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Culture and Mythos:
A Radical Exploration of Systemic Change
By Georgia Kelly
“Hope remains only in the most difficult task of all: to reconsider everything from the ground up, so as to shape a living society inside a dying society.” - Albert Camus
In a scene from the film, Ulysses’ Gaze, Harvey Keitel is drinking with a friend in a Belgrade bar. The Yugoslav war is raging. In a mood of escalating intoxication, the duo toasts a string of people they knew years earlier. In the end, Keitel stands, lifts his glass and proposes a toast: “To the world that has not changed though we have dreamed so much!”
As the senselessness of war meets with cynicism and resignation, we seem trapped in a mythos that limits human nature and human possibility. Why has the world not changed? Why do the same wars recycle generation after generation? What are we not seeing? And, how is our cultural mythos blinding us to real alternatives?
While it is not possible to witness our history with its endless cycles of war and exploitation and still be a total optimist, it is important to avoid the self-fulfilling cynicism that perpetuates war and exploitation. Apathy and cynicism are enablers of the status quo. Inquiry, imagination, vision, and civic engagement can build the foundation for a transformed mythos.
The dictionary defines mythos as “ the pattern of basic values and historical experiences of a people.” Mythos informs belief systems, worldviews, morals, and values. Mythos contains stories that make sense of the world and determine what is and is not believable. These stories provide context for how we define the world and ourselves.
In “The European Dream,” Jeremy Rifkin outlines the inner workings of a mythos by citing historical signposts that led from the medieval age to the modern era. Rifkin credits Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes with shaping the modern scientific method, a method that objectified knowledge and removed the observer from the observed. Clearly, the scientific method represented a major step forward in science but it also led to the objectification of nature, advancing notions of its exploitation and conquest.
The technology, religions, economic systems, and political philosophies that developed in the past millennium have all converged to maintain what Riane Eisler calls the "dominator system" of social organization. There appears to be a pattern of unconscious social agreements that acts to preserve the dominator system by making adjustments to new input while systematically avoiding transformational change.
The Power of Culture
The discovery of a new theory or a technological invention does not guarantee a step forward in all directions. We are still confronted with the underlying story, or cultural mythos, that sets the context for the social, political, and economic consequences of these inventions and discoveries.
The telegraph was heralded as an invention that would prevent war because misunderstandings would cease to exist when immediate communication was available. This romanticizing of the invention did not take into account the other reasons for war. Are we in danger of romanticizing the Internet today? And can we anticipate where this invention might be co-opted in order to support the dominator mythos?
Mythos can adjust to new technology without disturbing the basic cultural belief system. For example, the birth-control pill changed women’s relationship to sex by giving them more control over pregnancy. But the pill did not disturb the underlying dominator paradigm. Women do not have equal power with men in political or economic realms, nor are the qualities we associate with “the feminine” equally valued in our culture. The deeply embedded stories — like the ones maintaining dominator patterns of social organization — operate through unconscious social patterns. Assumptions about advances like the birth-control pill tend to generalize from one part of our mythos to the whole. It is similar to learning selective lessons from history. One invention or one lesson from history does not seriously threaten the mythos of a culture.
Returning to Rifkin’s signposts: The scientific method helped define a dominator relationship to nature, and Descartes thought of transforming nature into a resource. Political philosopher John Locke took this idea a step further and questioned the “Worth” of Nature, insisting that “undeveloped land is wasted land.” These ideas eventually combined to define Nature and land as commodities.
When Adam Smith advanced the idea of an unregulated market, the concept of “values” became tied to property and commodities. The religious counterpart was expressed in the Protestant Ethic, where one’s position to God was reflected in one's success in the material world. Every part of the new story was emerging to support a materialistic, dominator model of social, political, and economic organization. The dominator system was not new. It has been the primary mythos throughout recorded history. But, the way it manifests in each age is different, so it looks like a revolution of sorts. New inventions like the printing press, Internet, the telephone, or genetic engineering seem to herald revolutionary changes, but they are really more like changes to the interior of the bus, while the mythos continues to drive the bus and determine the route.
Consider the meaning of the word “revolution.” In Latin, the word “revolvo” means to roll backwards, to turn back around. It signifies the next turning in the cycle, but it does not imply evolution. Just as going round and round in a revolving door doesn’t lead anywhere new, so revolutions circle back on themselves, changing the faces in power or the outer experiences, but they change very little on a systemic level. As the philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote: “In every revolution, there seems to have been a historical moment when the struggle against domination might have been victorious…. but the moment passed.” Perhaps, the unexamined cultural story is what allowed the moment to pass.
By contrast, evolution describes a different kind of movement. The Latin word “evolvo,” means to roll out, to roll forth, to roll open. To evolve implies getting out of the cycle of revolution and counterrevolution. It also implies a mutation that jumps out of a cycle and provides the scaffolding for something different --- perhaps another type of cultural and personal infrastructure.
Author and philosopher Sam Keen says, “We are hypnotized by our culture from birth.” This is a sobering thought. It affirms the importance of understanding our conditioning before we begin talking about alternatives. The critical question is do we understand the myths and culture that have conditioned us? Do we understand how they have framed the way we think, believe and behave?
Metaphor from a Trickster
To date, our cultural mythos and mythic figures have kept the dominator stories alive and thriving. In order to move beyond their power, we might borrow an analogy from Carlos Casteneda who suggested that we “look for our hands in our dreams.” Such an exercise in self-consciousness, a way of becoming awake while captive within the dream, gives the dreamer a way to influence its outcome. Like the appearance of the monolith that marked an evolutionary mutation in the film 2001, finding our hands in our dreams is also a mutation. We move from passive observer to active observer to one who influences outcome.
Finding the equivalent of our "hands" in our social dream, or mythos, might also give us the power to become, possibly for the first time in recorded history, conscious co-creators of our story, co-creators of our mythos ---- co-creators who can consciously influence the outcome of inventions, technology, politics, economics, and science. It means understanding where we have come from (our history), where we are (the prevailing mythos), and where we want to go from here (the vision). What sort of world do we want to live in? We need to imagine and create that story. Technology cannot supply the story, although ascribing transformative qualities to technology seems to be part of our mythos.
Do Alternatives to the Dominator Model Exist?
Yes. The city-state of Dubrovnik was an intentional alternative creation. In the early 1200s, the founding members of Dubrovnik conspired to create a state that would not engage in war. Deciding that a monarchy or long-term ruler would threaten the peace, the council elected a city Rector for a one-month term. After thirty days, the Rector returned to his seat on the city council. Proficient in the ways of diplomacy and intent on long-term stability, Dubrovnik’s City Council maintained peace and prosperity in their city-state for nearly 600 years. It is important to note that states on all sides of Dubrovnik were often at war, but never with Dubrovnik. Nor did Dubrovnik ever seek to conquer territory.
It is unlikely that you have ever heard of Dubrovnik’s history. Because of our cultural bias, we learn very little about cultures that don’t engage in warfare or amass territory. We have been raised with heroes; Dubrovnik didn’t have heroes. We have been raised in a highly competitive culture; Dubrovnik citizens were raised in a cooperative and peacemaking culture. Stories about peacemaking cultures are omitted from our history books.
The Praxis Peace Institute series “Reinventing Civilization: An Exploration of Culture and Mythos,” is designed as an inquiry. [See info at the end of this story.] This means we will not suggest “solutions” before we begin the exploration. Inquiry is about asking the relevant questions.
Our minds have been trained to want answers -- even before the questions have been explored. To be in a state of not knowing is uncomfortable: we feel vulnerable, exposed. Perhaps having to know “the answer” is a neurosis of our linear dominator thinking. Historian and feminist Gerda Lerner advised us to “be skeptical toward every known system of thought, all assumptions, ordering values, and definitions, and to be critical of our thought, which has been trained” in the system we are critiquing.
While we will explore myths and stories from other cultures, it will not be to romanticize them or to enshrine them with messianic status. The notion of heroes, saviors, and celebrities props up the dominator system. The challenge is to maintain the inquiry, formulate the relevant questions, and resist the temptation to romanticize the new or newly discovered. Hopefully, the integrity of maintaining that challenge will reveal the components of systemic change and allow us to create peaceful, just, and respectful societies in the twenty-first century. Let our goal be this toast: “To the world that has changed so much because we have awakened in our dream.”
Georgia Kelly is the founder and director of Praxis Peace Institute, a non-profit peace education organization in Sonoma. She has organized weeklong conferences (two in Dubrovnik, Croatia and one in Monterey, CA) on issues dealing with peace and democracy. She is also a harpist, composer and recording artist. For more information on the "Reinventing Civilization" series, contact: Praxis Peace Institute, www.praxispeace.org. (707) 939-2973.
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