Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous
°You

"Municipal liberty is the first and most important [principle] of democratic institutions, since nothing is more natural or worthy of respect then the right which citizens of any settlement have of arranging themselves the affairs of their common life and of resolving as best suits them in the interests and the needs of the locality." - Emilio Zapata

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Habit of Body Art

I spent a month at an Orthodox Monastery in Greece this summer, volunteering on their farm.

The monastery was perched high on the slope of Mt. Kissavos at around 3,500 feet, which is in the Northern Central portion of Greece, near the port of Volos and with Mt. Olympus to the North. The monastery, populated by nuns and novices from many countries, was about 3 kilometers from the small village of Anatoli, a small cluster of white houses with terra cotta roofs hugging the mountainside. Their mountain rose out of flat alluvial plans below that stretched far to the West. The city of Larissa was in the midst of these plains, surrounded by cultivated land. Even here among the more industrial-scale farmlands, the ever-resourceful shepherds would take their flocks to glean the fields after the grass and grain harvests—things ancient and modern overlapping in a strange symbiosis. From up on the mountain at night, the summer atmosphere refracts the city lights of Larissa, which shimmer thousands of feet below the dark, Oak-shrouded balconies of the monastery. It almost felt like we were on a spaceship slowly orbiting earth. On a clear day we could also see the Aegean to the East, through the trees. Dry aromatic scrub blanketed the land, punctuated with stands of old oaks and little spruces. It was just a few hundred feet too high for the olive, lemon, and fig trees that Greece is known for, but the the air still had that hot herbal smell at mid-day. A few times a day you could hear the whoop of shepherds echoing across the hillsides, as well as the sweet clang of bells and the baaing of the foraging flocks. Sometimes we would meet them on the road to town, somehow both chaotic and organized as they flowed en masse behind their herder and around the slowly creeping automobiles. Foxes, hare, and wild boar roamed the woods, elusive, but leaving their tracks for me in ephemeral patches of mud that appeared after the rare alpine thunderstorms.

My soul feels deeply connected to that land, and to the anarchistic traditions of herding and keeping animals in rural Greece. Gates open, Horses standing aimlessly in the roads. Little sheep poops scattered across the paved roads like marbles. They seemed like sentinels that stood for the arbitrariness of borders, of property lines.

I remembered being in the Arab quarter of the Israeli city of Akko the previous summer. As I walked at night along the sidewalk of a cobblestone city street, with little cars jammed in any possible parking space, a young boy riding a pony bare-back galloped past me. The feeling came again. The strange poetry of the rustic and the modern, together. Westerners divide these things into new and old, dark and light. But really there are no such distinctions.

One sister in particular I became soul-friends with. One of the last days I was there she and I had a deep conversation in which she asked me directly and with curiosity what my tattoos and piercings meant. I was cleaning beets that I'd just dug up, cutting the tops and taproots off with a paring knife, and they were so incredibly red, almost neon in the darkening light of dusk. My body art had come up a few times before but I had always been at a loss for words. Now after working alongside me for several weeks I felt confident that my creaturely presence had articulated many things that words could not, paving the way for what I was about to say. I knew it was important, this conversation, and I had a feeling what I said would get back to the Abbess, for indeed they were all curious about this question, but not all had as much time to spend with the volunteers as this nun did. I had thought about how to speak to this Sister in a language she could understand. This was the language of devotion, of piety, of sacrifice, and also a language of love, of a sacred madness that I felt deeply resonate within me. I knew they were in love, here, even though they seemed so at peace, there was still something fiery beneath it, in a way enabling and creating the ecology of tranquility and synergy that outsiders witnessed. I could feel this being-in-love, and they did not deny it. This sister had told me that when she saw Orthodox monastics for the first time as a 20-something Lutheran in Germany, it was just like falling in love. "They had something, I did not know what. I wanted to find, what is this thing?" she explained in the sort of delightful, concise English that you can expect from someone of a foreign tongue. From then on her course was set towards that embodiment that she had glimpsed. She had drifted towards it and now she was "there," but she was still in love, and so still drifting, or perhaps being drawn by something that was Secret and Full. I understood this. It reminded me of Sufi poetry.

The nuns wore a black habit that covered everything but their faces. I also had a sort of covering—a veil of tattoos, piercings, and a red mohawk that stuck up by itself because my hair is so thick. But our two costumes drew attention in very different ways. We spoke very different languages with our bodies, but we both came to realize that our souls were doing something similar. So I said to her that the best way I could describe it was that my tattoos and piercings, which yes, involved the puncturing of the body, represented a form of devotion, too. This devotion is to the endless cycles of birth and death that characterize all of Life. Yes, it is a celebration of the body that could be interpreted as ego-centered. But the other side of this coin is that they represent how the body will soon pass away. Moreover, to me they are not meant to reveal (as tattoos are often accused of doing), but actually to show how much is hidden. They are a sort of optical illusion, a coy revelation of how much can not be known, a parody of superficiality, even a sort of whimsical self-deprecation, a dazzling distraction, a daring call to the primal eye in all of us that can't help seeking beauty, all at the same time. My adornment then is also a form of "covering" as the habit is a form of covering. But these are both positive forms of covering. Yes, perhaps I capriciously hide behind my shiny septum piercing, but it's only so that I can stalk the Beloved, my friend. We each nodded at the understanding that both "coverings" were a way of expressing that every person is a secret, which was something she said frequently to me and that pleased me very much. The beets, which I had been slowly handing, seemed to represent the bravery to bleed in front of someone else.

Another time previously she had seen my chest tattoo peeking through one of my V-neck shirts. "What does this say?" She asked in a sing-song voice. "It says 'Earthling'" I said. Her: "What does this mean?" Me: "It is from Old English and means literally someone who is from the earth. It can mean any creature, not just humans."
Her: "Oh. Yes. You are an earthling, Beloved by God!"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The black pearl that creates all value

The relationship between religion and magic(k) is something I reflect on quite a bit. To put it simply, I've often felt that magic is like a piece of grit that the 'pearl' of religion grows around. Except in terms of how we value those things, I see it as reversed—magic is the pearl, the wound, the glimmering gem of Absolute Reality, the Actual Piece of Earth… and religion is like the scar tissue that cohered around it, or the box that it is put into to "protect" it which often has the opposite effect (of dis-embedding, uprooting the Piece or Process of Earth from its ecology). There are things that both enchant and grieve me about forms of organized religion. When it comes to "high liturgy" (the type of ceremonial that you see in Christian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, as well as forms of Buddhism/Hinduism that are highly sacramental etc.) my feelings are further complicated.  Much of it is because the relationship to liturgy in the West/modern neo-liberal world is overly skeptical and I both empathize with this, but also am deeply saddened by it because it is part of a larger current of thought that completely misses the human value of ritual and embodiedness and their critical role in sacred time/space. I don't want to digress too much now. I'm actually just prefacing a poem that I want to share. I don't typically share poetry on this blog but this might be something you'll see more frequently as it's always been a deep part of my inner world, but one that I keep very private. With all my talk on this blog of mythic remediation I realize that I should try to share more of this language-art with the world.

Anyhow, this was written while I was in the middle of writing my thesis this past spring, which was at the end of two years of being very immersed in the academic study of Christian History. It might help you to know that my thesis focused on issues surrounding the symbolism of Mary (the Mother of God) in the early Christian Near East. Part of this is her coupled relationship to the Holy Spirit and the various "heretical" traditions in Syria/Palestine that conceived of the Holy Spirit as female/feminine. So this poem is a distillation of thought into feeling, a frustration with logic, with intellect…a lament for something lost. And the lament is most poignant for me because I know it's actually not lost at all.

***

There are many "secrets" in religion.
They are like pearls entombed in layers of architecture
or wounds on a tree that have long since scarred over,
where sap flowed hundreds of years ago.
They all derive from the first secret—the True Name of that which Is.
We want its power. Yet we crave its mystery. We long to whisper it, to dissolve into it. But what would we become if we no longer desired this?

Some of the secrets are sad. They're not all empowering.
In fact some mask the darkness, the Nothing.
Maybe they even censor it
(as they cense it with furls of thick, aromatic smoke)
Though it's the last thing that needs censoring.

Maybe one of the things religion enshrines is the Void. It keeps it in a golden box.
Inside is a gate. Anti-matter. Infinite space. The high-priest cracks it open for you, you peer inside. It feels like you're looking through a square-shaped hole in your universe and down through the vaulted ceiling of another one. Through one of those holes at the apex of the dome of old churches. Those are called the holes that the Holy Spirit comes through.

It's both dazzling and dark. There are stars that look like they are thousands of miles down.
Perhaps it leads to another galaxy or dimension. Usually we aren't allowed to pass through it and live.
But you also feel a rush of wind. Cold and crisp, it smells like woodsmoke in the winter. It's like breath. There is some sort of respiration that occurs through this little hole, hidden away in the Temple. A breathing between worlds.

From that same gate comes meaning. It escapes out in wisps, like incense, and overshadows us. It possesses and dispossesses.
It makes us see many visions. It helps us understand.
Whitehead says that God is that which invests the whole world with value.
The sacred is that rupture in the surface of things where something is perceived. We call that something "another reality", but really that is a misnomer, because that "something" is what allows us to even define reality. Thus, from almost the moment of its apprehension, God already begins to recede.
We wrote poems, lamentations. Come back.
That was language.
The hermit thrush's song means "a sign of the spirit is perceived".
Is the song itself the sign, or that which names the sign?
In That Place the Sign and what's Signified become one.
Mirrors do that, too. They collapse image and imagined
(this is why icons are sacred in the East)

I say that what if Whitehead's God is the Void?
Non-being is what gives all things meaning. Every atom, every electron, every molecule and cell moves away from nothing, toward itself. Toward others like it. (Btw, Bucky says "love is metaphysical gravity")
God or the uncreated Void or the Tao is that which It propels us both away from it and toward it.
in the process of propulsion, we see the sign of the spirit.
thus the spirit makes its imprint on the world like this, because it is That Which Makes All Things Vectored.
But the apophatic theologians and mystics were right because they know that you can only know it from its footprint, the track in the sand.
Tracks might be the only way we know any history. This is green hermeneutics.

The womb is a microcosm of that Gate.
The threshold between being and non being.
Where we all come from. That place that weaves together body and soul from the skeins of the universe, spun from stars, from immeasurable light.
But it's wombs all the way down, even past biological life.
It's the process of creation and destruction. It's what transforms things.
You can't say whether it exists or not. Whether it's uncreated or created.
So despite what they tell you… It's the Holy Spirit.
Shekhinah, which is both genders, and neither, because s/he is that which engenders.
She is the Dark Mother that holds you like black earth holds the thick root of a tree.

They tell you that matter can never be created nor destroyed. Does that mean that all created things are actually uncreated? That everything is the "Son" that has always existed with the Father?

Maybe once, even the universe passed through a gate.
The gate has no location.
But we must pretend it does, in order to approach it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Can Green Anarchists Reclaim the "free market"?

I think so, and it means importing new meanings of "freedom" and "market" already inherent to anarcho-primitivist/green anarchist/social ecological thought!
"An economy that embodies the principles of the gift is an economy that is simply grounded in the truth. The task before us is to align money with the true expression of our gifts." - Charles Eisenstein

The phrase "free market" has become somewhat of a lightning rod, meaning completely different things to different political factions. But to clarify things, it helps to realize that the phrase is often misused.

A truly free market would create a radically different world from that in which we currently live. From an anthropological perspective, trade and valuation of STUFF is really the root and occasion for all "politics," so it's insane that market concepts are rarely challenged on the national level—it's all but taboo since the dollar is the "invisible god" finally incarnated by the Protestants who so ardently sought it. Let us green warriors reclaim this thing they call the "free market," since some who use it have quite odd notions of freedom, shaped by neo-liberal individuality and consumerism (both only supported by severe disconnection from primal awareness/mammalian brain-processing). Our green-anarchist 'free market' would be, in fact, much like a decentralized barter/gift economy. It would also actually enable secessionist politics—allowing any municipality to institute socialistic systems provided there was consent from all participants. There would be no choosing between "left" and "right" politics. The more (most?) meaningful choice is whether you "choose" the nation-state, and with it, fiat currency. Unfortunately most of us make this choice in a de-facto way by participating in (the majority of) culture/civilization.

I used to be allergic to the term "free market," but one thing my libertarian friends have taught me that I think is really powerful is that we Americans don't actually live in a "free market." Our economy is a mixed one, which has favored synergy between government and corporate interests and fostered a terrible state of cronyism and plutocracy. Yet this state of affairs is somehow still idealized in terms of "free market" jargon, which is just pure and sinister disinformation. *This* market is only "free" to some people—and as it turns out most of them aren't even people. The sector in which this has some of the biggest impact is the trade in natural resources—especially certain commodity foods and oil. Honestly, the main reason I care about any of this is because of my interest in protecting small farms and cottage industries—hence the "bioregional autonomy" which is one of the themes of this blog.

The libertarians tend to blame the corruption on the government, and the progressives tend to blame it on the corporations.

In my view, both of these are wrong. Obviously both explanations are too simple. For one thing, they just happen to correspond to names we've created! Classic case of false dichotomy. The nature of the synergy between what people call "government" and what people call "corporations" is not properly respected. Moreover, people get tripped up by labels and forget that both of the above categories are both TYPES of power structures made up of people, and aren't really that different.

Political ideas that have the most resonance for me are similar to those advocated by the anarchistic Murray Bookchin, variously known as libertarian socialism or libertarian municipalism.
Normally people don't associate the words "libertarian" and "socialist,"
not least because of the occupation of the "libertarian" moniker by an odd constellation of conservatives, and the stereotypes about "socialism" that are too well-known and tiresome to list here. One of my main points relates to economies of scale. It acknowledges that something like democracy (direct democracy) is only really possible on very small scales, and so the municipality is far better suited for anything like "democracy" than a large, centralized gov't that counts thousands of square miles in its jurisdiction. Some liberals love to remind the anarchists that without "the government" we wouldn't have roads or other "vital" types of infrastructure—and I agree that some "libertarians" indeed seem oblivious to this fact. Yet not quite relating to either of these groups, all I have to say on the subject is: I'll only care about the "maintenance" of any large scale communication or transportation infrastructure if it doesn't contribute to terrible health, zombie-like states of mind, consumerism, and absurd levels of environmental degradation. Until then, thanks but no thanks. Don't tell me that federal infrastructure is "vital." Infrastructure might seem "benevolent" but it's one of the destroyers of genius loci—of Place. I grew up in a state with one highway and it is a weird sort of space-time vortex. A wormhole, which, if you use it too much, distorts your inborn sense of "creature-time." For the last year and a half I've lived in a place that is mostly highway. At this point I'd rather live in a world without them, and am ready to take on the full responsibility of what that means.

A while ago I realized that do support the ideal of a free market. Wait, before you leave, hear me out! I want to radically re-define it. I support it minus one important factor: federally regulated currency. Wanting a "free market" entirely transacted via the Dollar, and wanting one without the constraints imposed by a federal currency are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT IDEOLOGIES with hugely divergent ramifications. Unfortunately many well-informed supporters of an anarcho-capitalist or free-market ideal don't give this key variable the scrutiny it deserves. And similarly, too many progressives balk at the set of philosophies that associate themselves positively with the "free market" sign. One reason for this is just that we simply take currency for granted, and it acts as a God, orienting all members of the economy toward it and constraining their agency (thus actually outperforming god/s at their own game). Constrained agency isn't necessarily a bad thing—it can create great adaptive power, for example, in ant or bee hives. But I have the deepest-seated hunch that THIS type of constrained agency (that imposed by the Fed) is the Wrong Type.

A truly free market would not have the Dollar as its life-blood—it would involve barter and local currencies, and it would indeed be an amalgam of such smaller systems. Whether neoclassical economists like it or not, the economy will always be a subset of the planetary ecosystem. Ecological economists like to tout the tenet that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, but this ignores the important fact that the earth is not a closed system—it is powered by the sun (cue MC Hawking's amazing song about Entropy). I cannot pretend to fully comprehend the ramifications of galactic ecology and non-equilibrium thermodynamics, and I only ask that others not be so brazen as to suggest that it justifies some human economic ideal of 'infinite growth.' Obviously, the ideal of infinite growth is a huge problem—mostly because it's basically meaningless and is essentially a provisional justification for current behavior. But the bottom line for me is, the sooner economies can mimic natural (i.e. encompassing) ecologies, the better (they already do in some ways!) You might say, well, the Dollar helps simulate an ecosystem, because it stands in for energy. This is true in one sense, but false in another. In the wild, "energy" has many different forms and manifestations. It is only in the human-conceived endeavor of theoretical and particle physics that energy can be abstracted to equations or single units. Energy has as many forms as biotic life itself—it literally IS life! If we really wanted to test the viability of the money = energy idea, there would be only one world currency. That might actually work "better" than several imperial currencies controlling the world's economic system as they do now, but it still is very problematic, because any large-scale or global currency naturally will place tender farther from actual use value, not to mention the crap that would go down in the bankster circles. I mean look at what happened with the Euro… Must we really make that mistake again?

The Earth is incredibly diverse in its biomes—there are deserts, rainforests, boreal pine forests, marshland, tundra, and grasslands, not to mention the many aquatic biomes that we know even less about. In different terrestrial bioregions, different values are placed on different resources. Obviously several indispensable resources and processes make possible life as we know it on planet Earth—among them water, the atmosphere (including oxygen), and light. But you'll always find extreme exceptions to the normal requirements for life—things that can thrive without light or oxygen, or in extremely hot or freezing environments. Ultimately, things like sunlight, water, and oxygen potentiate the planetary biosphere as we know it. But proximately, local ecosystems and their constituent life forms place premiums on a plethora of different resources, and you or I or anyone can't possibly forecast all of them. They are, to be certain, not recognizably uniform. But notice that I said they are not *recognizably* uniform. There may be commonalities among "ecological currencies," like say if you were to measure, with scientific instruments, the calorie-value of two food sources both highly valued in their respective environments. But a "calorie" is still only a fabricated sign that corresponds (badly I might add) to a biological process, measured in a highly regulated lab setting that does not necessarily mimic organic metabolism. The point is, any and all ecological currencies are regulated from the bottom-up instead of the top-down. This means that they must all abide by certain local laws, say, of physics or thermodynamics, and all have immediate utility in the environments that created them. To put it another way, Forests don't run on electricity, at least not in its AC/DC form. And if there's a "switch" that will power down desert ecology, that same switch won't work for say, a rainforest ecology.

However, if we destroy the planet's biodiversity—like we have been doing—we are literally destroying the key factor to true "economic" resiliency. Vandana Shiva has written much about this. If all place is homogenized through development and monoculture, the true potential for novelty and diversity inherent in the earth is forcefully masked with an illusion. The illusion will not last.

"Primitive" or Neolithic human societies yield perhaps the best example of how we get from "a natural resource that supports life in a certain ecological niche" to "currency"—or something that has a socially/culturally agreed upon value in a certain area. Humans not only extract vital resources (like food, water, clothing, and shelter) from their environments, but they employ natural resources to create 'second-order resources'—tools, for example, that further aid in the gathering of the vital resources. Moreover, with the ability to be enchanted by the 'numinous' presence of materials and objects, humans fashion items for ritual, sacred, or aesthetic use. These too, are tools for extracting or procuring resources, but in this case the resources are invisible to the more scientifically and empirically-minded in our society. As you might know from reading this blog, I find this oversight incredibly detrimental to preserving and understanding the wealth of human knowledge and participation with ecosystems. Things that acted as the "first" indices of value in human societies were often accorded cosmological significance, and so the issue of the 'sacred' is central to economics, whether we like it or not, and whether it corresponds to any sort of "real" presence or not (because the argument between atheists and theists is a red herring and will never be resolved).

But when I look at dollar bills, I don't see the natural wealth of the earth shine through—I only see the arrogance of civilization. After all, they're made of paper. It's like a running joke that we're all too hypnotized to laugh at.

As with many of my post-civilization rants, the primary purpose of the above was and is to continue to motivate me to create the life I want for myself and other living things. I hope it doesn't come across as angry or blindly destructive—for it is in fact, lovingly destructive. There is a huge difference, and the latter has great power ;)

If you're interested in this topic, I highly recommend the recent book Sacred Economics by one of my favorite thinkers, Charles Eisentein. See a video summary here. His thoughts incorporates many core ideas from ecological economics.
Other influences here are Murray Bookchin, John Zerzan, and especially Zapatista philosophy.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Reviving Eliade for a Semiotics of the Sacred

For many proponents of a cognitive-evolutionary explanation for religion (and also many religionists in general!), religion is defined as system involving belief in a supernatural agent or agents. Here, the concept of “belief” is central and pre-supposed, the hinge on which the definition often rests.

If you have kept up with this blog for a while, it would not surprise you that something missing for me here in some of the mainstream or popular accounts of evolutionary psychology where religion is concerned—is the way in which an essentially “computational” understanding of the mind evades (whether intentionally or unintentionally) certain questions about meaning (buried in that convenient word "belief"). Whether or not it is the intention, the discussion of memes as “units” of cultural transmission makes it too easy to see meaning as objective, shirking the importance and role of subjectivity and embodiedness.

This is simplifying it, but many cognitive-evolutionary accounts trace religion back to animism. The perception of intentional or intelligent, but non-human or even non-creaturely, agents in one's environment.

I am deeply fascinated by cognitive science (that's why I protest so much!) However, animism (let alone religion) cannot only be explained by the attribution of agency to features of the environment. The focus on discrete “beings” or “entities” in evolutionary psychology seems to overlook the phenomenon, touched upon by contemplative philosophers of religion as well as phenomenologists of religion, whereby transcendent meaning is attributed to or intuited from certain features (both animate and inanimate) of the environment as humans interact with it. What cognitive module or evolutionary adaptation, one wonders, is responsible for Mircea Eliade’s “hierophany”, an apprehension of “the sacred” in which the actual “structure of the world” as apprehended by humans reveals transcendent principles?7 In The Sacred and the Profane, perception of sacred reality is not limited to sensing the presence of god or gods, or even any kind of sentient agency. Religious experience then is primarily about the creation of meaning (and not necessarily the transmission of meaning), well illustrated in Eliade’s comment about pastoral or rural societies wherein “the existence of the world itself “means” something.”8 While cognitive-evolutionary accounts of religion center on the action of the human brain, phenomenological accounts of religion center more on the “world”—but it is the world-as-experienced subjectively, so it is literally the action of the world on the subject (as well as subject-on-world). Yet it is not my intention to show that these two approaches disagree—in fact I want to explore how they could possibly complement each other, especially if other models of cognition are considered.

    In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade emphasizes that it is hierophany (perception of the sacred, an engagement with some dimension of ultimate reality) that allows a human subject to orient themselves within the world or the cosmos. This is quite a profound statement, as it is attaching the act of mapping the world and investing it with value to religious experience. There has been much debate over Eliade’s use of the concept of the sacred since his time, including many charges of his tendency to essentialize or universalize the sacred and/or posit the actual existence of an ultimate reality as something separate from human history. In this vein he has been criticized as a “crypto-theologian”—in other words, importing theological beliefs into his scholarship (cite Blum). But I read his definition of the sacred as essentially the subjective perception of an order of reality that sets up an opposition between itself and more normative or “mundane” modes of perception. This contradistinction is of immense, priceless value because it has a sort of grammatical or didactic nature— it ‘tells’ the subject something about existence. It is a rupture, a break in the flow of whatever mode of awareness dominates during the majority of the time. This rupture in both space and time (as perceived) allows an underlying structure to be “revealed”—and regardless of how the derivative revelations square empirically, the “sacred” is in the end a phenomenological category, not an ontological one. To me there is nothing faintly theological or even “essentialist” about this idea. Its value lies in the way it illustrates (perhaps poetically or metaphorically) the point that for anything to have meaning there has to be relation or comparison between at least two things. There can be no transcendent meaning inferred from apprehension of a completely homogenous world. For the world we live in daily to have meaning as a world, there must be “another world” beneath, behind, or hidden within it. For Eliade “the Sacred” is an “experience of the nonhomogeneity of space”, and so perennially provides this point of reference, this ‘other world.’9 With this reference point, the “profane” world is able to be defined and seen as a sort of privation—something other than sacred. In this way Eliade’s sacred is literally the source and index of all value, because its apprehension imparts or adjusts value to everything else.

    Thus, Eliade speaks of hierophanies as having a world-founding function. He writes, “the discovery or projection of a fixed point—the center—is equivalent to the creation of the world.”10 Yet this “center” that Eliade speaks of is not necessarily a spatial or geographical center (though it is definitely referenced in mythic and religious ideologies that place certain cities or locations at the center of the world, which he discusses). It is merely a conceptual anchor point that fastens the “profane” world to an ultimate reality that is essentially unclassifiable in terms of normal space and time. Of hierophany, Eliade writes: “The religious experience of the non-homogeneity of space is a primordial experience, homologizable to a founding of the world...for it is the break effected in space that allows the world to be constituted, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”11 Additionally, hierophany is an experience which demands response—he gives the example of Moses taking off his shoes when apprehending the Burning Bush.12 This echoes similar conceptions of religion by philosophers, religion as “absolute responsibility” for Derrida, and as “intuition of the universe” and a “taste for the infinite” for Schleiermacher. Yet this interaction and “responsibility” characteristic of religious experience cannot be reduced to interaction between two discrete beings, because ‘sacred reality’ as Eliade attempts to describe it seems to transcend normative ontological categories, including those of being and non-being. In other words, the sacred is much more, or perhaps much “other” than just a “supernatural agent”.
    In the beginning of chapter three, Eliade explains that it is his intention to show “how sacrality is revealed through the very structures of the world.”13 Eliade’s account of how objects or features of the world can spontaneously become symbols in the course of being apprehended illustrates this. Using a stone as an example, he writes: “The hierophany of a stone is pre-eminently an ontophany; above all, the stone is, it always remains itself, it does not change—and it strikes man by what it possesses of irreducibility and absoluteness, and in so doing, reveals to him by analogy the irreducibility and absoluteness of being.”14 This is an example of the way in which the transcendent can be glimpsed through immanent materiality, and is in this way contingent upon the particular features of the world. But there is not necessarily a fixed definition of “transcendent” for Eliade himself—it can include whatever principle(s) something appears to embody or symbolize. The starry night sky is another example he gives. Contemplating the “celestial vault” produces a kind of religious experience because it appears infinite, outside of time.15 Because of the way that the night sky appears to us, it sets up a vast, even an ultimate, distinction between our finite selves and its apparent infinity. Even though ontologically the “sky” is just space and stars, from the perspective of earth and via the human senses it becomes an integrated thing, a “celestial vault”, and attributing meaning to it as a ‘thing’ is inevitable.

    In this view, religion becomes a store-house for the transcendent principles gleaned from hierophanies. But what is interesting in that model is that it actually makes “the Sacred” a phenomenon beyond religion—in other words it cannot completely be contained by religion as we know it, or religion as it has actually played out in history. Perhaps this could help explain why Eliade’s work has often been mischaracterized for disregarding religion’s socio-historical contingency and criticized for conceiving of the “sacred” as a sort of eternal, unchanging presence that intermittently manifests throughout history. In my view Eliade’s articulation of the concepts of “Sacred” and “Profane” are indeed useful for illuminating ideas of holiness and sanctity that have historically arisen in religion, but they ultimately serve an even more profound purpose—that is, to try and articulate how meaning and value arise and become controlling factors or currencies in human culture. Since symbolic activity pervades human life far beyond the realm of religion, but yet historically the assignment of ultimate meaning to the world has been the purview of religion, it seems that questioning the evolution of religious thought cannot be disconnected from questioning the evolution and process of meaning making (semiosis) itself.

    A compelling insight into semiotics can be taken from Eliade’s concept of hierophany. That is, the ability for things in the world—stones, trees, animals—to spontaneously become symbols, in addition to what they ‘actually’ are (and indeed, to be both things simultaneously). A stone is both a stone and a window to divine reality, perhaps because it tells us something about permanence that we cannot know just by interacting with our own bodies (for example). This is a sort of language of objects, where the “information” imparted is non-representational or non-discursive. Instead, the information is synthesized through human interaction with the actual physical and sensory qualities of the object. This ability of things to signify something far beyond themselves is mimicked or simulated in human material culture in the fashioning of objects of contemplation, both in religious and “secular” modes. Eliade gives the “secular” example of the miniature gardens popular among modern Chinese “literati”, which represent a “paradisal world." I would offer as a “religious” example Byzantine icons or relics, which are both simultaneously material objects and transcendent windows that yield insight into the structure of a particular spiritual economy (in this case the relationship of the saints to Christ and the Trinity, seen in that tradition as a facet of ultimate reality).

    This ability for objects to appear as two things at once, both as object and symbol of something “other”, is something elucidated in critical theorist Bill Brown’s landmark essay on “Thing Theory," This theory caught my eye because it was cited in Patricia Cox Miller's excellent book The Corporeal Imagination, which is about materiality and the sacred in Late Antique Christianity. Brown distinguishes “things” from mere “objects” because “things” are objects that disrupt the normal perceptual flow of space and time. In this way they are a little bit like Eliade’s definition of the function of the Sacred—they create a wrinkle in space and time, making its texture “non-homogenous”. Brown writes that an everyday object could achieve “thing” status when it “stops working” the way it is supposed to, like “when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.”18 As such these things are, in a way, enchanted, because they possess a sort of suspended animation—they are, or have been, or will be, extensions of us and our agency. It is not, of course, as if we actually believe that these things have a soul or spirit, but rather that we acknowledge the way in which our own “soul” (whatever that may be) is reflected in—and to an extent, inhabits—features of the outside world.

    Though he does not explicitly connect “things” to holiness in any overarching way, there is a sort of phenomenology of enchantment articulated in his essay. He suggests that “[y]ou could imagine things, second, as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects—their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems.”19 Such “magic” is evident in the items of “memorabilia” one often sees arranged in living rooms, on bookshelves or the mantle. These objects comprise a sort of personal iconography of memory for whoever arranged them there, and they are certainly things—most definitely to their owner, but even to a lesser degree to strangers who, merely by their placement infer that they are more than just objects. Even an acorn or a leaf, if placed on a mantle among other items, becomes a “thing”, it suddenly has a deep—if not transcendent—meaning. Brown’s article points to the fact that, even from the secular view of critical theory, there is still an immense power, a semiotic fecundity, in our sensorial relationship to objects that speaks to a process by which we invest the material world, and thereby our own lives, with meaning. This process of investiture may be modulated by cultural categories like ‘religion’, ‘art’, ‘science’, but it is fundamentally the same process.

Re-evaluating Phenomenology of Religion

    In a recent article on re-evaluating the utility of phenomenology of religion in light of its somewhat discredited status among social-scientific scholars, Jason Blum claims that phenomenology of religion has historically offered something unique to scholars of religion, namely "interpretation of the meaning of religion from the perspective of religious experience and consciousness.” It is interpretive, and not explanatory, and developed in opposition or counter-distinction with reductionist or naturalistic accounts of religion (but is not necessarily incompatible with them). According to its detractors, the most controversial characteristic of phenomenological accounts is the notion that there is a an essential aspect of religion (the Sacred for Eliade or the Holy for Otto) that is "radically independent of history.” Additionally, phenomenologists of religion have often posited this essence as “sui-generis,” autonomous, or irreducible, which historians, sociologists, and anthropologists of religion have found problematic because it seems to them tantamount to a metaphysical claim.
Additionally, because of the central hermeneutical focus on subjective experience, phenomenologists have been accused of “endorsing the religious subject's perspective.” These particular charges have been leveled famously at Eliade was has been called a "crypto-theologian."

Indeed, it can be difficult to distinguish phenomenology of religion from theology precisely because phenomenologists take subjective experience so seriously—it is their “text”, so to speak. However, Blum suggests that as long as phenomenologists do away with these problematic aspects, phenomenology can be a viable way to study religion, and is not ultimately anti-thetical to explanatory methods (as long as those explanatory methods are open to the perspective offered by phenomenology). Blum argues that phenomenologists of religion don’t need to posit the existence of a transcendent realm in order to posit that such a realm is apprehended subjectively. He quotes Dúpre in correcting the generalization that phenomenology of religion is preoccupied with transcendence:  "The notion of transcendence is phenomenologically relevant only insofar as it enters into the immanent experience. What the transcendent object is in itself, i.e., beyond its relation to the immanent being of consciousness, is unimportant." Thus, the phenomenologist of religion ideally brackets the question of whether religious realms exist or not, and “seeks to disclose the meaning of meanings of [religion] as they are constructed, perceived, and experienced within consciousness, or from the perspective of the religious subject.”

    Thus, for Blum, phenomenology of religion is really about asking how experiences create religious meaning, and how meaning itself functions. In this way, phenomenology touches upon the insight that an inquiry into semiotics cannot be divorced from the way our bodies move, think, and feel—but yet it has been criticized as solipsist or crypto-theological because of this commitment to the ‘authority’ of religious or spiritual subjectivity. Postmodernism has since offered up a way of valuing subjectivity with its dogmas of relativism and a suspicion of objectivity, and uses deconstruction to investigate how values and meanings are culturally derived and ‘inscribed’  by cultural discourse onto persons. But this can still, in a way, ignore the ‘gestalt’ of experience—the way that it feels (and why it even matters) for our senses to gather the world around us into a coherent whole. Phenomenology offers the notion that the world as we perceive it is irrevocably ‘gestural’, and that our cognition is narrative in nature—and acknowledges that we are ‘locked in’ to this loop of interaction. In his book on ecology and the phenomenology of perception, David Abram quotes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who claimed that the human body’s gestural and expressive nature “extends...to the whole sensible world, and our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other “objects” the miracle of expression.”25 To paraphrase Abram, the world appears to speak, by virtue of simply appearing to the human subject (ibid.). This observation that ‘the world speaks’ is redolent of Eliade’s observation that for some pre-modern societies, the world means something, by default, by virtue of its existence.

    This is certainly much more than just ‘agent detection’ as characterized in cognitive science, and for that matter much more than religion. In fact, agent detection merely grazes the tip of the iceberg in terms of how, according to phenomenologists like Merlau-Ponty, Husserl, and Abram, the world is apprehended by us. It is apprehended as a vast, continuous, non-homogenous texture, displaying varying degrees of animation that respond to our engagement. In this view, when exactly does something pop out from this animate whole to ‘become’ a supernatural agent or a discrete entity? It is certainly a valid question, but the treatment of supernatural agents in cognitive-evolutionary accounts of religion seems to draw too much of a distinction between religious cognition and non-religious cognition, when perhaps they are on a shared continuum—only separated by degree and not kind. There is more to be said about religion than just the false attribution of agency, because according to Merleau-Ponty and Abram, all meaning itself is derived from such a ‘false attribution of agency’—or rather, the impressions that the world ‘presses’ onto us. Therefore it is trite to claim this as unique of religion—it does not tell us anything interesting.

    When considering the “scientific” study of belief, it is useful to keep in mind the question: Why do we perceive in the first place? In order to eat, to escape danger, to gather parts of the material world to ourselves. To paraphrase a former professor, teaching a class on evolutionary psychology, the brain didn’t evolve to tell us the truth about what’s out there. It evolved out of vectored relationships with other processes—it evolved by perceiving patterns that might be useful or strategic to the organism, and by navigating complex landscapes. The ecology of the natural world, structured by interconnected webs of relation, is the fundamental blueprint for the ‘ecology’ of language and meaning—indeed all symbolic systems, and so too religion.

    To consider how this is so, we can examine theories that see language itself as continually evolving. David Abram describes how Merleau-Ponty both expanded and deviated from Saussure’s conception of language’s two-fold structure, one part being la langue—language as an abstract, symbolic system of relations, and the other la parole—the actual act of speaking. Merleau-Ponty sees the two as reciprocal. Abram writes “while individual speech acts are surely guided by the structured lattice of the language, that lattice is nothing other than the sedimented result of all previous acts of speech, and will itself be altered by the very expressive activity it now guides. Language is not a fixed or ideal form, but an evolving medium we collectively inhabit, a vast topological matrix in which the speaking bodies are generative sites, vortices where the matrix itself is continually being spun out of the silence of sensorial experience.” In other words, the process by which meaning is made and re-made has not changed much over the thousands of years in which humans have been able to speak or express, it merely has gotten more complex, more fractal in nature. As Merleau-Ponty undoubtedly saw, in the course of studying linguistics, there has been an overemphasis on its representational aspect—on the system of language as a static bank of meaning, or as even being the source of meaning itself.   But although language has a history, this history does not completely determine its use. As we will see, cognition (and our understanding of it) may reflect a similar state: though it has an evolutionary history, that history does not determine its use—and moreover, it remains to some degree an open and evolving system, which is itself an evolutionary strategy!

The take home message, may be:
The history of language does not completely determine its use
The history of the brain does not completely determine its use
The history of the sacred does not completely determine its use

And the dethroned phenomenologist Mircea Eliade might be best looked at as not a religionist,
but a semiotician, interested (like Whitehead) in how value and meaning arise in human culture. In this case, many of the criticisms leveled against him no longer apply.

It turns out the "sacred" goes way beyond religion.

(( To be Continued! ))

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Muir was a Clock-Punk

My partner who is into eco-criticism was telling me all these things that I didn't know about the naturalist and explorer John Muir. He is a figurehead for wilderness conservation/preservation, co-founder of the Sierra Club, and also helped get the National Parks system started. Though he only read Emerson later in life, his work and though resonated with that brand of transcendentalism and the connected estrangement from "Western materialism", though as I understand it it seems like his mysticism was very informed by Jewish and Christian scripture. I think this is really cool because many of us fail to appreciate the mystical traditions that "The Bible" contains documentation of. In short, something supremely alien to our culture is too often seen as familiar. But for all it's given us,  that familiarity obscures a lot too.

Some strands of environmentalism inspired by the likes of Muir leaves much to be desired, not least of which is the sad irony of the museum-ification of nature that Muir surely never intended and would be aghast at, since he was in fact all about a sort of anarchistic participation in wilderness.

We forget that one of the really pivotal texts in the Hebrew Bible…Exodus… deals in great part with living in the wilderness, not by choice but by necessity. It's about people surviving in a harsh desert bioregion. I say this as an agnostic, but put yourself in a survival situation for a few weeks and see how fast you create notions of the sacred. It happens swiftly…and you don't just create them you also "enshrine" them. You have to expand your definition of 'sacred' here in order to work with my example, but that's okay, because it's an expansive category indeed. There is an extent to which it's almost impossible to approach some of these ancient texts, not just because of language or culture, but also context and affect. But it makes sense that Muir ended up finding a use for biblical language after all, because he did something kind of radical. He alienated himself at a time when the pride of American industrialism was singing opera. He built a cabin that had an alpine stream flowing through it. He woke up to Earthquakes in Yosemite Valley.

Apparently as a boy he was forced to memorize the Bible by his father. He would come to strongly disagree with the "Biblical" tenet that the world was made for mankind (which in its capitalist form is a bullshite reading of the Hebrew Bible anyways). It really makes sense chronologically, since Muir was witnessing what he probably saw as the commodification of the biotic world during the Industrial Age, and more specifically the Gilded Age, i.e. the dawn of the corporation.

Though his nature-mysticism was undoubtedly informed by a something that went deeply unfulfilled in his rigorous religious tutoring at the hand of his father, biblical language clearly shaped his expressions, and in the most profound ways. As in:

 "No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite... The grandest of all special temples of Nature."

This is a very theological statement, and really reaches into the heart of the earliest theology of Christian Jews, who critiqued the Temple in Jerusalem because they saw it as not necessarily representing the 'true' and everlasting (spiritual) temple. But lest I seem to be glamorizing Christianity, let me tell you: The concept of a dwelling place for God "Not made by human hands" is not Christian—but like pretty much everything else Christian, it's Jewish. It goes way back to the book of Exodus, where the first sanctuary was perhaps the ground of Mt. Sinai, where Moses encountered the burning bush and received the Law/Torah while communing with God alone on the summit. In one passage Moses is instructed to build an altar out of stones, but they cannot be "hewn", they must be as nature made them. Later in Rabbinic times after the collapse of the Temple in 70 CE, the idea of the celestial temple was a powerful aspect of Jewish devotion.

But if you're just talking about sacredness recognized by humans as immanent in the geomorphic environment you can take it way back, to the worship of natural stones which turned into standing stones which turned into altars. Humans seem to like stones because they are heavy, resilient, hard, ancient, and sometimes pretty (crystals = pretty), and most importantly were seen as likely dwelling-places for deities, spirits, power, vital forces, etc. This sort of idea can be seen in many different belief systems... ancient and contemporary.

In her research my partner has noted Muir's prolific use of "domestic metaphors" in his writing—comparing natural features to architecture, aspects of the human built environment, buildings, etc. in order to emphasize their majesty and beauty. At first this might seem like some sort of elite anthropomorphizing of nature, but it seems to me like it much more refers to the whole set of poetic tropes regarding the "architecture" of holy space that has its origin in the Hebrew Bible and is a central topic of exegesis in Christian theology, where the human person/holy man is the temple of God and the 'Law' is written on "the tablets of our hearts." But anyways, Muir goes one step further to say that it's not just humans that are the chosen dwelling places of God, but actually all of creation. Nature is made up of little dwellings, little houses, and big houses, and medium sized houses, for God. It's ALL God's holy city. Human civilization is just like the corrupt business district. God doesn't like to go there because there aren't any weird cafes, diners, or comic book stores.

But what I didn't know was that he was basically kind of a mad scientist (though I prefer the less-known nomenclature "scientist-artist" a la Bucky Fuller). He built a bed with a built in alarm clock, with gears all made out of wood, that would dump him out of it every morning at 5 am. Then he also made a bookshelf-desk-lazy-susan type contraption that had books on this timed-rotation in order to help him focus. Woah.

He also designed a water-powered tree mill while living in Yosemite.

The juxtaposition of interests in wilderness and engineering is fascinating to me, especially because there isn't really a well-put together narrative on why those things are compatible, but I think it's kind of an unsung hallmark of the industrial age, (Jenny says "he was like a refugee from the industrial age")… yet there's also something ancient and monastic about it, the interest in automata, in "cybernetics" in the true meaning of the word. Cybernetics comes from the Greek verb for "to steer" or "to pilot" (as in a ship), how information flows through systems, same Root as the English word "government." But being an inventor or a "hacker" is its own sort of ascetic practice (a form of kung fu). It shows—it demonstrates—a sort of esoteric understanding in the same way—if not in a more profound way—than a hefty bunch of WORDS on a page does.

It is a form of giving life—an imitation of the cosmos like ancient monks and priests thought of their ascetic lives as imitation of Christ or of the angels.

But it strikes me that this punk form of contemplation, practiced in the shadows of modernity, really sees that ancient ideal and literally raises it to universal (that is to also say atomic) proportions.

This is kind of like the moment when I found out how into alchemy Isaac Newton was. You don't often hear about that because he's hailed as being such a founding father of physics, and alchemy is seen as quackery by modern science, so we can all pretend that was his "hobby."

What you have here with Muir is the confluence of the anarcho-primitivist, the mystic, and the hacker. A sort of engineer-monk. This has curious results in different phases of the age of techno-science. Buckminster Fuller, Nicola Tesla, and Einstein are others who were born into a similar world where science could be the new monasticism/mysticism (which definintely has its own entire discourse of orthodoxy/heresy). Science/engineering can be a gnostic path because ascetic spiritual training was all about discipline, methodology, and was very empirical, since it was actually about controlling aspects of one's environment, thus the body, and thus, finally the consciousness.

As much as we like to blame the ancients for being dualists, this is one example of how they really saw the mind as very physical, or at least in an effective and utilitarian if not theological or ultimate sense. (It turns out, ironically, that it's US who are the dualists who doth protest so much. Tell me that cyberpunk fantasies of uploaded consciousness aren't dualist. Yeah. See what I mean? Let's leave the medieval and classical periods alone in that regard and take a good look at ourselves.)

Technology is essentially an instantiation of certain TECHNIQUES or technical knowledge, it is their crystallization and codification of knowledge into artifacts/material culture. Modern technology is merely much more complex than ancient, and the "coding" is harder to see, even invisible. There are more moving parts, and they are tinier.

Technology or inventions are just material hymns—physical panegyrics—to nature because they employ/exploit the laws of physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, etc; An iconography of nature, so to speak. Definitely not to many people who invent or manufacture things, for sure. But doesn't that serve to put in higher relief the ones that think otherwise? The truly "mad" dervish-scientist who, burning the midnight oil and burned by the numinous fire that mystics speak of, build working, 3-dimensional icons of something that is fundamentally ineffable.

I mean "icon" here in the Greek/Eastern/Mystical sense—a window into a 'divine reality' that vacillates between immanent and transcendent depending on what the receivers (us) are doing with ourselves. In the Western world we have a watered-down, secularized (and not in a good way) notion of what symbols are. Too often they are corporate logos (quite different, unfortunately, from the mystical concept of the Logos or semiotic hyperspace). Older theories of representation, which are still maintained, for example, in the mystical tradition of icon-painting in Eastern Orthodoxy or perhaps in the Hindu concept of darshan, acknowledge and USE representation to SHOW instead of to merely remind. Moreover representation is not a "copying," but rather a rupture, an opening in the flesh of routine space-and-time that shows us something glimmering and golden, something that is really there. Even though many of us forget that logos and symbols have an effect on us, advertisers didn't forget it, and they play us all the time with glimpses into the wrong kinds of transcendent realities.

But this type of iconography that connects the "above" with the "below," it can extend to anything—anything enacted, crafted, made, performed. With the right intention, artificial things can make us feel hope, stretch our imaginations beyond our wildest dreams, inspire us, tell us a story—whether literally or non-discursively, and even show us who we are. This is the magical—the truly theurgic—side of human artifacts. Haven't you ever held something made by hands, made by someone you know? I'm talking especially about those things that blur the line between art and something else; A tool, a forge, a contraption, a vessel, a weapon, food. Something jury-rigged, something that blends old with new. These things are "artificial" in that they were made by human hands, but yet they feel ancient, connected to some subterranean source of life. They embody life because they are tools—extensions of ourselves, crafted from our immediate environment—wood, stones, bones, bark... alive things.

Really, the first technology was made from flesh—the flesh of the world; an alchemy of fire, earth, water, and air. It still is but the connection is much harder to see.

For monks there is no distinction between working and praying, theory and practice. ORA ET LABORA—Pray and Work—was the motto of the Benedictine Order, basically the first organized monastic order in Western Europe. Don't let the "and" fool you—these things were seen as reciprocal. Combining contemplation with action was an imperative! And this is why we have numerous delicious kinds of beer and cheese from Europe—because of the temporal and physical constraints enumerated by the Benedictine rule that organized monastic life, prayer, and work.

John Muir was like this, an engineer-monk, reincarnating telluric materials into 'machines' that enabled, for him, a strange return to Nature.

Relation and Meaning in Barbara King’s Evolving God

For a bit of background—the blurb on the book Evolving God from Barbara J. King's website:
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
    In Breaking the Spell, philosopher Daniel Dennett expands upon biologist Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes to explain how belief systems could ultimately co-opt the will of their adherents the way that a parasite can change its host animal’s behavior to further the parasite’s own reproduction. Memes, in this view, are a cultural analog to genes, and as such are the basic units of cultural transmission. The ‘memes’ that survive are the ones that are more memorable and impart advantages onto their users. Whatever the reasons for why and how religious behavior evolved in humans (Dennett reviews several theories), the concept of the meme as a ‘selfish’ entity is central for him, and he appears to feel that religion has essentially outstayed its welcome—outlasted its utility in the human race. The threat of religion, for Dennett, is that it somehow undermines individual capacity for rational and logical thinking.

    Memetics, at least as employed by Dawkins and Dennett, does not seem to be a detailed enough theory of cultural transmission because it attempts to argue that cultural evolution must operate by the same rules as genetic evolution. In this model, memes—as replicating units of culture—can be either beneficial, neutral, or parasitic to their ‘hosts’. Even in the realm of cognitive science where theories of “memetics” are more articulated, units of cultural transmission are often explained in terms of “thinking”, “ideas” and “cognition”, while the roles of emotion, situatedness, and affectivity are minimized or absent. While the meme-gene analogy may offer useful ways (especially for scientists) to think about culture, it is too easy to use memetics in its Dennettian form to essentially “write off” human culture as epiphenomenal, occurring on the surface of biological evolution. It seems odd to characterize any system of human meaning (in this case religion) as epiphenomenal or vestigial when one is interested in questions of “experience." When it comes down to it, Breaking the Spell just doesn’t seem to address issues of devotionalism, phenomenology, or subjectivity in religion, if simply because the author has concluded that the ‘pros’ of these things don’t outweigh the ‘cons’ he sees in religion. The book is a standard textbook for introducing cognitive-evolutionary approaches to religion, and contains many fascinating and sensible conclusions. Even so, using “memes” as the only way to broach the subjective realm leaves much to be desired for the religionist.

    There might, however, be a way to investigate, and even emphasize human subjectivity in a “scientific” account of religion’s origins. In her book Evolving God, evolutionary anthropologist Barbara J. King attempts to excavate the affective and emotional roots of religion which she believes to be foundational to the human imperative of spirituality. For her “religion is all about practice and emotional engagement with the sacred, as defined by one’s social group; it is not necessarily about a set of beliefs concerning supernatural figures.” Thus her definition of religion differs from Dennett’s, who is more of a proponent of religion as a set of beliefs organized around supernatural entities. King criticizes the mainstream emphasis on “genes and brains” in her field, contending that it is too clinical and focused on individual psychology and pathology, and also on information as opposed to modes of transmission. Dennett’s conception of religion does indeed focus more on individual “brains” (and also assumes the homogeneity of cognitive architecture across the human race) while King believes that the human need to belong—arising from our evolution as social mammals—gave rise to what we call religion. In this view, the need to connect with each other led to the need to connect with the sacred. Though our need to connect with each other might have arisen from an evolutionary strategy for favoring group formation, it has manifested subjectively as a set of emotions and desires relating to connecting affectively with “others”, and consequently the ultimate “Other” that is God (or other, non-sentient sacred realities like the “infinite”). King goes so far to assert that sociality and “belongingness” drives cognitive evolution, and not the other way around.

    It is not my intention to confirm or deny the outcome of the book’s larger goal of demonstrating the existence of religious meaning in pre-history. However, King’s emphasis on meaning, sociality, and the process by which meaning is made provide for an interesting thought experiment for human apprehension of the sacred in primitive settings. For King, meaning itself is not as much informational as it is emotional—which also means vectored or gestural “to” and “from” something—and thus shaped by specific group dynamics and mutable instead of fixed. In fact, it might make sense to say that for King, emotion and meaning form a feedback loop, because emotion is stirred through the experience of shared meaning and the dynamics of inter-personal communication. While Dennett, in a more Cartesian vein, is guided by questions of being and substance (e.g. memes and cognitive architecture, ‘neural wiring’, etc.), King in a more Whiteheadian vein emphasizes becoming and encounters (events) as being the true primary building blocks in human religious reality. She quotes Buber several times in the first chapter as someone whose philosophy corroborates her theory: ”all life is encounter”, “in the beginning is the relation”, and “man becomes an I through a You” all echo the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and others which sees events (not individual objects) as what give rise to the characteristics of reality, including the illusion of its static or essential nature.

    Based on this, one guesses that King doesn’t locate primary forms of religious meaning in doctrines, texts, or even in language—but in experience. King writes that “humans seek God...in order to co-create meaning with sacred beings.” She rejects theories of semiotics that are based on a linear sender-receiver model in which a signal is sent from creature A and subsequently interpreted by creature B. This model places too much emphasis on “the signal” as something fixed and static that is sent—like a package—and ‘deciphered’ by the receiver, and also overemphasizes the “signal” as the central thing around which the act of communication is based. No doubt a computational understanding of information—as being digital and code-based—has influenced such models. Instead, King favors a hypothesis of meaning-making she calls “co regulation” that emphasizes the dynamic and embodied aspects of communication as it occurs in a situated time and place. In this view, the unit of “semiotic” analysis is the social event of communication, rather than disembodied signals. King writes:

“When apes or humans communicate, they adjust to each other’s actions and choices moment by moment, just as one dancer subtly shifts the placement of a hand, or the speed and angle of a turn, as her dance partner shifts his. Co-regulation, then, is the unpredictable and contingent mutual adjustment between partners.” (42, King)

Thus, meaning not contained only in signals themselves, but in the act of communication. Really, signals cannot be separated from senders and receivers at all—it is almost as if we, as living, communicating beings, are signals ourselves—we are somehow fundamentally semiotic in nature. “Co-regulation” illustrates the ways in which signals and meaning are dynamic and have to be constantly re-negotiated and agreed upon. It is in the event of communication between two beings where any gap or dissonance between a ‘signal’ and its supposed ‘meaning’ is adjudicated. This contested nature of language and meaning has been taken up in the humanities by thinkers like Derrida and Ricoeur, and has greatly influenced postmodern and poststructuralist discourse. It is notable (and heartening for religionists interested in transdisciplinarity) that King’s theory, firmly situated within evolutionary and biological anthropology, comes to similar conclusions.

    The Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of religion resonates with King’s. In On Religion, he writes that “religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling.” The most “universal formula of religion” is “intuition of the universe,” a sense of the infinite. Whether or not supernatural beings exist in an empirical sense, for King as for Schleiermacher, the phenomenon whereby sacredness is perceived is a fundamental framing mechanism for all human meaning. Sacred reality is an impression, a feeling created by (and generative of) a desire not just to agree upon meanings with other humans, but to somehow share meaning with the larger, super/supra-human world. For King, as for contemplative philosophers of religion like Schleiermacher, this reaching-for the sacred is a fundamental index for human purpose and meaning, and not delusional in the least.

Related posts on semiotics/memetics:

Reviving Eliade for a Semiotics of the Sacred
the oldest language on earth
Computers: Confounding Philosophy Since the Atomic Age 
Memetics, Religion, and the Ancient Greco-Roman World

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Tribute to Terence

“Chaos is what we've lost touch with. This is why it is given a bad name. It is feared by the dominant archetype of our world, which is Ego, which clenches because its existence is defined in terms of control.”

-Terence McKenna

I love you man. Rest in chaos. ;)

I agree with him, mainly in that I think we've lost respect for it (chaos, that is). (Sidenote: I don't always agree with demonizing the ego, that's one reason I don't like a lot of New Age rhetoric, because it can sometimes be just as chastising as the religious systems it seeks to escape from, though I don't necessarily think that's what Terence is doing here... but that's a whole other post...)

Anyway, I do indeed think about chaos a lot, and the relationship between chaos and order, because I think in that transition zone there is something ineffable that is only captured through an attitude of simultaneous reverence and curiosity, and definitely a whole lot of humility. Some ancients called this attitude "apophasis," which means "to mention without mentioning" and is a way of (not) talking about God.

Sometimes I think that the dark stuff needs liturgy just as much as the light stuff does, or if not a liturgy then at least more literary/mythic representation. Why? Not because we 'like' destruction per se. It's not a question of like or dislike. But because it's powerful and we need to figure out how to deal with it. Period, end of story. I've always felt that Hindu philosophy had a really good grasp of this, and Taoism. It's really too bad that chaos/trickery has gotten a bad rap in some views, namely that it is sometimes associated with 'the dark arts.'

I mean I'm not saying we all have to go eat an 8th of mushrooms or be black block anarchists or anything. Terence McKenna is associated with "drugs" and Timothy Leary is associated with "drugs". But we've got to stop that association. Terence was interested in the psychedelic experience which is not "drugs" and does not require "drugs." Hallucinogens can be a shortcut to a raw, face to face experience with the destructive force, and it's uncontrolled in our society because no one knows how to deal with vision quests or asceticism. Thus with one hand our society wages the war on drugs and with the other hand it punishes the people it didn't give any options to to begin with. But in other cultures and times, there were social and cultural structures for that kind of thing. Psychedelic is a new word, as in the 20th century. What it describes has a long legacy and could be said to be at the literary core of many religions. The fact that Terence describes some of the exact SAME imagery as you find in 2000 year old Jewish and Christian apocalypses (narratives of a holy person, rabbi, or sage's ascent through heavenly realms to the throne/glory/vision of God) is really interesting to me.

His description of the "self-transforming machine elves" that he experiences while under the influence of DMT has a striking similarity to an account I just came across in a text called The Apocalypse of Abraham that dates from the 1st to the 3rd century C.E., probably from Palestine. This is one of those texts that blurs the lines between "Christian" and "Jewish", and it has as its protagonist the patriarch Abraham well known from the Hebrew Bible. In the narrative, Abraham is taken to the 7th heaven by an angel, up toward a heavenly site of "fiery flames." There, he encountered angelic beings speaking an unintelligible language. The text then describes the beings: "They were all changing in aspect and shape, running and changing form and prostrating themselves and crying aloud words in a language I did not know."

The aspect of these beings (who are similar to the "Watchers" described in the pseudepigraphical books of Enoch) as continually shape-shifting is not the only commonality between Terence and this ancient mystical text. Angelic or divine language was also a topic of interest to many ancient mystics, often present in some form in apocalyptic or mystical texts like the one cited above. There is a great deal of theological language-theory also in rabbinic literature, although there it is more common to view Hebrew as the Adamic language—the language of creation spoken by the angels. Many cultures the world over have divine language theories. Whether they are about an esoteric non-human language, or about a human language that is superior to all others, all these theories rest on the notion of a non-arbitrary language. Deconstructionist language theory is all about how language is an arbitrary system of signs -- in other words, that there is no rhyme or reason to the sign's connection to its referent. But divine language theories (and yes, they do deserve to be called theories, because ancient peeps were wicked smaaht) instead posit that there is a non-random connection between a spoken tongue and the world. This is partially why you get theories in religious systems of language creating the world or having magical/theurgic power.

Terence deals with linguistics a lot actually, he's kind of a fan of glossolalia. The self-transforming machine elves that he describes as intrinsic parts of the DMT visionary realm have a 'maintenance' function similar to the liturgical function of the Watchers or Seraphim of apocalyptic literature, who are seen as always engaging in the celestial liturgy of praising God. But Terence's elves are more like the little gremlins in the boiler room of the Universe, because unlike Angels who are often kind of serious and somber (at least the way we've culturally received them), the elves are tricksters, and they couldn't do what they do without being tricksters. Terence often describes them as being literally made of language. For Terence, the world is indeed made of language, and it would only be right if the entities that took care of the world did so by possessing a sort of sympathetic essence with the chaotic/evolving/self-immolating essence of the universe. Also note that Watchers/Seraphim are often called "the fiery ones" and holy fire is a huge part of this entire milieu of religion in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, of which we have inherited a stunted form (one that over-emphasises fire as a metaphor for damnation). What we forget is that fire is one of the central images of Christian apotheosis and also an attribute or effect of the presence of God in the Hebrew Bible. It is so potent a symbol because it is simultaneously destructive and purifying—and its effect on the terrestrial realm changes depending on context. But I can't help seeing it as just a fundemntal homily to Chaos, right there in the center of our Western traditions...

Back to the part about language... I interpret Terence's "world is made of language" proposition in a biosemiotic way myself—I.e. the world as the living and process-based entity that we apprehend is made of a system of signs and referents that far exceed the realm of human linguistics and semiotics. I am not compelled to interpret "the world is made of language" to be equivalent to the platitude of "language creates your reality" or even to mean that human language  has any special kind of power. Indeed, I'm not disagreeing with the latter two ideas, but just trying to say that what Terence is saying—I think—goes way beyond those, and definitely encompasses them/takes them for granted.

There needs to be a comparative study of theophanic imagery in Terence's work. Maybe there's some crazy English professor out there who has done this? To me, him and Philip K Dick are right up there with Ezekiel and Enoch. Prophets of the age of techno-science.

Yet, I wouldn't call Terence a religious man. Would you? It's an open question.

But in the meantime I quite fancy thinking of Terence as the Bizarro Jesus. I mean you have to admit, they have a lot in common.

***

A final loving word on chaos. Every great mentor I've had in my life, whether it was a peer, someone I worked for, someone who taught me, for a day or for longer, farmers, hunters, and naturalists, my mother -- at the core of all their great teachings is that if you befriend the dynamic, chaotic, ever-evolving forces around you, if you gain an intuitive aptitude about how things work, there won't ever be a clear distinction between bad and good forces, there will only be adaptation—survival. But that doesn't mean coldness, that there is no emotion, no suffering or joy—no, it is more profound when all things flow and adapt. In fact to be able to adapt you need to know how to love, and you need to love fiercely. Mostly you need to love life, (and as Neal Stephenson says in the beginning of Cryptonomicon), you need to salute every living thing as a badass just for having evolved, just for having been born, just for existing. "Love everyone" is misinterpreted too much and it doesn't mean you should like everyone or be obsequiously friendly to everyone or not be on guard or not trust your intuition or not eat animals or not defend yourself. It just means that you recognize that the universe is f*cking badass and it is "non-simultaneously apprehended" (as Bucky says), so basically that translates to "you have to be humble because you don't have all the strategic information." I've heard a definition of God as "the being that possesses all the strategic information." But see, the modus operandi of humility and love aren't only justified if you beleive in God, because the natural state of the universe is to kick the asses of all living things (lovingly or violently depending on how you want to interpret it), and if we ever aren't reverent it's because we are in a temporary state of technologically/industrially-induced amnesia with respect to that. Thus, for me, teachings about "darkness" and about "light" both come back to Love. So I really don't see what's so bad about embracing the Dark Mother. All my heroes did. Big shout out to Hermann Hesse on that!!