The Nature of Myth In coming to terms with our ingrained ambivalence toward myth, it may be helpful here to chart some of the twists and turns our thinking takes on the subject as we simultaneously deny myth’s place in our lives and cling to a rich mythic experience. Ambivalence, wanting to have it both ways, at once accepting and rejecting basic aspects of our lives: this is the powerful force, itself paradoxically both crippling and enabling, that we must comprehend.
The popular equation of myth and lie flies in the face of other, dictionary-sanctioned meanings of the term that influence the reception myth receives in daily life and complicate attempts to explain its cultural significance. For example, my Random House Dictionary of the English Language, College Edition, offers the following definitions:
1. a traditional or legendary story, usually concerned with deities or
demigods and the creation of the world and its inhabitants.
2. a story or belief that attempts to express or explain a basic truth; an
allegory or parable.
3. a belief or a subject of belief whose truth or reality is accepted
4. such stories or beliefs collectively.
The internal contradictions are patent in this list. Definition 3 corresponds with popular usage (males are naturally superior, there is a Santa Claus, Bigfoot exists) in which the true complexities of a situation are glossed over by facile prejudice and stereotype. Definitions 1 and 2 reflect an earlier, classical understanding of myth that has been largely repudiated by modern American practicality and scientism: myths are attempts to grasp the fundamental problems of human existence by framing them in narrative. The two perspectives, placed side-by-side in definitions 2 and 3, are impossible to resolve: How can “a story or belief that attempts to express or explain a basic truth” be identified with a simple prejudice or stereotype “whose truth or reality is accepted uncritically”? Allegories, parables, and other narrative devices in myth function to call attention to difficulties in thought and action, and not to silence the inquiring mind at its source. A myth simply cannot be simultaneously a simple stereotype and an enigmatic statement of life’s intellectual and moral dilemmas. Yet it is precisely on that note that my dictionary hopelessly concludes, with its definition 4 facilely conjuring an impossible semantic complex of “such stories or beliefs collectively.” Going to the dictionary here solves nothing; the act merely confirms the pronounced ambiguity, and ambivalence, that surround the notion of myth in the modern world.2
Everything I have to say (or, rather, electronically text) in this work about the nature of modern culture and the mythic role of movies in American life is predicated on my belief that myth is a fundamental, generative force in human existence, that it operates as a set of signifying practices which actually bring humanity into existence and continually modify what we suppose to be an “elementary” human nature. This view, quite obviously, is directly opposed to the conventional assumption that myth is some variety of falsehood, and hence opposed to the kind of theoretical program that seeks to brush aside the “irrelevant” and “superficial” productions of mythic thought to discover the “hard core,” “bedrock” layer of social reality underlying that frothy overburden.
I have come by this view by combining my more or less traditional anthropological work on “primitive” myth with several years’ thinking and writing about popular movies as manifestations of an emergent global cultural system of consumer capitalism that can be called, for want of a better term, “American culture.” In what follows, I hope to show that movies bring to the fore aspects of everyday life that are at once basic and fantastic, from making love to making war, from growing up to raising a family, from driving a car to watching a football game. The thread that connects these and countless other activities of daily life is the cultural production.3 People do all these things within complex frameworks of understandings they have of their own and others’ actions, and of artifactual processes — interacting with made things, sometimes to make other things, sometimes to accomplish an end in itself, sometimes to effect or influence an interaction with another person. A particular ensemble of their understandings and artifactual activities is an enacted piece of culture, a set of meanings or representations that may be called, taking some liberties with Dean MacCannell’s original idea, a “cultural production.”
The endless list of cultural productions that make up social life would include such obviously “staged” events as movies, TV shows, rock concerts, football games, graduation ceremonies, and such highly constructed but seemingly unchoreographed activities as wearing a particular outfit of clothing, serving a particular set of dishes for a meal, driving a particular kind of car, performing a handshake, and gesturing to a friend. In focusing on several of these cultural productions in succeeding chapters, I hope to establish a single, crucial point: virtually every social action involves an effort to establish a meaningful and tolerably unambiguous relationship with others in a situation normally charged with considerable potential ambiguity, ambivalence, and conflict.
Cultural productions create a little piece of culture by saying or showing something about the individuals interacting and the world that frames their interaction. The task of analysis for any particular set of cultural productions is therefore to ascertain how specific representations of various human, animal, and machine identities are marshaled to create the effect of coherence in an intrinsically incoherent world. Put a little more starkly, the job before us is to make sense of actions, situations, states of being that are, at best, fraught with ambiguity or, more commonly, so polarized by conflicting principles that they simply do not make sense, do not resolve themselves into any consistent, rational pattern. Claiming that movies are myths and that myths are primary cultural productions opens the way to a line of thought that departs radically from whatever mainstreams have formed in the still young discipline of cultural anthropology. The main purpose of this work is to develop that line of thought and, in the process, attempt to extend the range of cultural analysis or anthropological semiotics as that analytical program strives to comprehend the nature of culture and humanity’s probably all too brief role in it.
The Foundations of a Cultural Analysis of Myth It is important to recognize from the outset, then, that my approach to the cultural analysis of myth does some violence to the assumptions about myth that dominate our commonsense. My approach also rejects that peculiar orthodoxy which renounces imagination and creativity — the axis mundi of The Dreamtime — in favor of a world, both unreal and decidedly unreel, made up of “facts” that can be pinned down, labeled, counted, and trotted through the ludicrous acrobatics of a naive positivism that has come to dominate the classrooms, law courts, and even research institutions of the world’s most powerful nation states.
The concept of myth I want to promote here is an intriguing conjunction of the internally inconsistent commonsense view and a perspective that emphasizes the classical definition of myth as an expression of fundamental truths. As a commonsense notion, everyone knows what a myth is: a fantastic story, an account of a make-believe, fairy-tale world in which imaginary beings do impossible things. Myth, indeed, is just that. The last thing I want to do here is reduce the fantastic Dreamtime imagery of recent movie-myths to prosaic lessons on current events. But it is also a great deal more. The situations myth presents us with are not only improbable in the fantastic, cow-jumped-over-the-moon sense; they possess a cerebral and emotional improbability that is both profound and disturbing.
Myth’s improbability is a species of the unthinkable, or just barely thinkable. Where did things come from before there were things? How could something originate from nothing? Where did people come from? From animals? If so, how did they become different from animals? How did animals and, more importantly, people come to be sexually differentiated? Were people once androgynous, somehow acquiring their sexual natures along the way? And if sexuality was a later acquisition, did only a very few people acquire it at first? And wouldn’t it stand to reason that those first sexual beings were members of a single family? How did people pass from a seemingly unavoidable period of incest, during which there were very few first people and sexuality was a recent acquisition, to an established social order in which incest is an abomination? If people are different from animals, how did they acquire those attributes of humanity (language, fire, clothing, tools and weapons, rules of social behavior) that now distinguish them from the animals? And, having acquired all those talents and things, how do they interact with their own plastic and incomplete physiological organisms to produce human experience?
Far from being a silly little story, a fanciful embroidery on the durable fabric of social reality, a myth exposes the seams and flaws in what is actually the gossamer of strands holding people to other people and to the things in their lives. The story it narrates is often too profound, threatening, and embarrassing to make easy social chat. For example, Prometheus and Oedipus are two conventionally mythic figures (that is, cultural heroes now safely confined to musty tracts on “classical mythology”) whose stories chronicle radical disruptions in the religious and moral order of society. Prometheus did not simply give people fire, like a helpful neighbor loaning a cup of sugar: he disobeyed a command of the gods and, as a consequence of his action, destroyed the harmony that had prevailed in the relationship between humanity and divinity. And Oedipus, through a remarkable series of coincidences that would strain the credulity of the most gullible sitcom audience, managed to murder his father, marry his mother, blight his city, and destroy a supernatural being in the course of an adventure story that, cast in another mode, could claim supergrosser billing on the downtown marquee rather than languish on Humanities 101 reading lists (provided, of course, that Oedipus have phenomenal pecs and an Austrian accent).
Myth attempts to answer questions people would rarely think, or dare to think, of asking. In making that attempt, one of its primary functions is to pose — through spoken narrative and the visual imagery of movies — alternative or virtual worlds in which experience departs radically from the everyday. Hence the odd conjunction of convention and innovation in the approach I propose that cultural analysis take to myth: myths are fantastic, bizarre stories, but they nevertheless pose fundamental questions about human existence. Whether Amerindian myths of clan origin, “classical” myths of antiquity, or modern movie-myths, all are simultaneously outlandish, crazy tales that nonetheless speak to essentials of the human condition. James Bond and Luke Skywalker, if not quite the tragic figures that Prometheus and Oedipus are, share with them and with Lodge Boy, Spring Boy, and other cultural heroes of Amerindian myth the ability to transport their audiences from a world of gritty little concerns to a Dreamtime real-m of fateful action and consuming emotion.
No one lives in Bond’s or Skywalker’s worlds, just as no one lived in those of Prometheus or Oedipus, but the Greek myths still find an audience (even if it is primarily reluctant and undergraduate) and the movie theatres of Dreamtime America still receive their hordes. Why? My answer, the central argument of this work, is that myths provide distillations of experiences which define humanity and which, because the virtual world of experience is forever changing (our Dreamtime is not that of classical antiquity), provide a glimpse into possible futures, into alternate realities unstably contained in everyday life and awaiting birth as flesh and blood (or, increasingly, as silicon and yttrium) constructions.
A cultural analysis of myth, whether movies or traditional oral narratives, must strive to be faithful to both disparate features of myth by retaining the sense of the bizarre myth projects while keeping to its utterly serious subject matter (humanity’s uncertain place in a changing world).4 In its efforts to keep both these avenues open, cultural analysis differs significantly from the varieties of materialist interpretation that inform both the popular (mis)understanding of myth and academic approaches to the subject in anthropology and other fields.
Describing movies as myth rests on an understanding of myth that owes a great deal to the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss. In the next section I examine a few of the major contributions Lévi-Strauss has made to the study of myth, limiting specific discussion to his early Totemism while drawing generally on the immense corpus of The Savage Mind, Structural Anthropology (I and II), Mythologiques (I - IV), The Jealous Potter, and The Story of Lynx. Any particular criticisms I have to make of his work should not obscure the great debt I owe this immensely impressive scholar. For the foundation of his argument is the central theme of this work: in understanding myth we understand what is truly human.
In his vast analysis of South and North American mythology, Lévi-Strauss reverses the practice of an earlier generation of anthropologists, who treated myth as a kind of frosting on the cake of their descriptive accounts of social organization and ritual. For those anthropologists, ranging from Franz Boas through A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, the myths told by a group of people could be conveniently listed in an appendix at the end of a monograph whose principal divisions were organized around such topics as kinship, ecology, political organization, and social structure.
In Lévi-Strauss’s perspective myth has primacy, since it serves as the vehicle for a human intelligence that is continually assigning meaning to actions and events, including those that get categorized by anthropologists as somehow belonging to domains of “kinship,” “religion,” and the like. Rather than being an epiphenomenon, an embroidery on an existing sociocultural reality, mythic thought is in fact a precondition of that reality. A major paradox of culture is that a framework of conceptual relations, a set of possibilities for thought and action (what in Chapter 3 I call a semiospace), must be in place before a living being can have what we would be willing to call a human experience. In short, culture precedes humanity, wrapping the protocultural hominid in the enveloping folds of its topologically complex space. Myth does not validate experience; it makes it possible.
Broadly speaking, if one is uneasy with my own and Lévi-Strauss’s argument that myth constitutes the foundation of culture, then two alternative perspectives remain. One is to view myth as essentially reflective or repetitive: sociocultural reality is already constituted, people’s lives already are what they are, and for the sake of rationalization or just to hear an amusing story we think up myths that will dress up our everyday lives. This dismissive, commonsense perspective on myth completely disregards the questions of where and how we acquired the conceptual framework necessary for articulating our experience, for conferring on particular thoughts and actions the dubious mantle of the “natural.”
How, for example, do individuals acquire and formalize in language the idea that they belong to a particular “group” of people who possess the same qualities and substance as themselves? Where do they get this idea of “belonging”? Where do they get this idea of “group”? These are obviously the very sort of uncommon questions that common sense does not take up — that’s why it’s called “common sense.” A cultural analysis informed by Lévi-Strauss’s insight, however, regards these questions as imminently worth asking. And its response is that the concept of “group” is simply one of several key constructs that emerged during the very genesis of culture, semiospace, or whatever we choose to call it. But how did culture or semiospace, a unique and highly complex phenomenon, originate? The answer to that ponderous question is that it did not simply happen; somebody or Something had to think it up.
Because the circumstances of those somebody’s or Something’s lives are forever changing, in continual feedback with cultural forces already set in motion, their most basic understandings about what is involved in being this rather than that — a somebody rather than a Something — are subject to continual revision. Culture thus has to be continuously rethought; the conceptual parameters that define the system must accommodate new and ever more complex perturbations. Thinking and rethinking culture, folding and refolding, pushing and pulling the parameters of its semiospace is what myth is all about. It is therefore impossible for myth to be simply reflective or repetitive of human society, for prior to the creative intervention of a symbolization/conceptualization process there was no human presence to reflect or repeat.
The second, more sinister perspective that affords what I take to be an inadequate alternative to the kind of cultural analysis attempted here is to regard myth as a deliberate and oppressive distortion of a sociocultural order formed and maintained by independently acting economic or environmental processes. Myth is mystification, and needs to be denounced to prevent our analysis of culture being sidetracked from the true, hardcore, nitty gritty infrastructural nature of things. Churches, shopping malls, football games, fashion magazines and, not least, movies exist, not to mirror reality, but to distract us from what the generals, the corporate magnates, the Daddy Warbucks of this world are doing on the sly to keep us down.5
At its most charitable, the materialist critique of mythic thought reduces to the commonsense notion of myth as fanciful tale — a pleasant and perhaps reassuring diversion, but not to be taken seriously if we are searching for a scientific or social scientific “explanation” of human behavior. How God created man from the clay of a riverbank, how death and suffering originated with the original sin, how birds came to fly and the tiger got its stripes are all tales we have heard at some point in our lives, but not material most of us would bring up at a job interview or include in an answer to an exam question on human evolution or zoology
There are several difficulties with the uncharitable materialist perspective, which puts a hard edge on the fantasy element in myth by viewing myth as dangerous distortion or mystification. The main difficulty is the one that also undermines the reflectivist perspective: if sociocultural reality, now defined as economic or class conflict, exists prior to or independently of myth, then what has served as the vehicle or device for conceptualizing and communicating notions of value, of what the powerful possess and the powerless lack? Specifying the differences between powerful and powerless, superior and subordinate appears an easy task at first, but it becomes incredibly difficult if one looks for answers without first invoking (pre)established categories of a cultural (mythic) system.
Suppose that a nascent human culture already exists in which relationships of inequality are firmly established.6 If I am one of the powerful, then by definition I have the ability to impose my will on the less powerful, to dispose of their time, resources, and physical selves as I desire. But what will I desire? Obviously, you might say, I will desire the best food, shelter, sex, and, depending on how Hobbesian you want to be, the suffering of others. But if I am to continue working my will on the powerless for any length of time, then they must also have access to most of these necessities of life. How, then, are my satisfactions as one of the powerful to be distinguished from those of the powerless? The obvious answer here must refer to quality and quantity: I will demand and receive abundant portions of the best food; I will live in luxurious surroundings; I will have the most attractive sexual partners; I will amuse myself at the expense and pain of others.
At this point an irresolvable inconsistency arises in the materialist account of cultural origin. How did you and I come by ideas about one food being better than another, about potential sexual partners being attractive or unattractive, about certain activities being moreamusing than others? I may dine on filet mignon while you subsist on corn meal mush, but how have these equally edible substances acquired their relative merit or value? How do chemical substances — proteins and carbohydrates — somehow indicate or signal that the ingester of one is superior to the ingester of the other? Discriminating physical objects and actions on the basis of quality depends on the prior existence of a standard of values, a sociocultural yardstick. And where or how did this standard, this yardstick originate? Surely not as an automatic response to some hypothetical set of “natural” economic activities — “relations of production” — for social differentiation on such a basis would depend on you and I already having a shared understanding of what is worth more and what less, of what is desirable and undesirable.
The desirability of a food, of a person, of a dwelling is not simply given in the nature of things, not just sitting there waiting to be fitted into a system of social relations based on economic activities. Nor does desirability follow from a convenient principle like the “law” of supply and demand. If that were true then, as Marshall Sahlins notes in Culture and Practical Reason, we would “naturally” value the scarce organs of a food animal — its heart, kidney, tongue, brains, and liver — over its more abundant steaks and roasts. The fundamental point is that desirability is the effect, and not the cause, of a system of understandings about the nature of human existence and the entities — plants, animals, machines, and inanimate objects — that figure in that existence. That system of understandings is culture (or, as we may come to know it, semiospace). Before a materialist approach to myth can hope to produce meaningful statements, therefore, it must first identify the elements of culture and the order or disorder, the configuration and dynamics, of their arrangement.
It is precisely at this point that myth reasserts its primacy, for the organization of culture, the system of meanings that are central to a notion of human identity, is the problematic of myth. Why there are powerful and powerless, why one food is inherently better than another, how beauty and ugliness came to be — all these questions are the stuff of myth. The Lévi-Straussian perspective on myth as the primary vehicle of cultural experience thus overturns materialist perspectives that would dispense with myth as a distorting, mystifying force in society.
Approaching popular movies as myths in the Lévi-Straussian sense means that they can neither be dismissed as redundant nor denounced as mystification. Movies have to be examined in a direct, empirical, anthropological fashion that pays close attention to their concrete details and that identifies the positions those details have within an encompassing cultural system. My argument is that the popularity of movies like Star Wars and E. T. is due to their peculiar resonance with fundamental questions about human existence in the late twentieth century, questions that can only be formulated within the framework of a cultural system articulated by the conceptual device of myth. Materialist approaches would pull that cultural system out of a hat, claiming (half-heartedly) that the most powerful human sentiments — whom we love and want to be with versus whom we loath and want no part of; what we cherish seemingly as much as life itself (the most coveted objects in our lives) versus what we find hideous and detestable — either just happen “naturally” or, nonsensically, derive from economic activities which are themselves predicated on those very sentiments.
Movies and myths are alike in another respect: both are partially independent of their creators and audiences. Once shown or told they acquire a life of their own, a kind of semiotic inertia, and break free from the constraint of being precisely, definitively understood or interpreted by either the narrator or the viewer/listener. Note that this independence allows directors, actors, and audiences to assign a variety of (often contradictory) meanings to a particular movie, or, in the case of many moviegoers, no meaning at all: try asking a seventeen-year-old exiting from Rambo or Predator about the movie’s cultural significance and see what incisive commentary you will receive! Most people, including our seventeen-year-old, don’t come out of a movie theatre prepared to take an exam on it (for a few, though, that will come later, when the baby lit-crits file into their Contemporary Film classes).
What is imparted in the Dreamtime temples of our movie theatres is a kind of implicit understanding of aspects of life rarely, if ever, discussed around the family dinner table or in the classroom. In this movies are like myths as well, for the primary audience of myth-telling, at least in some South American Indian villages, is a large, extended family household of adults and children who are drifting in and out of sleep in their hammocks late at night while some old insomniac sits by the central fire, stirring its embers and rambling on about the doings of the creator-god Makunaima and how people sprung from the seeds of the silk-cotton tree. Like these native Americans, many of us learned the stories of Humpty Dumpty, The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Bambi when we were very young, uncritical, and completely uninterested in whether they “reflected” or “distorted” reality.
The really distressing aspect of perspectives that view myth as escapism, banal reflection, or distortion is the lackluster quality they impart to our existence, for all such perspectives basically deny that human life is meaningfully linked with the fantastic imagery of recent movies, that all their imagination and creativity do not touch our own inexorably drab lives. I reject that view in favor of one that marries elemental dilemmas of existence to the fantastic and powerful imagery of popular movies. The hundreds of millions of people who have turned out to see Luke and Princess Leia defeat the Empire, Bond take on megalomaniac scientists, Chief Brody hunt the Great White Shark, Admiral Kirk command the Enterprise on its ultimate adventure (or its next ultimate adventure?), and other modern epics are not just buying a few hours of diversion and rotting their minds on trivia. Through all the popcorn crunching, drink slurping, flesh kneading, and idle chatter that goes on in the theatre, enough of the singular drama of popular movies penetrates to warrant serious consideration by students of culture.