August 5, 2013

Bruce Lincoln On Mythic Stories That States Tell

Bruce Lincoln is Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where he also holds positions in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World, Committee on the History of Culture, and in the departments of Anthropology and Classics (Associate Member). Before his arrival at the University of Chicago, Lincoln taught at the University of Minnesota (1976-1994), where he co-founded the Program in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society.
Below is an excerpt from Bruce Lincoln's book, "Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions." 2012. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. Chapter Six: Between History And Myth. Pg. 56-57.
"In any given historic moment, what narratives about the origin of the state are likely to prevail?

As a starting point, one might hypothesize that the story the state tells of its beginnings will have more currency than any rivals (actual or potential), simply because it is backed by an institution that can---and will---spend more and one that has more channels available to propagate its version. As a corollary, one can also suggest that the more often the state tells its story and the more resources it commits to its telling, the greater will be its hegemony. Further, that the greater the number of media through which that story is told (school textbooks and political oratory of course, but also poetry and fiction, films, TV miniseries, comic books, music, patriotic celebrations, statues, posters, websites, etc.), the more fully the potentials of each medium are exploited (not just the persuasive but the aesthetic and emotional capacities of each), and the more relentlessly the edifying story is repeated, the more dominant the state-sponsored myth of the state will be.

All reasonable enough, but the sorry history of Soviet attempts along just these lines is sufficient to make us rethink these hypotheses, and there is no shortage of other counterexamples. (Seemingly, schoolchildren everywhere learn to resist, if only by inattention.) At a bare minimum, we can say that the state is likely to propagate a version containing an idealized image of its origins and nature, and that it will probably commit more resources to this task than any of its critics and rivals.

These efforts, however, are not enough to secure that version's dominance, for persuasion is not a direct function of budgetary expenditure and message repetition. When the idealized representations embedded in a myth differ sharply from the experience of its hearers, that myth is likely to lose credibility; ditto its narrators and promoters. Critique flourishes in the gap between idealized images and lived realities, taking the form, inter alia, of mythic variants that challenge, mock, corrode, and reconfigure the state-sponsored version of the story."