Myth : Chiara Bottici

Michell Rawlings / Bather

Michell Rawlings / Bather

Myth: Chiara Bottici

Why are philosophers, and in particular political philosophers, reluctant to focus on political myth as a primary topic for their investigations? Why do they keep oscillating between the Scylla of rationalism, with its normative standards, and the Charybdis of political theology, with its smell of death?

Not only do political myths exist, but they are also theorized about—although not so much by political philosophers. Why is that so? And what is the specific contribution that philosophy could bring to the study of the interplay between myth and politics?

To fully answer these questions would require embarking on a whole genealogy of the western dichotomy of mythos versus logos. But the whole story is too complex for a short essay. For present purposes, I will limit myself to first pointing to the weaknesses of available theories of political myth and, second, to advancing some suggestions as to the possible ways to overcome them. After discussing the concept of myth in general, I will move on to political myth, and place it in between associated concepts such as that of utopia or ideology. After pointing to some politically salient examples of political myth, I will conclude with some brief remarks on the relationship between political myth and political theology.

1. The “Work on Myth”

Within the social sciences, it is not uncommon to find a tendency to look at myth from the standpoint of its claim to truth. For instance, in his influential Discourse and the Construction of Society, Bruce Lincoln defines political myth as a narrative for which successful claims are made not only to the status of truth, but, what is more, to the status of paradigmatic truth. Similarly, Flood defines political myth as “an ideologically marked narrative which purports to give a true account of a set of past, present or predicted political events.”1

But is this a helpful way to look at myth? Admitting, as I think we should do, that we perform a number of actions through language that are not aimed at advancing any claim to truth, should we not look at political myth as primarily one of these “other” things that we do with language?2 Maybe myth in general, and political myth in particular, is not primarily an act of saying, but also, and foremost, an act of doing.

While social sciences appear to be often entrapped within an impoverished understanding of language, the problem with philosophical theories (the few available) is that they treat political myth under categories that are too general. For instance, in The Myth of the State, Ernst Cassirer considers political myths under the heading of “mythical consciousness,” whereas, more recently, in Veil Politics, Ajume H. Wingo looks at them through the notion of “political veil.”3 While the former, in the vein of a neo-kantian philosophy, looks at the mythical consciousness as one of the a priori symbolic forms that mediate our being in the world, the latter takes on a more analytic approach by focusing on the function of those political symbols, rituals, and traditions that mediate not simply between a perceiver and an object, but also between citizens and a political structure.

Despite the huge differences between these two theories, what they have in common is the fact that they approach myth under a very general heading. But, conflating myth with other forms of political symbolism is confusing and politically problematic. It is empirically misleading because it occults the fact that myths are symbols, but not all symbols are myths. Symbols are an a priori condition of all forms of communication, whereas myths are not. Even a mathematical proportion is a set of symbols, but nobody, or at least only very few, would argue that it is a myth. Yet, it is also politically problematic because one risks ending up with a generalized refusal of any form of “mythical consciousness”—as one may end up doing by following the Cassirer of The Myth of the State—or with an equally problematic defence of all “veils,” as Wingo’s Veil Politics does.

Cassirer’s condemnation of the Nazi myth of the Aryan race as a form of regression might be justified, but this does not hold for all forms of political myth. As Wingo argues, even liberal democracies can have their own political myths,4 and they may be compatible with the principle of individual autonomy. However, Wingo seems to make the opposite mistake, as he is led by his very broad notion of “veils” into an equally problematic acceptance of all sorts of them. For instance, he defends the cult of national heroes, if it meets with consensus from all sectors of a nation, but this is contestable because consensus can also be the result of manipulation and therefore be hardly compatible with individual autonomy.

More generally, there seems to be something about our topic that renders it recalcitrant vis-à-vis philosophical treatment. Perhaps it is not by chance that classical theories of political myth are mostly the result of reflection on specific examples. This holds true, for instance, for both Cassirer’s The Myth of the State and Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, perhaps the two major classical philosophical works on political myth.5 Precisely because both Cassirer’s and Sorel’s theories remain too bound to their models, they do not really allow for generalization: are political myths a means for domination, as Cassirer seems to argue by analyzing the myth of the Aryan race, or for liberation, as Sorel sustains for the proletarian general strike?

Actually, the same political myth can often be a source of both oppression and liberation—depending on the context. Sorel’s myth of class struggle has not always been a means for liberation, for instance. One need only think of how this myth has been utilized by totalitarian regimes. This example points to what we can call the “particularistic” nature of political myth, the fact that the same narrative can have very different outcomes according to the particular circumstances in which it operates. Myth expresses itself through variants: properly speaking, we never see a single myth at work, but always only variants of it. Here lies its particularism, which is also the source of its pluralism. And indeed, a narrative that works as a political myth for a certain group of people may not be so for another, and even for the same group, a given narrative can work as a political myth in certain circumstances, but not in others.

A way to make sense of this particularistic nature of myth is to say that myth is a process, and not an object. Indeed, a myth does not consist of a story that is given once and for all: take the myth of Ulysses. What is the myth of Ulysses outside of the many possible variants of it? The one that sees him happily coming back to Ithaca (Homer) or that which sees him swallowed up by the sea (Dante), to mention just two? Having variants is intrinsic to the concept of myth. A myth consists of the process of elaborating the possible variants of a story. This is what Hans Blumenberg tries to convey with his concept of Arbeit am Mythos, which translates literally to “work on myth.”6

By “work on myth,” Blumenberg means a process of elaboration of a narrative core that answers a need for significance. But such a need for significance is constantly changing. This is the reason why myth has to express itself through variants: in each single context, the same narrative pattern is re-appropriated by different needs and exigencies to which it must respond. A narrative core either produces a variant that fulfils this task in the new context or it ceases to be a myth and becomes a simple narrative.

What is such a “need for significance?” The term “significance” denotes a space between a “simple meaning” and what we can call an “ultimate meaning.” Something can have a meaning and still be completely indifferent to us—even though what is significant must also have a meaning in order to be named in the first place.
The need for significance is not merely the need for a meaningful world: the world depicted by natural science is a world that has a meaning, but it can still remain completely indifferent to me. At the same time, the need for significance is not the need for religion either, because something can be significant for a group without answering the ultimate questions of life and death in the way that religion does.7 Precisely because of its “ultimate” and transcendent character, religion tends to produce a sacred history, that is, History with a capital letter.

In particular, there is something in the monotheistic idea of a “religion of the book” that stands in sharp contrast with polytheism of ancient Greek myths. To say “so it is written” amounts, to a certain extent, to saying that you cannot imagine it otherwise, and this is the reason why it pairs with the monotheistic imperative, “you shall have no other god besides me.” The truth of the Sacred Book can certainly be interpreted, but not radically subverted. As a result, substantially differing variants of a sacred History are easily termed “heresy.” For example, a sacred history could not say that Jesus Christ was resurrected, while at the same time saying that he never was; if it does, it will generate another faith.

By contrast, we can have the narrative of Ulysses returning safely to Ithaca circulate together with the narrative that sees him swallowed up by the sea, without there being any substantial contradiction between the two. It is implicit in the concept of a monotheistic faith that one believes in that particular story.
In sum, we can say that myth does not always provide a transcendent plan that responds to the ultimate questions of life and death (when it does, we call it a religious myth), but it still has something to offer human beings—something that, I think, is qualitatively different from what both science and religion provide.

The need for significance derives from the peculiar position of human beings within the world. By recovering a famous Nietzschean expression, Arnold Gehlen calls human beings the “always not-yet determined animals” (noch nicht festgestelles Tier).8 Human beings, in contrast to other animals, are not adapted to a specific environment and are therefore always “not-yet determined.” Whereas most animals have a predetermined relationship with their environment, in the sense that they are adapted to it (a fish would die out of the water), human beings constantly change the environment in which they live. This puts them in a very peculiar relationship with their living conditions. I highlight two consequences of this.

First, this relationship generates culture. As Blumenberg observes, when the pre-human creature was induced to avail itself of a bipedal posture and to leave the protection of a hidden way of life in the rain forest for the open savannah, it exposed itself to the risks of a widened horizon of perception. As a result, the human creature is constantly led to face the power of the unknown, or what Blumeberg calls “the absolutism of reality.”9 Being exposed to an always potentially different environment, human beings are subject to a much higher number of stimulations from the outside world—a burden from which they must seek relief. Culture and language are the means through which such a relief can be obtained.

Second, perpetually changing environments also yield a problematizing relationship with our conditions of existence. Not only can humans change their conditions, but they can also raise questions about them. They get anxious about them. In sum, we could say that human beings need meaning to master the unknown, to name it, but they also need significance to live in a world that is not indifferent to them. This is what Blumenberg means when he writes that “significance” is a form of defence against the indifference of the world.10

Myth fights this indifference by placing events within a narrative plot. It typically addresses the question “Whence?” rather than “Why?” As Karoly Kerényi notes, the function of myth is neither to provide a name for things nor to explain them, but more specifically to “ground” them. As he observes, the German language provides the exact word for this function: begründen.11 “Grund” means both the English abstract noun “reason” and the concrete noun “ground.” Myths tell stories. They describe the origins of things and, simultaneously, their trajectories. In this way, they provide a Grund.

If we look at myth from this point of view, three elements seem to be central: process, narrative, and significance. A myth is not simply a narrative. An organized series of events suffices to qualify as a narrative, but more is needed to have a myth. A myth is a narrative that responds to a need for significance that changes over time. Precisely because a myth has to provide significance within changing circumstances, it is best understood as a process, rather than as an object. Otherwise stated, the pluralism of myth is a response to the absolutism of reality.

2. Political Myth

If we accept this definition of myth, what happens when such narratives enter politics? A political myth is the work of a common narrative that grants significance to the political conditions and experiences of a social group. What makes a political myth out of a simple narrative is neither its claim to truth nor its content, as some have maintained.12 For instance, there is nothing political per se in stating that the world is about to disappear. Nevertheless, the narrative of the millennium, which stems from this idea, has worked as a political myth, and as a powerful one in certain contexts.

What makes a political myth out of a narrative is 1) the fact that it coagulates and reproduces significance, 2) that a given group shares it, and 3) that it can address the political conditions in which a given group lives. A political myth must respond to a need for significance, otherwise it would be a mere narrative, and it must be shared, because it must address the specifically political conditions of a social group. Otherwise said, a political myth is not only the result of a pre-existing political identity, but also the means for creating it.

Now, one can define politics in the more general sense of whatever pertains to the polis, to the decision concerning the fate of a community, or, in a more restricted sense, as the specific form of power that is characterized by the threat of recourse to legitimate coercion.13 In both cases, politics concerns the life in common, which is, ultimately, the reason why in order to be political a myth must be shared. A couple of corollaries stem directly from this definition of political myth.

First, to paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, political myths are not a “piece of paper.”14 The work of a political myth cannot be reduced to the stories that we read in our books. These are only some of the products of the “work on myth.” To establish whether a narrative is a political myth, we must look not only at its production, but also at its reception, at the way in which it is shared. The whole process of production-reception-reproduction constitutes the “work on myth.”

Second, political myths are not usually learned at once, but rather are apprehended through cumulative exposure to them. Significance locates itself between what is consciously learned about the world and what is unconsciously apprehended about it. This also explains the condensational power of political myths, their capacity to contract into a few images, or what we can call “icons.”15 By means of synecdoche, any object—a painting, an image, a song, or even a gesture—can recall the whole “work on myth” that lies behind it.

This is also the reason why it is often difficult to analyze them: the work of a political myth takes place through icons that allusively refer to the given narrative, instead of explicitly conveying it, and most of the time they are intermingled with other types of narratives. Given the role of the media in our life in general and in politics in particular, today we are exposed to a potentially infinite number of icons.16 The media revolution has further enlarged what has been called the “primacy effect” of political myth,17
the fact that by feeding into the social unconscious, political myths can become the unperceived lenses through which we experience the world—and for this reason, they tend to remain unquestioned.

To sum up, political myths are mapping devices through which we look at the world, come to feel about it, and therefore also act within it as a social group. They cannot be falsified because, as Sorel puts it, they are not scientific hypotheses or astrological almanacs. The myth of the proletarian strike does not foretell the future: it creates it. The practical dimension of a political myth cannot, however, be separated from what we can call the cognitive and aesthetic dimensions. Political myth provides fundamental cognitive schemata for the mapping of the social world. By reducing the complexity of experience, they enable us to come to terms with the multifaceted character of the world we live in. On the basis of such mapping devices, we also determine how to act and feel about the world. This, in turn, points to their aesthetic dimension, to the fact that political myths are narratives of events cast in a dramatic form. And it is from the articulation of such a drama that the specific pathos of political myth stems.

It should now be clear why political myths cannot be approached from the point of view of their claim to truth. They are the expressions of a determination to act that is potentially self-fulfilling. This, however, does not mean that we have no other criteria according to which we can judge them: We can and indeed we should look at them as a means for acting in the present.

This practical assessment is however particularly complex because most of the time no single identifiable myth-maker can be held accountable for them. We should therefore look at the role that the processes of production-reception-reproduction play within a given social group. Political myths cannot be said to be good or bad per se, but what we can do is to judge them as means for opening up the possibility of critique. Indeed, while all societies participate in one way or another in this mythical dimension, they nevertheless differ in the degree to which this dimension is the site of what, following Cornelius Castoriadis, we can call the “radical imagination,” that is, an imagination that is always able to question itself.18 Otherwise stated, we must judge whether the work of political myth opens or closes the possibility of interrogation of social order in that specific context.

The question of how such questioning is possible is rendered even more complicated by the fact that the work of political myth is most often interwoven with other kinds of discourses. It is not only difficult to locate the work of political myth, and individuate those who are responsible for it, but we must also distinguish it from the other kinds of discourses with which it is most often wrapped up. To begin with, we can for instance distinguish between religious, scientific, or historical political myths.

Religious political myths are typically myths that aspire to provide significance to the political experience of a social group, while at the same time answering the ultimate questions of life and death. This is true, for example, of the ancient Jewish theocracy that Spinoza analyzed within his Theologico-Political Treatise. Typically, these are political myths that tend to operate as closures of interrogation of the social order, since they project its origins onto another plan. Scientific political myths are instead myths that present a narrative of events intermingled with chains of cause and effect relationships. For example, the myth of the Aryan race that Cassirer analyzed at length was based on an odd mixture of narrative and scientific claims, such as that of the biological superiority of the Aryan race. Similarly, many nationalist myths of descent are intermingled with biological claims.19 By presenting specific claims as scientifically sanctioned “findings,” instead of simply probable and always falsifiable theories, scientific political myths can also preclude the possibility of questioning. Finally, in the case of historical political myths, mythical accounts are intimately fused with historical narratives. For instance, most national myths, such as the Italian Resistance against Nazi-fascism or the French Revolution, are derived from historical narratives. In these cases, narratives are given visibility because they can be put in the form of a rationalized memory, i.e. the set of information about and accounts of the past as it is contained in archives, processed in the form of written or visualized narratives that are accessible on demand.20 As a consequence, the “work on myth” can here be more easily located and formalized. But the possibility of an actual critical discussion depends on the awareness that historical narratives are also, in principle, always revisable, and the degree to which their mythical elaboration is considered allows for this awareness to emerge.

Each of the types of political myths described above bring further considerations to the fore and therefore also call for different tools of evaluation: the very possibility of an ultimate meaning in the face of a plurality of sacred stories, the correctness of scientific theory with regard to the current paradigms, or the accuracy of the historical reconstruction with regard to available methods of research. All of them must be taken into consideration in each specific context in order to determine the degree of openness to further elaboration and discussion. Political myths have to remain open to elaboration, because they must provide significance to changing circumstances. When they attempt a closure of meaning, then no more work is possible; and consequently, the myths in question cannot be revised, but only dismissed together with the political regimes that produced them. Well-known examples include the myth of the Aryan race and the Italian fascist myth of the Roman Empire.

In sum, we can say that political myths can be the terrain of a radical imagination that advances a critique of the existing social order by disclosing alternatives to it, but they can also be the means for closing up such a space by making people believe that things are a certain way and cannot be otherwise.

3. Myth Between Utopia and Ideology

At this point in the argument, one could still object that the phenomena associated with the concept of political myth are, in fact, better conceptualized through other similar tools. The task of this section is to spell out in what ways that the concept of political myth we have discussed here differs from other related concepts with which it has been traditionally associated, such as utopia and ideology. Differentiating concepts does not mean opposing them; rather, as we will see, once we have distinguished among them, the next step consists in seeing possible connections and overlaps.

As has been observed by different sides, notwithstanding the multifaceted varieties of the possible uses of the term ideology, we can distinguish two main semantic cores.21 The first is what we can call the “polemical” concept of ideology, according to which “ideology” denotes a form of false consciousness or disguises the reality of fact. This usage of the term was first inaugurated by Napoleon, who made recourse to it in order to criticize the abstract idealism of “les idéologues” versus the reality of facts, and was most influentially used in this sense by Marx and Engels.22 The second is a more neutral one, in that it that denotes any set of ideas by which human beings posit, understand, and justify their social action.23

Many authors have treated political myth as a form of ideology in the polemical sense. Two classical examples of the attempt to deal with political myths under the heading of “ideology” in this way are Raymond Aron’s The Opium of the Intellectuals and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies.24 The problem with both of these attempts is that, by counterpoising myth and ideology with the “reality” of facts, one is trapped once again in an approach to political myth in terms of its claim to truth, which, as we have seen, is crucially misleading.

If we take the second meaning of the term, the discussion of its relationship with political myth becomes more fruitful. A political myth also entails a set of ideas by which human beings posit and represent the ends and means of social action. Both myth and ideology are indeed mapping devices, whose necessity derives from the fact that human beings are “not yet determined” or, to put it in Clifford Geertz’s words, “self-completing animals”25 who need cognitive templates to orient themselves in the world. On the other hand, as I will try to show, not all such sets of templates constitute a political myth.

In order for an ideology to constitute a political myth, two further conditions must also be met. First, this set of ideas must take the form of a narrative, of a series of events cast in a dramatic form. Yet, not all ideologies share this characteristic. For instance, ideologies can have the structure of a scientific theory, rather than that of a narrative. In other words, as the etymology of the term suggests, ideologies are “ideas” cast in the form of the “logos,” of a rational argument, rather than in that of narrative. Certainly the two may at times overlap: for instance, the myth of the Aryan race was a combination of scientific and narrative elements. And, in practice, it was both a political myth and an ideology. But there can also be forms of ideology that are not fundamentally based on a narrative form.

Furthermore, for a narrative to work as a political myth, it must also be able to coagulate and reproduce significance. Not all ideologies do so. Put bluntly, political myths are always narratives staging a drama. It is from the sentiment of being part of such a drama that the specific pathos of a political myth stems. Even the abstract calculations of the single mind of an intellectual can provide an ideology, but this is not yet, and not necessarily, a political myth.

In a similar vein, political myth must also be kept analytically distinct from utopia. Despite the fact that, from a variety of points of view, political myths resemble utopias (and sometimes overlap with them), they must not be conflated. To assimilate them can only be misleading and impoverishing for our political language. Many authors have dealt with political myth under the heading of utopia. Most of them do so by understanding political myth as a general state of mind that is incongruous with the reality within which it occurs. A utopia is, lato sensu, the description of an unrealizable state of things.26

For instance, Karl Mannheim and more recently Paul Ricoeur claim that the utopian mentality works in opposition to the status quo and aims at its disintegration, whereas ideology—even when it does not precisely correspond to the status quo—nevertheless tends toward its preservation because it is congruous with it. In other words, utopias are revolutionary because they aim to burst the boundaries of the existing order, whereas ideologies are always conservative.27

However, to define utopian thinking and political myth together, as an expression of a form of mentality that is altogether incongruous with the reality from which it generates, means to fall once more in the trap of approaching myth from the point of view of its claim to truth. Political myth cannot be defined in relation to its congruence or incongruence with social reality. Not all political myths are revolutionary, inasmuch as not all ideologies, at least as we have defined them, are conservative. Starting from such a characterization of the utopian mentality, it is impossible to grasp the difference between political myth, utopia, and ideology.

However, if by “utopia” we understand stricto sensu the literary genus that was inaugurated by Thomas More’s Utopia, then similarities and differences from political myth come to light. This literary genre, which extends from More to the negative utopia of Orwell’s 1984 through authors such as Campanella, Fontenelle, and Fourier, is precisely characterized by the narrative form in which it casts the description of the eu or ou-topos—”the place that is good, but also nowhere,” according to the fortunate ironical expression coined by More.28 Typically, the description of the perfect or ideal society is transmitted by a traveller relaying his discovery of this eu/ou-topos (good/no-place), which is classically an island or at least a territory isolated from other societies.

It is not just narrative form that unites political myth and utopias. Both play what we can call a regulative function, in which by “regulative” I mean the capacity of ideas to serve as guiding ideals independently of their being constitutive of the world of phenomena. Otherwise stated, utopias are a form of “secularised theodicy”29 that address the problem of evil in societies by counterpoising them to abstract models that are no-places (ou-topoi), but also good-places (eu-topoi). In this sense, like political myths, they can also be the result of the work of a radical imagination.

Still, not all utopias are political myths. Even if they share a narrative structure and a regulative purpose, not all utopias respond to a social group’s need for significance. A utopia can be the theoretical construction of a single mind and can remain so without acquiring the status of a political myth. Orwell’s 1984 is an example. In contrast, what distinguishes political myths is their being shared, their non-individual production, the fact that they sit in the social unconscious, without it even being possible to identify their authors. On the contrary, utopias have more easily identifiable authors, who can be held accountable for them. In other words, utopias are theoretical constructions that have a regulative function because they are the means created by a single mind for measuring the general good and bad contained in any society, whereas political myths are regulative because they are the general expression of a determination to act. Their regulative function stems from their capacity to put a collective drama on stage. In other words, utopias remain “no-places,” whereas political myths are invitations to act here and now: to paraphrase Hegel, “hic Rhodus, hic salta.”

4. The politics of the past and the myth of the clash of civilizations

All these features are shared by most contemporary political myths. Among them, national political myths, such as the myth of the American Founding Fathers, that of the French Revolution, or that of the Italian “Resistance” against Nazi-Fascism, have been analyzed at length by social theorists.30 What I want to do here is to illustrate these features of political myth through the analysis of a contemporary example that is particularly relevant for us insofar as it is a potentially global political myth: the myth of the clash between civilizations. Why, then, is the idea of a “clash between civilizations” best analyzed as a political myth?

Surely, the idea of a clash between civilizations is also something else, a scientific theory in the first place.31 But myth and theory can often go together very well, and if we limit ourselves to criticizing it as if it were only a scientific theory, then we would miss the point, because we neglect where the power of this narrative actually lies. There is indeed a striking gap between the ways in which this narrative was received as a scientific theory and as a narrative, through which people more or less unconsciously look at the world. When it was first proposed by Huntington in the 1990s, the idea of a clash between civilizations was strongly criticized as too simplistic and scientifically naive to render the complexities of world politics. Yet, particularly after September 11 and the terrorist attacks in Europe, this narrative became one of the most powerful and widespread worldviews.32

Different surveys show that the idea of a clash between civilizations played a central role in the ways in which these terrorist attacks have been framed in the US and European media.33 After those tragic events, this narrative arose to coagulate the emotional shock that they provoked and to provide significance to the political conditions of very different peoples across the globe. What were the reasons for the success of this narrative? How can a theory that has been so strongly criticized as too naive turn into a successful political myth?

In fact, Huntington provided a name for a political myth that was already in the making. To see this, one must not only focus on the production of such a myth, but also on the whole process of production-reception-reproduction. Only by looking at the whole work on myth can we understand how it is possible to criticize the idea of the clash as a scientific theory and still endorse it as a political myth. The reason it was easy for the media to frame the terrorist attacks as a clash between Islam and the West is that work on this myth started long before 2001—work that took place at both the conscious and unconscious levels. As a result of this work, in the face of the terrorist attacks, people were keener to perceive “civilizations” clashing with each other (whatever one can mean by that) than to perceive individual human beings acting out of a more or less complex set of motivations.

Intellectual discourses have played an important role in conveying pieces of the myth of the clash of civilizations. Even if the narrative of the clash between civilizations has been strongly criticized, pieces of this narrative have been circulating unquestioned in the literature for quite a while. Specialized literature on the Middle East has for a long time tended to portray the Muslim world as a radical ‘Other.’ The idea that Islam is a religion more fanatical than any other, or that it is fundamentally hostile to modernity, is part of a long tradition of what Edward Said names “orientalist” discourses.34 The result is a Eurocentric and negatively biased representation of the Middle East, within which Islam is portrayed as a fixed blueprint that determines an entire way of life for hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world.

But the myth of a clash between Islam and the West is not only a “Western” political myth. The myth of the clash of civilizations is fed by an equally misleading representation of the West circulating in many Arab and Middle Eastern sources.35 This points to the existence of a form of Occidentalism—any reductive representation of the West that takes the East as its starting point. Intellectuals such as the Iranian Ali Shariati, the Sayyid Muhammad Taleqani, or the Egyptian Sayyd Qutb, depicted the West as idolatrous, materialist, and imperialist, and counterpoised it to a spiritual East that follows the precepts of Islam. A dichotomy is thus established between the culture of Islam, at the service of God, and the culture of a new jahiliyya, in the service of bodily needs (such as food, sex, and so on) that degrades human beings to the level of beasts.36

But intellectual discourses could never have produced a political myth without the work that took place at the unconscious level. The condensational capacity of a political myth is particularly evident in the power of the icons that are transmitted through the media. Iconic images slip into the social unconscious through a process of socialisation that begins very early in life. As I have tried to argue elsewhere, the notion of a social unconscious differs from both the individual and the collective unconscious.37 Let me illustrate this concept through a specific example of an icon. Consider the Marianne voilée, the image of the Marianne, symbol of the French Republic, wearing a Muslim veil, which first appeared on 26 October 1985 in the popular French newspaper Figaro Magazine. Marianne is one of the most influential French icons in the myth of the clash of civilizations. When one looks at this image, what appears is only a woman with a naked breast, wearing a hijab. Yet, for a contemporary French person, the image evokes much more. Marianne, the beautiful woman with her breasts uncovered, is a symbol of the French Republic as it came out of the French Revolution; thus it recalls republican values such as freedom from domination, laicité, and anti-traditionalism. By contrast, in the contemporary French imaginary, the veil recalls images of female submissiveness (if not direct oppression). There is, therefore, a presentation of tradition and oppression on the one hand and modernity and freedom on the other. By looking at this image, sensations (the perception of forms, colours, signs, and so on) are transformed into feelings—feelings of incompatibility between two clashing worlds.

This interpretation is reinforced by the context in which it first appeared. Published on the front page of an influential French magazine, the Figaro Magazine, on 26 October 1985, the image accompanied a dossier on Arab immigration in France with the revealing title: “Will we still be French in thirty years?” The heading gives its accompanying image an apocalyptic tenor, suggesting the disappearance of French identity or its dissolution into Muslim traditions. This is an interesting example of the work of icons in the social imaginary, because it very clearly shows the ambivalence of political myth: the image of the veiled Marianne is revelatory of both the fascination and fear of “the others”—that is, those outsiders from an “incompatible civilization” that are migrating into France—and it also illustrates that even when the unconscious is brought to consciousness and recognised as problematic, it is not considered with detachment and objectivity. Indeed, almost thirty years later, French identity is still far from disappearing.38

And it is for this reason that I refer here to the concept of a social unconscious.39 While Freud’s unconscious is individual because it is the product of mechanisms of repression of individual experiences, and whereas Jung’s is collective because he sees in it the reservoir of universal archetypes, using the term “social” is a way to distinguish it from both. The social unconscious differs from Freud’s individual unconscious, because it is not only the result of mechanisms of removal and repression of parts of the individual experience. Particularly if we adopt a weak version of the social unconscious, we must conclude that it is not only formed through repression but also through the simple exposure to contents of which we are not aware.40 It can also be the result of forms of repression, but it is not necessarily so. Indeed, it is now a common experience, well documented in the literature, that the human mind is able to consciously process only a certain amount of information at any given time, while other pieces of information necessarily have to remain in the background.41 This does not mean that they get lost: they are stored somewhere in the depth of our minds, ready to be mobilized when needed. And it is against this background that myths proliferate.

But the concept of the social unconscious also differs from Jung’s collective unconscious. Although the concept is less contestable than it may prima facie appear in its many vulgarizations, the unconscious we refer to here is not universal because it is not the same for all human beings.42 In our approach to political myth, we are not interested in looking for invariants in space and time, but rather for what is specific to each society. The example of the Marianne voilée is paradigmatic in this respect. One must not only be aware that the woman represented is called Marianne and that she is the symbol of the French Republic, but must also have been exposed, more or less subconsciously, to the work of elaboration of those two symbols (Marianne and the veil) which took place in the specific French context to capture the full significance of the icon.

To sum up this point, images such as the Marianne voilée are much more powerful conveyers of the myth of the clash between civilizations than any overt statement about it. Further examples of icons can be taken from the section “A Nation Challenged” that The New York Times launched immediately after 9/11.43 Articles appearing in this section had paranoid titles such as “Yes, this is about Islam,” “Barbarians at the gates,” “The age of Muslim wars,” and “This is a religious war”; they were accompanied by pictures of religiously tainted atrocities, hate, and fanaticism. The last article mentioned above, for instance, was illustrated with pictures of atrocities from medieval Europe.44

An icon of the myth of the clash of civilizations that is particularly helpful in this context is that of the caricature published on 30th September 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten: of the Prophet Mohammed with a fizzing bomb as a turban. Ostensibly a joke, it is nevertheless a very telling one. As Freud, among others, observed, condensation is a typical mechanism at work in wit.45 It is their brevity, their capacity to carry in such a condensed form a message which reveals resemblances among things that are different, which gives us the specific pleasure of wit.46 And it is in its capacity to be a vehicle for the myth of the clash between Islam and the West that the evocative power of the ‘prophet-bomb’ lies.

The Danish caricatures that mocked the prophet Mohammed and the Muslim faith as violent and prone to fanaticism caused vivid reactions on the side of Muslims all around the world. They did not mainly resent the publication of an image of the Prophet, which is forbidden in the Muslim faith, but rather the insulting portrayal. Protests went from death threats, as they appeared in web-sites that mentioned Denmark as a prime terrorist target, to actual attacks, such as those that took place in Islamabad, where in June 2008, a massive car-bomb went off outside the Danish embassy killing eight and injuring 32.47 On the other hand, many western newspapers reproduced the contested caricatures in the name of freedom of speech, engendering a true clash of images. In Italy, Calderoli, then Minister for Reforms and Devolution and an exponent of the Italian xenophobic party Lega Nord, appeared on Italian TV in February 2006 with a T-shirt reproducing them, provoking outrage and further incidents. Among the twelve contested caricatures, that of the Prophet with a bomb in his turban remains the most contested one and has rightly been defined as ‘iconic of the controversy’.48 One of the main reasons for this is precisely because of its spectacular and virtual nature.

That image was circulated on the web, where it was modified to the point where it became difficult to establish its original author. One of the many versions of this icon, for example, is on a cartoon from a blog created in 2009, which explicitly featured the image at the center of the controversy.49 The cartoon reproduced the contested icon of the prophet with a bomb as a turban, but by drastically modifying it, inserting the face into the body of a huge monster that eats babies and brings destruction everywhere, while tanks and helicopters are trying to kill him. The caricature, which clearly has a slanderous intent, also proves our general point that myths (and icons) are not given once and for all. They are continuously evolving processes, which express themselves through the proliferation of variants. The wit consists here both in the reversal of the Muslim invocation (Allahu akbar) into the tile of the cartoon as ‘Allah Snackbar,’ which appears next to exploding buildings, and in the association kissing/eating. While eating one, the prophet-monster says ‘what’s wrong? You never seen a prophet kissing babies before?’ thus suggesting that, with the excuse of ‘kissing’ us, Islam is actually phagocytizing us. The caption ‘Dar al-harb’ alludes to the traditional separation in Islam between the Dar al-Islam, which refers to the space where Islam is the dominant religion, and Dar al-Harb where Islam is in peril. But here it is Islam that is the threat. The image thus synthesizes many of the icons of the evil Arab that circulate in the global society of the spectacle—the turban-headed, sinister-eyed, big-nosed Prophet, the essential carrier of a religion that is a bomb in itself. A war is declared on the West, and it is waged by a religion: Islam. The January 2015 massacre of journalists working for the Paris based satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, has only reinforced such a myth.50

This spectacularization of the past tends to turn all historical narratives into a possible site for myth-making. For example, references to medieval crusades have recently become very common in both the West and the Middle East. The crusades have become a crucial icon of the clash of civilizations, which is particularly interesting because it works on both sides in exactly the same way. The result is that within a few years, the crusades have transformed from an historical event of interest to only a few specialized historians into a popular object of consumption. In the wake of 9/11, films, exhibitions and publications devoted to them started to proliferate. The link between the medieval crusades and the terrorist attacks was made patent by both intellectual discourses and politicians. Al-Qaeda material is full of references to a supposed crusade that the Western powers are leading in the Middle East at the service of Zionism.51 On the other side, Foreign Affairs, which in the past hosted a long series of critical responses to Huntington, launched a special issue just after 9/11, “Long war in the making,” with a leading article arguing that the real roots of the attacks on the Twin Towers lay in seventh-century Arabia, in the medieval crusades, in the Mongol invasion and the demise of the Caliphate.52

This work did not fail to impact the discourse of politicians. President George W. Bush, for instance, often denied that a clash between civilizations was taking place, but still from the very beginning described the “war on terrorism” as a crusade. In this way, he implicitly suggested it was about a clash between Islam and the West. We see here a perfect example of how a rational rejection of the paradigm of the clash between civilizations can go hand in hand with its unconscious endorsement. The result of such a work is that people act as if a clash between civilizations was taking place and by doing so, make it real.

As Geisser also observes in his analysis of the sources of Islamophobia in France, French journalists tend to be very cautious in their statements and sometimes even explicitly deny the paradigm of the clash. The sources of Islamophobia are rather the continual insistence in the media on the need for more security and a parallel demonization of Muslims.53 The French media (like the American media) have operated a sort of systematization of a general discourse about Islam, which depicts it as an immutable and conflictual block. The “Muslim” is represented in the media in standardized ways—praying believers seen from the back, crying and threatening crowds, veiled women, fanatical bearded men, and so on.54

It is precisely for the purpose of understanding how it is possible to criticize the paradigm of the clash as a theory while still endorsing it at a more or less unconscious level that we need to call in the concept of political myth. All these icons are much more powerful, because they operate within the unconscious without it being possible to perceive, let alone critique them. Growing up in contemporary societies inundated by media stimuli, most people encounter an overwhelming number of myths that gradually slip into their unconscious. Young children are exposed to a battery of more or less unconscious stimuli through comics, cartoons, films, and advertisements. A recent survey of the most popular American children’s comics, such as Superman, Spiderman, and Captain America, has shown that the icon of the “fanatical Muslim” has become one of the most powerful representations of the “threat.” After the end of the Cold War, the role of the bad guys in these stories ceased to be played primarily by perfidious Eastern block spies, and assumed the features of Muslims, explicitly depicted as fanatical, mad terrorists.55

But the most inexhaustible and rich Western source of icons of the clash of civilizations is Hollywood films. In his survey of the role of Arabs in Hollywood films, Jack Shaheen has shown that, out of 1000 films that have Arab or Muslim characters (1996-2000), twelve were “positive” depictions, fifty-two “even-handed” and the rest of more than 900 were “negative.”56 The most popular icons of the myth of the clash of civilizations that abound in such films are those of the barbaric bedouin, of the rich and stupid sheik who wants to rape Western women, or, finally, that of the mad terrorist and airplane hijacker. This insistence on their “barbarism” and our “superiority” has the reassuring function of making us feel safe, and pre-emptively eliminating the need for criticism or critique of Western policies towards primarily Muslim states.

Besides the implicit message of such icons (Arab = barbarism and threat), it is interesting to note their evolution and to examine how they can be understood from a psychoanalytical point of view. Let us take, for instance, the female counterpart of the mad fanatical terrorist, the veiled women that we have seen in the Marianne voileé. Traditionally, it was sexually provocative belly-dancers that worked as the female counterparts of the male threat (e.g., the mad terrorist, the sheik who wants to rape ‘our’ women). More recently, Arab females have been depicted not solely as submissive veiled women but also potential terrorists themselves, as is the case in films such as Black Sunday (1977), Death Before Dishonour (1987), and Never Say Never Again (1983). This change reflects the unconscious distress Western men feel towards the changing role of women in Western societies themselves: by projecting the threat into another, “barbaric” civilization, Western males are freed from the burden of recognizing their own distress vis-à-vis the emancipation of women in the West itself.57

In conclusion, an old, but new political myth inhabits our global society of the spectacle. People increasingly act as if a clash between Islam and the West is taking place; and in so doing, they make it exist. Globalization, while geographically unifying the world, has at the same time have divided it again through some new, spectacular division between us and them. The politics of the past can all too easily turn into the geography of our present. Sure, as we have already suggested, this is not the only relevant political myth of our time. But it is a particularly insidious one, because global in its reach.

5. Conclusions

What I wanted to do in this essay was not so much to spell out what is the correct or the right definition of political myth, but mainly to invite the reader to look at the specific place where political myth operates—a space in between different discourses, where it often tends to get lost. Accepting this invitation is in my view especially important today, given all the talk that is going on about political theology as the only alternative to the iron cage of a rationalized and bureaucratized politics. A philosophical approach to political myth can indeed be helpful to point out that between the Scylla of political theology and the Charybdis of a rationalist iron cage, there is a third possibility: that of myth.

It is not true that, if there is no God, then our political world is meaningless. The world can be endowed with meaning, and even significance, without calling in the monotheism of political theology. And not by chance, Carl Schmitt—the philosopher who brought the concept of political theology to the center of the contemporary debate— was also the one who most emphatically dismissed political myth, because he saw it as dangerously pluralistic. Yet the pluralism of myth is a fragile one, as the previous analysis of the myth of the clash of civilizations shows: the temptation to use myth for a closure instead of for an interrogation of social order is always there.

Perhaps theorists of political theology are right in saying that we need fictions to overcome political apathy and the widespread lack of motivation. But not all fictions necessarily have to be religious fictions. As we have seen, this was not the case for the myth of the general strike or for that of a class-less society. To paraphrase Hegel, conflating all that is not rational within the big pot of political theology means ending up in the night where all cows are equally grey. Let us avoid this romantic temptation and start distinguishing among the different cows. The cow of political myth is not the cow of political theology. Yet, it is a cow that has something to offer human beings: a political world that is less indifferent to them. Nothing more, but also nothing less.


Chiara Bottici is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the New School for Social Research


Published on July 27, 2016

1. Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society. Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 24; Christopher G. Flood, Political Myth. A Theoretical Introduction (New York: Garland, 1996), 44.

2. For example, are we mistaken when we invoke our absent love? (see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, trans. R. Rhees (Retford: Brynmill, 1979), 1e.

3. Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973); Ajume H.Wingo, Veil Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

4. The fact that even liberal democracies have their own myths should not come as a surprise. The idea that our social world could be completely rationalized is the result of an enlightened attitude that may well turn into a myth in itself.

5. Ernst Cassier, The Myth of the State; Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York: AMS Press, 1975).

6. Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1985).

7. For this definition of religion as a matter of life and death, see, for instance, Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State, 48, which recovers Malinowski.

8. Arnold Gehlen, Man, His Nature and Place in the World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

9. Hans Blumenberg, The Work on Myth, 1.

10. Hans Blumenberg, The Work on Myth, 59

11. Karoly Kerényi, Prolegomena, in K. Kerényi, C.G. Jung, Essays on a Science of Mythology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 6.

12. Henry Tudor, Political Myth (London: Macmillan, 1972), 17.

13. N. Bobbio, “Politica,” Dizionario di politica, ed. N. Bobbio, N. Matteucci, G. Pasquino, (Torino: UTET, 1998), 800-9.

14. Antonio Gramsci, Quanderni dal carcere (Torino: Einaudi, 1975), Vol. II, 1308.

15. Christopher G. Flood, Political Myth: A Theoretical Introduction.

16. Barthes notoriously insisted on this point. Yet, he looks at political myth through the notion of ideology (Roland Barthes, Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972). As a consequence, he reduces the “work on myth” to a phenomenon limited to bourgeois society and argues that proletarians have no myths (which is in my view contestable). The fact that capitalism gave to the “work on myth” new technical possibilities does not mean that myth is rooted in capitalism. On the difference between political myths and ideology, see below.

17. Christopher G. Flood, Political Myth. A Theoretical Introduction.

18. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987).

19. Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation.

20. Hayden White, “Catastrophe, Communal Memory and Mythic Discourse: The Uses of Myth in the Reconstruction of Society,” Myth and Memory in the Construction of the Community: Historical Patterns in Europe and Beyond, ed. B. Stråth (Brussels: Peter Lang Publishing, 2000), 49-75.

21. See for instance Ulrich Dierse, “Ideologie,” Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, ed. Gottfried Gabriel, Karlfried Gründer, Joachim Ritter (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1971-2007), Bd. IV, 157-86; M. Dubois, “Ideology, Sociology of,” International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, ed. Neil J. Smelser, Paul B. Baltes, 11 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2001), 7177-82; Michael Freeden, “Ideology: Political Aspects,” International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 11, 7175-77; John B. Thompson, “Ideology: History of the Concept,” International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 11, 7170-74; Mario Stoppino, “Ideologia,” Dizionario di politica, ed. Norberto Bobbio, Nicola Matteucci, Gianfranco Pasquino, 483-95.

22. Recent attempts to recover the concept of ideology in the sense of false consciousness include Ernesto Laclau, “The Death and Resurrection of the Theory of Ideology,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 1, 3 (1996), 201-20; Maeve Cooke, “Resurrecting the Rationality of Ideology Critique: Reflections on Laclau on Ideology,” Constellations, 13:1 (2006), 4-20.

23. This is a slightly different version of Flood’s definition (Christopher G. Flood, Political Myth. A Theoretical Introduction, 13).

24. Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002); Roland Barthes, Mythologies.

25. Clifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), 47-76.

26. The literature on utopia is notoriously vast, but a useful starting point might be Aldo Maffey, “Utopia,” Dizionario di politica, 1214-20; B. Cazes, “Utopias: Social,” International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 24, 16123-27; and Chiara Bottici, “Utopias and Politics,” International Encyclopedia of Political Science, ed. George T. Kurian (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2010).

27. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), 173-84; Paul Ricoeur, Du texte à l’action (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1986), 417-31.

28. The meaning of the neologism coined by More was a big problem for the interpreters of More from the very first years of its publication: U-topia can mean Eu-topia (the good place) or the Ou-topia (the no-place). Indeed, Thomas More himself seems to allow both interpretations (Thomas More, Utopia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

29. Maria Moneti, Il paese che non c’è ed i suoi abitanti (Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1992), 406.

30. See, for instance, Karl E. Smith, “Re-imagining Castoriadis’s psychic monad,” Thesis Eleven, 83 (2000): 5–14; Bo Stråth (ed), Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community: Historical Patterns in Europe and Beyond (Brussels: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2000). Even a quasi supra-national polity such as the European Union has its own myths, which at times converge with its founding historical narratives. On this topic see Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand, Imagining Europe: Myth, Memory, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

31. On this topic see Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

32. On this point see Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand, The Myth of the Clash of Civilisations (London: Routledge, 2010).

33. Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand, The Myth of the Clash of Civilisations.

34. Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge, 1978).

35. See Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand, The Myth of the Clash of Civilisations.

36. For a discussion of Occidentalism, see Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand, The Myth of the Clash of Civilisations. In this usage of the term, we distance ourselves from Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, who mainly look at Occidentalism as a form of dehumanisation of the West that began with modernity. See Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (New York: Penguin, 2004).

37. Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand, The Myth of the Clash of Civilisations.

38. For an analysis of similar images, see Vincent Geisser, La nouvelle islamophobie (Paris: La Découverte, 2003), 23.

39. See Chiara.Bottici, Imaginal Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 55-71.

40. In this sense, it also differs from Erich Fromm’s view of the social unconscious, which defines primarily areas of repression found among the majority of members of a specific class of society. See Beyond the Chains of Illusion. My Encounter with Marx and Freud (New York: Continuum, 2001).

41. See also Earl Hopper, The Social Unconscious. Selected Papers (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003), 127.

42. On the universality of archetypes of the collective unconscious see Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 4.

43. See in particular Ervand Abrahamian, “The US Media, Huntington and September 11,” Third World Quarterly 24 (2003): 529–544.

44. Andrew Sullivan, “This is a Religious War,” New York Times Magazine, 7 October, 2001

45. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (New York: Norton,1989).

46. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.

47. Lasse E. Lindekilde, Contested Caricatures: Dynamics of Muslim Claims-Making During the Muhammad Caricatures Controversy, PhD thesis (Florence: European University Institute, 2008).

48. Lasse E. Lindekilde, Contested Caricatures, 2.

49. [Untitled caricature of Allah]. Retrieved January 15, 2009 from: .

50. See in particular Benoit Challand’s analysis of the event:

51. See Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milell, eds., Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008).

52. Michael Scott Doran, “Somebody Else’s Civil War, Foreign Affairs 81(2002): 22–42.

53. Vincent Geisser, La nouvelle islamophobie (Paris: La Découverte, 2003).

54. Vincent Geisser, La nouvelle islamophobie.

55. F. Frazzi, Dai dirottamenti all’11 settembre: terrorismo e supereroi in vent’anni di fumetti, MA thesis. (Bologna: Università di Bologna, 2004).

56. Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001).

57. See Tim Jon Semmerling, Evil Arabs in American Popular Films (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). On this point, I am also strongly indebted to the research that I conducted on icons of the clash of civilisations with Angela Kuehner during my stay in Frankfurt. Among the product of this collaboration, see Chiara Bottici and Angela Kuehner, “Der Mythos des ‘clash of civilizations’ zwischen politischer Philosophie und Psychoanalyse,“ eds. R. Haubl and M. Leuzinger-Bohleber, Psychoanalyse: Leise Stimme des Unbewussten. Festschrift zum 50 Jährigen Bestehen des Sigmund-Freud-Instituts (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht Verlag, 2011).