Guttershaman – Of Avatar and Otherkin…

8 April, 2010

“…stories dramatize ideas and truths that we all intuitively recognize. Although these stories are not exactly ‘true’, they nonetheless offer a kind of Truth that is more compelling than hard facts.”

Rabbi Cary Friedman, ‘Wisdom from the Batcave

“Believe nothing,
No matter where you read it,
Or who has said it,
Not even if I have said it,
Unless it agrees with your own reason
And your own common sense.”

The Buddha

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It’s an interesting time to be writing about belief and religion.

Consider, for example, the Avatar Otherkin.

Otherkin, for those of you who’ve not come across the concept, are people who believe they are (in some sense, be it spiritually or literally) non-human. There are lots of variations of this belief – some feel they are elves, vampires (in all flavours from Anne Rice-y to Twilight-ish), werewolves or dragons – others believe they are entities from what we usually call fiction – such as inhabitants of the Matrix, anime characters… or, recently, Na’vi from Pandora.

I trust I don’t have to explain what Avatar is.

What’s especially interesting to me (as someone who not only has a lot of sympathy for people looking to fiction for their spiritual metaphors but also who was involved with Otherkin earlier in my occult life) is not just how quickly this particular strain of Otherkin have emerged, but how vehement some of them are concerning their rights.

The Na’vi Anti-Defamation League were founded only a few weeks after the film was released. Their purpose is “to monitor and take action upon groups and individuals who are promoting hate speech and anti-Na’vitism against fans, Na’vi-kin, and followers of Eywa.” Now admittedly they’re a small group on Live Journal… but nonetheless, that they exist at all is interesting to me.

Why Avatar was the film which stimulated such strong feelings – among many people world-wide, not just the rather specialised area of the Otherkin community – is of course not entirely known. Some have suggested it was the exaggerated realism of the immersive 3D environment and computer graphics, or that its (to some folk) rather diluted version of classic mythological themes allows it to appeal to a wide range of viewers – or it could be simply that it’s the biggest hit movie of our time. For whatever reason, it’s become a major metaphor – to the point where Palestinian protesters in Gaza dressed as Na’vi when on protest.

After seeing Avatar, I have to say that all the criticisms – from plagiarism to white guilt – have justification. (A nice cumulative bitchslap version of them all here.)

But, you know, Smurf Pocahontas jibes aside… parts of the film still made me weepy with the sheer mythic aptness of it all. That much-maligned plot – a crippled warrior, twin of a dead scholar, seeks healing & truth in another world he enters through (more-or-less) lucid dreaming, finds magic powers after trials and ends as a fusion of his old and new cultures – None More Miffick.

You can certainly make a case that Na’vi spirituality is a watered down appropriation, a morass of once truly authentic cultural memes reduced to their lowest common denominator… but probably not to someone like me, whose view of the value of authenticity in mysticism is, shall we say, a tad harsh. It could be that the diluted Deep Green/Gaia Consciousness of Avatar simply fits some folk better than anything that other mythos of the world can offer.

And of course you could also make a case that Otherkin – Avatar or otherwise – are just mad. That they’re taking their imagination and wish-fulfilment too far, that they’re just sad fanboys-and-girls who’ve played one too many role-play games.

I wouldn’t.

For one thing – every religion or belief system looks crazy from the outside. All of them. Yes, even yours.

For another, these sort of beliefs are not only becoming more prevalent, but they’re also starting to be recognised as a legitimate expression of spirituality in our post-modern (and increasingly – I hope! – post-Judaeo-Christian) world. The sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai has coined the term “Hyper-Real religions” to describe them, and I’ll be coming back to that idea much more in later posts. Short version for now – people trying to seek meaning in a world where trust in traditional top-down belief structures has failed them often look for new myths to try and work out just who they are. They’re often a lot less picky about how ‘true’ something is for it to be ‘real’ to them… and there’s an awful lot of mythos to choose from these days. The end result – Otherkin, the Jedi religions and much else.

The Tribe of the Strange has a lot of overlapping sub-groups. The Venn diagram for ‘SF fan’, ‘occultist’, ‘tabletop role-player’, ‘BDSM/kink practitioner’, ‘polyamorist’, ‘Pagan’, ‘computer programmer’, ‘comic book reader’, ‘cosplayer’ etc. will often show a lot of people in any one category having at least two of the others going on. Unsurprisingly, they all feed into each other… so that, for example, the roleplayer  – whether in the form of tabletop or computer gaming or sexual exploration – will see a parallel between what they do in that state-of-mind and carry it across to their spirituality. (And if you’ve not yet experienced the kind of intensity which a good role-play session can create, the heightened unreality that nonetheless feels, at the time at least, utterly true and real… then your opinion is, shall we say, uninformed.)

But like any bunch of tribes, there’s a certain amount of internecine warfare going on among the conversations between them. (Drop words like ‘furry‘ or ‘Gorean‘ into some of those conversations, for example…) The degree of snottiness involved usually stems from one group having a perceived status over the other – of being more ‘real’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘proper’ or, my old fave, ‘authentic’. But there’s a phrase from one of those overlapping groups that fits pretty well here.

Your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.

Why not draw inspiration from a myth you know isn’t based on fact? Why does that idea harm your beliefs? For some folk, it just suits them more than the half-true (at best), ‘legitimate’ religions of the world. Some mystics would bluntly state both come from the same source (one version of which is Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace). Some would even say it’s more honest than insisting a blurry, ancient myth structure is unassailable truth. At worst, it’s a new perspective, a different angle from which to view the numinous signals that inspire all faith. (Assuming of course that you’re not one of those believers who’s utterly certain theirs is the One True Way…)

There’s nothing at all wrong with drawing on avowedly fictional sources for definitions of your personality, mysticism, even sexuality. The trick is, as I’ve said often before, being able to step away from that viewpoint from time to time, to consider it as if real, not as real. And to be fair, many of those who identify as Otherkin do so. It’s nowhere near as simple as these people suddenly deciding they’re a dragon and not actually thinking about what that entails…

From my experience in these realms, that’s actually hard to do. There’s something deeply attractive, even intoxicating, about getting some confirmation that not only are you not like everyone else, but that there are people similar to you who feel much the same way. The dichotomy of being an individual and being part of a tribe, combined. For me, finally, it was a good and beneficial place to visit, but I couldn’t stay there. For others, it’s a perfect fit. Same could be said of any faith or perspective, really.

But there’s no question that once you permit the possibility of a belief based on fiction having as much validity in consensual reality as established religions, all sorts of interesting problems occur.

Such as the one which sounds an awful lot like a bad joke, that starts “this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…

More on that next time…

“The movie is the modern equivalent of oral tradition. The indigenous people would transfer their theology and ancestral through storytelling. Those stories were mythological from modern standpoint, but still maintained identity in their cultures. Avatar is our equivalent of oral tradition.”

http://nadl-org.livejournal.com/1011.html

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Post Script:

I’m far from the only occultist to note and draw inspiration from the Otherkin – the clear leader in this field is Lupa, whose drawing together of the Otherkin impulse and older shamanic aspects (such as shape-shifting) is well worth your time. Start here with her piece on Shamanism & Subjectivity. This old thread at Barbelith is also worth reading.

If you feel drawn to looking at the Otherkin community further, you could do worse than looking at the forums at Otherkin.com. But if you’re going to comment, don’t be so impolite as to troll or stir it – for one thing, they’ve heard it all before.

And a big retrospective thanks to the Elves – you know who you are…


What she said

10 March, 2009

Lupa’s latest post on her Therioshamanism blog underlines something I think is vital to remember about shamanic, magical and religious experience – that it’s subjective.

All I can really say for sure is that my subjective reality is real to me, and that it is necessarily filtered through my subjective perceptions. I would wager that a good part of the reason that other practitioners experience things so differently in a lot of ways is because their perceptions–if not their experiences in their entirety–are also subjective. I would also add that it’s very likely that as my expectations about the world, conscious and otherwise, shape my experiences, that it’s also likely that others’ experiences are shaped by their own conscious and unconscious expectations. If you expect that shamanism is like in anthropological accounts where it’s a highly violent, dangerous thing, then that raises the chances that your shamanic experiences are going to be violent and dangerous. Likewise, if you expect that journeying is safer than dreaming, then you’re more likely to have safer experiences.

I can clearly see where my own expectations about reality, and spirituality, and related concepts, resemble my experiences as a shaman. And I can see where my perceptions also shape these experiences. Therefore, at this point I’m going to maintain that while it’s not impossible that there’s an objective spiritual reality, I strongly believe that spirituality is heavily subjective regardless of the existence (or not) of objectivity.


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.)


Subjectivity 2 – The Revenge

10 January, 2009

I suspect my last post may have prompted the odd ‘what the fuck is he on about’ moment.

As I’ve said before, minds tend to work well when given a metaphor to sift ideas through. I’ve been spending a lot of my down time (well, most of my life really, but it seems to have been especially on my mind recently) trying to put my thoughts about belief, trust, religious and philosophical categories into some kind of form I can express.

Everyone has some opinions about such – and everyone has strong opinions about the kind of music they like (and especially the music they loathe). It struck me just how similar the expression of those can be – hence the last brain-spurt.

The music/belief parallel can be stretched further. And I’m gonna.

I have several friends who think very highly of The Smiths. I, to put it mildly, do not. Among these friends I’ve noticed an odd tendency towards evangelism… every single one of them has, apropos of nothing in the conversation at the time, suddenly tried to convince me of the genius of Morrissey at some point.
And I have to say to them;
‘Seriously – I don’t care how influential were, how Morrissey’s lyrics epitomised the Thatcherite zeitgeist or how ‘good’ a guitarist Johnny Marr is. I think they suck. Listening to them hurts my head and makes me stabby. Morrissey couldn’t write me a fucking shopping list.’

Despite this, I still love those guys who tried to convert me. I don’t hold their (dreadful) taste in music against them and, indeed, there are several bands we enjoy in common.

Which one of us is right? What’s the truth here? Were they wrong to try and share their love for The Smiths with me? Am I just too narrow-minded to appreciate the subtleties of their oeuvre? Or The Smiths really and truthfully a bunch of overrated whiners?

There is no right answer to these questions.

I know damn well my dislike of The Smiths (or Linkin Park, or Coldplay-Who-Are-Shit) is utterly subjective – just the same as my love of Gabriel-era Genesis, 13th Century Troubador songs, the voice of Lisa Gerrard and Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for ‘The Fountain’ is.

But there are those (my dear friends are not among them, I emphasise) who will cheerfully tell you that The Smiths are the best band in the world and anyone who doesn’t think so is an idiot. Or that the music of Bach is ‘inherently superior’ to that of Robert Johnson. Or that ‘jungle music’ is damaging to the soul.

Those kind of folk are rather harder to have a conversation with.
It’s not what they believe – it’s how they act upon it that matters.

I don’t have any problem at all with people believing something different about the nature of the universe than I do.
I don’t even mind them being passionate about their beliefs and expressing that passion to me.
I do have a problem with them telling me that they are indisputably right and that I am stupid/deluded/evil for believing otherwise.

But what about things that are absolutely true? Not subjective at all, like musical tastes, but testable facts?

I would say that there really aren’t that many such absolute facts, and that even these are mostly subject to interpretation.

And this pisses off two superficially different, but fundamentally (pun intended) similar groups – the Christian Fundamentalists and the self-styled ‘Rationalists’.

I’ll be picking a fight with them both soon.


Subjectivity

7 January, 2009

I have a friend who is unable to utter the name of the popular beat combo Coldplay without adding the phrase “…who are shit”.

Now, I am sure that there are many people in the world whose opinion of Coldplay differs from his. After all, they are a very popular band. There are likely many folk for whom Coldplay is the epitome of contemporary rock music and who have found deep emotional and personal resonance with their work.

But you won’t convince my friend of this. You could play him track after track, attempt to point out the lyrical expertise… it will not shift his opinion. His loathing for everything Coldplay stand for comes from a very deep place – his conception of what is ‘good music’ is only one factor, I am sure.

Now, unless Coldplay do something utterly miraculous, or my friend undergoes some kind of transformative experience, this will not change.

But who is right? Are Coldplay shit?

Well, yes. They are.
But not as shit as Linkin Park.

This is the entire history of human religious debate in a nutshell.