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The Myths of Reality

the politics of culture

Bob Trubshaw

myths as deadly serious deep structures

    Myth in the technical sense is a serious object of study, because true myth is by definition deadly serious to its originating environment. In myth are expressed the thought patterns by which a group formulates self-cognition and self-realization, attains self-knowledge and self-confidence, explains its own source and being and that of its surroundings, and sometimes tries to chart its destinies. By myth man has lived, died and – all too often – killed.
    (Puhvel 1987: 2)
Myths are perhaps best regarded less as the contents of consciousness as the deep structures that shape the contents of consciousness (Bennett 1980); see cosmologies as 'deep structures'. Repeated exposure to myths – or merely mythic motifs – rather than conscious learning is responsible for embedding myths into the structure of our consciousnesses.

Such 'deep structures' manifest in the modern world not so much as fully-formed mythical narratives but rather as 'fragmentary references, indirect allusions, watchwords, slogans, visual symbols, echoes in literature, film, songs, public ceremonies, and other forms of everyday situations, often highly condensed and emotionally charged.' (Flood 1996: 84)

political myths

In modern society such mythic fragments are more often aspects of political and scientific ideologies than more overtly religious notions. Indeed, in today's secular world political myth has almost as much authority as sacred myths once had. 'Political myths' and 'sacred myths' have a close affinity, in that they are essentially narrative forms of ideology.

Both religion and politics are dominated by ideologies, which fulfil a variety of functions. We might think of ideologies as those 'structures of thought' which shape and motivate activities. These structures are deeply-enough embedded into the mind that they precede the more conscious acts of thinking and speaking.

    The members of modern societies are bombarded with ideologically marked political messages. The ideological colouring may be more overt, as in the cases of party-political speeches, broadcasts, and advertisements, campaigns by lobbies and political pressure groups, or partisan newspaper editorials, for example. Or it may be less overt. Heads of state claim to speak for the nation as a whole; governmental politicians speak as administrators of departments of state; political analysts put forward arguments which purport to be unbiased; journalists claim merely to be reporting reality; so too do TV documentaries, writings, and teachings of educators, the pronouncements of dignitaries at school ceremonies, preachers of sermons in churches, parents' words to their children – the list could be extended.

    Furthermore, political communication extends beyond verbal discourse. In political rituals and ceremonies verbal sequences can be combined with actions, specific modes of dress, particular locations and settings, and sometimes iconic objects such as banners, as well as music and song. Static visual images, with or without verbal anchorage, have served as ideological vehicles in paintings, drawings, illustrations, posters, and commercial advertisements, as can entire exhibitions or even museums. Clearly, the same is true for the dynamic images in television and film. In modern societies the citizen is constantly offered, or perhaps one should say subjected to, political messages from an immensely prolific and diverse range of sources.
    (Flood 1996: 16–17)

    ... someone who claims not to have an ideology but strongly advocates the freedom of the individual is voicing a part of liberal ideology, even if unwittingly. People may adopt the values embedded in an ideology without knowing our understanding it is a comprehensive doctrine, especially in societies where the existence of ideologies is not officially acknowledged and isolated beliefs appear in everyday political argument without supporting justification which an ideology provides – a procedure which does not facilitate the understanding of politics. While someone who only holds some isolated beliefs cannot be said to be an adherent of an ideology, such beliefs are ideology determined, and we can only escape from one ideology into another.
    (Goodwin 1992: 29)

Ideologies explain and evaluate the present social world and contrast it with 'how the world ought to be'. They become internalised cognitive maps that filter perceptions of social reality. They reduce the ambiguities of reality to clear-cut distinctions. They offer a semblance of security by making reality intelligible and meaningful. Ideology helps construct an individual's sense of identity within this 'social reality'. (Flood 1996: 19)

Political myth is ideology cast in the form of story. Such stories may have many variants. They may form part of a much larger family of myths within a society, and it may have counterparts in other societies. Over time they may evolve significantly.

    Modern political myths, especially those established over long periods of time, will be expressed in many variants, given that no one narration of the story is likely to be absolutely identical to any other. When we allude to the existence of a particular myth, we are referring to what is more or less constant in a number of instances of narrative discourse. In other words, a political myth can be said to exist when accounts of a more or less common sequence of events, involving more or less the same principal actors, subject to more or less the same overall interpretation and implied meaning, circulate within a social group.
    (Flood 1996: 41–2)
The narrative form of myth is distinct from arguments based upon inductive or deductive propositions. Flood suggests that myths reveal 'a way of experiencing the world which is chronologically and phenomenologically prior to the emergence of conceptual reason' (Flood 1996: 27–8, based on Hatab 1990).

The narrative form makes political myths more persuasive. In a profound way myths cannot be refuted. The processes of conscious 'objections' to the underlying ideologies are somehow side-stepped. From within a culture or society myths affirm the values, customs and beliefs of the group, reinforcing the 'bonding' between its members. For the members of such groups such myths have an unquestioned 'truth'. Whether providing a satisfying explanation for the group's origins or reiterating derogatory comparisons with those 'outside' the group, or a multitude of other such functions, myths provide the basis for the distinctions that enable social and personal identity to be asserted. Indeed, the study of myths and folklore is often the basis for formulating such identity, especially at national or ethnic levels.

Nationalism, folklore and mythology

In 1952 Giuseppe Cocchiara argued that the study of folklore has been strongly linked to emergent nationalism throughout Europe since the Renaissance (Cocchiara 1981). By the early nineteenth century the idea of a nation was becoming associated with its people and their 'popular culture' – the idea of the 'folk' had been invented and the notions of 'folklore' and 'folk customs' developed soon after. Initially the emphasis was on poetry – especially epic songs – as being the voice of the people. German, Russian, Swedish, Serbian and Finnish songs were collected and arranged to form epics between 1806 and 1835.

Significantly, interest in national epic poems and the subsequent interest in folklore developed first in Germany, Finland, the Baltic states and Ireland. At the time these countries were ruled over by other nations. Even in Spain, the fashion for popular culture during the late eighteenth century was a way of expressing opposition to the French-led Enlightenment. Anti-French attitudes in Germany also led to less interest in the Enlightenment there too. For a discussion of how this also significantly influenced British folklore (not least the largely-invented notions of Scotland, Wales and Ireland having a shared 'Celtic' culture) see the 'English and the 'Other'.

By the later part of the nineteenth century the study of mythology had developed and this too began to be used to support nationalist agendas. One clear example of how an apparently 'abstract' mythic motif, that of sacred central places, has become intimately implicated in politics is the way that academic interest (while on the surface quite dispassionate) has focussed on one specific example of such sacred centres – the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

The first clear reference to Jerusalem as the centre of the world dates back to the second or third century BCE (Alexander 1987). Over succeeding centuries the symbolism of Jerusalem as the centre of the world became increasingly complex as Judaic, Christian and Islamic claims intertwined.

The desires of the Jewish people to reclaim the Holy Land from both Moslems and Christians reached partial fulfilment in 1947, and its culmination in 1967 with the forcible repossession of the Temple Mount. The consequences can hardly be regarded as harmonious; if Jerusalem is seen as the spiritual heart of three of the world's most important religions then it is a heart that is deeply scared by bigotry and bitterness.

Compared to other examples of mythical sacred centres, Jerusalem and the Holy Land have generated by far the greatest amount of scholarly interest. This is no accident, and confirms that not only is this a place of great interest to those interested in myths and religions, but that scholarship is actively implicated in the processes by which myths and folklore help to validate modern concepts of belonging. (See Explore Mythology for an extended discussion of the Holy Land as a sacred centre.)

Furthermore, the underlying ideologies of some the 'big names' of mid-twentieth mythology are reactionary, right of centre, and favour an idealistic 'lost golden age' over the reality of modern life. Such views are, of course, very much a part of modern life too, whether manifesting as the New Age movement or in long-established right-wing political factions. The study of myths all too often is a thin disguise for political and religious ideologies.

mass media and politics

Much of the culture studied by both cult studs and sociologists can be termed 'mass culture' (the term 'popular culture' is regarded as rather problematical). Such mass culture is greatly influenced by the mass media such as television, 'pop music', lifestyle magazines, and the like. Mass media is undoubtedly intimately linked with multi-national conglomerates and the current political processes that are best described as a hegemony. Studying 'mass culture' means being aware of the way in which mass media operates, including the politics.

Umberto Eco was one of the first to recognise the way the mass media are implicated in political ideologies. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that 'The mass media do not transmit ideologies, they are themselves an ideology.' (Eco 1987: 136). In an essay originally published in 1976 he illsutrated this metaphorically by arguing that the mass media may seem to act as a thermometer but they are actually part of the fuel that keeps the furnace going. (Eco 1987: 91)

Using an example that now seem very dated, Eco recognised:

    Not long ago, if you wanted to seize political power in a country, you had to merely control the army and police. Today it is only in the most backward countries that fascist general, in carrying out a coup d'état, still use tanks. If a country has reached a high level of industrialization the whole scene changes. The day after the fall of Kreushchev, the editors of Pravda, Izvetiia, the heads of the radio and television were replaced; the army wasn't called out. Today a county belongs to the person who controls communications.
    I'm not saying anything new...
    (Eco 1987: 135)

He went to observe that:

    When economic power passes from the hands of those who control the means of production to those who not only control information media but can also control the means of the production, the problem of alienation also alters its meaning.
    (Eco 1987: 135--6)
Since Eco wrote these remarks in the 1980s, world politics have increasingly conformed to this media-controlled scenario.

ideology by omission

Even accepting that the consumers of mass media are capable of creating alternative and oppositional meanings while watching TV programmes or reading newspapers, overall they are bombarded with information which, over time, loses its individual content. What is not discussed, meanings which are not challenged, are overall more significant by their absence than the sum total of what is imparted.

For instance every TV channel offers one or more soaps. Their success relies on acting as 'surrogate families' in an era when 'traditional' (perhaps better thought of as a purely imaginary ideal) family life is rarely encountered. As with all fictionalised dramas ideology is implicit in every action and every aspect of the set. Intentionally or otherwise (and that is a moot point) soaps act as propaganda by the producers for how they consider 'others' should be living. It is not so much a case of 'telling people what to think' but rather 'telling people what to think about'. Soaps are without doubt the most ubiquitous examples of myths in the modern world.

There are a vast number ways of analysing the underlying ideologies of soaps and many have been explored already. Picking up on my comment of a couple of paragraphs back about what is not included as being significant, think how soaps never show people reading books (unless the character is a school pupil). Character A never walks into scene while Character B is sitting quietly reading a novel. If anyone is shown reading, it is a tabloid newspaper. (And, hey, guess which newspapers make headlines out of TV soaps?) Unlike real-life conversations, soap characters never discuss anything they have been reading (or even discuss recent TV programmes – a key component of most real-life chats!). Anything resembling a political topic is taboo; characters never even so much as mention having attended an uncontroversial union meeting. Even more implausible would be characters discussing what they're learning at evening classes or Open University courses. There is no suggestion that the characters are making any attempt at self-improvement. They are depicted as adapting to 'how it is'. They are perfect Thatcherite citizens who accept 'There Is No Alternative'.

This is a fairly shallow analysis of just one minor example of 'ideology by omission' in soaps. But if you think that the ideology of soaps is unrelated to wider mass media ideology, I urge to think again. The tabloid press has long regarded 'major events' on TV soaps as equivalent to real-life news (indeed in the 1980s even the BBC News opened with the shooting of J.R. in Dallas). It also elevates soap actors to celebrity status, arousing their readers' desires to share their wealth, looks, self-esteem, status, 'life style' and so forth. This conforms that the mythologist René Girard's notions of 'mimetic desire' (that is, we desire what we think other people desire) are deeply implicated in the myth-making of routine journalism.

Even the more heavyweight TV news programmes, such as Newsnight, does not look at the semiotics of how things are said, still less at the ideologies underlying the specific stories, still less at how those ideologies are 'narrativised' (i.e. mythologised).

For instance, the semiotics of terrorism are exceptionally fluid. The signifier – the word 'terrorism' – rarely has a permanent association with the signified, who may one day be praised as 'resistance fighters' and a short time later pejoratively deemed to be 'terrorists'. Since '9–11' the semiotics have seemingly been simplified. Terrorists are now those exponents of guerrilla warfare not funded by the CIA. (Projecting this back over the last 40 years has interesting implications, as this (re)definition means that only a minority, mostly the least effectual, of guerrilla warfare has been terrorism. See Chomsky 2000.)

David Graeber has noted another aspect of ideology by ommission:

    Have you noticed how there aren't any new French intellectuals any more? There was a veritable flood in the late '70s and early '80s: Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Kristeva, Lyotard, de Certeau... but there has been almost no one since. Trendy academics and intellectual hipsters have been forced to endlessly recycle theories now 20 or 30 years old, or turn to countries like Italy or even Slovenia for dazzling meta-theory.

    There are a lot of reasons for this. One has to do with politics in France itself, where there has been a concerted effort on the part of media elites to replace real intellectuals with American-style empty-headed pundits.
    David Graeber Give it away

Indeed the 1970s and 80s essays by Eco cited above were also originally published in mainstream Italian newspapers and magazines, although the content of these too has been 'dumbed down'.

There is a vast amount of online and offline discussion about how mass media 'transmits' specific ideologies. See Noam Chomsky's Necessary Illusions: Thought control in democratic societies (1989). Also John Fiske's 'TV: re-situating the popular in the people' for a far more sophisticated cultural studies approach to the mass media, and his assessment of Theodor Adorno's pioneering approaches to the influence of mass media. Read Adorno's own article from 1944 on The Culture Industry and his 1991 'reconsideration'.

This article is merely a brief attempt to provoke further discussion of what might be dubbed 'cultural studies' approaches to politics, augmented by an awareness of mythology (especially in the sense of 'ideology + narrative'). Please email comments to start a discussion about this article (please remember to clearly indicate which article you are commenting on!). Your email address will not be disclosed to any other persons or organisations.


bibliographical references

ALEXANDER, Philip S., 1987, Jerusalem as the omphalos of the world: on the history of a geographical concept', Judaism, 46, 147–59.
BENNETT, W. Lance, 1980, 'Myth, ritual and political control', Journal of Communication, 30, 166–79.
CHOMSKY, Noam, 2000, Rogue states. the rule of force in world affairs Pluto.
COCCHIARA, Giuseppe, 1981, The History of Folklore in Europe, Institute for the Study of Human Issues (1st publ. in 1952 as Storia del folklore in Europa Editore oringhieri, Turin; 2nd edn 1971).
ECO, Umberto, 1987, Travels in Hyper-reality, Picador.
FLOOD, Christopher G., 1996, Political myth: A theoretical introduction, Garland.
GOODWIN, Barbara, 1992, Using Political Ideas, 3rd edn, John Wiley.
HATAB, Lawrence J., 1990, Myth and Philosophy: A contest of truths, Open Court.
PUHVEL, Jaan, 1987, Comparative Mythology, John Hopkins UP.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003

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