Friday, September 5, 2008

The Problem With Myths

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 yesterday's post, 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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