Upon seeing a 5 year-old decapitate his pair of Mickey Mouse stuffed toys with a bendy, plastic sword, I began to think about violence and death as being age-old myths that are perhaps embedded in the human psyche more than being the result of exposure to movies and television, which are relatively new cultural features.
Mickey Mouse is a symbol himself; an anthropomorphic, carefree and kind creature, so the stuffed toy is but a symbol of a symbol, who was not actually having his cotton-filled head cut off, but instead was playing a part in a symbolic execution, carried out by a child for whom death is quite possibly just a symbol with no concrete referent.
Though the screen may reflect more visually realistic acts of violence, they are nevertheless symbolic, and are only fictional evidence of what death may be like. This applies equally to both movie violence and documentary violence – the map is not the territory.
Later, I contemplated how language is implicit understanding and use of symbols, which plays a huge role in how we define intelligence and measure a child’s development. Parallel to verbal and written language are the symbols of art – the sun is a circle with protruding lines that represent rays of light, along with more subtle symbols that often carry over into adulthood. Learning to draw is essentially learning to abandon the seemingly innate habit of representing things symbolically in order to finally see clearly (which has deep implications for what it may mean to learn how to write).
There always remains a hint of symbolism even in so-called photo-realistic drawings and paintings, as the artist must always at some point decide down to what level of detail reality must be replicated. Cartoons often use symbols when representing crowds of people, animals or other complex objects, and here it is most obvious that the use of the symbol is just a time-saving shortcut.
Now, I would define a myth as a specific type of symbol, whose intent is not to save time, but to glorify a person, or type of person or thing. When I began to study photography I was immediately conscious of, and drawn to the myth of the photographer – the solitary explorer, traveller and eternal wanderer who searches for details and special moments, and who captures them on film. You see, I am not currently aware of any myth of the digital photographer, for the story that captivated me is set in the darkroom, following in the footsteps of the founders and the greats of the 20th century.
But as with all myths, metaphors, symbols and biases, they do not represent the entire truth, only a very select part of it. In a sense, the myth is the motivational superstimulus – all of the best aspects are highlighted and heightened, leaving out negative or less important bits.
Myths often contain a visual component which can be overemphasised by insecure amateurs and other fans who attempt to buy their mythical status.
If we think back to the idea of the myth as a symbol, the mythical version is often shaped around the archetype and the stereotype or cliché. Even if we are not “believers” in a myth, we can all identify aspects, or at least visual cues that belong to myths we do not partake in. This is probably because since we were children we have been immersed in a culture that spreads and cultivates different myths through various media. If as children we are capable of recognising, understanding and using the same system of symbols that is presented to us, by the time we are adults we are so versed in myths, tropes and memes that it is second nature to us.
Myths can become funny and strange when they are copied verbatim, or when too much focus is placed on superficial elements. Furthermore, when myths cross regional or cultural boundaries, the difference in interpretation is enough to highlight the absurdity of the myth. This also shows that myths are highly tied to context, and often, a large part of living out a myth is about recreating elements of the “original” context.
There is satisfaction in living out a myth or aspects of it, as if the re-enactment was some kind of reinforcement ritual, paying homage to the myth itself and its previous perpetrators.