MySpace, Storytelling and the New Magnification of the World
The Web as an indispensable socializing vehicle,
the marketing assault, the new consumer products
and the politicians’ shift towards emotional discourse
are all symptoms of the changes shaking our societies,
grown mistrustful of words and reason.
Postmodernism has ended all grand narratives,
leaving our contemporaries with an insatiable thirst
for stories that give meaning to life,
and a shared collective self-image that rebels against
the iconoclastic, rationalist Judeo-Christian one.
Jan Koenot, sj
We’re facing the expansion of diverse cultures whose contemporary specificity resides more in their intersection than in the content of their own different universes. I’ll limit myself to a reflection on some cultural features dominant in the Western world.
I understand culture to mean the set of means a society uses to construct and manage what is real to it. I imagine it as a complex organism that unfolds to become an economic, socio-political and symbolic organization. Symbolism is the realm of representations—myths, rites, images, religion and ideology—through which a large community of people becomes aware of its existence, develops an identity and awards its members the sensation of belonging to a shared reality. A culture’s symbolic universe is not the mere reflection of society’s economic and socio-political organization, but also helps create, structure and orient it.
MySpace and the new socializingYoung people today never knew the world without computers, internet and mobile phones. For their predecessors, these new technologies represent an addition to traditional media and don’t have a profound affect on their way of being or relating. For the Web generation, on the other hand, these new instruments play a primordial role in constructing their personality and social relations. For them the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) is completely natural. They create blogs, sign up on networks and fabricate virtual “social capital.”
Certain spaces, such as MySpace and Facebook, are specifically intended as social networks where young people can upload their profile and exchange it with others, although curious or anxious adults also sign up on these spaces for reasons other than to find out what world their children are living in. Other spaces, such as Second Life, offer cybernauts the possibility of transforming themselves and throwing themselves into all sorts of adventures. Through a virtual alter ego one can risk new experiences, dare to start relationships, make dreams come true. Stories are told in MySpace or Facebook whereas one takes part in them in Second Life. In both cases life is expressed as a narrative.
These media unquestionably transform the way children and teenagers discover the world, develop an identity and construct their life of relationships. The individual’s entire socializing information, their integration into society, is referential. These new socializing techniques have obvious advantages: they make it easier to form relationships; they offer shy or introverted young people “self-help” experiences by using indirect means of expressing themselves (blogs), of dialogue (forums, chat rooms) or of alter egos (avatars). There are also educational uses such as Twinning, created in Europe for the purpose of exchanging language learning courses from different countries.
Nonetheless, the dangers are clear: without realizing, teenagers and children can be exploited in relationships, sometimes sexual ones, by older or unscrupulous people. The barrier between virtual reality and life can dissolve and the transition from one realm to another can prove unfortunate: the girl who agrees to a meeting with a ‘friend’ she met on internet, the contact between a young man and a girl who didn’t reveal she was a minor, suicide pacts sealed on an internet social network…
The computer screen can exert an addictive fascination and virtual sociability can be detrimental to real life encounters, creating cyber-dependence. It can also damage young people’s concentration, required for electronic correspondence or mobile phone calls and text messages. Both the desire to be popular, putting photos or videos on the Web, and the anxiety about others’ reactions to them can generate a lot of pressure and lead either to thrills or disappointment.
Brand imageA second area that reveals currents profoundly stirring up our societies is the supply of material goods promoted by advertising. Ever since advertising invaded newspapers and magazines and later television, it’s had a dual role: to weight a product’s qualities in order to sell it and to encourage a life style in which this product finds a “natural” niche. Critical thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse have tried to make us aware of the artificial needs created by the consumer society to keep the economy dynamic. But their critical analysis hasn’t been very successful. Man isn’t a creature of nature but of culture. In other words, he brings himself into being through the objects, social customs and ideas he creates. This makes it hard to separate “natural” from “artificial” needs.
For example, the telephone is an artificial object that answers a natural communication need. But advertising doesn’t just hype a possible answer to a particular need; it creates the symbol of a way of life. Madison Ave. grasped this in the eighties, with the development of the brand image concept. As Naomi Klein tells us in her book No Logo, prosperous businesses must produce brands more than merchandise
If at one time a brand’s prestige came from the quality of a product made in a well-known and reputable factory, now the opposite is true: a brand’s image gives its products prestige, never mind how or where they were made. The big brand names create a logo with a strong image and bring into play values such as freedom, beauty, seduction, a sporting spirit, strength, lightness, femininity, masculinity, etc. Rather than just being necessary objects, banal consumer goods are fictitiously associated with images that have pull or attraction, created by a desire for being, which causes an emotional link.
The art of the brand storyIn the nineties marketing detected the “usury” of brands. Their image wasn’t enough to inspire confidence in consumers whose behavior became increasingly inconsistent and unpredictable in a changing universe. Some brands took a knock when it was revealed that unacceptable social realities—appalling labor conditions, for instance—lurked behind their lovely image. This was when marketing theorists discovered the irresistible force of the narrative. Bad news should be countered with good stories. To re-launch the brands they had to be associated with specific stories.
The company promotes a “narrative identity” where the effectiveness of a multi-element narration is synthesized in a few minutes: product type, story and image, customer service, environmental concern and life style, as well as a dose of magic and mystery. In this rapid-fire combination of factors playing in different registers, the public can recognize circumstances, aspirations and even contradictions or paradoxes in daily life.
People don’t buy products; they buy the stories those products represent, says Ashraf Ramzy, quoted by Christian Salmon in his study Storytelling, which was an inspiration to me. The art of the brand story is in engaging the consumer in a collective story, stirring emotions, provoking the feeling of having a role in the saga, communing with symbols, forming part of a myth. Brands give voice to a fictitious narrative, “a world staged and developed by ‘experiential marketing’ agencies whose ambition is neither to respond to needs nor create them but to make world visions converge.”
It’s about introducing a product into the story—whether real or imagined—of our lives. One very profitable tactic is placement: making consumers familiar with a product by clearly displaying it in a television series for the general public. This tactic is becoming ever more widely used in the United States and Europe.
The political spectacle: Stories to win hearts A similar development is noticeable in the political universe, where there’s been a move away from rational discourse to the emotional register. Political parties once tried to gain people’s acceptance with a well argued social project and political program. Nowadays they communicate emotions to win hearts. Here, too, storytelling triumphs: nothing touches hearts better than a story.
You have only to think of recent election campaigns in the United States or France. In 2004, “Ashley’s Story,” a one-minute spot based on an unscripted moment between the President and a deeply despairing 15-year-old who lost her mother in the September 11 attacks, contributed hugely to George Bush’s re-election. In the clip, Ashley Faulkner and a family friend tell her story; Ashley is shown being presented to the President following a rally in Ohio; he hugs her with what one news article called an “unusually empathetic look on his face”; she bursts into tears, buries her face in his chest and afterwards feels completely consoled. Her father concludes: “What I saw was what I want to see in the heart and soul of the man who sits in the highest elected office in our country.”
Christian Salmon analyzes the clip’s undoubted effectiveness as based on the rapid splicing together of a series of short testimonies that sustain the story’s coherence and credibility, while the President, the central figure, doesn’t present a program or put forward a single idea, in fact he doesn’t speak at all. As Salmon describes it, he is just serenity and goodness, the mediator of a sort of miracle, as in the lives of the saints or evangelical preaching. This clip is on YouTube. At US$6.5 million it was the most costly in the presidential campaign and blanketed swing states during the last month. It was broadcast thirty thousand times on local networks as part of a media operation that included distributing leaflets and sending millions of letters. The day after the elections the Democrats acknowledged the cause of their defeat: the Republicans “tell stories” while we “recite litanies.”
An electoral campaign is a story made up of intrigues and updates that engrave the candidate’s life on that of the nation. That’s why presidential candidates seek advice from storytelling management experts.
Members of the Boston Consulting Group, world leaders in strategic consulting, were invited to France in 2006 to prepare Nicolas Sarkozy’s electoral campaign. In the United States politicians no longer surround themselves with communications experts, as in Reagan’s era, but with story spinners who help turn the message into simple and emotive tales that captivate the public better. This tendency leads to staging and dramatizing political meetings and the appearances of heads of state or government officials on television. It shows the profile of a charismatic leader who is naturally appealing, rather than that of a technocrat concerned with convincing arguments. The speeches are aimed at collective passions and spectacle replaces political debate.
The turn to narrative: What can we conclude from these examples about young people’s socializing, marketing and politics? That our contemporaries have an unquenchable thirst for telling and listening to little stories. Tales keep audiences glued to their seats. All societies have created epics, myths and legends to explain their origins and shape their identity, but post¬modernism, our own era’s brand name, has been described as the end of all great narratives: the founding texts of religious, metaphysical and ideological traditions have lost their power to convince because logos itself (the overarching rational concepts, ideas, religious, philosophical or ideological principles of those traditions) has been discredited.
Faith moves mountains and needs stories
Diverse factors converged to bring this about. Let’s remember the development of the positivist scientific spirit, the philosophies of doubt (Marx, Nietzsche and others), critical exegesis, the failure of political ideologies (communism and fascism) and, in particular, two other factors. The first is Freudianism, which redefines the human being from the rational animal of tradition into a creature of impulse, and the second is the trauma caused by the concentration camps and annihilation of the Jews. All of this has shaped our civilization’s subconscious.
The result is a loss of confidence in human words and reasoning. If Western civilization was built on the logos of Greek philosophy and the Word of Christian revelation, postmodernism moves our culture from the realm of logos to that of pathos. Faced with the absence of a great founding epic that can make sense of life and guide human action, our era seeks to give coherence to life’s contradictory and irresolvable aspects.
In order to navigate amidst the “chaos of fragmented knowledge,” legitimate behavior and calm psychological tensions remarkably connected to precariousness, people produce stories (on internet) or depend on gurus (managers, politicians, entertainment stars, cult leaders) who triumph thanks to their stories.
People don’t want information, writes Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, a best seller on storytelling. People want to believe in you, in your goals and your successes, in the story you tell them. What moves mountains is faith, not facts. Facts are not the source of faith. Faith needs a story to sustain it, a significant, believable story that gives people faith in you.
The state of our era’s spirit In our time we’ve moved from the age of reason to the age of emotions, although we still retain confidence in scientific rationale to solve practical problems. For instance, the advances in medicine are spectacular. There’s no doubt about the relevance of medical science or informatics knowledge. But science doesn’t provide any answers when dealing with more profound questions about existence, our origin and destiny, our sentimental relationships, life and death, good and evil. So on incontrovertible issues to do with the human condition, we experience intense emotions that well up unexpectedly from the core of experience.
If we lack words to observe and work with these experiences, we still have a great need for images and myths that express our emotions. According to Francis George Steiner, the influential European-born American literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, translator, and educator, the fall of logos brings with it a rupture between word and world, a still present tendency evident at least since the beginning of the 20th century. What was born in erudite and artistic circles has become common currency. These days we see how the collective self-image portrayed by the media is filled with icons and new mythologies given the void created between the world and how we represent it, verbally or theoretically, and within ourselves, caught between scientific rationality and our deepest emotions.
Yesterday: Homo sapiensIn his recent book Iconologies: Nos idol@ tries postmodernes, the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli takes an amusing look at these icons and new contemporary myths: the return of Dionysus, the search for the holy grail, Houellebecq, Google.fr, Loft Stories, MySpace, Harry Potter, “Sarkolène,” Zidane…
Today: Homo ludens and homo demens
Written with relish and without critical distance, the book accurately reflects the state of our era’s spirit; or rather, the state of the image our society has of itself and the one created by the media and entertainment. Without sharing all the author’s visions, which he affirms rather than analyzes, I’m inspired by his descriptions because they seem so pertinent.
According to Maffesoli, our culture has replaced the rational ideal with an “idolatrous environment”: an expression the author doesn’t intend as pejorative. Unlike History, he claims, which is founded on itself and has Sense and Truth with capital letters, mythology is no more than a series of episodes which in their maximum expression contain precise and in every case ephemeral truth. They are short stories ripe for the telling.
The contemporary icons and little myths that flood our screens put us in touch with our often diffuse, sometimes secret or discomfiting desires, and help “turn our existence around.” Life’s chiaroscuro—both the positive forces and “the devil’s part,” the shadowy depths—radiates from them.
The “classic” Homo sapiens style that seeks dominion by separating body from spirit, nature from culture, I from the other and subjective feeling from objective truth is replaced by the “baroque” of homo ludens and homo demens, where tact lacks life’s itch and puts passion’s disorder, the play of dreams, the variation of elemental forces, the fusion of opposites to the test. Taking a rational distance—saying “no to life” according to the Nietzschean analysis of Socratic man—gives way to a plunge into vital exuberance, saying “yes to life.”
Twelve facets of contemporary cultureConsistent with his book’s content, Maffesoli doesn’t shrink from systematic analysis of the postmodern spirit, which is a sort of rational control. Rather as the chapters proceed he unravels multiple facets using contemporary icons as a starting point, dealing with them in alphabetical order.
I emphasize some of the ones I believe are typical of our time and deserve analysis.
Nomadic postmodernism. Rather than focusing on a well defined identity (psychic, professional, ideological) or stable social relations and firmly held convictions (religious, political, ideological), the choice is mobility, change, renovation, a plural identity, a both tenuous and more intense social link, a multiple life, a game of masks.
Relativism of values. The “absolute” becomes relative: all idealistic projects are cast into doubt, everything taken seriously is made fun of and the pious images of the past are laughed at. Things that were considered opposites are seen as related: good and evil, happiness and misfortune are indivisible.
Being cool. The ideal of being in command of oneself; the voluntary, political, militant and rational give way to serenity, disinterestedness, letting things go, assurance, an affectionate and joyful attitude, clearly manifested in current fashion.
Dionysian present. There’s no sense of delayed gratification. Without religion to induce worldly contempt, without an ideal, utopian, eschatological vision that orients one towards the future, the desire is to live in the present and enjoy the here and now of the world as it is.
The cult of the body. Tattoos, piercing and other ways of marking the body are signs of belonging. The body is experienced very securely as the seat of both vital instinct and the libido which, as Carl Gustav Jung shows, isn’t just sexual but the fount of all psychic energy and the base, after the night of the times, of all group being. This body, with its both human and animal vitality, its moods, primal urges and occasionally monstrous facets, has to be celebrated, made to vibrate in collective exaltation: concerts, raves, meetings of religious sects… We underscore that the nature of the encounter (music, dance, sports, religious cult or political rally) is a pretext for the desire to vibrate together, to feel “the fundamental reliance” that makes us belong and commune with the group, nature and the whole universe.
The law of the brothers instead of the law of the father. The vertical authority of the father (earthly or heavenly) who lays down the law and prohibits is replaced by the horizontal authority of the brothers (Big Brother) who “tolerate everything” and initiate one into life. In the universe of young people this can be perceived in “peer communication,” but it also exists in the world of adults in the figure of the coach who replaces the authority of the boss, the expert, the master thinker or the director of conscience. This change is linked to the next two.
The lure of initiation. This replaces the weight of education, the careful pedagogy of leading the child from barbarity to civilization. All this is replaced by initiation processes in the company of “brothers,” comparable to the rites of passage in pre-modern societies that seek to bring out the multiple abilities each person carries inside. The initiation is a process of metamorphosis in which the plural person, thanks to his or her diverse identifications, lives multiple roles and all possibilities at the heart of plural worlds, plural lives. From this perspective the attraction of reality TV or Second Life is understandable. Maffesoli draws attention to the fact that the great films and novels of our time (Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, Lord of the Rings) are initiation tales.
The social contract gives way to the pact. The idea of the “contract” is rational, obeying the law of the father. It prioritizes the cognitive and establishes a relationship based on rules. The “pact,” in contrast, is sustained by sentiment, rooted in a feminine sensibility that translates into a closer relationship to self and others. The move from contract (social, rational) to pact (tribal, emotional) is an extraordinarily profound paradigm shift that can be observed in all our relationships.
Intimately entwined public and private lives. It’s possible to see intimacy on television and the Web. Modesty no longer counts, the wall of private life has tumbled and sexuality has become entertainment on reality TV programs. In addition is the use of mobile phones, which introduce private conversations into public space: buses, department stores…
Philosophic and religious syncretism. Conceptual patchworks, portable nebulous ideologies, fusion, polytheistic values and multi-culturalism are preferred over clear representations and theoretical systems.
The new magnification of the world. This is produced after the “disenchantment of the world” (Max Weber) linked to the secularization of Western society following the development of scientific critical thought, in theology as well. We’re facing a culture that again values imagination and is throwing itself into a vast magnification process. Just think of the cinema or the pub and discotheques, “postmodernist mythologies par excellence.”
Pubs and discotheques make people happy; they fill the role of pagan idol, make the image a central point of human commerce (circulation of goods, ideas and feelings) and mark rationality’s slide towards sensuality and the imagination’s rebellion against the iconoclastic and rationalist Judeo-Christian self-image. Some high-tech objects or fashion accessories are bathed in an aura that transfigures the banality of existence, they cease to be object-icons and take on a sacred dimension, crystallizing collective dreams and expressing a communion of the social body, way past any utilitarianism or functionality.
Post-modern humility. A post-modern humility, conscious of the kinship between humans and the humus in the ground, is preferred to the pride of modern rationalism aimed at dominating impulses and opposing evil without preventing Western civilization’s deviations—genocide, war and environmental degradation, whose presence, Maffesoli argues, is the logical result of a morbid rationalism. Evil, cruelty and the tragedy of existence won’t be denied, but it will be recognized that our dark sides belong to Nature and that evil should be welcomed, integrated and sweet-talked. Society is in permanent “conflictive harmony” and life is a complex reality where good and evil, black and white are complementary facets. Rather than fighting evil through voluntarist morality, it would be preferable to take into account the shadowy side of existence, confront our dark side, accept the test and “homeopathize” our violent impulses, tragedy and death, the animal side that hounds us, experiencing it all in music, dance and games.
Maffesoli’s book sketches a lively and extremely likeable picture of the spirit of our age. He gives us back the spirit of the circles where the images and myths are created in which he likes to see our society reflected. Doubtless we could highlight different voices, attitudes and looks among our contemporaries, but the mentality Maffesoli describes is the one abundantly transmitted by television, cinema and the Web. When faced with the media’s strength, it’s good to take a step back and examine fundamental questions. I shall limit myself to three distinct but related topics: desire, power and myth.
The right to instant pleasureMaffesoli shows that we’re into enjoying the here and now. This hedonism assumes an instinctive and barely reflexive relationship with regard to desire. It’s a “let be” abandonment to whatever is offered without worrying about personal control, without planning. Thus one can give oneself up to freely chosen situations that damage oneself or others in a world where the enjoyment principle is what counts, hang the law enshrining the difference between good and evil in the binary adult world. Let yourself be carried by desires, do what you want without reflecting or feeling guilty.
The English doctor Theodore Dalrymple calls this plague of our society the “frivolity of evil,” where irresponsibility begets misery. Having practiced his profession in prisons and underprivileged neighborhoods, he has seen its effects on the body and soul of our most dispossessed contemporaries: irresponsible behavior apparently justified by a lax mentality. Influenced by television and films, they want the right to immediate gratification, taking up with new partners without thinking of their children. They cease to be responsible, throwing themselves into sexual relationships with no future, without thinking about the consequences: teenage pregnancies, unwanted children, job loss, divorce…
The tyranny of desire, the triumph of whim Shouldn’t we conclude that the state of spirit described by Maffesoli is for the strong and that we, the weak, will be its victims? Dalrymple is right in insisting on the need for law to channel the tyranny of desire. An absence of law, just like its excess, leads to dehumanization. The relationship with desire is constructed, just as managing time must be constructed. The question of desire in our society is more linked than ever to our relationship with time. Today everything encourages instant communication (mobile phones, text messages, email) and instant gratification (telephone shopping, music and images downloaded straight onto the hard disk). Instead of planning what to do with one’s time, one decides on the spur of the moment, responding to offers of the moment.
In an article in Le Monde titled “School faced with consumerist barbarism,” Professor Philippe Meirieu, an official for the educational television channel Cap Canal, evokes the triumph of whim: “Today, far from supplying points of support for children to free themselves from infantilism, the entire social machinery infinitely echoes and reflects exactly that very principle that education must teach them to free themselves from: ‘Your impulses are your orders.’ Thus has the ‘purchase impulse’ become the motor of our economic development. Advertising short-circuits all reflection and exalts moving to immediate action. Television zaps faster than television watchers: to glue them to the screen and prevent them from moving on to another channel. The cell phone reduces human relations to management of the immediate injunction. Everything murmurs into the ears of children and adolescents: ‘Now, right away, at any price...’”
What about violence?A particularly controversial aspect has to do with our relationship to violence. The spectacle of violence disgusts and attracts us at the same time. From a very early age children see images of conflicts, violence and death on television and in films. Video games often incite savage virtual behavior. Teenagers use the cameras in their cell phones to film violent scenes they themselves provoke. They immediately upload these images to the web: it’s called happy slapping.
Doesn’t following your instincts, satisfying your impulses, gratifying your senses as your only worry inevitably make others suffer? Is it enough to justify recourse to violent images for their supposed cathartic function in reducing the pressure of our aggressive impulses? Will our society be brave enough to confess to its perverse pleasures?
Are we free? The power of advertisingWestern societies are presented as democratic, respectful of individual rights and liberties. From the anthropological point of view, legal freedom, de jure, isn’t enough to guarantee real freedom, de facto. Those who will be free are those educated in freedom. Permissiveness with no limits can impede access to freedom. The human condition is such that “men of intemperate minds cannot be free.” Theodore Dalrymple recalls this quote from 18th-century English philosopher Edmund Burke in his critique of a certain contemporary intellectual elite that, ignorant of the reality of our human nature, develops theories to legitimize all sorts of irresponsible behavior, in particular that relating to sexuality.
If the relationship with impulse and access to freedom can be problematic in the current context, another threat to freedom comes not from within but outside the human being. In our societies a hidden political and economic power game works at manipulating the public under the guise of freedom. Its force is more effective given that it doesn’t attack us in broad daylight but rather it catches us when we’re off guard, in those moments when our level of self-defense is at its lowest: at rest in the intimacy of our home, in front of the television or computer screen.
One example is the “investment product,” a publicity tactic that consists of highlighting a product in the episodes of a highly popular TV series. The brand appears subliminally on the screen, seemingly a natural part of the decor. You hardly notice it, but it sticks in your memory. The product is casually in the hands of some protagonist who says some words during a moment of the action. These days, powerful ad agencies encourage this tactic. They not only control how their products are shown on screen, but also decide the dialogue to be used when creating intrigues and filming sequences.
Under the guise of creating products aimed solely at having fun, marketing experts of big multinational companies wield real power in the entertainment industry. Another of their tactics is branded entertainment. They try to create an emotional link between a program (television, radio, podcast, festival) and a brand, with the aim of transferring enthusiasm and emotions provoked by the media artifact to the brand. A more effective medium for infiltrating and forming part of the youth universe is to be the sole or privileged sponsor of one of the programs that are successful with them.
Selling politics like a brandThe same marketing and entertainment industry practices and ploys occur in the political media. When a President makes a speech on television, nothing is left to chance: setting, graphics, lighting and wardrobe are all calculated, as if it were a show. The objective in both cases is to touch the spectator’s emotions and cause the right impression.
Political power is highly aware of media impact and tries to use it to its advantage. Ad agencies produce programs and make them available to local channels. A television station such as Fox News, founded in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, one of Ronald Reagan’s first spin doctors, has a political ideology and decides every day what news to report and how to report it based on its world view and political choice, in this case Republican or conservative.
Without realizing it, viewers receive a poor, partial, skewed picture of events that is only apparently impartial. These channels are sometimes more powerful than elected politicians, as they can build some up and pull others down. Politicians’ success depends on them. The best that can be said about them is that they can be useful in a crisis.
Three weeks before the September 11 attacks, Charlotte Beers, who had headed two of the biggest publicity agencies in the United States, was appointed under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. “The first time a marketing professional was hired for a post with diplomatic responsibility and not simply as a communications adviser.” Colin Powell wanted people capable of marketing his foreign policy and selling the State Department’s values to the world as if it were a brand name.
Political power relegated to entertainment Wrapped up in infotainment, advertainment and what Salmon calls the “military-entertainment complex,” our contemporaries bathe in the universe of strong emotions, games and dreams, unaware of the real battles frequently waged by the dark forces of the world. Max Dorra, professor of medicine in Paris, is right to see an “unprecedented challenge to democracy” in the dominant class’ possession of public opinion-forming media. Opinion manipulators believe quite simply in ignorance: they point at hypothetical scapegoats everywhere to explain all of the world’s problems (immigrants, foreigners, Jews). As a tool to aid understanding they dramatize social antagonisms with different contrasts (conflicts between nations, war between the sexes, the generation gap). They catch people’s attention with a mish-mash of serious news, various events, sport, the personalization of politics and noise, a classic illusionist’s trick that distracts them from the real reports of domination.
Politics’ search for a show causes a screen close-up to have more impact than a well-founded argument. It brings seduction, dissemblance and lies on to the scene when the real geo-political challenges of today’s world demand awake and lucid men and women. We mustn’t let the privileged elite who manipulate public opinion remain in control of it. We need a critical sprit, analysis, investigative journalism and real debates.
Today’s myths reflect how we could be All cultures have created myths, frequently dense epics about divinities and heroes through which men have been able to express their view of life’s great questions (origin, destiny, sexual difference, generational descent, future and death) and work out their impulses and emotions.
Postmodern Western culture left the eras of Christianity and Modernity behind, so this effort to express ourselves and our work on impulses and emotions are mostly carried out by means of cultural productions: music, the arts and film. The showcasing of events and awarding of “film star” status to players even robe sport in a mythological dimension. It satisfies deep impulses and the need to relate, allowing us to see the staging of fictions about the vicissitudes and tensions experienced in common.
According to Maffesoli, who is also director of Streven magazine, advertising has become a defining factor of existence’s new “magnification” in a culture where scientific rationality and practice have led to disenchantment. One difference immediately jumps out regarding the mythologies revealed by other cultural universes. Ancient myths tell the adventures of gods, ancestors and heroes, distant from us by nature and origin (divine or semi-divine), aptitudes (control of natural forces, magical power), virtues (saintliness in Christian legends) and existence in time (past eras or an extemporary setting). In contrast, today’s stars could be our neighbors: they’re human like us; they dress as contemporaries; they talk and behave like everyone else.
This leveling is significant. Today’s myths unfolding on cinema and computer screens, advertising, the world of entertainment and music are not intrinsically imbued with the dimension of otherworldliness proper to traditional mythologies. The aim of that otherworldliness was to establish a relationship between everyday ordinariness and a superior order.
It is opportune to label our culture “narcissistic,” since the images and stories containing imaginary or narrative figurative devices absent from other contexts have repercussions on our own appearance, feelings and stories. Even science fiction’s futuristic robots are made in the image and semblance of our present-day humanity.
Desiring spirituality and rejecting religion This characteristic narcissism of our culture doesn’t prevent us being sensitive to the mystery running through the fabric of our lives, and for this reason it also lives in the magic mirrors where we contemplate it. There is currently a great interest in spirituality and a frequent rejection of religion. This spirituality is nourished by the feeling of something divine or a diffuse, indefinable sacredness. In contrast, religions proclaim well-defined dogmas and clear moral rules which these days are interpreted at the most as barriers to an authentic spiritual quest.
The emphasis on “subjective” emotional experience in detriment to “objective” rational analysis leaves postmodern culture poorly prepared for the clash with other traditions, Islam in particular. The Islamic world affirms its devotion to a faith impervious to critical rational analysis. And the Western world brings intensely lived but scarcely analyzed emotions to the surface.
Thus the situation of a multicultural society is one of cultural and religious entities living side by side, facing off against each other or agreeing to false concessions without first communicating honestly and holding a dialogue and without common bases for reflection, because this would presuppose the humble exercise of an open and prudent existing rationality.
An urgent taskWestern culture was born from the confluence of Greek logos and Christian logos. Given the pressure from archaic impulses and a destiny supposedly imposed by a pantheon of gods, ancient Greece discovered the middle way of human reason, capable of responding on the one hand through the creation of moral wisdom and on the other, through philosophical demythologizing and logical argument.
Faced with other pagan religions chained to the violence of sacrifice, the Judeo-Christian tradition exposed the levers of that violence and revealed a God who desires love and not sacrifices, justice and not bloodletting. The meeting of these two founts has allowed Western man to escape from mythical or magical entanglements and reach a freedom of heart and spirit. This continues to be true, although in the day-to-day history of our civilization, the work committed to this end has frequently not got very far.
It is out of the question that post modernity might simply take us back to reliving the Hellenistic and Christian eras of the past, as if the 20th century never happened. But we can still learn from history and examine our policies and practices, our little stories and myths from the perspective of reason. For if there is one urgent task these days, at least in the eyes of those of us concerned for the world’s future, it’s to teach a new wisdom and true freedom, responsive to the common good.
This text by Jan Koenot, sj, was published in the May 2009 edution of the Chilean magazine Mensaje.