Social Media, Mythological Flows and Joseph Campbell’s Planet Wide Myth

Joseph Campbell, one of the preeminent scholars of mythology, said this about its future:

“You can’t predict what a myth is going to be any more than you can predict what you’re going to dream tonight. Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from realizations of some kind that have then to find expression in symbolic form. And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the entire planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it.” (From The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers)

However, Campbell’s planet wide myth won’t look like the religious, economic or political myths with which we’re familiar since it’s no longer possible to accumulate the critical mass of mythological truths necessary to ignite global mythologies in the ways of the past.  This is because:

Our individual circumstances vary so widely and our expectations of individualized solutions are so strong that any planet wide myth would need millions and possibly billions of different faces, and

Psychic knowledge starts depreciating and losing its potency as soon as it’s realized both because the world is changing so fast and because the scientific revolution has impoverished the imaginal environment in which archetypal truths simmer into myths.

The pace of change means that a myth would be obsolete for the early adopters before it propagated even partially across the planet and is part of a larger phenomenon that’s affecting knowledge of all kinds.  The Shift Index (Deloitte 2009,) which studied the “changes to the fundamentals of our…landscape catalyzed by the emergence and spread of digital technology infrastructure and reinforced by long-term…shifts toward…liberalization” (p 2) expresses it this way:

“…as the world becomes less predictable and faster changing, however, stocks of knowledge depreciate at a faster rate…(and)…to succeed now, companies and individuals have to continually refresh what they know by participating in relevant ‘flows’ of new knowledge.” (p 46)

The attack on the symbolic thinking at the core of mythology and the “denial of service” attacks on the Internet are motivated by the same nihilism that seeks to undermine our faith and interrupt the effectiveness of our icons.  Mythology has been utilizing what Umair Haque calls a G5 method:

“You can’t defend a centralized structure against a network attack in the traditional sense (just ask Twitter). But you can anti-defend against a network attack, by decentralizing your own resources to the edges… When resources are spread and replicated across as broad, diverse network of your own as possible, if one node goes down, the others stay up.”

I believe the combination of the shift from stocks to flows and the targeting of centralized symbols is Campbell’s planet wide “realization(s) of some kind that (has)… to find expression in symbolic form.”

However, the myth that expresses this realization can’t be in the familiar form because mythology itself is undergoing the Shift Index’s transformation from a landscape of stocks to one of flows as well as a process change that avoids the denial of service attacks by moving from a centralized, cultural process to the infinite edges.

If mythologists insist on looking for the traditional mythic form in the usual places because “that’s where it’s always been,” they’ll find a dwindling stock of increasingly arcane and irrelevant myths that survive only because they haven’t ignited our cultural imagination.

However, if they heed Campbell’s advice that “…you can’t predict what a myth is going to be,” they’ll notice that the Twitter stream and the constantly increasing pages and social content of the Internet are “talking about the entire planet” in a way that looks a lot like the “self revelation of the archetypal psyche” that Jung considered the essence of mythology. (Edward Edinger, The Eternal Drama, p 2)

Social media is replacing the persistent myth of the past with a system of mythological flows, which is much more suited to perform what Campbell, in “Creative Mythology,” describes as the four functions of mythology:

“The first function of a living mythology…is to waken and maintain in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect, in recognition of that ultimate mystery …” (p 609)

“The second function of a mythology is to render a cosmology, an image of the universe, and for this we all turn today, of course, not to archaic religious texts but to science.” (p 611)

“The third traditional mythological function (is the) validation and maintenance of an established order” (621) and “…the shaping of the individual to the requirements of his geographically and historically conditioned social group.” (p 5)

“The fourth, and most vital, most critical function of a mythology, then, is to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with d) himself (the microcosm), c) his culture (the mesocosm,) b) the universe (the macrocosm,) and a) that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things.” (p 6)

The first function’s “…recognition of that ultimate mystery” is now just a starting point because we’ve become active learners who are used to wakening and maintaining our own sense of awe.  Our curiosities have been empowered to hear their own unique call and we now ride a flow of hyperlinks to construct our own understanding instead of being instructed by a single mythological perspective.

For many of us, the physical universe of Campbell’s second function is increasingly a set of virtual multiverses that are in constant flux as new web sites, social media platforms and people are discovered.

It’s no longer science, but search engines that render the cosmologies and as those search results become universes themselves, we use the connections enabled by social media to navigate them.

The physical universe is still important, but for most of us, the scientific cosmology has long been more than adequate. The images we now want most are those of the perpetually morphing constructed worlds around us and for them we turn again to the online world of Google maps, Facebook friends, and the GPS.

The “geographically and historically conditioned social group” of Campbell’s third function has been eclipsed by a diverse multiplicity of physical and virtual networks with different archetypal structures and needs.

Rather than establishing and maintaining, we challenge and overthrow in what Joseph Schumpeter calledcreative destruction.

Instead of a persistent mythology which instructs us about a fixed vision of order and social requirements, we increasingly use a process that constructs order on an ongoing basis to meet the needs of our changing times and self-organizing networks.

The singular, hierarchical nature of Campbell’s fourth function is structurally inconsistent with our lateralized, networked world of pluralistic cultures, multiple universes and many, many ways into that awesome, ultimate mystery.

We unfold and our networks unfold in a constantly evolving process that happens differently for each of the billions of people on the planet.  It’s not a robust and preexistent mythology that fosters this blossoming, but access to mythological flows.

We need to heed Campbell’s warning from the “Flight of the Gander”:

“Wherever myths still are living symbols, the mythologies are teeming dream worlds of such images.  But wherever systematizing theologians have appeared and gained the day (the tough-minded in the gardens of the tender) the figures have become petrified into propositions.  Mythology is misread then as direct history or science, symbol becomes fact, metaphor dogma, and the quarrels of the sects arise, each mistaking its own symbolic signs for the ultimate reality – the local vehicle for its timeless, ineffable tenor.” (p 53)

If we don’t leave the comfort zone of our well constructed body of mythological knowledge, its systematic approach will petrify mythological stocks into an arcane and irrelevant proposition about the essence of mythological expression.  We can’t read mythmaking as the direct history of mythological thinking or use it to develop a science of the ineffable.  Even though it’s been relatively unchanged for thousands of years, the mythic structures we’ve inherited are only a local vehicle and the Internet and the world of social media are changing that vehicle.

The archetypal psyche has moved from the cloud of traditional deities to cloud computing where process heroes like Twitter now slay the timeless monsters of censorship, repression and alienation. The guides to the new places where the images are teeming with what Campbell called the “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life” are:

Instead of the collective psyche, myths will be formed by networks of individual psyches,

Rather than existing myths that continue to instruct us, mythological flows will let us construct ad hoc myths to accomplish whichever of Campbell’s functions the unique situation requires, and

Myths won’t emerge, solidify, persist and spread, but merge back into the flows once they’ve served their function.

What do you think?

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