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.

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