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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

American Studies: Myth Criticism - Ideology Critique - Cultural Studies

There are a number of descriptions of American studies that serve to define the field. Interdisciplinarity is usually a common denominator: American studies

is a joint, interdisciplinary academic endeavor to gain systematic knowledge about American society and culture in order to understand the historical and present-day meaning and significance of the United States. (Fluck and Claviez, “Introduction” ix)

While various academic disciplines such as literary criticism, sociology, political science, history, economics, art history, geography, media studies, etc. engage in American studies, it is the discipline of cultural studies that allows us to connect e.g. political science to literature, art history to sociology, or history to economics and geography, and to integrate these various disciplinary perspectives into an American studies framework. Cultural studies has always operated as a discipline that in the field of American studies brings different approaches into dialog and that bridges disciplinary gaps. In what follows, all of those (sub)dis- ciplines of American studies will be relevant for my account of core myths of the US, as myths are not specific to one particular sector of American society but are part of the larger “biography” of a nation (Anderson, Imagined Communities 204), answer to “the need for a narrative of ‘identity’” (ibid. 205), and constitute the “National Symbolic” that is carried by “traditional icons, its metaphors, its heroes, its rituals, and its narratives” in order to “provide an alphabet for a collective consciousness or national subjectivity” (Berlant, Anatomy 20). Myth criticism therefore is relevant for analyzing political culture, sociological descriptions, historiographic accounts, literary texts, cartographical practices of mapping and naming, as well as national visual and commemorative culture, and may be concerned both with the semiotic as well as with the discursive dimensions of myths, i.e. with forms of (re)presentation as well as with their ideological function (cf. Hall, Representation). Myth criticism as practiced by literary and cultural critics, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, etc. has allotted quite different roles, meanings, and functions to myths; I will therefore briefly sketch some of these contributions to myth theory to arrive at a working definition of myth for the present volume.

One prominent branch of myth criticism has established a critical perspective on myths by contrasting them with “truth” (“logos”) or “scientific thought;” myth here is considered as false, fictional, anachronistic, “primitive,” or “pathological” (Claviez, Grenzfalle 14). Historically, myths have often been considered to be pre-modern constructions and interpretations of the world whose powers have been waning since the onset of the Age of Enlightenment. From this perspective, myth in modernity figures negatively as a tool of propaganda, political demagogy, and manipulation (as analyzed by Horkheimer and Adorno, cf. Dia- lektik 44). In the everyday use of the word ‘myth,’ which equates myth with falsehood, wishful thinking, or fiction, this meaning is still present.

The denigration of the nature and cultural work of myths as outlined above contrasts with myth theories by critics such as Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumen- berg, who have instead pointed to the function of myth as a way of making sense of the world. Cassirer does not consider myths normatively as anti- or irrational but instead holds that myth provides “its own kind of reality” and rationality (Philosophy 4). Whereas myth seems “to build up an entirely fantastic world on the one hand” (Cassirer, Language 45), it is a “symbolic expression” and a “work” of “artful expression” on the other (ibid. 46, 48). Myths are “objectiva- tions” (ibid. 47) of social experiences and contribute in meaningful ways to an intersubjective understanding of a culture or society. Cassirer’s description of myth addresses its internal logic, its formal structures, and its sociocultural function, not its subject matter. Philosopher Hans Blumenberg in Work on Myth further elaborated on the function of myth as a fundamental human activity to “overcome the archaic alterity of the world” (Wallace, Translator’s Introduction x) and to protect individuals from “the absolutism of reality” (Blumenberg, Work 3) by creating collective identities and solidarity. For Blumenberg, our need for myths does not dissolve with enlightenment thinking or positivistic rationality but rather figures as a timeless constant in the way we relate to the world at large (cf. ibid. 113).

Whereas it is debatable whether modern myths such as the ones discussed in this book can in fact be considered as a primary way of world-making, they are clearly part of a discursive formation and constitute a semiotic system that includes an intersubjective dimension. This intersubjective dimension, in my argument, works to establish the nation as an imagined community and extends to all those interpellated as members. The social function of myth as a popular belief system is to respond to an affective desire for ontological (re)assurance and operates in civil religious forms that create within a group (i.e., the ‘nation’) a semi-conscious yet deeply affective bond (cf. Bellah, “Civil Religion”) which can be experienced and articulated as a kind of “public feeling” (Stewart, Ordinary Affects 2). The “structures of feeling” (cf. Williams’s essay of the same title) that underlie these “public feelings” and “ordinary affects” sit at the intersection of individual experience and collectively intelligible explication.

Roland Barthes’s Mythologies more critically turns to the role of myth in everyday life. Barthes conceptualizes myth as “a system of communication” (Mythologies 109) and as a “metalanguage” (ibid. 115) which functions on the basis of, and like a language. For Barthes, myth criticism is equivalent to ideology critique, whose task it is to continually de-naturalize and deconstruct what seems self-evident, natural, and objective: “[M]yth is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things; in it, things lose the memory that they once were made” (ibid. 142). In this sense, myth may be instrumentalized to various ends: “Myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear” (ibid. 121). The definition of myth as a means of providing coherence is echoed by the definition of ideology as a system of cultural assumptions, or the discursive concatenation, the connectedness, of beliefs or values which uphold or oppose the social order, or which otherwise provide a coherent structure of thought that hides or silences the contradictory elements in social or economic formations. (Wolfreys, Keywords 101)

Sacvan Bercovitch has pointed out that scholars have often constructed a false opposition between “myth criticism and ideological analysis” which claims that myth criticism’s task is “to ‘appreciate’ it [myth, HP] from within, to explicate it ‘intrinsically,’ in its own ‘organic’ terms” (Rites 358), whereas by contrast, ideology “is [an] inherently suspect” “vehicle of culturally prescribed directives for thought and behaviour” whose analysis “uncover[s], rationally, the sinister effects of its fictions:” “[t]o criticize a piece of ideology is to see through it, to expose its historical functions, necessarily from an extrinsic, and usually from a hostile perspective” (ibid.). This “double standard” (ibid.) obscures the ideological dimension/appropriation of myth and mythic texts; it is exactly this dual quality of myth - as meaningful self-representation and as ideological investment - that I will engage with in this study.

In the field of political science, Christopher Flood and Herfried Munkler have also argued against an earlier normative approach that eyed myths suspiciously and unilaterally as tools of political indoctrination without denying that political myths serve an ideological function. Flood examines mythmaking in political discourses in modern societies in the 19th and 20th centuries at the intersection of politics, (sacral) mythology, and ideology (cf. Political Myth). Herfried Munkler has redeemed the study of political myths as an integral part of discursively constructed modern national identities that should not be dismissed offhandedly as irrelevant or anachronistic. Pulling together much of earlier myth criticism (cf. Burkert, Structure; Barthes, Mythologies; Cassirer, Language; cf. also Berlant, Anatomy), Munkler identifies three aspects of myths: 1) (repetitive) ritual as the oldest manifestation of mythical thinking, 2) the narrative form of myth as a kind of storytelling, and 3) the visual and iconic dimension of the representation of a myth (cf. Die Deutschen). Again, it is the civil religious, not the purely religious aspect that is foregrounded and explored with regard to a national and cultural imaginary. All of these dimensions - the ritualistic iteration of myths in cultural practices, their various narrative patterns, and their visual quality and iconicity - will be addressed in each chapter of the present study.

Yet, the different ways in which we encounter myths in politics, art, literature, memorial culture, etc. do not exhaust the power and complexity of myth and do not even wholly explicate its meaning. We only know myth through our work on the workings of it, Blumenberg suggests, and we can never grasp myth fully through rational or other forms of explication, as it exceeds complete semiotic access. In fact, “its function may be the ‘only knowable aspect’ that it possesses for us” (Wallace, Translator’s Introduction xviii), whereas for the community of its believers, for whom its ontological status is evident, it presents the “holy truth” (Flood, Political Myth 32). Ideology critique is limited by the dynamic and at the same time self-effacing character of myth and by the fact that its ideological core settles into collectively shared tacit knowledge, or what could also be called the “political unconscious” (cf. Jameson’s book of the same title) or a “state fantasy” (cf. Pease, New American Exceptionalism 1-39). Similar to Sigmund Freud, who finds mythical patterns in the unconscious (cf. Die Traumdeutung), Slavoj Zizek identifies the “unknown known” (cf. “What Rumsfeld”) as part of our internalized ideological repertoire, which works effectively precisely because it is that “which cannot be named” (Pease, New American Exceptionalism 17). It is this implicit quality of myth that immunizes it against criticism time and again and accounts for its longevity and its capacity for make- believe in spite of obvious contradictions.

The historical ‘making’ of American national myths defies the assumption that myths lose their power and interpretive authority and become obsolete with the development of modern democratic societies; quite to the contrary: it is with the formation of the USA as a nation and republic in the late 18th century in the context of enlightenment thinking and a natural rights philosophy that a set of modern national myths emerge or ‘are made’ in the name of an exceptionalist American nationalism:

Nothing in the history of American nationalism is more impressive than the speed and the lavishness with which Americans provided themselves with a usable past: history, legends, symbols, paintings, sculpture, monuments, shrines, holy days, ballads, patriotic songs, heroes, and - with some difficulty - villains. (Commager, Search 13)

It seems as if the anthropological and psychosocial dimensions of myths are of central importance to a national discourse that appropriates universality as an “American universality” (Claviez, Grenzfalle 16). The evolution of this “American universality” has been reconstructed by Richard Slotkin, who applied Jungian archetypes to a national context in order to critically identify specifically American archetypal patterns and the way in which they have been encoded in American myths. For Slotkin, “[a] myth is a narrative which concentrates in a single dramatised experience the whole history of a people in their land” by “reducing centuries of experience into a constellation of compelling metaphors”

(Regeneration 269; 8). In the context of memory studies, Jan Assmann has described myth, somewhat similar to Roland Barthes, as “‘hot’ memory” whose foundational function it is to affirm the present as predestined and self-evident (Das kulturelle Gedachtnis 78); I use ‘foundational’ in much the same way. Some of the myths that I address commemorate a glorious past (Columbus, Pocahontas, the Pilgrims and Puritans, the Founding Fathers) and connect myth to cultural memory and its various archives, while others (the melting pot, the West, and the self-made man) are myths of (geographic, cultural, and social) mobility that commemorate events and developments in the past but also envision the future of America. Yet, in Assmann’s model, a myth is not necessarily always foundational but may also have a second function, namely to draw attention to a deficit between the commemorated mythic past and the lived-in present - this ‘counter-presentist’ effect may trigger social and political change, and instigate revolutionary acts.

In the context of American culture, Sacvan Bercovitch has identified the American jeremiad, a motivational sermon in the Puritan tradition, as a pervasive rhetorical structure that continually acknowledges such a deficit and postpones the closing of the gap between the ‘foundational’ and the ‘presentist’ dimension of myth without reneging on the promise of America and its utopian qualities. Even as the American jeremiad asserts that people have fallen from their (original) biblical, spiritual, or moral standard, it offers and embraces a second chance to return to or to fully realize the ideal public life with all its benefits for the individual and the community (cf. Bercovitch, American Jeremiad). The American jeremiad can be considered a make-believe rhetoric that time and again affirms the ideological content of American mythology by smoothing over social and political discontent and by camouflaging social and political deficiencies. Such deficiencies are addressed more specifically by Donald Pease in his account of the US after the end of the ‘Cold War’ and 9/11, where he identifies precisely this kind of ‘gap’ between the national belief system and presentist experiences. According to Pease, it is the “state fantasy work” - the state fantasy being “the dominant structure of desire out of which US citizens imagined their national identity” (New American Exceptionalism 1) - that closes the gap between (the old) myth (of the ‘Cold War’ era) and (the new post-9/11) reality as the new situation exceeds the old myth’s interpretive powers:

Myths normally do the work of incorporating events into recognizable national narratives. But traumatic events precipitate states of emergency that become the inaugural moments in a different symbolic order and take place on a scale that exceeds the grasp of the available representations from the national mythology. Before a national myth can narrate events of this magnitude, the state fantasy that supplies the horizon of expectations orienting their significance must have already become symbolically effective. (ibid. 5)

The “state fantasy” in times of crisis then facilitates an adaptation of old myths to a new situation in a way that does not shake the social and political order “by inducing citizens to want the national order they already have” (ibid. 4). In this logic, American exceptionalism is reiterated and reinvigorated as a state fantasy (or a state of fantasy; cf. ibid. 20); when examining what Pease calls “the new American exceptionalism,” he in fact diagnoses the rerouting and ultimate “return of the national mythology” after 9/11, in which the “virgin land” becomes “ground zero” (ibid. 153). A study of American myths in historical perspective, then, is in no way obsolete, nor is it stating the obvious; even as we have come a long way since the beginnings of the Myth and Symbol School, the entanglements between historical myth and contemporary ideology are as complex as they have ever been.

To sum up the most salient aspects of this introduction’s discussion of myth: First, a discursive rather than normative definition of myth is informing contemporary myth criticism as well as the analyses in the following chapters. Second, myth criticism needs to take into account the relationship between myth and ideology. Third, the power of myths derives from a seemingly paradoxical structure that involves longevity and continuity as well as variety and flexibility. Fourth, myth becomes manifest in narratives, icons, and rituals. Fifth, the tacit dimension of myth is part of its power to perform and to regulate the “political unconscious.” The following chapters will discuss US foundational mythology within this framework.

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