Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Recovering Our Mythos: An Open Letter to All of Us

Lately, I’ve been plagued by a seemingly simple question: How can I offer meaningful (and concise) explanations of the world to my 18-month-old daughter? What do I say when she encounters something new, and wants to know what it Cave paintings, Magura Cave means? And when I say ‘mean’, I mean both kinds of meaning.

From the earliest stages of consciousness we are curious about the collectively determined signs associated with objects and events. But there is more to meaning than signs. Meaning also refers to the ontological determination of our collective.

Interestingly enough, there is not actually that much distance between the nuance in meaning.

The questions:

“What is rain?” And, “To what do I belong?” both emerge unconsciously from the iterative exchange that exists between self and other. Because we are self-reflective creatures, we do not merely participate in the exchange; we are also burdened by, and are serendipitously aware of it.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that what I wanted for my daughter was something that I wanted for myself as well. This opened up a host of other questions that had been burning to get out…questions that in the multifarious discourse of post-modernity had seemed tired and cliché.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, my daughter gave me permission to go there. And, like Theseus, in order to survive the labyrinth, I need some new narrative threads…and plenty of them. In other words, I think it’s time for us to recover a mythos that is both contemporary (taking into account the current iteration between us and the world) and timeless. After all, when my daughter  ends up experiencing the trauma of inequality, I can’t just hand her a copy of Das Capital and say “figure it out.”

The beauty of myth, is that once we venture into its realm, we become aware of a host of other questions that thrive there.

Questions like: What is a human being? What is life? What is death? What do I value? Where did I come from? Where am I going? And, in terms of an ethic based on the answers to these questions, how do my values iterate with the values held by my social circle? with those beyond my circle?

Friends, let me clarify by saying that I have no doubt we have a mythos. I have no doubt that it guides our decision making, or that it enables us to operate within the context of our values. But when I go to look for it, there’s nothing there. When I reach for a simple explanation, for an image which is bound to the larger symbolic matrix of our existential reality, I come away with half formed ideas and cumbersome circumlocutions. And, on their own, these have utterly failed to help me answer the big questions in life:

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? To what/whom do I belong?

These questions have driven me to distraction, they’ve stolen hours of sleep (though Netflix watch instantly might have contributed to that as well), and they’ve left me mostly speechless. If the agenda of post-critical thought was to increase discourse to the point of nonsense (in an effort to undermine the presupposition that language itself was inherently coherent), it worked. And if this is some sort of unintended Zen treatment for the western condition, then on the other side of nonsense is silence, and on the other side of that silence is wisdom. (This is my unfounded hope)

But for me, in the day-to-day practicality of my existence, if there has been a particular anxiety that has floated to the surface these last few years, it is voicelessness. Lacking a myth, I’ve cycled through the various voices which have been made available me to help in the decoding process.

1. Psychoanalysis: It seems that the world has become a deconstructed symbolic matrix of former totems, which neither the king’s horses, nor the king’s men can re-assemble (glass-half-empty)

2. Heidegger’s Ontology: We have revealed Dasein into near oblivion, and are waiting for the flash of Dasein that comes as a salvation from our Enframed posture towards the world (glass-half-full)

3. Baudrillard: We are living in the desert of the hyperreal, and are effectively cut off from our symbolic matrix (there-is-no-glass)

Insightful? Yes. Helpful? Sometimes. But more often than not, in my post-college, post-graduate school life, I’ve just had to become accustomed to living in the tensions of a fractured meta-narrative (how best to be in trouble…thanks Butler). I picked up short-hand to help navigate the gaping holes in my existential map of the world.

“Differance this,” and “performativity that.”

“Baudrillard’s hyperreal FTW!”

“Capitalism, WTF?!?!”

“Help me Rhonda, I really need a little Heidegger before I upset my Pomme-Descartes.”

But really, I was just using irony to avoid the specter of meaninglessness. I was joking about the destruction of my (and our collective) meta-narrative, because there was nothing else I could say when faced with the reality of it. At the very least, it helped me laugh when I felt like crying.

So, where do we go from here? In all likelihood, “Uncovering Our Mythos” would probably have been a better title for this blog. It’s my firm belief that myth isn’t something we generate for ourselves in some arbitrary fashion. I’m not interested merely in new stories. Stories abound. They’re everywhere. “Tell a story with it…” is the buzz phrase of the year. Everyone from data geeks to marketers, and politicians to salespersons are burying their discourse in so much context, there’s not really much discourse left. Our cultural exchange has degraded to the place where we’re primarily concerned with the interface of packaging. This opens up a space where the juxtaposition of context has replaced discourse.

This is true ideologically; it’s also true practically. We’re tracked as demographical segments by corporations, governments, and research institutions. The tragedy is that our ontology is taking on the characteristics of demographical segments. More and more we seem to exist as data, rather than Dasein.

We should see red flags everywhere. In a world where I can’t prove my existence without the proper paperwork, and I can’t get the proper paperwork without the proper paperwork, what form does my essential self take? I’m not just tossing around words. It feels to me like we have migrated fully into Rilke’s prophetic elegies where “the things we live by have fallen away, replaced by an act without its symbol.”

So how do we get our symbol back? How do we recover the things we live by that have fallen away?

Meta-narrative is dead. I’m on board with that, even if it’s depressing. But if arbitrary narrative doesn’t cut it (as we discovered in the populist movement of ‘indie’ culture where the mundane became noteworthy, song-worthy, and film-worthy, where we no longer related to any story but our own private narrative), where do we go from here? How do we organize ourselves around our values? How do we even begin to recognize what we value?

That’s where you come in. That’s the point at which we decide to gather in the labyrinth with the threads we have, and (re)generate a new mythos.

This is where I get a little hokey, but I’d encourage you to come along for the ride. I think our new mythos emerges like a great improv scene. We carry myth in us. And in the right moments, when there is enough collective gravity, myth grows out of our (collective) existential situation like an apple tree (grows) apples, or like the earth (grows) peoples. (Thanks Alan Watts)

The new mythos is already here. It’s simply a matter of weaving our threads together. In other words, the recovery of our mythos is just a matter of speaking it to one another. It’s a matter of recovering our voice. It’s a matter of putting trust in what emerges from that collective utterance.

We’ve been through the silence. I think it’s time to push forward into wisdom.

6 Comments

  1. Lately I’ve definitely been appreciating the act of breaking certain silences and engaging in discourse. So thanks for another chance! I currently have several threads to bring to the conversation, but no large pattern.

    Thread 1: a couple of quotes from The Postmodern Condition by Lyotard, from whence came this idea that postmodernism is defined by incredulity towards meta-narratives (published 20 years ago; my own translation).

    “It [the narrative function] disperses itself in clouds of narrative language elements, but also denotative [elements], prescriptive, descriptive, etc, each carrying with it sui generis pragmatic valences. Each of us lives at the crossroads of many of these. We don’t necessarily form stable language combinations, and the properties of those we form aren’t necessarily communicable” (8).

    “A politic is taking shape in which the desire for justice and that of the unknown will be equally respected” (108).

    Apologies if these are convoluted out of context. What I like about the first is that it takes the idea that we live in a world of competing local-narratives and frames it within the context of competing language games, which are not necessarily commensurable. Part of the point is that we are all situated at the crossroads of multiple discourses and narrative elements that don’t necessarily form stable combinations. Here is the heart of one strand of pomo thought: our identities are discursively formed, with discourse broadly defined as the entire landscape of signs that we inhabit. The landscape has shifted. Is in a state of flux and multiplicity. Therefore, so are we.

    Do I fully agree with this? No. I think we limit ourselves if we confine our discourse to discourse. But I throw it out there to 1) more fully name one strand of thought that influences my thinking and 2) because I think there is a lot to it.

    I like the second quote because I find myself desiring both a respect for the unknown–the avoidance of hegemony, colonialism, fascism, etc–and on the flip, a justice which isn’t mute.

    Thread 2: the whole death of God, death of meta-narrative bit is not true for many people. Many many people. It is hard to escape globalization. It is hard to escape the other. But it is also hard to escape Islam. It is hard to escape Christianity. In short, many are embracing meta-narratives that European critical theorists pronounced dead. Does this matter? Yes. I think it does if we want to recognize what the situation of millions of others that live on our planet.

    Thread 3: this is probably the most important to me, but I have to go! Briefly, often the way my existential angst gets resolved has less to do with “figuring it out” and more to do with basic shifts in my life rhythm: sleep, food, work, relationships. Not trying to draw artificial delineations. In fact, I think this goes to your right to your point, as some of the most significant shifts in my state of mind come from which TV shows I choose to watch. I am in a much better frame of mind after watching Colbert, than after watching Brothers & Sisters. Whatevs. Gotta Go.

  2. This is a quest(ion) I’ve been struggling with as well, and I’m glad you’ve articulated it here. I think you’re at the heart of it when you ask how we begin to recognize what we value.

    Whenever I seek an answer regarding this issue, I tend to land–over and over again–on one question: “what do I value?” Sometimes I’m tempted to go further and ask “why do I value what I value?” But, in all honesty, the “why” doesn’t seem to matter in the end. I just keep coming back to the “what?” Not only “What to I value?” but “what am I going to do about it?” In order for this struggle to produce anything meaningful, It seems like it needs to, at some point, be taken out of the realm of language and into the realm of action. I’d love to have more conversations with my friends specifically about what we value and what we’re actually going to do about it–and then turn those conversations into actions.

  3. This one has been simmering in my mind.

    I keep coming back to the lyrics from Helplessness Blues (I know, I know, we all have it on heavy rotation).

    “I was raised up believin’
    I was somehow unique
    like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes
    unique in each way you can see

    And now after some thinkin’
    I’d say I’d rather be
    a functioning cog in some great machinery
    serving something beyond me.”

    I think we are shaking off the liberal experiment, moving past gross individualism. It’s going slowly, sure. As Robin Pecknold croons, “But I don’t know what that will be. I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see.”

    Besides these lyrics, I have only moments and practices to point to as answers, as it were. These moments typically have a couple of things in common: they are done in the company of others, they somehow involve my physical body (or, at least, some sort of full presence, use or awareness of my body) and they are often done for their own sake.

    I’m beginning to loathe telos as guiding principle. I was gardening Sunday and I realized that I was meticulously raking rows and planting strawberries just to do it. Sure, if I get fruit I’ll be happy. But, I was in the sun and dirty and I couldn’t stop. I might not get fruit; I honestly don’t care, because, as our patron saint says, “If I had an orchard, I’d work ’till I’m sore.”

  4. Re: willwindow

    First, kudos on the translation. Second, what really sticks with me is the last line from the first quote: “We don’t necessarily form stable language combinations, and the properties of those we form aren’t necessarily communicable.”

    No, we don’t form stable language combinations, if by stable we mean that our language truly grasps the subtleties of being. But communication can’t be boiled down to language proper. Collectively held myth is embedded in a cultural infrastructure. This is something that I think the existentialists got terribly wrong. If you accept that existence precedes essence, then you have already abandoned the referential totality of being, without which there can be no meaning. They miss the true genius of Heidegger’s point: Existence is Essence.

    So, what am I getting at? Namely this–that perhaps the important bits of speaking our myth to one another are in the infrastructure of it: presence, community, the repetition of ideas…. This infrastructure creates the space for a collective identity to emerge. Within this identity, we stabilize our communication, precisely because communication is no longer wholly dependent on the differance-ness of language. To put it simply, we don’t just talk about it. We name it, and live with fidelity to it. (Reluctantly, Badiou FTW)

    Re: popupstorybook

    Thank you for bringing up action. Paraphrasing my response to willwindow, if all we do is talk, we’re perpetuating the anxiety that drives us to speak out in the first place. I know what action looks like for me, at least in simple forms: eating and drinking with the people I love, taking adventures with them, diving into the quotidien with them. The key to all of the above is the corporate-ness of those actions. I should also say that action is where I struggle the most. It’s easy for me to fall into the rut of just talking.

    I’m curious, what does action look like for you? (This is a shout out to all you readers)

    Re: timhaydock

    It’s funny that you pick one of the lyrics on that album that have been giving me fits. I find myself uncomfortable with the cog metaphor, even though I’m sympathetic with your sentiment about the liberal experiment. I know it’s getting into fine nuance, but I’d be more comfortable with a caught-in-the-competitive-symbiosis metaphor, or a like-a-mitochondria-in-a-cell simile. Of course, that breaks the nice rhyme scheme, but I think you catch my drift. The chaotic exchange of life doesn’t fit the whole cog-in-the-machinery metaphor.

    Why does this give me fits? The machinery motif hearkens back to the meta-narrative stuff. Now, I’m not suggesting that we have the power, nor am I suggesting that we should try to replace old meta-narratives (largely because they’ve collapsed, or are collapsing under their own weight), but we do have the power to generate our own myth from our shared gravity. There is no “some great machinery,” and yet meaning can emerge when we engage in a collective exchange.

  5. This really has my voltron up (in a good way):

    “. . . perhaps the important bits of speaking our myth to one another are in the infrastructure of it: presence, community, the repetition of ideas . . . existence is essence.”

    What I like about this notion is that it gels with my experience of finding contentment in quotidian adventures. So, for instance, this morning I took a walk with rekonstruct and we talked philosophy. What was so satisfying about this was not merely the philosophical discourse as an abstraction. It was the grounded-ness, the embodiment of the discourse–the the walking, the espresso, and the discourse qua vehicle for connection and imagination.

    That said, I would like to push back a little with regards to the delineation between cultural infrastructure and language. Actually let’s start next door with the difference between language and the subtlety of being. Here I would like to follow you in evoking the obscurantiste terroriste himself.

    Two points.

    1. First, I don’t think we can deny the physicality of the sign. It’s not as if language exists in some alternate non-physical reality. There may be a parallax here, but a parallax is still a mobius strip.
    2. Second, since you gave me kudos for translating Lyotard, here’s a Derrida translation from the essay La Structure, Le Signe, et Le Jeu: “The play is is always a play of absence and presence, but if one wants to think it more radically, one must think it before the alternative of presence and absence; one must think being as presence or absence from the possibility of play and not the inverse” (E&D 426).

    There are so many directions I want to go with this quote, all of them deliciously unfaithful. But I will confine myself to saying that I want my philosophy to be a proletariat on the street and a bourgeois in the bed. I want to simplify the rhythm of my daily life. Garden, writing, food, friends. I do want my philosophy to follow (or to lead). But there is a part of me that delights, nay demands, a hermeneutic of suspicion. This brings me full circle back to a desire to respect the unknown. To guard against totalization. At the same time, I recognize the limits of this approach.

    That’s all the time I have. Looking forward to more!

  6. What does action look like for me? That’s where this whole thing becomes tricky for me. For a number of reasons, but I’ll mention two. First, I, as well, don’t know if I believe it’s possible to escape the old meta-narratives. If they have collapsed for us, they certainly haven’t collapsed for many many other people. We are still surrounded by them. Not only that, but but I don’t know if those meta-narratives will ever fully leave our psyches, because in many ways they are the reason we are where we are. They are ingrained so deep partly because I’ve acted so much on and within them. It’s difficult to think of meaningful actions to take without somehow inviting the old meta-narratives along for the ride. Second, I’m not convinced anymore that we can generate our own myth simply from our shared gravity. I don’t know if it works that way. I’ve bean eating and drinking with people I love, taking adventures with them, and diving into the quotidien with them my whole life. Still waiting for something resembling mythos to emerge.