Countercultures: modern mythologies

Steampunk airships battle in the sky
The Airship Battle, courtesy Tom McGrath

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The two countercultures invented fantastical time-distortion mythologies to confuse future and past. Both created nostalgia for imaginary golden ages, which were actually hoped-for (but implausible) futures. Both promised upcoming utopias that were actually tired fantasies from long ago.

Both countercultures assembled their conceptual frameworks from pieces of several old systems of meaning—most of which were long-discredited, for good reasons, and which clearly contradicted each other. They needed to hide that behind appealing origin myths.

Both countercultures assembled their core membership from several disparate subcultures. To weave them together, they needed big-picture unifying themes, leading to a glorious vision of a shared future. The two themes they selected were monism and dualism; and so they spun stories of harmonious monist and dualist societies to come.

The monist counterculture appealed to neophilia and promised innovation; the dualist counterculture appealed to neophobia and promised a return to tradition. Neither delivered. In fact, we’ll see, on the whole the monist counterculture took more from the past, and the dualist one was more inventive.

Both, however, drew primarily on the Romantic movement of the 1800s, which was the first to grapple seriously with the defects of modern systematicity, and to propose a renegotiation of the relationship between self and society.

Both countercultures promoted absurd “object level” myths—part of the content of their cultures. These included, for example, the founding of the New Age by Mayan and Tibetan priests and the defeat of the Great Beast at Armageddon. These fables—of the monist and dualist countercultures, respectively—were not seriously meant to be believed.

The countercultures also promoted “meta-level myths,” which you were meant to believe. These were myths about the sources and nature of the countercultures themselves. You were meant to believe that the monist counterculture had a radical new vision for society, culture, and self. You were meant to believe that the dualist counterculture was a seamless continuation of traditional Christianity, as it existed before the perversions of the 1960s. Both these meta-myths were mainly false.

According to Lyotard’s original explanation of postmodernity, meta-myths are the essence of “modernity,” or what I call “the systematic mode. (He called them “grand narratives.”) As modernity’s failure loomed, the authors of meta-myths became increasingly frantic, and their creations increasingly fantastical. The countercultures deluded themselves about their own nature, and that is part of why they failed.

The countercultures were the last phase of modernity, and the subcultures the first phase of postmodernity. The subcultures abandoned all grand narratives, and instead created playful mythologies that you were not supposed to believe. Sky battles between steampunk airships are not credible—but they are fun! I will suggest that such transparent mythologizing is a key resource for the fluid mode.