Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gods and Kings, Prophets and Propaganda

“Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to history and one other area of knowledge.

With both history and religious knowledge systems, prevailing narratives describe the world and in turn one's place in it, however, both of these areas of knowledge seek to transform the world through their description of it. When dominant political systems, religious systems, or a combination of the two have power, their power translates the description of the world into transformation of it. But lets unpack that statement a bit.

From a structuralist perspective, every religion serves a mythological purpose. At their most base levels, religions serve the four Campbellian mythological purposes: mystical, cosmological, social, and pedagogical. But, what if history follows suit? What if the dominant narratives

In religion, the mystical function describes the world as having a mystery about it, and the idea of a higher power that was (up until fairly modern times) characterized as having a very imminent presence in the world. Now this describes the world physically, but more so than that, it also gives ethical authority to the religion in question as agents of higher powers. This is the reason for the increase of power in the priest castes in ancient societies; by identifying oneself with the higher powers to whom natural phenomena are attributed, members of the priestly caste are granted the authority and reverence of the superstitious cultures of antiquity.

This is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, however what is undeniable is that the concept of a higher power lends religious knowledge systems power. Therefore, in describing the world they actually increase their standing within it and in doing so provide more efficacy to their cause. Examples include "Deus Volt" or "God wills it", a battle cry of the Catholic Crusaders during their wars against those of different faiths. Positive examples include the justification of many humanitarian actions by all religions such as feeding the homeless, healing the sick, et cetera.

But what mystical function does history have? How does history create wonder and mystery in the minds of those who behold it? To answer this you must look at how history was compiled and made as well as what bias, power, and agenda the historian holds. Dark examples can be found in authoritarian states where history is shaped and altered to suit the interests of the state. Authoritarian states like the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia create wonder and mystery in the state by giving mythic qualities to historical rulers or ideas through outright state propoganda. Subtler examples occur in the attribution of mythic qualities to ideas and rulers of western democracies, the idea of the enlightenment ideals in particular are a good example. The very term "enlightenment" is rooted in the idea of a higher power or sort of mysticism. In turn, we assign these ideas greater value because of the prevalent narrative supports the notion that these ideas originate in a higher state of being.

In each of these areas of knowledge the world is described in a way, but this description is more than just innocent objective description, encoded in the descriptions are biases that advance a narrative, this narrative in turn offers rhetorical power that can be taken advantage of to advance power over the population existing under the system.

The cosmological function is a bit more simple in both religion and history. In both areas it serves to describe how the system and the world came to be. In religion it is usually relegated to a creation story such as the Judeo-Christian Genesis, Native American creation stories, the Greek drama of the titans and Zeus, and Brahman and the Trimurti of Hinduism. These stories allow for the religious system to align themselves with other facets of nature which makes their existence very natural and impossible to be questioned. As for history, its cosmological function has been rather fluid. In areas where history is more objective, science has been the source of cosmology in the history as secular governments have increased.

 This is true for the physical world, however, governments use history to create a mythic cosmology of their own, whether subtle or overt. Overt examples are again found in authoritarian states due to their restrictive nature. North Korean historical control has led to many delusions among the populace about the very creation of their reality and has placed the Kim family as the creator deities. More subtle examples are the glorification of various revolutions that have lead to states such as the United States' mythic qualities of its revolution, the Chinese mandate of heaven, Soviet Russia's insistence on using the revolution to create a national identity. In short, religious or historical, the cosmological function is always the concrete foundation of the dominant narrative. In describing the world from a perspective of power and influence, political and religious systems utilize history to create the illusion of a setting for the world view they advocate.

History and religion both create a mythic social function when utilized by systems of power mainly through precedence and stories used to transfer values onto the society within the system. Religions use allegories, myths, parables, and archetypes to tell people how they should live in relation to one another. The Ten Commandments or any other code of laws or values in religion are obvious examples. History on the other hand portrays its values through emphasis based off of political entities. American history emphasizes individualism and capitalism through the constitution and the dominant narratives that deify presidents in the same way that Chinese history, Russian history, or any other political system does. Descriptions of social life always transfer values based off of bias, especially so in religions, and in doing so it changes the world by changing the behavior and socialization of those under the power of the religious or political system.

Finally, the pedagogical function determines how an individual should live his or her life under any circumstances. In religion this occurs similar to social  parables but more individual. The eightfold path is a good example as well as the teachings of Jesus in Christianity. History is used to convey this via the Great Man theory of history, it uses famous historical figures as role models for individuals. Especially if these people embody ideals that the political system values. Such as the deification of the founding fathers, Karl Marx, Enlightenment thinkers, Greek Philosophers, or heroes of revolutions. When a system of religion or government has power, it uses history to describe itself through individuals or stories relating to individuals, but these transfer the values of the system and affect the values of those who live under given system.

In conclusion, history and religion both change the world by describing it. This is true because of the fact that history and religion are inextricably linked to the political systems that utilize them. When these systems have power over history and how it is shaped especially, history as an area of knowledge as well as religion both change the world through how they describe it via their power as it is extended through the political systems of power.

1 comment:

  1. Great thorough response. LOTS of good examples and counter examples. This is way over word limit, so your challenge here would be getting RID of a lot of stuff, but keeping the central arguments strong. When doing so, select those examples that are most concrete (or construct a very specific, very concrete reading of a SPECIFIC, e.g., American historical moment that illustrates your broader points).

    On history and the cosmological function: could it be that history's CF operates at a more local level, to make the present "state of things" feel inevitable by reading the recent past as a series of dominoes being tipped over?

    Also, how about a reading of counter-narratives? How might it be that simply DESCRIBING the alternative historical universe (the one that includes women or minorities or other disempowered groups) helps to CREATE a present that includes those people in it.

    The way you read them here, it seems like history and religion are pretty much the same thing... How do they operate differently? What role does historical fact, and historical evidence, play? What is the equivalent within RKS?

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