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The idea of Myth, can be taken not only as an archaeological reservoir of magic Greek tales, but also as a current way of thinking. Accordingly, the origin of the word Myth comes from Mythus, which in ancient Greek -where Mythology originate- means just telling stories. But the myth scenario is beyond a real account of facts, because the myth leads to synthesizing the options available, in view to resume existent options. As Levi-Strauss (Levi-Strauss, 1966) pointed out, a myth can be thought of as an instinct of knowledge that tries to find certainties by simplifying existing or non-existent possibilities from similar situations. The myth then becomes a cause and effect from where the person disposes of the illusion of reading what will happen next.

Recalling the connection between myths and stories, it is interesting to find common denominators among different forms of stories. We can see that cartoons for children, a wrestling activity or a pornographic movie can basically have the same structure and communicate something in common; for example, a character’s transformation from unhappy to happy from some action that he or she dares to take. In fact, “the story is the period of delay between the setting of the enigma and the solution” (Cowie, 1996: 55).

Within this context, we could wonder: why do Little Red Riding Hood exist? One answer could come from Todorov (Todorov, 1990). He found that the text of Little Red Riding Hood would function as a myth through which we could explain to a little girl the dangers of walking alone through the woods and where the Wolf would become the danger of the degenerate that might be lying in ambush for this child in the shadows of her path. Thus, the story is a mechanism by means of which the society starts to explain -even to its newest members- how to react in the face of the dangers that this new member may have to face during his or her future life, and it does so through a supposedly innocent story, which nevertheless encompasses -like every myth- what may happen and what could be done accordingly within the limits of what is considered politically correct for that society.

Similarly, why does an adolescent watch a movie such as Dracula? May be because of the fear that she has in advance of the possibility of being kissed on her neck and turned into someone savage that belongs to the world of instincts, lust, blood and passion. Besides, to be able to think that if she lets herself to be possessed by that person who is older than her and who just wants to bite her, she will be taking the risk of losing everything she has and everything she is. This all happens according to a message that the society, in this case the Victorian society that wrote the tale, establishes as a parameters for her fears.

What is it that makes football powerful? It is the engendering of events from one event, which would mean representing different confronting myths. It is a never-ending movie which is all the same governed by certain representation rules where significations collide. To serve as an example, Argentina versus England, where the tumultuous and, at times, irresponsible and disrespectful aspect of the hierarchies (think of Maradona, for instance), of the need to be more, collides with the right for the traditions, with the pride of being what one is, and with England’s history. The latter was something once expressed through the war, but is now expressed through football. Then, what we are bestowing on this passive sport activity is the possibility of finding the answer to the worldwide society’s future, even if only through the symbolic fantasy of a draw, in spite of the fact that this draw corresponds only to a mental game.
These are questions that could be answered by saying that it is the whole cultural production that has the function of socially expressing future possibilities of action on the part of the people involved in that society. As Adorno says, it seems that every human being finds its prototype in stories (Adorno, 1999).

In this way, the search for certainties through myths’ scrutiny involves all aspects of social life, showing us possible results even in religious or political life spheres. Let’s take as an example the Powerpuff girls -that can be considered a Frankenstein variation- where one can observe these three girls created by a scientist mixing inanimate components, similar to the ones used in Frankenstein but with a more positive result. The effect of these created characters represents, on the one hand, the women’s role in the present era, where they play a central role holding powers like any traditional male hero, thus stimulating the current female prominence. However, on the other hand, it also helps to imagine that these women, role models in the communities where the cartoon is shown, are still white western women of who, as it happens, fight against an enemy named Mojo jojo. This enemy is represented under the figure of a “monkey” that wears an Arab hat. The figure of this humanized monkey can be understood as coming from his habitat, the third world. That is to say, this human monkey can be African, Asian or Latin-American. This fact, added to his Arab, Muslim or Asian hat, narrows the character’s characterization, aimed at the idea of what is different, of what a white community considers ‘the other’. Therefore, the specifics of this plot are that the Powerpuff girls, who basically protect the society from someone who wants to destroy it, defend the city from another danger represented by the Asian monkey’s figure, defining, with this innocent role play, the good and the evil, the one that wants to destroy and the one that does not want destruction, the normal and the abnormal, setting from the cartoon’s influence a hegemonic reading (Laclau-Mouffe, 1985) of who is who in the viewers’ society.

As a balance, on the one hand, the myth can be considered an educational resource that integrates individuals in socially organized behaviours. On the other hand, we could go beyond this, thinking that the myth’s presence functions only to activate or record discourses that are already inside the individual; that is to say, the roads or paths through which one can penetrate this magic or mythical logic of believing that what is being narrated may actually happen. Thus one will obtain the same result as in the tale.

Consequently, to fragment the reader, who responds with one of the multiple faces they use to present themselves in society, they can react or respond in his or her role of being a father or a mother, a citizen, a transgressor, a sportsman or an intellectual. However, this is always in relation to this something that defines their supposed condition of difference in the face of the others and which triggers the issue of the myth.

That is to say, the myth moves the viewer who finds themselves with his or her identity and his or her prejudices related to the issue. It is a relation that involves the person’s individual processes of construction, as well as the collective identifications. As Laclau noted, an identity’s constitution is always based on excluding something and establishing a violent hierarchy between the two remaining poles (Laclau, 1985).

© Sebastian Guerrini, 2009

One comment to “Myth, images and power”

  1. Michael Maciel |

    Your article prompted these thoughts:

    In the Riddle of the Sphinx, the question is posed, “Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three.” The answer is said to be, “Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then walks with a cane in old age.” At first, this seems only a lesson in mortality, humility in the face of human fate. But the flipside of the story – in the way that it transcends the mortal side of existence and addresses that which is immortal – it becomes a lesson in the evolution of consciousness. Four legs represents the instinctual/intellectual mind that only accepts what it can make sense of: “It is only real if I can understand it.” Two legs represents the mind that can grasp the cause and effect relationship of things, the reflective consciousness: “If I can conceive of it, it is possible,” – the speculative mind. Three legs represents the mind capable of observing itself. As with a cane, it can steady itself – it is free from the capitulations of thought, the consciousness of perspective. The sociological benefits of myths are merely the answer to a riddle; their true value lies in a much larger domain.

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