Living in Stories – The Immanence of Myth: Planetshifter Magazine.com & [open myth source] Interview with Multi-Media Artist, Writer and Theorist James Curcio by Sr. Writer David Metcalfe
Stories pass through our lives, tying us together with intimate bonds of shared understanding. A framework of words and ideas provides the impetus for our actions. In this lies one of the strongest calls to mythology. In myth the stories we live every day take on universal significance.
To change a culture one must change the cultural myths, and this must be done on an individual level. Multi-media artist, writer, and theorist James Cucio’s new anthology, Immanence of Myth, seeks to delve deeper into what myth is, how it remains relevant today and how we can live meaningfully through our understanding of it.
With Immanence of Myth, Curcio has collected the thoughts of contemporary artists, writers, theorists and creatives to address a more active understanding of the mythological process and to begin looking at how the process of active myth making can be a powerful tool for change.
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Interview with James Curcio by David Metcalfe -
“Mythology isn't just Bulfinch's; far less is it Frazier's Golden Bough. It is the living, breathing story of humanity. Myths deal with the questions we all face in our lives, propose ways of being in the world which put us in accord or conflict with those various common dilemmas, and ultimately structure our worlds.” – James Curcio, I.O.M.
Your work seems to express the idea that myths are active in our lives. Is this a more generalized idea of myth than we're used to? Or are you talking about the standard idea of myth as well?
The first challenge of this book is getting everyone on the same page about what myth is. By that, I mean the general public, not the other contributors. The commonly accepted definition of myth is “a commonly held but untrue belief.” That isn’t at all the definition that we are working from. If we actually look at how we look at the world, and how we form beliefs of any kind, we see that it isn’t even a useful definition.
I acknowledge that there are many before that have laid most of the groundwork for this: Joseph Campbell, Alan Dundes, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Károly Kerényi, many others. We want to push the boundaries of scholarly work into the realm of application. Otherwise, really, what’s the point? But to get at that we must begin with a fresh look at the process of mythologizing. In other words, forget everything we think about the subject and ask basic questions again. What is myth? What problems arise when trying to talk about myths in a meaningful way? That is part one of the book, which I wrote the bulk of. As we move into modern and then personal mythology, more voices join the chorus.
How did the book come about? You mention that you started writing it solo, what lead you to open it up to collaboration?
I’ve always enjoyed writing essays; especially really arcane ones. In college this used to drive some of my friends crazy, because I’d swagger in with a bottle of tequila while some of them were sweating their assignments, and then I’d bang it out in a night and get an A. However, for a long time I never really thought that philosophical essays were the kind of thing that most people wanted to read. I focused mostly on my creative work, though I’d occasionally sneak an essay in an anthology here or there.
Then about two years ago I started posting more of what I was writing about myth online, probably while in states where I shouldn't be operating machinery, and I got a surprisingly strong reaction. People kept contacting me privately to say that they thought what I was working on was really important, and that I should get a book together. I honestly thought it was pretty absurd at first. This trend continued and the idea started to get into my head.
What’s interesting is that when I showed some very early versions of it to professors and career academics, I got a pretty lukewarm reception. I got a much stronger reaction from artists, writers, musicians, actors...
To get to the second part of your question, I had a conversation with John Lobell. He’s a professor of Architecture at Pratt, or was at any rate, and he was also friends with Joseph Campbell. He gave me a pretty incisive, if bristly, sense of the importance of really cutting to my personal experience. And after the conversation I started thinking that it would be much more interesting - to myself as well as others - if this could involve more people than just myself. I didn’t want this book to be the James Curcio Show tm, even if I did still wind up being the ring-leader.
Has your collaboration gotten easier as technology has advanced?
To some extent, all the projects I’ve worked on - books, comics, albums, bands, the occasional video or performance project - have been collaborative. Digital tools were starting to be truly useful, in an artistic sense, around when I was entering adulthood. Sure, technology has been tied to the creative process for far longer than that, but it was only around 1998 or so that a twenty year old could feasibly put together a recording that could almost rival professional quality. And with the rise of the Internet, you could collaborate on an album with a guitarist that lives 2000 miles away. I’ve done a lot of projects like that, and there’s something really compelling about it. But also, nothing beats being able to be in the same place at the same time for some things.
I wouldn’t say that the collaborative process has itself become any easier. The difficulties about collaboration aren’t usually technological. They arise from typical human conflicts or mis-communication. I work hard to play my position and am obsessive to a fault about the projects I commit myself to, but it’s still inevitable that some projects will make it to some kind of completion and others won’t. A lot of times I’ve seen contributors come at odds with one another or with me as a result of expectations. Some of that can’t be helped. It is very hard when you’ve put years into something and then it can’t be released on a technicality or because of some funding issue. You have to consciously avoid assigning blame, because in such cases there’s a real habit to pick a scapegoat.
But all of that said, so far The Immanence of Myth has been one of the easiest collaborations I’ve ever worked on. I don’t mean this to come off the wrong way, but it’s possible that some of that is because I don’t need anyone else to complete this project. Which means I can make it open to collaboration and input but it’s not like an independent film project, where you can have everything in a row but if your crew or director walks out the door, you’ve got a serious issue. I opened this up to other people because I wanted to allow them to add their perspective, their voice. But not because I needed them for it to get completed.
How is this work different than other collaborative pieces that you've done like the Generation Hex Generation Hex anthology?
As I said, it’s been a pretty smooth ride. The clouds seem to be lifting, but for about two years I had a really bad run of luck with creative projects - things getting cut in the last round of funding, things just not connecting or happening at the right time or in the right order, most of it quite out of my control - and this book kind of became my refuge as something I could focus on that I knew I could release at the end of the day. I’m in the process of trying to connect with a publisher now to carry the title, but even if I don’t find one, I could release it as a print on demand title. So it’s not getting stuck on a shelf. I really do think it’s a project that deserves a distributed run, though I acknowledge I may have an inherent bias in that determination.
How were the interviews chosen?
A few were follow ups for interviews I’d done for Alterati, the interview I did with David Mack. (Kabuki, Daredevil.)But a lot of it was honestly serendipity, people who came to me or who responded when I approached them. I saw Laurie Lipton's work and thought it was unique and compelling, so I started talking to her online. That sort of thing.
Was there anyone you would have liked to include, but didn't have the chance?
Well, I did an interview with Amanda Palmer interview with Amanda Palmer back in 2007 that I wanted to expand upon... And I did an interview with Jared Louche (Chemlab) around the same time, but at least when I was in the thick of this project he was on tour. I feel both of them would have really interesting things to say on the subject. There are quite a few others... I saw some work in several galleries in Asheville that were dead on, I thought, and the artists seemed interested in doing interviews but then never responded to my follow-ups. But really, the conversations could and should be ongoing. A book kind of fixes things in time. I’d much rather it be an ongoing dialogue. That’s really what myth is about. This book shouldn't be the end of anything. I'm just hoping to get conversation going.
What spurred your initial interest in mythology?
I honestly don’t know. I know things in my life that intensified it, encountering Joseph Campbell’s work in late college, or a high school teacher I had who taught mythology as half of the English curriculum. But I don’t have a real grasp of what it is in my that was attracted to it. It’s like when you’re attracted to a person - I mean really, deeply attracted - you can make up all sorts of reasons about why. But the truth is you don’t know. You just are.
“Myths are "mirrors of the soul," which can only reveal to us what we already have in ourselves: so what is a message of love and compassion to one can be a distorting call to hatred and bigotry for another. Meaning exists in the surface interaction with the mythic object, rather than in the myth itself. We discover ourselves in stories.” – James Curcio, I.O.M.
The best creative endeavors seem to rely on myth to give them form. You describe how mythic structures surround art, and often give meaning to a piece. Do you think this is possible with abstract forms? Does this just depend on the story being told about the piece?
This is definitely a subject that we deal with in the book. I don’t pretend we give a final answer on it, or on anything else for that matter. But my take is that in the case of abstract art, you so often have a myth surrounding the artist. The same is true with pop art, or really most of the art movements in the US that have been popular since the 1950s. Warhol was all about that obviously, the cult of personality. If artwork is entirely devoid of narrative and intention, and the artist has no myth surrounding them, then it seems to me that no one would be interested. And if an audience develops an interest, in the process of doing so, they’ll invariably build a mythology.
On what level does a creative person have to be dedicated to the ideas of their own personal myths for it to really strike a chord? Does it help if the creative is more deeply enmeshed in their myth?
I think the goal is to explore something as deeply as one is capable at the time. By the time you’re done, if you’ve grown, you’ll think “Shit. I could do better.” Good! Try to do so next time. I’ve never come close to perfection. I don’t believe in it. But I do like to think we can improve, and that one of the best ways to do that is to try new things. I don’t know if that answers your question or not, but it’s the best I’ve got.
Talking about 'inventing a myth', have you found any practices that aid in this process? Does sticking with older traditions help flesh out personal mythology or does it go beyond this?
I think there’s certainly something worthwhile in learning as much as possible from other times, and other cultures. But you can get stuck on it too. Though it’s inevitable that themes and forms will repeat themselves, the point is to work with what’s really vital for you individually. There are many practices that can aid that process. Too many to provide as if it was a list of “tried and true methods.” Though you can’t go wrong with paying a little more attention to your dreams and fantasies. (Or maybe you can go very, very wrong.)
What 'poisonous' myths do you think we're living under?
There’s a lot in the second section of the book dealing with modern myths as a stratification of older myths; like you will see ideas present in capitalism but you can trace the origins of the idea back through time. There’s something almost geological about it, although at least for now I’m not employing the scientific method.
So, there’s a sense I guess that the “poisonous” myths we live with now are not all that unlike those of the past in some ways. But of course in other ways they are very different. And our ability to effect our environment is certainly changing, due to, among other things, the population expansion that technology has - at least temporarily - allowed for. The poisonous element of it is pretty evident to anyone who pays any attention to science. We’re becoming a threat to our own environment, and it’s mostly a result of cultural myths.
Has your research given you any insight into how can we combat the commodification of mythologies or the unification of local mythologies (I think you used the example of Hinduism) by groups looking for means to centralize control?
I’d like to believe that the New American Century view of globalization is impossible, like trying to hold water in your hands. By that I mean, there could never be one central mythology that has gobbled up all the rest. Personal experience is too varied. But in a less universal sense, this is a very real force at work behind the benevolent myths of capitalism that international corporations are going to trumpet.
“Think for yourself, question authority.” It’s cliche now but it’s still true. After questioning you could still find that you agree.
There's a mythological context and history behind all human behavior. The goal of some sects within many of the world’s major religions is to consume all other mythologies, to take over or destroy all aberrant beliefs. Under that is a need to control and restrict the options of other people. That’s part of that same Father-God-gone-amok thing, the commodification you are talking about. It’s an urge to control or master nature, one’s environment. One of the points I make in the book is that there is a mythological current that has run from ancient monotheism to modern capitalism and corporatism.
The war of ideas wages on, but now the players have laser guided missiles instead of spears. The leverage that governments and corporations have when it comes to shaping public opinion is incredibly broad, but it isn’t especially deep. It depends on complacency and laziness, at least until such a point that the general public are too disenfranchised and beaten down to lift up their machetes.
I know that makes it seem very “us” and “them.” Good for rhetoric. You can buy it, or not. The truth is all us are “players.” Some just have access to more resources than others; disproportionately so, as always.
Do you think something like Alex Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is effective in activating these mythical constructs in others?
I wrote an article about this, actually, that ran on Jive Magazine’s website and then later on Alterati. I’d say that it has the potential to. Any space that’s put together with that kind of intent can help focus it, and his art certainly puts people’s minds in that space. Are they? Well, there’s a more jaded part of me that recognizes the smart marketing that’s being done by creating buzz around a gallery like they did, or the spiritual org they seem to be creating, and the branding benefits of sticking to one style rather than remaking yourself time and again... but, though I’ve only met them a couple times, and briefly, it seems their hearts are in it. And either way, an artist still has to eat. If fear sells, then so does hope.
“The mythic life is the whole, of which our current awareness is but a fragment. There is a sense in which we are living within our lives as the protagonist of a random situation that was neither our design nor our intention, and yet in another sense, we are disconnected from time, observers, and creators, partaking in each other's creations. The personal life, and its pains, frustrations, successes and hopes, are all transient and relatively insignificant except when given mythic resonance. The tale is what matters. Legends and heroes always lag a generation or two behind the present, and the times we live in are desperately in need of both.”- James Curcio, I.O.M.
Can you offer some symbols, songs or stories that speak in mythological terms to moving society into a more sustainable focus?
This is a problem. I mean, I think it is happening, but it oftentimes winds up coming off like the third act of most “fight the system” documentaries. They’ve spent the first hour or so telling you how fucked everything is, and now they’re going to play the inspirational music and tell you that hope is not lost, because no one wants a downer. Well, hope isn’t lost. But what if the solution isn’t going to come until the human population has been cut in half? Suddenly the inspirational music is just creepy.
On the other hand, the kind of situations I’ve posed in the past - like in my novel Fallen Nation - is intentionally a bit absurd. Everything is at a tipping point and just by random chance this band of escaped mental patients winds up catching the cultural zeitgeist. I do think that times of great pressure and change, which ours seems to be, can create the opportunity for tipping points like that, where suddenly at least for a moment everything is turned on its head. Even in some futurist but seemingly pessimistic attitudes, like Tool had on Aenima, can be the catalyst for personal realization and change.
In fact, that kind of diving down into the muck to clean it out is a really important part of the artistic and creative process, and it’s something that gets misunderstood. I know a lot of very nice, mellow artists that imagine themselves in some incredibly negative places when they do their work. You’d never know it otherwise. Maybe there’s a reason for that.
Let me try to answer your question by attacking it from a different angle. If we can open this question up and instead of looking at sustainability, look at the possibility of mythic art to increase self-awareness, then suddenly there’s such a long list of movies, songs, books, and so on that could fall in this category that it’d be impossible to list. It’s there, in whatever gets you on to the next thing. To whatever meets you halfway at a point in your life and helps you surpass it. When I was sixteen, Nine Inch Nail’s Downward Spiral was really important to me. Now it’s got little for me, except nostalgia.
And through increasing self-awareness, we just might increase awareness of our effects on the world around us, and that could lead to sustainability.
What contemporary creatives do you think are best embracing the idea of effective mythologies?
This risks turning into the “shout out” section of the interview. “I’d like to give a shout out to Rae-Rae, and Little D, DJ Rape Viking, and uh...” But I guess there are some obvious ones. Neil Gaiman made his career working with mythological images, and Dave McKean as well. I think they do it consciously.
But really every artist, or writer, or even comedian, has a mythology that enters into their work. And a myth arises around the person themselves, oftentimes. I think of Burroughs, Belushi or Hunter S. Thompson like they’re guys I knew. That’s on account of their myth. I’m certainly not the only one. A lot of people like Bukowksi because of his myth, not because of his writing. How many people list authors on their Facebook page that they haven’t even read, I wonder?
The comic book phenomenon has also moved in a mythological direction, and that is showing in film adaptations that reach a broader audience. The newer Batman movies, for instance. The first was more or less the heroes journey. The second was about order versus chaos, and in a lot of ways I think was more about the Joker than Batman. When put side-by-side, Batman starts looking pretty rigid and stodgy.
I know it might seem silly to some people to look for psychological insight from comic book characters. I don’t see what’s so strange about it. It’s certainly no stranger than looking for it from a poor guy who was nailed to a cross two thousand years ago.
Have you created any mythologies outside of personal explorations? Mythologies that affected change in the culture at large?
I don’t know. I’ve received many letters and emails from strangers telling me I’ve changed their lives, and it’s always a kind of flattering, awkward, weird experience. But I have no idea.
Has working on the book changed any of your thoughts on mythology, culture, collaboration? How has it affected the other projects that you're currently working on?
I’d say overall it has helped me clarify my views on some things for myself, and like I said, it’s an ongoing process. It doesn’t end, this is just one step along the way.