The Black Helicopter

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Posts Tagged ‘cultic milieu

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]

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 psychohistory of Mystics and Messiahs

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It has been a while. I wanted to blog on the movie 9, but I couldn’t get my head around it – strange post-apocalyptic imagery, a rather conventional narrative and allusions (and direct references) to Paracelsus and esoteric conceptions of body, soul and spirit, combined with a somewhat gnostic metanarrative. Great movie, anyway.

Instead, I put my energy into closing my re-reading of Philip Jenkins’ historical beauty, Mystics and Messiahs. Cults and New Religions in American History (OUP 2000). I slated it for re-assimilation (with a pen this time) because of two things. Firstly Manly Palmer Hall; Sahagun made a few references to it, and it seemed natural to move from close to distanced analysis of the cultic milieu in space and time. Secondly I skimmed D. Frankfurter’s Evil Incarnate (Princeton 2006) and Jenkins’ short piece on Satanism in J. Lewis’ Oxford Handbook on NRMs (2004) when I wrote an article on Satanism, violence and transgression; this made me recall how valuable his analysis was, especially for another article on Satanism, popular culture and the use of H. P . Lovecraft (the violence piece will be published by OUP in the book Violence and New Religions, the second one in a book from Brill, although I am all too late).

In a sense, Mystics and Messiahs is gray and patiently documentary as we move through the cycles of cultic innovation, societal reaction, moral panic, temperance and new innovation. Understandably, this is very entertaining anecdote-wise. The period covered is about 1800 to 2000, where the wheel turns at least 4 times – panics arose around 1830, 1870, 1930 and 1980 with “awakenings” around 1800, 1850, 1880, 1920 and 1960 – although the book concentrates on the parallels between the interwar years and the cult scares of the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless the value of Jenkins’ analysis is not in the details provided, although they are many, but in the scope of his analysis, the observed pattern and the attention to popular culture and occulture.

Regarding scope, I really like books that synthesize a lot of information; that makes my own synthesizing a lot easier. Jenkins is well read and covers important as well as striking groups and individuals with small vignette-like discussions, while frequently backtracking and connecting rhetorical tropes and specific trajectories. I got a real sense of the importance of California, the “cult milieu” and the rise of tabloid media through his chronological treatment. Theoretically, Jenkins lies between the more economic and market-oriented analyses of eg. Stark and Bainbridge (The Future of Religion, 1985 is a good collection) and the more discourse-oriented milieu-centric analyses offered by C. Campbell, Roy Wallis and later Chris Partridge (read The Re-Enchantment of the West, vol. 1-2, 2004-5).

On that note, I never liked the definitions of “cult” and “sect” provided by Stark and Bainbridge; connection to “established” religious institutions and recognizability seems too theological to me. On the other hand, their distinction between “audience cult” (one to many, mediatized), “client cult” (one to one, privatized) and “cult movement” (imploded) is brilliant, specifically when combined with the cultic milieu as background. Roy Wallis’ criteria of epistemological authority and societal tension are much more useful, because groups designated as cults and sects are able to evolve within the conceptual scheme of cult, sect, denomination and church. In essence, Stark and Bainbridge make a theological evaluation, while Wallis makes an organizational one. With Wallis, “cult” and “sect” are polar opposites on a scale, but they can evolve into each other; with Stark and Bainbridge, “cult” and “sect” are logical opposites because of their relation to mainstream society and origins. Thus, a cult can become a church and produce sects, but cannot become a sect in itself, as a cult is produced by fission, innovation or “sporulation”, and a sect by schism.

So both use Campbell’s “cultic milieu”, but in very different ways. Stark and Bainbridge concentrate on religious vitality in the west; when traditional religion is strong, sects are prolific; when traditional religion is weak, cults form. Apparently cults cannot imply schism (although a break from the cultic milieu itself is common – look at the rhetoric on Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan after 1975, for example). In contrast, Wallis looks at new religious movements and categorize them according to internal and external criteria: If totalitarian and leadership-prone, sect; if tolerant and individualistic, cult. Both form from established organizations and the cultic milieu.

Luckily, they can be selectively combined, and I do so in my classes on new religions as a market-perspective, with practitioners, participants, audiences, clients, shops, confidentials and fairs; a milieu-perspective, with tourists, seekers, entrepeneurs, submilieus and occulture; and an organizational perspective, with NRMs, apostates, leaders, devotees and so on. Here, Stark and Bainbridge grows out of Wallis’ initial demarcation, and it seems to work. No textbook in the typewriter yet, though.

All of this is somewhat irrelevant for Mystics and Messiahs, but it felt good to get it out. And a good thing is that Jenkins also selects quite irreverently from sociological theory. He doesn’t care about distinguishing cult and sect (p. 12-18 and note 16 and 18 in ch. 1), and it doesn’t matter until the last chapter, where I feel his future suggestions “towards respectability” is strictly about sects (p. 227-30) and the discussion about  mainstreaming in “oddity and orthodoxy” is about cults and the cultic milieu (p. 230-36). The “cult(ic) milieu” (p. 6, 8-10) and Stark and Bainbridge’s tripartite cult-categorization works fine together with a moderate constructivism, especially regarding anti-cult rhetorics on social problems.

This takes me to the second value of Mystics and Messiahs, namely the suggested pattern or “eternal return” of cult emergence and anti-cult reaction (see p. 13 for the basic model). One funny thing about prognostication is sitting in the future and reading about it – Jenkins suggests a new peak in cult emergence around 2010 (p. 20). If so, I have a job. On a less silly note, there is something really cool, almost psychohistorical about this sociological model. Even if hard-line nomothetical interpretations are discarded, there still remains a cycle of innovation and reaction, where new turns both ignore and selectively appropriate earlier cycles, which is brilliant for prognosis.

On the one hand, memory is preciously short-ranged – a generation or so. Apart from a few historians, sociologists and movie-buffs, nobody remembers the shudder invoked by “voodoo cults” in the 1930s and 40s. When I teach about NRMs, no student knows who the Moonies are and how terrifying they seemed to “regular folks”. The pattern and the recurrence of rhetorical claims of anti-cult activists are thus a colossal blind spot in both media and policy making, as well as for people at large.

On the other hand, there is a selective appropriation of material from earlier periods, both in cultic innovation and in anti-cult rhetoric. For example, the claims of voodoo cults, human sacrifice and ritual murder in 1940s pulp fiction are reproduced in the 1980s Satanism scare literature (p. 135-48, 214-15), and the theory of the cultic milieu specifically targets the wider “cultic memory reservoir” from which cults and sects construct and disseminate their discourse and practices (as well as recruit members). The whole point of proposing occulture in a cultic milieu is to call attention to what lies beneath individual cults and seekers. As such, the book’s extended scope that reaches back to the 1600s facilitates a backtracking which shows the limits of human imagination quite nicely; atrocity catalogues are rather narrowly defined, as are most occultural ideas and practices. For example, Thomas Edwards Gangraena (1646) anticipates most modern cult beliefs and practices as well as anti-cult claims – and yes, he equates heresy to gangrene.

Now we arrive at popular culture and occulture, the third aspect of the book worth mentioning. In contrast to other studies of cults and anti-cult movements, moral panics and demonologies, sociology takes a back-seat to historical reflection of mediatized networks. It is still sociology, but of a more ideographic kind. Good examples are the chapters “Black Gods” and “The Cult Racket: Anticult Campaigns, 1920-40”, which gives the reader a very interesting background for the present-day worries through a detailed analysis of charges: Confidence tricks, sexual perversion, insanity, primitivism and murder. The material spans anti-cult literature, pulp fiction and newspaper exposés, and provides us with a much more comprehensive catalogue of “cultural paths” into the rhetoric of the “killer cult” through re-interpretations of cults from exotic other to local threat.

For example, when Marines were killed in the American occupation of Haiti 1915-44, it was “solely for the sake of the cooking pot” (p. 114, quoting R. Loederer, 1935). The same Loederer remarked that

“only at dead of night could they gather together in the secret places of the forest and celebrate their ancient rituals. On these occasions, the primitive instincts of the blacks were given free rein, and the monotonous rumble of the tom-toms inspired demoniacal dances, mad drinking orgies, and sexual frenzies.” (p. 115)

The same combination of racism and sex is invoked in Fred Miller’s 1913 tract Fighting Modern Evils that Destroy Our Homes:

This as illustrated by the tale of “how lovely Mrs. Prince was fascinated, the fell – a victim to the sad voice, the unctious [sic] personality and the seductive smile of a pagan priest lover from a tropic land where heathen lust-gods rule.” Mrs. Prince fell victim to one of “these swarthy, black-eyed, magnetic, and persuasive priests from the far East”. Miller warned of these “unclean abominations” and exposed (…) “How some of our fairest women listen to the voice of the fire-eyed Oriental and lose honor’s precious jewel.” (p. 129)

This view is promoted by popular movies, journals and books. As today, you do not have to be a fundamentalist Christian cop, worried social worker or daring reporter to be influenced by anti-cult claims; rather than actively seeking information, we are passively “primed” by it, as it is disseminated in popular culture.

This aspect also infuses Jenkins’ discussion of the cultic milieu; for example, the chapter “The First New Age” illustrate the fermentation in the cultic milieu 1870-1920, both through material from the spokespersons themselves and from popular receptions and reinterpretations. As with the biography on Manly Palmer Hall, we get important genealogical trajectories of religious imagination from historical studies such as these, as well as a much more contextual understanding of “conversion” and “recruitment” (or “fit” and “priming”). Esoteric and alternative currents have been here for hundreds of years and they have been popularized for at least 150 years by both adherents and sensationalists.

An interesting dimension is that both NRMs, anti-cult groups and the general public actively and passively engages in what Michael Barkun calls “fact-fiction reversal” (see A Culture of Conspiracy, 2003). In conspiracy culture, he writes, fictional narratives are consistently read as fact (as true accounts of motives, subtle indoctrination or desperate attempts at disclosure), while academic knowledge in general, and especially factual intervention, is considered fictional (as cover-ups or misdirection).

This can be translated into a general strategy in the cultic milieu; H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, for example, and the Cthulhu mythos around it, is used both naively and reflexively as a “true” esoteric current to be used as philosophical literature, symbolic thinking or ritual components.  Al Azif and the Necronomicon has been published several times, and the Cthulhu mythos figures in rationalist Satanism (see A. LaVey’s Satanic Rituals, 1972, p. 175ff and Barton’s The Secret Life of a Satanist, 1990, p. 159ff), esoteric Satanism (see M. Aquino’s The Church of Satan (p. 177ff, 617-19, 654-57, 691-710) and Temple of Set (351ff) e-books or the website of the Satanic Reds here and here for good examples), Left Hand path ritual magic and Chaos Magick (Stephen Sennitt’s The Infernal Texts: Nox and Liber Koth, 1997, includes texts from “The Nameless Sodality” on Cthulhu mythos) etc etc. The frequent appeals to EOD (Esoteric Order of Dagon), The Starry Wisdom Sect and other Lovecraftian groups are also, aside from the obvious appeals to tradition, curious fact-fiction reversals, as new groups with these names substitute fiction with social fact.

As a side note: Although most groups (eg. the Church of Satan) sharply differentiate outer reality and the imaginings of the ritual room and thus retains some sort of genre specificity, some unaffiliated seekers, especially younger ones, go beyond play and into delusion. That is no problem in itself (all religion is willing delusion, so to speak), but it becomes a problem when some invisible line is crossed. The same can be said about the frequent appropriations of traditionalism, fascist aesthetics and nazi occulture; there is “play with gray” and there is unhealthy political leanings. An interesting socio-psychological study could be made on these crossings – perhaps Keith Kahn-Harris’ reflexive anti-reflexivity is a starting point? And on a discursive level: when is play with nazi trappings fun or educational (esoterically speaking) as transgression and deconditioning, and when is it a smoke-screen for political idiocy?

To get back to fact-fiction reversals: Parallel to occultural appropriations, however, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, alongside William Seabrook and Zora Neale Hurston, for example, keeps alive notions of racial atavism, primitive backwater cults with “tom tom pounding” and human sacrifice, and subversive forces in the shadows. In other words, what I enjoy as brilliant horror literature (and the occasional role-playing evening) and what religious practitioners use (seriously or not) as magical tradition and ritual symbols, can be embedded in other rhetorical contexts outside the cultic milieu, namely anti-cult fears and moral panics. Whether these fact-fiction reversals are conscious or not, they supply viable stereotypes and powerful atrocities that works in a media context. These, in turn, can find their way back into the cultic milieu and supply additional material or even legitimation as they are re-embedded into yet other discourses.

Written by Jesper

April 30, 2010 at 15:06

The “possible sexual component” of Water Angels

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On vacation, I finally found the time to finish the biography Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall by Louis Saragun (Process 2008). I knew little about this “huge avocado of a man” (3) and I mainly chose the book because of the pictures, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a highly entertaining biography of a person who in himself is an important piece of the puzzle that is American occulture.

Manly Palmer Hall is not so much an original thinker; he is rather a mediator (or “teacher” in his own words) of “practical wisdom”, mainly through lectures and core texts such as The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), Lectures on Ancient Philosophy (1929) and Meditation Symbols in Eastern and Western Mysticism (1988).  His impressive career spans 70 years – he arrives in Los Angeles in 1919 and dies in 1990 – producing some 50 books, 8000 stenographed lectures and several journals while networking with celebrities in both entertainment, business, politics and esotericism. Ideologically, he follows the development within the cultic milieu from New Thought and Theosophy over violet rays and other funny tech-stuff to self-help, with a good dash of patriotic apocalyptics thrown in (112). This makes brilliant reading in itself, but there is more…

In a sense, Hall’s total persona (central works, mythic biography, connections, activities) is a microcosmos mirroring the cultic milieu in the same way his introductory volumes seem to work as gateways into the network by mimicking the associative mind map structure of the milieu itself. I have been working a lot with the concept of the cultic milieu now, and I find the de-territorialized, virtual space of practitioners, media and audiences helpful when dealing with global flows of occulture; at the same time, local manifestations of this virtual milieu, such as the Californian esoteric milieu around Hall and his Philosophical Research Society (now an accredited university) are necessary empirical re-territorializations of the total concept. In essence, we can choose to study one or the other (or both, if we’re overly ambitious), but we have to relate them in order to explain the total process encapsulated in the theory of “milieus”. Thus popular studies such as Saragun’s supply valuable material for theoretical reflection, and Hall could be considered a “critical case” study; he is a well-funded nook in the cultic milieu, supported by the Lloyd family and thus able to produce and network in an entirely different league than our “ordinary seeker”. I developed three embryonic projects along these lines while reading the book.

First off, Hall’s extensive archive of newspaper clippings is a goldmine in understanding the cultic milieu in a genealogical light. We are only introduced to a few examples, but he apparently collected the ads of all competitors as a clever trendspotter (see chapt. 1 and 2, especially pp. 26-34); for example, Pneumandros, the “World’s Ablest Philosophic Critic”, would surely be forgotten if not for the diligence of Hall. Although a teacher and not a Teacher, I have done the same for some years now (my personal favorite is Bettina, the holistic hair stylist), and I think a book is waiting to be written on the connection between confidentials and advertisements and the cultic milieu as mediatized network, tracing the development from newspapers, journals and books over ads in occult shops to meta-sites on the Internet.

Secondly, Hall is more of a conservative esotericist, advocating discipline, patriotism and the “secret destiny of America” during the war; later, he was squarely at odds with the counter-culture as he was pro-Vietnam (196-97), anti-drugs (191-92) and anti-modern art (187-88) (perhaps an esoteric Elvis is an apt metaphor?). As with a lot of pre-WW2 esotericism, he also entertained occult racism and dreamed of eugenics and meritocracy (104-5, chap. 4, 167-171). Because of the Summer of Love and the myth of the counter-culture promoted by commentators and participants (with roots in eg. Annie Besant’s political engagement, perhaps?), popular esotericism and New Age discourse has this vague smell of Leftist egalitarian engagement about it. It is easy to forget the connections that can be made between perennialism and political currents: liberalism, patriotism, fascism, conservatism. Or social Darwinism, racism, nationalism, traditionalism and evolutionism, ideologies that span the entire political spectrum. 

In fact, evolutionist occulture is not odd at all; I think it is the norm when we move back in time. Perhaps this is actually found in embryonic form in the Romantic project with its dual focus on the spiritual aristocrat or genius artist (that develops the self) and the folk with a soul and voice, connected to blood and soil. Indeed, the combination of evolutionism and individualism can explain much about modern-day esotericism. Crowley, for example, was definitely counter-cultural and quite transgressive, but he also practiced patriotism and a moral re-orientation that needs some explanation and understanding not to dismiss as elitist fascism. Early Theosophy’s talk of root races, The Great White Brotherhood and the complicated hierarchy of beings also seems somewhat … problematic today, and is at odds with their humanistic goals of unifying mankind unless you accept the ideological framework. Paganism in the various pagan revivals is intimately connected to nationalist movements, as were the völkisch currents in continental Europe before and between the wars. Much modern New Age is rather crass, condemning Jews and Muslims as “undeveloped souls” slated for karmic destruction (see eg. Damian Thompsons The End of Time). Naturally, esotericism has something inherently elitist and essentialist about it; self-development, secrecy, initiation… but it often flows into vast catastrophic scenarios for the undeveloped masses.

Sometimes Hall is more of a classical liberal; self-help means doing it yourself, and nobody has the right to interfere. Other times, he is more of a conservative patriot (I was frequently reminded of the National Treasure movies, especially when reading about the search for Bruton vault and the lost Shakespeare-manuscripts made by Francis Bacon) or a social Darwinist racist (as when he implies Canadians to be a proto-sixth root race. A good test is to see whether the evolution raises one race/ethnicity above the rest or actively denigrates others). So while it is easy to conflate and confuse political positions and esoteric goals, at least we shouldn’t accept the combination “benign Leftist New Age discourse” as the only expression of esoteric politics – aristocratic perennialist conservatism, egalitarian bourgeois DIY-occulture or neo-fascist nationalism are other possibilities. (Important inspiration can be found in Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World on Traditionalism, N. Goodrick Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism and Black Sun, Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy and Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism).

Thirdly, Hall himself and the various odd characters around him are well represented in the book and give a good impression of the changing styles from the occult 1920s over the patriotic 1940s to the New Age of the 1980s. Look at the picture above; the “Byronic pose” and dramatic cape are indicative of the flamboyance in his life (and yes, it is a William Mortensen and they were friends in the 1930s). He dated Hollywood, doing film treatments and hypnotizing Bela Lugosi. He mingled with the Roerich’s in New York. His career started in a phrenology shop in Santa Monica. While reading the book, you just have to share anecdotes and insanities. And this is where the water angels come in.

You see, Hall had an addiction to enemas late in life. He was also into donuts and malted milk balls, vitamins and cathode ray therapy, healing and blood crystals, but apparently enemas – up to two a day – was the thing. While being a personal health project with his wife Marie early on, they assumed center stage from the late 1980s, supplied by Dr. Fritz and his son (if you need a personal colon cleaner, “Dr. Fritz” sounds safe). This is quite relevant for the “wellness revolution” of today (chronicled by Paul Heelas and Christopher Partridge, for example); as with other elements, Hall was in the avant-garde of spiritual enemas (or perhaps practical spirituality, chap. 5). Which by the way aided in killing him in the end by softening the mucous membranes of the rectal tissue and upsetting the electrolyte balance, as his personal physician, Sterling Pollock, comments (165, 254, 271).

But I digress. What I find very interesting is the double legitimation of so-called “Water Angels”, a colon cleanser marketed by the International Bionics Society (later promoted by Biogenics under Dr. Fritz), and invented by Edmund B. Szekely (163-166). The Water Angel is not just legitimized through pseudo-scientific rational discourse of nutrition, detoxification and other health issues – Szekely claimed that Jesus himself stood behind the spiritual enemas. Using a private translation from Aramaic of a secret Vatican manuscript called The Essene Gospel of Peace (published in 1936), he argued the antiquity and traditional authority of the Son of God vouched for his apparatus:

In that gospel, Jesus urges a group of followers to cleanse their “hinder parts” with an “angel of water”: a colonics device made from a hollowed-out gourd filled with “river water warmed by the sun.” “No man may come before the face of God,” Szekely quotes Jesus as saying, “whom the angel of water does not let pass.” (163)

Thus, the rational authority of “science” is supported by the traditional authority of age and provenance. And Hall, who ironically claimed that modern medicine “was in it for the money”, dutifully submitted to “internal douches” to treat his various ailments. Of course, this type of alternative medicine is part of a wider current; another of Hall’s healers, William Gray, claimed that female indigestion, eczema, bronchial trouble, shortness of breath and heart strain resulted from a “dormant clitoris nerve” (159). Luckily, Gray could channel an electric current through his hand, always under the blouse or skirt: “Close friends of the Halls said that upon contact, the muscles between Gray’s left shoulder and elbow would expand and contract like an electric pump”. Well, yes. But then again, Hall’s wife’s sister Agnes states that the water angel had a “possible sexual component”.

Dr. Fritz, by the way, who was definitely in it for the money, ran a pre-natal dolphin retreat in Hawaii before being Hall’s personal colon cleaner. “The Hawaiian Prenatal Cultural Center”, aka “The Stairway to the Stars”, nearly killed off 1 of 10 white middle-class women submitting to various spiritual health exercises (245-48); reacting to the drama of emergency rescue by helicopter, he exclaimed:

I blew it in Atlantis, but I’m not going to blow it here!

What a beauty.

Written by Jesper

April 9, 2010 at 14:37

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