Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011

"’Interested’ versus ‘Disinterested’: Can Iconography Be ‘Innocent’?" by Zsolt Virágos

Zsolt Virágos, Professor of English at the University of Debrecen, is the author of several books such as A négerség és az amerikai irodalom [Blacks in American Literature] (1975), Az amerikai irodalom története [The History of American Literature] (1997), and The Modernists and Others: The American Literary Culture in the Age of the Modernist Revolution (2007), etc. His main areas of professional interest include American social consciousness, the literary history of the U.S.A., the literature of the American South, the culture and literature of the African American community, the literatures of American minorities, stereotypy, myth studies, and, iconography. He is the former President of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English (HUSSE), and the current Chair of the Board of Trustees of the László Országh Award. Email:

1. Introductory Remarks

”Disinterested” in this discussion will mean the state of being insulated from the moral condition of the world. Thus, whatever is denuded of its historical reality or is free from localizing restrictions tends to be the opposite of ”interested.” Conversely, whatever is distinct and localized, is bound to be ”interested.” Or ”historically situated.” Or, as it will be hypothesized here, ”ideologized.” For the purposes of sorting out the ”interested” versus ”disinterested” dichotomy in iconographic manifestations, we first have to look at those intellectual formulations of which iconic signifiers are most characteristically the by-products: myths.

However, we cannot talk about myth and its by-products—these latter being myth’s ”fragmented” manifestations: résumé-like signifiers, ”shorthand” incarnations, image banks—without sorting out certain attendant and somewhat disturbing ambiguities. Thus, for instance, while everyone agrees that myth is a difficult but important, indeed indispensible, concept, and while few would deny that it can be dismissed from virtually any consideration of the social and the cultural—(isn’t, after all, the myth-making and myth-consuming faculty integral to our humanity?)—discourse on myth is bound to be bedeviled by grand confusions and misleading assumptions. Indeed, owing to the fact that the whole package of myth and its satellites have ended up as a widely dispersed intellectual property, the study of myth has by now become an uncertain turf harboring unpromising conflicts and uneasy symbioses.

The grandest confusion about this intellectual hobo of our time is the pars pro toto fallacy: the universalistic—and reductive—belief that (1) myth per se is a monolithic product, thus all myths have the same kind of origin and function. An equally notorious habit of thinking is the corollary assumption which claims that (2) it is possible to penetrate the essence of myth as such through a single all-embracing theory. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As I have shown in several studies of the past decade or so (most readily in ”Perspectives on Myth,” ”Reflections on the Ideological Dimensions of M2 in American Culture,” ”On the Literary Possibilities of M2-Type Configurations”), there is no defining myth per se. The reason is simple: it is impossible to define a sprawling cluster, of which the constituent elements can be dozens and dozens of very different—and apparently unassimilable—kinds of things. For how do you define a shapeless and bloated conglomerate that is made up of disparate components such as ”sacred narrative,” ”projective system,” ”racist propaganda,” ”ultimate truth,” ”de-politicized speech,” ”prefigurative configuration,” ”collective fantasy,” ”time-honored paradigm,” ”bad knowledge,” ”operational belief,” ”metalanguage,” ”therapeutic agent,” ”imagological stereotype,” an endless number of ideological statements, etc. The longer the list of these discrete manifestations, the more obvious it becomes that we have arrived at a conceptual deadend. In other words, our definitional anxieties have been justified.

Neither can, in the above list, the ”interested” versus ”disinterested” dichotomy serve as a usable criterion. Some of the objectifications listed above are ”interested” (for instance, ”ideological statement,” ”imagological stereotype” or ”racialized propaganda”) while some others are ”disinterested” (such as ”sacred narrative,” ”prefigurative configuration,” or ”time-honored paradigm”) for the simple reason that these latter not necessarily are, but tend to be, ”historically blind.”

To complicate what seems to be a conceptual/definitional nightmare, sometimes apparently one and the same configuration—indeed the same text—can satisfy analogous yet diametrically opposed semantic and epistemological expectations. For example, some dominant mythic themes embedded in universal myths1 can take the form of different orders of myth. A convenient example can be found in the profusion of the variants of the myth of paradise. Images of paradise can surface as recorded memory (myth as sacred narrative), as a radically new vision of prophecy (myth as a means of providing new answers to time-embalmed inquiries), or as a (most often concealed) future-oriented political ideology (myth as a self-legitimizing, self-justifying intellectual construct).

Or, consider the following triple cluster: from the vantage point of the present the Biblical myth of apocalypse—most conspicuously the Revelation of St. John of Patmos—is generally regarded as a sacred narrative (indeed a prophecy) outlining a future program: the Christian vision of the end of the world—and of the creation of another. Though framed within a mythicized apocalyptic timetable, the interpretation of this cosmic end is to follow the logic of a timeless future program of both divine change and human unchangeability. Thus, in this latter sense—despite the fact that it discourses on highly dramatic material pertaining the human predicament, complete with choice and commitment, reward and punishment—St. John’s revelations leave us with the impression of an inexhorable progressive advance, thus ultimately of the inevitability of the ”historical blindness” I mentioned above. The same teleological advance can be diagnosed as operating in Marxism’s related but down-graded secular version of the myth of deliverance dictating a program of a final world revolution and an ultimate classless society steeped in the everydayness of a precise and well-identifiable spatial and temporal context. Even if it is ironic for us to know in hindsight that after the battle of Kosovo the Turks established themselves in the Balkans and that the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was virtually the end of Christianity in much of Asia Minor. To appreciate the irony we have to be cognizant of the fact that indeed John the Divine wrote Revelation for the purposes of encouraging the prosecuted communities of Christians—in particular the seven churches of Asia Minor. Which means that at the very outset John’s text was aimed at bringing about radical changes in a very concrete part of a contemporaneous world complete with well-definable spatial and temporal parameters. Which also means that the text in question was far from being ”historically blind.” Indeed, it was an ”interested” text.

These examples will shed some light on four distinct options: (1) the Revelation of St. John of Patmos as apocalyptic writing was at one time an ”interested,” historically conditioned text; (2) the same can be said about other apocalyptic writing in the Bible: parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; (3) what we regard today as an apocalyptic text could serve at different historical periods both as time-honored paradigms and as ideological investment; (4) sometimes the same fundamental text can function, under different historical conditions and cultural parameters, as well as for the purposes of satisfying various expressive, ideological, and/or creative needs, as either ”interested” or ”disinterested” formulations of ideation.


2. Which Class of Myth?

The findings of the present study are predicated upon the prerequisites that there exist fundamentally different and discrete incarnations of myth, and that these can be penetrated only through more than one special definition and theory. Consequently I will be talking of different orders—M-coded variants—of myth: (Myth1 [=M1], Myth2 [=M2], and Myth3 [=M3], with each of these requiring different explanations and applications. And definitions. M1 has been made to stand for ancient myth (most often a sacred narrative), while M3 has been chosen to identify products of mythopoeic urges triggered by the apparently ever-present, thus self-perpetuating, ontological questionings and epistemological gaps. I will not be concerned with M1 and M3 in this discussion, which will be devoted to some essential questions and dilemmas pertaining to M2.

M2 will be used in the present context as a self-justifying intellectual construct that is capable of neutralizing epistemological contradictions, thus of claiming truth. For a certain length of time anyway. Thus M2 is capable of performing a pragmatic trick of authentication: if rightly packaged and adequately promulgated, through its devices of legitimation it can persuade believers to accept the untruth of a given M2-type myth as “true” (or, “useful”; or, “expedient”). M2 is predicated upon a we-ness versus they-ness dichotomy, thus it can never be “disinterested” or “innocent.” Neither does it tend to be “historically blind.” Which means that of the three M-coded variants mentioned above M2 tends to be the most supremely ideological; while M1 is anchored in expressive, M3 in creative concerns and potentials.

This study will show how the ideological dimension penetrates and gets inscribed in all M2-type forms of ideation and patterning of thought, and it will also clarify the apparent contradiction that ideology can be operative in patterns which are not by definition ideology per se. M2—like many other artifacts of culture—is an ideological product, while it is also different from ideology. In addition, the concept of ideology will be variously defined here but it will be basically understood throughout as a form of power to support the social and existential possibilities of the in-group and to weaken these same possibilities in and of the out-group.

Thus the basic argument of this discussion is that a certain order of myth (M2-type or M2-coded myth I am going to call it) is, by definition, ”interested” because M2 (as opposed to time-embalmed M1-type myth) is an ideological statement. Moreover, it is safe to argue that so are its iconographic satellites, which serve as reminders of the ideological core of the larger structure, and which cannot exist in a cultural vacuum. M1 is capable of preserving a plethora of iconographic signifiers but most of these tend to become stripped of their primordial ideological potential and thus tend to be ”historically blind.” Therefore, they can also be regarded as ”residue”: the ”innocent” residue of a bygone era. As such, from the vantage point of the present and the recent past they tend to be ”historically blind.” It is essential to remember, however, that this tendency does not necessarily exclude the possibility of border negotiations in possibly overlapping terrains where M1 and M2 meet. Supposing, of course, that there is a historical progression from M2 to M1.

Because there has never been an ”end of ideology” in the cultural history of the U.S., even a random choice of a historical period could yield ample proof of how the iron ring of historical circumstances can impact on the creation of ideologized iconic/iconographic statements. A brief look at the ideological agenda of the nativistic variety of American myth criticism—the so-called indigenous sociological and folkloristic alternative (time frame: the 1940s through the late 1960s)—will serve as evidence of the operation of the processes involved (see subchapter [6]).


3. Dichotomies Triggering M2-Type Oppositions: In-Group Versus Out-Group, We-ness Versus They-ness

The word ideology has been variously used to characterize ideas, ideals, beliefs, passions, values, Weltanschauugen, religions, political philosophies, moral justifications—and the list is very long. The reason why ideology is often seen as a family of concepts is the simple fact that it tends to and can penetrate any of the forms of social consciousness (religion, philosophy, politics, ethics, the arts, sciences, etc.) creating, hereby, scores of ”ideological statements” as diverse as character stereotypy and jurisprudence.

A tell-tale formal indicator of the presence and impact of ideology is a special kind of oppositional framework, a kind of dichotomy that is more than a revealing marker of the presence of ideology-gendered—that is, ”interested”—statements and other manifestations. Indeed, as will be seen later, this ”versus pattern” is regarded here as a sine qua non condition of M2-coded structures of legitimation and justification.

The "we-ness versus they-ness" dichotomy was originally used by Ringer and Lawless, in a study of the social ramifications of race and ethnicity, to refer to the dualism of internal determinants within an ethnic group and "the role that the larger society plays in delienating the distinctiveness" of the same (1). I am using the pattern here in a somewhat different sense: on analogy with the "we-they/us-them rhetoric" predicated upon the oppositional framework of black and white, as used by African American writers such as James Baldwin or Jones/Baraka, that is, in the sense of inter-group or inter-ethnic opposition. Actually we are talking here about in-group versus out-group antagonisms. In doing so, my premise is that explicit ideological formations—which in certain contexts and social transactions can be regarded as identical with public myths—of any population involve an interpretation and usually a weakening or a repudiation of alternative ideological-mythicized versions and frames of reference.

Even a brief glance at present-day American political culture will convincingly show that under American multiculturalism, a large number of social myths operate within an oppositional framework, with many of these having produced an impressive array of explicitly politicized "versus patterns." Indeed, in explicitly contestive social myths, finding and targeting an enemy appear to be predictable, almost indispensable elements, in the given myth’s operational mechanism. I find that probably nothing can rival the community-building, cohesive potential of a broad consensus over an alleged or actual ”enemy” with which the group finds itself at ideological odds. I would even risk the statement that on a day-to-day basis this "ideological glue" can often be more viable than any other inward-turning or future-oriented binding element.

Historically and nationally, a familiar American manifestation of this pattern of dichotomization has been the "Europe versus America" syndrome, which in its extreme, polarized permutation—Old World corruption versus New World innocence—emerged early, and persisted all through the 19th century; we could safely identify it as a thematic constant of the American literary culture (e.g. the "international theme" in the fiction of Henry James), as well as of American politics. Though it no longer appears to haunt the American unconscious in literature, it still bedevils American politics and diplomacy. (Consider, for instance, the historically scripted debate between the U.S.A. and major European countries such as France before the second invasion of Iraq during the Geoge W. Bush administration).

The cold war period produced its own distinctive versus patterns, the most celebrated one being the incarnation of the so-called "mirror image" phenomenon in which two rival powers tend to see each other in analogous terms of threat, each mirroring the other’s fears and self-fulfilling prophecies. Rhetorically—and mythically—speaking, the most effective mirror analogue of the cold war period was the Reagan-inspired Land of Democracy versus Evil Empire dichotomy. Now, a round dozen years into the twenty-first century, when the United States finds itself liminally stranded "between enemies," there is perhaps even a sense of nostalgia, if we can believe American political pundits, for a past era of predictable hazards. A nostalgia for mythicized confrontation might be the appropriate phrase to describe it. Said a commentator amidst the turmoil of Russia’s economic collapse in 1998: "Ah, for the good old days when we used to worry about Russian strength . . . at least we knew the options" (Joffe 30).

Or consider the traditional American "regional grudge" which is still operative in the North versus South opposition, just as the long-lived "spirit of section" is still present in the occasional flare-ups of tension between the nation (formerly: rural America) and the seat of a disliked Big Government in Washington, D.C. The statement "we don’t like anything centralized" is virtually an iconic cliché in the unofficial rhetoric of the political culture.

The Négritude ideology, the soul trend, the civil rights movement, the Chicano movimiento, cultural feminism, Native American consciousness, and, subsequently, the multiculturalist championing of difference in the political culture have deployed a whole new arsenal of divisive strategies—essentialist exclusionism, sloganizing, attack politics (one of the favorite battle cries of Black cultural separatism, thus, for instance, of the Black Aesthetic, has been this: "expose the enemy"), the cult of retroactive victimhood, mythicized wedge issues, etc.—to churn out a whole spate of new or reconceptualized permutations: Chicano versus gringo (or Anglo, or Yanqui),2 Black versus White, proabortionists versus prolifers, the differently abled versus the temporarily able, Eurocentrists vs. Afrocentrists, "ice people" versus "sun people," people of color and "wimmin" against the "melanin-impoverished oppressor." These polarities, a version of payback, have reverberated in much of recent ethnic writing, with militant African American literature and radical feminism leading the field. But even Native American prose is catching up: as documented in the fiction of Leslie Marmon Silko, especially in her Almanac of the Dead (1991), people can be neatly classed in two categories. There are good people and there are white people, with the latter conveniently labeled as "the vampires and werewolves of greed" (417). Most of these polarities are predicated upon the apparently—but only apparently—monolithic white monoculture and the marginalized (as well as decentered, silenced, colonized, dispossessed, muted, victimized, deterritorialized) color/feminist subculture. What is surprising is the profusion of ideological fault lines generated by turf fights, resentments, and rivalry between minority and ethnic groups.

4. ”Ideology” Versus ”Ideological”

Owing to the fact that the ideological dimension penetrates and is inscribed in all forms of ideation and patterning of thought—and not only outlooks, creeds, social programs, belief systems, myth structures but each distinct domain of the social consciousness—ideology is operative in patterns which are not by definition ideology. Which is an added reason why the modification of the concept of ideology by adjectival means is justified. This noun/adjective duality translates into our ideology–M2 parallel in the following manner: myth—like many other artifacts of culture—is an ideological product, while it is different from ideology per se. This generates an ostensible paradox because most often it is the M2 incarnation of the ideology that is perceived and analyzed as ideology. This slippage is most often a not even detectable omission for the simple reason that the social content of pure ideology—which is usually not even accessible in communicated form—and its mythicized version—that is, as a given ideology appears in the guise or through the filter of M2—is most often hardly noticeable.

Indeed, this metonymic shift is a pardonable inadequacy for two reasons. One, it is often difficult, even risky—because deliberately concealed—to identify the naked core version; two, in terms of content and social function, the lines of force of ideology and of the mythicized version are bound to point in the same direction. Thus, in a pragmatic sense, they are one and the same thing. Yet, they are not identical.

Moreover, it is worth considering the fact that sometimes, depending on the social circumstances of its uses, one and the same text, narrative, or method will or will not function as ideology. Besides, at a lower and more practical level of cultural analysis, myth may be used to describe a defunct or rival ideology, hereby labeled negatively as "untruth" or "bad knowledge." In this kind of sorting out, much depends on who is doing the labeling and which definition of ideology we are talking about. This is almost always the case when ideology is used with pejorative connotations to refer to the thought of others.

It is primarily when we come to sorting out the functional aspects of ideology that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish M2-type configurations from ideology. In a broad sense, both constructs are focused on justification, rationalization, and legitimization of a given status quo, group attitudes, goals, or general life situation, and both can reflect, defend, support—or weaken—particular social, moral, religious, and economic institutional interests and commitments. Moreover, both can be seen as mystifying, distorting, or concealing the relations of power within society, as well as criticizing and repudiating alternative frames of reference or existing social orders. In these particular functions, ideology and M2 can show significant overlaps, indeed the two words, for reasons mentioned above, are often used interchangeably.

Yet there are identifiable differences: while ideology tends to offer theoretical, primarily philosophical and apparently logical, often blunt, justifications, M2 is most often devoid of conceptual abstractions, or rather, its abstraction often tends to be symbolic. This latter feature of social myths does not necessarily clash with M2’s aesthetizing-concretizing function, formulated by Tindall in the following statement: "[t]hey [social myths in general] tend to develop abstract ideas in more or less concrete and dramatic terms" (2). Structurally, therefore, in elaborate public myths by ideology I mean the inner conceptual, philosophical core of myth. As the pattern of ideation moves away from the abstract center, the core content is subsequently "serviced" and "packaged" ("cloaked," "dressed up," "translated") in the M2 space, that is, the ideological formulation acquires—in transactions of packaging—a concrete, dramatic, aestheticized, intellectually accessible format, ready for dissemination to a wide public audience. In the social space, the M2 version, as has been highlighted earlier, tends to become further fragmented, iconized, sloganized, pictorialized, visualized, etc. to serve as cultural shortcuts: reminders of the message coded in the M2 configuration. Thus, in a sense, M2 is tied to ideology in a special functional relationship: M2 serv(ic)es ideology. Again, if an M2-derived iconographical item is representation, it cannot be ”innocent.”

Let us see in two selected and familiar examples how this three-stage process actually operates. My first example will be Manifest Destiny. The designation itself identifies the concept as perceived in the second, M2 stage: it is in this mythicized guise that the ideology received wide circulation. But what was the "real" ideology behind Manifest Destiny? The answer is very simple: territorial ambitions. The acquisition of new territories to fulfill the nationalistic imperative of expanding the orbit of the nation’s activity across the continent and building an American empire to the Pacific. Visions of a vast "Empire of Democracy from sea to shining sea" had been active at least since the Louisiana Purchase and even earlier than that. This ideology was bound up with a number of support preference models: geographical predestination, world leadership, the cult of élan, what Josiah Strong later came to call "the outpopulating power of the Anglo-Saxon race," the Puritan sense of mission, etc. Even so, however, the ideology was overly selfish, pragmatic, voluntaristic—and blatantly aggressive. Not even the crusading spirit or the notion of the white man’s burden could sufficiently mitigate it to be safely used for wide public consumption.

The harsh edges of the ideology, therefore, had to be blunted, "packaged" as it were, which took place in the M2 space. In the process, the core content underwent miraculous transformations. In the alchemy of mythicization, the naked ideology (naked in more senses than one) was cloaked, "dressed up," as it were, to assume a new identity as a high-prestige public myth. The reincarnation of the ideology as mythicized ideology under the alias of Manifest Destiny actually meant adding substantial cosmetic touches in the packaging sequence: the mythicizing process [1] upgraded the national(istic) ambition to the level of religious discourse; [2] by transcendentalizing territorial ambitions, it shifted these strivings to the realm of sacred duty (not a particular national objective but a cosmic errand), to that of a "higher calling," thus injecting into the M2-ed frame of reference the notion of external imposition; [3] most importantly, owing to the above transactions it concealed the real (nationalistic, acquisitive) motives; and [4] hereby it shifted the locus of responsibility outside the frame of reference in which it actually resided. The nature of the procedures operative in the third stage could be best summed up by pointing to the many sloganlike clichés and literary images celebrating epic westering, the heroic quality of the relentless and providentially approved march, the triumphalist view of a superior civilization, or simply by referring to John Gast’s famous painting (ca. 1872; to be found in the Library of Congress) depicting Columbia’s westward march. The title of the painting is, not uncharacteristically, American Progress.

The tripartite sequence from ideology via M2 through iconic manifestations also marks a chronological progression of operations, clearly detectable in our second example, the frontier myth. Thus, the unprecedented popularity of Turner’s thesis appears to demonstrate that a core ideology, which the Turner concept ”aesthetized” (i.e., made available for perception) and dramatized, had been in place before the frontier thesis itself was born and widely circulated. This ideology was anchored in nationalistic expectations to find a nativistic explanation of national history, of a unique American character and creed that would shed the uncomfortable burden of the unappealing notion of European precedents: the "germ theory," "the inheritance of institutions," and the emphasis on "the continuity of history" (Hacker 63). "Our national genius is Anglo-Saxon," proclaimed J. Strong somewhat less than a decade before Turner’s exceptionalist argument first surfaced in American historiography, "but not English, its distinctive type is the result of a finer nervous organization, which certainly being developed in this country" (217). In brief, the ideology was ready to enter the M2 space, where the right man at the right time was capable of bringing the scattered resources into focus and, having produced an improved version cloaked as a romanticized narrative, offering the final product as a "key to American development" by making the core ideology palatable and ready for appropriation to the cultural consumer.3 In the third stage, as we shall later see, a profusion of iconic satellites were generated, from "fountain of youth" to Marlboro man. The understanding of the three-tier mechanism described offers a practicable methodological point of entry into how the gloss of ideological "innocence" can be identified and penetrated in M2-type public myths or, for that matter, in any other cultural product, including literature, into which M2 configurations can be incorporated.


5. Iconicity in M2-Type Configurations

Most M2-type public myths tend to reach the cultural consumer via mentally accessible ”looser manifestations,” that is, as a series of fragmentary tenets, attitudes, icons, slogans, buzzwords, tropes, ideologemes, stereotypes, imagological configurations, and representative images which have been elevated to cultural rank and status. In other words, I find that many, though not all, M2-coded formations are likely to undergo a process of breakdown and to coalesce subsequently into satellites of easily comprehensible reference. That is often how they are disseminated and marketed, as well as stored in the residues of the spontaneous social consciousness to serve as reminders of the mythicized content embedded in the M2-coded configuration. The realm of these iconic-imagistic-imagological satellites is the third, outer layer of a tripartite system made up of an inner, ideological core surrounded by the space of M2 configurations. I call this field the ”M2-space.” Then, finally, there is the system’s layer of even more palpable formations (see figure).

The main reasons for this spontaneous shift to the concrete, palpable, and often pictorialized/sloganized icon or image may simply be the resistance of the everyday consciousness to abstraction, and the obvious benefits of the cultural shorthand: its economicality, metonymic potential and triggering power. As G. Hodgson observed three decades ago pertaining to national myths, ”merely in order to communicate with itself, to function as a conscious organism at all, a nation must distill and simplify [the chaotic infinitude of the experience and perceptions of millions alive and dead] into the ideas and slogans of public debate and politics” (4). As shown above, one of the essential agents in this crystallization of the national consciousness is myth, which in turn tends to undergo further fragmentation. Indeed, in the public mind—the actual sphere of the existence and operation of cultural myths—it is primarily the fragmented or diffuse manifestations of a certain myth that are most readily observable. In this sense, the palpable existence of a myth most often takes the form of a miscellany of images, attitudes, patterns of behavior, symbols, gestures of heroes, easy-to-digest metaphors, analogies and home-made explanations, will serve as satellites of palpable reference of an abstract formulation. Thus, the existence of the powerful tendency of the increasingly visual orientation of a media-saturated culture to promulgate an approved repertoire in ready-made, packaged clichés and stereotypes—most characteristically culture-specific icons—has become pervasive in modern times, when the shift in question appears to be reinforced by the recent penchant in the media for the sound-bite, the sloganizing buzzword, the headline reference,4 the easy-to-digest, unequivocal iconic signifier, as well by the visual assault of the senses of the cultural consumer in the electronic media. Besides the mass media, literature and popular culture in general are the prime agents of dissemination. Literature, for instance, is capable through its special devices, of increasing the degree of accessibility of complex mythic configurations. Indeed, ”there is overwhelming evidence that literature—by definition an omnivorous medium—can swallow M2 whole” (Virágos, ”Literary” 313).

The atomization and metamorphosis of full-fledged M2-type constructs into simplified and ”aesthesized” constituent elements of cultural signification, the apparently inevitable and ongoing formation of satellites around an ideological-mythical core, is what I call ”M2-type fragmentation.”5 The formal conversion into fragmentary manifestations appears to be operative both when the process is the result of spontaneous cultural transactions and when the dual process of dispersion and promulgation is deliberately performed and institutionally controlled for wide public consumption.

The above will explain, for instance, the relevance and validity of the following statement: ”[m]ost Americans are Turnerians even through they have had only a sentence or two about Turner thrust in front of them by their schoolmasters, or by advertisements of Marlboro County” (Winks 15). In other words, the cultural consumer does not necessarily have to be a student of history to be able to deal with—to ”read” and absorb—the pivotal assumptions of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. Indeed, it is not even necessary to have ever heard the name of the Winconsin historian. Turner’s frontier hypothesis, as a political myth, has existed in the popular mind mostly in sloganlike clichés and catchphrases such as ”the land of beginning again,” ”the land of opportunity,” ”enlarged economic horizons,” ”the land of eternal return,” ”the Fountain of Youth,” ”simple life,” ”life on the open range,” ”close to nature,” or, slightly reinterpreted, ”the West against the East,” or ”the America-versus-Europe pattern,” as well as the Marlboro man, one of the most enduring advertising icons ever devised. In this loose sense, the (American) social consciousness—loaded with culture-specific fragmented manifestations with such a triggering potential—is indeed a ”picture gallery,” as well as a vast conglomerate of clusters of catchphrases, mindmarks, and optical/mental memory residues. A sizable proportion of these iconic constructs has at the same time become marketable cultural commodities. As Grossman has argued, ”[p]artly because of its resonance with existing images and stories, Turner’s version of American history and character spread easily—through the classroom, through journalism, and through popular stories. The notion that the West was something we settled, rather than conquered, pervades American storytelling and iconography. . . .”(1–). What could be a better proof of the success of making an ”interested” enterprise sound ”innocent”?


6. The ”Brilliant Synthesizers”: Reflections on the Myth–Symbol Approach

The publication in 1950 of Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, which looked to literature to find ”collective representations”—a body of symbols and myths that express the ”assumptions and aspirations of a whole society”—inaugurated the myth–and–symbol approach as the method which would dominate American Studies criticism for two decades. Needless to say, we are in the midst of the high decades of interdisciplinary scholarship in the not-so-recent American literary culture which are also known as the peak period of the nativistic variety American myth criticism—the so-called indigenous sociological and folkloristic alternative.

Also labeled as the golden age of American Studies in the United States, these postwar decades saw a veritable movement which spawned a number of major books on fundamental American themes. This nationalistic program spawned a host of facile generalizations and idealized representations in a number of major books on basic American themes and unifying—as well as universalistic, centrifugal, and transcendentalizing—myths. The ultimate objective of most of the patriotic mastertexts was the creation of the notion of the American land mass as a utopian space of pure possibility and, on an even more abstract level, the corroboration of American exceptionalism.

There also came numerous vague statements about the ”mind,” ”sensibility,” and ”temperament” of an invented and sanitized version of America. The New World settler became the American Adam; he became the focus of the myth of the ”garden of the world.” And there came the oft-repeated questions: ”what is American about America?” and ”what is American about America literature?”

A short but representative list of the books in search of a quintessential America—the unique ”national character” of a ”distinctive civilization”—in the period surveyed includes Perry Miller’s two-volume The New England Mind (1939 and 1953), F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition (1948), Daniel Boorstin’s The Genius of American Politics (1953), David Potter’s People of Plenty (1954), Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), John William Ward’s Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (1955), and above all, the following sixsome: Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), R. W. B. Lewis’s The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955), Richard Chase’s The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Daniel Hoffman’s Form and Fable in American Fiction (1961) and Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964).

The advocates of this trend, imbued to varying degrees with the spirit of cultural nationalism, typically regarded American cultural manifestations as indigenous, and saw in almost every native hero a kinsman of the major American mythic figures and archetypes. The advocates of this nativistic perspective succeeded in counteracting somewhat the spiritualizing and leveling thrust of myth uses promoted by Jungian psycoanalysis and Cambridge anthropology. In this regard, Leitch argues, myth criticism in the U.S. ”suceeded in elevating the history of native literature in a grand manner that no other school or movement following the Great Depression ever approached” (131).

When Leo Marx published The Machine in the Garden in 1964, Professor of American Studies Daniel Aaron stated on the back cover of that first edition that [The Machine] offered a fitting appraisal of the re-interpretation of American culture by the new generation of ”brilliant synthesizers”:

The publication of [The Machine] places Leo Marx with such brilliant synthesizers as Van Wyck Brooks, F. O. Matthiessen, and Henry Nash Smith. Taking the deceptively simple theme of pastoralism, he has ranged imaginatively through the landscape of American thought and experience and has helped us to re-see as well as to re-interpret our culture. . . .Students of American civilization, no matter what their specialties, are bound to be influenced by this rich and engaging book.”

Marx himself was aware of the wider and ”higher” implications of the book when he insisted that the relationship between literature and the literary culture ”outside literature” would have to be looked upon with a fresh eye:

[T]his is not, strictly speaking, a book about literature; it is about the region of culture where literature, general ideas, and certain products of the collective imagination—we may call them ”cultural symbols”6—meet. To appreciate the significance and power of our American fables it is necessary to understand the interplay between the literary imagination and what happens outside literature, in the general culture. (4)

Let us also invite R. W. B. Lewis of American Adam fame to testify. Synthesizer of the Adamic myth à la America, he had this to say about his hybrid configuration:

A century ago, the image contrived to embody the most fruitful contemporary ideas was that of the authentic American as a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history. This image is the title of the book. (1)
The new habits engendered on the new American scene were suggested by the image of a radically new personality, the hero of the new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources. It was not surprising, in a Bible-reading generation, that the new hero (in praise or disapproval) was most easily identified with Adam before the Fall. Adam was the first, the archetypal, man. His moral position was prior to experience, and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent. The world and history lay all before him. And he was the type of creator, the poet par excellence, creating language itself by naming the elements of the scene about him. All this and more were contained in the image of the American as Adam. (1, 5)

Lewis typified the new generation of Americanists—faculty members in the departments of English and History in the country’s elite universities—attempted to catch the multiplicity of American culture in certain governing principles, monomyths, national ideas, in single and totalistic descriptions of the entire life of the people. As Richard Pells has subsequently observed, while also underscoring the radical rearrangement of ideological priorities, thus the shifting emphases, of American Studies since the cultural disruptions of the 1960s,

[s]uch concepts suggested that America was not just a conventional nation-state but a distinctive civilization, one with a ”national character” that could be discovered and identified. It was therefore necessary to explain what was ”American” about America, to embark on a quest for what the historian Perry Miller and others called the ”meaning of America. . . ” Their ultimate purpose was to uncover the idiosyncratic features of the ”American mind. . .” A remarkable group of scholars wrote about the nation’s social and cultural history with an eloquence and a comprehensiveness that their successors never attained, and perhaps never craved. A later generation of academics, products of the social and cultural ruptures of the 1960s, would never talk in such holistic terms about the ”American Experience” or the ”national character,” never think they could depict the ”mind” of New England, much less the ”mind” of America. (105–107)

Against the background of the new priorities that the 1960s brought, the spirit of cultural nationalism came to be challenged. The We-ness versus They-ness dichotomy (we Americans against everybody else) gradually lost its appeal. The ideology of the holistic metanarrative was weakened by a whole spate of new challenges: challenges to any insistence on the large and reductive schema, the ultimate common denominator, the master metaphor, the construction of a meta-discipline, constructed cultural accounts, especially by further M2-type counter-narratives and counter-myths. ”By the 1970s and 1980s,” Pells argues, ”it was no longer fashionable in academic circles to write about America as a community of shared beliefs and values” (107). The new scholarship focused on fragments of the ”American Experience,” on ”micro-history,” and, most of all, ”on the implacable repercussions of race, class, gender, and ethnicity” (107), which, together with regional and minority concerns, also meant the emergence of rival iconographies. The ”Brilliant Synthesizers” were obviously involved in a project that was far from being ”innocent.”Neither was it ”disinterested.” Indeed, the myth of the Virgin Land—and the many patriotic Virgin Land narratives—”enabled the American people to replace the fact that the land was already settled by a vast native population with the belief that it was unoccupied. . . In displacing historical events with the representations through which they became recognizably ’American,’ Virgin Land narratives produced reality as an effect of the imaginary” (Pease 641).


Works Cited

  • Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Anchor Books. 1957.
  • Coupe, Laurence. Myth. The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Hacker, Louis M. ”Sections—Or Classes?” The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. Boston, 1949.
  • Grossman, James R., ed. The Frontier in American Culture: Essays by Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.
  • Hodgson, Godfrey. America in Our Time. New York: Vintage, 1978.
  • Joffe, Josef. ”We Just Want to Help.” Newsweek 7 Sep. 1998: 30.
  • Leitch, Vincent B. American Literary Criticism: From the Thirties to the Eighties. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.
  • Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. 1955. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1968.
  • Limerick, Patricia Nelson. ”The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century.” Grossman, ed. 66–102.
  • Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 1964. London: Oxford UP, 1967.
  • Murray, David, ed., American Cultural Critics. U of Exeter P, 1995.
  • Pease, Donald. ”From Virgin Land to Ground Zero: Interrogating the Mythological Foundations of the Master Fiction of the Homeland Security State.” A Companion to American Literature and Culture. Ed. Paul Lauter. Malden, MA: Wiley–Blackwell, 2010. 637–54.
  • Pells, Richard. Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
  • Rendon, Armando B. Chicano Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Ringer, Benjamin B., and Elinor R. Lawless. Race—Ethnicity and Society. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
  • Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. 1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970.
  • Strong, Josiah. Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. 1885. New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1891.
  • Tindall, George B. ”Mythology: A New Frontier in Southern History.” Myth and Southern History (vol. 1.: The Old South). Ed. Patrick Gerster and Nicholas Cords. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. 1–15.
  • Virágos Zsolt. ”Perspectives of Myth: Dilemmas of Definition.” Papp Ferenc akadémikus 70. születésnapjára [Commemorative Volume on the 70th Birthday of Academian Ferenc Papp]. Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 2000. 38–45.
  • —-. ”On the Literary Possibilities of M2-type Configurations.” To the Memory of Sarolta Kretzoi. Ed. Lehel Vadon. Eger: EKF Líceum Kiadó, 2009. 311–22.
  • —-. ”Reflections on the Ideological Dimensions of M2 in American Culture. Gárdos, Bálint et al. eds., Ritka művészet: Írások Péter Ágnes tiszteletére [Rare Device: Writings in Honour of Ágnes Péter] Budapest: ELTE Angol–Amerikai Intézet, 2011. 570–85.
  • Winks, Robin W. The Myth of the American Frontier. Leicester: n.p. 1971.



1 meaning that no human community can escape addressing them

2 In Chicano Manifesto Armando B. Rendon distinguished between Chicanos and “the nonraza public” (2).

3 The linguistic and textual markers of Turner’s frontier “narrative” serve as unmistakable and symptomatic indicators of the conative transactions he is involved in, manifested primarily in the affective, “edifying,” and romanticized flavor of the argumentative framework in a text that is supposed to be “objective” historiography.

4 P. N. Limerick has characteristically described headlines in these words: ”they are virtually a freeze-dried form of communication.” Her subsequent remarks pertaining to the mechanism of the projection and the embedding process of buzzwords and ”treacherous words” via headlines are equally relevant: ”They are words that carry the master key to the reader’s mind; with that key, they can slip into the mind and deposit their meaning before anyone quite knows they are there” (”Adventures” 85–86).

5 As used in the present context, the concept of fragmentation is opposed to that of totality in a very loose and merely convenient structural sense and it is not necessarily meant to be related to the postmodernist notions of decentering or indeterminacy as, for example, Lyotard has used it.

6 A ”cultural symbol” Marx emplains here in a footnote, ”is an image that conveys a special meaning (thought and feeling) to a large number of those who share the culture” (4).