Structural Units of Mass Culture Mythology: A Cultural Semiotic Approach
Our culture represents the whole of the integrity of the 40-thousands-years-old human semiosis. Generally speaking, the human world is meaningful by definition. Mass culture is a form of cultural development appearing together especially with industrial society. Despite it having appeared more than a century ago, it maintains its relevance nowadays and becomes a basis for new dimensions of culture (digital, transmedial, consumer culture). Within the framework of general emancipatory philosophical-anthropological perspective, mass culture appears as a semiotic space and meaningful environment. It is constituted by diversity of commodities, services and facilities of their production, as well as daily and regular social practices, which become possible in relation to them, and consequently create a certain way of life of a modern human being. The heuristic idea of J.Lotman to consider culture as a semiosphere provides an important perspective to understand mass culture as a subsystem of the entire semiosphere. From this perspective, mass culture may be seen as a semiosphere with a peculiar inner organization.
The present dissertation provides an account to consider mass culture mythology as an inner secondary-modelling system, a mechanism of organization of mass culture texts into a consistent system. Due to the mythological mechanism, the mosaic discrete environment becomes a meaningful continual world similar to ancient mythological system full of existential values, which are comprehensible to everyone.
The Firs Chapter dwells upon the ontology of mass culture mythology in detail. Myth is regarded as universal of culture preserving own nature along the whole history of mankind. Myth universally reflects ways of experiencing world and individual’s presence. Universal of myth is a result of mythological mind which is a peculiar human cognitive aptitude situated on a verge between intuition and rational awareness of the world and leading to continual type of reality perception. It helps human being to overcome existential discrepancies of the opposition individual vs. nature and facilitates choices in overwhelming environment of competing meanings where discrete/discontinuous perception is impeded. The main function of myth is to decrease entropy by reconciling individual with reality and to preserve a comprehensible model of universe for human being. As a cultural form, myth is represented by mythological texts such as narratives, images, and symbols. Mass cultural mythology is a specific research object in marketing semiotics industry. Thus, the ontology of mass culture mythology, deriving from treatment of myth as cultural universal, can be deduced as a principle of organization and structuring of mass culture in integral semiosphere. Those principles reveal themselves in the four main ontological aspects of mass culture mythology: peculiar reason-consequential linkage, anthropocentricity, specific mythological chronotope and “naming” as habitualization).
The Second Chapter is dedicated to epistemology of mass culture mythology. It is discussed that myth can be grasped through consistent mechanism of structural units which are mythemes and mythologemes. Those smallest units of myth derived from ancient texts and acquire certain contemporary forms within mass culture narrative preserving their consistency. I proceed from the findings of Levi-Strauss, Jung and Kerenyi, concerning the smallest structural units of myth, which are mythemes and mythologemes, to trace their manifestations within linguistics, ethnography, literature, political and culture studies, and develop their application to mass culture narratives expressing mythological mind. All mythologemes and mythemes cannot be entirely grasped as discrete elements. Rather, they are quasi-discrete units revealing themselves from syntagmatic relations, whereas they depend on context and their discreteness is occuring at the paradigmatic level of texts. Mythologeme and mytheme appear as emic and hybrid structural units respectively, though, mytheme can also be regarded as an invariant structure. To consider mythemes as invariants I used a complementary method of Weltanschauung Categories of Ultimate Bases.
I define mythologemes as universal invariants-kernels of mythological narrative expressing the universal ideas of a human being presence in the world, which help people to fill the gap between empirical reality and inexplicable phenomena. They can appear as actants within narrative. Mythemes, in my point of view, are invariant structural units deployed in mythological narrative resembling recurring motifemes that articulate their own entity in dynamics and development. In other words, mythologemes are paradigmatic invariants and mythemes are syntagmatic invariants. In ancient times their function was organizing beliefs about environment, their preservation and transmition in integral comprehensible form. Unlike ancient times when smallest units of myth were gathered within strong mythological systems of different local cultures, now they are splitted across different genres of global cultural texts and different fields: popular science, arts, advertising etc. To all appearances, in acquiring peculiar modes, mythologemes and mythemes preserve sustainability within mass culture discourse, they refer to universal human senses, and could be seen as semiotic markers of myth in daily narratives.
The presence of smallest mythological units in culture enables mechanism of translation of cultural texts synchronically and diachronically. As cultural universals, mythological elements “gravitate” towards the centre (bottom) of entire semiosphere, where they are concentrated in the most ancient, the most famous texts throughout entire history. At the same time, due to their simple form, they permeate all culture and help to contemporary texts of culture to acquire similarity to the most famous and commonly known and thus to move from the periphery to the center of semiosphere. In this way smallest mythological units trace the dialectics of semiosis in culture as permanent rotation of cultural forms. From another side, mythologemes and mythemes can be used in purpose in mass culture texts as they easily trigger mythological mind of the audience. They might become usually anchors of existential-mythological valorization during the process of choice between competing narratives. This reveals in marketing perspective during the process of decommoditization, which is a symbolic aspect of appropriation process of mass cultural goods.
Mythologemes and mythemes are dissipated and noticed by consumers during the process of decommoditization, which is a symbolic aspect of appropriation process of mass cultural goods. The decommoditization phenomenon means that goods and events transform their familiar meaning and utilitarian value to a unique subjective meaning and existential value for every single consumer depending on his or her anticipation. From a philosophical-anthropological point of view, this shift often means activation of the mythological mind of the consumers; in this case, structural units of mass culture mythology attract attention of consumers to those narratives. Very often it is the most significant possibility to become meaningful in diverse environment of different cultural texts due to existential-mythological valorization. I follow Lotman’s insight that myth becomes actual as autocommunication, so it says about listeners and organizes their world. It reveals as an aspiration of valorization that is possible to describe by Greimasian actantial model. The latter becomes a heuristic algorithm of mythologemes determination within mass culture narrative. Additionally I apply the Weltanschauung Categories of Ultimate Bases for structural analysis of mytheme.
In research I discussed upon several instances of the structural units of myth which are commonly present in mass cultural texts. I regarded mythologemes of Fate, Course, Universe, Catastrophe, Golden Age, and Mother Nature. Also I considered two universal ontological mythemes of Transformation and Backtracking.
I ascertained that mythologemes can either play a specific actantial role within a narrative (the Fate, the Course, and the Mother Nature) or describe mythological chronotope (the Universe, the Catastrophe, and the Golden Age). In their turn, mythemes reveal an inner strategy of unrolling mythological narrative frontwards or backwards. Deriving from texts of culture mythologemes and mythemes become a bridge between empirical reality and coherent world picture. They help to decrease existential anxiety of human being on the world finding tangible form to explain fear, justice/injustice, birth and death, time, transformation etc.
The mythologemes of Fate and Course fully reflect upon one of the main functions of myth, which is to grasp life as an integral whole. They emerge from the justice/injustice opposition, which is one of the most important semes penetrating mass culture discourse and one that hides behind the existential valorization and hence its mythological aspect. Justice or injustice often acquire a strong meaning of an independent, integral actant, which is capable of influencing the Subject within a narrative and, what is even more, to exist beyond the artistic text in real life, which is a strong marker of mythological mind. Those two mythologemes can be associated with an anthropogonic genre of myth so far as they explain personal life within autocommunication process. Mythologeme of Fate can be and Adjutant or Adversary within mythological narrative, mythologeme of Course appears as an Adjutant or an Object. They always relate to the search of Subject for a purpose of life and own existential way.
The mythologemes of Universe, Catastrophe and Golden Age express an archaic desire to grasp the world in its complexity and to find out its origin in categories of mythological mind. They represent the time-space of mass culture mythological narrative. Thus, the mythologeme of Universe has an existential meaning of integration of mass culture heterotopic picture of the world in present implying intercommunication with past and future and appears as an Object within narrative. Similarly to the archaic world picture in which the Universe loci used to intercommunicate via World Tree, the uniting mythological principal in the contemporary mass culture is a symbol of a window connecting, time and spaces, cultures, extraterrestrial worlds, and different types of everyday reality, i.e. physical and cyber reality, empirical and spiritual reality.
The mythologeme of Catastrophe unlike its archaic counterpart - the mythologeme of Flood - relates to future and does not describe past events. It works as a transformation point from existential fear of unpredictable future into calm and reassurance. It relates to the cosmogonic topic as well as it plays for preservation of the universe model embodied in the image of community (whole of the mankind). It plays role of an Adversary within narrative. It is also tightly intertwined with Christian discourse and more precise with eschatological ontology. In mass culture the role of an Antichrist (as an evident marker of the End of the World narrative) is ascribed to leaders of society or to societies themselves, which are the most odious.
The mythologeme of Golden Age alludes to the universal idea of Eutopia (Dreamland) situated in a forever bygone era (always in the past) that in mass culture is associated with the subject of childhood. It can appear as an Object or an Adversary within narrative. Thus, three of those mythologemes constitute an integral triad of time and space of the world (past-present-future) and reflect upon human existential quest for integral explanation of the world, nostalgy for the past and fears towards the future.
The mythologeme of Mother Nature relates to the existential search for inner authenticity and identity. Despite the feminist turn in contemporary mass culture discourse, this mythologeme unveils itself through the key opposition between culture (technology)/nature. It can take a form of an implicit idea represented by local traditional symbols, images, characters within general mass culture discourse, or this mythologeme can also take shape of an actant (Adjutant or Adversary) within narrative.
Meanwhile Greimasian actantial model shows relations between actants within either fictional/reflected narrative or factual reality, it is remarkable that mythological mind makes those realities to merge. In some cases (when Subject is a real person) it might appear that a real person acts together (being helped or opposed) with mythologeme as an Adjutant (Fate or Mother Nature mythologeme, for example).
The mytheme of Transformation, or Miracle, and the mytheme of Backtracking, are universal ontological mythemes exhibiting ideas about natural phenomena in culture and revealing them in mass culture texts. It is possible to examine them via the Weltanschauung Categories of Ultimate Bases, which demonstrates an inner process of negotiation and overcoming of life-death existential bases as discrete constituents of the mythemes. The mytheme of Transformation lays itself bare as an inner schema of mythological narrative about miracle, the mytheme of Backtracking reveals itself as a schema of “unwrapping the bygone past” and returning to mastered time and space and thereby constituting the center of semiosphere for a subject.
The smallest units of myth can be classified by different criteria. I classified them by their structural principle: the emic units (mythologemes) and the ones possessing hybrid structure (mythemes). It is also possible to classify the emic units by their subjects by way of analogy with ancient myths: cosmogonic, anthropogonic, and structuring social semiosphere. Cosmogonic mythologemes appear in the narratives about Universe and models of time and space and their origin. Those are the mythologeme of Universe, the mythologeme of Catastrophe and the mythologeme of Golden Age. Anthropogonic mythologemes are related to individuals’ life and its structure: the mythologeme of Fate and the mythologeme of Course. The mythologemes structuring social semiosphere through the quest of identity appear within mass culture narratives about collective memory (the Mother Nature mythologeme).
The Third Chapter exemplifies the process of finding more minimal units of myth in cultural texts of different genres. The first case was dedicated to close analysis of the television communication of the Ukrainian politician Darth Vader. I analyzed how communication of the politician involved important transmitters of mythological images for Ukrainian culture. I found out that his narrative was full of combinations of polar meanings discovering mythological dimension of the message. Two main protagonists of the communication were agents of two separate mythological generations: archaic mythology (Mother Nature) and contemporary mass culture mythology (Darth Vader). Among other structural units there were the Eutopia/Garden, the Trickster, and the Death. What is more some of those archaic mythologemes acquired new form within the text, in this way trickster appeared in image of Darth Vader and Eutopia in an image of the Internet Party. By combination of archaic meanings and contemporary forms the narrative became semiotically saturated and producing new powerful connotations. This case showed how a significant trickster’s image of mass culture became a bridge between mythological mind, mass culture, and political discourse.
As well, I demonstrated an applied case from my practice where I used the Mother Nature mythologeme as a branding tool. Semiotic analysis helped me to trace a problem of an artistic image disintegration and to find out a gap between forms of expression and values of the artist’s brand. Mapping the territories of the singer images, I discovered that her personal values and her authentic vocal persona clearly tend to the female image represented in culture by Mother Nature mythologeme most clearly. Demonstration of different cultural forms of the mythologeme helped to start building a coherent narrative around an artist’s brand and to select precise image corresponding to her inner identity (tone of voice of the brands, costumes and visual media representations etc.). In this case the mythologeme helped to articulate inner brand identity with appropriate forms of expression relevant to wide mass culture context and, thus, comprehensible to mass audience.
The Conclusions Section points out a potential of the further exploration of the mythologemes and mythemes in mass cultural texts for understanding human mind and culture better and for applied marketing purposes. The extension of the structural units of myth collection can provide with increase of tools for building coherent marketing messages.