Enculturation

A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Localized Myth: Creating and Maintaining Persuasive Power

Jacob Rawlins, Brigham Young University

(Published September 27, 2017)

Every company has a story that explains its origins and defines its expectations for its workers and leaders. These stories allow business managers and leaders to influence, guide, and even control employees' decisions and behaviors. Successful business leaders draw many of their persuasive characteristics (particularly their ability to influence employees, customers, and even rivals) from the long tradition of public rhetoric associated with government leaders and politicians. By employing the discursive strategies of public-sphere rhetors, managers and leaders create unity, build support, and manage dissent both inside and outside of their organizations.

“Rhetorical myth” is one of the discursive tools used by managers to build consensus during times of transition or difficult change. Rhetorical myth has been widely researched on a societal, national, or religious organizational level (Lévi-Strauss; Althusser; Moore; Sumsion); however, less research has been done on how managers and leaders use rhetorical myth on a localized scale such as in a company, an office, or even a small department let alone how it influences employees. As I defined it in "Mythologizing Change” (2014), localized or workplace rhetorical myth is a persuasive discourse built around stories that use elements of myth (such as origin stories and visions of the future) to influence employee beliefs and behaviors. These stories build a unified vision of the past, present, and future to help employees view themselves as key characters in the mythic context, thereby causing them to act in certain ways. My earlier article focuses on localized, rhetorical myth as strategic discourse designed to bring about change in a workplace; in this article, I place localized myth in the context of power to show how managers build and maintain power structures by rhetorically creating myths that define and limit employee thoughts and actions. 

In the first section of the article, I discuss the theoretical foundations of the power of rhetorical myth. In the second section, I expand on the three primary elements of localized rhetorical myth: chronographia (a created history), epideictic prediction (a clear vision of actions in the past and present along with a shared vision of the future), and communal markers (a shared understanding of community boundaries). Ultimately, I show through examples from a three-year ethnographic study of a single organization how myth and power interact in a localized workplace setting to define the beliefs of the employees and to influence their decisions and actions during the process of a complex technological change. 

Study Overview 

In late 2009, Iowa State University’s Printing Services began a project to investigate and ultimately purchase a new print management system (PMS). The PMS is a customized and complex piece of software used to manage all of the interactions among employees, customers, and departments within Printing Services. In 2010, Printing Services’ management team formed a purchasing committee comprising twelve employees from the different areas of the office (management, customer service, copy centers, and operators) to discuss needs, evaluate options, and eventually propose the purchase of a new PMS. The committee met at least once a week between March 2010 and March 2011, when the new system was finally purchased. In March 2011, a new five-person committee was created to coordinate the installation, customization, and setup of the new PMS, which included proposing fundamental organizational changes to Printing Services. This committee met two or three times each week for about three hours at a time.

For my IRB-approved study, I began observing the operations at Printing Services in November 2009. From 2009 to 2012, I attended most of the purchasing and implementation committee meetings, made audio recordings and ethnographic field notes, conducted formal interviews, and participated in informal discussions. I also collected written materials, including draft proposals and purchasing documents, formal and informal emails, memos, meeting agendas and minutes, and other related written documents. My initial interest in the ethnographic project at Printing Services was to document the methods of persuasion used by management to build consensus for technological changes. As my study progressed, this broad goal was refined into looking at how the management built and maintained a workplace myth that functioned rhetorically to bind the employees together with a common identity, which in turn facilitated consensus for the technological transition. Eventually, the rhetorical strategies associated with creating and maintaining the myth solidified into the three elements of localized, rhetorical myth I discuss in this paper. Although the entire study was reported in more detail in “Mythologizing Change” (2014), this article will place the elements of rhetorical myth, along with examples from my workplace study, into conversation with theoretical discussions of power. My study shows that myth is a powerful rhetorical tool for managers to unify diverse interests, to provide meaning for proposed changes to the organization, and to influence (and limit) employee beliefs and actions connected to the organization.

Rhetorical Myth as Power

The word “myth,” as widely used, frequently has a negative connotation of misconceptions or falsehoods. In most popular usage, “myth” is a pejorative term equated with fairy tales, misunderstandings, or outright lies. This negative view often carries over into academic language, whether myth is used for literary myths (Graff), large-scale public discourse, or deliberate falsehoods. As a rhetorical device, however, myth can communicate much more than either narrative or storytelling. A rhetorical myth creates a unified vision of past, present, and future by combining characters and themes to create “philosophical truth” (Moore 296) that carries with it power to define communities, provide guiding principles, and affect behavior. Throughout history, political and religious leaders have grounded expressions of power relationships, such as laws, commandments, and concepts of moral thought and behavior, in rhetorical myths. These myths, whether accepted by the people as historical fact or philosophical truth, provide leaders with power to influence, teach, guide, govern, oppress, and even kill—all justified and empowered by rhetorical myth. 

In the twentieth century, several scholars in literary studies and mythic criticism have explored myth within the context of power. According to anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the inherent power in myths provides an opportunity for leaders and society to teach morality and govern action. In comparing myths to music, Lévi-Strauss argues that both have “extraordinary power to act simultaneously on the mind and the senses, stimulating both ideas and emotions and blending them in a common flow” (28). Myth uses this power (or its power is used by others) to “bring man face to face . . . with conscious approximations . . . of inevitably unconscious truths” (17–18). Lévi-Strauss thus argues that myth is a powerful tool to connect individuals and communities with already existing truths that in turn promote common identity and govern thought and behavior.

For philosopher Louis Althusser, the power of myth is more sinister. He argues that myth is a tool of oppression used not to teach morality and correct actions but to manipulate and control individuals by creating dominating ideologies. He writes about this oppressive use of myth by those who wield power: “They ‘forged’ the Beautiful Lies so that, in the belief that they were obeying God, men would in fact obey the Priests and Despots” (141). Such a view of myth as a negative or oppressive power is echoed by political scientist Robert Dahl, who theorizes that power is oppressive because it is based on the ability “to control the will or decision-making capacity of another person or group” (qtd. in Jasinski 443). With the narratives and messages contained in myth, a leader has power to deceive, oppress, or otherwise create negative change in a society or community through public oratory, published writings, and visual and ceremonial trappings of religion or politics. 

In localized myths that function in workplaces and other limited communities, myth functions in a less observable form with the invisible power proposed by political scientists Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz. In their view, power is invisibly oppressive through controlling which decisions individuals can make by “limit[ing] the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous” (948). In these smaller communities, myths may not be built or maintained in public discourse, but they do still exercise control over thoughts and actions. To offer a personal example, my first job was at a local fast food restaurant. During my training, I was drilled in certain words and phrases that governed how I viewed the restaurant and its customers. We served “guests,” not “customers”; we used “cleaning cloths,” not “rags”; and saying “that’s not my job” would result in immediate termination. By defining acceptable language (along with my other training), my trainers also created an orthodoxic and orthopraxic view of my employment based in a subtle workplace myth. The language we were instructed to use was explicitly tied to the company’s history as a family-owned business: employees were part of the family, and the ultimate priorities were relationships with guests and the quality of both the food and the restaurant experience. By specifying that termination was the consequence of incorrect speech, my trainers deliberately helped me connect orthodoxies/-praxes with being part of the restaurant’s family, while unorthodoxies/-praxes placed me outside of the community. In essence, the myth they created limited my actions by limiting my abilities to consider options and make decisions.

Whether myths are positive and instructive or oppressive and limiting depends in large part on their use by the creators or perpetuators of the myths and the acceptance of or resistance to those myths by individuals in the community. In this sense, myth as a source or instrument of power may function more in line with the neutral view of power proposed by Michel Foucault, who wrote that power “needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression” (Power/Knowledge 119). If myth is inherently powerful, as both Lévi-Strauss and Althusser agree, it can function as a neutral force that permeates all relationships and power networks and can be used to build consensus or to enforce and oppress. 

As individuals, we are subject to intertwining networks of power—different structures that each have the ability to control or influence our actions. Myths are part of those systems of power. As Brenton Faber argues in his work on organizational change, “narratives are contextual products that both construct an interpretation of an organization and situate social actors within that construct” (31). Within each individual’s power networks, there are a variety of intersecting, overlapping, and even conflicting myths—religious, societal, political, scientific, communal, and organizational—that situate that individual and affect or govern thoughts and actions. To function within a specific community, individuals must navigate through their different myths (which includes all myths accepted by the individuals, even if they are conflicting) and make decisions regarding which actions and thoughts are appropriate for a given situation. For example, a physician may have three different myths that govern her end-of-life decisions: a religious myth that states God decides who lives and dies; a professional myth that states doctors must ease suffering and respect the wishes of the patient; and a political myth that regulates the legal and social implications of removing life support. In this example, none of the myths is exclusively oppressive or productive, but they each represent power to influence the physician’s actions. The degree to which a person accepts each myth and acts upon it attributes more or less power to that myth. 

In both public and private rhetorical situations, rhetors can base arguments for influencing thought or behavior on existing myths or can use shared knowledge and values to create new myths. Whether either of these rhetorical strategies proves effective depends on how much the audience has internalized existing myths or how well the audience accepts new myths. In other words, the power of a myth depends on the interaction between rhetor and audience, prophetic figure and congregation. Hannah Arendt argues that “[p]ower is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (143). To Foucault, this group interaction is the essence of how power is created and extended through “the accumulation, circulation, and functioning of a discourse” (Power/Knowledge 93). Because of the persuasive discourse from the rhetor and the reifying discourse from the audience, the myth becomes accepted “truth,” which then has power to affect both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Or, as Foucault wrote, “‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it” (“Subject and Power” 133).

As audiences accept and act on a myth, the myth gains power to affect additional actions or wider audiences. When audiences reject the myth or refuse to act on it, the power dissipates. Foucault argued that power introduces structure. As Faber explains, “without power, there are no guidelines or devices to aid in the structuring of everyday life—without power there is only randomness. However, as power structures randomness, it also limits and constrains, dictating ahead of time what is appropriate, correct, or best” (114). In large communities, the structures imposed by the power and acceptance of rhetorical myth can be observed through public discourse in all its forms. In the next section, I will discuss how power structures are created and reified in localized communities, especially workplaces, through similar applications of rhetorical myth.

Workplace and Myth

By studying the discourse of a community, we can piece together the elements of communal myths and the power structures that both create the myths and are created by the myths. By studying the discourse of a localized community, we can see the power and effects of a rhetorical myth limited by time and space. In essence, a workplace can be a microcosm of a society, with many of the mythic structures and power dynamics evident in larger communities.

In emulating world leaders’ use of more generalized myths, corporate leaders often employ localized myth-making in the workplace to build consensus among their employees. They use specific narratives to link their companies to organizational or occupational histories, create goals for the future, and define actions for the present that are consistent with the histories and goals. Faber wrote that “narrative acts as an instrument of power within organizations as predominant narratives structure how people view their organizational environment” (31). To the extent that these narratives are accepted and internalized by employees, the narratives gain rhetorical power that defines and limits employee beliefs, actions, decisions, and behavior. 

By using specific language, leaders create an organization’s history, its future, its boundaries, and, most of all, its identity. Organizational communication scholars David Boje, Cliff Oswick, and Jeffrey D. Ford argued that “we can consider organizations as material practices of text and talk set in currents of political economy and sociohistory—in time and space. From this point of view, what an organization is and everything that happens in and to it can be seen as a phenomenon in and of language” (571). The language used in these rhetorical myths can be very formal and governed from the top-down, like the manufactured, official history of the Disney Corporation (Boje, “Stories”). Or, the language could be less formal and spread through the organization by employees as they talk and work in day-to-day situations. In fact, Boje argues that “the performance of stories is a key part of members’ sense making and a means to allow them to supplement individual memories with institutional memory” (“Storytelling” 106). By telling and retelling stories, employees take part in creating the history of the organization, changing their own perceptions of reality as they internalize the myth.

The use of rhetorical myth is often the most evident—and is most important—when an organization is going through change. Change, whether organizational or technological, alters the view of the world shared by employees, managers, and clients, and, by extension, alters the power structures of the workplace. As noted by several management scholars, these changes are often initiated by the leadership of the organization. Dennis A. Gioia and Kumar Chittipeddi write, “The initiation of strategic change can be viewed as a process whereby the CEO makes sense of an altered vision of the organization and engages in cycles of negotiated social construction activities to influence stakeholders and constituents to accept that vision” (434). Peer C. Fiss and Edward J. Zajac argue that managers have the power to effect change by aligning proposed changes within the organization’s existing frameworks of understanding. As the change is being made, managers and supervisors typically take the lead in both creating and selling the change to employees, supervisors, and even customers. The managers are able to do this because of their own frameworks, their own experiences within the organization, and their own persuasive and positional power. As Linda Rouleau argues, “[M]anagers draw on their tacit knowledge to make sense of the change and share it with others” (1415). Throughout the change process, managers work to connect proposed changes with existing organizational rhetorical myths and to communicate those connections to the people around them. Managers do this to maintain support and explain what the organization is doing and, more importantly, why the organization is doing it. As Gioia and Chittipeddi argue, “Organization members, including the CEO, need to understand any intended change in a way that ‘makes sense’ or fits into some revised interpretive scheme or system of meaning” (434). 

In localized settings particularly, rhetorical myth provides the framework for managers and leaders to exercise power to build consensus and influence employee beliefs and behaviors. But this power is dependent on the structure of the rhetorical myth and how it connects the organization’s past and future with required actions in the present. In the following section, I examine the three elements of rhetorical myths in relation to the power structures of Printing Services to show how managers attempting to lead a change effort used a localized myth to build communal identity and guide the thoughts, actions, and choices of the employees.

Elements of Rhetorical Myths

For rhetorical myths to be powerful, they need to create a new worldview for the adherents. This worldview must include a shared vision of past, present, and future events that effectively connect individuals and their actions to the vision of success promoted by the myth. In my study of Printing Services, I observed three unique elements that worked together to create a powerful rhetorical myth: (1) chronographia, (2) epideictic prediction, and (3) communal markers. While these elements were observed in my local study, I believe the same elements can be identified in other localized contexts, as well as in religious and societal, rhetorical myths. The definition of each element, as presented in table 1, indicates how these three elements create a powerful structure for the rhetorical myth by defining the communal identity and placing the community and individuals within a shared history.

Table 1: Three Essential Elements of Rhetorical Myths

Element Definition
Chronographia An interpretation of history that creates an invented reality. It gives order and meaning to events within the worldview of the rhetorical myth.
Epideictic Prediction Defines an action for the present by assigning praise and blame to the past and by predicting how those will affect the future.
Communal Markers Creates a unified community by using concepts of Burkean identification and rhetorically-defined boundary objects.

Chronographia

The word “chronographia” means to write or create time, and the term is often used to denote an invented or false reality. In rhetorical studies, chronographia is a rhetorical figure that vividly describes an “illusion of reality” (Burton). When applied to rhetorical myth, chronographia describes one of myth’s most important features: it creates reality, including narratives, characters, and events, to give meaning to and impose structure in a chaotic world. Chronographia provides the myth with a specific illusion of reality designed to introduce order to random events by showing how past, present, and future are connected through people and their thoughts and actions.

In his influential text on the place of myth in philosophy, Stephen Daniel argues, “Nothing other than chaos exists prior to the world that the myth reveals, and what the myth reveals is the ability of discourse to order experience and expression in such a way as to make possible a world to be known” (4). We see this definition used especially in reference to classical myths: the religious and foundational stories that have guided civilizations throughout history by making their pasts meaningful and their futures glorious. Thus, the facts of the narrative become less important than the goals of the myth. In his essay about the political myths of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Mark P. Moore argues, “Myth, therefore, conveys moral and philosophical truth, not historical fact. While speaking metaphorically, myth also alters time and space” (296). To convey “philosophical truth,” myths must form their own reality—a place where time, space, individuals, logic, and causality work together to advance the truths of the myth. Myths don’t simply shape relationships; they create the individuals, places, and objects that act in the relationships—and then define and give purpose to the interactions. 

In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, the Greek war hero Ulysses travels for ten years on his way home from the Trojan War, meeting fantastical creatures and performing impossible tasks along the way. This ancient myth uses metaphor extensively to create a new world—one where Cyclopes roam and men can be turned to swine. But it does not stop with creating an alternate version of the world. The Odyssey also creates (or re-creates to fit its version of reality) all of the characters in the world and defines how they interact. There is some ancient evidence to support the events of the Trojan War and the possible existence of a person named Ulysses, but their resemblance to the myth created in the Odyssey is tenuous at best. 

Modern myths, particularly in workplaces, perform a similar function in creating a different world. In my first interview with one of the managers of Printing Services, he began by explicitly connecting his goals for a new PMS with the history of technological advances in the printing world. In his eyes, he was not simply running a printing company; he and his employees were the heirs—and guardians—of the legacy of Johannes Gutenberg. (This connection with Gutenberg is a particularly strong myth in the publishing industry. My research has found a strong affinity for the history of printing throughout the publishing industry; it shows up in a belief that they are part of a noble tradition with a strong sense of occupational identity, a specific training, and a unique jargon that all date back to Gutenberg.) Therefore, the inefficient processes and outdated software represented by the old print management system threatened not only the efficiency of the printing organization but also the continuance of a professional identity and mission. In our interview, this manager discussed his training in printing from decades before when he used tools and processes that were hundreds of years old.  However, he also talked about his role in introducing computers and digital printing into Printing Services and contextualized his proposal to purchase a new PMS as a continuation of that technological progress. Like the Odyssey, some of the ties to historical evidence were tenuous, but the purpose of the accepted rhetorical myth at Printing Services was not to recount history; the purpose of the myth was to function rhetorically to build and maintain consensus in the organization, particularly during a monumental technological change.

Chronographia, therefore, functions rhetorically to do more than create a compelling narrative. Chronographia adds persuasive power to the story to influence the actions and beliefs of its audience. A conventional narrative draws connections between past, present, and future events and people to create a coherent story with a logical and interesting progression (see Fig. 1, Part A). In a myth, on the other hand (see Fig. 1, Part B), the author employs chronographia to reorder, rearrange, and emphasize certain events or data points to draw a direct, linear connection between the events of the past, the actions of the present, and a goal for the future. This chronographic manipulation creates a powerful and compelling mythic story that connects a shared history to present actions and with goals for the future.

Conventional narratives (Part A) draw connections between events and people (represented as dots in this figure) to tell a coherent story. Rhetorical myths, on the other hand, employ chronographia (Part B) to reorder, rearrange, emphasize, or even create events to draw a direct, linear connection between past, present, and future.

Fig. 1.

Conventional narratives (Part A) draw connections between events and people (represented as dots in this figure) to tell a coherent story. Rhetorical myths, on the other hand, employ chronographia (Part B) to reorder, rearrange, emphasize, or even create events to draw a direct, linear connection between past, present, and future.

This focus on the present and the future differentiates myth further from other kinds of narrative. The purpose of myth is not to recount an accurate or factual history; rather, the purpose of myth is to affect the future by influencing actions in the present. Through chronographia, the authors and purveyors of myths can arrange and manipulate history rhetorically because in a myth it doesn’t matter whether the events and chronology are “true.” The goal of myth isn’t to communicate or establish what we would consider literal “truth.” Rather, the goal of myth is to prompt action in its believers by “convey[ing] moral and philosophical truth” (Moore 296), and historical accuracy is important only insofar as it contributes to that goal. The historical creation that happens as myth-creators use chronographia lays the foundation for the rhetorical interpretation of the present and prediction of the future.

Epideictic Prediction

In Aristotelian theory, epideictic rhetoric is ceremonial oratory focused on gaining favor with the audience by building on existing conceptions of heroes and villains. In On Rhetoric, Aristotle writes that in epideixis “the present is the most important; for all speakers praise or blame in regard to existing qualities, but they often make use of other things, both reminding [the audience] of the past and projecting the course of the future” (Rhet. 1358b). Epideictic rhetoric is focused on the present, calling for action by assigning blame or praise to the past and guiding the audience toward the future. By looking at rhetorical myths, we can expand the term epideictic to include the word prediction. By creating, maintaining, and re-creating rhetorical myths, speakers constantly remind their audiences of the successes of the past and contrast those successes with the failures. The successes become intertwined with the communal identity while the failures challenge that identity. Using praise and blame of the past, speakers propose actions the audience can take in the present to restore or surpass past successes in the future. In localized rhetorical myths, managers or other leaders use their discourse to create a future-oriented epideictic rhetoric that ties present actions (along with praise and blame) to a promised future.

In localized myths, epideictic prediction focuses on urgent action in the present, and it is often accompanied by specific predictions for the future—usually two starkly different futures. For the employees at Printing Services, the two choices were clear. They could act immediately to find and purchase a new PMS despite the financial and operational obstacles, and thereby restore their efficiency and continue to provide value to the university community. Alternatively, they could continue to use the old, failing PMS and wait until the university determined the department no longer adds value. For the employees at Printing Services, there was ample evidence for the second view of the future. The other two public universities in Iowa (all controlled by the same Board of Regents) had seen their printing services reduced or shut down entirely because of operational inefficiencies. Therefore, the bleak vision of the future seemed the more realistic possibility. The management of Printing Services had a plan to achieve the better version of the future even though it involved work, sacrifice, and money in the present. The power of the rhetorical myth lies, in part, in its ability to tie an invented past and a promised future together with urgent action in the present.

Historically, humans have created myths to explain foundational events (such as the creation of the world or the origins of Rome) and address overarching themes (such as the relationship between mortals and divine beings or codes of interaction and morality). These myths are more than fantasies. Literary scholars René Wellek and Austin Warren write that myths are “the explanations a society offers its young of why the world is and why we do as we do” (191). In this sense, a myth is an extended narrative that ties a mythical past to an interpretation of the present and looks forward to an idealized future. Myths define origins—of the universe, a civilization, or a philosophy—and offer hope for the future: redemption, Heaven, Utopia, or, as in the case of the mythic Ulysses, simply arriving at a longed-for destination. These two ends of the mythic timeline are tied together in the present, where the speaker invites the audience to act in a way that will help them progress toward their collective destiny. To this end, narrative myths have heroes, villains, and storylines that represent and illustrate life’s Big Questions: How did we get here? What should we be doing? Where are we going? What are the appropriate ways to solve problems? Myths answer these questions in ways consistent with their internal goals.

It is because of their extended timeline and specific goals that myths go beyond simple storytelling or narrative. Myths are created with a purpose—to call the audience to some action. However, myths do not propagate themselves. Myths need a speaker (or speakers) and an audience willing to believe. In traditional myths, this speaker is often a prophet or seer of some kind—someone who has communed with a power beyond human understanding to gain insight into both the past and the future. The prophetic figure is vital to the creation and maintenance of the myth. 

In modern rhetorical myths, such as those created in workplaces, the past, present, and future are limited by time, space, events, and the practical limitations of the community. However, the myths still employ the same rhetorical features. At Printing Services, Rob, the associate director, took on the role of the prophetic figure for the project to purchase and implement the new PMS. He was the primary driver of the project; but more importantly, he articulated the need for the project in meetings and informal conversations. The need was based on two important points: (1) the old system was failing, and (2) the new system would restore (and improve) operational efficiency. To emphasize the first point, Rob rarely had to discuss the problems of the old system in detail because the PMS was the central technology, and every employee had multiple points of contact with it every day. Nonetheless, he did bring up the system’s problems through jokes and asides, often when there were points of disagreement or conflict. Placing blame by referring to the old system’s “Slow Print Module” and “Fatal Error Module” helped Rob refocus meetings on present action rather than conflict.

To emphasize the second point, Rob took on a much more prophetic role. For the first several months after the Purchasing Committee first met, the members had not viewed other PMS solutions nor had they talked with the companies that produce the software. Instead, the committee spent time creating an ideal package to judge their options against. Rob’s vision for the new PMS was vital to these discussions. He emphasized how a new system would improve efficiency not only by correcting the failures of the old system but also by introducing new features and innovations. Rob’s articulations—including the blame  he placed on the old system, his praise for the new system, and his request for urgent action in the present—spread throughout the community as their primary myth. During my interviews with employees, even those who had not attended any of the meetings echoed Rob’s reasons for the change to the new system. The rhetorical myth Rob built through his discourse shaped the discourse of the entire department, and it influenced both attitudes and actions in the present to point toward a specific future.

Communal Markers

Rhetorical myths provide answers to questions about the past, present, and future; but they also give the members of a community organizational and individual identities. James Jasinski argues that “[m]yths function as reference points or cognitive coordinates for the members of a culture or community” (383). Rhetorical myths create boundaries for communal and individual identities. The myths define membership, behavior, and acceptance within a community. The myths provide ways to differentiate between “us” and “them” or between “insiders” and “outsiders.” Through the complex narratives of past, present, and future contained in rhetorical myths, individuals and communities define their relationships with their entire history, other individuals and communities, and ultimately the universe. The myths people in a community accept and the “philosophical truths” those myths contain set up the communal markers that determine membership and activity within the community.

Two essential theories support the concept of communal markers in myths: (1) Burkean identification, and (2) boundary objects as defined by the sociologist Susan Leigh Star and expanded into the realm of rhetoric by Gregory D. Wilson and Carl Herndl. Kenneth Burke theorized that we identify with others when our “interests are joined” or when we are “persuaded to believe” that they are joined (22). Because no two individuals are ever perfectly aligned, most identification comes through persuasion or, as Diane Davis argues in her discussion of Burke and Sigmund Freud, “conscious critique and reasoned adjustment” (123). George Cheney added that we “express our uniqueness (our individuality) principally by aligning ourselves with other individuals, collectivities or social categories” (13). This identification with other individuals or communities “grant[s] us personal meaning” and “place[s] us in the matrix of the social order” (Cheney 16–17). As an integral part of identification, we divide ourselves from others whose interests are not aligned with ours. Cheney wrote, “[S]imilarity and difference mutually implicate one another, exist in an ongoing dialectical tension, and provide the formative context for what we call our ‘identity’” (13). In other words, we determine our own identity by how we perceive our relationships with others—both those who are similar to us and those who are different.

Rhetorical myths provide tools to define and limit our identification. The mythic history, whether it is of the creation of the world or simply the origins of a company or department, provides a communal marker: a reference point that separates people within the mythic community from people on the outside. To return to the example of Printing Services, the unifying myth recounts the chronographic history of the printing/publishing industry—an industry that traces its history from Gutenberg through the independent presses of the Reformation and the American Revolution, to the literary and newspaper presses of the nineteenth century, to the publishing giants of the twentieth century, and finally to the modern, technologically advanced publishers of the twenty-first century. This myth involves traditions, rituals, and language unique to people within the community that are maintained not necessarily because they are practical for everyday work but because they provide tools for identification and division. 

The Burkean approach to identification in communal markers can be enhanced by giving attention to the boundary work that happens around those communal markers. Star originally defined boundary objects as objects (and they can be any sort of object) that create “a sort of arrangement that allow different groups to work together without consensus” (602). According to Star, boundaries are not necessarily hard edges. Rather, a boundary is “a shared space, where exactly that sense of here and there are confounded. These common objects form the boundaries between groups through flexibility and shared structure—they are the stuff of action” (602–3). For Star, boundary objects represent an opportunity for action in a space where different groups can both operate even if they have fundamental differences. 

According to Wilson and Herndl, “[b]oundaries are lines of demarcation and differentiation. They are also shared social, organizational, and discursive spaces. Rhetorical boundary work as it is typically understood is a rhetorical struggle to differentiate groups, to contest the legitimacy of the other” (131–32). In some ways, boundary work seems closely aligned with Burkean division: we set up criteria for determining who and what can be included in our community and who and what should be excluded. Like Star, however, Wilson and Herndl also argue that the boundary work that goes on in modern disciplines is much more complicated. Rather than simply being driven by a “demarcation exigence” (132), where other communities are excluded, boundary work also involves “integrative exigence” where members of different communities find common ground around the communal markers to work toward shared goals. In this way, “boundary work can sometimes become a struggle for understanding and integration rather than a contest, controversy, and demarcation event” (132). This boundary work is especially important in modern workplaces, where different departments with different histories and goals overlap on projects. For example, in my study at Printing Services, the upgrade to the new PMS includes at least five groups:

  1. Employees of the main printing plant, who share an organizational identity deeply rooted in the history of printing and publishing.
  2. Employees of the satellite copy centers, who, though part of the structure of Printing Services, have a unique culture and distinct organizational identity.
  3. Employees from other university departments, including IT Services and Purchasing.
  4. University administration, who represent the larger community.
  5. Clients from outside the university, who use Printing Services to print or copy documents, signs, and other materials.

Each of these groups brings their own interests and goals to the table. Their guiding principles and discourses conflict at times. However, through integrative boundary work, the different communities find ways to build a shared space with shared interests for the overall project. But the relationships between the different groups are sometimes difficult and complex and therefore must involve ongoing negotiation of the organizational identity and the communal markers.

Rhetorical myths include communal markers to define internal relationships and to limit or guide external relationships. In other words, the rhetorical myths of an organization determine employee identification and interpersonal interactions. In religious and foundational myths, these guidelines for interaction are often explicitly stated as part of defining the culture or identity. For example, Moses told the Israelites, “Thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth” (King James Version, Deut. 7.6). As part of his instructions for dealing with people outside of their community, Moses wrote, “Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them” (Deut. 7.2). 

Modern workplace myths may not employ measures as dramatic as those of the Mosaic language when providing guidelines for interactions with other communities, but they use similar rhetorical themes to create an identity and govern outside interaction. Consider these two excerpts from the “About” page of Iowa State University’s Printing and Copy Services website: “Printing is unique among services and commodities at Iowa State, in that both the existence of the internal printing facility, including copy centers, and the subcontracting of printing are specifically authorized or regulated by the Board of Regents, State of Iowa.” This identification statement is given as justification for the policy that “Printing and Copy Services provides all printing-related functions to academic, administrative and support departments; faculty members; staff-affiliated organizations; and students. . . . Departments are to contact Printing Services before utilizing outside vendors for printing or copying services.” 

Table 2: Identification Statements and Rules for Interaction in Deuteronomy and the Printing Services Website

  Israelites Printing Services
Identification Statement Thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. Printing is unique among services and commodities at Iowa State, in that both the existence of the internal printing facility, including copy centers, and the subcontracting of printing are specifically authorized or regulated by the Board of Regents, State of Iowa.
Rules for Interaction Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them. Printing and Copy Services provides all printing-related functions to academic, administrative and support departments; faculty members; staff-affiliated organizations; and students. . . . Departments are to contact Printing Services before utilizing outside vendors for printing or copying services.

If we compare the excerpts from the Printing Services website with the biblical excerpts (see Table 2), we see the foundational myth working to (1) provide a unique identity based on unique characteristics (i.e., “holy people,” “special people,” “unique among services”) recognized by a powerful authority (i.e., “the Lord thy God,” “the Board of Regents”); and (2) define the community’s place in the world, along with strict restrictions on contact and interaction (i.e., “smite . . . destroy . . . make no covenant with them,” “provides all printing-related functions. Departments are to contact Printing Services before utilizing outside vendors”). As part of a rhetorical myth, communal markers provide a community with a clear space in which to operate—a space where the community’s chronographic timeline is valid and epideictic predictions from prophetic figures can shape values and govern actions. For Printing Services, these explicit statements of the communal markers contribute to the overall identity of the organization, but they also provide motivation for action because failing to act will compromise their “unique” place and function at the university.

Chronographia, epideictic prediction, and communal markers function together to create the essential elements of rhetorical myth. These three elements also act as a foundation for discussing different kinds of rhetorical myths, from the overarching cultural myths to the localized rhetorical myths employed in workplaces and communities.

Conclusion

Localized rhetorical myth can be a powerful tool for managers and other leaders to build consensus, implement changes, or unify disparate departments and employees. A myth’s power lies in it being more than a simple narrative story. Rather, myth is a persuasively crafted narrative that ties an idealized past and a specific vision of the future to actions and behaviors in the present. The receivers of the myth are led to see and, more importantly, to believe that their actions have an effect on the organization’s ability to meet its goals and move into the future. This persuasive power in localized myth provides managers with the tools to influence and control employee opinions and behavior within the constructs of a shared chronographic history, a distinct action plan for the present based on both the history and the future of the organization, and a narrowly defined organizational identity demarcated by communal markers.

Our understanding of localized myth is informed by research into more general, societal or religious myths. But by studying a myth limited in time, space, scale, and scope, we gain a better view of how all myths work, from their creation and maintenance to their narrative structure and from their internalization to their persuasive power. Additional focused research on workplace myths can provide us with a greater understanding of myth as a rhetorical device, which can be generalized to much larger power structures. For example, while religious myths informed my study of Printing Services by showing parallels among the communal markers, a study of a localized workplace myth could in turn provide additional insight into how and why people accept a particular religious or societal myth. Importantly, localized studies also provide insight into the power structures of organizations and provide access to the rhetorical discourse that inspires employees to act in certain, sometimes illogical, ways. This localized insight can then be focused on broader myths to help explain the appeal and popular power of political movements, religious endeavors, and patriotism or nationalism.

The mythic structures that surround modern humans are deeply complex and intertwined. Society, politics, religion, family, local communities, and workplaces all exert powerful, and sometimes conflicting, influence over thoughts, behaviors, and conscious actions. Much of this power, on all levels, is based in the acceptance of communal myths, which define and limit acceptable opinions and conduct. By closely examining those instances where rhetorical myths are limited, observable, and explicitly discussed, researchers can gain better understanding of the many instances where myths have influence, power, and general acceptance without overt discussion.

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