In Virginia, at the Commonwealth University in Richmond. I flew into Washington last night, where my friends kindly picked me up, and took me to their home in Charlottesville. Vika works at the University here, and drove me over this morning at dawn. Fortunately the time difference is working in my favour, I sprang out of bed at six as though it were midday. The man who invited me to the conference, Leon Zamosc, is speaking in the second half of our extended session on a concept called the ‘Vivir Bien’, supposedly an indigenous alternative to development, coming out of Bolivia, and rapidly adopted in other countries (see my conference paper here).
He opens with Roland Barthes, who fascinated me as an undergraduate. I remember buying his slim book of Mythologies (1957) and reading it on Jesus Green in the summer sunshine after exams. Myths have always fascinated me. Mythologies takes aspects of the 1950s Paris which Barthes experienced, from strippers to Citröens, and in a couple of pages unmasks their meanings. A classic example is the young black soldier in French uniform that Barthes found staring out from the cover of a Paris Match magazine handed to him one afternoon in the hairdressers. The youth stares, eyes uplifted, at what the context gives us to imagine might well be a French flag, seemingly in patriotic fervour.
The image is made to serve a specific set of meanings, normalising French colonialism. Situated as it is on the cover of the magazine, Barthes says, it is meant to indicate that France’s colonies are happy- for look at the zeal with which this young African is serving. The image itself might well be rich textually, but is seen here seen without its context- such as the background story of this young man, who may have suffered in colonial wars, who may have been a child soldier, who may be looking at something other than the French flag, whose expression might be more of desperation than of patriotic fervour- which would stop it from serving this nationalist mythology. We know that this is the story the image is meant to serve as this is the story, in Paris of the 1950s, that one expected to see everywhere. Various symbols are re-appropriated to serve this same set of meanings. The symbols thus lose, Barthes indicates, their own meanings or ‘presence’, which- “recedes a little, becomes the accomplice of… French imperiality: once made use of, it becomes artificial” (1957:117).
Such myths are all around us now- take for example the poppy, meant to be a sign of remembrance of the blood spilled on the fields of Flanders in an unnecessary war, ‘lest we forget’ how dreadful the fighting was and return to it. But we know, once we see the poppy image accompanied by Winston Churchill’s ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech, as it was during the 2003 Iraq war, that it rather becomes a symbol of the wounded soldiers of the ceaseless conflicts in which we as a nation engage, and of which we as people can rarely explain the real causes. Tony Blair has today in the US apologised for this war, which at the time we were given to believe was about destroying chemical weapons. These of course turned out to be non-existent, as we have known for many years. The other mythological motive was replacing Saddam Hussein with a liberal, enlightened, tolerant regime. In fact as Blair admitted, ISIS have evolved as a result of the years of confusion and wanton violence the invasion, subsequent repression of the Iraquis (remember the images of Abu Graib) and attempts to ‘invest’ in the country (including its vast oil reserves) have generated. Well might he apologise.
In the case of the other big contemporary war, Afghanistan, we have a vague idea in Britain that it is something to do with setting up girls’ schools and fighting a nebulous entity called ‘Al-Qaeda’, for reasons that are unclear and might be to do with someone driving a plane into the twin towers in New York over a decade ago. Adam Curtis has recently explored how the British presence in Afghanistan has stirred up existing conflicts in this war torn country, where there are no clear bad or good guys, and everyone calls their enemies Al-Qaeda that the well meaning men of English inner cities might blow them up with their sophisticated weaponry and well- trained manoeuvres. The poppy becomes a vastly ironic mythic symbol of this unnecessary, endless war, as the wealth of Afghanistan, much fought over, is its fields of opium poppies. These are the result, Curtis explains, of reservoirs built by Americans in the 1950s, which caused the salt level in the soil to rise, creating ideal conditions for cultivating poppies, and little else. World powers then proceeded to fight amongst themselves within its borders over this considerable wealth, each training local militias. The poppy ceases to be a manipulated myth, and becomes a truth, a ‘real’ myth
In the Andes indigenous identities become used in a mythological way. Contemporary Bolivian or Ecuadorian politics puts on a ch’ullu or classic woolly earflap cap wreathes itself in coca leaves, and calls itself indigenous. To westerners, like ourselves, the indigenous are ‘the people outside of capitalism’, ecologists, not consumers. As soon as someone appropriates their imagery we assume they are this ideal interconnected other, immune to the temptations of capitalism, which myth can then be manipulated to cover up a multitude of sins. Under the ‘indigenous’ government of Evo Morales in Bolivia, the exploitation of natural resources and especially hydrocarbons is speeding up, not slowing down, on vast tracts of natural areas including Amazonian forests, and if any ‘bow and arrow’ Indians, as they are known, get in the way, then they’d better move sharpish, constitutional rights or no. Woolly caps and coca leaves become mythologies of ecology, as poppies are mythologies of peace, taken into new contexts and losing their original meanings to serve someone else’s agenda.
I was late for the presentation before Leon Zamosc’s, which touched on the main theme I work on, Andean understandings of climate change. Climate change among the highland peasants with whom I study is understood mythologically. They talk about it in terms of the contamination of an atmosphere that is at once a collection of particles and a god, a divine conscious presence surrounding us, mixing the seen and unseen, what we would call science and myth. There is a difference, I tried to explain in the time allocated after the papers for questions, between myths which are manipulated, as Leon describes, and ‘real’ myths, myth as a lens of understanding, of translating and explaining the world, which imaginatively includes the unseen but is not less, and sometimes much more, ‘true’ than ‘reality’.
The search for the ‘real’ behind the endless manipulation of the stories that surround us everyday, leading us into the ‘unreal’ of capitalism, is I realised listening to Leon is why mythology has always so fascinated me, and what I am seeking for, looking to understand the world in ways that are clearer and less self serving than the media myths surrounding us. Steve Jobs, as the central character in I, Robot, said in the episode I watched last night, was held up as a hero, even when we knew workers in his Chinese factories were committing suicide in unprecedented numbers as their working conditions were so awful, whilst he became one of the wealthiest men in the world. The series swiftly and concisely dismantles this myth of heroism. Unravelling these manipulated myths we can see the truth behind them, and using real myth as a frame for understanding the world, I hope we can reclaim the realm of the imagination.