The Black Helicopter

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CAM: Some random ramblings

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Ulf Buck, Rumpologist. Borrowed from http://www.skepdic.com/rumpology.html

 

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 http://skepsis.no/blog/?p=1826 and the links at the bottom, and http://skepsis.no/blog/?p=1847]

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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

Contact: Random ramblings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jesper

March 6, 2010 at 23:29

A bit of necromancy and a bit of methodology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jesper

March 4, 2010 at 15:18