Myth and possible stories

Great quote from a William Doty essay:

Myths die when they are no longer retold and revised. Mackey-Kallis proposes that myths “must change in culturally specific fashions if they are to speak to the changing conditions and concerns of the culture. Myths that do not evolve are no longer useful and often fade away. A living myth, therefore, is a responsive myth (233, my emphasis; she gives examples using the myth of the American West). Such a requirement leads her to an emphasis that falls within the third aspect of mythological interpretation: ”The mythic critic can also ask to what extent does the story that is being told open up interpretive possibilities rather than close them down?“

Such a critic may become quite unpopular when dealing with new potentials for revered and familiar myths within a scriptural canon! Imagine applying to a parable of Jesus the following question by Mackey-Kallis: ”To what extent does the myth allow for, even invite, multiple stories, with possibly different moral lessons for living, to coexist in the same mythic universe and possibly even inside of the same story?“ (233).

This fits perfectly with my own work where I have been critical of work in journalism and myth that merely looks for the mythic prototype or structure in contemporary news without asking how it is reinventing rather than just repeating the myth in a new guise.

Ref: Mackey-Kallis, Susan. 2001. The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.

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I have just finished up at the Just Men In Tights: Superheroes Conference. It’s been a very stimulating weekend and just what I needed to get my head back into myth, popular culture and the apocalypse.

Lots of interesting talks on everything from traditional superheroes such as Superman and Batman to readings of Queer as Folk. The good think for me has been that it has given me lots of references to follow up and even some new shows to look at. A number of sessions on the Superman prequel Smallville have piqued my interest.

Some notes:

In the opening keynote by Scott Bukatman talked about the superhero as characterised by four performative qualities: visual, kinetic, improvisational and linguistic. His connection to the everyday was an interesting one, like musical stars before them – he showed the singing in the rain scene from Singing in the Rain – the superhero makes improvisational use of everyday props and his heroics are embodied in his expressive choreography. Bukatman said that the Superhero improvises survival strategies using everyday objects: a form of “riffing off the objects of the world”.

The linguistic performance in the superhero genre was not immediately obvious but many superheros are brought to life in their slogans (“This is a job for superman..”.“is it a bird is it a plane”etc:) “an egotistical, flamboyant means of writing himself onto the world”. He made the interesting point that it is in this area that Buffy excels and that it is the first time that the linguistic is choreographed so closely with the kinesthetic since the days of musical.

Peter Coogan from Fontabonne University in St Louis created discussion with his definition of the Superhero: (soo’per hîr’o) n., pl. -roes. 1. A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; who possesses superpowers, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills; who has a superidentity and iconic costume, which typically express his biography or character, powers, and origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Typically superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is kept secret. -superheroic, adj. Also super hero, super-hero (Trademark).

Coogan maintained against some objections that Buffy for instance doesn’t fit the definition because she doesn’t have the dual/secret identity or iconic costume. He places her in the horror vampire tradition but admits the show draws heavily on the Superhero genre. He’s probably right in strict genre terms but one of the interesting things about contemporary practice that became very clear during the conference was that most examples of the current superhero are definitely hybrid constructions.

More on hybridity and the “neo-baroque” tomorrow.

Memories reminders ghosts and myths

I have been reading some stuff on “community of memory” (Paige Baty on Marylin and Barbie Zelizer on Kennedy) and then recently came across these two quotes from quite different sources.

Firstly Derrida’s notion of ghosts from an this essay on the cultural history of the highway:

Jacques Derrida has suggested that ghosts come to talk with us both from the past and the future. Learning to understand these ghosts of the future-past or the past-future is necessary, he claims, if we wish to take responsibility for future generations:

[we must] learn to live by learning not how to make conversation with the ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. (176)

In the case of highways, thus, it is important to understand the role that ghosts play in our constructions of the past and the future, if we are to learn to take responsibility for their role in the future. The way we imagine the roads of tomorrow suggests something about the way we value our selves, our environment, and our technologies — and suggests something about the way we must act, if we are to have responsibility for our future selves.

Secondly this essay from the Boston Globe on Oliver Stone’s new movie Alexander.

WRITING ABOUT the Romans seen on film 50 years ago, the French theorist Roland Barthes saw in their sweaty brows the mythology of “man thinking.” These days, however, our Greeks and Romans do not think, they remind. They remind themselves of their destiny. They remind their followers of the glory they might win. And their stories remind us a great deal of our current empire, and its strategic uncertainties.

The author J. D Connor makes not just the obvious comparison to Iraq and the American empire but also takes this new taste for epics (Gladiator, Troy, Alexander and others to come soon) as a reflection of the global empire of Hollywood: “These days any commercial filmmaker (and particularly one with a fondness for casts of thousands and lavish period detail) needs a certain amount of imperial hubris: that is, he needs to believe that audiences will flock to his or her films around the globe.”

Today’s events are present in the history remade on screen:

Since much of the action of “Alexander,” moral and military, takes place in what is now Iraq, it’s hardly surprising that Oliver Stone takes some potshots at the president. What is unexpected are the heartfelt neocon speeches Alexander delivers. Standing on his balcony overlooking Babylon, he goes on and on: “These people want change, they need change,” Alexander asserts. He lives “to free the people of the world.”

To be sure, Stone lays the irony on thick here. After the first balcony speech, Alexander’s boyfriend Hephaistion quickly changes the subject to his sovereign’s dreamy eyes. And during Alexander’s second major policy address on the balcony, he is too preoccupied with Babylon’s “deep water port” to notice that Hephaistion is busy flailing away out of focus in the background, dying of a poison-induced fever.

When a trusted commander complains that conquering all of Asia “was not your father’s mission,” Alexander responds (again la W.), “I am not my father.” Why stop now? Why stop ever? One more month, Alexander tells his men in India.

It’s all here in a condensed image. The anxiety over empire, the anxiety of sexuality, the anxiety over expansion and retreat. We are reminded of history, we see ghosts of past present and future. We see cultural production.

Douglas Rushkoff – We Don’t Need Another Hero

Douglas Rushkoff has an interesting reflection about the hero myth on his his weblog where he is talking about a pannel he was recently on:

Where seemed to connect most was in our shared sense that Aristotle’s narrative arc – the male heroic narrative – no longer adequately describes our experience of this world. It’s something I’ve been thinking and speaking about for a long time, but it was very rewarding for Grant [Morrison] to respond so favorably to this notion. He’s experienced it, himself, in his work as a comic book writer trying to move past current expectations for superhero characters. I confront it, myself, as I try to help people conceive of more emergent narratives for human history – to break our addiction to stories with endings or intrinsic, pre-existing meaning.

Interestingly he doesn’t just leave it there. He asks the question which must go with such musings, which can be thought of as a question about myth and agency or narrative identity, or from a differtent perspective, a questiona about myth and ideology:

The problem is whether, without artificially constructed heroic narratives, we still have the will to rise to the world’s many problems. Will we dare to approach hunger, violence, and confusion without the promise of a happy ending? Or do we still need charismatic leaders with beautiful stories to our motivate us?

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