Friday, October 27, 2006

Work in Progress, I.

Here's a description of a short (under 30,000-word) text I'm finishing up. I hope some readers will comment on this synopsis; feel free to ask questions, too. It would be very helpful. If you'd be interested in a pdf of the entire draft and would be willing to send me comments after reading it, please ask me at mlstein Thanks.

The Truth of Myth and the Myth of Truth
explores the kinds of intellectual and cultural moves that are likely in communities where fundamental issues are addressed through the telling of stories. It opens with the tale of an imaginary anthropologist who cannot square his Enlightenment ideals with the apparently irrational and inconsistent ways in which his subjects think. The anthropologist, I argue, understands knowledge as a body of propositions that can render the operations of the world in thought, thus making those operations understandable and controllable. Beginning with the substance/attribute distinction, he hopes to arrive at a series of universally valid statements that specify objective relations among substantial entities.

However frequently this model is criticized, it remains folk psychology and is implicit in virtually all academic work. But it is also inadequate, self-contradictory in its social implications, and inconsistent with what we know about the way organisms conduct themselves and even the way we observe ourselves and other animals behave.

A sketch of the difficulties with the propositional theory leads to the discussion of myth-centered communities, which operate with a different understanding of what makes statements truthful. This discussion falls into two large sections. The first considers the political and historical implications of the variability of myths and the tolerance generally shown for other people’s stories or versions of one’s own story. Such tolerance is essential if a community is to retain full social equality. To claim a correct version of a foundational story is to assert the right to condemn others as false, and this concentration of power is intolerable in an egalitarian community. Where certain stories are reserved for a specific group there is almost inevitably a degree of hierarchy.

Tolerance towards variability also allows the readjustment and renegotiation of foundational accounts with demographic change. The paradoxical result is that communities that claim to preserve the ways of the ancestors have historically been among the most resilient of social units. Ideas of group and individual identity are continually reconstructed through myth-telling (and through ritual); communities remain self-identical without essentializing identity, and experience acquires coherence without positing a unitary or private subjectivity.

The following section treats the philosophical implications of the anti-essentialism manifest in myths, which consistently blur such distinctions as life and death, animal and human, and divine and human. In the words of Nahuatl scholar James Maffie, they posit a “dialectical polar monism”—a world at once divided and not-divided. Divisions appear only in order to establish relations of complementarity, and those relations are easily and frequently inverted.

Any thoroughly anti-essentialist approach makes being secondary and relations primary. It favors experience over observation, a preference that N. Scott Momaday noted when contrasting American Indian thinking with European models. Dealing with this irreproducible complexity requires attentiveness to all the influences that transform events and to every ramification of every act. The similarity to Chinese thought, especially as François Jullien interprets it, is obvious; but so, too, are the resonances with the picture being drawn by contemporary neurology and social psychology.

What appears in myth is the real world, but with the invisible as prominent as the visible. Myths can point to reality, but only because they do not reproduce what our senses can perceive and do not attempt to derive propositional truths from observation.

The closing pages of the book consider the survival of many of these elements in literate cultures—the Aztecs, the Chinese, and in Classical Antiquity. The question of a revival of myth in modern times underlines the common misapprehension that it is a kind of sacred story which is accepted as true in the propositional sense. Myth-telling, though, is not a way of transmitting set truths. It is part of a practice that organizes perception and directs activity in certain ways. In the modern world this work is carried out largely by the market, not by retelling foundational stories; there can be no revival of myth in such a world.


Post a Comment

<< Home