For the purposes of this blog (and ergo modern science) I decided to dive headlong into the murky world of Women’s Real Life Weeklies. I regret to say I felt kind of bad about buying it. My snobbish sensibilities got the best of me and, as I looked down the mile-long expanse of my own nose, I sidled up to the counter, practically throwing a pound coin at the till attendant before stuffing it guiltily into my bag as embarrassed as a 16 year old buying condoms. The headlines are as obnoxious as strobe lights, and as you leaf through the glossy, primary-coloured pages you can practically feel that drip-feed of dopamine, the ching-ching-ching of a winning slot machine combination.
What is it that practically every entertainment media we deride and snort at has that makes it so addictive? What it is about Coronation Street or the Daily Mail or Chat Magazine that keeps us dependent? We know the headlines are just clickbait, we are fully aware that a cliff-hanger is a simple device to keep us chained to our televisions until 3am, zombie-eyed and covered in crisps. Will we, as go-to intellectual choice of the book wanker (myself included) DFW imagines, become so amused that we neglect to eat, and die, bug-eyed, in a catatonic state of bliss? Why are we so hooked?
The explanation, I think, is simple. All of these entertainments are devised from things so intrinsically important to being human that we cannot help but be moved. It’s that moment where you can’t look away from a car crash, the same reason that there has always been terrible love poetry – we are still obsessed with mulling over what it means to be human. And we’re having the boiled down goo of human fears and hopes and dreams delivered to us in bite-sized, super-concentrated, saccharin-sweet chunks. Chat! distils all of the human condition in it’s tagline: Life, Death, Prizes. (I understand that Life has really rather a fluid meaning here, but so it rightly should). This process of distillation to the absolute is part of a long and noble tradition of critical examination of which Chat is a recent successor.
Two of the greats when it comes down to a process of philosophical and cultural distillation are Jung and Strauss. Jung especially gets bandied around a lot, and his dream interpretations are still very popular today. He was a Swiss psychiatrist and one-time student of Freud who was obsessed with alchemy, the occult and dreams. In partial rebellion against Freud’s theories, he developed his own speculation on what certain cultural symbols mean and why we have them. For example, a very common dream is to dream one is on an ocean. It can be dark or light, stormy or calm, but we have probably all dreamt of the sea at some point. Or, how about the fact that we all seem to sense the Sun as a masculine energy and the Moon as a feminine one. When we dream or interpret these symbols we all feel them in a nuanced but fairly similar way. Jung called these “myth tropes” and considered them essential to the human psyche: a way of exploring our own subconscious and also relating to and understanding others. He suggested that there was some universal common ground between all cultures and people, regardless of whether or not they had made contact.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (the esteemed French anthropologist, not the guy who makes jeans) has, IMHO, kind of similar theories to Jung, although he’s coming from a completely different perspective. CLS, a prominent Structuralist, posited that all things are ultimately connected and structured- we just need to discover and study the relationships. In his later works he drew up a series of complicated looking, logic equations to dissect exactly how a myth works. He reckons (as many linguists agree today) that many myths are mutations upon an original, much more ancient theme. Consider, for example, the prevelance of “trickster gods” found the world over, who, in all the legends about them, behave in fairly similar fashions and appear in similar guises.
So, say we are to cast our imaginations back over all the generations of humans from this very present moment: what are the only things we have ever been obsessed by, the only common life events across all time periods and cultures? Birth rites, coming-of-age rites, marriage rites, death rites. What have all humans always desired? The achievement of excellence, the prize of remembrance or wealth. In short, to win.
So, using Jung and Strauss as a launchpad, I would posit that all major cultural myths, legends and motifs (new or old ) ultimately could divide into, or stretch across Chat’s wisely chosen mythemes of life, death and prizes. And Chat really delivers:
Now note the modern mythemes we have all come to know as stock characters in our Hollywood films: the darkeyed, broody distant Uncle who turns out to be a serial rapist; the innocent, hard-working girl whose ladyflower is ruined; the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl; the downtrodden, fiesty, truth-spouting (in dialectual vernacular, of course) Mama. You know the drill. Yet in Chat we see these staple character tropes played out in real life. Suddenly urban myth is made real, myth tropes walk among us, sending in their selfies like the rest of us.
Why do we find it so silly that Chat magazine is the perfect crystallisation of our modern collective psyche? (and what is wrong with academic silliness, besides?) There is no reason for it not to be so. Our archaeologists analyse latrines of the past, historians pour over the drinking songs or pulp fictions of years ago. The proles and the plebs now have a place in our history, anthropology and sociology books. Take, for example, the validity of doing a degree in Beyonce. What job you might do with it, I have no idea. But using her to explore modern issues regarding gender, race, class, media and philosophy is more accessible and understandable to us Generation Y-ers than some dusty statistic in an old book by a (white, cis, heterosexual, middle class) guy who’s never left his mahogany panelled Oxbridge/Ivy office.
So, you want to know more about your own world, your cultural landscape, your philosophy, modern myth tropes? Go buy Chat and see what you think. Find philosophy in the banal. That is what we’re all about here at Eating From the Trashcan.