The Black Helicopter

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Cycles, Storks and Satanists: A Talk with TheoFantastique

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See http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19720619,00.html

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

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

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