Jon McCalmont on Prometheus, Myths and Calvinball stories

At his consistently exceptional ‘Ruthless Culture’ blog Jonathan McCalmont has a great meta-review of Prometheus, in which he locates the film within the broader constellation of ‘myth-making’ in films and modern popular culture that is so prevalent right now. Having not seen Prometheus yet, I can’t really agree or disagree, but his analysis of wider popular cultural obsession with mythmaking is very convincing. But I had a few reservations – possible fault lines in his argument, I guess you could call it.

McCalmont (rather convincingly) argues that “as a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies” and he suggests that Prometheus is an attempt at critique of  that obsession with mythologies (coming at the expense of the ‘neat, self-contained story’ which has indeed rather taken a backseat to trilogies, series and the rise of the ‘franchise’). McCalmont says:

I believe that Prometheus is best understood as vicious critique of the tendency to seek answers to big questions and to weave these answers into some kind of escapist fantasy. Far from providing us with a mythology that makes sense and answers all questions, Prometheus suggests that life is nothing more than a series of random events leading not to Tolkien’s meaningful ‘turn’ but to a sense of profound bafflement.

As I said, I can’t really comment on this aspect of the film, and whether or not it succeeds. But there’s something funny about the way he mixes up the difference between “Big Questions” (aka the metanarratives that post-modernism has been so utterly against since forever, but which it has never really gotten rid of) and questions of the decidedly non-big variety. He notes that,

Though ostensibly a mystery, the plot of Prometheus is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters’ faces by a cruelly indifferent universe. The film begins with a group of humans voyaging to the stars in search of Big Answers to Big Questions.

But some of the questions he lists are not big questions: they are (or should be) answerable, quite straightforwardly, e.g.:

  • What did the android say to the alien upon its awakening?
  • Why did the alien respond to a first contact situation with psychotic violence?

The answers to these are not “because there is a god” or anything meta like that. And that’s the crux of it, I think: if Prometheus is like LOST and other “Calvinball” type stories, it’s only because such straightforward questions are warped, twisted, or deliberately obscured as if obscurantism were somehow a statement about the degeneracy of meta-narratives (or even a statement about anything at all other than the arbitrary whim of a storyteller/mythmaker). And this is why I was a bit on the fence when McCalmont states his thesis as the following:

To my mind…attempts to wring meaning from the text of the film are hopelessly deluded as Prometheus is quite explicitly a film about the absolute futility of seeking Big Answers to Big Questions.

But obscurantism is not anti-metanarrative, in fact it’s just a reinforcement  the meta-narrative of an “indifferent” universe. McCalmont makes the claim that “Mythologies differ from scientific explanations in so far as the logic they use to explain events is narrative rather than causal” which I’m also not so sure about. Science is, after all, it’s own mythology. Chris Bateman’s forthcoming “The Mythology of Evolution” touches on some of these issues, with Bateman saying,

the imagery of evolution threatens to distort our understanding of the incredible history of our planet. There is no science without mythology, and the only way to reveal the facts is to understand the fictions.

Bruno Latour has a great quote about the operation of science, saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that it has to explain one thing in terms of another thing, and then that thing in terms of a third, and so on until it ends up looking more and more like a fairytale. Count the number of intermediaries between “you” and the alleged Higgs-Boson.

So where are we, then, on the issue of Big Questions or metanarratives, and why does McCalmont’s piece seem so indicative of the current? I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment, and his term “geek spiritualism” encapsulates it perfectly, but I don’t think we’re even remotely close to a myth-less state, and I don’t narrative obscurantism actually does point to a lacuna or disavowal of metanarratives. I think we’re in a situation where we’ve internalised the post-modern disavowal of metanarratives (the “Big Questions” will never be answered satisfactorily) but perhaps the effort has not been taken seriously, since we can’t disavow the metanarrative of science, as it works so damn well for us at the present. (As an aside, many critics of postmodernism have pointed out since the very earliest phase of its adoption that a disavowal of metanarratives can become itself a metanarrative.)

I find myself agreeing with McCalmont’s analysis of the dual cultural and market forces that are driving the increased mythologisation of popular culture:

The problem highlighted by the very existence of Prometheus is that the demand for synthetic mythologies is now so intense that it is beginning to distort the nature of popular culture. With fans demanding mythological depth and investors demanding the type of monies that accompany owning people’s fantasy lives, the market for self-contained stories is beginning to shrink.

But I think his  argument is a bit of a kludge – narrative obscurantism of the Calvinball type isn’t the same as a real or genuine disavowal of metanarratives (including the metanarratives and myths of science). To my knowledge, one of the few people to take seriously the challenge of a meaningless, indifferent universe is Quentin Meillassoux and his acausality. But again we find the same tension as in McCalmont’s piece – Meillassoux believes in a fundamental, hyperchaotic and meaningless layer of reality as the only necessary and non-contingent layer of the universe, yet at the same time, the universe at present remains contingent and explanatory mechanisms like science remain accurate, and may remain so until long after humans have disappeared from the universe.

McCalmont ends his essay by saying that he fears for the future of “self-contained stories” in the face of increased myth-making, and that Prometheus, while terrible, perhaps “contains the future of all popular culture.” Which I think is an accurate assessment, but I don’t agree that self-contained stories are a “solution” to the problem of metanarratives. But I remain sympathetic to the desire for less mythologising – though perhaps only because most, if not all, modern attempts at it are so utterly shit.