Mythmaking, World Creation and the Problem of Freedom: Curtains Within Curtains
In the chapter entitled “Myth” in Guide to the Study of Religion, Russell McCutcheon outlines how there have been many definitions surrounding the term myth but that these can more or less be classified under the following two categories: widely shared (but false) beliefs, and fictional stories told to explain common (but mysterious) everyday occurrences. (190) These classifications of myth carry modernist judgments with them, assuming that there is a “reality-as-it-is” which myths are misrepresenting and, as a result of being simply incorrect, are relatively innocuous. However, as McCutcheon aptly points out, myth is much more suspicious than is first perceived and in fact, is in the business of manufacturing realities. It is not simply a fairy tale of old, but rather, a deliberate tool of dominant powers – “a master signifier that authorizes and reproduces a specific worldview.” (192) However, I want push this idea a little further by postulating that mythmaking is actually an innately human act; that there is no realities behind these realities; that mythmaking is not a method by which we interact with the world, but the method. That this results in the production of insular knowledge by which power is gained is provocative for its implications about human nature, whether or not power is the intended consequence of this process. By breaking down the process of mythmaking or storytelling, I will show that people cannot help but mythmake, and that the byproduct of this activity is power, authority and dominance through the dictating of a worldview. What future hypotheses about it must then address are the possible reasons for this power-fueling mechanism. Rather than sounding conspiratorial, I wish to end on an optimistic note by pursuing an avenue that McCutcheon left untouched – the work of Michel Foucault, who argued that economies of significance can lead to the development of the disciplines, on which mythmaking heavily relies, thereby consolidating power and making the mythology invisible and interior to the individual who then self-polices. However pessimistic this sounds, there is, within Foucauldian discourse, the possibility of shifting worldviews derived of competing mythologies. I will explore this possibility by meditating on the Foucauldian concept of freedom.
If we accept McCutcheon’s premise that myth is something ordinary, as a technique or strategy that is a process rather than a static noun, what is gained in our understanding about how and why people make myths? Firstly, myths are neither special nor sacred. Secondly, they are an ordinary rhetorical device freely used to legitimize one’s self image. (200) In a different way, McCutcheon has arrived at the same point as anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Harvey Whitehouse who use cognitive science to see myth or religiosity as ordinary activities of the human imagination and memory, respectively. Myths are a subset of storytelling which is a further subset of both imagination and memory. Neither of these, I would like to point out, are functions unique to mythmaking or religion but rather, in the words of Thomas Lawson in his essay called “Cognition,” “whatever it takes to explain how minds work generally will be sufficient to explain how religious minds work.” (Guide79)
Crafting stories, as it were, is something deeply human. I am not one to make universalizing statements lightly, but it is unlikely that we are able to imagine a way in which we do not automatically tell ourselves stories every minute of the day. Part of this hinges on a very broad definition of what a story is and is also grounded in how the mind functions. In writing the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant was one of the most prominent philosophers to point this out. Our faculties of sensibility are mired in space and time, and as such, we perceive things to happen in terms of cause-and-effect or sequentially. It might not be the way the world (or reality-as-it-is) actually works, but we can never have knowledge of this “true” reality. Thus, every reality is a reality-for-me, inherently subjective, finessed by a mind that necessarily operates in linear-temporal-spatial terms. We can have the perception of similarity or ascribe similarity to others, but the knowledge of true sameness is as unknowable as the elusive noumena. A lot of this likely has something to do with the overload of sensory stimuli which our brain is designed to filter down to the most essential points of reference and construct a story about from the first moment of perception. Even before we have formulated thoughts in terms of language, we are already developing a narrative about what is happening around us in order to comprehend it, in all of its diverse magnitude. These stories might vary according to our interpretation of it, but they remain stories all the same. (Guthrie 237) Things come to the fore, other things stay behind. Some memories are imprinted, others are not. Thus, storytelling and, by extension, mythmaking are things we just do. In this way, myth is no longer defined by the contents of its narrative, nor as a genre. As McCutcheon points out, myths are better understood “as a technique or strategy” (199), an “active process” to achieve some end, whether or not that end is fully foreseeable or conscious.
What are myths in the business of doing? What ends are achieved by mythmaking? According to McCutcheon, with whom I am in agreement, myths are in the business of “making particular and contingent worldviews appear ubiquitous and absolute.” (205) Authority, dominance and power are obtained by dictating and maintaining a particular worldview through mythology because mythology implies the creation of knowledge, even if this process of creation is nearly invisible. Where McCutcheon does not go far enough is in theorizing about why striving for power through knowledge happens at all: is there some social, political or ultimately biological reason for this? Is power an evolutionary necessity for humankind? McCutcheon would have benefited greatly by taking his argument to its endpoint, something that could have been facilitated by engaging with the work of Foucault. I appreciate that this is a short essay on myth in general in a rather large volume; however, the implications of knowledge and world creation through mythologizing as a precursor to power are issues widely explored by Foucauldian followers and the conclusions they reach have major implications for how we understand and engage with religion as a concept, if we can at all.
If we accept that power (free from negative or positive connotations but denoting relationality) is derived from mythmaking and, by extension, world-building, there are two questions that are crucial for exploration: how does myth achieve this? And if the generation of power through myth is a necessary activity of humankind, where does freedom lay? If we follow a Foucauldian line of thinking, it would seem obvious that myth achieves power through the diffusion of disciplines throughout a particular society. In “Modes of Religiosity,” Harvey Whitehouse offers a similar process as that described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish but in cognitive science terms. In examining the doctrinal mode of religiosity, methods outlined of frequent repetition, the consolidation of authority in key figures, the tempering of that authority through the consensus of the mass – all reek of panopticonic disciplinary systems at work. In religious rituals specifically (how bodies move through particular places at particular times in carefully contrived ways) are designed to “reduce the chances that [followers] will reflect on the meaning of what they are doing.”(Whitehouse 300) When reflection does spontaneously occur, it is controlled by the doctrinal/disciplinary system that allows innovation only “ to originate from authoritative sources and is accepted/observed by all loyal followers”(301) – arguably those ascribing to, invested in, or indoctrinated by the particular worldview generated by a particular mythology which perpetuates itself as universal.
If, as established, mythmaking is the most natural human activity because of how perception works, then worldviews are continuously being generated by subjective agents. Grouping or collectivity can occur (at least the perception of it where the idea of similar interests prevail) and often does, but ultimately multiple worldviews are simultaneously being generated and contesting one another, each trying to assert its generative power above the others for fear of extinction or, in the jargon of Whitehouse, forgetting and the forfeit of authority. Where convergences occur and are accepted by a group, a collective worldview takes hold. If we follow the line of thinking of Michel de Certeau and understand belief to be transactional or reliant on the beliefs of others to guarantee our beliefs, then worldviews are nothing more than human myths accepted by the group because the group accepts it.(What We Do When We Believe) It would seem that the more people that buy into a belief, the more likely it is to become a collective worldview. However, historically speaking, the most successful campaigns for world-building need only to create the illusion of a community of belief before the believers ascribe to a certain system, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the illusion. The terms used by Foucault are knowledge (which we can interchange with belief as it carries less ontological or empirical connotations) and power.
Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations. (Discipline and Punish, 27)
The most overt campaigns are recognizable as propaganda; the most effective are subsumed societally like the disciplines described by Foucault.
The question remains: How do we resist? What does freedom look like in a system of intersecting myths, beliefs, and worldviews? In Discipline and Punish, Foucault addresses the issue of cumulative power usurping freedom because of a feed-forward method, that “by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process.” While some might call this repression (as the opposite of freedom), Foucault was careful to point out that the real danger of the system is not in being oppressed by the social order but being carefully fabricated in it. To resist this, it is crucial to remember what constitutes freedom for Foucault:
Freedom is an art, not a state, of not being governed quite so much. It is a practice that is never assured by the institutions and laws that intended to serve it… One will know that freedom is alive not when the interests emerging in society are allowed to express themselves, be represented and pursued, not even when dissent and heresy are allowed to manifest themselves, but when contestation, unruliness, intractability are not yet abolished. (Prozorov, 33)
In this way, freedom is not a state to be achieved through resistance; resistance is constitutive of freedom itself. If we return to Whitehouse’s Modes of Religiosity, the role of the imagistic mode is crucial to understanding this “biopower”. Whitehouse argues that high arousal is the antithesis to “autopilot” and induces spontaneous reflection – something carefully controlled by the doctrinal mode. Some might argue that the sustenance of high arousal at levels of high frequency is not possible through the natural brain mechanism of habituation. As Whitehouse ignores the possibility of this construction, naturally, I find it the most provocative. The high frequency, high arousal modes could be the perpetual, purposeful resistance of the imposed will of the doctrinal mode – habituation of which can be avoided by the sufficient use of change. It implies self-awareness and in this self-awareness, the deconstruction of the transactional beliefs by virtue of “lifting the curtain” , so to speak, on the transaction. What is revealed beneath the curtain are more curtains. Reality behind the curtain will never be found. It is in the perpetual lifting that freedom is found. Psychologically speaking, based on Whitehouse’s descriptions of the high arousal modes, it would seem that this level of arousal, experienced at high levels of frequency might look something like psychosis – fitting very well with Foucault’s meditations on the place of madness and divergent sexuality in the societal form.
As this reading analysis has gone far beyond the requirements, I will regrettably end there. As it stands, memory and narrative are the basic facets of human cognition and how we interact with and interpret the world around us. This results in the formation of beliefs and myths that rely on a transactional relationship with others to be self-perpetuating and world-building. Freedom is possible in the Foucauldian sense. What remains to be explored is the process of resistance or change through the senses and the body (Asad) and whether or not resistance is necessary. I am of the (perhaps premature) mindset that fabrication of the individual is not necessarily equal to causing harm, for where harm can be chosen, so too can benefit be chosen.
Referenced and Cited Sources
Bloch, Maurice. “Why Religion is Nothing Special but is Central,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2008), 2055-2061.
de Certeau, Michel. “What We Do When we Believe.” On Signs. Ed. Marshall Blonsky. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. Pp. 129-202.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books: New York. 1977.
Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. “Projection” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.
Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. James Ellington, trans. Hackett Publishing, 2001.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Particia Kitcher, ed. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers,1998.
Lawson, Thomas. “Cognition” Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.
McCutcheon, Russell. “Myth” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.
Prozorov, Sergei. Foucault, Freedom and Sovereignty. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 2007.
Whitehouse, Harvey. “Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Sociopolitical Dynamics of Religion,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 14 (2002), 293-315.
 Much multidisciplinary, academic literature has described memory (the stuff which myths and narratives are made of) as called upon to provide a usable past (Zamora), as inherently contested because of the subjectivity of perception(Confino, Calhoun), as a habit related to societal hierarchies and the maintenance of power (Connerton), and as an instrument (Lowenthal). The relationship between individual, collective memory and narrative construction are so closely intertwined as to be virtually indecipherable. Scholars who argue for understanding narrative as a basic tool of human consciousness include Bruner, White, Scholes and Kellogg, Schafer, and Ricouer. Alasdiar MacIntyre is another source which argues for the omnipresence and importance of narrative in human activity. James Wertsch has famously written: “we are storytelling animals.” (Voices of Collective Remembering, 2002)