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The Problem With Myths

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Many cultural analysts believe that a culture's myths are the stories that are told containing cultural archetypes, heroic figures, epic confrontations and/or magical occurrences. As represented by such scholars as Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Marie-Louise von Franz, this approach to the study of myth assumes that the various aspects of mythology represent externalizations of internal, psychological processes in humans and by studying the content of myths as archetypal examples we can better understand the stories of our own lives and the assumptions we make about ourselves and our interactions with other people. For them, the archetypal content is the thing.

The term "myth" for French structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has a different meaning. Myths are stories because, in an oral culture, storytelling is the means by which cultural information is transmitted from one person to another and across generations. The mythic heroes and monsters, magical activities, and impossible events are presented because they are memorable; they need to be to preserve the information being transmitted. But it isn't the content of these tales that's important, its the structure.

In his series "Mythologiques", Levi-Strauss has suggested that myths are not important because they present archetypal images; myths are important because they demonstrate an externalization of structure of human thought processes. Levi-Strauss assumes that since we are all members of the same species, that the thought processes of less technologically advanced peoples are the same as our own, just applied to different objects. With our modern sensibilities, we look at the absurdities and inconsistencies of fairy tales and myths and assume we have discovered evidence that "primitive" thought processes are illogical and immature when compared to modern thought. Levi-Strauss suggests that by interpreting the logic of myths, we can understand how the human mind works.

It is also assumed that individual myths that have been passed down to us may be incomplete. In order to understand the "message" we must contrast and compare multiple variants of the same tale. The true message of a myth is revealed when one is familiar with its place in the total cultural context that generated it. The overall structure reveals the true message, and by implication, gives us a window into the structure of our mental processes.

What isn't as apparent is how advertising functions in modern society the same way storytelling functioned for preliterate people. Advertising presents us with of the vast body of examples of our culture's mythology. Advertisements are constantly changing, constantly reflecting current cultural conditions, and self-validating through sales trends. Advertising is generated by many individuals, is often memorable and perhaps most important of all, is inherently multi-media.

Advertisements work over space the way myths work over time. Mythic stories survive over time because they resonate with the population. An individual advertisement may have a much shorter shelf life, but, because it has to be distributed throughout a large population, it must also resonate with a large number of individuals to be effective.

What does advertising tell us? As I noted in a previous article, our collective body of advertising defines what is cultural and what is natural, and offers concise advice on how we can best exist in culture rather than nature. This collective resource, acting as a sort of cultural encyclopedia, performs the same function in our age that the mythic storytelling performed for preliterate cultures. It is by becoming aware of these underlying structures in our most dominant media of communication that we can begin to understand their on importance in our culture.

This sort of approach to the study of the mass media shows that the difference between modern culture and so-called primitive culture is not so great as is supposed, and that human beings at all times tend to concern themselves with the same types of problems, the differences arising from the particular symbols and the particular media used to convey the solutions. The proper way to interpret the mythology of a culture is by understanding its overall structure, not by focusing on the particular content of a tale.

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About Bob

  • Ashtoreth

    You make a very interesting argument, Robert. Well put.

    I do not think that advertising is necessarily malignant, only that it does not constitute myth. I see advertising as a reflection of modern culture’s changes and also driving them, or
    attempting to.

    I think that fashion editorial, as a serialized visual story form of advertising, becomes a kind of dynamic social/cultural theater that may touch on what you were speaking about relative to advertising.

    In this context, social roles which may be viewed as provocative at first, are then looked back on as being vanguard.

    Advertising is necessarily inherent in this. I was looking back through an old visual morgue of mine and came across a picture of an iconic fashion model in an editorial story depicting the real-time generated myth of the iconic New York business woman. A funny thing caught my eye though…

    What was that big brick she was holding to her head?

    Ah yes! It was an ancient (by tech standards)cell phone.

    I laughed out loud. Of course by this image one wanted to not only possess the striking outfit and maybe take the haircut image to your stylist, or study the makeup more closely; but what you really wanted was the intangible… that focus and energy of this modern day Athena which felt like the zeitgeist of the moment.

    The mind selects from suggestions offered and we decide: at this moment, for this season, ‘this is me’.

    Just as the goddess has different aspects, so women have different aspects, moods, fantasies, roles, and fashion and makeup allows for the expression of this.* It is presented to us by advertising both directly (A Revlon ad) and by editorial story context which is more complex.

    At this point, we are the gods and goddesses, as well as the editors. We decide, and in so doing, we have the opportunity to recognize and create ourselves, to spin our own myths, connect to our own chosen archetypes.

    Advertising then becomes a tool in our ability to align ourselves both with the streams of culture and archetypes, which may or may not intersect.

    I liked your book choice on the sacred and the profane, by the way. I would definitely be ‘religious or spiritual woman’ – although the sacred and the profane definitely do intersect, but that is another discussion. 😉

    *I use women as my example here, because they tend to be more attuned to fashion and fashion magazines. I have observed that fashions are mutable and reflect changes in the times, economy, and evolving archetypes.

  • Thank you Duana and Ashtoreth for your comments. You both raise valid objections to my assertions and you point out a key problem with the type of analysis I am attempting.

    I must admit that I am torn regarding the place of advertising in our culture. On one hand, I do believe that, with all the focus groups, psychological analyses and cultural “thefts” advertiser coopt to use regular tools of their craft, they are armed with unique tools to penetrate human consciousness and to master the psychic processes that classical mythology has represented. On the other hand, my personal reaction mirrors yours, Ashtoreth, in abhorrence of the apparent ends of advertising: to make us more pliant; to make us more materialistic; to render us more self-conscious, not about our moral strengths or shortcomings, but about body odor, physical conformity and social acceptance. This is one reason why, when I earned by MBA I chose not to use it to go into advertising.

    However, I think you both may be missing a key point that I’m trying to make. Advertising as technique is separate from advertising as content. Classical myths don’t always teach us how to strive for our higher selves. One could imagine a militaristic, totalitarian society where the mythology promotes violence and genocide. Classical mythology can support the egocentric notion that elevates one society above all others and justifies all kinds of atrocities. Read The Iliad carefully and you will see both men and Gods behave in ways antithetical to our modern sensibilities.

    My purpose in discussing advertising is not to critique its apparent ends, but to reveal the nature of its scope and power. I am an optimist, and I believe that while advertising on one level is despicable, on another level, in spite of themselves, advertisers are performing a necessary function in our culture. Beyond notions of physical afflictions, social inequities and personal conformity, advertising provides hope. Hope that there are solutions to our problems, hope that there is an underlying logic to the buzzing, blooming chaos of our mass culture, hope that human beings can prevail against inimical forces of nature. That these hopes are expressed in the form of deodorants, household cleansers and body paints is lamentable. That the purpose of advertisers in their own minds is to make us pliable, insecure and acquisitive is repulsive. But advertising wouldn’t be effective at all, wouldn’t sometimes be powerful and moving, wouldn’t strike so often a “responsive chord,” if it didn’t provide a necessary structure and narrative for our culture.

    I have also used Joseph Campbell’s notion of the heroic cyclic to understand incidents in my life and put into context my own personal narrative. I am not disputing the brilliance of his analysis, or its usefulness in comprehending the stories we tell ourselves. I think that there is a deeper level to mythology, that for mythic tales to survive at all over time they must correlate to fundamental intellectual processes.

    We can debate whether advertising is benign or malignant. What I am calling attention to is its deeper structure and offering a possible analysis for why it persists in our culture at all.

  • Ashtoreth

    This was an interesting article – and an interesting comment following.

    I do not agree either that modern advertising constitutes myth, nor that the ancients were simple, nor that structure is more important than content.

    Your assertion that advertising, this pseudo myth you name with no sustenance, enables us to live in ‘culture not nature’ makes me think of the folly of Aristotle and other philosophers who strove to separate man from nature and thus further from the philosophies that grounded truth in nature arguing that we are an intrinsic part and its cycles and mysteries.

    Culture is relative and transparent. It can and is transformed, absorbed and washed away. Archetype is not. Myth helps us to deal with the chthonic, when we are dragged into the underworld. An awareness of myth gives us a guideline through the darkness, to embrace it and honor it as a rite of transformation.

    It rather sickens me that you could imagine let alone postulate that advertising even touches that. When I faced brain surgery several years ago, I steadied and prepared myself by meditating on the myth of the Babylonian goddess Inanna descending into the underworld to gain the knowledge of life and death; her descent and her return. Do you think advertising had any part in this?

    To even suggest this is to trivialize life and human existence. It is to suggest a wasteland, an existential nightmare which would be truly meaningless if it were true, but it is not.

    Since the dawn of commerce, people have hawked their wares. That does not make it myth.

    Advertising has more in common with brain washing than myth. And with the advent of viral marketing and fakeadvertising, it becomes even more insideous, deceitful and corrupt in its attempts to override our minds and control our impulses in the direction they want. That is like comparing poison with milk.

    When I saw the picture of the first person to purchase an I-phone on the Internet, I knew it was a creation for viral transmission and reaction. The image played on the heroic, but was devoid of it. It hinted at achievement, but had nothing to do with it. It suggested reaching for the extraordinary and for a moment possessing it, but instead described the utmost banality.

    The lad was set up to look like he was an Olympic runner clearing the finish line at a race, or perhaps the one carrying the torch representing a sacred flame. If it were not so perverse, it would have been funny. Instead, it represented a fellow making a mockery of all this to purchase an over-priced piece of consumer electronics he did not need that is already yesterday’s news.

    Perhaps people like yourself would seek to use the elements of myth and archetype to trigger reactions in people to make them hunger to spend money they do not have, digging themselves into servitude to billion dollar corporations who then turn around and tell them to dream smaller, want less, and go carbon-free while they fill up their private jets.

    Myth opens the door to connection to that which makes us whole, to what is true and sacred, and which allows us to experience the mysteries of life, death and renewal with dignity and inner power.

    Advertising does not do this. Advertising is not myth.

  • duane

    I was with you until you got to the part about advertising. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the basic facts you present, just the sweeping conclusions. You seem to be elevating modern advertising to a level rivaling the oral storytelling culture of the past. I am much too cynical to buy that.

    Advertisers are tasked with tapping the human subconscious at the lowest level. They do not provide us with heroic icons or examples of what is truly “good.” They often attempt to exploit various emotional insecurities to make a buck. It is a deliberate attempt on their part to create a sense that we are, in one way or another, deficient, and that by shelling out our pay, our perceived deficiencies can be eliminated, or at least covered over.

    Successful advertising appeals either to our vanity or to our proclivity for materialism. Images of happy, successful people are presented, which do indeed constitue a trivial form of mythology — slim waistlines, wrinkle-free foreheads, sleek autos, perfectly functioning nuclear families, full heads of hair, six-pack abs, and so on. These ads speak to us at the most superficial level. By creating a myth of what is “good,” we are left feeling inadequate, and break out the checkbook as a means to procure a fix to our insufficent lives. Cynical? Sure.

    So, while I might accept your central premise that modern advertising creates and conveys modern myths, it tends to direct itself primarily to the weaker aspects of human nature, unlike the ancient myths, which attempted to cover the entire spectrum of human psychology and behavior.