The Black Helicopter

Random ramblings

Posts Tagged ‘discourse analysis

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

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