- Geology, Myth, Media
This article argues for the relevance of mythical signification in our geological epoch. More than this, it contends that we need to revise our assumptions about media and communication systems in order to grasp the importance of myth in an era where the future of human and nonhuman life on the Earth is entirely uncertain. To make this case, I focus on the growing consensus in the sciences and theoretical humanities that mythical stories about geological and planetary processes cannot simply be disqualified or disregarded because they do not conform to the norms of modern scientific epistemology (e.g., Vitaliano; Piccardi and Masse). Whether these stories come to us from pre-modern civilizations and attempt to give sense and meaning to geological events such as natural disasters, or they have more contemporary roots in neo-pagan activism and feminist healing practices (e.g., Stengers; Salomonsen; Keller), there is a mounting need to account for the important ways in which myth has facilitated, and could still facilitate, meaningful engagements with the Earth's complex material transformations. There is little doubt that this urgency stems in large part from our shared anxiety over what is to come of the human species in our geological epoch (e.g., Lee; Scranton; Thacker), and the attendant need to piece together knowledge about the Earth before the advent of sophisticated modeling, as well as a more general desire to develop alternative (i.e., non-modern) material and epistemic practices in collaboration with the Earth's surface environments.1
This article addresses the varied and complex challenges that confront theories of planetary history and transformation that incorporate mythical storytelling into their epistemologies. The difficulties facing such efforts could not be more pronounced than they are in today's rancorous political climate, which has, and not unproblematically, been dubbed, "post-truth," and which has also mobilized various kinds of "fiction" to the detriment of the planet (e.g., Klein). In this context, I discuss how Roland Barthes was all too familiar with the myriad ways in which mythical signification in particular could be wedded to exploitative systems of power. In what follows, I address these and other challenges in what [End Page 84] I consider to be mutually informing "layers of complication" that give shape to the problem of incorporating mythic signification into our epistemologies of planetary and geological phenomena. For instance, I trace the limitations of modern science's attempt to integrate geological myths into its epistemic practices in the quickly emerging field of geomythology. I also consider the importance of expunging dangerous myths from our theories of planetary evolution. Along the way, I expose how media and communication theory is an invaluable resource for unpacking these layers of complication, mainly because it brings into sharp relief the communicative essentialisms underwriting our various theories of geomythology. In the end, I insist that it is actually our limited understanding of media and communication in the context of planetary and geological processes that stands in the way developing a robust theoretical framework for mythical signification in our current geological epoch. The work of Isabelle Stengers, Alfred North Whitehead, and contemporary media theory will prove especially useful for framing this argument.
Layer 1: Geomythology as Geocommunication
Unusual topography has often inspired myths about the formation and purpose of the Earth's surface. The island of Mangaia in the Cook Islands is a good example of this. At the center of the island is an eroded volcano surrounded by a "moat-like depression." According to one myth, the once "smooth and regular" island was formed as a result of a competition between the rain god and the sea god that caused tremendous erosion and mudslides (see Vitaliano, "Geomythology"). Another good example of the intersection of topography and myth is the Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Two Native American tribes living nearby tell a slightly different story about the tower's formation, but both accounts reference how they were able to flee the deadly grip of a very large bear because their deity answered their desperate plea and raised the Earth under their feet. To this day, the bear's claws are still visible in...