Calvinball Mythology: The Inevitable Follow-up Post
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus that allowed me to voice some ideas about the role of escapist media in contemporary spiritual life. Evidently this post struck a chord with a good deal of people as I have been receiving a lot of traffic from people kind enough to link to me. While I cannot address all of the points raised by people, I can address a few of the comments that caught my eye. Thank you all for your attention and I am delighted that you enjoyed the read!
The first piece of follow-up is to a comment made in the original comments. Geoff B writes:
Where, one might ask, lies the mythic appeal of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, who constructed a mythos of meaninglessness, chaos, and madness? It seems to me that, like Prometheus, these works have their appeal mainly in the cultural context of more standard myths. For people in the process of rejecting the content of traditional mythologies (like religion) I suspect there is something ideologically satisfying about these myths of meaninglessness, with their blind demiurges and idiot gods. Appreciation of the works of Lovecraft, for instance, is something of a geek emblem, perhaps not because the stories are satisfying on their own, but because their subversion of traditional meaningful myths resonates with these individuals. In that case, I imagine the Calvinball style of pseudo-mythology will remain popular, but the explicit anti-myth thing seems to have a limited niche.
There is actually a good deal of scholarly debate over whether or not Lovecraft’s writings actually constitute a proper mythology. Indeed, the term “Cthulhu Mythos” was actually coined by August Derleth who, as one of Lovecraft’s literary executors, interpreted Lovecraft’s stories in mythological terms and then used that mythology as a basis for re-editing the stories.
Many critics, most notably S.T. Joshi, have argued that Derleth’s attempts to bind Lovecraft’s writings into a single unified mythology constituted a fundamental misunderstanding of what Lovecraft was attempting to achieve. As Joshi himself put it:
“Lovecraft’s imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator’s developing personality and altering interests… [T]here was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated… [T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.”
According to Joshi, Lovecraft invoked mythic structures with an aesthetic effect in mind. It is one thing to stumble across an elder god but quite another to stumble across the suggestion that these elder gods might well have been part of a much larger cosmological system. Lovecraft never bothered fleshing out his system because the system was never intended to be coherent; it existed merely to freak people out.
Reading Joshi’s words, I was actually struck by the similarities between Lovecraft’s approach to mythological structures and that of the writers of Lost. In both cases, deep structures were hinted at but not fleshed out because the purpose of the exercise was to blow the audience’s minds, not uncover an actual coherent conspiracy.
The point that Joshi is trying to make about Lovecraft is the same one I that I try to make about Lost: If you approach the text expecting it to make sense then you are not only doomed to disappointment, you are reading it wrong! The essence of Calvinball mythology is that there are no fixed or coherent rules… there is only the thrill of discovering more weird stuff.
As for the question of what people ‘get’ out of this kind of anti-mythology… I think it depends. I think that people lead quite complex spiritual and intellectual lives and while projecting oneself into a synthetic mythological system is rapidly becoming the mainstay of geek spirituality, I think that it is also possible to appreciate mythological structures in a purely aesthetic fashion. One interesting example of this type of thing is the book Cyclopedia (2008) by the Iranian philosopher and writer Reza Negarestani. Cyclopedia is essentially an analysis of Middle Eastern energy politics that draws on both Critical Theory and Lovecraftian terminology. The idea of the book is that the oil reserves of the Middle East are not just alive but a form of elder god intent upon destroying the world. Clearly, Cyclopedia is intended as a work of mythology but Negarestani is completely ambivalent as to what it is that we are supposed to do with this mythology. When I reviewed the book a while ago, I concluded that the book was a kind of satire of academic Theory but I now realise that part of the book’s beauty lies in its absolute ambiguity. Yes, it is a literal description of the world. Yes, it is a synthetic myth that we can use to make sense of the world. Yes, it is a form of Theoretical metaphysics. Yes, it is an elaborate joke. It is and can be all of these things… it is up to us to choose the one we like the most. Humans are complex critters and I think their philosophical attitudes reflect this fact.
The second piece of follow-up is by Terry Flaxton who made a few comments here before expanding on his ideas in a proper blog post. Terry’s concern is that we in the West have long tended to recoil in horror from the suggestion that life is meaningless:
So to me, ubiquitous-ness need not be devoid of meaning and left bank thinkers pulled a fast one with their Up Pompeii ‘Oh Woe is me’ clarion call to the pessimists amongst us to fear what was happening.
Digitality is what is happening and we are coming close to an understanding of what it actually might be rather than via out prior re-mediated attempts at understanding it through the filter of the analogue. So – don’t despair at apparent meaninglessness, it’s a very important condition prior to meaningful-ness.
I tend to think that the modernist tendency to decry and bewail the death of the gods is nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia by a bunch of post-Catholic thinkers who yearn for a state of hermeneutic slavery that quite possibly never existed in the first place. Interestingly, one of the original High Priests of meaninglessness Jean-Paul Sartre felt so annoyed by all the hand-wringing that he wrote a pamphlet entitled Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) that explicitly argues that absolute freedom in a meaningless void is something to celebrate rather than be-wail.
Having said that, I do have a good deal of sympathy for those who feel overwhelmed by our ontological freedom. As Terry points out, the problem is not that there is insufficient meaning in the world but that there is just too bloody much of the stuff! What makes this position so problematic is that, on a purely pragmatic level, ubiquitous meaning is functionally identical to a complete lack of meaning. With no real basis for choosing between different mythological structures, you may as well have no mythological structures at all. One text that explores the difficulties of this type of mindset is Stanislaw Lem’s novel Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961). The novel is set in some bleak future where a single monolithic bureaucratic institution known only as The Building runs the entire galaxy. The book follows a character who is sent into The Building in order to uncover a secret plot. However, once the character begins uncovering the mystery, he rapidly realises that it is a mystery without a solution. When I wrote about the book, I had this to say about it:
The book is structured as a series of conceptual breakthroughs. Having settled us down into a familiar Kafkaesque landscape of bureaucratic schizophrenia and paranoia, Lem then has his narrator discover a report about his mission that details not only his seemingly random and uninformed actions but also the states of mind that motivated these actions. Clearly, he is not acting at random, he is following a plan. This literary eigenstate established, Lem promptly collapses it into another haze of particles and probabilities. This quantum rubble then forms the foundations for another explanation, and then another, and then another. Each time the narrator is introduced to an understanding of the Building and his place in it, events conspire to make it seem childish and laughable. Yet each time the narrator, and the reader, fall for it. Hoping that this time, the truth about The Building will be expressed.
As we near the end of the book, the tools Lem uses in order to throw us off guard become more and more potent. At one point, the narrator is told that everything is code. What this means is that everything in the universe can be interpreted as being a code. Secret communications between secret agents. Of course, if everything is in code, including the codes themselves, and intention bears no relation to meaning then everything can be interpreted anyway you want. Because everything is meaningful, everything is meaningless.
In many ways, Memoirs Found In a Bathtub is the ultimate development of the Calvinball mythologies explored in works such as Lost and Prometheus. Lem lures us down a series of conceptual corridors that are perpetually poised on the brink of opening up into some grand conspiracy. However, each time we get close to what we thought was ‘the truth’, Lem pulls the rug out from under us and sends us scurrying after another bogus mytho-conspiratorial explanation that can help us to make sense of the world.
Lem, of course, is of the same mind as Sartre’s hand-wringers and Terry’s Left-bankers, he is so horrified of a world with too much meaning that he practically welcomes totalitarianism as the only possible solution to the problem of becoming existentially overwhelmed. The mistake made by many thinkers in this mould lies in their tendency to treat truth and falsity as scientific absolutes whereas, in reality, the people who are engaging with these mythologies do so in a far more gradual and philosophically slippery manner. As Karen Armstrong points out in The Case for God (2009), people do not buy into mythology because they literally believe it to be true in the same way as Pythagoras’s Theorem or ‘All Bachelors are Unmarried’ are true… they are supremely pragmatic and remarkable adaptable and so can dip their toes in mythological pools, taking in just enough ‘truth’ to serve their purposes without necessarily committing themselves to the objective reality of their belief systems. This is why Hollywood and DC comics have become players in games of divinity… We don’t believe that Batman exists but we pretend we do just so that we can feel that Tolkienian afterglow of a world that makes sense.
The third piece of follow-up comes to us from the excellent Ben Abraham who, as a graduate student who actually knows about this type of stuff, has taken me to task for some sloppy analysis. The crux of Ben’s point is that I have failed to distinguish sufficiently between works that are Obscurantist (i.e. works that do have meanings but go out of their way to keep these meanings obscure) and works that are explicitly arguing against the idea of mythology and the validity of meta-narratives.
Mea Culpa… I definitely fudged that distinction. In fact — if I am honest — I am not in the least bit happy with my attempt to credit Prometheus with being a critique of or reaction against the trend to turn stories into myths. I think that the film could have equipped the Alien franchise into a coherent world; I also think that the use of mythological language suggests that may well have been the intent on some level. However, regardless of whether or not Prometheus was intended as an Alien myth, the execution of the film is so poor that the only way we can even begin to make sense of the text is by reading it as an attempt at self-parody or self-critique. Ben is quite correct… in order to credit the film with that kind of critical agency, you have to be able to tell the difference between intentional critique and intellectual incompetence and, frankly, you can’t do that with Prometheus. As Ben puts it:
Narrative obscurantism of the Calvinball type isn’t the same as a real or genuine disavowal of metanarratives (including the metanarratives and myths of science). To my knowledge, one of the few people to take seriously the challenge of a meaningless, indifferent universe is Quentin Meillassoux and his acausality. But again we find the same tension as in McCalmont’s piece – Meillassoux believes in a fundamental, hyperchaotic and meaningless layer of reality as the only necessary and non-contingent layer of the universe, yet at the same time, the universe at present remains contingent and explanatory mechanisms like science remain accurate, and may remain so until long after humans have disappeared from the universe.
Ben also questions my distinction (d’apres Karen Armstrong) between scientific explanation and the provision of mythological understanding. I am aware that there is a tendency to see science as just another mythical structure but I tend to think that this is something of a simplification:
Science is all about the production of mathematical models that allow scientists to make accurate predictions about the future. In order to make sense of these mathematical models and thereby refine them, scientists effectively construct a class of mythological/theoretical entities that, if they actually existed, would explain the results of particular predictions. Why did mathematical model z produce such an outcome? Because the hydrogen atoms in the solution react with the fizzbam on the whatnot. The atoms, the fizzbam and the whatnot are all theoretical entities that help scientists to make sense of their findings in the same way that God, magic, karma and ghosts help regular people to make sense of the details of their lives.
These structural similarities mean that science is, technically, a myth but I am not sure what is gained from this observation as all worldviews, theories and beliefs are also myths… they all invoke the unseen in order to make sense of the seen. The only thing that is gained from stressing science’s mythological nature is rhetorical flourish.
The reason why I rate Karen Armstrong’s writings on this issue is that she moves beyond the semantics of what is and is not a myth in order to concentrate on the practicalities of why people adopt different mythologies. Armstrong singles out scientific thought because science is not in the business of providing meta-narratives to ennoble our lives; its meta-narratives are small and limited only to physical phenomena. The mistake some religious people make, according to Armstrong, is to believe that their mythology is also in the business of explaining physical phenomena; this is where the conflict between science and religion emerges. In truth, most mythologies exist in order to provide us with the illusion of moral context and so when the Bible talks about the origins of Man it is not discussing the objective reality of how life emerged, it is attempting to vocalise how it is we should feel about our origins. So yes… science is a myth, but labelling it a myth should not blind us to the characteristics that make scientific thought unique. Semantics are only useful in so far as they allow us to speak more precisely.