Dueling Mythologies

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One of the key concepts to master for conducting semiotic analyses of popular culture is that of the cultural "mythology."  Derived from Roland Barthes's now classic work Mythologies,  the term refers to a culture's fundamental world views or ideologies.  Cultural mythologies are so basic to our understanding and experience of the world that we do not realize that they are mythologies---that is, filters through which we experience the world.  Instead we experience them as universal and inevitable realities. Some prominent American mythologies include our individualism, our belief in social mobility (the American dream), and our tendency to measure success in financial terms.  There are many others, often conflicting with each other and producing fundamental cultural contradictions that roil just beneath the surface of social life, but it is this last one---our tendency to measure all things in dollar signs---that I want to make particular use of here as a way of understanding how mythologies work and how they can be revealed during a semiotic analysis of popular cultural signs. The cultural sign that I have in mind involves the recent calamity that occurred during a spiritual retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Centre outside Sedona, Arizona.  There two people died during a sweat lodge ceremony led by James Arthur Ray, a prominent figure in the New Age self-help movement.  Our semiotic concern here is not with the personal tragedies of those involved, nor with the investigations that are now being conducted into the matter.  Our interest lies in the way that the ceremony transformed a ritual that was born in a very different sort of culture with a very different cultural mythology into a strikingly American ritual. The ceremony here is that of the sweat lodge ritual, orginally a Native American practice which was a part of male initiation rites and male bonding rituals.  Grounded in cultures that were not based in monetary exchange systems, the sweat lodge ceremony, along with the vision quest that was also a part of Ray's Angel Valley retreat program, was a test of the physical and spiritual strength of hunters and warriors.  Its whole significance was tied to the kind of culture in which it appeared. The fact that Ray's program offered financial as well as spiritual rewards to its participants offers a striking example of what happens when one mythology is adapted to another very different from it.  With capitalism, and its tendency to measure all things in monetary terms, as a dominant mythology in American culture, it is hardly surprising that a ceremony born in a non-capitalist society should be transmogrified into a financial self-help ritual.   Just as in an earlier era the Protestant Work Ethic was transformed from a way of signalling to one's fellow Puritan Congregationalists that God had chosen one for a predetermined salvation into a simple expression of the wholly materialistic rewards of hard work, Ray's retreat mixed spiritual accomplishment with financial prosperity in a particularly American compound. This happens all the time in America, wherein the spiritual and the material components of our culture join together into a conflation whose most potent symbol is the American Christmas, which, while often denounced as having become too commercial in spirit, is annually relied upon to produce a major percentage of the American retail economy. This is the power of cultural mythology, making what is contingent to our culture appear inevitable and universal.  But as the originators of the sweat lodge ceremony could tell us, there are other measures of the human spirit.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.