller communities. Sometimes I will quip that it is not one big country at all.

So who are these people and where are these places?
A Glen Beck conservative living in the back of his civil war relic shop trying to make it through this depression.
Eddy the mover with whom I worked in 1990 in Omaha, who can pack a moving van waaaaay overweight.
The schoolteacher/racing deckhand, living in a tent on an island all summer, when she's not crewing.
The Blues-loving harmonica-playing college professor.
Cornucopia - crazy tiny granola town on Lake Superior, WI.
The surprisingly hot 50+ triathlete in Indiana.
The couple trying to get themselves completely off the grid by raising cows, sheep, chickens, rented corn, and vacation log cabins on their tiny hobby farm.
The raw dairy creamery with the Amish girl wo-manning the register.
The CSA lady sifting manure in her Keen sandals.
Folks living in Jackson, Wyoming with no career and little vision for the future, simply because they love the mountains.
Green Corn, an agoraphobic blue sky, and a stripe of asphalt off to the horizon.
Old men and their hot rods.
Old women and their knitting.
Contrarians on single speed mountain bikes.
San Francisco.
Delta Blues, Harlem Jazz, Bluegrass.

We live in a great spot on the world with lots of great folks. Get out and see them. Get out and see it. Let's not let the crisis cloud our vision about the good things.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Experts making the situation worse or causing the situation in the first place

From Mark Sisson's MarksDailyApple blog:

Westerner's feet

Tribalist's feet

And this research is something like a hundred years old.

Flat Feet Treatment - How to Strengthen Flat Feet | Mark's Daily Apple

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Archdruid Report

JMG rocks. This week he mentions that his whole purpose with this blog was to look at the competing mythologies of the cornucopians and the doomers with regard to industrial society. Turns out, this is what I really like about his writing. There are at least two layers to any problem, and oil/resources are one of them.

1) The underlying Reality. Kant's pneumena, God's truth. Whatever that is. For oil, there is a number of barrels underground. For water in the Ogalalla, there is a number of gallons. How fat and sugar are metabolized.

2) The way a culture understands the problem. How knowledge is socially constructed. The mythologies they use to understand it. For us it is the doomers' apocalypse, the cornucopian's progress, Americans' protestant ethic as a thought framework.

Dealing with any problem effectively means pulling apart these two layers and dealing with each one separately. BUT, it is tremendously difficult to do this because every investigator has his/her own mythologies, politics, moralities, social constructions of knowledge. And each one of us needs to be relentlessly self-critical to strip our own mythology from any underlying reality. This is what people mean when they say reality is anything you want it to be. When you strip all that stuff away, reality turns out to be pretty slippery.

Marketers learned a long time ago to ignore the reality and focus on the second part. The mythology, the emotion, the social construction matters FAR MORE than any underlying (T)ruth. That is why Sears is a credit card company, Buck knives, Schwinn bikes, and everything else is manufactured overseas. Because focusing on the branding is culture work, social psychological construction and alteration of the entire culture. The products are afterthoughts.

Nevertheless, we the buying public have a tremendously difficult time recognizing our own emotional and social psychological manipulation. Try getting a hippy or college professor to recognize that their Subaru is every bit as emotional purchase as Sara Palin's Hummer. Or a doctor who likes his Mercedes. Hell, it's hard to get people to realize that the colors in advertisements are market tested to get the perfect emotional response. So getting a deeply rational physician recognizing his Merc and his Rolex as status symbols is hard. Physicians think their rational. They think Mercs and Rolexes are built well. Hippies think Subarus are awesome. Sara Palin thinks her Hummer is 'safe.'

And every market research sales meeting I ever sat in, the client wanted to know "How can we dig deep into the emotional drivers of behavior? The psychology of it?"

So to bring the cow round back to the barn, trying to understand the (T)ruth of our resource situation, as per oil or water is tremendously difficult because it means cutting through the mythology in which people's perception of the truth of those situations are. And how do I know when my own mythology regarding the truth is clouding my reading the (T)ruth?

The Archdruid Report