Eat, Prey, Judge

This entry contains discussions of spiritual tourism, exploitation, and body shaming.

Rhyd Wildermuth over at the Gods & Radicals site wrote a marvelously incisive review of Alex Mar’s exploitative pseudo-ethnography, Witches in America.

First, in many of the contentious passages, I’ve got to consider why Mar considered that okay to write in the first place. She had the interest and the means. She’s honest about her standpoint and perspective, which I can’t condemn, and evidently hasn’t had those challenged before publication, which is one reason that criticism and discussion of any work after publication is so important. (Although Mar’s lousy attitude and not to mention skeevy approach probably wasn’t challenged before publication precisely because those would go largely unchallenged after publication. I hope I’m wrong.)

Wildermuth compares Mar’s “duplicitous insertion into a culture or community to which they have no vulnerability (and towards which no obligation)” to spies, opportunists, and colonialists.

Since I’ve been sitting in on anthropology classes, I would compare Witches in America, as I have, unfavorably, to an ethnography. One important difference is that anthropology has had decades of re-evaluation of its ethics that, in the classes I’ve sat in on at least, come up for discussion frequently. Pseudo-ethnographers have the interest and the means, but perhaps not such persistent reminders of the genre’s history, nor the forum for debating the method of data collection.

Only relatively recently in the history of anthropological study have major shifts to the entire discipline been put forth, such as queer autoethnography and anthropological indigenization. Every basic or beginner anthropology text I’ve read has dedicated a huge chunk to Marxism and Feminism as influential to anthropological theories, but categorized separately from anthropology proper (whatever it would even be by now: science, political platform, or body of knowledge.) Anthropology also facilitated the publication of such works as Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, now infamous for its lack of academic integrity, and numerous similar works that reflected the problematic intellectual climate of the time.

Anthropology was colonialist, and perhaps remains so. The rankings of First World (democratic world powers), Second World (communist world powers), and Third World (developing nations with lower economic power or less global importance) remain relevant in anthropology because a common area of study is the Fourth World (for lack of better terms within this structure, the Fourth World comprises of: primitive, uncivilized, and/or isolated peoples).

The discussions that I’ve read and heard about the limitations of an anthropologist as a human being with specific experiences and interpretations and evaluation methods, combined with the freedom to outright fabricate, balanced against the academic duty to document the cultures of people accurately and completely, and that balanced against the ethics of keeping such reports incomplete for the personal safety of the anthropologist’s informants (especially when the community expresses that a specific feature of their lives is not public)…these are important to consider. These are so important. Even though anthropology might largely remain a bourgeois infatuation with the exotic, the structures for checking that infatuation should be at least as accessible as the products of ignorance or disregard for those structures.

*

When it comes to spiritual tourism, Elizabeth Gilbert has received a lot of criticism for her autobiography, Eat, Pray, Love and this serves as another passing comparison to Alex Mar’s Witches in America. I haven’t read either. I have watched Gilbert’s TEDtalks on the mystery of creative inspiration that involved mention of daemons, genii, and the transfer and adaptation of cultural traits during the Moorish invasion of Spain, and the unfortunately wry response to her critics in a later talk she gave about success, failure, and persistence (“I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love; and all of those people who had hated Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next…because it would provide evidence that I still lived.”)

My impression was that Gilbert offered a more benign form of infatuation with the exotic: that what would be classified as “exotic” exists in a world shared with “normative” and it’s the purpose of life to experience humanity in all the ways we can, and help others to situate themselves in a shared world and a full life experience. From Gilbert, I receive the impression of an inevitable failure to shake one’s approach (as that is the result of a lived experience as much as it changes new lived experiences, and as dangerous as that privilege may be) but above all a willingness to give of herself as much as she receives.

Yet.

To offer a more benign form of inevitable objectification and distance isn’t assurance of sustained benignity. Criticism is as important as enjoyment, because Gilbert and Mar don’t relate as individuals to equally-empowered individuals, and there can be no mutual respect for boundaries (and thus representation, as a result of permission granted at that boundary, would never be unskewed) without equal empowerment.

As for the excerpts of Alex Mar’s writing…those weren’t even benign. I might sit down to read Eat, Pray, Love one of these days, but there’s no way I’m ever touching Witches of America.

The Mapmaker

I re-read a short story by Neil Gaiman called “The Mapmaker” about, it seemed to be, a Chinese Emperor who had developed an interest in creating maps. He almost emptied the royal treasury in the creation of an island that would imitate the geographic features of his country, that would be updated daily in response to earthquakes or wildfires, with every miniature house being as near-perfect an imitation as could be managed. When the same Emperor said to the advisor that the next map to be made would be a life-sized representation of his own country, with each house represented by a house, and each citizen represented by a citizen…the council decided that this had gone too far, and the story hints that they assassinated the Emperor in his sleep. The new sovereign, incidentally, had no interest in cartography at all.

I wondered what would have happened had they allowed the Emperor to wake up and behold his country, with advisors also telling him that the map he sought had already been constructed while he slept, and so all he need do was behold it and compare it to itself. Such a map would be one with the territory: completely accurate, and thus completely useless. It all depended on how well an advisor could mess with the Emperor’s mind, a mind so organized that it had become a mess.

*

In the symbolism that I explore now, the spider’s web has grown in significance. I discovered some old notes from when the significant symbolisms were mists (perhaps in parallel with the experience of psi or subtle energy), masques and mirrors. Maps would have fit in with those just as well.

Those symbolisms didn’t exactly flow, even though I liked what they meant. It might be the difference between a gesture and true sign language, or a wordless sound and a true spoken language. Alone, a gesture or sound can convey meaning, but the underlying rules determine the language.

In his Red Book, Carl Jung wrote (translated by Sonu Shamdasani): “The ancients lived their symbols, since the world had not yet become real for them. Thus they went into the solitude of the desert to teach us that the place of the soul is a lonely desert. There they found the abundance of visions, the fruits of the desert, the wondrous flowers of the soul.”

I would have thought that the case would be the opposite, that ritual acts lived the symbols precisely because the world was real, even hyperreal, and the map would be the territory. To consider physical acts only having physical causes or consequences made a world map of the world, in the same way that the mapmaking Emperor could have if only he had thought differently.

Aristotle’s Poetics and Finally Some Structure to Wishcraft

Tune in for Aristotle being such a sexist!

Lately, I’ve been thinking of Poetics. The word reminded me that I never got around to reading Aristotle’s lecture notes on Greek theatre, The Poetics, so I finally got around to reading it.

It didn’t have much to do with my Poetics, or my ideas of what it would be as these ideas form, but it was an interesting read.

Much of it pertained to the technicalities of Greek theater, specific meters, how the Chorus should be treated, dramatic beats defined as Reversal of the Situation (Peripeteia) and Recognition and the necessary setups for that (I’m guessing that’s now like the chase scene as a narrative convention that Charlie Chaplin rebelled against in his time, which is not to say that narrative conventions such as “chase scene” or a “main character” aren’t worth exploring the significance of in its context or even today), but a lot of it could be applied to any narrative. It’s definitely dated, although interesting that Aristotle made the distinction between that which was virtuous, that which was appropriate, and that which was “ennobled”: so, characters in a play must be good and even a woman who is also a slave and doubly lowly can technically be so; but must also be appropriate, and valor and cleverness in a woman was inappropriate to show to audiences onstage (while learning something new would be a big draw, on some levels individual audience members do expect some validation of some of their worldview as-is); and yet, every defect of character preserved and presented onstage is necessarily ennobled by a poet. There were also some recommendations for information that must be left offstage, even as it affects the story shown onstage. The definitions and history of comedy versus tragedy were also interesting, with the comedy having no history according to Aristotle because it wasn’t taken as seriously (ba-dum-bam) as epics and tragedies.

The Poetics proposed that the stageplay was an imitation of life, and there was a whole chapter on how to address critics of a play on the basis of how the imitation went. To me it spoke of how artistic license and the tumultuous relationship between the work and the audience have been issues for a very long time.

*

Six parts of a drama that determine the quality according to Aristotle (translated by S.H. Butcher here): Plot, Character, Thought, Spectacle, Diction, and Song. I conjecture that they go in order, when Aristotle continued that two constitute the medium of imitation (so, I’ll guess that’s Plot and Character), one constitutes the manner (Thought, or perhaps theme as the political and rhetoric), and three constitute the object (Spectacle, Diction, and Song.)

I think of it more like the story as medium versus the story at large and at small. If we start small, a story is primarily description, dialogue, and narrative (or spectacle, diction, and song.) As a medium, audiences infer characterization and plot development or plot twists from the primary. I sometimes think of narrative as broader than plot, so they should switch places in size rankings, but I’ll position Song in a special way in my own system later. Thought, or what I could call Theme, positions the work in the context of society, which is the larger view of storytelling.

I recognized notions as both the basis of a belief system and generated or synthesized by the same. Beginning to think in ritual structure, now, the qualities in parts of a drama can serve as placeholders of a structure that can synthesize notions, the filler of the structure being the Ogdoad (and the application in Ways, that I haven’t yet written about.)

(Developments in Ogdoad can be followed here, although I recently decided to just do away with affricates and plosives already and just make a language with what’s left.)

I have thought about some significant differences between the Animist approach to mystic elements (that treated these powers as animate) and the Ceremonial (that tended to treat these powers as inanimate or resonant worldly extensions of the elements within oneself). Ogdoad would be neither, rather themselves being a perception filter construct, strengthened by recognition of how these notions (or elements) invite or apply to the greater world.

A one-to-one correspondence of narrative parts to Ogdoad definitely made it simpler, but I guess if intuition moved for a ritual that was all Pawn, or all Castles (even in the song, plot, and character positions) then that’s how it would go.

At first, I figured that the Pawn would always be in the position of Song, if I think of Song more as the connections that make the whole more than the sum of its parts. Depending on the notion to be synthesized, (which would only be complicated if one thinks in categories that would then fracture the notion rather than activating a whole that can then only be described in what would once have fractured it) the “plot” of the spell can either be imbued Kingly, Queenly, or Pawnly; same as the “character”. And the final three qualities would be imbued with the remaining pieces, for balance of the spell, and compatibility with that which the spell applies to.

Outside of this, where most modern spellcasters would put a circle, I’d put a triangle instead: sea, sand, and sky; the pledge, the turn, the prestige; or craven’s, maven’s, and haven’s ways. Craven’s Way applies more to personal development, Maven’s Way applies more to external entities on the same wavelength, and Haven’s Way applies to external forces and entities not on the same wavelength.

More On Poetics

Previously, on The Codex of Poesythis is such a prettier word for semiotics!

What has best articulated my idea of notions in wishcraft, lately, has been philosophy. I remember hiding out in Miasma’s apartment with her four roommates when she was in university. They would let me read their books, and some of those would be books that they brought from home, and some of them would be the texts they bought for their lessons. One of them was a giant tome that they named Big Bob. It was a compilation of the very important writings of a bunch of dead white guys, for the required philosophy courses.

When I read some of Big Bob, I noticed that the terminology of each academic ancestor was as personal to him as his underwear. The notions of noumena versus phenomena might be contextualized and apply slightly differently, but I thought it might as well be the same thing as the signifier and signified. Then again, in the same book, some English-writing philosophers insisted upon using the French verb form of “to be” (est) in order to highlight “being” as a more significant concept that the English word could convey. The same went for what might be colloquially known as “capital-t Truth” that some dead white guy or other insisted was not mere truth, as English would have it even with Pointed Capitalization, but he would evoke some ultimate transcendental version of the same concept by using the Greek word for it (that would be alethia, but always with a capital A.)

Big Bob got thrown at the wall a lot, accompanied by primal screams of frustration.

*

I thought that a notion would be the basic unit of a belief, while recognizing that a belief system also generates or synthesizes notions. The dynamic activity between the two became what I now call Glamour.

In studies of witchcraft, the predecessor to what I call wishcraft, I learned of some branches that included material components for the correspondents, and of other branches that preferred to work with subtle energy. In the latter branch, either one didn’t trust the chain of cause and effect, or one saw that chain lead into the mind’s associations and then wondered why bother with that externally-situated cognition at all when it could all be done with the mind and its perception of subtle energy.

When I noticed the treatment of subtle energy among members of the community…flip-flopping in the force of authoritativeness between a conserved quantity (as with encounters with subtle energy leeches) and a performative entity (as with the presence of “dark” subtle energy or “negative” subtle energy when both should have been privative by nature and would not necessarily be awful unless somebody else’s subtle energy were on a different wavelength or quality), I concluded that subtle energy itself is a correspondent or symbol. Subtle energy to me became a signifier for something else-and-deeper that would interfaced with perception.

The idea of different planes of reality or otherworlds through which this subtle energy moved began to seem to me like an effort to create a one-to-one correspondence of physical energy in one world and subtle energy in the otherworld. It would still be a compelling metaphor, but I felt that I ought to return to checking my personal perceptions and interpretations before deciding on a metaphysical model.

It’s not all only personal perception, although adopting any perception that is not the perceiver’s own is impossible. I still believe in the world, although the meaning, quality, or value of any one thing in the world would change depending on the context and the approach of a perceiver, I still believe in realities beyond myself. A tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear it will still make a sound, but whether one can have a care about a specific event that one cannot or does not perceive is another question.

*

It’s that caring that I began to wonder about. Notions became not only about qualities or qualia or meaning, but meaningfulness.

Rather than a one-to-one between the physical world and physical energies, I began to find far more similarities in the dynamics of society to metaphysics. Social or cultural power imbalances and dynamics can have very real effects.

Glamour worked just as well for both, but I began to wonder about toradh in fairy lore, the social equivalent I suppose would be personal agency. I wonder about it being nascent, then reified, then stolen or corrupted or undermined or devastated. I imagined toradh as a node in the glamour, or like the seed inside a peach, the notions waylaid and bound together enough that it could become something else (although that bundle of notions would itself be a notion, just like part of a notion is just a notion with irregular sticky edges.)

As for what a notion is, I’ve resorted to Derrida’s differentiation. Any one notion is itself because it is not something else or anything else. While focusing on the negative space around a concept might come off a bit, haha, lacking…it stands to reason that diversity could only fail to define a thing through the thing being what everything else is not (occupying the same spacetime, having the exact same qualities of the phenomenon, not outside of identified boundaries) by absolute cosmic homogeny. So, differentiation it is, even though I still make the distinction between dualities: extant and privative, mutually exclusive, complementary, potentially able to synthesize, focused and peripheral…all different approaches to diversity-definition.

On Poetics

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote an analysis of what he called the poetics of space. The inside of a house, he said, acquires a sense of intimacy, secrecy, security, real or imagined, because of the experiences that come to seem appropriate for it. The objective space of a house—its corners, corridors, cellar, rooms—is far less important than what poetically it is endowed with, which is usually a quality with an imaginative or figurative value we can name and feel: this a house may be haunted, or homelike, or prisonlike…The same process occurs when we deal with time. Much of what we associate with or even now about such periods as “long ago” or “the beginning” or “at the end of time” is poetic…

— Edward Said, “Orientalism”

By the same rule, there would be poetics of the body: gender, ethnicity, ability, sexuality, kinship, therianthropy; under an ability to see light, there would be poetics of color, and poetics of a specific body part such as an eye. There can be poetics of relationships, kinships too, kithships (maybe if that’s a word), acquaintances and romances.

The poetics of space can be national, architectural, or directional. The directional can be south, or left, with levity and gravity, or dorsal and ventral. With the latter, and in other cases, poetics of space can overlap with poetics of the body.

There are poetics of words and language, poetics of concepts and notions, poetics of mathematics.

But if I say that there are poetics of category…that’s just too meta, gone too far! (Technically, it had already gone that way in the poetics of concepts and notions.)

I wonder what makes the poetics incomplete as a concept that it must be anchored or expressed in ritual, or must be reflected back somehow by the world for the poetic to be complete and validated? On the other side of it, what poetics makes a ritual empty?

Aarghthropology

I’d been curious about Dreamtime just for the word. It wasn’t something I could learn about from osmosis. The most culture-altering thing I learned from going to an Australian school was that it’s a “rubbish bin” not a “trash can”. So, to start with the first ethnography I could get my hands on isn’t the recommended beginning. Definitely, it gave me a lot more to consider about one’s relationship to the land than the usual sentiment to just have that relationship and figure out how to keep it up from there.

But there was barely any connection to the hallucinations people get during sleep.

I finally figured out why. Lucien Levy-Bruhl was a French scholar who wrote Primitive Mythology: The Mythic World of the Australian and Papuan Natives, among other titles. Many of his observations influenced ideological lineages that I adopt heavily, such as Jungian psychology.

This work also influenced the translations of one William Edward Hanley Stanner, an anachronistically conscientious journalist, soldier, and political advisor. He was one of the first to speak out against a “naive search for uncontaminated cultures” and posited that anthropologists had a responsibility to see to the welfare of contacted and colonized peoples. Stanner counseled against racist policies in Australian law of his time.

For all those good things, Stanner glossed alcheringa as Dreaming and then Dreamtime. This was a mistranslation, or a misinterpretation. It got popular. So, Dreaming continues to be the gloss of wingara, mungai, poaradju, and everything in all the Aborigines languages that might be something sort of maybe like alcheringa. None of these, evidently, can be accurately Romanized because half the sounds in Arrernte are absent in English. Other Aboriginal languages might be very slightly more compatible.

There may have never been any such thing as Dreamtime.
Continue reading