The Immanence of Myth


James Curcio is currently collecting submissions for an anthology entitled The Immanence of Myth (click the following link for submission guidelines).  In the article below (a version of the anthology's introduction), he lays out the ideas that will frame the anthology -- particularly concerning the evolving role of mythology in our post-industrial, highly technologized, capitalist society.


I first presented some of the following ideas in "Living The Myth," my contribution to the Generation Hex anthology (Disinfo, 2005). As I've collaborated with other artists over the past decade, I have come to realize that I wasn't at all alone in a mythic approach to art.  In this article, I present an admittedly abstract perspective on the nature, and the importance, of myth.  I also hope to relay some of the difficulties and considerations that go into creating an anthology containing diverse views on myth. Although we will be editing the essays in the anthology, we will attempt to preserve the authors' various ideologies rather than ensure that everything coheres into a single system. As you will quickly discover, that approach would be entirely contrary to our very position.


What is Myth? 

It may seem that the word "myth" has entirely lost its meaning to us as a psychological or spiritual term. A myth has come to mean something that is generally accepted but untrue. "It is a myth that reading by flashlight ruins your eyesight." The popular television show on the Discovery Channel, Myth Busters, uses this definition, attempting to disprove "myths" with something vaguely resembling science. The myths of antiquity are looked upon as quaint stories, despite the fact that they shaped our cultural history, and remain at the center of the bloody stage of modern religious and ideological conflicts. 

The fact that the word myth has become synonymous with untruth belies an underlying shift in our epistemological focus over the past several thousand years. To generalize: we have become, as a culture, a great deal more concerned with verifiable facts and less concerned with the existential truths which have a different relation to fact. This progression ties not only into the Enlightenment focus on rationality and the scientific method, but, perhaps more pervasively and certainly more recently, we can see this following from the needs of industrialization. Fundamental business principles rely on actions that are easy to reproduce, and which produce similar if not identical results with each reptition. This promotes an economy of scale that is absolutely necessary for so-called big business. 

The dual meaning of myth seems to come as a by-product of the industrialist-capitalist worldview, and provides a certain cultural insight. In its proper sense, myth has no necessary relation to fact whatsoever. It is true insofar as it renders a psychological effect, and false insofar as it doesn't. This is not to say that fact has no bearing on myth. Far from it. That the inner and outer life appear as mirror images of one another, separated by what appears to be a vast divide, is another issue that we must contend with, as it has mythological repercussions. 

To anyone who winces at the thought of a story being "just fiction," this common definition is more than unfortunate, for myths have been the lifeblood of culture since the birth of civilization. This common, or modern, definition is not at all what we mean when we say "myth" here. However, the common definition defines our cultural stance against spirituality, our dependence upon fact as our only source of psychological nourishment. (It also defines our misunderstanding of the purpose of symbols.) If we take the premise that myth is something vital to our nature, then an absence of it, or an absence of the ability to recognize it, would be a deep cultural and existential crisis. A quick glance at current events makes it clear enough that we are in just such a position, even though no clear connection between the two has yet been drawn. 

The most obvious conclusion of "modernity" is that we have no unifying myth, as Georges Bataille proposes: we live in a myth which is an absence of myth. Bataille's "absence of myth" must not be mistaken with Ayn Rand's. To Baitaille, the absence of myth is itself a myth. However, the most obvious conclusion is often not the most poignant one. We do have myths, though they exist in media that we don't surround with the aura of the sacred. We find our myths in movies, books, our mutually created narratives on the Internet, even on television. We relate to these stories differently than did those who lived in a world before the computer, television or typewriter. I believe there has been a sort of archetypal uprooting -- a disconnection from the power of the forms that informed the mythic processes of the past. Thus, though we haven't lost our myths, we have lost our connection to their purpose. They often don't strike modern audiences as strongly because they are "just" stories, or movies. When one is finished with them, one can literally change the channel. In a capitalist society, myths too take on a capitalist bent. Further, they serve its ends. They are often more readily consumed than engaged with.

At the same time, in the case of those myths that do resonate with large groups of people, many of them are mere echoes of myths from thousands of years ago, catalyzing existential fear, hate, or desire. This alchemy produces poisonous splinter factions, fundamentalist groups that produce many of the illnesses our cultures otherwise exhibit in concentrated form. These "splinter groups" also have the potential to overcome the whole of a culture in crisis times, as the Nazis did after World War I. However, myth as a whole cannot be considered a result of such use. Nor can myth be "killed," in any event. It can be a healing as well as a destructive force. 

I realize I'm leaving many stones unturned here: you might be wondering, "Fine, then what is the purpose of myth?" or "If myth has a different meaning than the commonly accepted one, then what is it?" In the final reckoning, myth is a process of creative participation in reality, and so there is no way to cleanly dissect it, label its parts, and offer it up for scientific analysis. 


The Function of Myth in the 21st Century 

Mythology isn't just Bulfinch's; far less is it Frazier's Golden Bough. It is the living, breathing story of humanity. Myths deal with the questions we all face in our lives, propose ways of being in the world which put us in accord or conflict with those various common dilemmas, and ultimately structure our worlds. Our myths deal with the things that would be difficult if not impossible to approach in any other manner. Thus, it is almost as if we need to explore all of the connective tissue linking to the heart of myth, without striking at that heart directly. For that heart is at once our own, and also the truly unknowable font of being which supports it. This is the realm of the unquantifiable: that which is felt, glimpsed, experienced, but never fully secured. Nevertheless, the representation of this unknowable, which we call myth, can be tentatively defined and owned through the process of naming. In short, this is the process whereby an experience, event, or object is transformed into a symbol. In this rendering, its very nature can be transfigured. This is siginificant because, although you can't turn a rabbit into a table through words alone, you can change people's perception through the symbols you use. Far from an obscure, theoretical or arcane art, "spin doctors" in media and politics do this as a full-time job. However, in a more occult sense this is why words and incantations are infused with an almost supernatural aura, because language does have the power to transmute, to invoke and evoke, and these are, at least psychologically speaking, magical powers.   

Cutting to that heart directly and cleanly defining what myth is and is not will not suffice. The function of myth, even possibly its identity, changes based on the granularity of inquiry. In other words, a particular myth, received by an individual, may not serve the same function when received by a society. A given myth, let alone myth as a whole, is not merely one thing. A myth can be different things to different people, as we see when a mythic motif, say that of the dead and reborn god in the form of Osiris, is transfigured by another culture, in another time and place, for another purpose, such as may have been the case with the mythology created around Jesus' torture and death. 

There are other obstacles that stand in the way of a clear look at this subject. When you focus your attention on the study of any particular concept, two things can happen: first, you see your theme everywhere. This is exemplified in the concept of a meta-narrative, whereby reality is reduced to a simple principle like the subversion of subliminal sexuality (Freud). These provide an often useful insight into an aspect of reality, while at the same time distorting reality around the contours of the concept. What conceals often also reveals, and the inverse is also true.

Second, you deconstruct your core concept to such a point that it ceases to mean what it does for everyone else. For example, consider the word "will" as used by Schopenhauer, Neitzsche, or Crowley: their ideas of "will" in all three cases go so far beyond what is commonly meant by the term that, unless if you are intimately familiar with their work, it is easy to mistake their actual meaning. Similarly, this word "will" does not lead to the same concept in all three cases, but rather is a sort of conceptual key to a unique thought process for each.

I am fully aware that both of these factors will play into our ongoing exploration of the concept of "myth." This is further complicated by the realities of an anthology composed by a multiplicity of authors. Rather than attempting to escape these obstacles through a posture of scientific analysis, which itself biases outcome, I have directed my contributors to embrace multiplicity, embrace the process. If we never, in the process of our lives, come to contradict ourselves from time to time, then we haven't grown. We could hardly be called human. The process of inquiring into a concept such as this one will inevitably loop back on itself time and again, in that process evolving the discussion. 

Other problems posed by an investigation like this are the dangers of abstraction and generalization. Abstract questions and solutions, which take on a narrative form as myth, are at once more pure and multifaceted than the specific or concrete. That is, successful myths strike at our unmediated personal experience, and at the same time are directed at an audience. There is clearly some sleight-of-mind involved, a magic trick composed of symbols, sounds, and images. A myth is never just this problem or this person, even when it originates from a personal experience or dilemma. By their very nature, myths abstract and generalize. In a Jungian sense they are said to be archetypical, but it may be possible that the mythic perspective creates archetypes. This essential abstraction is also an inherent danger, as narrative metaphors are essentially untethered from necessity and thus from what many would refer to as reality, and it is easy to then turn around and reduce all mythology into one monomyth, as Frazier, Campbell, and many before and after have done.

So in beginning this exploration we must employ an unfortunately meta-approach to an analysis of myth, or else the overall method may get lost through a particular peculiarity, as with Freud and formative sexuality, or even the folk elements of a particular story about the monkey god Hanuman. As a result, in dealing with myth as a subject I am not entirely concerned with the details of a single story or meta-narrative. These particulars or peculiarities can and should be noted by way of example, but if we think that by exploding a single mythic/psychological complex we are uncovering the actual nature of myth, then we will continue to chase our own tail in misleading dialogue about trivial or even obsessive points. This is a methodological shortcoming of much mythic analysis, including some of the most thorough and scholarly. 

This may seem an apology for our methodology, and in a sense it is, but it is also a means of saying that both we and the reader must remain absolutely aware of the need to re-tether the abstract (myth) with the necessary (experience). This very quandary is often posed in mythic fashion, for example in stories dealing with the problems of relating the needs of the spirit, or what we refer to as spirit, and the material world. Thus Jesus would not cast himself from the heights of the temple at Satan's request. Neither can be sacrificed for the sake of the other, and if they cannot be aligned, integrated, or otherwise rectified the result is death of one form or another. This particular existential dilemma -- one of countless legions -- is considered one of the principle purposes of alchemy. In fact, all alchemy deals with the fusion of the substantial and insubstantial bodies (Ida and Pingala in Kundalini for instance), and as Carl Jung rightly recognized, this integration is the primary goal of psychology. This problem takes on an even more dire importance in our present age, where the material has become the only consideration, and the spiritual backlash is not one of integration but rather one of violent fundamentalism.

With these considerations in mind I'd like to present some preliminary thoughts on the nature of myth. 

Myths are "mirrors of the soul," which can only reveal to us what we already have in ourselves: so what is a message of love and compassion to one can be a distorting call to hatred and bigotry for another. Meaning exists in the surface interaction with the mythic object, rather than in the myth itself. We discover ourselves in stories. 

Culture itself can only be fully understood through the myths it produces. Perhaps you could also say that myth is culture's deep structure, represented in symbolic form. Concurrently, it is increasingly difficult to speak meaningfully of "myth" without recognizing the function which runs through all contexts, at any "level of granularity": myth is the meaning we glean from representation, yet it does not contain this meaning. It is almost as if every time a series of symbols (a book, for instance), passes into a new nervous system, it is born for the first time. Words, sentences, and pictures are, on their own, no more a "myth" than the notes written on a staff are music; however, all of these are the embodiment, that is, the representation, of experience. Concealed within that representation is all of the meaning that can be drawn from chaos. Myth is, in the final summation, truly a mirror image of our inner beings, for better or worse. We did not create our flesh or bone, nor did we choose the circumstances we were born into. The myths we create, on the other hand, are truly and completely human. Perhaps, at the same time, they are the closest thing we have to divinity, demonstrating our ability to build worlds from the clay we are given, to infuse it with our own meaning, and to choose what the very nature of the universe will be in our tale. 

In this, we have our entry point into the function of myth. On a personal level, a myth is the story of life; most commonly, it is a narrative abstracted from the specific to the general, and then back again. For example, an artist pulls from specific life experiences, and abstracts them to a general or archetypical form; in other words, a form with general resonance. This narrative is then re-portrayed as if it is a particular instance. The archetypes are given a unique character. This may not be the only method a myth may take, but it is certainly one that most modern artists and writers are most familiar with. Plenty of examples exist in the myths that have entered the popular culture, for instance the portrayal of the maenad in HBO's popular series True Blood, or Neil Gaiman's Morpheus in Sandman. These characters may be modernized versions of an old archetype, but they have resonance because of the unique traits and personality that give them a sense of reality and immediacy. As living itself can act as intermediary between the arbitrary nature of life and the possibility of an underlying, unifying cultural consciousness, myths are also the emergent and recursive cultural code that has always driven human civilization. They are recursive because the stories that carry through the ages repeat themselves, in different forms, from one generation to the next, growing and yet never changing; this progressive permutation is best represented by the symbol of a spiral, or the Tibetan Swastika, as it is neither a teleological progress, as we might represent with a line, nor a fully closed one, as we would represent with a circle. They are emergent because, at the cultural level, this code gives rise to all of the complexities that society has borne, and can be considered to have a life of its own -- whether we mythologize that cultural intelligence as the Will of God, the hive-mind, zeitgeist, archetype of the collective unconscious, or manifest destiny. 

Put another way -- the mythic life is the whole, of which our current awareness is but a fragment. There is a sense in which we are living within our lives as the protagonist of a random situation that was neither our design nor our intention, and yet in another sense, we are disconnected from time, observers, and creators, partaking in each other's creations. The personal life, and its pains, frustrations, successes and hopes, are all transient and relatively insignificant except when given mythic resonance. The tale is what matters. Legends and heroes always lag a generation or two behind the present, and the times we live in are desperately in need of both.

Life is a dream you won't remember upon awakening, and myth is that dream retold. This retold dream is the realm of myth, and its representations take the form of art, music, and literature -- in other words, the very forms of representation which were banished from Plato's Republic on account of their ephemeral nature. In terms of Plato's metaphysics ephemerality = deception. The primary nature of the forms are their immortality, immutability, etc. Plato turns everything on its head, (not unlike the Christian metaphysic), making that immutable idea or form the "ultimate reality" and this fleeting world of phenomena the "shadows on the wall."  Myth commonly borrows from the realm of dream, and in some ways shares a similar dual nature as both real and unreal (it is real as a psychological fact, but does not directly carry into the material world without our mediation). However, myth cannot be simply reduced to dream images. Dreams on their own do not define, transform, or destroy cultures. Carl Jung distinguished between "archetypal" dreams -- those which somehow borrowed from the font of myth on a cultural level, and personal dreams, which deal with one's personal myth only. This might be a simple analytical solution, but doesn't sufficiently deal with the shades of gray which make up the bulk of our dreams, or of mythologies themselves.    

Though there is a cultural dimension to myth, the key to understanding -- and thereby creating -- a living mythology comes through self-examination, rather than through a strict exploration of the "world out there." We transmit our living mythologies to each other through our art, but equally so through our impact upon one another in our day-to-day lives. 

Each of our lives is a story, an album, a painting, in which we play the starring role, but only posthumously, in hindsight, or through the internal wrestling of the creative process which separates us, momentarily, from our day-to-day concerns. These stories weave together into an ever-changing tapestry which we call culture. Should we become initiates of the "bornless beyond" which exists outside the sphere of personal concern, even of our culture, we may become demigods for those who inherit the worlds we create, but only if we are worthy of it. This mantle is a boon and a curse that is often bestowed posthumously upon certain writers, artists, etc. This worthiness is far from egalitarian, and often strikes a harsh contrast to the living reality of that individual's life. Many of the individuals to whom our present cultures owe themselves died impoverished, unfulfilled, or (most famously), crucified. An ongoing mythical tradition is like a river that flows ever forward, sometimes branching off, or dying to drought or dam, yet nevertheless continually flowing, never reaching an ultimate destination.

From this we may recognize that the beliefs and symbols that live on through us, which we convey to those around us, are the currency of the mythological realm. Many have used the term meme. This term, which means a "unit of cultural imitation," was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene to represent this currency, and to systematize this cultural economy. Though perhaps a buzz-word of our time, this term nevertheless is useful in that it distinguishes the symbol from the sign in a structural way, allowing us to recognize that represented ideas themselves operate, in a sense, like organisms. Memes serve a greater function than being mere packets of information: "Magic has always been about the encoding of meaning, about symbolic literacy, about the creation and even the restoration of calendars. Memetics is a way of comprehending the ramifications of such encoding, identifying the systems that result from rituals, and transmitting meaning into a goal-oriented complex system, the meme space. Memes are more than a linguistic phenomenon." ("The Art of Memetics," p. 29.) 

If we choose to employ the metaphor of memes, then it is worth asking how these memes are carried from one individual to the next. Clearly there is a secondary medium (symbols), but it is the amalgam. This is key: myths arise as relationships -- relationship between a ritual object or work of art and an individual audience member, a relationship between audience members within the framework provided by the myth, and so on. The authors of these relationships we call artists, regardless of the medium.

It is impossible to speak of myth and not simultaneously speak of the arts. Religion, art, and myth were born of the same impulse, rendered with the same brush-stroke. I am not just referring to those who manage to undertake art as a vocation. All myth-builders are artists, on the most fundamental level, as art is not just about what different people or cultures find aesthetically pleasing -- it is also, and possibly more fundamentally, a process which tells people what things mean in an ontological rather than ethical sense. The use of "ontological" here refers to what is best expressed  as the "being-ness" of the thing. Thus I am saying that at its root a myth does not strike at aesthetic truth. That falls into the realm of didactics. It does not fall in the realm of ethical commandment either, though it is easily interpreted this way and even utilized in this way (e.g., the ethical commandments given in Leviticus, those given by Moses, by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, etc.) Myth's primary function is ontological, that is, it points at the unnameable realities underlying our collective experience. In this particular respect, science as well is mythological. Ethical and aesthetic qualifications, stipulations, regulations, etc., can be extracted from a reading of that ontology, but this isn't myth's primary function. The cost of the commodification of art, thus losing sight of its fundamental cultural function, is not one that most in our culture can comprehend.  

We do not exist as completely disparate, floating totalities. Myth is born of social fabric. To live our myth we need to first come to terms with the history of the beliefs of a culture, its ideas, its practices, its assumptions and axioms, its demons. The culture that bore us into this world helped shape who we are, regardless of whether we went along with the program or not. As James Joyce said, "History is a nightmare from which we are desperately trying to awake." What does it mean to be at this place and this time, and how has it made you who you are? How do the beliefs of our fathers and fore-fathers continue to structure and define the face of the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis? Preliminary answers can be found in our family trees and personal psychological makeups, which each of us can unearth in the creative process, but they are also, and I would say more importantly, present in the ideological history of our culture. We are, then, like the myths that tie us together, an ever-shifting collage or assemblage, without singular identity or import. If we trace our heritage back far enough, all we can say for sure is that we are all solar beings, since all matter almost certainly originated from one star or another. The lines of Self ultimately exist where we say they are, for in reality everything is interlocking, interconnected, semi-permeable. Thus Self is also defined by myth, and so is the shadow Self, the not-me, the enemy or the adversary.

It is worth noting that many works already exist which provide a systematic philosophical analysis of the ideological history and function of myth. Included prominently in this list are Cassirer's The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Joseph Campbell's Masks of God I-IV, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, Eliade's many works, especially Myth and Reality and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. This is not to say that the postulates or conclusions provided in these works are congruent with one another, or with our own thesis; nevertheless all of them contributed to bringing myth out of the realm of fanciful poetic naturalism. Though in various ways we are indebted to these works, our ultimate mission is not to explore what myth has been, except inasmuch as that can shed light on what its function is at present, nor is it to merely further the thesis of these works.  Rather, it is our aim to continue a movement already well underway, namely, the re-legitimization of myth and myth-making as one of the principal, if not the principal, form of human representation.  

If you would like to submit to The Immanence of Myth, please check out the submission guidelines here. 


Image by ZeroOne, courtesy of Creative Commons license.