The Black Helicopter

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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