U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Compression and Myth: Slotkin and the Frontier

custer budweiserEarlier today I was re-reading some of Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992), which was the third part of Slotkin’s mammoth trilogy, following Regeneration Through Violence (1973) and The Fatal Environment (1985), books which covered the development of the frontier myth up to the Civil War and during the “Age of Industrialization,” respectively. As I noted a few years back in a review here of Daniel Horowitz’s excellent Consuming Pleasures, these kind of multi-volume projects are rare feats in academia today, even if historians—such as Frederick Jackson Turner—were once considered subpar if they did not have a four- or five- or eight-volume opus to their name, à la Parkman or Henry Adams. Alongside Horowitz’s more informal trilogy (The Morality of Spending; The Anxiety of Affluence; Consuming Pleasures), I can think of Alan Wald’s troika chronicling the American Left across midcentury (Exiles from a Future Time; Trinity of Passion; American Night), David Brion Davis’s Problem of Slavery books and… well, I’ve already run dry for examples in US history since the 1970s. No doubt something important has slipped my mind!

But aside from a desire to pay tribute to Slotkin’s genuinely epic scope and formidable focus, what I wanted to discuss here was instead his theory of myth, which seeps into a theory of ideology and of symbols. In this re-read, what struck me was the sheer confidence and brio of Slotkin’s method, a tone which borrowed something from the energy of poststructuralism even if it eschewed the poststructuralist’s lack of discipline and love of deferring the point indefinitely. Slotkin’s tone is not playful like Geertz’s can be, but is similarly borne toward the reader on a sense of total assurance that everything will add up once it has been fully examined and the right approach has been selected. And it occurred to me, since I don’t really find that kind of confidence in today’s cultural or intellectual historians when they are interpreting a text, to wonder where that sense of assurance came from. What follows is a very sketchy attempt to answer that question.

Slotkin lays out his methodology most extensively in his middle volume, The Fatal Environment, but because it was what I was reading today and is more compact, I’m going to work from Gunfighter Nation. He writes, “The object of Gunfighter Nation is to trace the development of the system of mythic and ideological formulations that constitute the Myth of the Frontier, to offer a critical interpretation of its meanings, and to assess its power in shaping the life, thought, and politics of the nation” (4). When I read that today, some inner alarm resounded alerting me to the necessity of adding a few plurals in there: surely we ought to think in terms of systems and Myths, perhaps lives and thoughts, and must we really capitalize these nouns? But let us continue to what I consider the really key passage:

Over time, through frequent retellings and deployments as a source of interpretive metaphors, the original mythic story is increasingly conventionalized and abstracted until it is reduced to a deeply encoded and resonant set of symbols, “icons,” “keywords,” or historical clichés. In this form, myth becomes a basic constituent of linguistic meaning and of the processes of both personal and social “remembering.” Each of these mythic icons is in effect a poetic construction of tremendous economy and compression and a mnemonic device capable of evoking a complex system of historical associations by a single image or phase [sic?—phrase?]. For an American, allusions to “the Frontier,” or to events like “Pearl Harbor,” “The Alamo,” or “Custer’s Last Stand” evoke an implicit understanding of the entire historical scenario that belongs to the event and of the complex interpretive tradition that has developed around it. (5-6, emphases added)

How many of us today would feel confident in asserting that “an American,” upon hearing “The Alamo,” could muster “an implicit understanding of the entire historical scenario,” much less the “complex interpretive tradition” attached to it? Is that not an extraordinary faith in that person’s fluency in the language of “Americanness?” Certainly, Slotkin does not mean that the average person one finds in the United States can give you an accurate and detailed account of the events of The Alamo—but what, then, does he mean?

The best way I think I can explain it is by using a clumsy metaphor, but one with which I think we all have some experience: the .ZIP file. A national myth—the frontier preeminently—resides somewhere in our half-conscious awareness like a .ZIP file, a highly compressed but lossless format that allows for a full and perfect recreation of the original file after it has been stored in a much smaller version. Key phrases or images—“Custer” or “Davy Crockett”—act as commands to “unzip” the file, giving the user access to all of its contents, permitting its programs to run fully and completely. (We might, if we were being coy, think of the Proustian madeleine as the first .ZIP file.)

But what is the force or effect of this procedure? Let me switch back to the metaphor of fluency: what this “unzipping” means is that none of us have any option but to be native speakers of this language of the frontier myth. For we might inadvertently corrupt or possibly even more deliberately modify these .ZIP files of national mythology, but they are largely mass produced and standardized. We all have very similar linguistic competencies, and we all enter the conversation at the same point; we all unzip the same way.

These metaphors are hopelessly mixed now, but I hope the strangeness of Slotkin’s approach—this confidence in the uniform fluency of Americans in the frontier language—comes through: strangeness in the sense of difference from our present, not in the sense of oddity. Today, I think, our working concept of cultural consciousness is not the Myth but the meme—some of which we “get,” some of which we do not, some of which we misrecognize, some of which we understand partially. This state of affairs is not just the product of fracture—of each of us speaking an idiolect or perhaps a dialect within our little subcultures—but also of constant mutation, some of which is directed, but some of which is not. But there is very little confidence when we encounter a meme that we know that we know the whole meaning, that we have “an implicit understanding of the entire historical scenario” that led up to the .GIF or Facebook post or Vine or whatever that we’re looking at. We are constantly speaking a second language; no one is a native speaker of our lingua franca. I leave it up to you whether that is exhilarating or estranging! But the confidence that we carry “our” myths around, compressed and spring-loaded for the right icon or phrase—that, I think, is an experience we have very seldom.

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  1. This was a fascinating post, thanks so much for it. You raise some important questions that also play into the idea of American “memory.”

    The citizens of the United States have had different conceptions of these myths and legends–and as you point out, they always have. Perhaps, in some small way, this plays into what you mention early on in your essay, that modern historians aren’t really expected to write multi-volume histories. Our jobs, indeed in many ways our role, in American society has changed so much over the last 100 years. Your essay points to some of the larger aspects of those changes.

  2. Myth vs meme: an evocative set of contrasts! I don’t know Slotkin’s work, but noticed through a google search that at one point in “Gunfighter Nation,” 665n.12, he suggests that post-structuralist approaches help to “expose the rhetorical conventions and mythic structures” of modern “ideologies” with their “materialist or idealist determinisms” — which I’ll take as suggesting that the tone and object of assurance here are associated more with structuralism [with the background of the myth and symbol school in anthropology and American Studies] than with the post, where the assurance is more critical.

    Perhaps memetic analysis is more akin to post-structuralism in its emphasis on flow, mutation and dispersion; but goes beyond it in creating or exploiting a space of ambiguity [trans-/post-disciplinarity?!] where the natural is metaphorized and metaphor naturalized, where the “’linguistic determinism’” of post, as Slotkin criticizes it, might point toward a new ontology.

    Also, as you point out, in the passage quoted there’s an implicit assumption that every heart vibrates to the iron string of monolithic cultural meaning, that cultural and individual memory are in macro/micro correspondence. So there are two themes, condensed into one: the holistic nature of myth/culture, and the one-to-one link of culture and individual personality/memory. Perhaps too, his apparent comfort with the idea of individual knowing suggests a psychoanalytic legacy of unconscious knowing, somewhat at odds with your criterion of being able to provide “accurate and detailed account[s].”

    • Bill,
      You’re absolutely right–I just wrote those sentences about post-structuralism clumsily. The first dozen or so footnotes of Gunfighter Nation make the connection to structuralism quite clear, although I would say that Slotkin’s dexterity with structuralist ideas is most similar to Geertz in the way that he is able to find much more play and flexibility within the structure of myth than is often the case with structuralism.

      Slotkin also briefly addresses a more psychoanalytic–or really, a Jungian or possibly a Campbellian–approach, distinguishing his method from archetypal criticism on page 8.

      I think you’d really enjoy these books, Bill, and I’m not just saying that because Slotkin commented downthread!

      • Andy – Thanks for the response.

        I ordered a copy of “Gunfighter Nation” after reading your post — and my motives were similarly disinterested!!

  3. Great post Andy!
    I love Slotkin’s work but I think you are right about the almost modernist–structuralist sense of confidence. This is more true of course for his theoretical work in the first book in the trilogy–Regeneration Through Violence and less so for The Fatal Environment (I did not read Gunfighter Nation).
    I like to think of myth making as a more creative and fungible process, both in the past and today. In my dissertation I conceptualize it as an ongoing creative process that involves daily interpretations and applications in which people put together segments and fragments of meaning laden narratives into ever changing constructions that constitute variations on well hashed mythologies. These ready-made bits of myth swirl around us and we latch on to which ever we need or makes sense at a give moment given our particular set of challenges.
    I do however agree that popular culture is a crucial component here and that this process has become ever more convoluted in the age of the internet. There is way more stuff swirling around us these days!

    • Eran,
      Your middle paragraph is a beautiful explanation of what I was trying to gesture at regarding memes. We latch onto things much more randomly because of the proliferation of “content.” I mean, what percentage of kids grew up watching “Gunsmoke” during its run? Certainly a much, much higher percentage than any show currently on television.

  4. Thanks for your response to my work. You’ve targetted a critical question about both the theory of myth and the state of the culture, and raised central questions about how to understand the changes that have occurred in both the content of American myth-ideologies and the forms in which cultural information of that kind is transmitted. You’re right to question whether the level of understanding of specific tropes (Alamo, Custer) is the same now as it was when I published GUNFIGHTER NATION in 1992 — although I think a survey would show that many of these are still recognizable if not quite as central to popular film/tv as they once were. Custer certainly has gotten more than his share of books lately.
    I’d pose two general problems for further study in this area. How does the shift from myth (formal tropes based on large narrative structures) to meme affect the way in which we remember “history,” and use historical precedents to interpret current crises? Are memes the discrete fragments of an exploded mythology, or mnemonics that still recall larger structures?
    The second has to do with content. Whatever may have become of the western-movie version of the frontier myth, its central ideological premises still (I would argue) inform politics and culture. American still think “growth” is the supreme economic good, and that growth is based — not on the exploitation of labor — but on the discovery of cheap and abundant natural resources, or of super-potent new technologies (what I call “bonanza economics”).
    Americans still conceive enemies in terms derived from the frontier myth — as savage “Indians” — and regard “savage wars” as inherently just and vital to preserving civilization. So even for Obama, Afghanistan was a war of necessity, while Iraq was a war of choice. If the old forms of the myth have lost currency, what forms carry these persistent values?
    I’d direct attention to another myth, referred to in GUNFIGHTER, but really worth study on its own: the “Platoon Movie” myth, derived from WW2, in which America achieves multi-racial/ethnic democracy through violent conflict with enemies who are either “savages” or Nazis — or both. Although war films are the core of this myth, it is also absolutely central to both science fiction (Star Trek, Star Wars) and sword-sorcery epics. Perhaps these serve the culture in ways analogous to westerns in my formative years.

    • Professor Slotkin,
      Thank you so much for your response, and my apologies for taking a few days to answer!

      You’re absolutely right that most of the landmarks of culture–Custer, the Alamo–are still recognizable, and the interest is still there… abundantly.

      Thank you for these two questions for further thought about myths and memes, and the continued presence of the major mythical structures you’ve described in your books.

      My own response to the first question would be that memes are sometimes “discrete fragments of an exploded mythology,” but they are also emergent fragments of new narratives that either have yet to congeal as myths or perhaps never will. I would offer the explosion of superhero films over the past fifteen or so years as an example, though there is likely to be some disagreement about that. But although most follow a similar narrative structure, their comic book source material is so chaotic and often self-contradictory that it is difficult, I think, for them to seem to be part of a single, larger structure. Hence the endless “reboots” and “spinoffs” of various “franchises”–a process that suggests not repetition but mutation as the key cultural logic at work. So these narratives are never repeated enough to form myths; they’re smashed up and reassembled, with new elements and new omissions.

      Regarding your second question, I recently saw “American Sniper” and was shocked at how often Chris Kyle refers to Iraqis as ‘savages.’ Perhaps my surprise was due to naivete, but I was not expecting how forthrightly this language was used in the film.

      The film also would make a very good example of your “Platoon Movie” myth, despite the focus on a type of soldier known for his solitariness. But the film really seems much more interested in Kyle’s desire to join footsoldiers on their raids than his role as a sniper–another aspect of the film which was surprising to me, although your notion of the “Platoon Movie” myth explains it very well.

      • Just got back to the site after many distractions. About American Sniper — it is, after all, a Clint Eastwood film, and Eastwood comes from the Age of Westerns, so the language is not surprising. What’s worth noting is the positive response to the film, which suggests that even for audiences not raised on Westerns, the concept still resonates. I’d put that down to developments in post 1970s sci-fi and war films.
        Your idea that memes may be either (or both) a mythology in fragments or a new mythos forming is a terrific way to begin thinking about the problem of how symbolic and image-based thinking really operates in this culture now. I hope you’ll pursue it. On superheroes: there is something in the prevalence of this story-form, despite the seeming chaos of origin stories, premises, versions of Batman/Superman et al. Repetition means we’re thinking in terms of this story form; there must be an underlying pattern in the way the stories identify enemies, project scenarios of progress or apocalypse, etc. I just don’t have the patience to watch them!

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