Mary Midgley on some modern myths that might interest you

Brilliant 5-mins video riff by philosopher Mary Midgely on some modern myths that sustain morality: Working Class, Market, Common Good and Selfish Gene. I won't add any commentary here, but I sure would be glad of yours, if you have any.

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Comment by John McCreery on December 29, 2010 at 2:29pm
Keith, I don't for a moment see us as manichean rivals for the soul of anthropology. I see us as two old guys, both marginal to the professional life of the discipline (me much more than you), with similar politics and different priorities. More overlap than opposition. 
Comment by Keith Hart on December 29, 2010 at 12:09pm

I liked this because she provided in a five-minutes improvisation a way of thinking about the modern world, about the stories people tell themselves to justify their actions. As an exercise in communication, I thought it was brilliant and I was not indifferent to the style of this feisty old lady. Remember also that the video was posted with a general audience in mind, not a scholarly one. As Toby said, her emphasis is on imagination of how the world ought to be rather than reading off recipes from how it is.


She was talking about the kind of morality that defines an epoch or a class, reductive of course, but intellectuals simplify, as Nietzsche would have it. I liked the even-handed way she opposed the myth of the working class to market triumphalism and summed up the postwar era of social democracy and neoliberalism in the idea of the common good (necessary for winning the war) and the selfish gene as a fatalistic story rendering Thatcherite individualism a part of nature rather than personal greed (TINA, there is no alternative).


Myths are sacred stories maintaining unequal society, but also necessary to its opponents. They reduce the complexity of society to simple ideas that organize what people do. As Raymond Williams said, the antithesis of myth is realism of which the ethnographic turn in anthropology is a prime example. I can appreciate both. I have set myself to tell stories about world history that have their roots in ethnography, but seek to extend its social range to a more inclusive level. I am interested in how some writers shaped the way we all think through the stories they told. I also know that my chance to be one of them lies out of my control, in the hands of unknown readers. For that reason I also liked the way she played down the significance of authors and pointed rather to how some of them reflect a movement in social mood.


You are fond of citing Geertz, John. He was very self-conscious about his writing strategy and its possible effects. I admire him a great deal. I don't understand (well I think I might) why you habitually set yourself and me up as manichean rivals for the soul of anthropology. There is surely room for a number of approaches to cohabit peacefully here.

Comment by John McCreery on December 29, 2010 at 4:17am

A miscellany of reactions.


"Yes, yes, of course" (from someone who has been reading and writing about metaphor for nigh on half a century; memories of, for instance, Max Black, Paul Ricoeur, James Fernandez).


Who are these "people" she's talking about? (from someone who has been thinking for a couple of decades about the difference between generations that experienced WWII and the postwar reconstruction and later generations who lack this experience).


Why does Keith find this brilliant? Could it be because he would like anthropologists to be not just analyzers of myth but myth-makers in their own right?


Wouldn't it make sense to find out who are the pros in this business and study a bit more closely what they say and do? (from someone currently engaged in research on advertising creatives and looking for inspiration in studies of theater, art, TV and film production and other culture-industry trades)


A story from The Copywriter's Bible, a collection of articles by famous Japanese advertising creatives. The author remembers the election in which Ryokichi MInobe, the Socialist/Communist candidate, became the mayor of Tokyo (1967-1979). A newspaper asked the two leading candidates to name three things of which Tokyo could be proud. The conservative LDP candidate's replay mentioned the Imperial Palace, the subways and the expressways. Minobe's list was "the view of the moat from Hanzomon, unagi soba (eel noodles), and the beautiful girls." The author says that, as soon as he saw the two lists, he knew that Minobe would win. There may be a lesson here for those who are interested both in critical theory and doing something effective to make the world a better place.


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