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Is violent art made by violent people?

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Bjarne Melgaard, untitled?

Yesterday, I saw a TV programme documenting the art and ideas of Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. His subject matter is violence, paedophilia, perversion, and fear, wrapped in a part expressionist, part conceptual package. Much like his idols Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, and others on the American “post-punk” scene of “aesthetic terrorism” in the 1980s and early 1990s, he offered a nihilist reading of art – the best art has no use, won’t change anything, and is ultimately uncomfortable. It is better to ask questions than provide answers, he stated.

This past semester I have been wrapped up in finishing, submitting and defending my thesis on modern Satanism. A large part of the work attends to transgression, non-conformity and antinomianism as mimetic acts of opposition and as “technologies of the self”, to use a term from Foucault. That is, trying to discern the subleties between transgression as an end in itself and as a means to an end.

In the first case, it is mostly confirming the norm by transgressing it, as with many rites of passage and theatrical rebellion; in the second, transgression is a necessary means for liberation, expression, growth, or self-knowledge. While the first is usually productive within society (or a subsector within it), the second interrogates the foundations on which society is built and points to a wide variety of alternatives, mainly in the “find out for yourself”-box. This is seldom political or religious, but rather “other”. As formulated by Carl Abrahamsson of Cotton Ferox:

Art is very potent (…) a great non-rational way to leave seeds of change in various places and dimensions.

The two strategies use the same basic package of transgressions, often some combination of blasphemy, political radicalism, violence, obscenity, and general untidyness, and the reception (and thus the result) is often equivalent – total rejection or mild amusement. But the intention and the “ideology of transgression” , whether this is conscious or not, is different; one is an inversion and appropriation of society’s demons, the other is a hybrid adoption and rejection with a logic outside society’s binary mindset. Thus with transgression as a means or technology, it is a state of being that is constantly in flux; transgression as and end is a mask used to shock. Both are mirrors, but one is ultimately pointing inwards, the other outwards.

Watching Melgaard reminded me of one important thing which cuts across these distinctions, namely the importance of symbolization and sanitization of transgression. This is exactly the fine line any transgressor walks between art and life; when churches are burning, kids are molested and people are killed, you have gone too far (for most, anyway). On the other hand, the audience should always be wondering what is real and what is not, as that is one central component of the work itself (regardless if is is performance, theatre, music, stage show, images, sculpture, movies, …). Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle speaks of “charged gestures”, an anti-analytical creativity in the moment involving your whole self and the audience in a process of disgust and discovery:

We were just playing with ideas and fantasies, making them available for people to see. It’s great as you’re going along and learning and finding reasons why you like the aesthetic of it, the feel of it, and the ideas it provokes. I think improvisation will always be there for me rather than sitting down and trying to analyze things and make something from that analysis. By that point it’s become a totally empty gesture. I like charged gestures, so the more real it can be, even if you use fake blood to try and enhance that feeling, then that’s fine with me. It’s about vulnerability as well. You’re laying yourself open completely and then seeing what happens. And that’s what you learn from. You learn from mistakes as well as from positive experiences. You don’t learn by playing it safe, that’s for sure.

Now, this is a beautiful description of a practical “poetics of transgression”. What spurred me to write here was a question from the presenter to Melgaard: If he was as violent as his art?

His answer came quick and it was negative. Of course. Even though his art is constantly breaking down the barrier between art and life, it is nurtured by its existence. Violent art is ART, not LIFE; when it becomes life, it is destructive. Take G. G. Allin and compare him to Marilyn Manson.

This illustrates nicely the basic dilemma of transgression as a technology. On the one hand, transgressive art is not necessarily made by reprehensible people (often they are rather deeply occupied with morality). This is the biographical (or intentional) fallacy described by New Criticism: The art work has to be taken on its own level, not the level of psychology or intention of any “author”. There is no 1:1-correspondence between art/act and artist. If so, all 1st-person narrators would be the author. This is of course what we do assume, especially with images; they must be made because the author likes them or needs them. But they can be interrogative, or provocative, or playful, or ironic, or simply there because they must.

On the other hand we cannot understand such art without the reflections of the authors or artists. They usually have a plan or an artistic concept which is tied to their biography and quirks. Here they are similar to academics who are influenced by experience and pet theories when they select their projects – this is what we call bias, and it is inevitable and human. We shouldn’t remove it, but reflect on it. Of course art asks questions and thus understanding is tied to the viewer’s own experience; nevertheless, why produce it and why ask if not for some interest of mutual discovery? Even if this interest is fulfilled by the production and not the product, it is still there and can be informative when we as viewers approach the work. As such, the experience of the artist is of some importance for the audience, even if the two should be held separate.

In the book Transgressions: The Offences of Art by Anthony Julius, the rhetoric of “art for art’s sake”, of which “art can change our perception through alienation” is a part, is outed as a defence, a rhetorical strategy (2002, p. 25 on). Positing art as an utterly independent form glosses over the real problem with offensive art, namely their subject matter. Paedophilia or torture fantasies masked as art is not art, they are crime. There are other defences, but they hide the same issue. Hence any claim of artistic intention or experience is a smokescreen for the circulation of offensive products, an inversion of the biographical fallacy outlined above.

This is absolutely going too far. Nonetheless, the breakdown of art and life is sustaining ambiguity, and transgressive art caters for people who seek transgressive experiences. This is not bad. Fascist aesthetics is not fascism. Hardcore exploitation is not rape. But transgression needs the limit to transgress. Otherwise, there is no charge. To dismiss the intention is thus neglecting the difference between means and ends.

Cycles, Storks and Satanists: A Talk with TheoFantastique

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Time Magazine, June 19, 1972. Used with permission.

OK, so the blog has suffered while I tended to our second daughter Anna, a conference anthology for Oxford UP (due in September) and my dissertation (due in a week or two). I apologize. To supplicate, I post this (written) interview I have done with John at TheoFantastique – a great blog on occulture and popular culture. The article we discuss is this horror from The Telegraph, March 30, 2011. Here, the “surge” in Satanism online and the resultant accessibility of Satanism is linked to increased demand for exorcism. It is good we have the Catholic Church to help us with classical products in a time of need. This is the final draft; if you want the pretty version, do visit TheoFantastique. Lots of zombies too.

TheoFantastique: Jesper, thank you for making some time to discuss your research as it relates to current events in popular culture. Recently an article in The Telegraph in the UK reported on an alleged rise in Satanism, and according to the Roman Catholic Church, a corresponding need for more exorcists as a response to alleged increases in possession. There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s look at the various elements of significance here. To begin, what type of research have you done on Satanism, can you define Satanism in terms of your research, and has there indeed been any kind of rise in Satanism as the article reports?

Jesper Aagaard Petersen: My research focuses on modern religious Satanism, a heterogeneous assortment of individuals, groups and networks using Satan and other mythological beings as a short-hand for their work on the Left-Hand path. This manifestation of Satanism is recent, only gaining ground and formalization during the occult revival of the 1960s; the most well-known exemplar is of course Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Even so, there are many other interpretations alongside LaVey’s – some are atheist and materialist just like the Church, others are explicitly theist, although it often takes a Gnostic or esoteric form rather than a direct mimesis of Christian stereotypes. And there are positions in between. I tend to distinguish ‘rational’ and ‘esoteric’ Satanism as fully developed, autonomous and organized types of religious Satanism. These types should in turn be separated from ‘reactive’ Satanism, which is the (often deeply meaningful, yet fragmented) Satanism of the pact, the teenage bedroom and the black metal concert, and from various demonological discourses on the satanic throughout history.

My studies are primarily based on texts, websites and message boards, but I have complemented these sources with both ethnographic, sociological, and media work. What I do is study the discourses and practices of religious groups through the resources and strategies they bring into the struggle to actually define Satanism. As such, I see contemporary Satanism as a satanic milieu of people, organizations, ideas, practices, and channels for communication. This satanic milieu is both separate from and in dialogue with modern occulture and the wider cultural narratives on the satanic. It is distinct, because modern religious Satanism is about the self and not some diabolical ‘other’. The mythological beings used in this identity work have been disembedded from their original context and ‘de-otherized’ (to use J. Laycock’s term). Satan and Satanism are no longer solely defined within a Christian context. As such, ‘Satanist’ has followed the same trajectory as ‘witch’, ‘vampire’, ‘pagan, and ‘queer’, to name a few. Rather than positions of (dangerous) inversion, they are now hybrid roles, used within both cultural narratives of the other and as identities for the self. On the other hand, we should acknowledge some dialogue as well. First of all, dark occulture and cultural narratives do work as pathways to and from the satanic milieu, as Satanists engage with both subcultural and mainstream representations and take what they resonate with. Conversely, real Satanists are not totally below the mainstream radar, even if the media representations are sketchy at best and work more along the lines of freak show exhibits. Although I can say with confidence that theories of slippery slopes are mistaken, these relations thus make popular culture one important socialization ‘stage’ for modern Satanists.

Regarding the rise of Satanism, that depends on how you define it. The article you mention calls it a “surge” and a “revival”. It is true that the 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase of interest in Satanism alongside Witchcraft, Neopaganism, and other religious currents with roots in esotericism and occultism. This has to do with the general re-enchantment of the West in the past 50 years (an enchantment that never really went away, actually, but that is another story), which has developed in dialogue with popular media. It is also true that Satanism is more visible and more accessible because of the Internet, and that it flourishes on the de-regulated arenas the Internet provides. On the other hand, membership figures are hard to come by, and should be seen in relation to degrees of affiliation – a majority of witches or Satanists are tourists or dabblers, and only a small minority affiliate with a group and/or develop a long-term engagement. It is likely that more people are attracted to Satanism than before, and they are more visible today, but actual members still amount to thousands and not millions. In any case, where I differ from the article’s conclusion is in the effect of mediated religion on susceptible youth. Watching a movie, accessing a website or participating in a discussion forum does not automatically make you a Satanist, and it certainly does not make you possessed.

TheoFantastique: Is there any reason to make a connection between Satanism in its various forms and the occult and the phenomenon of possession?

Jesper: Well, the simple answer is no. The article in The Telegraph caught my eye, as it fits the recurrent dialectic between real satanic groups on the one hand and anti-satanic discourse on the other, a dialectic covered by for example Phil Jenkins in Mystics and Messiahs (2000). Satanism as a religious option is definitely more visible and has been so since the 1960s witchcraft revival, in no small part because of LaVey’s Satanic Bible and the high media profile of the Church, as well as the meteoric rise of the Internet. On the other hand, the satanic panic and ritual abuse cases of the 1980s and early 1990s did much to reposition anti-satanic discourses of evil as the default interpretation of Satanism. Even though the religious (mainly evangelical and to a lesser degree catholic) basis of the moral panic has been exposed, and the secular madness of the media, law enforcement, judicial, education, and social care systems has been criticized extensively, conspiracy and scapegoating remains as a cultural resource. Satanism remains associated with evil in popular discourse and culture.

That is why I have a problem with the phrase “rise in Satanism” and “occult” in the article. The connotations become conspiratorial and not statistical. The word occult has a specific meaning within Religious Studies tied to the etymology of the word, as hidden. But in popular parlance and Catholic research it has a sinister ring to it. The article posits an causal connection between ease of access and demand for exorcists, but I think a lot of elements are missing from that equation. We have to ask who is searching online and who is in need of an exorcist? Are they even connected? Who makes the connections? There has been a re-enchantment of sorts, and it could of course be interpreted as the work of a cabal of Devil-worshipers influenced by demons. But there is absolutely no reason to see a rise in Satanism, Witchcraft, holistic spirituality and whatnot as anything sinister. Here, modern religious Satanism and the theological discourses on the satanic are two entirely different animals. On the other hand, a higher visibility of things dubbed “occult” and explicitly diabolical might stimulate a higher rate of possession experiences in evangelical and Catholic communities. Certainly the interpretation of possession is connected to cultural resources at hand. And by extension, possession narratives are in fact reported in movies, talk-shows and so on outside these milieus. But then we have moved our attention to very different arenas of religiosity which is not directly associated with the people I study, namely Christian communities and the ‘secularized’ paranormal demonologies of horror movies (The Entity (1981) or Paranormal Activity (2009), for example).

TheoFantastique: I too have noted the continued presence of the devil, possession, and spirit entities in various horror films and television programs. This relates to what has been labeled as popular occulture. Why do you think the devilish in popular occulture is so prevalent, and how might this not be a factor in reports of the need for exorcism?

Jesper: The Devil and his minions certainly sell. They are protean figures that can be molded to fit your narrative needs. And all narratives need bad guys, so why not use the Devil as has been done in popular culture for hundreds of years? Various elements of Christianity are topoi we all recognize (or at least most of us): The savior, the corrupted, the alluring, the end and so on. In addition, social anxieties and the speed of change needs a narrative interpretation. But this is cyclical. The 1960s explosion spawned not only the somewhat eccentric satanic witch of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but also the unabashedly evil Antichrist of The Omen (1976) and the home invasion of The Exorcist (1973). And then came Michelle Remembers (1980), Multiple Personality Disorders and the MacMartin Preschool. Although thoroughly dismissed, these “real” stories never really went away, they just went back to the milieus from which they emerged, and, crucially, into popular culture as fictional tropes. They also underwent secularization: Aside from explicitly religious demonic fantasies, they continued as spiritual or paranormal narratives. For some two decades, anti-satanism has slumbered, while we have witnessed a resurgence of occultural themes in popular culture and as religious currents. This fin-de-siecle reenchantment is now met with The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Rite (2010), and The Rite (2011), to name a few recent movies. Hopefully we will stop before the next stage.

Of course things are more complicated than this. Yet, we have to see reenchantment, the mainstreaming of occulture and the conservative reaction as parts of a whole. In a sense, the periodic resurgence of exorcism and other re-enchantment reminds me that we are not that far removed from Hellenistic times. They too ascribed everything to demonic influence, in part because of the changes they experienced. Nevertheless, to argue that movies or the Internet makes demon-possessed victims in need of exorcism is the worst kind of hypodermic needle-argument on the effect of popular culture. We appropriate culture according to need, context and previous experiences. Of course, the Catholic Church has the Devil and his demons pushing the needle, so all constructivist and reception theory arguments are in vain.

TheoFantastique: What kind of conclusions do you draw as a scholar about the kind of sensationalistic and inaccurate reporting in The Telegraph article, as well as that produced by the Catholic Church about this phenomenon?

Jesper: First of all, that causality is still a misunderstood phenomenon. A simultaneous decline in storks and child births does not prove that children are brought by long-legged birds. But such “explanations” are easy to sell. Further, it proves that popular accounts of academic research on Satanism and other occultural phenomena are sorely needed. While I have little confidence in the “seriousness and scientific rigour” of the Vatican conference, it obviously has a stronger network in which to promote its views. I might scoff at this article (I did yell at the computer screen when I read it), but it is read by a far wider constituency than any article I have ever written (all of them combined too).

Ultimately, these things move in cycles. In the famous 1972 Time magazine article “The Occult Revival: A Substitute Faith”, many of the same issues are reported. They even comment that the UK is experiencing such a boom in witchcraft and occultism that the Anglicans and Catholics have convened to suggest the appointment of exorcists in each diocese. Sounds oddly familiar in 2011. It is all about social mobilization and the reframing of perceived social problems. The Catholic Church is at odds with a dominant subjectivist trend in modern culture. At times, it tries to accommodate it. At other times, it rejects it and reframes it a social and moral decay. The availability and visibility of Satanism online is an easy target. When connected to the unrelated rise in exorcism movies and popular interest in spirits, demons, and – well, old-school fire and brimstone – a false causality is formed.

TheoFantastique: Jesper, thank you for your time and thoughts on this.

Written by Jesper

April 8, 2011 at 01:22

CAM: Some random ramblings

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Ulf Buck, Rumpologist. Borrowed from


Today, after a few months of writing articles and changing diapers, I finally got a good idea for a blog post. Because of unfortunate circumstances, I have been substitute lecturer at a couple of seminars in the course New Religious Movements, a course focusing on explicit and implicit manifestations of religiosity in the contemporary West. Wednesday’s lecture was about the cultic milieu, a popular topic in this blog, focusing on modeling issues or how to conceptualize implicit religion. 

After such a solid dose of social theory, I thought it would be wise to attempt something a little more hands-on. As the regular lecturer had selected Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or CAM for short, as the subject matter, something I have only superficial knowledge about, I reached into the old high school teacher bag-of-tricks and found two good examples of alternative practitioners here in Trondheim, TOMAS and Anita, as the basis of class discussion. On the “home” and “biography” pages, I asked them to find discursive or rhetorical markers pointing towards religious and scientific legitimacy. This turned out to be quite the lucky punch. 

In the case of Trondheim Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture Centre (TOMAS), run by Catherine Kim-Nestaas, only the frequent claims of oriental heritage, especially Japanese and Chinese techniques, have a flavor of the alternative (not to mention religion). Otherwise, it is devoid of the usual markers of “spirituality”, such as energy, vibrations or healing. The rhetoric is markedly scientific, although the techniques are definitely what we would call alternative – Fire Cupping, Moxabustion and Ear Seeds, for example – and they are described as “complementary” to western medicine. Legitimacy and authority is mainly obtained through the practitioner’s degrees (BSc in Biomedical Engineering, Boston U, MSc in Oriental Medicine, Berkeley and other certifications), her “many years of employment in the pharmaceutical industry” and the professional tone of the website itself. Held in the third person and presented as a “centre”, the site distances itself from more personal and hence more “spiritual” ventures, even though it is owned and driven by one person. 

In contrast, Anita’s Alternativ, run by Anita Holm, strikes the visitor as much more “religious” (at least in the contemporary, “spiritual” sense): She offers “self-help”, “holistic treatment” (not “complementary” as in TOMAS’ case, although the two concepts seem to converge), Tarot readings and so on. However, apart from Tarot, the range of techniques seems to be parallel to TOMAS’, although the tone is different. In addition, Anita is using a more psychological and less orientalizing rhetoric to legitimize her treatments. When she is “listening”, she is actually “taking in images/emotions which shows the cause of your ailments”. As with Kim-Nestaas, Anita is actively promoting her education and certifications, but in her case, the legitimacy is less scientific apart from basic training in medicine and certification as a care worker. Finally, the website itself seems more personal and less professional, prompting one student to call it “a bit naive” – authentic or honest might say the same. Interestingly, it is in the first person throughout, thus being closer to Anita as a private, holistic entrepreneur. 

As the goal of the seminar was to problematize given concepts of “religion” and reflect on alternative medicine as religion, the two examples opened up an interesting discussion on “religion” and “science” as reified and constructed concepts. Actually, instead of trying to put the two examples in one or the other category, “religion” and “science” might be viewed as strategies in which to “sell” the treatments in question in the marketplace. In a different context, I have argued for the same in modern Satanism, dubbing the strategies “esoterization” and “secularization” (we might call them “religionification” and “scientification” instead).  In this sense, neither are wholly scientific or wholly religious, but certainly more or less religious. This in turn can be seen in the implicit hierarchies of natural vs. artificial, old vs. new, holistic vs. Cartesian (or material); religion today (as all religion, actually) relates to the human, temporal and natural as a more meaningful or more powerful way of engagement with the world. A specific modern turn would be the equation of world, body and self, making CAM one possible aspect of contemporary, detraditionalized “spirituality” which is only a new way of expressing and doing religion. Of course, it can also be another offer in a wide variety of wellness or prosperity products completely devoid of explicit ideology. 

Here, we could contrast the two practitioners with the rumpologist (or Asstrologer) Ulf Buck. Completely blind, he uses butts as palmists use hands to read the character and predict the future of individuals. Another rumpologist, Jaqueline Stallone, claims that 

rump reading is an art that was practiced in ancient Babylon, India, Greece, and Rome. She claims that the ancient Greeks thought the butt was the key to health and fidelity. 

While I am certain that we can find some “scientification” here as well, rump divination paradoxically moves us closer to traditional “religion” while simultaneously shining a light (or pointing a finger) at a most earthly body part. I can’t wait for this to hit Norway. 

[for Scandinavian readers, Asbjørn Dyrendal has written 5 good essays on this topic – see and the links at the bottom, and]

Vox Plebis?

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C is for Cookie...

Next on my list of media annoyances is the extensive use of worthless and usually quite ridiculous vox pop segments in “news” reporting. They’re fine if what you are after are the opinions of the people; why the baggy pants and saggy ass? Did Michael Jackson really die, or is he in Shamballah with Elvis? Who will win the World Cup? (on the last question, we should actually ask Paul the Psychic Octopus, which impressively has his own wikipedia page already). But the value in news reporting and especially analytical journalism seems really limited, and more akin to populist infotainment scared of experts.

The worst vox pop segments are the ones repeating what the journalist just said. “Everybody like ice-cream when it’s hot” – we don’t need three faces confirming that fact. And these segments are increasingly common in analytical journalism, especially on politics. I vaguely remember reading a critical newspaper article stating that reporting today was less about informing the people and more about confirming what the people already know (reference, anyone?). So, less experts and more vox pops. Less demasking of power and more pseudo-democratic “free speech”. Vox Plebis. Cheaper and less valid, but vastly more “entertaining” and “engaging”.

Other types are the “expert” and “illusory eye-witness account” vox pops. Yesterday 3 alledged terrorists were arrested on behalf of the Norwegian Intelligence Services. Apparently they planned something, perhaps even an attack on an oil rig. So the news go ask the people what to make of it… which is of course platitudes, prejudices and uninformed opinions. Next, they ask the neighbors how one of the terrorists acted… which is exactly the same way any serial killer or child pornography mastermind has acted: inconspicuous, everyday, with as little ripples as possible. Nobody expected him to be anything other than a kind father, husband or neighbor. The same thing was said about Rudolf Höss, Josef Fritzl and Ted Bundy. And we wouldn’t really expect the (successful) serial killer or terrorist to act in any other way, would we? While I continuously hope for the one vox pop stating: “yes, he was up at odd hours, the whole block smelled of sulphur and he subscribed to Al Qaeda Illustrated” or just “yes, he looked really crazy“, I understand that that is never going to happen, because he would have been caught!

Please – in nine out of ten cases, vox pops are just a waste of valuable media time. Pollution. Not proof of anything but selective news casting. If anything, replace stupid old women and confused shoppers with Paul the Octopus. The betting pool is getting really high.

Written by Jesper

July 10, 2010 at 16:40

Buzzword-based Leadership

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Leaders and managers subscribing to Value(s)-based Leadership are a recent annoying trend in Scandinavian media. While the philosophy itself probably has old roots – my guess is Humanistic Psychology, Human Potential groups and a variety of self-help and human resource approaches (I have absolutely no knowledge of management theory, and Wikipedia  doesn’t help) – it is a newly discovered disturbing presence on my TV-screen. Here hordes of nice people blur the distinction between work, life and (secularized) spirituality with buzzwords chosen to represent the core values of their corporation: respect, competence, creativity… here is a list from

(…) ambition, competency, individuality, equality, integrity, service, responsibility, accuracy, respect, dedication, diversity, improvement, enjoyment/fun, loyalty, credibility, honesty, innovativeness, teamwork, excellence, accountability, empowerment, quality, efficiency, dignity, collaboration, stewardship, empathy, accomplishment, courage, wisdom, independence, security, challenge, influence, learning, compassion, friendliness, discipline/order, generosity, persistency,optimism, dependability, flexibility (…) 

The problem with this approach is two-fold. First of all, they are platitudes, the very essence of bullshit bingo: Nobody in their right mind would disagree with courage, wisdom and independence? Or loyalty, credibility and honesty? I understand the motivating intentions behind this use of words; positive thinking is an optimistic and at times working approach. But looking at most of the internet websites I googled, values seem to be filled with power, transforming lazy peoploids into capitalist übermensch and leaders into visionary bodhisattvas. 

Secondly, as some academic studies have shown, there is a fine line between motivating values and repressive corporate ideology masked as empowering leadership – this is what Frank Zappa beautifully grasped with his fine line between “kneeling down and bending over”. Thus egalitarian leadership ideology becomes a powerful neo-liberal force, a paradox of total individualization (competence, accomplishment) and total instrumentalization (corporate mobilization or you’re out). The same smell of totalitarian exclusion can be found in other well-meaning initiatives, such as corporate excercise programmes (no fat employees!).
I have a suggestion for a corporation who wants my money: Choose some surprising values, like Confusion, Bureaucracy and Laziness. Or even Hostility, Chaos and Indecision. At least I know you have proper humour rather than the insipid value of “enjoyment/fun”.
[For academic critique, see J. Carette & R. King: Selling Spirituality, 2005; K. L. Salamon: “No Borders in Business”, in Bewes and Gilbert (ed.): Cultural Capitalism,  2000; and for Scandinavian readers, J. Haviv (ed): Medarbejder eller modarbejder, 2007; books by K. L. Salamon, K. M. Bovbjerg. A more positive treatment can be found in P. Heelas: The New Age Movement, 1996, The Spiritual Revolution (w. L. Woodhead), 2005, Spiritualities of Life, 2008]

Written by Jesper

July 9, 2010 at 02:07

A lecture in hyperreality; or, why academese matters

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I am deeply troubled by the lack of sustenance I give this blog, and I apologize profusely to any readers. Nevertheless I have been busy with writing a paper for a conference on religion and locality; in it, I attempt to elaborate some on my concept of the satanic milieu through an investigation of the concept of milieu itself. The following is an excerpt from that paper which should eventually be part of my dissertation.
A recurrent issue in the 40 year history of the concept of the cultic milieu is the pressing question: WHERE IS THE DAMN THING? Similar to definitions, theories, models and other academic tools, the milieu is an exercise in analogy and imagery – modelling and thus reducing reality into manageable chunks. In essence, it is virtual. But to visualize it, we should at least revisit some older answers. Prior to the discursive, spatial and virtual turns of the past 15 years, the concept of milieu was usually understood through CULTS (sociological), COMMUNITIES (ethnographical) or CURRENTS (historical).

To take the last framework first, many historical analyses of the “occult”, or “esoteric culture”, or “hermetic thought”, understood these phenomena as an undercurrent, tradition or counter-culture in the West, alongside the natural sciences and Christianity (eg. F. Yates or M. P. Hall’s Secret Teachings left). Although granted a certain amount of significance, especially in times of visibility such as the Renaissance and occult explosions of the late 19th century, early 20th, the 1960s and the 1980s, it was still considered deviant or anti-establishment. In addition, it was a “tradition” of beliefs; disembodied, textual, cognitive, and sui generis. In short, curiously a-historical and essentialized.

Pre-spatial sociological models of a “cult milieu” focused on the cult and cultic innovation (eg. R. Stark & W. S. Bainbridge’s work). In contrast with the history of ideas-approach, it was located inFrom Stark: Religious Movements, 1985, p. 164 the activities of entrepreneurs and the resultant groups that were formed around them. In this way, history became intertwined with market models and genealogies of specific cults; here Bainbridge’s model of Scientology (right). The representation is linear and causal, lacking a network structure to capture the fluid activities of the individual believer as well as the broader currents within which entrepreneurs and groups are situated.

From Stark, Religious Movements, 1985, p. 134To be fair, some sociologists reacted rather differently to Colin Campbell’s proposal; for example, Roy Wallis’ studies of the Growth movement attempt to model the links between principal ideas, practices, groups and sources in a way that suggests multi-linearity and genealogical chaos. His bubble structure (left) – which by the way should be visualized in 3D, so you need goggles – seeks to capture the overlaps and interrelations within and between “sectors” in the Human Potential Movement; or the “milieu” within which it is located. Naturally, it is a reduction, a snapshot; but because of that, it is visually appealing and actually quite useful both in the classroom and in research. It is relatively easy to extend it to encompass the cultic milieu as a whole or reconstitute it with a new center; as such, modern Satanism in various guises can be placed in the lower left corner or made a core around which other Left-Hand path groups, esotericism, witchcraft and so on are placed.

The final understanding of milieu is the ethnographic one of communities, whether based on affective ties, style, subculture, market or practitioner-client relations. Some empirically oriented researchers have attempted to “find” it; for example, Heelas and Woodhead’s Kendall study isolates the “holistic milieu” in an English town. Similarly, Danny Jorgenson has studied tarot in the “esoteric community” at a specific site in California (Jorgensen, 1982); in earlier articles, he seems to strain on the un-substantial nature of the cultic milieu and opts to concentrate on the community of leaders and devotees within groups and the relations between them. In the later, more definitive study (1992), he has come to terms with the encompassing nature of the milieu and, parallel to Wallis, place the “esoteric community” in the centre of a relational chart (right), thus anticipating the ambiguity of territoriality and virtuality I endorse. Nevertheless, while I accept this interpretation as a possible operationalization of the theory, rooting the metaphor of “milieu” in concrete “ecologies” or “habitats” of practitioners, businesses, network and participants, and then relating these to wider networks of communication, I think a significant element of the theory is nonetheless lost.

The cultic milieu is a virtual space. While grounded in observations, it is obviously not an unity “on the floor”, but an construction of “fuzzy” homogeneity “after the fact” that integrates the discursive and hence social practice of both practitioners and participants. In other words, the concept of the cultic milieu connects the levels of structure and agency through a network of networks, simultaneously conceptualized as a sociological entity “with consistent features at a level beyond that of constitutive groups and actors” (Redden 2005: 233), as a fluid discursive space of cultural materials from which to appropriate and to which rejected knowledge flow, and as a collective imagination of the seeker “ethos” – that of self-religion. The concept of milieu can thus be used to analyze individual trajectories of consumption, the constitution and dissolution of groups and offers in a “spiritual marketplace”, the constitution of this milieu in various submilieus, and the broader interrelations of the cultic milieu and mainstream culture.

Accordingly, we could profitably locate the cultic milieu and the individual vectors within it through ever-widening circles stretched out between what Helen Berger and Douglas Ezzy has dubbed “individual seekership” and “cultural orientation” (2007): The individual participant; local affiliations and “scenes”; organized groups; the satanic milieu with discursive communities and influential texts; the cultic milieu of which it is a part, and finally; occulture, interacting with popular culture, mainstream society and orthodox “culture”. Pathways exist within and between all of these levels, and socialization of Satanism can take many directions, blurring the boundary between margins and mainstream considerably.

I call this the extra-dimensionality of milieus: As they are of a virtual kind, they exist as a potential or an extra dimension on “orthodox” everyday social life, invisible unless you are aware of them. For example, the New Age substream exists in a shop in a side street, or the friend or family member that “goes New Age”, or an invisible lecture circuit, or TV-shows (many of them on networks marketed for middle-aged women), or fairs and conferences, and so on. Of course, other submilieus are more marginalized and less embedded in concrete scenes; the satanic milieu is a case in point. But it still exists as books on a shelf in the bookshop, or media appearances or small groups of peers – and all submilieus are visible online. Because of this extra-dimensional character, the milieus can appear anywhere and are actively embedded in various “dwellings”: bodies, homes, concerts, summer parties, academies and so on. While the cultic milieu is necessarily an abstract, sub-milieus can be concrete in both historical and social perspectives.

This notion of virtuality and fluid locality is influenced by Arjun Appadurai’s concept of scapes, “fluid, irregular shapes” that are “deeply perspectival constructs” (Appadurai, 1996, p. 33). His theory of globalized culture presented in Modernity at Large (1996) is thoroughly de-essentialized, as the “disjunctive order” of late modernity cannot be understood through “center-periphery models” (32), but must be reframed as interrelated “dimensions of global cultural flows”. Cultural processes today should be studied as local “implosions” of global flows (ibid.: chapter 7 and 9) and thus be conceptualized along fractal, polythetic and chaotic lines (ibid.: 46). Translated into this discussion, the cultic milieu is a “religioscape”, both created in subjective imagination and manifest in concrete social institutions and practices, as “the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (…), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility” (ibid.: 31). It is both an “imagined community” (Anderson, 1991) or a “community of sentiment” (Appadurai, 1996), and situated in sociological abstractions that extends on geographical and territorial metaphors, such as “intermediary social spaces” (Heelas, 2005) or “invisible religion” (Luckmann, 1967). This conceptualization of the cultic milieu grasps the complexity of a reality that is both inside and outside, both imaginary and social.

Written by Jesper

May 19, 2010 at 13:06

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