People use a variety of devices to create and share meaning between each other. In recent years (read: the past two centuries) we’ve developed the tools to move that information back and forth faster to the point that the developed world is blurring traditional motifs and messages with deeper roots into more “postmodern” amalgamations and re-imagined arrangements which reflect a rapidly mutating culture.
One concern of some thinkers is the potential incoherence of such masses of messages that they lose all their value. It’s an idea Neil Postman wrote about in Technopoly and James Gleick has rehashed in more scientific terms for his new book, The Information. The legitimacy of such ideas seems to rest on a sense of determinism which denies the abilities of all those people who gathered that knowledge and breathed life into those images.
Another fear of such a society is the destruction of traditional norms. Criticism of multiculturalism in the United States typically take the form of reactionary nativist tripe which cling to fictional settler myths and an artificial “melting pot” culture largely determined by unparalleled prosperity in this young country. Immigrant culture is both derided and envied for it’s authenticity as 235 years have produced the meager competition of apple pie, “American” democracy, baseball and rock & roll music compared to deeply historic and sincere traditions built out of extreme conditions and centuries of practice. After all this time we have found the ability to create our own sense of definitive purpose and culture and yet we lament the lack of traditional institutions (like those in exoticized foreign cultures).
Finally, the real issue of creative modern mythmaking and the clever use of such images and messages is their potential for abuse. Early communication theorists and writers such as Walter Lippman, Harold Lasswell and Edward Bernays recognized this and even advocated for the skillful manipulation of democratic societies by elites for the good of their people. Some of their concern was based in the example of fascist Europe. Joseph Goebbels helped to invent a popular artificial folklore for the German people and skillfully used his position as propaganda minister to determine the attitudes of citizens so they were in line with Nazi policy goals. The Italians employed similar tactics and abandoned the liberal republicanism of past leaders like Giuseppe Garibaldi in favor of a new popular mythos which harkened back to Imperial Rome, with Il Duce replacing the Caesares.
In today’s day and age we see such creative mythology arise in various insidious forms – Americentric nationalism being the most obvious to observant US citizens. Many liberal social critics (including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Robert Jewett and numerous others) have decried this for decades now. Linked to that is Israeli exceptionalism (the roots of which are excellently covered in Roland Boer’s Political Myth, going over some political manipulation of religious and historical sentiments for those policy goals in the US/GOI relationship), and similar reactionary movements (such as the BNP in the UK and Front national in France) which also appeal to anti-multicultural “nativist” sentiments in populations where diversity is increasing rapidly.
The threat of images is in how we use them; our images and messages can carry disturbing undertones which echo darker and more menacing sentiments, that obviously serve the technocratic interests Bernays, Lazersfeld and Lippman anticipated, but are more interested in manipulating us for old evils than protecting us from new ones.