The Myth of State and Heterodox Narratives







“Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade  and there is money in it yet, if carefully worked  But the People that Sit in Darkness are getting to be too scarce and too shy. And such darkness as is now left is really of but an indifferent quality, and not dark enough for the game.” (Samuel Clemens, 1901)

Clemens’ essay To the Person Sitting in Darkness was written at the beginning of the twentieth century at the time of a war between the United States and the Philippines, when it’s author was president of the Anti-Imperialist League of New York. The satire lampoons a global Western project that Clemens labels The Blessings of Civilisation, rebuking the administrators of the “Trust” for performing badly in the easiest and most profitable game there is. They have been too overt in their greed – failed to showcase the “Desirable Exhibit” in the proper “dim light” and left over-exposed the true nature of the imperial project. As a result the “Customer Sitting in Darkness” has “begun to show alarm”. He has observed a discrepancy between the promise and the “Actual Thing.” (Clemens, 1901)

The satire exposes as fiction the promise of the Blessings of Civilisation. These values and ideals propounded by the imperial powers – “LOVE, LAW AND ORDER, JUSTICE, LIBERTY, GENTLENESS, EQUALITY, CHRISTIANITY, HONORABLE DEALING, PROTECTION TO THE WEAK, MERCY, TEMPERANCE, EDUCATION..” (Clemens, 1901) are not false. In the democratic states in which they originated, these terms are essential: a part of a national myth and a historical discourse of political legitimacy. They are written into laws and constitutions, employed as powerful rhetorical mainstays, to support and bolster the institutions of the State. But when packaged for export, the same linguistic signifiers, symbols of the conceptual foundations of the Western State, provide a façade that masks an ugly reality of exploitation, oppression, and cultural destruction:

“Is it good? Sir, it is pie. Privately and confidentially, it is gay and pretty and attractive, displaying the special patterns of our Civilisation, which we reserve for Home Consumptionwhile inside the bale is the Actual Thing that the Customer Sitting in Darkness buys with his blood and tears and land and liberty. That Actual Thing is, indeed, Civilization, but it is only for Export. Is there a difference between the two brands? In some of the details, yes.” (Samuel Clemens, 1901)

A hundred years later the global political map has been redrawn. In the report Democracy’s Century Freedom House suggests the growth in the numbers of democratic and sovereign states “re-inforces the conclusion that humankind, in fits and starts, is rejecting oppression and opting for greater openness and freedom.” (Freedom House, 2002) At the turn of the twentieth century, there were 55 sovereign states on Earth, but almost 150 of today’s countries were under the control of other nations in an era in which there were thirteen substantial imperial powers. Today there are 192 sovereign nations, and 83 liberal democracies. (Freedom House, 2002)

Western governments have consistently supported the global trend towards liberal democratic politics. The United States Government, particularly, has championed the “advance of Democracy” 1. throughout the world. Since the attack on the mainland of the US on September 11, 2001, the rhetoric of this global project has become policy, and a primary justification for the occupation of Iraq by a coalition of Western nations.

The jargon of the new global project is explicit in the US National Security Strategy document released in 2002 by the White House. The document proposes that the United States will “Expand the Circle of Development by Opening Societies and Building the Infrastructure of Democracy”, support “moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world”, and “promote economic growth and economic freedom beyond America’s shores.” New humanitarian spending will be strategically directed so as to “reward countries that have demonstrated real policy change and challenge those that have not implemented reforms.” (US National Security Strategy document, 2002)

“Policies that further strengthen market incentives and market institutions are relevant for all economies, industrialized countries, emerging markets, and the developing world.” (US National Security Strategy document, 2002)

The document also outlines a military strategy of pre-emption that will protect the United States and its allies from those that threaten the advancement of their common goals.

Western leaders’ language is commensurate with this geo-political paradigm  United States Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared in November 2002 “free nations are seeking to consolidate the democratic gains”. 2. four months after President W Bush announced the conclusion of hostilities in Iraq, National Security Adviser Condolleezza Rice said at the launch of the newly-formed ‘Iraq Reconstruction Group’ that “a free, democratic, and successful Iraq can serve as a beacon and a catalyst”. 3. In November 2003, US President George W. Bush announced that “The US has adopted a new policy. A forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,”a democratic project which is to be “American policy for decades to come.” 4.

Speaking on the future of the Pacific region at the Australian National University School of Policy Development in September 2003, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was didactic in expressing his views on democratic systems developing in the Pacific region  they should “take leadership for their own development  implement sound domestic policies, create environments for private sector investment  provide an appropriate level of services.” 5.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the syntax of imperialism has vanished from the language of international relations. A common lexicon of linguistic symbols describe the object of a modern global project championed by Western governments: ‘freedom’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘peace’, ‘democracy’, ‘liberty’, ‘development’, and ‘open markets.’ Together these terms bear comparison with those that Clemens’ invoked in satire in defence of the freedom of the people of the Philippines in 1901. As mythic symbols they reinforce one another and represent a modern myth of State.

But critics of the modern orthodoxy suggest that discrepancies between the myth and the reality of the global project remain.

A world war: the most brutal, the most complete, the most universal, the most effective. Each country, each city, each rural area, each house, each person, everything is a large or small battleground. On the one side is neoliberalism with all its repressive power and all its machinery of death; on the other side is the human being. 6

On the first of January 1994, when the EZLN  the Zapatistas National Liberation Army  took up arms against the Mexican Government to protest the Government’s policies and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the organisation’s spokespeople began to articulate a message of opposition to what they described as a “Neoliberal” paradigm. The EZLN state clearly that they stand ” Against the international order of death, against the globalization of war and armaments. Against dictatorships, against authoritarianism, against repression. Against the politics of economic liberalisation  Against slavery, against intolerance ” 7.

The Zapatistas explicitly refute the merits of Western global project, but state that they are “for the international order of hope, for a new, just, and dignified peace. For a new politics, for democracy, for political liberties.  For civil society  For intelligence, for culture, for education, for truth. For liberty, for tolerance, for inclusion, for having memory. For humanity.” 8.

In articulating an alternative future to that proposed by the vendors of the global project of the West the Zapatistas employ many of the figures of speech used by leaders of the Western world. In part this reflects their challenge the dominant paradigm – turning its language back on itself. But the possibility of their usage by the EZLN suggests that the symbols themselves remain contested territory, invoked by the orthodoxy to reinforce a hegemonic paradigm, and by antagonists to reclaim the syntax of liberation.

Two distinct definitions of ‘democracy’ proposed by Noam Chomsky in his critique of global democratic processes in Necessary Illusions highlight a critical divide between orthodox and heterodox democracy. The first indicates that citizens should have the opportunity to inform themselves, to take part in inquiry and discussion and policy formation, and  political action.” (Chomsky, 1999 p27) This is democracy as conceived by the Zapatistas. It symbolises direct, independent, invidual political action. But redefined, “democracy is more narrowly conceived: the citizen is a consumer, an observer but not a participant. (Chomsky, 1999 p27) In Chomsky’s second model political action itself has become symbolic for the citizen and ‘democracy’ is no longer a motivating force. Instead the symbol denotes the relationship between the individual and the institutions of state in which political will is invested.

Mythographers such as Ernst Cassirer and Joseph Campbell have proposed a social model in which common myths serve as a fundamental aspect of cultural identity in all societies, providing a unifying and symbolic representation of history and social cohesion through common beliefs. In Myth of the State, published in 1946, Cassirir suggests that myth is instrumental to the formation of a defining national identity. Myth “is behind the feeling of nationality, and gives it its force.” ( Cassirer, 1946 , p16)

In On Myth Roland Barthes’  characterises what he describes as the “myths of Order” as a mode of discourse intrinsic to social control and cohesion.  For Barthes, myth is both a form of language and a “second order semiological system”, It is made from ” a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication.” (Barthes, 1984 p2, ) Myth is a linguistic system constituted of hierarchies of symbols, of signs built on signs. The original signifiers of the semiotic construction constitute a crowded terrain of disparate referents, a landscape that interlaces language, history and geography, and recedes as the symbols that denote them become a part of a detached mythic architecture. (Barthes, 1984 p4)

“The elements of the form are related as to place and proximity: the mode of presence of the form is spatial. The concept appears in global fashion – it is a kind of nebula.” (Barthes, 1984 p7)

In this mythic model the potential of content, of meaning, is sacrificed to the potential of the form. There is an “abnormal regression from meaning to form” that serves to “free the picture, and prepare it to receive its signified.” (Barthes, 1984 p4)

Barthes suggests that the semiotic structure of mythic discourse  the process by which language is reified and distorted – is eminently suited to a containing social paradigm, in which the central symbols of the State are removed from political contestation.

In One-Dimensional Man Marcuse suggests that categories such as “individual,” “class”, “private”, “family” were once terms which denoted antagonism with the State. But such categories are capable of losing their critical connotation, and becoming “descriptive, deceptive, or operational terms.” (Marcuse, 1968 p13)

For Barthes, this depoliticisation of language is achieved through the semiotics of myth with a transformation of linguistic sign to the mythic signifier” (Barthes, 1984 p8) that results in the “deprivation of history” (Barthes,1984 p10) “In [myth], history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant  all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from.  (Barthes, 1984 p11 )

“He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past control the present.” (George Orwell, 1949, p32)

The seminal cautionary texts on totalitarianism of the twentieth century, George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, were conceived in an era of explosive change in the technology and potential for the language of propaganda and myth. In both dystopian future societies the manipulation of language and history is intrinsic to the maintenance of State control. In Brave New World the calendar celebrates Henry Ford, the father of mass production (Huxley, 1932 ), famous for the phrase “History is bunk.” In 1984 a constituted dialectic of global conflict between three superpowers is substantiated by the constant revision of newspapers and historical texts by public servants at the Ministry of Information (Orwell, 1949 ). In both worlds the symbols that represent the state and its supporting narrative are subservient to the facts and forms of coercion itself, and are at the convenience of the praxis of domination that most clearly defines the state. The composite ideologies, the emptied histories, and transformed discourse that form the basis of the Myth of State are ultimately inessential except in the context of the forms of their expression.

In 1984 and Brave New World, the successful fusion of content and form in the totalitarian state render effective opposition impossible. The co-opting of history as a device of social control has reached a critical moment – there is no turning back. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” (Orwell, 1949 p377)

Marcuse wrote in 1968 that “by virtue of the way it has organised its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian.” (Marcuse, 1968, p11) He suggests that “a smooth, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilisation.” (Marcuse, 1968, p10)

But this proposition is refuted by the critique. If the articulation of the mythic discourse is a defining feature of the Myth of State, and representative of it’s power, then the possibility of opposition to a dominant paradigm can be construed from its articulation. And if the semiotics of mythic discourse are intrinsic to the dominant paradigm – to its existence and its character – then an alternate set of narrative tropes might be posited, inherent in the discourse and the character of the heterodoxy.

In Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal begins an exploration of a dramatic heterodox methodology by considering the origin of mythic or epic narrative that served as binding structures of state in the classical era in which the conception of the democratic state itself was formed. Boal traces the origin of the idea of the modern State itself, to a central tenet of Aristotlean philosophy – “that ideas are the dynamic principle of matter” (Boal, 1979 p7), which leads by inference to an understanding of the universe as tending towards an organised perfection: ”  Man tends to health, to perfect bodily proportion, and men as a whole tend to the perfect family, to the  State.” (Boal, 1979, p7)

Boal depicts the tragic mode of drama described in Aristotle’s Poetics as a coercive social system, evolved in concert with the State, permissive of an orthodox theatre that “functions as an instrument for purification and intimidation”, (Boal, 1979 p25)

But Boal notes that contestation of the myth of State is in evidence as an essential aspect of a broader paradigm of political drama, referring to the Hegelian dichotomy of “epic”, and “lyric” poetry: modes of narrative that are combined in a third form “dramatic” poetry. (Boal, 1979, p88) Epic poetry demands the representation of ‘objective’ forms, of events unfolding in an exterior reality: “The facts in question disclose themselves in free independence, and the poet retires into the background ” (Hegel, quoted by Boal, 1979, p 86). By contrast, lyric poetry is essentially subjective, reliant upon the “resources of the poet’s sensibilities” (Boal, 1979, p87), and on the “ideal realm” of the soul, where external action originates.

Dramatic poetry combines these forms: it exploits objective and subjective worlds through rediscovery and exposition of causal and historical processes implicit in the transition of spirit impulse to material event. (Boal, 1979, p88)

Barthes concedes the power of the semiotics of myth for intensifying the effect of language: In language, the “ratio between the volume of the signified and the signifier  is proportionate, hardly exceeds the word In myth the concept spreads over a very large expanse – a minute form serves as signifier to a concept filled with a very rich history.” (Barthes, 1984 p16) He is dismissive, though, of the prospects for either the “Left” or the “Oppressed” in effectively opposing a dominant paradigm: “the Left always defines itself in relation to the oppressed  but the speech of the oppressed can only be poor, monotonous, immediate..” (Barthes, 1984 p33)

Barthes’ proposed semiography holds potential for the narrators of the heterodoxy, in the breadth and depth of the mythic terrain of symbols and their obscured and impoverished referents, which are always latent, and recoverable, in the form: “In myth the first two terms are manifest  myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear.” (Barthes 1984 p8)

If the articulation of the Myth of State is characterised by a language of social controls and by mythic tropes of omission and reification, the voice and narrative of the oppressed will be defined by tropes that exploit this mythic realm. As in the Hegelian mode, the rediscovery and exposition of the relationships between the disparate planes of historical, political, and mythic discourse is the praxis of a narrative that contests ‘objective’ discourse in form and content.

In a chapter of his book The Order of Things entitled “The Prose of the World”, Focault depicts an epistemiology characterised by the exploration and articulation of similitudes : “it was resemblance that organised the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.” (Focault 1966, p19)

In a cosmos of similitudes, language is “closed in upon itself, a fragmented mass, its enigma renewed in every interval, which combines here and there with the forms of the world and becomes interwoven with them” (Focault 1966 p38)

Foucault refers to a rich lexicon of terms of the Renaissance that accommodated the comprehension and articulation of a world constituted of “an abundance of resemblance.” (Foucault 1966, p29) Essential categories of relationship define a universal architecture, a system of intrinsic similitudes, recognised in all instances by virtue of the signature, the sign: “These buried similitudes must be indicated on the surface of things.  there must be visible marks for the invisible analogies  otherwise the secret would remain indefinitely dormant.” (Foucault 1966, p29)

As episteme these similitudes represent both the forms of knowledge and the methodology of their enquiry: “Nature is trapped in the thin layer that holds semiology and hermeneutics one above the other ; it is neither mysterious nor veiled, it offers itself to our cognition. A dark space appears which must be made progressively clearer.” (Foucault, 1966, p33) But in an inverted paradigm in which the content of a mythic discourse is a rich source of material for exposition, the characteristics of resemblance allow navigation across and between superimposed and intersecting landscapes.

The title “father of prose” afforded Heredotus, the historian of the fifth century BCE is a misnomer The Histories places itself within an established literary tradition. But it is the earliest such work extant. Like Pausanius’ Guide To Greece, written seven hundred years later, it is a combination of narrative geography, history, and mythology. In the works of Heredotus and Pausanius, exploration of this realm is an excavation and reconstitution of symbolic forms and their buried referents. Their prose is exploratory and archaeological in relation to their subject.

“On this day, in all of our villages, the dead are returning to us  They recount histories to us. Because it was through recounting histories that our very first ones taught and learned to walk.” 10.

For the Zapatistas a reinvigoration of an impoverished history ” of ‘500 years of oppression’, is an imperative component of the discourse of resistance: ” we Indian peoples have come in order to wind the clock and to thus ensure that the inclusive, tolerant and plural tomorrow  will arrive.”10. But the ambiguous character of the Zapatistas’ politics of identity indicates a subversive application of another of the tropes of dystopian narrative consistent with the Hegelian model, the testimonial.

Testimony is always a refutation of abstraction, Combined testimony represents a reclamation of voice and history that re-involves the individual and the community with detached hierarchies of political discourse. In an essay on the shared narrative of resistance, Eileen De Los Reyes begins by discussing her own place in her culture, and in a terrain of oppression that is becoming recognisable by virtue of its global ubiquity. All authors contribute memories, experiences, information, and stories that link together,” A cumulative comprehension emerges as “the reader moves from one text to the next.” ( De Los Reyes 2002 p3) For De Los Rayes, “reclaiming the right to write about and for ourselves” is a process through which the “shared narrative of oppression is countered by a shared narrative of resistance.” ( De Los Reyes 2002 p5)

The essays and speeches of Subcommandante Marcos, the Zapatistas’ principal spokesman, are replete with references to the stories of the indigenous people of Chiapas the history of colonial oppression, and the literature of South America and the world. “We read manifestos and war cries that are also  legends, and riffs. (Klein, 2001) His testimonial is of a different character to de Los Reyes’ cultural discourse of redefinition based on the “naming and renaming” ( De Los Reyes 2002 p3) of oppositional paradigms. Marcos’ language retains the character of subjective narrative that defines the truth of testimony, but assumes the tactical mode of fictional narrative, consistent with the ambiguity of identity that derives from his pseudonym and trade-mark balaclava. If personal testimony is a strategic form of narrative that maintains a point of reference grounded in human discourse in defiance of the tropes of mythic detachment, the form of fictional literature lends itself as a freer discursive device – a tactical mode of cultural positioning that is mutable and inclusive, admitting a broader range of possibilities of expression.

This non-self makes it possible for Marcos to become the spokesperson for indigenous communities. He is transparent, and  iconographic.” (Klein, 2001)

Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Real Life Of Alejandro Mayta, illustrates the possibilities in fictional prose for charting diverse cultural territories of oppression and ideology. The narrator of the novel is a writer, the theme of his work the failed revolution of a Peruvian academic and Marxist revolutionary who makes a misguided attempt to galvanise an Indigenous community into action against the State. Throughout the novel, the narrator remains an active voice, informing his reader of the limits of his understanding of the characters who are the subject of his exploration.

The film Gadjo Dilo, made in 1997 in Romania, is an exposition of Rominy culture that exemplifies the pre-eminence of the modern medium in the negotiating the ‘epic/lyric’ divide by the expedient of multiple points of view. The central character, Stephane – a Parisien – acts as “a mediator between Western and Rominy cultures” ( Thompson, 2000), as he develops intimate relationships with the members of a Rominy family living simultaneously in the heart and on the fringes of modern European society.

Niobe Thompson writes that the movie was shot “in the order that we see in the film, so that Romain Duris’s (Stephane) collision with Rominy culture, and his integration into it, would be as natural as possible.” (Thompson, 2000)

Other forms of literature as old as the prose of Heredotus serve as exemplars of alternate narrative tropes that disrupt utopian constructions and expose discrepancies between the objectifying myths of hegemony and the subjective realms of human experience. Parody, irony, and satire reflect the Situationists’ theories of detournement, or the practise of ‘culture jamming’: The trope allows the juxtaposition of symbols in a manner foreign to the delineated structures of the orthodoxy in an assault on the mythic concept itself. “WTO caves in to protestors – global Utopia to begin immediately” (The Chaser, 2001)

Arthur Schopenhaeur wrote that “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident” Absurd narrative inverts this paradigm, alienating the recipient of a calculated nonsense from a cocoon of presumption. In The Bald Prima Donna Eugene Ionesco’s first play, a systematic deconstruction of the rules of language and logic is contrasted with the earnest commitment of the characters to the tasks of everyday life.

In Erewhon, (Butler, 1872) Samuel Butler describes with great fondness a fictional race of people living near New Zealand, and then proposes a scheme whereby they might be transported to Queensland as sugar-cane labourers. (Butler, 1872 p 185) In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, after living for a time in an invented country where horses are the sentient species and human beings beasts, Gulliver discovers on his return to England that he can no longer tolerate either the smell or the proximity of his own kind. (Swift, p212)

Texts of the speculative narrative form  ‘science fiction’ – are another manifestation of the trope of fable, focused on the implications of Progress, and the extension of human society into new realms and modes of existence. Fictional confrontations with alien worlds, artificial intelligences, and other paraphernalia of the teleology of industrial civilisation are capable of rendering the contemplation of alternate paradigms commonplace.

Narrative forms of discourse reconnect the general with the particular, the abstract with the experiential, the mythic plane with the material. While the tropes of myth and orthodoxy tend to the character and rigidity of containment, those of a dystopian narrative traverse the landscape between the mythic construct and its myriad signs, invoking semiological co-ordinates which have signifiers in both the mythic and dialectic realms. The result is a narrative that is exclusively the province of the heterodoxy – a creative discourse of opposition and resistance. Its praxis is the re-awakening of dormant historical themes, and it serves as a perennial refutation of the possibility of true hegemony as ancient and enduring as the Myth of State itself.

“From the mountains  to the Zo’calo of Mexico City, the zapatistas have crossed a territory of rebellion which has given us a flower of dark dignity as proof that we were there. We have reached the center of Power, and we find that we have that flower in our hands, and the question, is “what then?”

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