How to Do Things with Myths
A Performative Theory of Myths and How We Got There
Ivan Strenski [+–]
University of California Riverside (retired)
like gift, sacrifice, freedom of religion/religious freedom, religious nationalism, French
Catholic integralism, post-revolutionary French Jewry, divine right of kings, Ivan Strenski
is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California,
Riverside. His most recent books are Muslims, Islams, and Occidental Anxieties:
Conversations about Islamophobia (2022), a history of the study of religion from the
Renaissance to the present-day, Understanding Theories of Religion (2014) and Why Politics Can’t Be Freed from Religion: Radical Interrogations of Religion, Power and Politics (2009), Arabic translation (2016).
How to Do Things with Myths: A Performative Theory of Myths and How We Got There assembles a radically updated collection of the author’s oft-cited publications on myth. Together, they tell how theories of myth have changed and led to a novel “performative” theory of myth. Beginning from its mid-19th -century foundations with philologist, Friedrich Max Müller, myths had been conceived in textual terms as quasi-biblical, static narratives. Not until the impact of ethnographic studies of traditional societies in the early 20th -century did myths come to be regarded in situ as living agents shaping their societies. Leading a movement against Müller’s static, textual view of myths were his French sociological critics, notably Émile Durkheim and his équipe. The Durkheimians felt that myths mattered because of what they “did” by functioning within human societies. Adopting the Durkheimian notion of function was Bronislaw Malinowski. But as a pragmatist and positivist, Malinowski narrowed his conception of myths to utilitarian terms. In place of Malinowski’s utilitarianism, the author proposes a “performative theory” of myths – a theory freeing myths for a wider range of agency in culture, unrestricted by Malinowski’s behaviorism and positivism. Conceived as “important stories,” myths can thus “do things” in many, often subtle and unquantifiable, ways, depending upon a given culture’s own value system. Conceptually and theoretically, a performative theory situates itself with respect to the efforts of some of the most popular contemporary myth theorists — Bruce Lincoln, Mircea Eliade, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Georges Dumézil, Robert A. Segal and Jonathan Z. Smith.
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