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Archive for March 2010

The use of discourse analysis, part 1

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I could have called this post “voluntary chemical castration”, but alas… it is about other words.

A few days ago, my partner Tale reminded me of the importance of discourse analysis; after reading an interview with a convicted sex offender undergoing voluntary chemical castration (!), the following phrases stuck:  “I was convicted of having sex with my daughter, and I was convicted of having sex with my stepdaughter. One time I was drunk, one time I was not” (quoted from memory; the interview is in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten’s weekend supplement A-magasinet from a week ago). Several questions immediately spring to mind: “having sex”?  “was convicted”? – isn’t it rather a question of being guilty of incestuous rape?

Now, I have no problem with the convict as such; this is not a blog entry screaming for justice. He is in prison, undergoing chemical castration – the system seems to work. Our discussion rather reminded me of many good classroom discussions on the rhetorics of politicians, lawyers, celebrities and scientists, occluding realities with a simple choice of words. I have analysed texts with students in high school, college and university for ten years now, touting the virtues of discourse analysis with its pragmatic mesh of theory and practice. In this approach, the close attention to choice of words, phrases and combinations are combined with a contextual awareness, making ideological choices and positions visible in semantics and language use. Hence language (even minute choices) has a large role in constituting social reality – we can change perceptions of and interactions with this reality by changing our nomenclature (this is a moderate relativism; regarding reality “as such”, I am a critical realist).

My usual example has been “milk” and “ecological milk” – in Danish discourse on dairy products, the second is usually valorized as “good”, it is considered  healthier or at least better for the cow than the first one (which is then “bad”). It is also more expensive (making it bad for people more attentive to price). Both are involved in battles over what is best for us, if we are cheated by clever farmers selling “bad” milk as ecological etc. The same value dynamics are seen with eggs and free-range chickens, for example. But the funny things is: the neutral, non-adjectival position is invariably inhabited by the cheaper, non-ecological product. This of course has historical roots: farming has been industrialized and ecological alternatives are new and counter-cultural to the regular industry. Thus value systems of “naturalness” and “artificiality” and a host of ideological positions determine one’s decisions on these matters.

If we really wanted to impose ecology in Danish farming, we should invert the choices available to the customer (and the producer, by the way): Call the cheaper milk “poison milk”, the eggs “industrial eggs” and the chickens “abrasion chicken” or something, reserving the neutral position of milk, egg and chicken for the ecological variant. Even though “bad” alternatives are still cheaper, they are now associated with bad adjectives, making the price not a neutral facet of choice, but an active part of choosing the “bad” product. (As an aside: I actually suggested the same inversion tactics at the high school I worked at; instead of speaking of “allowed leave of absence” of 15 percent, “punishing” the ones exceeding this number with “larger examination requirements”, we should talk about “required presence” of 85 percent, “rewarding” good students with “reduced curriculum”. No actual changes have to be made but linguistic ones, but perhaps the students would stop striving for 14,9 percent absence).

While I won’t be updating my favorite classroom and lecture examples with discussions of “sex” and “rape” anytime soon, the interview supplies a very clear example of these very language dynamics. As far as I can see, the choice of words reveal some basic uncertainties regarding acknowledgement of the crimes themselves. “Having sex”?! Was these sexual encounters really voluntary? “Was convicted”?! The passive voice indicates a miscarriage of justice, or at least a distance between the convict and the sentence. Drunk? That doesn’t do any good either way, does it? I understand the psychological difficulties in “owning” a crime, and I understand the inherent problems in an interview situation, but until he voluntarily speaks of being guilty of raping young girls, I would keep using chemical castration.

Written by Jesper

March 12, 2010 at 22:19

Excerpt from an ongoing project, part 1

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[The following excerpt is a from a draft of an introductory text for undergraduates to be published by Cambridge UP… It is inspired by work done at the moment by James R. Lewis at University of Tromsø as well as our own stuff.]

Inspired by the sociologist Helen R. Berger’s study of modern paganism, we could profitably describe the satanic milieu and the individual vectors within it through ever-widening circles of analysis: The individual participant, local affiliations and “scenes”, organized groups, the satanic milieu itself with discursive communities and influential texts, the cultic milieu of which it is a part, and finally occulture itself, pointing towards and interacting with mainstream society and orthodox “culture”. Pathways exist within and between all of these levels, and socialization of Satanism (or indeed other abstractions of decentralized “religiosities” such as New Age religion, western esotericism and modern paganism) can take many directions.

As a thought-experiment, we can follow an adolescent into the satanic milieu. A “traditional” trajectory of “recruitment” (a rather bad sociological word here, as there are no recruiters and nothing specific to recruit to) is to see the individual in relation to a small affiliation of peers, a local “scene” or local offers – for example a local Goth club, an occult lecture group or a Heavy Metal band or rock bar. Through a combination of intellectual “fit”, emotional support and social network, our young Satanist can gradually develop the resources, practices and attitudes necessary to internalize a “satanic identity” and express it with others. This can lead to a more serious affiliation with a specific group online or in the flesh, making the maturing Satanist more assured of his or her choice as well as further delimiting the choices and social network.

But this story neglects an important element noticed by recent studies in new religions: The individual is often “primed” by wider influences before making any conscious decisions. This “priming” of the individual seeker by occultural elements and material in the satanic milieu makes the choices seem natural, even genetic: They are “born” Satanists, or (in the rhetoric of modern Paganism) “coming home”. The influences are borne by music, literature, movies, television shows and so on, gently and surreptitiously conditioning the individual into accepting a satanic posture and later identity. It is important to understand that we are not advocating the classical “slippery slope”-argument of moral panic in either of the two recruitment models; nothing is automatic and nothing is a foregone conclusion without the active engagement of the individual. Neither the Smurfs nor Black Metal necessarily leads to Satanism (or crime for that matter). But it is our argument that just as Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer can stimulate an interest in witchcraft, so Marilyn Manson, Rosemary’s Baby or H. P. Lovecraft can lead our adolescent to a more serious involvement with Satanism, as can the general secular values and libertarian attitudes of much middle-class life. The active words here are “can lead” and “stimulate”, not taming or “brainwashing”.

[After following these trajectories of “traditional” socialization and priming, we analyse see two additional vectors: from occulture and the wider cultic milieu to specific groups and scenes; and from individual, scene and group to milieu and occulture. Combined with a historical run-down, some typologization, presentations of specific groups and networks and suggestions for further reading, I think it could be a good introduction.]

Written by Jesper

March 11, 2010 at 21:29

Pink Powder Puffs

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After a huge intake of strong coffee during writing binges, I have to read something before lying down to sleep. In the past week, I have had the pleasure of re-reading the x-gossip of Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon (1975, 1959). While the usual stories entertained once again (Fatty Arbuckle, Erich von Stroheim and Mary Astor especially), I noticed something else this time around, namely the quoted article on “Pink Powder Puffs” in the chapter on Rudy Valentino.

This July 18, 1926 editorial in the Chicago Tribune rages against powder vending machines in the washrooms of a public ballroom. For men. And they are used. By men. Another attack on masculinity is a public display of hair combing – with pomade – in the office elevator. Young men are obviously degenerate. The article continues: “It is time for a matriarchy if the male of the species allows such things to persist. Better a rule by masculine women than by effeminate men. Man began to slip, we are beginning to believe, when he discarded the straight razor for the safety pattern.” (p. 157) The effeminate style is linked to masculine cosmetics, sheiks, floppy pants and slave bracelets and has Rudy Valentino as the prime model of American masculinity. Opposite this horrible youth culture is the real man; as the article rhetorically asks: “What has become of the old “caveman” line?” (p. 158).

Although Anger describes the style as that of “a bunch of Clark Street faggots”, I am reminded of the metrosexuality debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now, the content is straight out of the gay twenties: masculine cosmetics, sheiks, floppy pants and slave bracelets –  as well as Valentino’s gold jewelry, “heavy perfumes, chinchilla-lined coats and pronounced Italian coquetry” (p. 163). Today, the sleek style of David Beckham (the current Valentino poster boy) has more tattoos, kimonos and nudity. But it seems to me there are some interesting structural similarities, as the masculine ideal is tweaked to promote not only to promote a new kind of man, but also the products to get there. Valentino had Valvoline Face Cream, Beckham has Instinct. In both cases, “metrosexuality—do I really have to spell it out?—is mediated masculinity”, as Mark Simpson writes (http://www.marksimpson.com/pages/journalism/MetroDaddy_v_UberMummy.html).

In essence, what I thought was rather new, namely the focus on both liberating and commodifying masculinity over the past 15 years or so (seemingly as a reaction (in part) on the heavy focus on liberating-and-commodifying femininity in the post-war West) has older roots. The same can be said about the intense hatred of these pink poofs in older generations and more conservative segments. Now, the scale of it all is of course magnified immensely: the Beckham’s work with “clothing designers, health and fitness specialists, fashion magazines, perfume and cosmetics manufacturers, hair stylists, exercise promoters, and spa and recreation companies” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Beckham). In the same vein, I think more men follow these new masculine ideals today – elite culture is democratized (or “proletarized”), just like cocaine. But the basic description of the young urban male with money to spend on personal grooming and style, lead by a core of beautiful movie and sports stars, seems to mirror the twenties rather well. As does the fact that these new males are invariably associated with homosexuality.

So perhaps we should stop discussing the “culture war” of the caveman vs. the metrosexual (or the spread of “gay” in popular culture) as something without history. Valentino did it. Chicago Tribune did it too. And it didn’t start in 1994. It definitely didn’t start in the twenties either, but at least we have a hundred years of effeminacy to analyse.

Written by Jesper

March 7, 2010 at 23:47

Contact: Random ramblings

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Last Thursday, I spent an afternoon with around 20 students watching the movie Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997). I have tried to supplement my course teaching in popular religion(s) with informal lecture-and-a-screening of various movies seen in the light of Religious Studies: The Wicker Man, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (pure methodology), What the Bl**p Do We Know and latest Meggido: Omega Code 2 (as Yuletide fun). One danger I have tried to avoid is reducing the movie to pure exemplar, as a lot of “Religion and ‘X'”-studies do. As an object of analysis, we need to respect the structural and aesthetic aspects of the material studied and not just dissect the content. Nevertheless, most of my lectures have been inspired by important relations between popular culture and religious creativity with the movie as interface.

In the case of Contact, the implications of the SETI programme (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) are told through the eyes of one woman, Ellie Arroway. But what is scientific fiction for about an hour turns into science fiction when aliens finally make contact through a radio signal (with prime numbers, an audiovisual of Hitler and blueprints for a transportation machine). Ellie, against all odds, gets the ticket for the wormhole device and travels around the galaxy for 18 hours before returning home. Here, she is considered a nut, as the device seemed to fail from an Earth-bound perspective. Thus she travels from the position of scientific skeptic to revelatory gnostic.

As Slavoj Zizek remarks in his critique of Avatar (http://www.information.dk/zizek (in Danish)), mainstream Hollywood has a predilection for translating thematic conflicts into embodied ones, often in the form of romantic love between a man and a woman (little homo- or xenosexuality as of 2010). This is an effective strategy, but also a dumbing-down of the thematic subtext. When watching the movie, it is obvious that the philosophical conflict between religion and science is personified in open-shirt Palmer Joss (M. McConaughey) vs. buttoned-up Ellie Arroway (J. Foster).

They meet in the Puerto-Rican jungle and have sex, but things go sour due to circumstances (Ellie’s boss David Drumlin (T. Skerritt) is pulling the plug on the project) and Ellie’s lack of emotional maturity (a rather masculine trait, see below). 4 years later, they luckily meet again, get involved (more emotionally than physically this time), grow apart (ideological differences and emotions get in the way) but end up together as she learns what it’s like to be spiritual (that is, not believed by skeptics… but having powerful experiences anyway). A recurrent thematic symbol is the plastic compass that changes hands a few times, as they challenge each others “moral orientation” throughout the film. This is analogy on the run, and surely an evocative way of describing the intellectual and emotional battles between “religion” and “science” in western history; whether it reflects reality is another matter.

Anyway, he has an MA in Divinity “but dropped out of seminary to do some secular humanitarian work”, which is nice. He is a cool Christian then, open, talkative and later special advisor to the President. He is a writer and social critic rather than preacher, a perfect contrast to the evil Christian fundamentalist with long blonde hair (J. Busey) who ends up blowing the first Machine to bits. On the other hand, Ellie’s tough personal history (mother lost at childbirth, father when she was nine) has made her ambitious, driven and rather focused on the sky (she misses mom and dad), as well as a firm advocate of atheism, Occam’s Razor and skepticism. Hence she is lacking in both emotional and “spiritual” connection to other people; she is curious and knowledgeable, but obviously has problems with public speaking and intimate relations, although she ends up talking to children on “their level” at the end, when she is spiritually (and romantically) “awakened” (luckily, the producers pass on the idea of introducing a baby as coincidentia oppositorum).

As such, the lonely atheist and the worldly “faitheist” meet, first in the flesh (which fails), later in a shared belief in numinous experiences (which is apparently a much more solid ground for romantic involvement). Palmer Joss had his experience early in life (or at least before the movie begins), as he tells us in bed. He interprets it through a de-mythologized Christian frame and acts it out through social engagement. Ellie’s experience is shown in the movie as a visit to the stars, where she reconnects to her childish yearnings and direct understanding of beauty as well as her father (see below). She interprets it through a scientific frame, but it is unsuccessful in coping with the power of emotions, as the scientific and political reactions show (science is a collective and easily politicized endeavour). She ends up acting the experience through an intimate relationship (that is only suggested) and a professional embracing of teaching. Curiosity is filled with spiritual meaning.

Before discussing this thematic resolution in more detail, let’s extend the “character cloud” surrounding the happy couple of Palmer and Ellie. Palmer represents Good Religion or Faith, exhibits good masculine traits, and has a moral trajectory from belief to reason during the long movie. In contrast, Ellie represents Good Science or Reason, is androgynous (but female when the right male is around), and has a moral trajectory from reason to belief. “Behind” Palmer are three male figures with ambiguous relations to the androgynous femininity of Ellie. First off her absent dad, in some sense responsible for her curiosity but also her lack of faith and her amputated femininity. Nevertheless he is all good. A bit closer to the action we find the polar opposites of David Drumlin, a bad (but good) father figure and politicized scientist (bad bad!!), and S. R. Hadden, a good (but bad) father figure and trickster figure. He too is a politicized scientist (a rich engineer involved in subversive activities), but he has cancer, which is a get-out-of-jail-free card in Hollywood; his money and influence, while bad, is good when used to facilitate Ellie’s quest and to combat the establishment – we don’t believe the hoax angle played in the end. Similarly Drumlin’s negativity is absolved through his sacrifice and his reflexivity; although his pragmatism regarding faith and scientific worth is destructive (that is what the world is like), he silently acknowledges Ellie’s idealism before meeting his doom: The world is what we make of it. In essence, the two represent bad science that can be transformed.

“Behind” Ellie are three androgynous figures that extend on Ellie’s complicated thematic role. First of all is the Alien-as-daddy, as the alien Vegan uses this image to ease first contact. Mirroring the father in the masculine triad, the alien’s superior moral, spiritual and scientific knowledge is the enzyme initiating Ellie’s resolution, and it is thus all good. Closer to Ellie are another polarity (although not as pronounced as Drumlin – Hadden), namely Ellie-as-child, which represents hope and pure curiosity, versus the blind SETI researcher Kent Clark (COME ON!), who has sublime hearing but a bad case of despair. They represent good science that is still embryonic.

Regarding the thematic resolution, what does religion and science aka Palmer and Ellie agree upon? Ellie travels 26 light-years to be told that intimacy and personal relations are all that makes life bearable; it is the meaning of life. This “spiritual” message stands in glaring contrast to the engineering feats necessary to build a wormhole production device, but is nicely underscored by the beauty of the universe. The message seems to be that micro-and macrouniverse is connected in the eyes and heart of the beholder, technology notwithstanding. Luckily science is reserved a small place in the meaning of it all, as mathematics, physics and chemistry are shown to be the galactic lingua franca alongside emotions. You just have to use it truthfully, which takes us to Palmer Joss.

Several times in the movie he equates religion and science as a “search for truth” (beginning and end, good script writing there. This phrase is thematically tied up with the sentence “if we’re alone, it is an awful waste of space” in the beginning, middle and end and the aforementioned compass). The normative criterion for religion and science then becomes a philosophical goal that balances neatly between uppercase Truth and lowercase truth (both are something universal and spiritual, but intellectual Truth is tempered by emotional and intimate truth), and both science and religion are apocalyptic in the sense that they are paths to revelation of this truth. Only then, in the embodiment of truth, can religion and science truly meet.

One could argue that this is an amputation of both religion and science. Religion becomes something cognitive (although also embodied and felt), a watered-down Protestant “faith”-based morality – private truth, not practice or politics (remember Talal Asad’s critique of Clifford Geertz’ definition of religion). In fact, the only acceptable religion in the movie is this privatized “spirituality”; religious practice in the movie is either silly (as Ellie’s drive to Cape Canaveral illustrates – the road is filled with idiots chanting and singing), dangerous (the fundamentalist becomes a terrorist) or ideological (which is suspect; Drumlin’s fake religion is a case in point). Palmer Joss, our guide to better living and the representative of acceptable religion, has precisely dropped out of seminary (he “couldn’t handle the celibacy thing”) to do “secular humanitarian work”; he writes books, gives interviews and helps the President, that is he is doing politics without being political. He is humanitarian (something moral and spiritual), not religious.

Ellie (and by extension science) has meaning, truth, longing and seeking in common with this religiosity, but she has too much reason and ambition to see this truth. Luckily she meets an alien that can show her the right balance – space-dad resembles dead earth-dad and alive earth-lover that is also dad (“father” Joss; he even says the same thing as dead dad did). Science is amputated from both its methodological framework and the context of justification (the imagined community of scientists writing articles etc.) to be nothing but philosophy aided by giant machines.

In this way, the initial contrast between religion and science understood as narrow-minded fanaticism (bad and thoroughly male as in the blonde fundamentalist or the bad father figure of David Drumlin) vs. empirical curiosity (good and androgynous as Ellie is masculine but also female (girlish) as contrast to male religion) is mediated by a very cool Christian. Both religion and science becomes bad when seen from the middle position of “faith” or spiritual belief – religion is dogma and science is politics. Faith is experiential and mediates male and female (while cementing the gender roles; Ellie is weak in the end and is protected by Palmer, a fine contrast to her very masculine attitude to one-night stands in the beginning of the film) as well as experience and belief. In the end, Ellie is alone in the desert contemplating truth, in a sense having assimilated Palmer to reach completion. A harmonic conclusion to science and religion indeed!

Perhaps there is enough for an article anyway?! I’ll stop here and return later with more reflections on the ultimate father figure of Carl Sagan, the SETI project as spiritual revelation, the movie as an appropriation of New Age mythology and the various resolutions of science and religion found outside movie narratives.

Written by Jesper

March 6, 2010 at 23:29

A bit of necromancy and a bit of methodology

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This blog has been dead for two years. As I said in another post, I have never been much of a diary writer. I will try one last attempt at re-animation, under a new name, in English and with fewer ambitions. Hopefully all my random notes will be published here instead of post-it notes on the office wall. To get this rolling, I have pasted two entries I made on a mailing list on magic – see http://www.sasm.co.uk/.

I would like to defend the “supposedly methodologically atheist” approach in esotericism studies and in the study of religion in general.

I think there are two problems with mixing things up too much. First of all, we shouldn’t conflate the research situation and the communication of this research situation. In line with Karl Popper, the context of discovery and the context of validation are two different pies. I have no problem with academics using magic to gain insights, as I have no problems with academics using any and all other techniques in their “personal quest”. In this sense, we can compare science and magic. But I do have a problem with a lack of “translation”, for lack of a better word, into “academese”. To use magic as eg. an experiential argument or a channeling of some entity as a source, I think a very important academic boundary has been breached. Academic knowledge is based on collective critical discussion, and that becomes rather difficult.

This is related to my second point. I think there are very good reasons to delimit science as a specific epistemological quest, so to speak. Thus art, religion, performance etc. are as valid as science in the grand scheme of things. But this is exactly why we should also protect critical discussion or science as a discursive construction; it is *not* magic. If we can respect magic, we should respect science too.

Every discipline has legitimate ways of framing and studying reality, as do participants. But every discipline also buys into the general justification framework of academia itself; journals and conferences with peer review, footnotes, consistency, coherence in argument etc. I am not saying that it is perfect or the only way to talk about reality, but it is the academic way, and we do so to guarantee a level of intersubjective understanding. And this is the crucial point: tolerance and respect should not put an end to critical discussion within and between disciplines. Because of the same framework, criticism is possible and indeed necessary for academic knowledge to expand and deepen.

One of the problems with postmodern criticisms of objectivity is that it often retains the very ambition of positivism, total objectivity, while stating its impossibility. This tragic position is romantic, but not very practical. Why not drop the ambition of total universality as well? Situated science is still perfectly viable and built on negotiated boundaries that seem to work. In reality, nothing is pure, but there is no need to give up – we should be allowed to work as we see fit, yes, but also to criticize the findings, as they are temporary, provisional and only the best we have.

Oh, and to continue a good thing: The last movie I saw was District 9 and I just finished a re-reading of Anger’s Hollywood Babylon – what a book!

Written by Jesper

March 4, 2010 at 15:18