Levi Bryant With More on “Myths”
by Adam Robbert
Over at Intra-Being, the great Andre has continued the discussion of myth that took place over at this blog and at Knowledge Ecology and Footnotes2Plato. In his depiction, Andre presents the discussion as a debate over myth and ideology. For me myth is defined not by its content, but by its structure. For example, the fact that something contains reference to the supernatural does not necessarily entail that it is, as I understand the term, mythological. Likewise, the fact that something is secular through and through does not entail that it is non-mythological. When we speak of a structure we are not talking about the content of a thing, but of a set of relations that are shared among a variety of different things.
Levi makes the very helpful distinction that myths do not exclusively refer to the supernatural, and non-myths do not exclusively refer to the mundane or secular. I think the way Levi’s rubrik pays attention to structure rather than form is helpful insofar as it resists thinking of myths as something we can relegate to a premodern era or consciousness, and, conversely, that just because an ideology is secular, does not mean that it cannot smuggle in a crypto-ontotheology (which we might also call an appeal to a kind of secular supernaturalism or “god trick”).
Thus I largely agree with Levi’s assessment but would also want to draw further attention to Andre’s comments on what Latour calls “factishes.” For Latour, in the same way that we (“we europeans”) have never ontologically lived in a world split between nature and culture (despite much philosophical squabbling to the contrary), we have also never lived in a world split between what we call “natural” and “supernatural.”
“Nature,” “culture,” “natural,” and “supernatural” are all categories which, in my opinion, emerge out of a bifurcated ontology that sees things like gods, forms, and souls on one ontological plane, and animals, plants, and minerals on another. If one is committed to a strict transcendentalism, one may be inclined to view the former category (of gods, forms, and souls) as ontologically primary. Conversely, if one is a strict materialist, one may be inclined to do the reverse and see the latter category (of animals, plants, and minerals) as ontologically primary.
In both cases the one is reduced to a caricature of the other, a pale derivative of a more primary reality (somewhat ironically, both also end up being forms of idealism that reduce the real to its relation to humans…). In this context, I follow Latour in that I am more interested in tying these strange, diverse entities together into more interesting knots, rather than trying to get rid of the knot all together through some form of enlightened eliminativism (Haraway playfully referred to this as an “ontological game of cats cradle” during her recent AAR talk, a very nice image indeed).
My commitment to entanglement over disentanglement may seem like an appeal to a kind of muddy mysticism wherein I retreat from making any claims about truth and so forth. However, my point here is not that everything that has been said about immortal human souls and deities (for example) is true — and lets be clear here, most of what has been said historically about atoms, particles, genes, and races has not been true either – but rather that the situation, within the context of an ecological ontology, forms a kind of “unruly complexity” wherein every entity has its own semi-autonomous, evolutionary impact on the world and ought to be followed and respected as an irreducible entity (i.e., thought, pattern, icon, or tool) in its own right.