Mythologies of Control

“Hell is real.”

“Jesus is real.”

As I drove from Upstate South Carolina to Chicago, I watched as billboards offered a refrain about “real” and aspects of religious faith that are not real, or at best cannot be proven real.

I always imagine the same sort of signage about Harry Potter novels: “Harry Potter is real.” “Hogwarts is real.”

There is very little real difference among all sorts of fantasy writing along with the mythologies and stories throughout the Bible; yes, fictional narratives can be powerful in terms of themes and motifs that add meaning to our human condition, but the compulsion to render them (falsely) as “real” actually erodes that power.

But this compulsion that these myths and stories must be factual, real, literal (when, again, they either are not real or simply cannot be proven real) is something rarely challenged or interrogated because belief is so pervasive in how humans function.

This claim of “real” ultimately is a veneer designed to give the myths more weight, more power, because the real intent of these myths is control.

Gilles Deleuze examined the shift from societies of discipline to societies of control, targeting specifically “prison, hospital, factory, school, family” as structures under perpetual reform.

The narrative driving this should be familiar to everyone: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.” Somehow this is a compelling narrative even though it falls apart under its own weight since the perpetual cycles never fully demonstrate the source of the failure and then any set of reforms always lead to yet another round of crisis: “Institution A is failing and thus must be reformed.”

As a educator in the US for the forty-plus year accountability era, I have witnessed that the perpetual state of reform is not about reform at all, but about control (both political and market interests being served).

If schools are always failing (and by direct and indirect implication) then teachers are always failing, students are always failing; therefore, top-down authoritarian mandates are needed to right the ship, to “fix” schools, teachers, and students.

Deleuze’s examination is a subset, I think, of an even larger force in US culture, mythologies of control.

From Christian myths to rugged individualism, boot strapping, and the American Dream, these mythologies of control serve authoritarian structures by maintaining a culture of failure and fear among most people who feel compelled to conform to these unrealistic mythologies.

The consequences of failing to acknowledge and reject mythologies of control are watching as the US morphs from the Trump era into the era of DeSantis, who has embraced the logical next steps after Trump’s jumbled attack on the 1619 Project: Political control of education is one of the ultimate goals of authoritarianism.

Dismantling schools/universities and gutting libraries have been made possible by decades of education bashing begun under Reagan and then almost gleefully embraced by Democratic and Republican leaders.

The failing schools myth, the incompetent teachers myth, and the failing students myth are little different than the false but pervasive high-crime myth that political leaders and the media repeat endlessly, despite evidence to the contrary.

Americans embrace our disproportionate police state and prison culture because a mythology of control about crime maintains irrational public fear and promotes a willingness to sacrifice Other People (disproportionately Black and brown).

It is extremely important, however, to recognize that these myths are made more powerful and compelling because of foundational myths such as Original Sin, “hell is real,” and the relentless myths of rugged individualism and boot strapping.

Florida has reduced their education system to these myth by directly rejecting even discussing systemic forces such as racism.

Anyone who doubts that reform and religious narratives are about control must unpack why authority always resorts to banning books, censoring ideas, and taking full control of education.

Mythologies of control are dehumanizing, and there are far more compelling narratives. Kurt Vonnegut explains:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

A Man without a Country

And yet, you will not see humanists purchasing billboards announcing “Billy Pilgrim is real.” “Tralfamadore is real.”

The call to behave decently, well, it is enough and fabricating ways to coerce that behavior simply destroys the very thing that makes being human being human.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson argued, to abdicate our mind is to abdicate our full humanity:

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,–“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.


Postscript on the Societies of Control, Gilles Deleuze, October, 59(Winter 1992), pp. 3-7