In Unità di crisi, Krisis /Orientation, Milano, 2013, pp. 289-295,
Memory, violence, utopia. The myth as a means of orientation
Anatomy of the myth
The myth is a generator of identity and orientation. But the statement is likely to be vague and somehow mythical, when it tends to escape the embarrassing question of what is a myth, or worse yet, the myth. I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I affirm that the problem goes along with the history of philosophical thought, that precisely in the supposed separation of mythos from logos wanted to see one of its own acts of foundation. The question that everyone avoids – What is the myth? – can be answered initially with the words of Jean-Pierre Vernant, inevitably starting from ancient Greece: “it presents itself in the form of a story from the mists of time and that already existed before any narrator began to tell it. In this sense, the mythical story does not depend on the invention of the personal or creative imagination, but on transmission and memory” (Vernant 2000).
Of remote origin, a cultural heritage that has been preserved and transformed orally in the millennia, it comes to constitute the cultural memory of a community that shares it, a compendium of homogeneous knowledge and practices known to all, articulated into multiple variants and versions, never definitive and often contradictory, which are defined by contrast with the historical narrative (of which they lack the accuracy) and that maintain an ambiguous relationship with the literary dimension (in the absence of a clear authorial stamp).
A first paradox is that all these stories are known and have become mythology because they were written, that is, distorted, in their being a continuous flow and fixed arbitrarily by the written form, frozen by philology that needed to canonise them. The crystallisation of literature makes it possible to retain every myth and modify it at the same time: for this reason many scholars, above all Claude Lévi-Strauss and Károlyi Kerenyi, think that we should take into account all the possible versions of a mythologem, a term by which its minimum core of recognition is defined.
This is true for the entire legacy of sacred history of ancient populations, for whom we use the notion of myth.
The second paradox is that Greek mythology first, and the Jewish-Christian after, have maintained a privileged relationship with the truth that other mythologies have not been granted. But once the scholar jumps out of the bounds of the “white mythology” of his or her, own tribe (Derrida 1972), in the twentieth century the myth becomes a field of knowledge in which to research the intellectual background of which narration is testimony: traces of the “ideology” are deposited in stories (Dumézil 1982), the conception of the great forces rule the world, mankind, society and make them what they are. Conceptions of the world, of history, of life, that cannot be evaluated in terms of true or false, and that express interests, needs and aspirations of the different social groups. Mythology is than the narrative articulation of a form of thought declined in history, in which social, political, legal, religious and ritual forms meet: a strongly determining thought that acts on an unconscious level and gives meaning to the life of a community.
Third paradox: we do not ever meet the myth, but rather some concrete manifestations of mythology, mythological material – stories, figures, symbols, remains of worship, literary quotations but also theories that explain them. The singular “myth” can be then used at the most to indicate the function that such a cultural object can assume: a unifying factor in the field of collective imagination to interpret, arrange, stabilise, build reality.
Fictions of the myth
The question then is: what is the use of a myth? Knowledge conveyed by language and writing, a form of rationality that is pre-scientific and pre-philosophical, it performs functions of general orientation in space and time. The heritage of the ancient mythological stories had a value of foundation for ancient populations, it allowed to explain in an elementary way the genesis of the world; to recognise common ancestors, heroes who were founders of noble houses, royal families, patrons of local realities. They were stories able to set the place and community in a more complex epic, divine and human at the same time. The network of mythology, in its indistinctness between politics and religion, allowed each individual to build their own identity. It was thus possible a conscious self-recognition in a cosmos, in a population, in a community, in a family, by reference to a shared knowledge and a common history, then further differentiating in accordance with the social role, age and gender.
The functions that the myth plays are simultaneously of theoretical orientation (what we know), practical (how to act) and of cohesion (who we are), that is, they develop social bonds, without which the individual is not such. By virtue of its emotional potential and its ability to communicate the myth provides answers to general questions on reality and shapes the elementary coordinates of the world in which we live. But none of this happens outside of history. Sharing a mythology is (always has been) an instrument of legitimation of power and justification of social stratification. Since ancient times mythos comes with the authority of truth, consolidates otherwise arbitrary self-evidences making them appear obvious and natural (Blumenberg 1991), it indicates “speech, story”, but also “project, machination”, it’s a word that evokes the real and effective elapsed time and has the authority of an anointed past (Jesi 1973).
Every culture operates so as to conceal the arbitrary in its way of life, presenting it as the only one, possible. The elementary state of a culture makes norms, values, institutions, interpretations of the world obvious: it makes them the invisible, transforming them into a necessary order without alternatives. The culture, the ancient as well as the modern, operates based on a double pretence (fictio): first it models men in a certain way, and then it pretends that it is not a construction, but the truth. (Remotti 2000).
So the myth continues to this day, despite the end of “its” time, to present itself as a sacred voice of ulteriority. New meanings of myth and new ways of thinking about it continue to bind people together. But above all, what we call myth should not be thought of as a simple fact, autonomous and self-referential, but as the result of a complex social mechanism that produces culture, that is, a connective structure that guarantees identity. And to do it, it presents itself as true as ever, as the origin, avoiding any question about itself, hiding its artificial, arbitrary and groundless nature.
The technicisation of the myth
The deepest reflection on the myth is bound to the time when the explosion of modernity and mass society gives rise to a new form of mythology, the nationalistic, which shares its language with, propaganda and advertising: from the Great War, to fascism and national socialism, the relationship with the past becomes crucial. The myth became the hub of a culture of the archaic and primitive, vital and pristine, within a short circuit between knowledge and power that sees the intellectuals at the forefront in the service of the triad violence, authority, power (Gewalt in German). “The claim of authenticity, the archaic principle of blood and sacrifice, already has something of the bad faith and the shrewdness of dominion typical of the national renewal that today uses prehistory as advertisement” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1966).
The term “technicised myth” stands to indicate the instrumental processing of images as a means of enchantment to achieve certain goals. Kerenyi (1964) has distinguished it from a “genuine myth”, understood as a force that “grabs and shapes” the archaic man's consciousness: a spontaneous form uninterested in the mind, a sort of constituent, imaginative faculty inside which elements of the reality of a social group are formed. It is concerned with the ancient, it is lost forever and we cannot really know it. On the other hand the “technicised myth” is aimed at achieving specific effects of political action, especially in these times, with the loss of the fundamental connection to the sacred that had been guaranteed for a long time, it raises, then, the problem of reconsolidating forms of legitimisation.
Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, masterful novel of exile and great allegory of the relationship between German culture and Nazism, explicitly address the issue: “in the century of the masses, parliamentary debate had to be completely unsuitable to form a political will […], it was necessary to replace it with a gospel of mythical fictions designed to trigger and put into action the political energies like primitive battle cries. […] The popular myths, or rather myths fabricated, for the masses, would become the vehicle of political movements: fairy tales, fantasies and inventions that need not contain scientific or rational truths contained to inseminate, to determine the life and history, and thus prove themselves dynamic realities”. Here, there’s the twentieth century in a nutshell.
The relationship between knowledge and power is decisive: there is a more or less unconscious cultural sub-layer of European culture, particularly German, who thinks about the myth as the “voice of being” and it turns to it when there is the need find the ideal resources for a world crisis of meaning and legitimacy. Scholars such as Schelling, Bachofen and Nietzsche have contributed, at times unintentionally, to the development of an Dionysian and pagan-like irrationalism, active in the Germany of Wilhem II, for example in the circle of the poet George, and then in the coarse Nazi mythology of Rosenberg and Goebbels. It is therefore within the German area – the history, philosophy and literature – that forms the “myth of mythology”, that in the face of the uncertain origin of myths, it makes the origin of humanity or the nation. A real religio mortis, explicit in the fascist thanatophilia (fascination with death), has been going along with European culture from the moment Schiller placed poetry under the melancholic sign of loss and Nietzsche announced the death of God. Since then large areas of culture are turning to the past as space of death, absence and opacity, as a symbol that can revitalise the pre-modern society, conceived as a golden age compared to modern decadence.
The totalitarian mechanisation, that concerns itself, in addition to right wing movements, also with Stalinism or other experiences with other statements, is the extreme case that shows how propaganda is an artificial and fraudulent mythology able to substitute violence in the early stages of consolidation of a regime. In an ideological construct what is important is not its degree of truth, but the level of integration and homogeneity, and its performance efficiency derives from the immediacy of the symbol and its ability to simplify reality. To mechanise a myth means to reinvent a tradition, starting from a position of power and making use of the device of communication, modulating its rhythm and intensity, counting on the repetition of clichés and on the ability to construct common attitudes with frequency, seduction, pervasiveness. As it happens, in the world of mass communication.
Myth Dynamics and mythological machine
Every culture, irrespective of the content of their mythological narratives, is built in part on the narrative: storytelling has a high performance power, it generates meaning and produces sense. So every society, ancient or modern, involves some form of mythology: the circulation of mythological materials plays a major role in the texturing of the connective structure of a society.
Jan Assmann has developed the concept of “myth dynamics” (Mythomotorik), according to which the myth is a thing of the past, which produces a self-image and hope for targets of action, and has a narrative reference of the past that sheds light on the present and the future. It can play a fundamental role, placing the present under the light of a history that makes it look endowed with meaning, necessary and immutable. Otherwise it can have counterfactual function, evoking, from deficiencies of the present, a heroic past, so as to reveal the gap between “time” and “now”. The present is in this way relativised with respect to a better past and, in a period of oppression and impoverishment, forms of messianism and millenarianism can develop.
The definition of myth is so relevant to its meaning in a given context of reception and political use, responding to the function of forming a self-image and of leading the action in the present: the myth dynamics is the guiding force for a group starting from its needs – and in particular the emergencies that require more meaning. “The myth is not a thing. Anything can become a myth” (Assmann 1997).
More than of myths we shall then speak of a mechanism that generates shared meanings in the form of “mythological materials” acting in the stabilisation of individual and collective identities which are aware of belonging to a group or a society.
Furio Jesi (1973) has defined the “mythological machine” as the device resulting from the intersection of relations of knowledge and power, that makes mythologies and produces forms of knowledge as if they were unquestionable truths. It is structured into functions (the role played in the process of elaboration and reception), mediators (actors in this process) and deposits (the places and the heritage of ideas and images that are conveyed).
The “mythological materials” are the products of the machine in the form of short stories, literary works, documents, monuments: any form of text that can be referred to the function of the machine. But at this point it does not make sense the idea of a genuine myth that would be later mechanised: in the layers of history involved in the life of a textual corpus (orality, writing, canonisation, philological moment) the mythological stories of all time are always at least in part technicised, as the result of economic and social structures and of the need to organise power and establish the law. All narratives have a material life, they live in the reception of history and therefore have an ideological content. Their autonomy is always relative: to have the myths appearing as authentic, not designed and independent from history, is the main goal of every form of power, starting from the political theology of the ancient world and ending with the modern democracies. What is at stake is the very foundation, in a metaphysical sense, of reality.
Hence, we need to redefine the historical path that from the myth would go towards reason and from the sacred towards the profane, recognising that there is no progressive linearity, but the staging of an opposition between mythos and logos that is necessary for the mutual identification and placement. The traditional dimension of the sacred in modernity falls short and appears impossible in front of a relative disenchantment and a transformation of the mythical in two different directions. On one side it can be continuous re-mythification, while on the other it becomes utopistic reference to the future, regulatory of a political act. Hence, social groups, large or small find themselves living immersed in a simplistic mythological dimension that they will call reality; or critical personalities – aware of the importance of myth – coexist with it, with its inevitability, aware of its lack of metaphysical depth, and of its lightness, that shall have the characteristics of an “unfounded foundation”. In other words, the loss of traditional paradigms and the resulting disorientation may signify risk of re-enchantment or possibility of a re-orientation.
In the twentieth century the study of myth becomes analysis of the mythical forms of their production, analysis of the mechanisms of definition of belonging and of the shared practices in globalised societies, starting from the unravelling of the rhetorics of manipulation conveyed by mass and new media. From the reflection on photography, image, illusion of truth and strategies of persuasion, a generation of intellectuals have engaged in a successful series of studies on modern mythopoesis, on mythology as a way of expression and as an on-going process of re-sematisation: since the late fifties Roland Barthes (1994) has shown that indeed anything can become myth, coming to identify forms of mythology in desecrated territories, such as those of advertising, consume, lifestyles. In contemporary societies, new mythologies are all narratives: from comics to genre fiction, from blockbuster films to TV dramas, and to personal symbolic recombination decorating the personal profiles of users of social networks and that redefine their identity through the visualisation of plots and of diversified and intricate textual networks. Such media devices are powerful factors of socialisation that produce information and thought patterns, convey collective representations, approve styles of thought and life, naturalise reality.
The contemporary mythological machine is that of public(itary) imagination: mythologies of everyday life are to be found, for example in the aestheticization and stylistic obsession that accompanies consumption. On the other hand, the very notion of “culture” is used in a mythical way: the debate on cultural relativism and the “clash of civilisations” seem to confirm this. The differences between human groups are sharpened to the point of making individuals disappear and to serve economic policies and global strategies that require public acceptance. However, we forget that cultures are not substances that overdetermine individuals, but typical and ideal descriptions, constantly changing and always, renegotiated (Aime 2004). With globalisation, the movements of identity divestment (transnational political, economic, cultural integration) cause, as a reaction, a closure of an equal and opposite sign that leads to a twist on the practices of identity, understood as the unifying myths and binding rituals to serve political dynamics in need of legitimisation.
Nationalistic Stereotype, anti-Semitic, xenophobic – and more generally, any simplified image of reality – are “Community myths” that provide simplified answers for societies that are in crisis; they cross the distance with continuity, regardless of the political sign on the surface. Fascism, real socialism and religious fundamentalism, but also post-modern democracies – albeit with different degrees of intensity and on contents of very different sign as well – from the point of view of the theory of culture they can operate in the same way in defining with antidemocratic authority ideals models and identity crystallisations (Manea 1995).
In the crucial relationship between myth and politics, defined by the presence of the “grand narratives”, what is at stake is the question of the legitimisation of modern democracies, since, besides the necessary critics of a way of communicating that is mystifying, authoritarian and violent, one that keeps on, lacking is one that may be critical, clear and persuasive at the same time, without being mythological and simply the reverse of the other. Sapiens cannot do without narratives, eminently political events that are able to redefine future scenarios and guarantee the legitimacy of the collective action. On the other hand, as Jesi (2002) wrote, the use of the myth by the political propaganda is “by its very nature a reactionary element”, even when its aims are progressive. If emotion-stimulating subjects are evoked, as mythological images are, critical rationality is thrown out of the game. “How is it possible to induce people to behave in a certain way – thanks to the force exerted by appropriate mythical evocations – and then to get them to a critical attitude towards the mythical motive of the behaviour?”.
Between the sixties and seventies, intellectual critics meditated on the necessary “de-mythicisation” of the politician by proposing, in the wake of Mann, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno, that the artistic discourse was the only possible “genuine” mythic experience, capable of speaking to the community in the “respect for mankind”. The radical de-mythicisation is impossible, since the sole administrative and analytical, rationality does not seem able to overcome the dryness of nihilism, paving the way for unexpected re-enchantments, fundamentalist and dogmatic. The myth must be upheld, deconstructed and humanised without underestimating meanings, images and emotions, that if denied end up feeding conservative and identitarian nostalgia. The unamendable meaning of the myth in the definition of cultural memories and of political identities invokes a possible legitimate use for the definition of the horizons, of the problems and frames of reference: the myth-utopia, narrative that is both reflection to the service of a conscious rationality and responsible. Once again, it comes to supporting the “politicisation of art” vs. the “aestheticization of politics” practised by the right wing – meaning, by this terms, all neo-mythological powers – avoiding falling in the traps generated by the short circuit between myth and power (Nancy 1986; Citton 2010).
This involves thinking about a discursiveness, textual and visual, that articulates ideas and images in sequences and that cools them down compared to the irrational warmth of the myth presented in its organic structure: in other words, we have to create auto-demythicisating narratives in new forms of irony and alienation. The condition not to fall into new fascist, mercantilistic and neo-conservative technicisations seems to lie in the ability to enter the sphere of myth without stopping to reflect, in “waking state” on the emotion that it generates. A new mythos, that is at the same time metacritical of the self and declaration of mistrust towards every myth, antidote of his participating into a fetish for the communities that in it search each other (Wu Ming 2009).
From the crisis of orientation and the need to put together our own scenario with the broken pieces of the previous ones unexpected answers are born every time for the ransom from loneliness, anonymity and poverty of imagination. From a moment of economic crisis, moral and political as the one we are experiencing nowadays, change may unexpectedly arise. The possible mythology, the return of narratives that are able to speak to the community in a progressive sense, must coincide with a light conscious mythopoesis. This comes as an unfounded story, that shows the signs of the author's work and the human dimension of myth, through editing, citation and a practice of writing in which the language exposes the gap between reality and imagination, between the self and the mythical object. This can happen to the extent that the myth is returned to its origin of story that remains at the place of origin of every appearance of phenomena to consciousness. As Philippe Lacoue-Labarth wrote “metaphysical tightrope-walking without a metaphysical parapet. Or if you prefer metaphysical experience that is emptied, pure exposure to nothing”.
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