“For the last few years, I’ve been preoccupied with a concept that hasn’t received much academic attention lately: myth. Specifically, the idea that popular culture narratives are forms of myth.” – from Myth, the Numinous and Cultural Studies
In an age of near ubiquitous communications, the classic divisions of society still deeply affect our interactions. Barriers between businesses and consumers, academia and the public, and governmental groups and their constituents, still block the development of a sustainable society and silence valuable discussion. For some this is cause for frustration, but for theorists like Dr. Ted Friedman, Associate Professor of Communications at Georgia State University, the situation affords an opportunity to explore new means of bridging the cultural gaps.
Dr. Friedman’s studies of technology, addressed in his first book Electric Dreams, have branched off into the numinous. With his recent tenure, Dr. Friedman has found new ground in his study of mythology and cultural narrative. Starting from his experiences with post-Marxist theory, he has begun to step into the shadowy world of post-Jungian cultural archetypes for his latest effort The Centaur Manifesto.
Looking at the recent surge in fantasy narratives in popular culture, Dr. Friedman has found a viable critical tool to take the place of cyber-punk and science fiction as a narrative devices describing our present social conditions.
Despite lukewarm reception in early 21st century academia, Dr. Friedman feels that mythology and fantasy may prove the most valuable tools for assessing technological progress. In Part 1 of a continuing conversation with Dr. Friedman, we look at some of these emergent cultural issues and how mythological narratives can guide our society into a deeper understanding of technology and the human condition.
For more information on Dr. Friedman, and others in academia working with mythology and mythological narratives, see the [ open myth source ] Educational Resources page.
“I’d lost my bearings, not only physically, but also intellectually and spiritually. In grad school, I’d imbibed a heady brew of postmodern theory. But as I struggled to define myself on my own, away from my classmates and professors, I realized I didn’t really know what I stood for. I’d learned to talk the talk, but how much of it was really important to me? Dizzy, disoriented, I turned to my intellectual commitments to find solid ground. But in the disavowals of poststructuralism – antiessentialism, antihumanism, antimetanarrativity – I found nothing to believe in.” – from Vertigo, FlowTv
What lead to your interest in mythology and fantasy as valueable tools for cultural analysis and critique? This seems far a field from your first book Electric Dreams.
I took a leap, I was feeling sort of stuck at that theoretical spot. My book had started as my dissertation, and I think by the time I finished my dissertation and then tried to turn it into a book I had changed a lot of my thinking from where I started.
At the same time the project of writing a dissertation has to please so many masters and has politics behind it. For example two of my greatest mentors and inspirations were advisors on my dissertation committee, Fredric Jameson and Janice Radway.
“At the same time that myth has become a touchstone for screenwriters, it’s also become a keyword for the New Age movement, inspired by Campbell’s injunction to “follow your bliss.” The very ubiquity of the concept of myth in American popular culture may help explain its absence from academic discourse – a term which once held a lot of academic cachet has become awfully déclassé. But as scholars of popular culture we ought to take vernacular theory seriously, and to try to understand the continuing resonance of a concept we’d thought we’d left behind.” – from Myth, the Numinous and Cultural Studies, FlowTV
Do the ideas of Joseph Campbell and mythographers of previous eras still hold value for you?
Campbell was not one of my biggies, but I figured I’d go and look more carefully. In particular I found a wonderful book by the writer Howard Siegel, called Joseph Campbell: An Introduction, it’s an overview of Campbell’s ideas and the limitations of Campbell’s ideas.
Siegel also has another book called Myth: A Very Short Introduction, which is in that great Oxford Press series of Very Short Introductions, all of Howard Siegel’s stuff is really smart and great and is a very helpful dash of cold water on the more, I don’t know if idealistic is the right word, the Campbellians who I think are more naïve about the limitations of that often apolitical approach. Campbell himself was a conservative, and Siegel’s work helps those who never thought through his politics or came to different conclusions.
“Magic serves the role in fantasy that technology does in science fiction – and in fact, the role that technology serves in real life. Magic is the fictional force that makes tools work in fantasy worlds. The funny thing, though, is how little separates technology from magic in our own everyday experience of the world. Think about all the technological devices you own. Now, for how many of them do you actually understand how they work? In an increasingly technologically complex society, we grow more and more alienated from the actual workings of our technology.” – from The Poltics of Magic: Fantasy Media, Technology, and Nature in the 21st Century, Scope
How does the Lord of the Rings reflect the hero’s journey and Jung’s concept of integration? Does Tolkien affectively address the darker aspects of reality?
There’s that great scene where they are crossing the Mountains of Mordor, and Gandalf tries to lead the group over the mountains. He wants to take the path the world that our world has taken, he wants the world of the mind. So if you want to follow the Cartesian split that says the mind is opposite the body, he’s turned back, he realizes he can’t win against the mind, Sauroman sends a storm to him it’s too strong, and they have to turn back.
Instead they’re forced to go through the Mines of Moria. At first they hit the sea monster who threatens to pull them under. So they’re actually afraid of going completely under, and you might even argue that perhaps this a flaw in the Lord of the Rings, in terms of Tolkien’s own psychology, he was very Franco-phobic and sort of emotionally stunted. We don’t get the exploration of the Cthonic forces that other more emotionally mature authors provide. For instance in Pulp Fiction, the suitcase, Jung’s the Numinous, Hitchcock’s McGuffin, all of these are versions of the same thing, they’re versions of the unrepresentable.
Tolkien was a scholar, that richness of understanding of world building, of history upon which to build a world, is really critical to the power and depth of Tolkien’s vision. He’s also interesting, because like Campbell, he’s a conservative.
“The American media’s enthusiasm for the new media elements of the Iran story, then, may have less to say about what’s going on in Iran than it does about the United States. The “Twitter Revolution” rhetoric fits a familiar American narrative of technological utopianism, in which hopes for social and political transformation become attached to the promise of new technologies.
But if cybertopianism offers a distorted lens for understanding the complexities of political struggles, its virtue lies in opening up the possibility to imagine new and different futures beyond the ideological constraints of conventional wisdom. This is the dynamic I describe in my book Electric Dreams: Computers and American Culture as the dialectic of technological determinism.7 On the one hand, technological determinism reifies complex social phenomena, minimizing the role of human agents by ascribing change to the impersonal, inevitable force of technological “progress.” On the other hand, the rhetoric of technological determinism opens up a utopian sphere where we can momentarily transcend immediate pragmatic concerns – since the magic of technology will take care of the “how” – and imagine a more radically different future.” – from Tweeting the Dialectic of Technological Determinism, FlowTV
What are your thoughts on contemporary myths such as the Singuarity, and other technofetishist cultural narratives? Do you think that these movements will provide the solutions they are promising?
It’s technological utopianism very much in the mode of, for example, in my first book I mention hydrogen fueled cars. They were pulled out every year that Bush was in office in inauguration speeches as just around the corner.
Technological determinism wants to achieve that future immediately. One day we want a world were high technology allows us to continue to live within our means sustainably. The technology is part of the solution somehow. We can fantasize that there’s a techno-fix, and that’s naïve, but we can also ask intelligently what are the best tools available that we have to address the situation.
“A funny thing happened to cyberpunk in the twenty-first century. Its insights absorbed by the culture, it lost its critical edge. As SF editor David Hartwell once put it, discussing the similarly counterintuitive contraction of the genre after the Sputnik launch in 1957, “When it becomes real, it’s merely technology. Real space travel almost killed the science fiction field” (Hartwell, 1996: 109). Similarly, as real life became more cyberpunk, fictional cyborgs grew redundant. The Matrix sequels (2003) were critical and commercial disappointments, and no new SF blockbusters emerged to take their place. Science fiction television series such as Star Trek (1966-2005) and The X-Files (1993-2002) ran out of steam. And no new movement of science fiction writers emerged to capture the public’s imagination as cyberpunk once did.” – from The Poltics of Magic: Fantasy Media, Technology, and Nature in the 21st Century, Scope
Millions of people, me included whether it’s the universe of Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or a novelists like Susannah Clark, China Mielville, or comic book writers like Neil Gaiman or Michael Bendis, all of this world building, this boggling amount of world building, and the creation of these alternate universes seems to have a particular imaginative crux to it.
In the 90’s and into the early 21st century when cyberpunk became interesting in academia, it was capturing something that avantgardists like William Gibson had addressed nearly 20 years prior. There was a twenty year echo for cyberpunk, just like there was this 15 year echo between London 1977 and Seattle 1992 with grunge rock.
I’m not sure the time line will stay the same, but take something like Gaiman’s Sandman, which was written in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and hasn’t made it into a movie yet. Game of Thrones, the wonderful Tolkien’esque fantasy written by George R. R. Martin, started in the early 90’s and HBO is just now making the mini-series.
Buffy was the best show on television for much of the 1990’s, and only now with True Blood is a different, more adult audience, enjoying stories that Buffy was telling better nearly 20 years previously.
So this is the way culture works, in these uneven modes and models of uneven development and lags. At this point I think that we are in the middle of, certainly economically, a fantasy boom. Most of the fantasy writers that I’ve talked with, even if they were ambitious, were finding that most of the money was in young adult fantasy. That’s really starting to change.
With such a lack of focus on myth in academia how have you branched out in search of other contemporary mythographers?
I was fortunate enough to get in touch with the Mythic Imagination Institute. They host two large conferences, with various theorists, fantasy writers and hundreds of people at the conferences apparently. They haven’t had the money to stage a third big conference, but they hosted something called Fairy Escapes, it was mostly fantasy writers and fans, but they were very receptive to discussion and interested in what I am working on.
“What are the possible consequences, then, of the emerging centaur consciousness produced by twenty-first century fantasy media? We could certainly see the strange mixture of technology and nature in these stories and games as simply a compensatory fantasy: as the globe melts, we retreat to our movie, TV, and computer screens to recreate an imaginary version of the world we’ve lost. But if we are to have any hope for the future, it must involve just the kind of marriage of science and spirit that these fantasies are groping towards.
In calling for a “reenchantment of the world,” Morris Berman points out that the posthuman science of cybernetics actually has much in common with the archaic tradition. Cybernetics, like animism, recognizes “the relational nature of reality” (Berman, 1981: 273): the fact that we are all us – human, animal, machine, plant, stone, wind — part of the same integrated circuit, inextricably enmeshed in multiple feedback loops. To be a centaur is already to be a cyborg, and vice versa. Learning the lessons of fantasy, then, does not need to mean clinging to a lost, mythical past. But it will require us to re-imagine the future.” – from The Poltics of Magic: Fantasy Media, Technology, and Nature in the 21st Century, Scope