Tomorrow – two sides

30 January, 2009

So it seems to be Pimp Bruce Sterling Week here… but seriously, if you’re not reading Sterling you’ve a major gap in your worldview.

Here in Seed Magazine, he offers two contrasting views of the modern calamity – one written as himself, the other by his fictional Italian twin Bruno Argento.

The Chairman:

As 2009 opens, our financial institutions are deep in massive, irrational panic. That’s bad, but it gets worse: Many other respected institutions have rational underpinnings at least as frail as derivatives or bundled real-estate loans. Like finance, these institutions are social constructions. They are games of confidence, underpinned by people’s solemn willingness to believe, to conform, to contribute. So why not panic over them, too?

Il Capo:

I will venture to predict something that seems to me obvious: Eight years late, the 20th century has finally departed us this year. It will never return.

The “true” 20th century — the Communist century — began in 1914 and ended in 1989. We are now in the true 21st century.

After 1989 we enjoyed a strange interregnum where “history ended.” Everyone ran up a credit-card bill at the global supermarket. The adventure ended badly, in crisis. Still, let us be of good heart. In cold fact, a financial crisis is one of the kindest and mildest sorts of crisis a civilization can have. Compared to typical Italian catastrophes like wars, epidemics, earthquakes, volcanoes, endemic political collapse — a financial crisis is a problem for schoolchildren.

As ever, I suspect the truth falls somewhere between these – but for all our sakes, hopefully more on Bruno’s side of things.


Quote of the day

27 January, 2009

“With that sweet, frank way she had of cutting to the core of an issue without ever delivering anything useful, Rabbiteen Chandra was the very soul of bloggerdom.”

From Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker’s latest collaberation, the short story Colliding Branes.


God and pasta, stoning and scorn

24 January, 2009

“They’re just your beliefs. They’re not real.” – Bill Hicks

“Death to all fanatics!” – Old Discordian saying.

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What people believe and how they act on the basis of their beliefs fascinates me. Consider the Flying Spaghetti Monster .

You know the story, I’m sure… a silly alternative to Xtian creationist ideas is created as part of a reductio-ad-absurdam defence against same, resulting in a wildly successful internet meme, a book, and a new ‘religion’ along the Zen-comedy lines of Discordianism and the Church of the Sub-Genius.

One of the truly great things about the FSM website is that they regularly publish examples of their hate mail. Shockingly, the vast majority of such comes from people who identify as Christians – and these missives can be roughly split into two types.

First are the straightforward haters – either vicious or condescending, they implore/cajole/heap scorn on the very idea of the FSM, having apparently undergone a satire bypass at an early age. Here’s a good example:

this is the dumbissst thing i have ever heard……..you think this is ganna make fun of christians then you are a fool! cause the god we worship is real…. and we dont eat him… by the way well pray for you your ganna need it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -brittany (sic)

(It seems ‘brittany’ is unaware of that whole transsubstantiation thing…)

The rest mostly consist of reciting Bible quotes and concepts in attempt to refute the position of the FSM ‘believers’. Like this:

“For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” (1 Chronicles 16:26). “You shall not make anything to be with Me – gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.” (Exodus 20:23). “What you have in your mind shall never be, when you say, ‘We will be like the Gentiles, like the families in other countries, serving wood and stone.’” (Ezekiel 20:32). “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:3 (Deuteronomy 5:7, Judges 6:10, Hosea 13:4″ -Jerry

(The comment threads on the hate mail are tremendous fun. Often the Xtian poster will attempt to defend their position, with high-larious consequences.)

Here’s the part I just don’t get… why do people think that quotes from their holy book will convince people who are not believers of that holy book? I know the theory – their holy book is The Truth and all those who deny The Truth can (and should, and will) be eventually convinced. The theological version of going to a foreign country and believing the natives will understand you as long as you speak English LOUDLY. I just don’t understand this mindset.

That sort of certainty about your beliefs might seem just funny, or naive. But it’s precisely that sort of fanatical certainty which leads to such ‘righteous’ actions as killing women’s health providers to ‘save’ foetuses. Or execution for apostasy.

Apostasy is a fascinating and horrible concept to me. Although it’s mostly known these days for quasi-judicial murders in Muslem (or Muslem-contested) countries, the less immediately fatal version – the outcasting and stigmatizing of those whose belief in the One True Truth of their family and culture slips – also has terrible effects.

(There seems to be a small spate of apostasy among the pagan community at the moment – several well-publicised examples of former pagan people converting either to Christianity or Atheism. I would note that the majority response of pagan commentators has been to respect these decisions and call for wider interfaith dialogue. No fatwas, no bombings. I prefer this.)

The entire idea of being punished for apostasy ignores (and condemns) the possibility that a person can have a genuine change of heart about what they believe. Of course those within the monolithic grasp of a single True Religion regard those whose personal beliefs change (and, dare I say, evolve) over time as having ‘weak faith’. I could get all Zen and say, “is the willow which bends in the wind weaker than the oak which breaks?” Or I could say, “fuck ’em”. Or both. Depends on the mood.

I have always thought the problem isn’t what you believe, but what you do about it. For instance, my-Beloved-the-ex-neuroscientist-shaman went to college with a Fundamentalist Discordian. Back in her college days, her email handle was ‘eris’. Another student complained that this disrespected his deeply held beliefs. (My Beloved’s reply was to send him occasional emails saying, “Hail Me, dammit!”.)

Dealing with fanaticism and the many differing ‘deeply held beliefs’ in modern society is not going so well. Rather than trying to find a middle ground where those of different beliefs (incluuding the belief that belief itself is wrong) can talk like grown-ups is being pushed aside in favour of a spate of governmental and international initiatives to classify expressing disbelief or satire of someone elses faith as a ‘hate crime’. Especially, by pure coincidence I am sure, those faiths where the believers in question has a habit of killing (or sueing or protesting) those who make fun of them.

Apostasy, criticism and satire are not hate crimes. They are part of a person trying to understand what they and others believe and why. Sometimes that means showing disrespect and scorn for another belief. For that matter, believing one monolithic system is automatically going to be blasphemy to a different belief.

Though I dislike scorn for no reason, or purely out of xenophobia, scorn of fanaticism is utterly justified. I even think it’s necessary. But it can also be a trap – it can easily lead to exactly the same level of fundamentalism as those one is scorning. The best route, I think, is to apply the same humerous and scathing approach to your own beliefs as much (or better, even more than) those you disagree with.

(Oh – and feel free to express scorn for my beliefs. Just don’t expect a free pass when we debate because you have The Truth.)

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“Our motto is: ‘Sincerity is not enough.’ We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it’s true doesn’t make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn’t mean you are not doing harm.” – The Unitarian Jihad

“Criticism is the only known antidote to error.” – David Brin

(Thanks to the Metapagan news service for some of the links.)


No hay banda!

24 January, 2009

Been on a bit of a David Lynch binge the last couple of days – with both Beloveds away, I can induge those pleasures neither appreciates. As ever, that man’s movies get me all kinds of mystical and Mason Lang-y. (More about Mason and his odd tastes in movie criticism later.)

So, without further ado, featuring the talents of Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Richard Green and the glorious voice of Rebekah del Rio… the Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Dr.

(Interesting postmodern analysis of the movie – spoilers galore – and the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ here.)


Honey and the apocalypse

21 January, 2009

David Wong, author of one of my favorite books of recent years, John Dies At The End, has a remarkable post up at his site. It’s about Israel and Xtian hopes for armageddon. And honey. And ants. And chili peppers.

Trust me – just go read it.


Guttershaman – The Authentic Shaman

20 January, 2009

‘Of course the Chinese mix everything up – look at what they have to work with! Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.’ Egg Shen in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

(Disclaimer: I am, to quote Jim Jarmush’s great film Dead Man, a Stupid Fucking White Man. I have no formal training in the deep mysteries of any native ‘shamanic’ or tribal tradition – of any single tradition at all, for that matter. I am just a product of my time and place, trying to find my way. That perspective is the basis for all that follows.)

The title this time around is a misnomer. There are no authentic shamen. Not any more.

The term ‘shaman‘ is a specific one. It refers to Tungus-speaking tribal practitioners of folk magic and spirituality. They were wiped out so completely by Soviet and Chinese Communism that Western ‘neo-shamen’ from Michael Harner’s school came over and instituted their own versions of ‘shamanic’ practice to replace the native tradition. So that makes anyone claiming to be a shaman – neo or Gutter or otherwise – inauthentic.

The idea of shamanism we have today, which draws ideas from many different tribal and native traditions (via anthropology, which co-opted the term), is likely a very different thing than the original Siberian form. The word ‘shaman’ has become a placeholder, a symbol for something else – usually describing various interpretations of traditional and tribal spiritual praxes involving a rather borderline position to the rest of the tribe, consciousness-alteration and ‘travelling’ to spirit realms for healing and wisdom. Of course, in considering the use of tribal spiritual motifs from other cultures, we soon hit a problem… which is usually called cultural ‘theft’ or appropriation.

There’s no doubt that an awful lot of problems have arisen due to the heavy-handed appropriation of older cultural concepts. The Native American Nations have often complained about (mostly) white New Age practitioners taking elements of their practices and touting them, out of context, as a spiritual path. Interestingly, common terms used by Native Americans to describe these Newagers are ‘plastic shamen‘ and ‘shake-and-bake shamen’…

I think the key factors here are around concepts of respect and authenticity. (A third factor is, of course, commerce. That’s a big enough can of worms that I’ll have to open it in a later post.)

The respect part I get, absolutely. Barging into a native tradition and announcing you’re not only a fully-fledged practitioner of that traditions mysticism but that you’re improving it and that the natives are Doing It Wrong, is insulting and crass. “Taking the piss”, as we Brits call it.

If you’re going to work fully in a magical or spiritual tradition, I would say showing due respect to the culture it came from is just good bloody manners, as well as good sense. But at the same time, worrying about how the symbols and memes of such cultures are used (or even misused) outside of their native context often seems more a matter of colonial guilt and shame than disrespect. It’s a complex set of issues.

(Plus, some of those tribal traditions have attitudes and practices – homophobia, misogyny, isolationism, child abuse, human sacrifice – which are frankly best left to the past. Of course the actions of colonial invaders in the past were often just as vile… and I can’t offhand think of a culture that has not been invaded and colonised at some time in their past, or been the invader, or both. Like I said, complex.)

Is it cultural appropriation for a white man to enjoy (or perform) Afro-Carribean-based music? Or for an Indian movie maker to be inspired by Hollywood (or vice versa)? Or an Amazonian native to wear a Manchester United t-shirt? For a magician to use laymans versions of quantum or meme theory as magical tools?

To me, that’s kind like asking whether Crossroads Blues was performed better by Robert Johnson or Cream. Or more directly, which is better – traditional Yoruba magic, Haitian Voudon, New Orleans Voodoo or Cuban Santeria?

Cultures are always a mix of the native and the foreign, the traditional and the new. Have been ever since humans started to trade. The quote at the start states the mix of currents in Chinese spirituality quite nicely, for example. The degree of mixing changes over time and place – sometimes just a touch, sometimes a dollop. Sometimes the mixings can provide something genuinely good – like the massive upgrade to British cuisine provided by Asian immigrants in the 1970’s. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well – such as Japanese whiskey. But cultures and traditions evolve through mixing and exchange of ideas.

This is especially true of Britain, a Mongrel Nation if ever there was one (as explained in scrupulous and often hilarious detail by Eddie Izzard in his TV show of that name). The original native British (and Western European) ‘shamanic’ traditions are all but gone too, banished by the Christians… but enough hints and pieces remain in myth and legend – in our culture – to inspire a new ‘tradition’ of mystical praxis to arise. It’s not terribly authentic, in all likelihood – there’s no way to really know (though many talented pagans and historians are doing their best to find out all they can about it.). Large chunks of it have been drawn from other native traditions. But it is powerful and quite beautiful at times. At other times, it can be a farrago of confused, misquoted and misapplied traditional currents, mixed in ignorance, stirred in arrogance. The result isn’t authentic at all – no matter how hard some Newage types try to claim it as such.

No question that the Plastic Shamen and their techniques are all-too-often a hodge-podge of different traditions and practices thrown together more-or-less at random. And, I have to admit, that could be said of what I do too.

That’s part of the reason I coined the term Guttershaman to describe my path/spirituality/whatever. Most people know what shaman – and gutter – implies.

Yes, I picked up my information from libraries, other practitioners, movies and TV shows – and I made a whole bunch of stuff up, based on my experiences and discoveries. At the same time, there was always something about the shamanic concept as I understand it that called to me. The elements of being an outsider to the tribe as a whole, but still in some sense having a responsibility to it. The use of ecstatic and terrifying occurrences as a tool for spiritual development. The process of bringing something back from ‘the other side’. And, ultimately, the sense of being called to the path by something beyond the normal world. If there’s any ‘authenticity’ in what I do, it’s to that.

My wife is also a ‘shaman’. Her path, to put it mildly, differs from mine. She found that her way is Curanderismo – the Hispanic American folk practice. She has spent a long time in Peru, learning it first hand from a master whose family has worked in this path for generations. She’s also a neuroscientist by training, and has picked up more than a little of the multi-model approach to magic both from myself and her own studies. Thus when she thinks about that path, there is a degree of both distance and immersion, depending on circumstance and context.

Also… her master has taken the sacred songs (icaros) from many different tribes in Peru and elsewhere to bring into his praxis. And… that tradition is itself mixed with Catholic elements brought over by the Conquistadors. In fact, the majority of the lyrics to the icaros are in Spanish and use Christian imagery. The pure native tradition just isn’t there any more.

Is the system she follows ‘authentic’? Is it more or less so for her (an American woman of East European Jewish ancestry and a trained scientist) to practice it than for her Columbian-born, mixed-race, Catholic-indoctrinated Maestro? And is she more or less of a ‘shaman’ than I?

Put it this way – she and I both get results. And we work together great.

It’s the concept of ‘authenticity’ that gets in the way, I think. It’s like ‘purity’ in some ways – an impossible, and sometimes dangerous, ideal. Except, perhaps, when talking about being authentic to an ideal…

To feel your true identity is not based in your immediate family, your tribe, your country and its religious and social habits – but is something you sense and strive towards – is not easy. Sometimes an idea from another culture is exactly the thing you need to, forgive the term, become yourself. Sometimes who you’re born and raised as isn’t who you are. It isn’t theft to find a different culture to your own enriching – as long as you are authentic in your respect, that you strive not just to take but also to give.

As long as you don’t take the piss.

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‘Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today.

We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

…See if any of these comments are familiar:

“You should be happy with who you are.”

“Be yourself”

“That stuff’s just fake.”

“Don’t get ideas above your station.”

“Take that shit off.”

“Why can’t you be like everyone else?”

Yeah?

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society.

…But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to become someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about”. And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention.

Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.’

Warren Ellis, in Doktor Sleepless Issue 5, ‘Your Imaginary Friend.’

POSTSCRIPT – In researching this piece, I came across a lot of very interesting writing on the subjects discussed. Two I found – one long, the other very short – are especially worth a look.

(Next on Guttershaman – Culture, money and morality. Tricksters and thieves. Probably.)


Changes come…

19 January, 2009

I’ve made a major decision. I have closed the field investigations side of Athanor Consulting.

There’s lots of reasons for doing this. The main one is… I’m tired. I’ve been working in paranormal protection in some way or other since I was 19 years old, and professionally for the last six years. I’ll be 45 in a couple of weeks. That’s a long time to be fighting other peoples demons.

Instead, I’m going to be focussing on the theoretical and philosophical side of The Art, which was always calling me. I may even try to pass on some of what I have learned (other than the posts I’m making here and elsewhere). I’m looking forward to that.

It’s going to feel odd for quite a while – but it’s the right thing to do, I am sure.