Sunday, 1 August 2010

Hyper-real religions?

It's taken me a long time to post this link. I can agree with some of what Mark Dery says here, perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much I had enjoyed his take on the pop culture presence of Nazism (previously posted on this blog). Kraken Rising: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgeist Mascot adopts a typical [postmodern] media studies approach to popular culture, which certainly yields some valuable insights. It demonstrates how the [unfortunate] predominance of McLuhan as media theorist in the academy is parallelled in cyberculture. According to Dery, computer geeks who believe the "medium is the message" are only too happy to identify with their slimy, tentacled counterparts:

"...the octopus was the poster animal for the...techno-transcendentalist strain in digital culture. Embodying the profoundly anti-modernist (and inescapably religious) dream of healing the rupture between language and meaning, signifier and signified, the octopus “does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.” This, said McKenna, is “the essence of a more perfect Logos, a Logos not heard but beheld.” Forgetting that visual imagery is no less culturally contingent and historically contextual than words, he envisioned the use of VR to “change vocal utterance into visually beheld colored output,” which he believed would “telepathically” communicate linguistic intent through “the unambiguous topology of meanings beheld,” as if visual representation and subjective meaning were a seamless whole, and not subject to the same semiotic slippage that bedevils language. Anyway, we can dream, can’t we? “In the not-too-distant future, men and women may shed the monkey body to become virtual octopi swimming in a silicon sea.”

Of course, I'm equally intrigued by the slippages between ethology and cultural anthropology, just as much as I was in the adoption of the generic "alien" as the mascot of rave culture. Both creatures are tool users afterall, making it easier to compare and contrast their respective cultural significance (the "alien" was previously highlighted on this blog). Dery also references the spread of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos in this context, arguing that it runs parallel to, but is not congruent with, the cephalopod "meme" (the use of this term is itself a clear indicator of neo-Darwinism's pervasive cultural influence). According to him, its adherents are more ironic in their attitude to moral truth and literal fact.

What does the sociology of religion have to say about all this? I am thinking here particularly of Adam Possamai's "Yoda Goes to the Vatican", which briefly touches on Cthulhu cultists. He too sees the Internet as playing a formative role (hence the Baudrillardian resonance of "hyper-real" religions) in the growth of such alternative religions, particularly among young people who are equally savvy with technology and pop culture.

To my eyes though, it is unfortunate that he and Dery- the latter ironically refers in passing to "memes"- make no real allowance for the "science as culture" thesis, commonly associated with STS (Science & Technology Studies), which could have shed some light on the central conceit of the Cthulhu Mythos. Afterall, nowadays various science advocates, not least Richard "memes" Dawkins and Paul Davies, give greater credence to the idea that life originated from outer space (with Dawkins crediting a sophisticated alien civilization) rather than from God:

Here is another science fiction representation of directed panspermia:

Dery is therefore a little off target when he claims that all Cthulhu cultists are necessarily postmodern ironists: why settle for irony when the idea of panspermia means one can now selectively draw on scientific authority to legitimate their own brand of "cosmic horror", irrespective of how willfully perverse and implausible this appears to the rest of us? And dare I mention Cthulhu cultist Darrick Dishaw, who dreams of the day when he can perform human sacrifices in his rituals, along with other unsavory practices? I can't see any irony at work here.

Moving along, this is not really that surprising, given how science has in some cases clearly mutated from occulture. Consider, for example, alchemy's relationship to the development of modern chemistry, and how figures such as Aleister Crowley were feted by the literati of their day; comprised of theosophists and amateur scientists. Indeed, the occult periodical press came into being to publicize occult ideas, to support emerging occult institutions and settle disputes within a counter-public sphere of occultism, and to legitimate occult knowledge in the dominant public sphere in quasi-scientific terms of validation.

In a similar vein, Darwin's legacy has tended to reinforce Lovecraft's influence on another religion cited by Possamai- namely, the Church of Satan. Like Crowley before him then, Anton LaVey drew on literary and (pseudo) scientific influences.The Church's doctrines are accordingly not theistic, but rooted instead in mechanistic materialism. This emphasis eventually led to a split in the Church, which resulted in the formation of the Temple of Set. The latter attempted to highlight intelligence as a distinctive attribute of human beings, but I can only guess that this stance made them seem a little out of step with the neo-Darwinian sentiments of most Satanists (or perhaps they were simply less opportunistic). This may have been their undoing (in contrast-- tellingly-- LaVey may have died, but the Church of Satan remains an ongoing concern).
I do agree with Possamai though that these religions cannot be dismissed as mere escapism. My point is not that the burden of proof shifts to theism alone, or that relativism is the only option (as implied by the characterization of "hyper real" religions). When assessing the relative merits of any of the belief systems I've discussed here, the important distinction
is between:

"...philosophical rationalism of which the hallmark is deduction, and the inductive empirical workaday of normal science. This blurring leads one to easily dismiss theism on scientific grounds. Fern Elsdon-Baker rightly, in my view, points out that while some versions of theism can be empirically refuted (e.g., literalism which supports Young Earth Creationism), others can only be philosophically denied (e.g., philosophical Deism). The empirical inductive tools of science are of limited scope, and to assert that something is a scientific question does not make it amenable to scientific methods. Words are not magic".

There is something else that the overuse of "postmodern" tends to lose sight of. As Mark S. Morrisson has argued, the dialectic is between esotericism and the exoteric. The former involves ideas of secret knowledge that are directly experienced, leading to union with the divine. The latter refers to the public dimensions of religion, including church institutions and publicly propagated knowledge. This is a process that has been going on in counter public spheres since the late nineteenth century. The advent of the Internet has of course aided the dissemination of these ideas, but I believe the novelty of the situation should not be exaggerated through an over-reliance on McLuhan-esque cultural critique. Testing the concept of "self-religion", as developed by Paul Heelas, with reference to Morrisson's dialectic, seems like a more worthwhile exercise. Self-religion initially appears incompatible with the kind of "real externality" characteristic of "cosmic horror", but I can't really comment until I read Contemporary Religious Satanism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jesper Aagaard Petersen.

In any case, Possamai's focus is more on how religion started to openly mesh with popular culture in the 1960s. With him and Dery specifically mentioning Lovecraft, it's also interesting to note (in addition to the i09 article on Lovecraft in Japan) the following:

Tatsumi's book [Full Metal Apache] is useful not only as a guide to works we might otherwise have overlooked but also to works we thought we knew well. He makes us aware, for example, of Yasuo Nagayama's "postcolonialist rereading" of "Godzilla," particularly Nagayama's insight that the monster may have had his genesis not in a nuclear mishap but rather in "a pseudoreligious and pseudoscientific theory championed by 19th-century Shintoist Masumi Ohishigori" -- new information for most readers.

"Deeply influenced by the rise of Darwinism and paleontology, Ohishigori," we learn, "came to invent an amazing theory that located the origin of man in dinosaurs born of Japanese gods." Some of these divine dinosaurs, Ohishigori's followers believed, survive deep in the ocean, and when one recalls that Godzilla seems to have emerged from the sea, one feels certain that the monster's creators had Ohishigori's theory somewhere in the backs of their minds.

Whether this amounts to cosmic horror in the truly Lovecraftian sense remains to be determined. If I ever get round to looking at this a bit more closely, I'd be interested in investigating the extent to which the passage of such pseudo religious and pseudoscientific ideas into the Japanese public sphere mirrored the process described by Morrisson, and whether they too could be construed in the terms of Possamai and Dery.

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