From Rituals to Stories

19 November 2010

Friday


A few weeks ago in Take Comfort in Rituals I offered a commentary on the then-current Starbucks slogan that had been emblazoned across their many locations. This “ritual” campaign did not last long, as I noticed that the slogans disappeared not long after I wrote about them. Now a new series of slogans have appeared at Starbucks, and it looks like the marketing team has made the transition from mythology to narrative, as they have gone from promoting rituals to promoting stories.

In so far as a myth (embodied in a ritual) is a special case, a particular example, of a narrative, the passage from mythology to narrative represents a passage to a greater level of generality, and therefore possibly also a connection to the perennial, universal truths of the human condition. And what could a marketer desire more than to establish some connection between a brand and the universal truths of the human condition?

In The Totemic Paradigm I discussed the significant and growing role of narrative theory in many aspects of contemporary thought, from analytical philosophy of mind to psychotherapy. It would not surprise me in the least if someone on the Starbucks marketing team has tapped into this vein of thought, and in so far as popular culture learns from serious scholarship, we are the better for it. George Lucas struggled with his screenplay for the original Star Wars film until he happened upon Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, which provided a template for the schematic science fiction hero story that he then went on to write.

While it may seem cynical or crass for the Starbucks marketing team to expropriate narrative theory for selling coffee — or, rather, selling the experience of drinking coffee — if our experience of coffee can be reconfigured and recast as more of a cultural experience and less of a consumer experience, we are probably the better off for it.

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Take Comfort in Rituals

26 September 2010

Sunday


Like a great many other people, I stopped at a Starbucks close to my office for my near-daily hot chocolate and saw their new marketing slogan emblazoned on the door: “Take comfort in rituals.” When I got back to my office I Googled the slogan and found that a great many bloggers have already entered the fray on the slogan. It would be easy to dismiss this in an entirely cynical way, but I think it bears serious consideration. It may be a mere marketing slogan, but it also points to deeper things.

Many times in this forum (for example, in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms) I have quoted a line from Joseph Campbell that directly addresses the significance of ritual:

“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth.”

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 5, track 9

So if a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth, as Joseph Campbell holds, and visiting your local Starbucks is a ritual, as the Starbucks marketing team holds, in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks? This is a good question, and in a sense it goes to the heart of many posts I’ve written about the role of mythology in industrialized society. You see, today we mostly lack explicit myths, though we still engage in rituals. These are rituals in search of a myth.

Another point to which Joseph Campbell returned repeatedly, citing a passage from Jung’s autobiography, was how Jung came to a point in his life when we asked himself, “By what myth am I living?” and he realized that he didn’t know. Once he had asked the question and had realized that he didn’t know by what myth he was living, he knew that he had to discover the myth by which he was living. The discovery of the myth by which he was living became a quest.

Joseph John Campbell (26 March 1904 – 30 October 1987) said that “A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.” So does that mean that we are “living mythologically” by going to Starbucks?

While many of us might not like the idea of a daily stop at Starbucks being a ritual, it certainly does have ritualistic aspects. And the marketing team at Starbucks is right: people do in fact take comfort in their rituals. So in the midst of a hectic day at work, a typical customer might stop at a familiar Starbucks and order a familiar drink and consume that drink in the midst of familiar surroundings. I can easily imagine that this ritual of coffee drinking is felt to be something of a respite in a day filled with schedules and meetings and demands.

We find rituals comforting. Why? At least one reason is their familiarity. Most of the surprises that the world has in store for us are unpleasant surprises. Watch the local news in your city and you will encounter a list of crimes, fires, and broken water mains. These are unpleasant surprises. Pleasant surprises are rare. To engage in a ritual is to settle in to a familiar algorithm of life in which each step follows the preceding step with gratifying predictability. While this may unfortunately eliminate a few pleasant surprises, it also eliminates (or minimizes) a far greater number of unpleasant surprises.

Perhaps one of the sources of our comfort with familiarity is the conditioning of our lives by settled civilization. I have observed that settled civilization begets settled forms of thought, and there is no more settled form of thought than that prescribed by a ritual. Not only can our actions follow a familiar course of predictable steps, but our thoughts too can be ritualized, falling into a comfortable rhythm of a familiar sequence of ideas in which the equilibrium of one’s mind is not disturbed. Ritualistic thought is perhaps a kind of meditation.

Rituals, then, may comfort us because they are familiar and they help to keep us calm and peaceful in the midst of a chaotic and unpredictable world. This is perhaps a place to start, but it is only a start. We have not even attempted to answer the question above in regard to, “in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks?” I do not yet have even a suggestion in answer to this question, though I suspect that interesting ideas would emerge from pursuing this question more systematically. In fact, I will need to think more about this.

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I’ve considered a follow-up Starbuck’s slogan in From Rituals to Stories.

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Saturday


Everyman: O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind; In thy power it lieth me to save, Yet of my good will I give thee, if ye will be kind, Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have, And defer this matter till another day.

Everyman: O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind; In thy power it lieth me to save, Yet of my good will I give thee, if ye will be kind, Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have, And defer this matter till another day.

There is famous medieval morality play titled Everyman in which an ordinary man is made to face the meaning of his life. In the play, this confrontation comes in the form of a conversation with Death, as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal it comes in the form of a chess game with Death. Yet existential soul-searching can come in many forms, and may be precipitated by life crises of many kinds.

Death playing chess with an unlucky mortal: we know who wins this game every time.

Death playing chess with an unlucky mortal: we know who wins this game every time.

We have all today heard the term “career suicide” to identify self-destructive stupidity that brings a swift end to one’s socioeconomic status. In the industrialized world, this is a kind of death — career death, which in some circumstances is brought about by career suicide, while in other cases it is brought about by career homicide (i.e., the politics of personal destruction). Since in industrialized society we are encouraged to invest our hopes and dreams in our jobs and careers, in the way that former ages encouraged the faceless mass of the peasantry to invest their hopes in a better world beyond this life, career death can be as traumatic and as devastating as any existential crisis.

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal dramatized the existential crisis of death, who here visits a knight, one of the elites of the medieval world.

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal dramatized the existential crisis of death, who here visits a knight, one of the elites of the medieval world.

At present I am listening to a rather trivial book, How Starbucks Saved My Live: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, by Michael Gates Gill. It is difficult to justify this to myself, but it is easy to listen to and is something of a break from my usual fare. The book is essentially the story of the death of a career, the existential crisis occasioned thereby, and a re-evaluation of the author’s life in view of his altered circumstances.

Gill Starbucks front

Any story — even the story of a remarkably privileged life — can be animated and made interesting by a great writer, but Mr. Gill is apparently a very mediocre man, and (fortunately) aware of his mediocrity. He is the Everyman of the Industrial Age, and he does an honest and passably fair job of so portraying himself.

Gill Starbucks back

What happens when a mediocre man discovers his mediocrity and loses the privilege to which he previously believed himself entitled? Well, he presents himself as having improved as a human being as a result of this change in socioeconomic status. No doubt he did change for the better. However, he wishes to frame the things he learned from this change as universal human truths.

Having discovered, late in his life, the virtue and dignity of labor, he conflates this same virtue and dignity with a calling. While it is true that some people, perhaps many people, have a calling for service, and indeed some people define a calling in terms of service, not all callings in life are a calling to service. Mr. Gill obviously learned something about himself and about the world from his experience of service — viz. the service industry as represented by Starbucks — and I would not want to deny the value of this knowledge painfully acquired.

Forgive me, if you can, for quibbling, but it could be argued that service as a calling and the service industry are two starkly different things. The service industry is the industrialization of service, and one can reasonably ask whether that spirit which animates service and can transform it into a calling can be captured within the context of the service industry. I do not deny that it can be so captured; I only suggest that it is an open question if it can be captured. Having worked for a living my entire adult life but never having worked in the service industry or in retail, I cannot speak with first-hand knowledge of the experience of industrialized service.

I have personally known people who have come from a life of privilege and who have entered the working class late in life. It is not an unusual occurrence today. Many of them adapt well, even admirably. But some are so transformed by the ordeal of change that they think that everyone needs to engage in the kind of service sector labor in which they were able to find themselves. While I think it is a wonderful thing for a person to find themselves, even late in life, life is much more than labor and service, however virtuous, dignified, eye-opening or consciousness-raising.

The vast majority of people who fill jobs in the service sector don’t usually find these jobs to be very inspirational (even if they are good at what they do) because they have mostly known little else in their lives. Most people with jobs at Starbucks haven’t had the opportunity, prior to their career as a barista, to obtain an Ivy League degree in art history, to run with the bulls in Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin before they are twenty, to meet Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and other literary lights, and so forth. Thus for Mr. Gill, working an “ordinary” job at Starbucks was a new experience. Most people stuck in dead end jobs have known nothing else. The parallel to Mr. Gill’s life would be to take someone from the working class and then, late in life, to show them the world and expose them to a life a privilege. No doubt they would learn as much from this as Mr. Gill learned from joining the working classes.

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Everyman

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