Recently I came across the following “pearl”,
Gender is a myth, like the rest of the physical world.
The physical world is not “a myth”. Period. Full stop. On the other hand, gender certainly would appear to be mythical, myth being a cultural narrative explaining the physical world. In the case of gender, it is myth that explains, names, sex.
SO what exactly is myth? That is a tangled question. Lincoln rejects all the chaff of religiosity, collectivity, and veracity and pares things down to the kernel.
Having invoked the category of “myth,” however, in a context where it is not commonly applied, it is useful to indicate how I use this term and why it seems appropriate. To begin, I would reject three widely accepted notions. First, myths are not sacred narratives. Although many myths claim sacred status, in this they misrecognize their own nature, for they are human stories, like any other. They simply make more exaggerated claims to a more elevated kind of authority. Second, myths are not collective narratives or the speech of any group as a whole. Rather, they are stories that are told and retold in countless variants. Often the authorship of these variants is unacknowledged, forgotten, or deliberately hidden, but in its details each variant advances the specific interests of those responsible for its production, revision, and circulation. These anonymous agents and absent authors misrepresent themselves-and those for whom they speak- as the group as a whole. Third, myths are neither false stories, nor true, but simply stories that claim to speak with authority about issues of deep importance. Sometimes these claims succeed and sometimes they fail, and the same story can change its status over time from myth to fable and back again, since such status is a function of reception.
If myths are not sacred, not collective, not true or false, what distinguishes them from other narratives? My best attempt at definition runs as follows: Myth is ideology in narrative form. More precisely, mythic discourse deals in master categories that have multiple referents: levels of the cosmos, terrestrial geographies, plant and animal species, logical categories, and the like. Their plots serve to organize the relations among these categories and to justify a hierarchy among them, establishing the rightness (or at least the necessity) of a world in which heaven is above earth, the lion the king of beasts, the cooked more pleasing than the raw. Sometimes issues of human society are given explicit attention-in stories that treat the relations of men and women, uncles and nephews, our tribe and its neighbors, etcetera – and sometimes these are left implicit, as when stories about lions serve to make points about royalty. But always this concern to rank (or to recalibrate the ranking of) human groups is present, and this is the most consequential aspect of any mythic story. 1.
Doty, who wrote a handbook on myth, would largely agree with Lincoln, though he quotes Manfred Frank to the effect that, “The correct definition of myth exists as little as the correct definition of human being itself.”2
I recall in the ‘70s, between “Social Construction of Reality” 3 and “Dancing Wu Li Masters” 4, that many were going “off the rails” because they could not differentiate between a thing and a description or label for a thing. Somehow, just because it seemed we had different ideas of what a thing was,
So while some poo-poo’d the programmers (an up and coming demographic whose impact on society would soon see all those snickers rattle in the throats of the denigrators), programmers were a bit ahead of the curve in this respect as the difference between a thing and its label was fundamental to their praxis…
As a friend remarked, “Werds r hrd”. And anything “hard” is likely magical. Look no further than the various biblical canons and consider the dialectic between the concept of the ineffable 5 6, and the idea that being able to call one by a “true name” renders power over the named. 7
But, what is really in a name…
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face. O, be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And, for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.8
More to the point perhaps,
To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and
hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted
my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—
and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not
a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions,
senses, affections, passions? Fed with the
same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to
the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not
bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you
poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall
we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong
a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian
example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I
will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the
Now what? What’s the 911 on all this?
Adam Alter references studies that, “suggest a sort of linguistic Heisenberg principle: as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it. 10 This idea is similar to those pursued in rhetorical genre studies and in the introduction of that all too common word today, meme.
Bawarshi and Reiff specifically note that RGS provides that cultural mapping that we would expect to see served by myth. The entirety of Chapter 6 of their book is worth study, but here is a snippet,
Part of how genre systems and their genre sets coordinate complex social actions within systems of activity is by supplying intentions, distributing cognition, and shaping our notions of timing and opportunity (what Greek rhetoricians called kairos). Genre systems do not just sequence activities; they also sequence how we relate to and assign roles to one another, how we define the limits of our agency, how we come to know and learn, and how we construct, value, and experience ourselves in social time and space 11
Now compare the genre sets of RGS with Dawkins conception of memes.
The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. 12
We continue to focus on what I like to think of maps and legends. Guides on how to interpret the physical world around us. We seem to forget that our map IS NOT the physical world. Our maps may help us to relate to that world, but when we forget that the maps are of our own invention, we truly forget who we are.
- Lincoln, Bruce. “An Early Moment in the Discourse of ‘Terrorism:’ Reflections on a Tale from Marco Polo.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, no. 2 (April 2006): 242–59. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417506000107.
- Doty, William G. Myth: A Handbook. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
- Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality; A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1966.
- Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
- Schorsch, Ismar. “Reverence for God.” Accessed April 15, 2020. http://www.jtsa.edu/reverence-for-god.
- Brownlee, William H. “The Ineffable Name of God.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 226 (April 1977): 39–46. https://doi.org/10.2307/1356574.
- Graham, Loren. “The Power of Names: Religion & Mathematics.” Educational. Philoctetes Center, November 11, 2009. http://philoctetes.org/news/the_power_of_names_religion_mathematics.
- Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Act 2 Scene 2. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles, eds. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed on April 15, 2020. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/romeo-and-juliet/act-2-scene-2/
- Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Act 3 Scene 1. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles, eds. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed on April 15, 2020. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/the-merchant-of-venice/act-3-scene-1#line-3.1.52
- Alter, Adam. “The Power of Names.” The New Yorker, May 29, 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/the-power-of-names.
- Bawarshi, Anis S, and Mary Jo Reiff. “Rhetorical Genre Studies”. In Genre an Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy, 78-104, at 91 . Fort Collins, Colo.: The WAC Clearinghouse, 2010. http://wac.colostate.edu/books/bawarshi_reiff/.
- Dawkins, Richard. “Memes: the new replicators”. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.