Tired of the Mythology talk? Time to wrap it up

Over the past month I spent time studying up on mythology and its place in the modern context. One friend encouraged me down this path because she was teaching a course and interested in what I would conclude. Another friend encouraged me because she had studied it herself in school and often asserts herself as an expert to me on the American monomyth. I just wanted to know because I think an understanding of this classical thought would be useful in my study of the multimedia and its interaction with culture. After all, Joseph Campbell influenced how people started reading and writing literature. It does help to know what the hell people are talking about in that regard.

You know what? I just deleted a multipage diatribe about the absence of modern mythology and why I think that is, but I have found a more simple logic. Classical mythology, stories about gods and persons of importance, were crafted to control how people saw the world. Basically, they were stories creating religions that provided guides for morality and support for the existence of power differentials between people (i.e. the class system). The structures of the stories were studied by Campbell and collected in his masterwork The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is easily an early predecessor of TVtropes. Basically, this has happened before and it will happen again. People tell stories the same way and provide depth and importance for their characters in similar ways.

Modern stories tend to follow the monomyth structure as laid out by Campbell, especially since he wrote it in a fairly easy to follow guide. That does not provide the stories with mythological status. At best, they have mythic qualities. This means nothing to me. These stories do not necessarily assert a morality for people to follow and explanation for the universe around them. And even if the stories try that, how many of the readers actually internalize it? This is a difference between religion and really exciting stories.

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The book The American Monomyth suggests the devoted following of the original Star Trek television series was like that of a religion. Fans were copying the mannerisms of the characters, their looks, legally changing their names, and practicing rites they may have seen or heard of on the show. I could argue that Gene Roddenberry never intended for the show to be a guide for living, but someone might counter that a story’s intent does not change the end result. However, in growing up a Trekker and seeing the cult following from the inside and outside, I can see quite clearly it is not to the religious or mythological status stated by the authors of the book.

Star Trek, and many shows similarly, is perfect for fanaticism. It creates an ever expanding world of acceptance perfect for an audience of outsiders to revere as an ideal. The result is the formation of a community in which people are granted insider status just for having watched and appreciated the series. There are certainly levels of acceptance based on how much time has been spent watching, what outside activity has been performed to show the level of devotion, etc.; but that is to be accepted of most communities. It is certainly common for fan communities.

One might say that the creation of a community is enough to cinch the series as a modern mythology, but it is not. What has been internalized? Like I mentioned before, expression of devotion through outside acts (like changing one’s name to that of a character) will likely alter one’s community status in some way, but then there is the question of whether the activity was performed because of one’s reverence for growth based on the teachings of the material or for the sake of personal gain within the community. I can tell you with certainty that these acts are not displayed with any reward in the television series. I am not a better person if I name my son (or daughter) Sulu. But it might make someone in the community see me as more devoted or even hardcore.

This is not to say that modern media cannot have a profound effect on its audience. This is not to say that modern media is therefore less important overall in our cultural context. I am just saying that none of these stories have mythological status – at least not right now. Only time will tell, just as mythology did not even become mythology until it was appreciable in retrospect. Right now, though, works are not shaping our view of life, the universe, and everything quite like the stories of yore. That is probably a good thing.

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In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell mentions that Star Wars is potentially a modern mythological story. I have not made it far in that book as of yet (it is the only one I actually own, making the completion of the library books more important), but he mentions that this is because George Lucas wrote it with the Hero’s Journey in mind. I discard this information because in the 80’s there was a movement in writing dedicated to following the mythological structure outlined in Campbell’s work. If I have to accept everything that follows the monomyth structure as a new mythology, then the wonderfully entertaining but unfortunately lacking Transformers: The Movie from 1986 must be considered a modern myth. There have to be better standards, and I like to think that mine is one such standard.

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About Gospel X

I am a major mediaphile as well as a social researcher. My ultimate belief is that the media can be used to teach children prosocial behaviors and teach adults how to access paradigms. And I think that Mega Man is an amazing example of proteanism. Add me on Google : https://plus.google.com/u/0/113795848855477334599

Posted on October 8, 2010, in modern mythology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Melanie Carbine

    Star Wars is generally an accepted example of modern mythology, and not just because Campbell said so.

    Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess… did follow the moral per show model.

    I would really argue for the more “classic” comic book characters and worlds. However, I feel like part of your definition of myth has to do with its scope of impact, which I feel uncertain about.

    (I never claimed to be an expert on the American monomyth. I hope you have other friends asserting such claims 🙂

  2. Truth be told, I should reconsider Star Wars as a modern mythology. I forgot about its cultural impact and the fact that Jedi is years away from being an actual religion. Darth Vader is a cultural icon representing both evil and redemption. (Anakin Skywalker, unfortunately, is dismissed despite being the same character.) The Force is heavily referenced and, aside from the midichlorians introduced in the prequels, is probably believed by quite a few people. Then again, it is heavily based on pre-existing spirituality. Still, Star Wars is definitely a modern mythology.

    As for scope of impact, I came up with that because my other friend suggested that these stories could exist as mythologies within subcultures. I wanted to accept that because that is technically how all mythologies began, but then I do not know where the proper cutoff point is. Then we have Buffy/Whedon-based mythology, anime fan mythology, video game mythology… Heck, my old group of friends could have been considered a subculture based around the synthesis of anime and video games – so did we have our own mythology due to this? I figure that setting the bar extremely high simplifies the process of determining modern mythology.

    And trust me, I would really love for comic books to be considered modern mythology, but all we have are reflections of past myths when you look at the material and the recognition of iconography when you ask the masses about the material. Plus I think the sheer volume of material kills any potential meaning one might find in the books.

  3. My interpretation of “modern” mythology would be more sociological (and I include religion under this heading). “Understanding the world” and “Cosmology” I’m happy to leave under the new heading of Science.
    I agree that a large amount of material does water down any potential meaning, but I feel this is due to the quality of the material. Comic book characters do represent a mythology due to the interaction we have with the symbology (especially in origin stories), but what follows is the same story, or stories, told over and over. Lessons can be found but are repeated until no great meaning is left, unlike Homer and the Bible which are more focused in this regard.
    At the other extreme I think soaps have a more subtle effect (unfortunately), and although I don’t think they will live on far beyond the life of the soap, soaps do have a mythology of characters with a continuous narrative which can be followed. The characters can be used to teach and learn from, but since this has been mixed in with a dose of “reality” for entertainment, it also highlights how you can get away with bad things, media at its worst (entertainment only). Soaps are socially acceptable, have a large following, and even involve new babies being named after characters. People grow up learning from these soaps, and even if a character has been leading to a nasty conclusion (getting away with it so far) if someone stops watching (listening) at this point they believe they can get away with socially bad behaviour, TV then ups that ante of realism, and so on.
    Sorry to rant, and I am aware this heads towards psychology but then so does anything else that impacts our awareness. The storytellers gave entertainment, heroes to look up to and emulate, but also promiscious gods and magic. Times have changed and we look for new things in new mythologies. Groups look for mythologies to give some meaning to life in various ways, they look for heroes, they look for magic and essentially hope (even though we have sacrificed to some extent a sense of meaning in the universe to gain a sense of control through Science).
    Almost anything can become a living myth – and most will die soon after, but Jungs Archetypes will come in useful for finding timeless characters that people will look to to explain and define our life around us.
    (Sorry this kinda rambles around a little but hope you understand my points)

    • Feel free to ramble. If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll see that I have a horrible habit of rambling despite sometimes fighting for brevity. Ideas need to get out, and I am incredibly interested in the comments people leave here.

      I appreciate your take on modern mythology. The modern take on mythology may be active searches for heroes and individuals to emulate. There’s a drive in individuals to look for role models, and their interactions (with supposedly inherent meanings) provide individuals with their own meaning. I hope I’m not straying from your point. And I agree that it turns toward psychology. That’s pretty much how I interpret the world, through the lens of a psychologist. It all goes back to drives and trying to find some meaning in the chaos of life. We look for patterns or seek familiarity for the purpose of not feeling lost in it all.

      Even though I’ve ended this series of posts, my mind does wander back to modern mythology every now and then. I know that modern mythology exists on a certain micro level, with everyone defining their lives based on the media they actively interpret. But what exists on a macro level? What defines that? Can I say Doctor Who, Twilight, Harry Potter, Lost, True Blood, Mad Men, etc.? Are these the modern myths? It’s so much easier to look backward and say Star Wars without hesitating, not to mention some aspects of Saturday Night Live (Coneheads, Blues Brothers, and Wayne’s World). I like your suggestion that soaps are an example of mythological stories, despite my misgivings about that form of media. If I can accept comics, then I definitely have to accept soaps because there is little difference save for specific tropes and the target audience. (This also opens things up to pro-wrestling, which is a can of worms that will be brutally attacked by hoity-toity literature enthusiasts at the drop of a hat.)

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