Re: myth & ideology

Somniferum (2453mauri@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Sun, 7 Apr 1996 19:59:20 EDT

Calo's question seems to probe toward the soul of anthropology itself, in a
calm sort of way. The category of "myth," like "culture," conjures up the
very realm into which anthropologists peer. And just as we have only
gradually and reluctantly shifted our anthropological gaze closer, by
degrees, toward home, so have we hesitantly begun to admit that there might
be myths among us.

Calo seems to raise at least two distinct questions: 1) From where do we
look on the mythologies and ideologies of other people; how do we know that
their beliefs can be understood in mechanical or structural/functional
terms--that is, subordinate to a larger system that we but not they
understand (i.e. our beliefs)--while we know our own beliefs to be really
true and 2) How do all these understandings and beliefs, cosmologies,
weltanschauungen--their myths and our true knowledge--interact?

Because the category of myth/ideology designates fiction, it is seldom
applied to our own selves; it is a heuristic device generally used to
describe the transparent beliefs held by other people in terms of our more
encompassing understanding. The difference between myth and ideology, as
Calo pointed out, seems to be that while we might know people with
ideologies, myths are always held by far away or ancient peoples. That the
mythic has entered our fold in the form of "ideological pluralism" seems to
say something about our culture: perhaps our understanding of truth has
become more plastic as we find ourselves confronted by an increasing
multiplicity of truths, or maybe truth has become less incisive as we
develop more ways to manipulate and produce it. Justine, however, didn't
seem willing to accept the proposition that her own personal truths might
also be malleable. Many anthropologists feel the same way.

Marshall Sahlins describes how we can understand other people's mythologies
and ideologies from a Kroeberian, satellite's-eye-view. Sahlins, the
anthropologist-in-the-sky, explains in >Historical Metaphors and Mythic
Realities< how the Hawaiians understood Captain Cook in literally
mythological terms--as the god Lono. While Sahlins readily explains how
Hawaiians operated in a completely mythological world which he blithely
describes for us, he does not even consider that his own received
understanding of Cook and the discovery of Hawaii might itself be
mythological--a point taken up by Gananath Obeyesekere in >The Apotheosis
of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific<. Obeyesekere's
approach to the same events carries far more poignancy, for me, largely
because he reverses Sahlins' description and reveals the elaborate European
myths of Cook, his "apotheosis," the discovery of Hawaii and the behavior
of the Hawaiians. Obeyesekere not only shows that myths can operate in
dynamic and creative ways but that "natives" have no monopoly on myth
making. He demonstrates that this category is far more useful and revealing
if it is applied to anthropologists, British sea captains and historians as
well as 18th century Hawaiians. In this way Obeyesekere has taken a
venerable and anachronistic tool, fashioned by Victorian anthropologists
like Tylor and Frazer, which seemed worn out and un-subtle and has found a
new and fruitful application for it by recognizing "myth models" in all

Mythic or ideological processes have been recognized in our own western
civilization for some time, even if anthropologists were slow to catch on.
I think Marx's analysis of commodities (and their fetishization, for
example), not to mention his treatment of Napoleon III, went a long way
toward describing how we all work with ideologies and how they function in
society. More recently Foucault continued this line of inquiry when he
described "apparatuses of knowledge" and pointed out that the exercise of
power inevitably engenders particular truths and vice-versa.

--Marcus Aurin