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Cognitive Fusion through Myth and Symbol Making

Archetypal dimensions (Part #1)


Annex D of Enactivating a Cognitive Fusion Reactor: Imaginal Transformation of Energy Resourcing (ITER-8)
[See also website of ITER-8: Cognitive Fusion Reactor]


Cognitive fusion through myth and symbol making
Myth and indigenous knowledge
Archetypal symbolism indicative of the fundamental dimensions of ITER-8

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Cognitive fusion through myth and symbol making

It is readily assumed in the modern world that myth and symbol are only to be associated with outmoded modes of cognition. This is to forget the immense investments in "image making" through advertising, public relations and news management, or the importance attached to the symbols by which individuals, groups, teams, corporations, nations and international bodies are identified -- and through which they may well define their own identities. Great attention is given to the "stories" or "narratives" by which the identity of entities is crafted in relation to others. Their ability to "reinvent" themselves through developing new stories is appreciated. Symbols may then be embedded in a connective tissue of myth.

Confirming the extensively documented arguments with respect to myth of Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth, 1988), Karen Armstrong (A Short History of Myth, 2005) makes the points that:

Human beings have always been mythmakers....the Neanderthal graves show that when these early people became conscious of their mortality, they created some sort of counter-narrative that enabled them to come to terms with it.... human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gaver us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

Armstrong addresses the curious status of myth in industrialized societies, despite this long-demonstrated function:

Another peculiar characteristic of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that we cannot explain rationally.... imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective.... Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology...is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it..

In a time of considerable anxiety regarding the possibility that humanity may anihilate itself and all life on the planet, this argument is consistent with the recognized influence of "end times" scenarios on foreign policy, notably of the USA [more | more]. Noting that the word 'myth' is often used to describe something that is simply not true, Armstrong points to some of its vital functions in modern society:

Like poetry and music, mythology should awaken us to rapture, even in the face of death and the despair we may feel at the prospect of annihilation. If a myth ceases to do that, it has died and outlived its usefulness. It is therefore a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human beings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking 'what if'? -- a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology....If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.

Armstrong argues:

...every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new condition.

As Armstrong notes, substitutes for myth are evident in the modern relationship to art, music, dance, drugs, sex and sport. However, most striking are the myths made, sustained and appreciated around celebrities and in major media phenomena: international competitive sport, particular novels and their "blockbuster" film versions (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, etc). Jospeh Campbell's work on myth was, for example, acknowledged as a strong influence on the Star Wars series [more].

In this respect Armstrong concludes:

If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.

Such perspectives are consistent with those of the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism (SCOS). This is an international and interdisciplinary network of academics and practitioners interested in organizational symbolism, culture and change formed as an autonomous working group of the European Group for Organisational Studies. The research focus of SCOS crosses traditional disciplinary and functional boundaries, providing a reflective space for the development of new forms and new voices for this work. It aims to produce and develop theoretically and practically innovative views of organization and management and through encouraging and fostering new approaches in the study of culture and symbolism of everyday life in organizations. It deliberately evokes discussion of marginalised perspectives on the understanding of organized life providing an arena where the boundaries of conventional thinking about organized life can be challenged and blurred. Its philosophy is explicitly one of "serious fun".

From such understanding, ITER-8 responds to the question of the nature of the myths that a modern globalized knowledge society is evoking for itself. On the one hand these are epitomized, as demonstrated (above) by the production of "megametaphors" such as "globalization" and "sustainability" (Timothy W. Luke, MegaMetaphorics: Re-Reading Globalization, Sustainability, and Virtualization as Rhetorics of World Politics, 1999) ). On the other are the media and "blockbuster" attractors -- and their military analogues (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc). And then there are the many anticipated religious "messiahs". But then there are the megascience projects such as the International Space Station, and expeditions to the other end of the solar system -- following that to the Moon and the associated myth-making. Then there is ITER -- acclaimed in terms of the "energy of the Sun". These may all be considered as unconsciously engendered collective myths which "work" -- for some and for a time.

As with Darrell Posey (Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, 1999), Armstrong stresses the contrast between the modern tendency to separate the religious from the secular as being incomprehensible to (early) indigenous peoples for whom nothing was profane:

Everything they saw or experienced was transparent to its countepart in the divine world...The most ordinary actions were ceremonies that enabled mortal beings to participate in the timeless world of "everywhen". For us moderns, a symbol is essentially separate from the unseen reality to which it directs our attention, but the Greek symballein means "to throw together": two hitherto disparate objects become inseparable -- like gin and tonic in a cocktail.... The earliest mythologies taught people to see through the tangible world to a reality that seemed to embody something else.

When so many fragmented initiatives of modern society are, to some degree, effectively engaged in myth-making under other guises, the question for ITER-8 is how to engage in this process most fruitfully and coherently. Hence the challenge of cognitive fusion and the intimate relationship to ITER's mundane preoccupations.

In the light of the insights from a highly mediatised global society, to what extent can ITER-8 reflect in a more integrated and focused manner the process of myth-making as a form of cognitive fusion? To what extent does the thinking underpinning ITER provide highly disciplined guidelines in this respect? It is useful here to make a distinction between:

  • the achivement of credibility through authority (irrespective of whether what is so authorized is comprehensible and credible in its own right to those whose resources are allocated to it)
  • the capacity to engender credibility in those exposed to a process

ITER, as framed above, might be considered as a useful model of the media myth-making process as embodied by ITER-8. This is perhaps usefully clarified by reference to the parallels between the physics of acoustics and plasma exemplified by the didgeridoo:

  • drone: as with the bagpipes, a carrier drone sound is a basic requirement -- as is a carrier wave for plasma. In organizations this is exemplified by the plenary meeting, occasionally referred to as droning on
  • tones: the formants give distinct meaning to the sound (as noted above). In organizational meetings, this may be exemplified by keynote speakers or thematic panels following a programmatic script, as with a musical score
  • overtones/undertones: appropriately generated by a skilled player, notes of much higher or much lower frequency emerge from the interplay of the preceding elements. In a meeting the "overtones" are typically described as "highlights", whether they were actually heard or whether it is convenient for public relations purposes to claim that they emerged. The "undertones" may however be matters of concern omitted from any widely distributed communication.
  • "fusion": under particular conditions, the above sounds fuse into a new level of meaning engaging player and audience in a form of cognitive fusion; played; occasionally meetings may have what tend to be described as "transformative" or "magical" moments, when everything "came together". Occasionally such a synthesis can be articulated by a person or a process in the meeting.

In a world of news management and spin, such processes may be usefully compared with the cognitive processes of an organization, as modelled acoustically or by plasma dynamics. As a person of Australian origin, how credible is it to frame Rupert Murdoch (Chairman of News Corporation) as effectively, and skillfully, playing the media world like a didgeridoo? Much has been made of the the need for his benediction by upcoming politicians -- from Tony Blair, through George Bush, to Hilary Clinton. Is it the case that he effectively ensures a media "drone", in support of interesting "sound bites" as "tones" -- whether or not the "overtones" and "undertones" are consciously recognized? What form of "cognitive fusion" is sustained by this process?

In such a context, are there organizations whose centre of gravity is effectively at the "drone" level -- as might be expected of many bodies performing maintenance functions in any system? Might others then be distinguished by a centre of gravity associated with the "tones" of their regularly changing programmes, as is the case with many intergovernmental bodies, and those whose existence is primarily legitimized and sustained by public relations claims. Of potentially greater interest are the initiatives of less conventional form whose processes and activities manage to engender "overtones", perhaps to be interpreted as "higher values" -- or "undertones", whether problematic or indicative of a higher degree of groundedness. An obvious danger, however, is the tendency of those preoccupied with higher values to themselves get locked into a "drone" mode -- as with many peace organizations -- obscuring the overtones which they seek to cultivate..

Given the dynamics through which "overtones" are engendered, and the dependence on the sustaining processes, organizations centered in such forms necessarily have a highly transient form -- effectively unfolding and folding in a manner reminiscent of the case made by David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980) for alternation between an implicate and an explicate order. In this sense ITER-8 might be understood as a form of meta-organization.


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