Myths of Reality
By Simon Danser
(Alternative Albion, UK, 2005)
Review By John Fraim
"The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
"The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth."
The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers)
In cultures like America where capitalism and consumerism have been working the longest, those few elite in control have constantly reinvented symbolism and mythology as methods for the growth, maintenance and control of the ideological edifice.
Once symbols and myths served to create entertaining stories and images for the young culture of capitalism to rally around. The evidence of this early familiar and direct approach is contained in thousands of print advertisements from the early decades of the 20th century where the consumer is addressed by advertising in the form of a friendly neighbor or product. The early years of symbolism and mythology in creating American capitalism is recounted superbly in books like "Captains of Consciousness" by Stuart Ewen and "Advertising the American Dream" by Roland Marchand. In effect, these were the years of when symbols and myths operated as friendly persuaders.
This method worked well for a number of decades in building a powerful capitalistic ideology. However, by the 1950s, there was emerging a suspicion among some consumers that there might be something a little suspect, yes even sinister, behind all those smiling product faces and happy families in the advertisements, and by now also, television commercials. After all, it was the height of Freudian psychology and cigars were not just cigars and people not what they appeared to be.
They might be communists or even aliens inside normal bodies. Films like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and books like Vance Packards "Hidden Persuaders" addressed these new suspicions of the populace that there was more subliminal things going on in the symbols and mythologies of capitalism than met the eye. The 50s were the years where symbols and myths perpetuated capitalist ideology by now being hidden persuaders.
Of course those few who suspected there were a lot of hidden things going on in the symbols and myths of capitalism were right. But before they could really track down their prey they were distracted by the 1960s and things like the Vietnam War, drugs, the Hippie Revolution, television and a growing abundance of goods. And, at the same time, advertising was becoming more and more sophisticated with the application of psychology and the techniques of persuasion and propaganda to its messages.
Any resemblance of a unified posse in the 60s tracking down the symbols and myths behind the advertisements for capitalism was broken in the 1970s with the emergence of that grand era of marketing segmentation. On its face, the segmentation of American culture was heralded as an era of unbounded freedom. The once monolithic mass culture that one television show like the 50s "I Love Lucy" could reach at one time was now shattered into hundreds of pieces with developments like direct mail, niche magazines, product extensions and the emergence of cable television.
Proponents of marketing segmentation claimed a new personalness of products and a growing freedom of product choice. While their claims were right there was a large price to pay for this. As the Annenberg Schools Joseph Turow notes in "Breaking Up America," a momentous shift began in the mid-70s when advertisers rejected mass marketing in favor of more aggressive target marketing. The result was the "society making media" (like the three TV networks) that had dominated for most of the century was replaced with "segment making media" which exploited differences between consumers. The new evolutionary technique of symbols and myths to perpetuate capitalism had now morphed into one of divide and conquer. There was the view of those in control that some might be onto the tricks of advertising, that any type of persuasion, friendly or hidden, was not enough as consumers got increasingly savvy about methods of control.
In the 80s and 90s, segmentation continued to divide resistance under the banner of freedom and the greatest production of products in history. But more and more products started to look more and more the same. As Bruce Springsteen commented during the 80s, 500 channels and nothing on. Symbols and myths continued to evolve to keep just a little ahead of those few in a (now) scattered posse of cultural critics that continued to chase them down.
But just as symbols and myths that controlled the ideology of capitalism continued to evolve for the times, so too did those who went hunting them down. Even though there were only scattered bands searching them down rather than any unified force against them, these bands were getting smart and learning some of the tricks of symbols and myths. A new evolutionary step was needed by symbols and myths to keep a little ahead of the trackers and this was implemented in the 90s by a movement from the 70s and 80s divide and conquer technique to the new (current) one of distract and disengage.
Elements of this new technique are in evidence everywhere if one will indulge in a few moments of silence to witness them. But silence is the enemy of the new technique of distraction. Replacing it is the noise of constant talking head pundits giving two sides of every major news happening. The focus is on inflating certain events (like the Peterson and Jackson trials) totally out of proportion. Analogous to the growing specialization of disciplines, the technique is to distract from consideration of the big picture by a relentless 24/7 focus on increasingly smaller and smaller things. Celebrity lives become the main concern of millions of Americans and ridiculous reality TV shows sprout everywhere.
Like a great Narcissus fixated on its own image in the water, America in the first years of the 21st century seems fixated on all the symbols and myths which now manifest themselves in brands and entertainment.
Americans move further into debt and fall further behind the other nations of the world. They become increasingly distracted from global concerns. In fact, Americans become so distracted from global concerns, a wake up call book like Thomas Friedmans "The World is Flat" becomes a best seller. In the late 90s they would have never needed a book like this but since the collapse of the dot.com bubble its as if Americans have retreated into their own bubble.
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There is good reason to suspect that the evolution of the use of symbolism and mythology in an advanced capitalistic culture like America from their early appearance in the first decades of the 20th century as friendly persuaders, to their mid-century role as hidden persuaders, to their use in the 70s and 80s for a divide and conquer segmentation, to their current use for distraction and disengagement will continue to appear in new forms and techniques and join with new alliances.
One of the powerful alliances that advertising symbolism has made over the years is with public relations. While there is still some boundaries to distinguish advertising from areas like journalism, news and entertainment, the boundaries between PR and these other areas are quickly becoming non-existent.
But there is also good reason to suspect that the faithful old posse of cultural critics that has been tracking them down over these years will continue to tract them down somewhat similar to that relentless mythical posse that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could not shake. The elite who control American culture by employing symbols and myths in new ways have played out many of their tricks and one wonders what is left after the current trick of distraction?
Might a new symbolism and mythology of fear be emerging in the post 9/11 era? A symbolism evidenced in movies like the Steven Speilbergs reworking of "War of the Worlds?" Or is it just another form of distraction that distracts American interests from local communities and the growing problems of the domestic American economy and tries to place the nations attention in far away lands in the midst of diffuse networks of terrorists? The early American symbols and myths of capitalism inspired by offering versions of the "American dream." But now have American symbols and myths been "redeployed" to rather protect us from the "American nightmare?"
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Hope persists for those few intent on eventually pulling away the old wizards curtain and finally revealing the controllers of American symbols and myths. Throughout American history there have always been those who have not bought into or been distracted by the various methods and techniques of symbols and myths.
One of the first to see behind the façade was Thomas Paine who realized some of the early techniques of symbolism and myth control employed around the founding of the nation. The technique was to attempt to make the populace believe that the symbol controllers were the same ones as those controlled by the symbols. It was carried out by suggesting that government was part of society rather than outside (or above) it. As Paine wrote in 1776 in his famous "Common Sense":
"Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one."
Paines book became a phenomenal best seller making it impossible for the new American government to find refuge within the protection of society.
Ousted from being another piece of popular society, government had no choice but to create what was to become one of their most pervasive and persistent forms of control: that on going historic distraction from their own manipulation of symbols and myths, that distraction known as the two party system of Republicans and Demococrats. The symbolic battle became one between elements within society rather than one between society and government. The government sat in the spectator stands so to speak and simply watched the battle below. It never mattered a lot who won, the Republicans or the Democrats, as long as they continued to fight amongst themselves.
One of the key people to lift the curtain on the wizard in the 20th century was media theorist Marshall McLuhan who observed the controlling symbols and myths of capitalism from just a little outside the American culture in Toronto, Canada. His famous dictum "The medium is the message" in his book of the 60s "Understanding Media" was directed at media rather than symbols and mythologies. But it was essentially about the new method of symbol control during his time in the 60s and 70s when symbols were moving from messages of persuasion the hidden, ubiquitous environemtn of media. It was a time when the visible symbols of words and advertising messages was being replaced by the invisible symbols of surrounding mediums like electricity and cyberspace.
During the time McLuhan was providing a new roadmap from Canada for the symbol trackers, the Frenchman Guy Debord was also providing a powerful roadmap for tracking symbols in his book of the late 60s "The Society of the Spectacle." His claim was that symbols, images and media created what he termed the "spectacle," by substituting the created for the real. As he observed, we are living in a time " when images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individuals principal connection to the world he formerly observed for himself."
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There have always been small groups of critics and theorists who have continued to chase down the current manifestations of the controlling symbols and myths that are just a little outside the gaze of most Americans. Interestingly, many of the greatest critics have come from places outside America like from Canada and France. There is the quote attributed to Marshall McLuhans "Were not sure who discovered water but were sure it wasnt a fish." This is another way of saying that the all surrounding context one lives in, their medium, their environment, is something that remains invisible to them.
And now, in 2005, there is a powerful new voice from outside American culture to motivate the old symbol and myth chasing posse. This time it comes from England and author Simon Danser in his short but brilliant book "Myths of Reality." The slim little volume discusses various myths that sustain modern versions of reality. Danser lists the myths of commerce, science, knowledge, causality, language, consciousness and identity. He addresses each one of them in a separate chapter. As he notes, the book is somewhat like "steadily peeling away the layers of an onion."
He illustrates how these myths are created and sustained by social interactions so that "all the concepts which make up what we think of as reality are socially constructed."
The book reveals how reality is culturally constructed in an ever-continuing process from mythic fragments transmitted by mass media.
Danser is part of an important group of social critics and modern mythologists working around author, critic and publisher Bob Trubshaws Heart of Albion Press located at (www.hoap.co.uk). Heart of Albions new imprint Alternative Albion was launched in June 2004 with the aim of providing a series of studies of aspects of British counter culture.
Trubshaw notes some of these studies will be essentially historical accounts and others will discuss and develop current alternative ideas.
A webzine called Foamy Custard sponsored by Heart of Albion Press is located at http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/foamycustard/. It is doubtful that "Myths of Reality" can be found in many American bookstores.
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Yes, there is reason to suspect that the evolution of the use of symbolism and mythology in Americas advanced capitalistic culture will continue to change into new forms (like that sly, mythic Trickster) to outsmart the general populace. But there is also reason to suspect that the posse will continue to chase them down and that someday they might just corner them and reveal them for what they are. With people like Bob Trubshaw and Simon Danser and committed little enclaves of resistance like Heart of Albion Press the pursuing posse has a powerful new allies.
And when the day comes when the possee finally catches up with the controlling symbols and myths of culture, when the curtain of the old wizard is finally pulled away, symbols and myths might be returned back to the people from which they were taken away so long ago.
© 2005 John Fraim. All rights reserved.