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.