Thursday, August 9, 2012

Perfectionism, Myth and Politics

In the evolution of mythology, there is a tendency over time towards what literary critic Kenneth Burke calls "Perfectionism"1. This is not a qualitative judgement, implying that myths become somehow "better" over time, but rather an observation that myths tend towards a kind of absolutism; a perfection of narrative in which particular symbols, themes and structures are given pre-eminence over particular details. Even where myths begin as historical events, their continual telling and re-telling strips them of all historical details, to the point where the purpose of the story can no longer be said to relate the details of a particular event but rather to "give counsel" in some way; that is, to provide a "moral", some "practical advice" or a "proverb or maxim".2 It is this gradual tendency to place the story in an indefinite setting, outside of any known time or place, that constitutes the entelechial drift of the myth towards "Perfectionism".

Partly, this process may be an accidental consequence of human memory. Humans tend to perform relatively poorly when it comes to the recall of brute facts, but are generally much better when asked to recall structured or emotionally salient information. For this reason, many myths involve repetitive elements (the rule of three is particularly pertinent here) or draw on some of the more primal, deep-seated human emotions (which explains why sex and death feature so prominently in all mythologies). One possible test for the historicity of myths concerns the extent to which historical facts - as opposed to some more symbolic "moral" message - are central to the narrative, and the "pedigree" of a literary myth (i.e. how old it is) can be ascertained by examining how faithfully it could have been transmitted orally given the fallibility of human memory. As an example, the highly structured and repetitive parables of Jesus in the synoptic gospels (which were penned at least 40 years after his death) are generally seen as having a pedigree that can be traced back to Jesus himself (as they are memorable in structure, they promote counter-intuitive ethics and so on), where as the long-winded, largely aimless ramblings of John's Jesus are generally seen as unhistorical because they could not have been reliably transmitted via oral means for sixty years without significant deviation.

But in addition to this accidental shift, changes to the fundamental details of a myth may reflect the political inclinations of later authors / editors. This may be through the deliberate addition or omission of pertinent details (for instance, the kind of details the author(s) of Chronicles added to or omitted from of the Book of Kings that he was using as a source) or the deliberate introduction of a radically new hermeneutic, in order to change the way the mythology is understood at a fundamental level (for instance, the way that OT myths were approached by the earliest Christians). It has been suggested that the final form of certain myths - particularly where it has been dependent on literature - have been shaped and controlled by the elite of ancient societies, and that they were often used as tools to legitimise certain political policies to the wider population. In the Bible, the way that the D and P sources of the Pentateuch used older myths to legitimise the particular aspirations of their authors (a unified kingdom and the centrality of the priestly class respectively) serve as a good example of this phenomenon.

What the formation of such mythological legitimation serves to do is to naturalise certain political claims. In this world of myth, the rule of priests and kings is a natural, divinely-ordained state of the universe that simply cannot be resisted. The contingent, ephemeral nature of power is simply subsumed by the intractable timelessness of the mythological claim. To quote Roland Barthes, "[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology... A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance... myth is depoliticized speech"3. In other words, myth can be used by the ruling classes to downplay the historical contingency of their political claims and to instead express them in the timeless and teleological language of mythic history.

So, we might observe four basic claims at this stage:

1) Myths have a "perfectionist" tendency, where - over time - specific details (time, place, people etc.) are gradually lost in its retelling, leaving a skeleton narrative structure which renders it suitable for (infinitely pliable) moral messages.

2) This process can be accidental (a natural consequence of human memory and narrative construction) or it can be deliberate.

3) Where the process of change is deliberate, it is normally the social elite who are responsible.

4) Myth is wielded in this way to "naturalise" otherwise contingent political claims.

Now the creation and utilisation of mythology is not something confined to the distant past. It's an ongoing process that continues to shape and inform our understanding of the world we inhabit. As narrative-seeking beings, the pull to explain complex historical events in the form of simple narratives underscored by vivid symbolism is sometimes too strong to resist. Many examples could be marshalled to support this claim - high among them, the importance of mythology to the formation of "imagined communities" in many modern theories of nationalism - but I'll choose to focus on just one for now: the pre-occupation among the American right with the events of the American revolution.

I spoke in a previous post about the "sacralisation" of the American constitution in modern American political thought, and in doing so hoped to highlight the similarities between the constitutional fetishism of American society and the similar textual fetishism inherent to the Abrahamic faiths. Here I want to show the relationship between religious mythology and the blinkered understanding of American history espoused by the American Right.

What distinguishes "religious" mythology from mythology in general is its infallibility and its universality, at least in the minds of those who adhere to this given religious tradition. What do I mean by this?

By "infallibility" I don't simply mean that these myths are perceived as being literally true (though the believer may assert this anyway) but rather that they are placed completely beyond any possibility of reproach. If they appear to be lending support to an idea or impulse that we find repulsive, the fault must lie with our exegesis rather than the moral message of the myth itself. There are many millions of people alive today, for example, who believe that a wholesome moral message can be derived from the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or who believe that the Koran does not impel holy violence. Placing these texts in their appropriate historical context - a context in which extreme violence was an everyday occurrence - is apparently insufficient: we must assume, rather, that we have simply read the texts wrongly, because the timelessness of sacralised religious mythology permits no other analysis. 

The universality of religious mythology, on the other hand, pertains not simply to their timelessness and "placelessness" but rather the ubiquity with which they can be utilised to explain almost anything. To a sufficiently skilled Abrahamic theologian, there is simply no moral quandary or historical eventuality that cannot be expressed in the mythical language of their chosen text. If we want to assert the (un-)righteousness of an event, the only necessary task is to identify an appropriate passage that can be used to justify the position we wished to assert from the very beginning. If the allegorical relationship between the passage and the event in question is oblique in the extreme, so much the better: a pleiotropy of meaning in religious texts is always to be encouraged. But back to the topic at hand.

Like the mythology of Judeo-Christianity or Ancient Greece, the mythology of the American Right has is both infallible and universal in its scope and application. For the average Republican, there are few events in everyday life in the United States that cannot be explained as part of the mythology of the American story. Even the most anodyne matters - shop clerks wishing "Happy Holidays" or the first lady encouraging healthy eating - are given an almost existential urgency by their placement in a far deeper narrative propelled almost entirely by politically charged symbols and meanings. The American story, according to the Right, is one long history of patriots defending "freedom" (an entirely symbolic word in this usage, denoting nothing of substance) against the creeping forces of "tyranny" (which is also only ever loosely defined). Placed in such an epic narrative, the shop clerk and the First Lady are both antagonistic characters who represent an omnipresent "threat" to the "American way of life". The first undermines Christian hegemony, the second undermines the sovereignty of the individual, both of which are presumed by the American Right to have been enshrined in culture from the very beginning.

Beyond contemporary events, there is also a necessity for the American Right to re-interpret historical events through narrow lens of their mythology. The "Boston Tea Party", for example, was the culmination of a series of disputes between the colonists and the crown over the (perceived) exploitative behaviour of the latter. Read through the lens of the 2012 GOP platform, however, all the complexity and contingency of historical reality is smoothed-out into a simple mythic narrative of rebellion against tyranny and (especially) taxation. The events of the Cold War, to use a more recent example, have similarly been stripped of all their historical complexity and have since been retold by the modern American Right as a simple, dichotomous moral message concerning the triumph of freedom over bondage, capitalism over communism, good over evil. Such an all-encompassing "dualism", by the way, is a common and persistent feature inherent to many mythologies.

Although the creeping lunacy of GOP policy represents a rather recent development - an "historical contingency" in every possible sense - its defenders imagine that it can be traced, in a continuous, uninterrupted line, to the views of the Founding Fathers. Their movement, in other words, represents the only unadulterated, orthodox politics within the nation. Their politics are not simply the contingent consequence of the historical forces into which they happened to be born (the Cold War and opposition to the civil rights movement are obvious places to situate the origin of these politics) but rather the fulfilment and final manifestation of the hopes and wishes of the increasingly deified Founding Fathers. Note how these politics are thus naturalised: laissez-faire capitalism, gun rights and Christianity represent the politics of this original "pristine" state. Any exceptions to this (such as the politics of the Democrats) are therefore wilful corruptions or deviations that must be resisted as heretical. Like any other religious mythology, the capacity for a plurality or heterodoxy of thought is simply denounced as a matter of course.

The maintenance of such a world-view isn't easy though. Recorded history - as opposed to the vague, mythological dreaminess of their remembered history - paints a different picture of the Founding Fathers. They didn't offer a unified view of politics, but were rather deeply divided on many important issues (hence the relatively limited scope of the constitution). They didn't found the US as a Christian nation, but rather as a secular one, and their surviving writings on this issue bear this out. They didn't intend for the US to be a free-market economy, but were rather interested in driving US industry with the involvement of government and the erection of trade protectionism4. Not that this stops right-wing ideologues from arguing otherwise, but it can only be observed that their mythology has been erected against history, not with it.

And it is this observation that should always be remembered: where myth, for all its uses, is in conflict with recorded history, it is the latter that should be given preference, not the former. When someone tries to argue that the US was founded on Christian principles or on principles of untrammelled individualism (as though the two were self-evidently compatible) it is incumbent upon the rest of us to make two observations: firstly, the claims are in error. Secondly, these erroneous claims have been fabricated by certain "elites" - perhaps deliberately in certain cases - to naturalise and legitimise a world-view that could not be adequately justified to the people without resorting to the emotionally-charged symbolism of mythology. Our resistance to having our capacity for rational, independent thought completely subsumed by an all-pervasive mythology is apparently no greater than that of the ancients; our myths are just more secular and more overtly political.


1) Laurence Coupe - Myth, p. 7

2) Walter Benjamin - Illuminations, p. 86

3) Mythologies, p. 142

4) Words such as "capitalism" or even "economy" were not yet in use. In fact, the first true explication of free-market ideology - Wealth of Nations - wasn't published until the same year as the declaration of independence.

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