Saturday, July 28, 2007

Comments Re: The Problem of Myths

Some reactions to my recent post concerning the similarities between myth and advertising, with my response below:

Duane writes:

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.

and Ashtoreth writes:

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 fake advertising, 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.

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” advertisers coopt to use as 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.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Problem With Myths

The problem that continually arises when trying to properly interpret a culture's mythology is the definition of the word "myth."

As used by Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Marie-Louise von Franz and others, a culture's myths are the stories that are told containing cultural archetypes, heroic figures, epic confrontations and/or magical occurrences. 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 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.

The term "myth" for 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 memorable because they need to be to preserve the information being transmitted. 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.

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 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. By interpreting the logic of myths, we can understand how the 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. That's why saying that the Superman myth, for example, is the basis for all of our culture's archetypes is misleading. Superman(1948) is not Superman(1960) or even Superman(2007). If you doubt this, I direct your attention to the site for an alternative interpretation of the Superman myth.

The reason I focus in on advertising is because of the vast body of examples advertising supplies. Advertisements are constantly changing, constantly reflecting current cultural conditions, and self-validating through sales trends.

It may be possible to arrive at valid conclusions concerning our culture using just the five Harry Potter movies or the Superman series. However, the possibility for individual influence on the "message" is far greater with artistic control centralized in one person or a small group than in a much broader body of work.

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 to be effective.

Where Have I Been?

I'd like to be able to say that I gave up my super powers and have been off at my Fortress of Solitude these last few weeks with Lois Lane as a way of explaining the absence of posting on this site.

Or, I could say that I have been hard at work on my long awaited, much anticipated paper on Marshall McLuhan and Claude Levi-Strauss, otherwise known as Claude Levi-Strauss's contribution to Media Ecology.

Or perhaps I am demonstrating pure McLuhanism by eliminating any content so you can appreciate the medium of blogging itself.

The truth is that family and work-related matters have completely occupied my time and I just haven't been able to keep this blog going. I'm off to a conference next week, and then a business trip the week after, so I doubt that my contribution rate will increase in any meaningful way until mid August.

Of course, the muse may speak to me at any moment and something will show up. So, for those of you faithful readers who check this blog regularly, (hi Mom!), hang in there. I'll be back.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Culture vs. Nature: Women and Advertising in the New Media

As the new media liberate traditional advertising, women may want to reevaluate their roles.

It may seem that economic factors and competition from new media are forcing advertisers to reevaluate how to get their messages across; to engage in product placement and other tricks to penetrate the clutter. In fact this is just the tail wagging the dog. It has always been inevitable that the "content" what we call "ads" would move from the confines of the 15 or 30 seconds spaces between the old content presented by traditional electronic media or the column inches of traditional print media to become involved in every aspect of our lives. Advertising in general wrestles with the same types of concerns that structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss discerned in the mythology of "primitive" South American Indians. That is, in a context relevant to our modern sensibilities, ads are really dealing with an opposition between nature and culture. In doing so, they provide structure to our lives, disseminate guidelines for how to look and feel, and mandate what rituals to perform to be fully human.

Think about how the average person in Homeric Greece related to The Iliad or The Odyssey. These performance/poems weren't just the "literature" of Greek culture, separate from the general experience. As Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan and others have pointed out, The Iliad and The Odyssey constituted cultural how-to manuals, presenting the proper ways for Greek men and women to conduct ceremonies, the proper relationship of Greeks toward their gods and the proper things to believe about just about everything in their world. Claude Lévi-Strauss added that such cultural encyclopedias reconcile or deny the inevitable contradictions within a culture. By doing so, they promote well-being and peace of mind of the members of the culture.

We still can't see that modern advertising, in all its manifestations, performs the same functions in our modern culture that The Iliad and The Odyssey performed in ancient Greece, or that the tales about frogs and honey bees and jaguars performed for native South Americans. In doing so, advertising explains and reconciles the contradictions that must inevitably exist in the lexicon of a complex culture, or deny that those contradictions exist. To help better grasp this concept, I’d like to ask the following question: Why do women in our culture wear makeup?

One response is that our culture still distinguishes men from women along a culture/nature opposition. The religious and scientific stories of our culture tell us that as human beings we are outside or above the constraints of the natural world. At the same time we come into this world through childbirth, we get sick, we age and die, we suffer from various bodily afflictions. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

Lévi-Strauss cites an instance where an anthropological field investigator asks his native informant why his people apply so many tattoos to their bodies. "Because we are not animals" is the reply. They complete the transition from nature to culture, they make themselves cultural beings rather than natural ones, via tattoos and the fact that they are not within nature makes them want to do so. The implication is that they distinguish themselves from the natural order by decorating their skin.

What I am suggesting is that when women apply makeup they are doing the same thing. They are making themselves into cultural beings. By applying a corporate (meaning collective) mask, women tap into a source of collective power. Men don't need to wear makeup because they are, by definition, already cultural. Of course, much advertising operates along this borderline, and because both men and women buy their products, advertisers pitch to both sexes. Ads say “If you have a problem with a bodily function (i.e. nature) we have a cultural product that can help.”

This also applies to sexual attraction. In order to attract a mate both men and women have to look sharp by applying proper grooming aids, and smell sharp by applying proper perfumes, but women must go much further. They must color and condition their hair. They must paint their eyes, their lips and their faces. They must remove hair from inappropriate places on their bodies. Ads never discuss (beyond the obvious sexual claims) why they must do this, only how.

What is an advertisement in a new media web site? Is it presenting a narrative, like television advertising, or is it evoking a response through a still image, like print advertising? The answer is probably both and neither. Banner ads on a web site try to be TV commercials or they try to be print ads and yet they aren’t really either. This is a prime illustration of Marshall McLuhan's assertion that we are numb to the true impact of our media. By shifting the communication paradigm, the new media allow advertising myths to burst out of the confines of the traditional media. While the new media sorts itself out, the advertising of the old media breaks out and becomes the content of our everyday lives. As the mythic avatars of our culture, advertising icons want to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives, and we subconsciously want them to do so.

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 Homeric epics performed in classical Greece. The new media are taking our existing cultural encyclopedia and transforming it into a wikipedia. How this transformation affects our social institutions, our belief structures and our notions concerning gender remains to be seen.