Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dancing Between Raindrops

We are born of stone and etched by wind.
Cast aside to live or die; we are the pawns in our own game.
Like refugees of silent wars, we step on ever-shifting ground.
Promoting what we undermine.

For countless days we walked alone,
Directionless and vulnerable; sitting targets wearing smiles...

We lie embraced in the arms of Dawn, the fading echoes of pointless time...
- Assemblage 23, Anthem.

We are what we think; this sounds obvious enough to just about anyone that spends some time laboring over the consideration of it. What we can conceive of, what we can describe in abstract thought or otherwise, depends on having a meaningful way of describing it. If I do not have language to describe a thing, then I will probably never spend any time considering it for very obvious reasons.

There is a specific “magic,” illusory and often forgotten in the mire of daily life, to language. In the Beginning there was the Word, and the Word was God. And from the Word, the Logos, came the Mythos. From singularity into multiplicity and back into singularity again. Round and round the tangle goes; and where it ends: no one knows.

I knew this magic instinctively as a child. I learned to read late; shifting school districts and towns, from poor areas and then 'up' into the lower middle class, meant that different techniques for teaching reading were given to me, but no specific space of time to understand it. But I knew, and remember, wanting to read. I knew that inside books were fucking worlds. And that I was denied those worlds, which everyone else took for granted and which made me seem so stupid and insignificant, and this was something I would not abide.

One day it all clicked together. From children's books – Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears – to Tolkien in the span of a month. The same pattern was repeated with mathematics; I couldn't quite understand what I was being told, and then suddenly it all came together and revealed itself. I cannot describe what the experience of having that happen, but I can happily remember expressing it to several teachers: “It just clicked.”

I had learned one more tool, too, which was patently taboo for any child to begin using: I learned to lie. I learned that those around you will easily underestimate you, and that gives you an advantage. And so in the same year I read Hamlet, just after my first decade of existence, I was given an IQ test to determine if I was mentally retarded. My access to thought-worlds and mathematics, easily dividing fractions and multiplying things inside my mind, had been hidden by a series of lies: “I can't do that. I don't understand.”

This had occurred for two reasons:

  1. When I'd finally learned what I'd lacked and realized I could read or multiply or divide things that many people cannot accurately do in their minds, and early on, I was either told that I “couldn't” do it.

  2. Or it was assumed that due to the fact I'd been slow to master simple techniques, I'd instead learned to cheat. (I had in fact learned to cheat; but it was far more fun not to cheat, be accused of it, and then demonstrate your teacher's ignorance.)

This sounds like rationalizing bad behavior, namely my own. And it is. I do not feel guilty for my actions in my formative years; if anything, there is a lasting desire to question anything handed to me from figures of authority who presume to know “better” both about other individuals, and the world in which we exist. This hostility towards hierarchy is in fact a bit of a flaw and something it's taken a long time to deal with so I can at the very least maintain the necessary functionality when contacting the rest of society. Other people respect authority figures and invoke the weight of status, often without even realizing it. Every time you read the words: “eight out of ten doctors agree!” status and power of a conscious type has been invoked. Those who have access to concepts and ideas we do not have an advantage over us in that we need to rely on them. This isn't a bad thing. This is the way our society functions, but it has drawbacks. For example: the birth control versus religious belief debate that has emerged in the medical profession during the last decade. Even though these doctors have access to privileges, ideas, and information we need, they might deny it to us if they disagree with it on seemingly fundamental basis that topples when examined from the outside. But from the inside, inside their own minds, they can easily justify it on religious grounds.

I had to pull out of the debate I'd tried to spark with Peregrin recently because I was getting dangerously close to resorting to ad hominem verbal attacks. This would have done several things (two of which being):

  1. It would have undermined my position as a 'rational equal'.

  2. It would have re-doubled the 'moral position' of my opponent, by showing them to have acted rationally while I had become flummoxed and verbally irate.

I was well aware of these factors, semi-consciously at least, and had stumbled into the back yard to have a cigarette and re-think my relatively angry and irate commentary so that it might be less antagonistic, while also embodying what I wanted to say. I did not, in fact, come to the “spiritually advanced” conclusion of this. The universe, sensing my desire (or so I might conveniently say, inspiring mystery for the purpose of just that and because it's fun), gave an according response. The electrical circuit that my computer is running on got overloaded (hey man, it's an old house) and my comments were erased from existence. I typed up another entry instead of responding to the debate, using my time constructively and humorously instead. I seem to have been rewarded for this in that the issue that flummoxed me has now actually been resolved and data has come into my possession, ironically just due to the chance desire to start reading a new and interesting book, which resolves it quite nicely.

What Peregrin had said was this: “Before accepting that practical works as a consistent method I would like to see a social group, like Wiccans, show how it works in a tangible manner. If you know of a series of surveys that shows this, please refer me. I take it you are aware of Tanya Lurhmann’s work showing how magicians of all stripes alter their reality to believe practical magic works?”

What he'd done was invoked the authoritative status of one Tanya Lurhmann. You may or may not know of her work; in the late 1980s, as a result of her doctoral thesis in Anthropology, she published a book titled Persuasions of the Witches Craft. The desire she'd expressed was to study how, in an age of rationality, people could come to believe magick might be real, and that spirits might exist... To explain it she introduced a term: interpretive drift. The basic idea is that using a wide range of potential interpretations, the believer 'deludes' (though not in such explicitly condemning terms) themselves into believing they are right. This is, of course, one of those invoked powers that is hard to contend with. At the time I went with what I knew; I noted that in a very brief two pages of the book Lurhmann concedes that interpretive drift can and does work both ways and cites examples of where she'd presented with experiences she couldn't understand or conceive of, and so she “explained them away” intentionally.

Of dear Tanya Lurhmann, a Dr. Ronald Hutton, Ph. D., has quite a bit to say. (See? I just invoked my own status figure, a rival “academic God” or “linguistic sorcerer” who has similar status and features to one Tanya, excepting of course that he is a historian.) In his Witches, Druids and King Arthur he devotes an essay titled Living with Witchcraft. The essay is about his experiences writing the excellent Triumph of the Moon. (I have recommended Triumph a few times before, but let me do so again: this book is worth reading for anyone interested in magick and the 20th century, not just witches and wiccans.) In it he discusses the framework for social anthropology that existed in the Ivory Tower, the framework that Tanya Lurhmann and others used to come to their published conclusions. This framework was characterized by the anthropologist becoming a “social actor” and donning the “guise” of their subject, but to show objectivity was expected to be shed after:

By the 1980s this approach was producing some notable successes. David Hayano, writing about poker players in American society, recorded that 'after several years I had virtually become one of the people I wanted to study.' Liza Dalby, examining the culture of the geishas of Japan, worked as one herself until she learned how to behave and think automatically as they did. The most relevant work of this sort for scholars of witchcraft was Jeanne Favret-Saada's account of traditional beliefs concerning bewitchment in the countryside around Mayenne in western France, published in French in 1978 and translated into English in 1980. She stated roundly that in the nexus of witchcraft beliefs 'there is no room for uninvolved observers.' In order to understand them properly, she had to engage in them, by being taken for and behaving like a betwitched person herself, befriending those who thought themselves similarly afflicted and seeking relief from local 'unwitchers'. In 1990 Favret-Saada reconsidered the implications of her research and reinforced them, with the declaration that 'participant observation is an oxymoron... If I tried to observe, that is to keep my distance, there would be nothing left for me to observe.' The new orthodoxy declared in all this work was that the anthropologist had to 'go native' in action and thought; but not to stay native. Dalby did not remain a geisha, while Favret-Saada never took up the work of an unwitcher herself and never adopted a literal and personal belief in witchcraft. The ideal was now that the anthropologist should assume a cultural role like an actor taking on a part, and then shed it when the work was done... It was to this ideal to which Tanya Luhrmann felt obligated to adhere...”

By the end of the decade some practtioners were already starting to realize that it had weaknesses which made it questionable in virtually any conditions. One was that it retained the assumption that the beliefs and attitudes of the people studied were valueless in themselves, and that the anthropologist would accordingly suffer no loss in shaking them off at the end of the project. The second was that it turned the researcher into a form of impostor, an undercover agent for a different culture who acted out membership of a group before leaving it and throwing off the disguise. This aspect of Luhrmann's own work was, it may be remembered, criticized explicitly by a professional colleague, Katherine Ewing, in 1994. Ewing included this specific expression of doubt in a general attack on the philosophy of research which underpinned Luhrmann's approached: 'By creating a blind spot, by placing a taboo around the possibility of belief, anthropologists have prevented themselves from transcending the contradictions embedded in a situation in which the imposition of one's own mode of discourse interferes with the project of representation.' More bluntly, she declared that 'the taboo against going native results from a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one's research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist: it is a refusal to believe.*'” (P. 285-287)

By placing a value judgment on experience, specifically types of experience, it becomes easy to refuse to acknowledge them. This is readily enhanced by not having the conceptual and symbolic tools to create a framework in which you might move and understand what you might be looking at. By assuming that the claim of spirits and magick was invalid, Tanya Luhrmann was forced to find another means to express the claims that the “witches” she was encountering made. This rested on the fundamental assumption that they were deluded, and by acting like she was one of them, she had them conceptually arm her so as to bring about the destruction of the things they claimed mattered to them. This is of course clearly hostile to any salient study of a subculture by an anthropologist, and not much different from the social assumptions that ironically led to a resurgence in interest in witchcraft itself.

In order for my claims that thaumaturgy, like the rest of magick, actually worked to appear debunked, Peregrin mimicked this position of authority. One would have to produce Empirical Evidence. I noted that this was showing a value judgment, as the same things can't be shown when one is discussing Mageia. I cannot empirically prove the Genius exists. No man can, and he agreed with this stance. Nonetheless what followed was that if we claim to “influence” the world we have to show it; the same way, one begins to think, that you'd “show” it if the influence was microcosmically. How? By being very considerate. A very kind, very spiritually assisted and uplifting individual...

What emerged from this dialogue was two things: we weren't talking about the same magick, even if the term is the same. I see the possible ramifications of magick all around me; manifestations of word and will and imagination – those formative things that a sorcerer needs – expressed in places, described in different ways. Advertising is a type of magick. Rather than moving 'away from the evil sorcerers' of the advertising world, I suggest we all become our own advertisers. It's already being used, and in unethical ways, so we might as well exploit the same potentials if we want to become better at what we do.

I'm not describing a rational process; the framework might indicate we can discuss the irrational in a rational way, but that doesn't make magick “magically rational” or even “sane.” And those that claim the sacred ground of rationality may very soon, in the next few decades, that the ground they hold will be getting far smaller:

“A few weeks before I wrote this essay, I had a private conversation with a neurophysiologist at UCSD (University of California San Diego), who passed along some stunning insights he'd gathered from his research on the human brain. It seems that although we like to perceive ourselves as rational, reasonable creatures, carefully weighing our decisions before we commit, the fact of the matter is precisely the inverse. We arrive at our decisions through emotional sensations, acting 'from the gut' at all times. Our reason enters the process only after the decision has been made, and acts as the mind's propagandist, convincing us of the utter rightness which underlies all our actions.” (Mark Pesce, The Executable Dreamtime.)

Now, this isn't actual evidence. It is 'inside information', but believe me when I say that I'm looking forward to such things being released into the public and post them here if I find them. However, I could point to a case where what I call magick exists in a termed framework that isn't explicitly “magickal.” The placebo effect sounds an awful lot like magick to me: a belief that something will work, because some form of Magical Authority said it would, thus causing physical and sometimes cellular changes in the organism. Up to fifty percent of the time (the ratio a test drug must exceed so that it defeats the potential of the placebo effect). The nocebo effect, likewise, is interesting too and there the magical links are more explicit.

I have a lot more to say, and so when I get back from LA I'll devote a few more entries to the issues I've brought up, and consider a few more angles. I will also be finally writing a technique for visualization enhancement that I've 'conveniently' forgotten to write down more than a few times. I've been quoting Austin Spare a lot lately, and so I'll end with another bit he quipped at one time or another: “art can contradict science.”

* Italics mine.

Image from Hellblazer 252 or so. Can't really recall, but it's one of my favorites.

Be seeing you (in dreams or otherwise),

St. Jack Faust: preparing for the Grand Opening of LA's The Hoodoo Factory with a bright smile. (Discordian Saint; Grand Poobah of The Tradition of Wankery, and Bastard Messiah.)

How's that for titles?!


The Scribbler said...

The practice of anthropologists "passing" as a member of the group they are observing reminds me of the problem first identified by subatomic physicists that the observer has an effect on the observed.

We all tend to live in the world we imagine it to be. Case in point is an old cynical bastard in-law of mine who thinks everyone is a liar, a cheat and a thief. Lo and behold. With an alarming frequency that defies the odds, he is lied to, cheated and stolen from.

If you go into a community of witches and occultists convinced that they are deluding themselves, first of all you are going to attract a group of people who are deluding themselves (since such people do exist in the world of magic and witchcraft), and what you will be given to see is the things they do that seem evidence of delusion.

I think one of the benefits of zen/buddhist-types of meditation is that they give a person the ability to simply watch things sometimes, with a minimum amount of expectations. There is a greater possibility of seeing what is actually happening.

I realize that I just almost contradicted myself, since I'm suddenly saying there is a possibility to be an "objective" outside observer of magical phenomena. But what I think I'm trying to say is that so-called scientists are rarely as objective as they think they are. They go into their experiments with beliefs and paradigms to defend.

Killer titles, by the way. I'd bow to anyone with that authority. ;-)

Austin said...

Dig it.

I would also add:

People confuse "rational" with "empirical." "Empirical" means it can be observed with the physical senses. "Rational" means that the subject has a structure which can be described, at least in part, with a series of rational statements.

Following the work of the British empiricists, the two terms have become perpetually conflated in the English-speaking world. They are not the same.

It is interesting to note how empiricism, as an epistemology, or approach to truth, makes it virtually impossible to learn anything about the mind itself. it is a specialized filter for investigating physical phenomenon. In this regard it has been fantastically successful. However, the empirical approach to studying the mind is a stunning failure, and is responsible for the absolutely dismal state of psychology in the U.S. right now.

Rufus Opus said...

Dude, why do you even engage in this kind of shit? Instead of just blasting Peregrine with a rail gun, you play tonsil hockey in online debate...

::follows Peregrine link from post::


Do you also punch amputees on their stumps to see if their ghost limbs bruise?