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 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.
“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!”
“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.