Myth and Enlightenment

In my last post I commented on Levi Bryant and Michel Onfray’s idea that Enlightenment is immanence. I was surprised to see that Levi linked this sophisticated version of a pro-enlightenment stance (which is based on the refusal of transcendent foundations and legitimations)  with an opposition to myth:

« With Kant I agree that Enlightenment consists in humankind freeing itself from its self-imposed immaturity. That immaturity consists of our need for fathers to govern us and in mythological thinking about the world. »

He confirms this opposition to myth in a follow-up post, « Myth: A Pet Peeve » , where he claims that not science and technology but mythological thinking are responsible for the horrors of the 20th Century (WWI, WWII, Holocaust):

« The cause was mythological thought in the form of nationalist, religious, and racial myths that animated these two wars. »

What is strange is that he seems to be thinking of religion rather than myth:

« In this regard, there was little difference between 14th century pogroms directed at Jews during the Black Plague or the wholesale slaughter of Muslims by Catholics during the Crusades, than what took place in these wars »

I see no conflict between enlightenment and myth, but between enlightenment and religion understood as a literalising belief in myth. Myth is rather a  immanent mode of thinking that proceeds by envisaging the virtual world of powers in terms of personified entities. This is no different from what Deleuze and Guattari do in their construction of a mode of  thinking that uses conceptual characters (badly translated as “personae”). The idea is that the pure concept is associated with spatio-temporal affective-perceptive dynamisms that are best expressed in recurrent characters that incarnate and give content to the concepts. Like myth, this form of thinking is open-ended, pluralist, non-literal (non-mimetic), and more concerned with Powers and Events than actualised entities and stereotyped realities. Deleuze and Guattari’s texts are swarming with becomings (woman, animal, plant, mineral). These are so many conceptual personages that permit them to think beyond what a narrow conception of reason would allow.

Myth only becomes a danger when these figures are literalised, codified, stratified creating closed static lists of entities with fixed attributes. The problem is not myth but religious treatment of and belief in certain myths as literal realities. In this sense Enlightenment, Science, Reason can function religiously (or if this is too restrictive a definition of religion, we could say creedally). Freud is full of mythological figures, both classical ones and those of his own invention (Eros, Thanatos, Oedipus, but also id, ego, superego, libido, death-drive). The problem with Freud’s mythical thinking lies not in the myth but in the dogmatic, scientistic, literalising and monist « enlightenment » overcoding of these conceptual characters.

One could argue that Freud’s Enlightenment (and here we must say that Freud is not part of the radical enlightenment, but rather of the authoritarian, élitist, conformist enlightenment) was precisely the concretising and dogmatising force that Lacan and later Deleuze and Guattari had to overcome. This deterritorialising of Freud can be seen equally validly as fracturing his enlightenment dogmatism and monism by valorising the conceptual (mythical) characters over the positivistic conception of reason and the real, or by radicalising the notions of reason and the real and so pushing his enlightenment further.

Melville in Moby-Dick is both mythical and radical enlightenment in his style, as the scattered remarks of Deleuze on Moby-Dick would suggest. The recent book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly ALL THINGS SHINING (which advocates a deterritorialised mythological thinking as a way out of the nihilist trap of post-modernity) is in close convergence with what D&G say in MILLE PLATEAUX on Moby-Dick, and their use of mythology is neither obscurantist nor proto-fascist. Dreyfus and Kelly call Melville’s work a masterpiece of polytheism, Deleuze and Guattari call it a masterpiece of becomings, and given their analysis of becomings in relation to a plurality of conceptual characters, these two approaches concur very closely. So mythic thinking is more widespread than one may think in enlightened works and thoughts.

Radical  enlightenment means more myth not less, and it means freeing the myth from its creedal stratifications and literalisations and unleashing its power of « fabulation ». For Deleuze and Guattari fabulation is not a hindrance to enlightenment and a cause of horrors, but the way to a fuller accomplishment of enlightenment and a means of resisting the horrors created by the plane of organisation and its States. Fabulation involves the creating and the projecting as material entities of figures, characters, populations that exist intensely and have a life of their own. Another name for the same thing would be mythologising with its other face of de-literalising.

So my response to Levi Bryant in his own terms is that given his distinction between virtual proper being and manifestation he assigns mythology too readily to the domain of manifestaion. I would argue that mythology has two faces: a virtual face of myth and a manifest face of creed or religion. Myth has far more differance and withdrawal than Levi seems willing to recognise, whereas religion is the reduction to the conditions of identity and manifestation of myth. Even Levi’s parable of his experience as a Lacanian analyst goes in this sense. (I say « parable » because I cannot think that Levi is indulging in some sort of empiricist version of the argument of authority, citing the authority (at least over him) of a past theory and practice that he has deconstructed, relativised, and pluralised many times since he left it behind). Even lacanian psychonalysis can have « cult-like » tendencies, and needs its fabulating function to be set free from its religious manifestations.

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