We urgently need new myths to ground us in this time between worlds and stories. What may take the place of our current myths - the myths of rationality and science, materialism, capitalism, meritocracy and democracy, justice and equality? May Eros hold the key to our future social imaginaries?
We live in a state of impasse, a moment where existing social imaginaries and practices no longer produce the outcomes they once did, but no new imaginaries or practices have yet been created.
-- Lauren Berlant
Three centuries BC, when Alexander’s general Ptolemy took control of Egypt, he created a new god, Serapis—part Greek and part Egyptian—to unite his empire. A sun god like Zeus, incorporating Egyptian Osiris and Apis, Serapis also possessed the underground powers of Greek Hades and Demeter. Ptolemy made worship of Serapis, arrayed in both Egyptian and Greek sacred motifs, a deliberate part of his rule. I find it amazing to consider: the conscious, rational construction of a new deity that would bring Greeks and Egyptians together in ritual and worship and thus stabilize the kingdom—and Ptolemy’s rule.
In seizing Egypt, Ptolemy found himself balancing between two mythic realities. There was his own, as a Greek, and that of the Egyptians. What to do? Unifying the Greek and Egyptian panoply into one figure was a brilliant move—both inclusive and subversive, and also stepping toward a singular divine principle.
In this present moment, quite a few thinkers speak of the between time we are in: a time between stories, the time between worlds. The “gods” that we have long sacrificed ourselves to—progress, materialism, success, and identities based on gender and race—no longer serve to ground, guide, and protect us. For most of us, they never really did. The social imaginaries of modernity and postmodernity have less and less meaning to more and more of us. Like Ptolemy, perhaps we can create a divine presence that can anchor a new mythic narrative. But where might we look?
What is a Social Imaginary?
“Social imaginary” is a fascinating term that itself resides between the cold academic “social” and the creative or fantastic “imaginary.” The deepest constructs of our culture, it says, are the product of imagination. The imagination is not fantasy, but indicates the human capacity of perception that extends beyond the rational into an embodied, intuitive sense of the core values and meaning-world of a culture. Just as researchers do not know how we learn language, we also do not know how a social imaginary is created, only that they exist as templates of meaning, purpose, and feeling for humans joined in a culture. They are mythic in that they hold the deeper narrative thread that binds the hearts and minds of a people. They are god-like in that they have the power to shape our perceptions, thoughts, emotional responses, and reality itself.
We cannot live without some form of social imaginary to shape our experience and our selves. These deep structures and collective commitments mold us so we can survive and thrive in the cultures into which we are born. William James spoke about the infant’s world as a “blooming, buzzing confusion”—a chaotic experience of sensory overwhelm that gradually settles into perceiving the same reality that her parents see. Recently, researchers have discovered that the infant mind is exquisitely tuned to recognize faces, engage in mutual connection, and pick up language—even though how we learn language is still a mystery. How the social imaginary is transmitted from generation to generation is also a mystery.
While a social imaginary is made of stories and symbols and unconscious commitments to certain ways of seeing and being, it is not ephemeral. The social imaginary is the bedrock of a culture. The culture’s very essence, that which is essential and deemed eternal, form its core. For most indigenous peoples, the social imaginary brings the living elements of water, fire, air, and earth into perception. In traditionally religious societies, the social imaginary allows us to perceive the hand of God in all of creation. But our modern and postmodern world has cut itself off from myth as a source of knowing or perceiving. We have sacrificed God and all of the deities. What, then, forms the social imaginary of Western culture?
Gender & the Good Life
When we think about myths in the West, typically we turn to Greece or to the Norsemen and the panoply of quarreling, fornicating, warring deities that inhabited their legends. But the modern West is also full of myths. The myth of rationality and science (and particularly its overreach into scientism). The myth of materialism. The myth of capitalism. The myth of meritocracy and democracy. The myth of justice and equality. By referring to these all as myths, I am not saying that they are untrue. They all carry certain truths. Yet, within modernity, they are seen as eternal, as essential aspects of reality that are therefore enduring.
The modern myth that only the material, only matter, is real led the modern world to reify (and deify) tangibles, such as the physical differences between males and female (which ignored intersex persons, obviously). Modern culture created both the myth of the individual and the myth of the masculine male and the feminine female—in other words, the gender binary. Our individual independence is an illusion, as is the belief that human beings fall into two different and oppositional ways of being. Modernity established the binary world of masculine capitalism and feminine consumerism—the world of work and love, the male public sphere and the female private sphere—as its core, essential and eternal archetypes. Postmodernity sought to disrupt this binary and its inherent claim that the public world and its power should be male. In lifting up the feminine, however, it stayed within the modern social imaginary.
The mythic narrative that the masculine god and the feminine goddess enact is what the scholar Lauren Berlant calls the “good life.” She perceives that this is the myth we tell ourselves in the West. Combining the masculine hero’s journey in a capitalist context and the feminine romance legend, the good life promises material and financial success—or at least stability—so that one can live in consumer comfort with one’s family. If you follow the rules, get a good education, work hard at your job, stand up for your country, fall in love, marry, create a home and have children, then the sweet rewards of purpose, connection, and fulfillment are yours.
More recently, the “good life” includes idyllic vacations, weekend homes in the country, a wine cellar, and an Instagram account to record it all for thousands of followers. But this is more of a mirage than a myth. Even the basics of a “good life” have become far out of reach for many millions in the West. So, why are people so emotionally attached to this story? That is Berlant’s question. She calls it “cruel optimism” when the culturally sanctioned pathways that should give you a bounce in your step actually lead to hopelessness, despair, and debt.
Why so attached? The promise of the good life, and what makes its disappointment particularly cruel, is love—meaningful connection, erotic fulfillment, emotional security, and care. The emotional attachment is to an individual identity that participates in the rituals and symbols of romance so as to find a soul mate. Despite how untrue, inadequate, and even dangerous this story is, to give it up means giving up the self that one knows how to be and the love that we separate and divided beings long for.
The Collapse of the Gender Myths
At this moment in time, as the social imaginary of the good life collapses, the clear divisions of our gender myths collapse, too. The god and goddess of masculine and feminine who inhabited the Western story of the “good life” have lost their powers. The good life is not viable economically or environmentally. Women and men are free to inhabit each other’s worlds—and clothes. Fashion models walk the runways in nonbinary clothes and attitudes. The trans movement is creating a new social imaginary of gender fluidity rather than an essential quality of the body one was born with.
After this flowering of options and differences, the move toward integration and unity is bound to come. If neither the masculine/feminine duality or the good life are eternal, where do we find the stuff from which a new social imaginary may come? Perhaps it will appear in an integration of our humanity. I am reminded of the Hindu god/dess Ardhanarishvara, who is half Shiva and half Parvati divided right down the middle. Throughout India, the deity represents the inseparability of masculine and feminine energies—or their equivalence—that are essential for creation.
Certain Anatolian deities, dating as far back as the second millennium BCE, were androgynous, possessing genitals both male and female. The Anatolian goddess Agdistis, who was sometimes the same as Cybele, the Great Mother, also had both sets of genitals. Possessing both sexes, she was seen as wild and uncontrollable, and often represented the creative power of nature. The Greeks, too, had their double-sexed deities—including Aphroditus/Hermaphroditus who blessed marriages, whereby the male and female become one. These deities were harbingers of a unification of the divine principle—and perhaps an earlier form of what may be to come.
Eros as a Future Imaginary
I see these deities expressing two eternal essences: first, our shared humanity regardless of which body one arrives with and, second, the creativity that arises from our union. I am reminded that in Greek mythology, Eros, who we usually know as the handsome and impetuous God of Love, was originally the creative impulse. As pure impulse, Eros was neither male nor female, but a process. Yet this impulse of creation morphed into, or became recognized, as the emissary of Love. There is wisdom in this.
I do not know if we can create a new deity like Ptolemy. But Eros is rising. In its immature form, there is the sixty-plus-year infatuation with free sex. While sexual liberation, access to one’s embodied life force, is basic and fundamental to our wholeness as beings, too often the emphasis falls on the gender polarity, seeking the completion of self. However, where the divisions between the sexes/genders are lessening, a creativity that comes from breaking barriers of perception frees up. Rather than seeing the masculine and feminine as a dichotomous polarity that is eternal, perhaps the enduring eternal is the process of creation itself. Eros lives here not as a male god who incites sexual desire, but as a living, creative energy and intelligence that arises within and between us.
A new social imaginary can take root in a deeper recognition of the eternal. What could that be? First, there is the recognition that we share one humanity, in all our amazing differences freed from the barriers of the binary. Then, out of the embrace of that one humanity and in connection with all of life, there arises the aliveness of collective presence, within and beyond us, opening to an eternal, cosmic process of unfolding, complexifying, awakening, and deepening. We human beings experience all of this as love—the cultivation of our unique talents and gifts, the living field of our shared human presence, and communion in the co-creative process. In this future social imaginary, Eros lives between us and as us, in creative union that integrates the self, brings us to a collective coherence, and births, again and again, all that lives at the edge of our imagination.
This essay was originally published in German in EVOLVE magazine no. 31.
Words by Elizabeth Debold
Elizabeth Debold is best described as a gender futurist. She is a leading authority on gender development and author of the bestselling Mother Daughter Revolution (Addison-Wesley, 1993; Bantam, 1994). For the past four decades, she has worked on the front lines of gender and cultural evolution as activist, researcher, journalist, spiritual explorer, and transformative educator. Elizabeth is also an editor at