Wednesday, August 24, 2011

John Michael Greer on Myth

Again, from last week's post:

We have an effectively limitless supply of information, but then it’s not information that I got from reading The White Stag at age eight, and it’s not a lack of information that’s dragging us down to a sorry end.

The problem—for it is a problem, and thus at least in theory capable of solution, rather than a predicament, which simply has to be put up with—is the collapse of the framework of collective meanings that gives individual facts their relevance. That framework of meanings consists, in our culture and every other, of shared narratives inherited from the past that form the armature on which our minds place data as it comes in.

A couple of years ago, in a discussion on this blog that touched on this same point, I made the mistake of referring to those narratives by their proper name, which is myth. Those of you who know how Americans think know exactly what happened next: plenty of readers flatly insisted on taking the word in its debased modern sense of “a story that isn’t true,” and insisted in tones ranging from bafflement to injured pride that they didn’t believe in any myths, and what was I talking about?

The myths you really believe in, of course, are the ones you don’t notice that you believe. The myth of progress is still like that for most people. Even those who insist that they no longer believe in progress very often claim that we can have a better world for everybody if we do whatever they think we ought to do. In the same way, quite a few of the people who claim that they’ve renounced religion and all its works still believe, as devoutly as any other fundamentalist, that it’s essential to save everybody else in the world from false beliefs; the central myth of evangelical religion, which centers on salvation through having the right opinions, remains welded into place even among those who most angrily reject the original religious context of that myth.

But there’s a further dimension to the dynamics of—well, let’s just call them cultural narratives, shall we?—unfolding in America today. When the shared narratives from the past break apart, and all you’ve got is popular culture spinning feedback loops in the void, what happens then?

What happens is the incoherence that’s become a massive political fact in America today. That incoherence takes at least three forms. The first is the rise of subcultures that can’t communicate with one another at all. We had a display of that not long ago in the clash over raising the deficit limit. To judge by the more thoughtful comments in the blogosphere, I was far from the only person who noticed that the two sides were talking straight past each other. It wasn’t simply that the two sides had differing ideas about government finance, though of course that’s also true; it’s that there’s no longer any shared narrative about government that’s held in common between the two sides. The common context is gone; it’s hard to think of a single political concept that has the same connotations and meanings to a New England liberal that it has to an Oklahoma conservative.

It’s crucial to recognize, though, that these subcultures are themselves riddled with the same sort of incoherence that pervades society as a whole; this is the second form of incoherence I want to address. I wonder how many of the devout Christians who back the Republican Party, for example, realize that the current GOP approach to social welfare issues is identical to the one presented by Anton Szandor LaVey in The Satanic Bible. (Check it out sometime; the parallels are remarkable.) It may seem odd that believers in a faith whose founder told his followers to give all they had to the poor now by and large support a party that’s telling America to give all it has to the rich, but that’s what you get when a culture’s central narratives dissolve; of course it’s also been my experience that most people who claim they believe in the Bible have never actually read more than a verse here and there.

Mind you, the Democratic Party is no more coherent than the GOP. Since the ascendancy of Reagan, the basic Democrat strategy has been to mouth whatever slogans you think will get you elected and then, if you do land in the White House, chuck the slogans, copy the policies of the last successful Republican president, and hope for the best. Clinton did that with some success, copying to the letter Reagan’s borrow-and-spend policies at home and mostly toothless bluster abroad; of course he had the luck to ride a monstrous speculative bubble through his two terms, and then hand it over to the GOP right as it started to pop. Obama, in turn, has copied the younger Bush’s foreign and domestic policies with equal assiduity but less success; partly that’s because the two Middle Eastern wars he’s pursued with such enthusiasm were a bad idea from the start, and partly because his attempts to repeat Bush’s trick of countering the collapse of one speculative bubble by inflating another haven’t worked so far.

I’ve discussed more than once before in these posts the multiple ironies of living at a time when the liberals have forgotten how to liberate and the conservatives have never learned how to conserve. Still, there’s a third dimension to the incoherence of contemporary America, and it appears most clearly in the behavior of people whose actions are quite literally cutting their own throats. The kleptocratic frenzy under way at the top of the economic pyramid is the best example I can think of.
In his talk about incoherence, I hear echoes of MacIntyre.

As for the impulse to impose orthodoxy -- the intellect is ordered to truth. But is the desire to make sure everyone has right belief a post-Christian one that is rooted in a rejection of Christianity and the authority of God and His Church? A traditional Thomist distinguishes in the act of faith between the material object and the formal object, which is God Himself. Dogma is what has been revealed by God about Himself. So we could object that the understanding of Christianity that may be implied is not correct -- the faith which saves is not of truths, but of Truth Himself.

Still, what we witness is not the instruction of the ignorant by the moderns, but an imposition of a new faith, which we are to accept based on their authority, which is usually justified upon their being experts or teachers or scientists. One system of belief seeks to displace another. The new orthodoxies of liberalism and scientism, both children of the Enlightenment? The authority of God has been replaced by that of man. In order to pass on knowledge, one must first have it. And yet our experts are ignorant of their own ignorance. (What, then, of analytic discussions of epistemology?)

How many of us possess a meaningful history, one that is more specific than a vague and general national narrative, recounting ties to a specific people or community?

Related:
Wolfgang Smith: Science and Myth, The Hidden Connection, The Plague of Scientistic Belief

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