Into The Hyperreal

(I wrote this piece in March 2011 for the Modern Mythology site: it appears in the published collection of site articles ‘Apocalyptic Imaginary, which was used as a Comparative Religion text at SUNY Binghamton.

The main changes since first publication are that ‘gypsy’ has been, I think justly, reconsidered to be a slur word, the Jedi fell to merely the 5th-largest UK religion in the following census… and that the hyperreal religion model is the basis of both my Darklore article ‘Believing In Fiction and my upcoming book New Gods and Monsters’.)


1: Census Sweep

It’s always an odd sensation to discover that a field of interest you've passionate about but know is considered fringe at best has been under the scrutiny of academia for some time.

I first learned about the work of Australian sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai from the excellent Theofantastique blog which covers the intersection of religion and cinema. Drawing on the work of Baudrillard, Possamai coined the term ‘hyper-real religion’ to describe the post-modern, syncretic belief systems that have arisen from pop culture. One major example he mentions is Jediism.

I’ve always been drawn to the way people can gain spiritual and mystical perspectives from avowedly fictional works. Some of my most intense moments of gnosis have sprung from certain movies and TV shows. So I’ve no problem at all with this. Others, it is clear, do.

Though plenty of people have been feeling a spiritual connection with Star Wars since 1977, the framing of this into an actual denomination didn’t really come up until the UK census of 2001, where a grass-roots campaign managed to get over 390,000 participants to put Jedi as their religion. (This was the first UK census to ask the religion question — it had tick-boxes for the major Judaeo-Christian flavours, Hinduism, ‘None’ and a fill-in box for ‘Other’.) These figures put Jediism into the position of 4th most prevalent faith in the UK, above Judaism, Sikhism and Buddhism, and way above Paganism.

Of course, many if not most of these entries were frankly taking the piss — and the authorities responded, by putting specific codicils into religious protection legislation exempting Jediism (along with another sci-fi faith — Scientology, pro-pedophile beliefs… and Satanism) from discrimination protection in law. Nonetheless…

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the Jedi have made some inroads towards official recognition — as in the case of a Jedi who went into a Job Centre, was asked to lower his hood, refused on religious grounds — and was forced to leave, only to complain and be issued a formal apology for insulting his faith from officialdom. This happened at the same time as a Christian nurse lost her discrimination law suit when she was disciplined for refusing to stow her crucifix when on duty.

(And don’t even get me started on how keeping your hood raised as a Jedi isn’t even canon…)

It’s census time again here in Blighty. The Jedi are again pushing for inclusion. And there’s a strong push against them… from atheists.

Noted geek pundit Cory Doctorow jokingly tweeted his family might put Jedi on the 2011 census form religion option — he was instantly barraged by aggrieved atheists from the already-extant You Are Not A Jedi campaign, leading to a placating post on Boing Boing — a site which gets more than a few hits.

What interests me about all this — and has been the subject of Possamai’s scholarly-yet-sympathetic gaze — is the question of what defines a religion that must be taken seriously?

Is it longevity? (If so, then most American evangelical faiths are less than a century old, as are neo-paganism, Baha’i and of course Scientology .)

Is it numbers? (“Judge me by my size, do you?”)

Is it how many of your avowed believers are sincere in their belief? (It’s a criticism getting specifically aimed at Jediism, as noted above — but an awful lot of folk just say they’re Christian or whatever out of habit or societal pressure. How does one measure religious sincerity, exactly?)

Is it the historical evidence of their roots? (That would rule out pretty much all Bible-based beliefs, unless you’re a xtian-biased archaeologist…)

Is it power and influence? (Scientology has forced a position in the US of considerable prestige, but it’s nowhere near as ‘respected’ elsewhere.)

And, most relevantly here — is it knowing the source material is unquestionably, undeniably fictional?

An atheist would make a very sincere case that all religions are based on fiction. Most observers outside of a faith would note that, however ‘real’ its roots, all belief systems pick up a bit of fictionalising (mythologising, in the narrow sense) along the way. A Chaos mage working within a hyper-real faith framework would insist it doesn't matter at all.

So the question is — who decides?

Belief is as personal a thing as there is. And in many, it varies — shifting from knee-jerk to utter belief to doubt. In some, it’s based on a personal mythology taken from life experience and ideas taken from every source, even fiction — the often-maligned “pick and mix” syncreticism. Why exactly do people who claim their faith is unwavering, unquestioned and ineffably (in their minds) true get privileged above those whose faith is fluid, Mercurial? Is it really just because it’s easier to put on a form?

I’m putting Taoist on my census form. It’s pretty close, and allows the possibility that what I believe is only a symbol of the numinous — in short, it leaves room for flexibility, without actually lying. But what about the sincere Jedi — or Na’Vi or Discordian (if there can be such a thing)? Does a religion having an origin in taking the piss out of another religion, or the religious impulse itself, exempt it from being taken seriously? Though the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster started as a reductio-ab-absurdam of xtian evolutionary theory, it’s occupying enough mindspace that some, I am sure, are quite sincere when they call for the blessing of His Noodly Appendage. The Church of All Worlds, derived from Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, has been a feature in SF fandom since the 60s and I’ve been in situations where sharing water became an unquestionably sincere mystical act.

I don’t have all the answers — hell, I’ve barely started to form the right questions. Adam Possamai’s work asks a lot of interesting ones that I’d not considered, and I’ll talk about some of those here later.

Next time, I’ll be looking at how the hyper-real faiths can be seen as product, as an offshoot of late-capitalism — and whether or not this makes them (and possibly all modern belief) cargo cults.

POSTSCRIPT:

The British Humanist Association has tried, unsuccessfully, to have posters about their position re. the census appear at British railway stations. In a piece on the subject at christian.org.uk, the following appeared:

The forthcoming census and the BHA’s campaign were featured on Radio 4’s Sunday programme this week.
Speaking on the programme, BHA chief executive Andrew Copson said the religion question in the census was “aberrantly imprecise” and “wantonly inaccurate.”
He said the results of the census would lead government, both nationally and locally, to make “wrong assumptions” based on “erroneous data” when allocating resources and developing policies.
But a Church of England spokesperson disagreed with his criticism.
Revd Linda Barley, Head of the Church of England’s Research and Statistics Department, said of the religion question: “It’s not about belonging, it’s not about believing, it’s not about practice, or any of those things, it’s about just whether people feel they align themselves with different religious persuasions.”
She went on to say that the kind of more detailed information Andrew Copson was looking for would come from surveys like the British Social Attitudes Survey “to find out what it means on the ground.”
And her comments were backed by Peter Benton, Deputy Director of the 2011 Census.
“There are different concepts that you can measure in relation to religion”, he said, including religious practice, belief and affiliation.
“And when we’ve talked to the people that use the census data”, he added, “the one that matters most to them is religious affiliation”.
He concluded: “we could have chosen to measure some of the narrower aspects but it was a deliberate decision not to.”

If the definition of someone claiming a faith-identity comes down to “whether or not people feel they align themselves with different religious persuasions”, then how does any belief, fiction-based or not, fail to qualify?

2: Cargo

One of the key perspectives in the work of Adam Possamai in regard to the ‘hyper-real’ postmodern pop-culture belief systems comes from his background as a sociologist. As a result of this, he frames a lot of his analysis of the phenomenon as manifestations of late-capitalism. Put simply, he sees them on one level as product.

He’s got a point. Pop culture, by definition, is something we can buy. (Or steal, or bootleg… but I’ll get to that later.) It’s a manifestation of mass production and dissemination. It’s worship of things you can buy in a shop. Production line totems.

In other words, it’s kind of like a cargo cult.

The last remaining cargo cult, the worship of a semi-mythical (possibly black US Army soldier) John Frum is on the South Sea island of Tanna. It’s well worth reading Mike Jay’s 2002 piece on the history and current state of the Vanatu who worship Frum. Jay finds the history of Frum-worship rife with meaning and symbolism for our times. Frum is a mercurial icon— a Jesus/Moses/Spartacus figure, who has inspired automatically-received songs in languages the Vanatu do not speak. One of my favourite stories of the Frum-inspired rebellion against colonial rule, told by Jay, goes:

…by 1941 there was no doubt that something was going on. A ‘prophet’ named Manehevi from Sulphur Bay had been arrested and tied to a tree for a day by the colonial administration, pour encourager les autres, but John Frum continued to appear. Subsequent witnesses had been deported and imprisoned. Then, big news: a huge detachment of American troops had arrived on the neighbouring island of Santo. Not only had these Americans brought unheard-of amounts of cargo — arms, tanks, boats, food, medicine — but a considerable number of them were black. The centuries of unbroken symmetry between foreigners (white, rich) and locals (black, poor) had been broken, and the black GIs were variously interpreted as descendants of the islanders who’d been kidnapped by plantation owners in the past, or as John Frum’s own detachment of the US army. Messianic fervour gripped Sulphur Bay, and one Sunday morning the new movement came out into the open with a baffling act of civil disobedience which sent shock-waves through the white community. The compulsory attendance at the Presbyterian church was universally ignored; instead, a group of locals walked solemnly into the white-owned trading post and carefully removed every price label from the stock.

That last touch, the peaceful occupation of a symbol of the privileged of capitalism struck me as awfully similar to the approach taken at the weekend by the UKUncut affinity group, who protested the draconian public service cuts in Britain by a peaceful sit-in at one of London’s poshest shops, Fortnum and Mason.

All 150-odd non-violent activists caused no more damage than knocking over a chocolate Easter bunny (symbolic sacrifice?)… and were tricked out of the building by police — told they were being moved for their protection, then nicked as soon as they were out.

A couple of days after that action, I first read the Mike Jay piece… and today I read this: Islands at the Speed of Light’, at BLDGBLOG:

A recent paper published in the Physical Review has some astonishing suggestions for the geographic future of financial markets. Its authors, Alexander Wissner-Grossl and Cameron Freer, discuss the spatial implications of speed-of-light trading. Trades now occur so rapidly, they explain, and in such fantastic quantity, that the speed of light itself presents limits to the efficiency of global computerized trading networks.
These limits are described as “light propagation delays.”
Global map of “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” based on the earth’s geometry and the speed of light, by Alexander Wissner-Grossl and Cameron Freer
It is thus in traders’ direct financial interest, they suggest, to install themselves at specific points on the earth’s surface — a kind of light-speed financial acupuncture — in order to take advantage both of the planet’s geometry and of the networks along which trades are ordered and filled. They conclude that “the construction of relativistic statistical arbitrage trading nodes across the Earth’s surface” is thus economically justified, if not required.
Amazingly, though, their analysis — seen in the map, above — suggests that many of these financially strategic points are actually out in the middle of nowhere: hundreds of miles offshore in the Indian Ocean, for instance, on the shores of Antarctica, and scattered throughout the South Pacific (though, of course, most of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Bos-Wash corridor also make the cut).
These nodes exist in what the authors refer to as “the past light cones” of distant trading centers — thus the paper’s multiple references to relativity. Astonishingly, this thus seems to elide financial trading networks with the laws of physics, implying the eventual emergence of what we might call quantum financial products. Quantum derivatives! (This also seems to push us ever closer to the artificially intelligent financial instruments described in Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando).
It’s financial science fiction: when the dollar value of a given product depends on its position in a planet’s light-cone.

Wouldn't it be interesting if one of those financial feng-shui nodes just happened to be on or near Tanna? If the actual control of the world’s cargo were to flow through Frum’s land? There’s also the distinct possibility of quasi-national libertarian states, like the tenacious republic of Sealand, could pop up too.

John Frum versus John Galt?

The control, both financially and possibly magically, of the products of late capitalism, caught in our local light cone, distributed at lightspeed. The swiftest of the messengers of the gods of cargo.

One of these products of late capitalism, a comic book produced by the Time-Warner/DC empire (specifically Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’), once suggested that all human religions are cargo cults. It’s a throwaway idea, which Gaiman himself called a ‘notion’ rather than a fully-fledged idea. But it’s one that stuck with me, because the language of commerce and trade has infiltrated everything. We talk metaphorically of the cost of our actions, the price we have to pay, the deals we must strike. The death toll of a military action, in British military slang, is called the Butcher’s Bill. And England, let us not forget, was described by Napoleon as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. And if the English are shopkeepers, what then are the Americans?

One of the biggest ever US pop-culture influences world-wide is undoubtedly Star Trek. And it’s really interesting to me that the show makes a point of saying that a precondition of their relatively utopian and egalitarian society is that “we outgrew the need for money”… without actually telling us how they did so. Further, when Star Trek’s later iterations appeared, this was underlined further by the appearance of a culture which far more closely resembles the character of modern late-capitalist society than the enlightened Federation… the Ferengi.

(It’s notable and ironic that the name Ferengi derives from the Arabic/Persian word for foreigner…)

(Remember that awful buddy flick Swingers? It strived to make the phrase “you’re so money” into a synonym for coolness. It was made in 1996, at the tailing edge of the cultural worship of flash cash that brought us Wall Street and Loadsamoney. And it wouldn’t surprise me to see it being remade in this new resurgence of that current. For fucksake, they remade that most egregious of capitalist wank fantasies, Arthur…)

Possamai, I must note, is scrupulously fair about the way capitalism influences faith. He notes how there’s an opposite reaction to the hyper-real religions — a kind of hypo-real fundamentalist pushback, limiting the faithful’s access to a ‘free market’ of ideas, offering narrow but plentiful products of their own. It’s perfectly possible for a child to be, for example, raised, educated and employed entirely within a climate of, say, Xtian Dominionism — they have their own books, toys, TV shows, internet realms, pop music, comics — all the things the hyper-real draws on but neutered, made acceptable within their paradigm. And it’s almost too obvious to note how their megachurches increasingly resemble corporations, their temples more and more like malls.

And the Chaotes, the Newagers of every stripe, the Na’Vi and the Jedi and the FSMites… they all work their ways, buy the albums and books and DVDs and action figures and How To Speak Klingon CDs and on and on - many of them deeply suspicious of just how that cargo ends up in their hands. As suspicious as the Vanatu, with no John Frum to lead them.

So, knowing all this… how’s a denizen of the capitalist, English-speaking West to react to this? How do we find our spiritual, mythic and magical place within these mass-produced possibilities?

3: Modern Soul

“Gypsies, tramps and thieves,
You hear it from the people of the town, they call us
Gypsies, tramps and thieves…
But every night, the men would come around,
And lay their money down.”

-Sonny and Cher

“I’m a little bit wooah, a little bit waayy, a bit dodgy, a bit tasty…. I’m a geezer! I will nick anything!”
~ Chris the Crafty Cockney, The Fast Show

If, as the work of Adam Possamai suggests, modern culture (and pop-culture especially) is essentially a product of the machinations of late-capitalism, is just product, merely cargo… what can we, supposedly nothing more than mere consumers, do to find a relevant personal spirituality?

The answer to that lays somewhere in the nature of power, ownership and control.

It’s clear that the modern industrial West is a place where the definition of ownership and property is getting… blurry. Corporations benefit on the one hand from immense political influence which they use to redefine the concept of property (through swapping actual ownership of sold goods to a model where the consumer merely rents them from ‘the cloud’, to suing anyone who infringes ‘their’ copyright while plundering other cultures and counter-cultures for their next Big Idea) and, on the other, from the trillions given to them to bail out economies fractured by the biggest Ponzi scheme in human history… from which they also profited to the sum of trillions of dollars. Numbers and power like that have a crushing weight to them, a force of gravity like supermassive black holes in culture.

So perhaps the best way to deal with them is to turn that gravity against them, to slingshot past their aims and, gaining speed from their mass, plunge ever deeper into imaginal space.

And, as we pass, steal anything that isn’t nailed down.

A key concept here is the Situationist term Détournement and the parallel idea of Bricolage— the taking of the products of capitalism and inverting them, remaking them to serve people rather than be cargo-trinkets to be worshipped and sought.

Think: remix culture, sampling, cut-ups, mash-ups. Sharing, rather than unequal ‘free’ market trading. Pirate Bay. Fan-fic and Adbusters. Open-source Makers rather than trademark-and-copyrighted sellers. Stealing back from the thieves.

The Street finding its own use for things.

It’s not like there’s a lack of examples of popular ground-level belief systems appropriating the symbols and tools of the mainstream for their own purposes — from the John Frum devotees I mentioned last time, to Voudon altars covered with cigars, cheap bottles of rum and shop-bought Virgin Mary devotional candles. So many stories, so many tools… why not just pick them up, wield them… and most importantly, see what they can do when you ignore the warranty, use them outside of the realm of the manufacturer’s warning?

Ever wondered why Hermes was the god of both magicians and thieves? Why crafty has nuances of meaning that imply both skill and cunning? Why bricolage derives from the French word for a tinker? It’s a hint.

The biggest confidence trick of our times is that we are nothing but powerless, passive consumers. That this is not only how things should be, but that it’s good for us. But we can and should be more — active, smart, crafty tool-users. Tinkers, and tinkerers. The Master’s Tools bloody well can be used to dismantle (or repurpose) The Master’s House — that’s what tools are for. Turn the con back on the grifters. Provide Leverage.

Possamai calls this kind of attitude towards the old myths and models ‘Presentist Perrenism’ — which,

“even though it borrows eclectively from earlier esotericism, is to be understood as an expression, in the field of spirituality, of emergent post-industrial or post-modern culture.”

The side-effect of all that Individualism that has been pushed as a way to make us buy newer and shinier things as a ‘lifestyle choice’ has had the unintended consequence of letting ‘consumers’ actually make those same individual choices about their own natures — and use the tools and themes and memes that array around them as the means to develop and construct their own path, their own mythos. The refusal to accept that anyone has the right to define our personal mythology but ourselves is an increasingly radical act, especially in the face of violently competing resurgent Great Narratives, dualistic us-and-them battles. There is far more to be had at the margins, the Bordertowns; the messy and vibrant meniscus between Buyer and Seller, adherent and heretic, the economists and the economised.

All the fun stuff happens at the edges: where the carnival shows and travelling clans, the car-boot sales and swap-meets, set up. Beyond the Pale. Beyond the consensus definition of the Real… out in the Hyper-real. Where the mages, fans and roleplayers, the short-con grifters and the jugglers, the Makers, Grinders and hackers and the rest of the Tribe of the Strange live, where it’s not quite safe and certainly not at all respectable or ordered or polite — and especially not Business As Usual. Where myth lives again.

I hope to see you there.

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