Despite the exciting creative possibilities posed by new media in regard to myth, they do not come without a price. The danger presented by the presence of myth in modern media is paramount, and must be considered outside the mythic framework of industry, for instance, which reduces the material world to a matrix of profit and risk.
Though the propaganda of Fascist mythologies such as those of Nazis or the U.S.S.R. serve as the clearest example of these dangers, they exist in only slightly more subtle forms in the media produced by modern Capitalist states. (Subtlety in this case not being an indicator of benevolence, necessarily.) After all, it was Mussolini who declared fascism to be the merger of state and corporate power.
Though media is ostensibly the watchdog of the government, both the government and media agencies of the Capitalist state are beholden to international corporations and their interests. The contextual nature of truth makes myth in media a potential form of national or even international coercion. The story of American politics and News media between the 1950s and the present serves as a cautionary tale of such possibilities.
There is no ensuring that mythological images, and the powerful psychological forces that they represent, arent being used by corporations towards short-sightedly greedy ends, not to mention a benefit for the self of the corporation to the detriment of all others. When there is no mechanism for establishing human needs and rights as paramount to corporate or industrial myths, this is an increasingly dire concern. As organizations invariably try to present themselves in the most positive light it is impossible to get a read of their actual values from an intentionally fabricated myth.
This myth of benevolence presents itself on a National level as well. American culture in particular has a need to present itself as a benevolent superpower, leading the rest of the world into an Enlightened era of growth and commerce. This is not unlike Britains Empire, upon which the sun never set. In both cases the hubris exhibited was not merely of capacity, but more importantly, more catastrophically, it represents the rigid and wholesale self-congratulation of a myth that has so overshadowed reality that the two share nothing in common.
However, many countries integrate elements of Americas capitalism without bringing its culture along with it. Samuel P. Huntington explores this fact in great detail in his book The Clash of Civilizations, in which he provides both the myth of the New American Century, where we are approaching integration and the ascension of the American nation, contrasted with the myth held by most of the rest of the world, that America is in decline and its contribution to the ascension of other nations and state unions will take the form of the co-opted systems of commerce and government we borrowed and helped develop. These systems will nevertheless grow in truly unprecedented ways within non-Western cultural soil.
This amalgam presents some very interesting possibilities for the future of capitalism as it arises in other cultures, though at the same time we mustnt forget that in times past, Asian nations (for instance) seem to have no cultural fear of appearing tyrannical, though they may be no more or less so in reality. Thus, we will likely see the myths of the brand developing in unexpected ways as the various elements of these cultures blend and come into conflict with one another, and it is unlikely that these forms will be clear of malevolence and oppression.
This established the need for an analysis of the cultural ramifications of corporate / industrial myths. We need to consider this modern myth's darker side: not the darkness of evil, but rather of ignorance. The dark side of corporatism, its unconsidered half, is our very humanity, our spirit, especially in regard to how we treat one another.
When we look out into the world, it is our myths that look back at us. Every myth conceal as well as reveal, and the resulting ignorance can be devastating. Clearly, an exploration of this may evoke Weltschmertz in some of you, and an easy reaction to that is to brush it all off as pessimism. I ask you to look past that. Deep uncertainty evokes a terror that is assuaged by belief, but the real enemy of humanity is blind certainty.
Several months after the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were first reported, a porn was produced, somewhat unsurprisingly, based on the events that took place there. Some of the copy accompanying the video reads: I'm sure you've seen the news where they had those prisoners on top of the box with electrodes and a hood on the person's face, and if they fell off they would get a zap? Well we did just that. We put her up on the box with the electrodes on her fingers and hood on her head and did everything imaginable to her in her jail cell.
In bad taste? Certainly. But it goes deeper than that. This is a brief investigation of the psychology of vicariousness, which seems to underlie much of the evil perpetrated through passive rather than active participation, often revealed through art-forms that confront us with our cultural dark side.
In this case, the revelation was embodied in the form of pornography, a simulacra based on actual rape and abuse, which itself doubtless didn't have the self awareness to recognize the power of its inadvertent satire. Of course, Im not talking about the dark side from Star Wars. Evil rarely identifies itself as such. Instead we come face to face with the dark side of the moon, psychologically, which is never revealed to us unless if we ourselves go there. As Nietzsche rightfully recognized, this is not a safe exploration, you cant do it entirely from behind a windshield; the abysses we look into also look back into us.
This confrontation, and even the idealization of fascism and oppression as a means of demonstrating their opposite, are very closely tied to what such art seeks to bring about. It is a realm that does not just accidentally lead to misunderstanding, it provokes it. It demands it. Let me provide a long quotation from the introduction to the book Interrogation Machine, which I think makes the point quite elegantly:
In his reaction to the photos showing Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated by US soldiers, made public at the end of April 2004, George Bush, as expected, emphasized how the deeds of these soldiers were isolated crimes which do not reflect what America stands and fights for: the values of democracy, freedom, and personal dignity. If this is true, how, then, are we to account for their main feature, the contrast between the standard way prisoners were tortured in Saddams regime, and the US army tortures? In Saddams regime, the emphasis was on direct brutal infliction of pain, while the US soldiers focused on psychological humiliation. Furthermore, recording the humiliation with a camera, with the perpetrators included in the picture, their faces smiling stupidly alongside the twisted, naked bodies of the prisoners, is an integral part of the process, in stark contrast with the secrecy of Saddams tortures. When I saw the famous photo of a naked prisoner with a black hood covering his head, electric cable attached to his limbs, standing on a chair in a ridiculous theatrical pose, my first reaction was that this was a shot of the latest performance-art show in Lower Manhattan. The very positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a kind of tableau vivant, which cannot but bring to mind the whole scope of American performance art and theatre of cruelty. (Interrogation Machine, Monroe.)
Antonin Artauds approach to theater was based directly on shedding light on this unpleasant cultural dark side, and the reference here, though speaking of American performance art, surely is in fact speaking to the French surrealist movement that Artaud started, the Theatre of Cruelty. This is not a strictly American issue, it is a psychological one, and one which has throughout history played its role in the definition of in-group and out-group initiation and all other rituals which bring us in to the social circle, or which thrust us from it the enactment of taboo, by which societies define their relations to one another and the world around us. In other words, the debasement of the sacrifice is not merely, as the quotation would imply, an expression of our dark half, our defining dirty bits, it is a psychological demand of the modern, narcissistic cultural identity.
Not that this particular pornographic artifact has any value, but its underlying impulse shows us more about ourselves than we might like to see. Nor is vicarious participation in sadism or masochism quite as simple an act as one may assume, (as a tangential note, Foucault was well known in the BDSM scene.) To continue with the quotation:
It is in this feature that brings us to the crux of the matter: to anyone acquainted with the reality of the US way of life, the photos immediately brought to mind the obscene underside of US popular culture- for example, the initiation rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community. (A note, again: this is not at all isolated to American culture: only its mode of expression is. Continuing.) Do we not see similar photos at regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an Army unit or on a high school campus, where an initiation ritual goes too far and soldiers or students get hurt beyond a level considered tolerable? Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World nation: in being submitted to these humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners wee effectively initiated into American culture. They got a taste of its obscene underside, which forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy, and freedom.
In march 2003, none other than Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: there are known knowns, There are things things we known that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we known we dont know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we dont know we dont know. What he forgot to add was the crucial forth term: the unknown knowns, things we dont know that we know which is precisely the Freudian unconscious the knowledge which doesnt know itself as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the unknown unknowns the threats from Saddam which we do not even suspect, the Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the dangers are: in the unknown knowns, the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values. So Bush was wrong: what we get when we see the photos of the humiliated Iraqi prisoners on our screens and front pages is precisely a direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the US way of life. (ibid.)
Now to the central point: what better example of our unknown knowing is there than a brutal, even horrific, re-enactment of the Abu Ghraib incident, shown on a porn website as a form of entertainment, for people to masturbate to from a safe distance safe from the potential shame of participation, but allowed to engage with it by proxy, like drivers rubbernecking at an accident? Nothing could be more to the point than this vicarious violence, enacted upon the degraded subject of our (supposed) desire. What better demonstration of precisely what is hidden behind our collective cultural mask of civility, or the outstretched hand of our foreign diplomacy? What better way to see it than in something so absurd?
At the same time movies like this have an unintentional element of the comedic. Even this kind of analysis of such a subject is, in its way, nothing more than comedy. Yet we shouldnt let this mislead us: it is often only when we laugh that we are taking something seriously. To find amusement in the horrific is one of the secrets of many so-called Secret Societies. The alchemical process deals with the unification of the dark and the light, of the transformation of the dross, of base materials, to a more refined form. Shit to gold. But properly understood, this process does not mean we should support the horrific, it does not mean condone it: it means that we must identify the darkness, peel it back, look into its eye, and laugh. He who is illuminated with the brightest of lights will have the darkest of shadows. As Heinlein recognized, man is a creature that laughs at wrongness. Does this laughter transform? Does tragi-comedy relieve us of complicity? Perhaps not, but it does allow us to approach it without fear of being taken in by it, and this proximity allows for further transformation to occur.
Only then can we change. Only then can we change others.
Image by torbakhopper, courtesy of Creative Commons license.