The Artifact of our Unconscious – How Myth Creates our Future.

Humans are story-telling culture-dwellers. Our stories serve to create our culture, to shape it, and our culture, in turn, shapes and helps to create our stories. Just as we are culturally over-determined and biologically under-determined, it can be argued that our culture is mythologically over-determined and environmentally under-determined.

The Map is Not the Territory

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is a generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

– Jean Baudrillard –

Human beings are story-telling culture-dwellers. We perfected the building of complex inhabitable narratives long before we turned our minds to designing physical structures. In fact, our narratives, both individual and collective, are the foundations upon which anything we’ve invented or created in the physical world is built upon. Our individuals narratives are not separate from the collective story. Just as many individual bricks can build a great and enduring temple so to the stories we tell are the bricks that create and shape our culture. However, unlike bricks our individual narratives are not static. Neither in size nor position in the greater structure. There is a feedback loop at work here, and the narrative temple we co-create is an ever evolving, growing, and changing abstraction. Each individual brick it is built from is integrated and the temple changes scope and shape to some degree. But our bricks are not static, because they are our creations, our offerings to the temple, and as the scope and shape of the temple changes our stories change and the bricks we offer the narrative temple and are themselves altered. This narrative feedback loop is what we call mythology.

It has been said that humans, being story-telling culture-dwellers, are culturally over-determined and biologically under-determined (meaning, more of who we are is determined by that narrative temple then by biology). Certainly, biology represents the unyielding barriers within which this narrative feedback loop takes place, and there is no refuting that. However, those barriers cannot properly be said to comprise any of the “who” or “why” we are, at least not in any existential experiential measure of what it is to be human. Those biological limits are the “what” we are, and everything else is the territory we can explore, create, and define for ourselves. This is the land of the temple, the narrative soil within which we are rooted, and upon which that great temple springs forth. So if we understand the topology of this land as being culturally over-determined we can begin to understand why in order to know lay of this land it is necessary to understand culture, and our relationship to it. So what we are is biological, but who and why we are culturally determined. And the who and why vastly outweighs the what from our perspective within this experience.

Humans are to Culture as Cells are to the Brain.

Just as we are culturally over-determined and biologically under-determined it can be argued that our culture is mythologically over-determined and environmentally under-determined. Or, to be more precise, mythological memes, and how they cause us to interact with our environment, are the wellspring from which culture arises (vis. the bricks). It is easy to understand how our environment affects our culture. People from dry, arid, regions develop a markedly different attitude toward water, and the uses of it, than do indigenous peoples originating in wetter areas. Hunter-gatherers view the land differently than do settled, agrarian pastorialists. Modern man views the objects of the heavens vastly different than did an ancient Greek or Egyptian. For our ancient ancestors the heavens were another part of the earth, for us they’ve been reduced to mere rock, ice, and inert gases.

What we know, or rather come to believe, changes us and makes us into what we are. Yet how can it be that humans determine culture, and culture determines who we are, yet we seem unable – on a macrocosmic scale – to be able to determine ourselves. We are at the whim of our cultural creations and know not what we create, why we create them, nor oftentimes where it comes from within us.

It seems apparent, then, that our stories come from some deep mass unconscious. They are not purposeful conscious creations but rather unconscious amalgams of ideas that humanity picks over and adopts piecemeal until a grand mythological mosaic is arrived at. A look at any culture’s mythology will tell you much about the identity of that culture. In that way, because we look to our mythology to tell us whom we are, where we are, and where are going, it can be said that mythology is also a road map – if deciphered – of where we, as a culture, are going. The direction we are evolving in. Because of this it can be argued that mythology, especially the eschatological ideas of the cultural West, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we understand and control our mythological expression, it stands to reason that we can shape our culture, and consequently our future.

Mythology is an artifact, a tool of creation, and a template for both acculturization and inspiration. Humanity invented myth, created it – and myth, in turn, creates and invents us. Although we did not consciously create mythology, we interact with it in such a manner. Therefore mythology’s purpose is extremely important. Joseph Campbell, speaking about the operation of myth describes it as having four functions. The first two relate to the mystical, spiritual aspects of human existence, and these do impact culture to a great extent, but we should not seek to actively control one’s spiritual, or metaphysical, self discovery. The third and fourth functions of myth, however, are controllable – and meant to be that way.

Campbell says, “The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order” (Campbell, Pg. 31). Yet he cautions us that, “it is the sociological function of myth that has taken over the world – and it is out of date” (Campbell, Pg. 31). Campbell understands that the old mythology is failing, and that we need a new one. In fact, shortly after the above passage he says, “[the] fourth function of myth… is the pedagogical function” (Campbell, Pg. 31). Not only then is mythology a means for human self-exploration, but also for human socialization. If mythology can be considered a tool, or artifact, than it most surely is the most multi-function tool humans have ever invented. It is both the lock and the key, the cage and the wing, for the experiential human endeavor. Clearly, from this perspective, our stories own us. We own them only in the manner that a conductor owns a runaway train. We may sit atop them, they may have been created solely for the conduct and transportation of ourselves, but we are utterly at their whim, and our future depends on their course. And like just as that train has mechanisms to slow it down, alter its course, or affect it in any way, so to does myth.

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to to hell.” ~ C. G. Jung
Myth, Metaphor, and Art

The fount of artistic inspiration is called a muse, seen as an agent outside the self, yet we all know an artist is not receiving any messages, or outside directions. Or are they? Perhaps the muse is something deep within us all, but yet something we are not in complete control of, something that operates both within and without the Self. Carl Jung referred to this thing as the unconscious mind. It operated, he contended apart from our conscious mind, and outside of our conscious control. Saying, “the specialist soon realizes that unconscious contents of the mind behave as if they were conscious and that you can never be sure… whether thought, speech, or action is conscious or not” (Jung, Pg. 19). It is from the unconscious Self that our mythological archetypes arise, these archetypes – as Jung would describe them – are repeated representations of a certain motif, or idea. He says, “There are, for instance, many representations of the motif of the hostile brethren, but the motif itself remains the same” (Jung, Pg. 58).

Speaking of artists Campbell says, “Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is simply trapped by the image out there so that you never make reference to yourself, you have misread the image” (Campbell, Pg. 57). So even though we should be able to alter and shape our future by understanding the ways which our stories affect us and by acquiring some amount of control over our cultural memes, I do not think this is possible because nature will outpace us at each step of the game. We will always be responding to old archetypes and as soon as we do take control over any certain meme, new ones will spring forth from our unconscious. In the end we, as a collective, cannot truly own our stories because they stem from the mass unconscious and represent disparate voices of all cultures. All we can hope for is to consciously interact with them.

That being said culture is not a conscious creation; it is a process, organically evolved from the chaotic randomness of human experience and interaction and the causes and effects of our thoughts and actions. In fact it is that chaotic randomness, that entropy of nature, that is the manner in which the entire universe operates. From the collisions of vast spiraling galaxies to the interactions of subatomic quanta. The ancient Greeks identified it as the Golden Ratio: A physical expression of the mathematical randomness, and formulaic chaos that is the basic, foundational, constitution of the universe. Fractals initiated by desultory and chaotic interactions inevitably take on an ordered appearance. They progress spirally according to the Golden Ratio.

This is a ubiquitous phenomenon that is represented in all aspects of the observable universe. Humans are part of the universe so there is no reason not to assume that everything in the human sphere operates according to this basic principle as well. It is from this perspective that I say culture is a fractal set. Memes spiral off tangentially after set into motion, and like all aspects of nature culture interacts in a way seeking balance, stasis. Therefore chaos is ultimately a means to order, both in quantum physics and human culture. Meddling, no matter how well-intentioned, may not produce the results we either desired or expected. A word of caution should precede any conscious interaction with our unconscious mind.

In taking control over the meme it loses its power. Only when it functions purely as an agent of the unconscious does it become alive, anything else – anything consciously directed – is mere metaphor, art, a simulacrum. We can feed it back into the system, but we cannot yet predict what it will interact with once inside, or how. Because we cannot readily access the true wellspring of mythic expression we can never truly control it. The unconscious mind is always a step ahead of the conscious mind. The unconscious, in its own way, knows everything. It is, in fact, the majority of who we are. We can feed our unconscious habits, knowledge, and experiences. We can practice altering our conscious interactions with all things, and in these ways we have a fraction of power. We can change the unconscious mind by changing ourselves, but the purposes, motivations, and activations of the unconscious mind will forever remain out of our touch. Jung described the conscious and unconscious minds as being like the universe; the earth is our conscious mind, and everything else, the planets, the stars, and all the innumerable other galaxies in the infinite expanse of space is our unconscious mind. We seek to mend the schism between them, to consciously interact with our unconscious. This was Jung’s idea of wholeness, and it is what we are striving for both as individuals and as a civilization.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday. 1988.

Jung, Carl, et al. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing. 1964.