What Is A Modern Myth?

Why all this talk of myths? What even are they? 

It may seem that the word “myth” has lost its meaning to us as a psychological or spiritual term. No, the situation is more drastic than that. Myth has become the opposite of fact, 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 have shaped our cultural history. It is neatly overlooked that myths remain at the center of the bloody stage of modern religious, national, economic or ideological dynamics, not to mention our personal and everyday lives. "Is Myth Dead?" Weaponized.

The myths of the past, it is commonly held, were erroneous explanations for the way that the world is—fanciful stories, which, though colorful and interesting curiosities, surely bear no particular use to our modern lives. This interpretation mistakes the thing for its function. As was later re-discovered by an expansive list of scholars and authors, including Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Karly Kerenyi, etc. etc., these myths do not principally explain the world. They explain our place within it. Thus, it is not a singular, universal and static truth that myths represent, but instead a personal as well as shared, cultural one.

It is now generally accepted that mythology once served a central role in human life, up until the time when science and industry somehow stole away or otherwise replaced our myths. This is the central thesis of Bataille's The Absence of Myth. The belief in this absence itself serves as a myth, which allows us to establish a place within history for ourselves.

Here we see another role myth might serve: it defines who we are, and defines where we are in time, what role we serve, and what the nature of that role should be. They are ideas, but they feed back directly into the material world—the myths of Nations, of Gods and Kings, have had a direct effect not only on human history—the genetic and ecological future is shaped by such phantasms.

Can they still be said to be “not real”? Nothing could be more real than the dreams that shape our lives, or the stories we use to peel back the inscrutable void.

To an actor, the central question is often “What is my motivation?” The myth underlies our motive, intuitively informing our judgments and actions in the world. At least, myth gives our motive a voice. In this way, myths act through us even when we are unconscious of them. As Carl Jung repeatedly demonstrated, this is quite often the case.

They may be encoded in any medium, but the defining characteristic of myth is its psychological function. When looking at stories, movies, or any other form of media, we must once again ask: what qualifies as a myth? Myth is difficult to explain in a top down manner: it is not merely a story, for some stories are myths while others are not. It is not merely the beliefs of people retold in stories or other media, because here again retold beliefs can be devoid of mythic resonance.

We might begin by looking at how we define anything. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gave us a broadly illustrative example of how meaning is derived from language through a case of “family resemblance.”

Sisters and brothers, mothers and daughters, and so on, can all share certain traits, not others, and yet be considered part of the same family. This, he proposed, was the essential nature of linguistic definition. Without this concept, we cannot properly define a game, for by any static qualifier certain activities which all of us consider games would be ruled out. This concept of “definition” contradicts any kind of essentialism. The Aristotelian logic where a thing is either A or not-A may be useful in mathematics, but it doesn't accurately model how we actually understand the world around us.

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This same kind of fuzzy logic can help us identify elements of myth at work within the diverse industries, mediums, and personal narratives of the world today. Granting these complexities, we have a better chance of understanding how myths actually function in the world.
We may use myths to explore why something is the way it is, or what we are to do with it, but a given myth remains just an interface. It is through us, through embodiment and direct interaction, that it is made immanent. There is no transcendent realm beyond the symbols, and in themselves, symbols are empty shells. ... Coming world conflicts will be driven by ideological forces along cultural fault lines. In other words, by our ideas about ourselves, others, and the nature of the world we live in. Ideas are not just ideas, when they take hold of us.  The Immanence Of Myth (Weaponized press)

Suddenly these fanciful stories are anything but “coffeeshop talk.” Modern myth is on the lips, minds, and knife-points of those in the midst of active revolution, as well as those working in media. In fact, all that is represented, all that we could form an opinion on as we form an opinion on it, is in that process entering the realm of myth. Doubly so when it is presented back into the world through discourse of any kind.

This is the perspective of myth from the cultural level. Clearly, there are different scales on which myth can be approached. Let's start, then, with ourselves. 
We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power (See: crisis, financial; war, Iraq). As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Ironically, one thing many people “know” about this quote is that it was first uttered by Mark Twain or Will Rogers—which just ain’t so.) Confident Idiots
How can we understand personal myth? I've taken to this example, because so many have experienced it: you meet someone and fall straight through the floor. You fall in love. Which means, you share a story with someone else. You are co-writers. Co-editors. And one of the preconditions of the plot is, “you’re in love.” That isn’t to underrate the reality of that experience at that time. Not at all. It is real. Real as any other emotions is real. Dangerous as any wild animal. But it is still a story, and our relation with one another depends a great deal on the stories we tell ourselves and one another.

This story is a growing, organic thing, a shared myth about your lives together. Some of it is just in the expectation they’ll be there tomorrow, or other day-to-day assumptions. Other myths might help define your shared future. You scope out houses, or fawn at the mysterious plants growing in someone’s front yard. Anecdotes, shared memories remembered as if you are the same being, dreams, trinkets representing your shared history …

It may seem like your meeting could have been foretold in the stars because of its raw necessity. Falling in love is a deeply mythic process. Maybe that is why there are so many myths about it.

But sometimes things go wrong. Quite often. Whatever it is. They break your trust, however you define that, they run off and join the circus. Or, you suddenly look around, look at the script, and just go, “I can’t believe I listened to my agent with this.”

Whatever the reason, the bubble pops.

Maybe the relationship is strong enough to stick to the story after the two of you fight for a while about plot structure. But if not, our stories become too incompatible. Now you have yours, and they have theirs.

This is your new myth. To hell with the old book. It was a mistake, they are “a total asshole.” Now you have to call your friends and tell them the new story. Share it on Facebook. Re-enforce it in your music listening habits. THAT LYING SON OF A BITCH. Turn the music up.

Have you ever stopped and looked behind what you’re doing? If so, I imagine you may have experienced something interesting, as I have. The force of these narratives is so strong that you can be aware of the wizard behind the curtain, and still be subject to his capricious whims. For better or worse, we are trapped inside our stories, a hall of mirrors that only death frees us from. (Or not.)

But suppose you don’t see behind these games we play with ourselves, and one another.
After the breakup, you go on thinking this posthumously written myth is the “true” myth. The most recent story is often the most appealing one. Maybe we’re all just obsessed with The New.

Take a breath. I want you to think about an ex-, and then recall yourself in the story you shared with them, before it all went to shit. Reify that story just for a moment, and pretend all your premises at that point in time were true. If you do it right, you’ll either feel nauseous and dizzy, or like the linebacker from the Rams just sucker punched you in the kidney. 

But all our stories about one another are — at one time or another, in one way or another — equally true.

Hard to swallow, isn’t it? We’re all constantly changing our stories, re-prioritizing or even wholly inventing our memories. We re-write our past like this, and we do it so constantly that it is absolutely unimaginable that a sense of our history is anything other than a series of overlapping myths. Our experience is a palimpsest—that is it is scraped only partially clean and used again and again.
A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again. The word “palimpsest” comes through Latin from Greek παλιν + ψαω = (palin “again” + psao “I scrape”), and meant "scraped (clean and used) again.”
There are many more esoteric ways of explaining what a myth is but this is the most direct. 

Consider this except from a New Scientist article:
“We are our narratives” has become a popular slogan. “We” refers to our selves, in the full-blooded person-constituting sense. “Narratives” refers to the stories we tell about our selves and our exploits in settings as trivial as cocktail parties and as serious as intimate discussions with loved ones. We express some in speech. Others we tell silently to ourselves, in that constant little inner voice. The full collection of one's internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold.
State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our “selves” through narrative. Based on a half-century's research on “split-brain” patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain's left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret - that is, narrate - behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.
Narratives are simply myths that have not gained “mythic resonance.” That is, they haven't yet grown from the power of collective belief. But fundamentally, they are made of the same stuff. Stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell one another. It's a part of the process through which we come to know anything, because we have to make assumptions and make a story of things to understand them and understand our place in them.

Narrative and myths plays the principal role in our lives, both from the inside out (sense- and identity-making), from the outside in (narratives place ourselves in relation to one another, conceptualizing the structure and nature of the outside world), and they are also self perpetuating (narratives as pedagogical or even mimetic device).

This cannot be emphasized enough. The entirety of our lives that don't arise through independent natural processes are story. Even natural processes can only be understood when they're brought into relation through narrative. It's the catch 22 of self awareness. We can agree or disagree about whether a given narrative is good or bad, accurate or not, but this is in a sense adding a layer, not cutting down to some underlying truth. This is why the metaphor I so frequently refer back to for the self is the palimpsest.

We can never hope to somehow clear away or sidestep the mythic process. Certainly there is a truth, but like the elephant in the Jainist proverb, when we explore we define. We can only get closer to the truth by learning the tricks we can all play on ourselves, and developing a kind of heightened sense of curious skepticism.

If we have any doubt about the centrality of narrative in our extended, communal, and personal lives, one need only turn on the news or witness how, without changing ones own behavior, another may change their story from how amazing and wonderful you are to how awful and villainous. What has changed in this case except their internal narrative? The levels and dimensions of this process are quite simply endless, and try as we might to extricate ourselves, it is our investment in one particular narrative over another that defines belief.

From all this, allow me a moment's conjecture, which we will explore and demonstrate throughout the posts and books that come out of this project. Modern myths are, quite plainly, alive. At least to the extent we are, because myth is our mirror. They represent not only our ideas about ourselves and the world around us, nor our beliefs of the same, but also and probably more distressingly, exist at that juncture that lies between these things, and which defy our plain view. Not quite pure fantasy, rarely easily understood as an objective or material force.
Myth is living because we are ever-changing and transitory. In other words, we are living, and myth too is living. It is a part of us, our mirror. It is like the moon in relation to the sun — without the sun, the moon would cast no light, but in the presence of the sun, it appears to have a light of its own. The Immanence of Myth. 
So, understanding that personal, national, cultural, spiritual myths all operate the same at different scales, at least structurally, we can see that modern mythology is not a topic relegated to one discipline, but is instead an open discussion that could benefit as much from exploration of cognitive psychology as it can from the analysis of literary symbol or the direct experience of a shamanic ritual.

In all cases, the operative word is literary. The Modern mythology project seems to be based on this single premise: that we can gain a more complete picture of the human puzzle by looking at it as we look at fictional stories. This is not science. That doesn’t make it less legitimate.

Considered in this light, myth is a crucial issue to explore, as it has relevance in regard to most imaginable disciplines of study. I hope it leads us to new ideas and questions which none of us would have formulated on our own. This is a group endeavor and benefits the most from the interaction of minds in the commons.

This site isn't just about personal myths. We look at media of all types, all of which are a sort of public, personal myth. But we believe you have to understand the fundamental nature of narrative in our life, its primacy, to have any sense of the meaning of either public or private myth. 

We hope you enjoy. 


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