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Monday, 21 March 2011

Subversion. Or why not? a prayer wheel.

In 1967 Guy Debord wrote:
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.

Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process.
The Society of the Spectacle. Guy Debord.
Marx and others identified religion as the enemy of reason and a tool used by those in power to prevent others from criticising injustice. The purpose of religion was albeit accidentally to keep society divided into hierarchical systems. Hierarchical systems are accused of requiring and therefore of creating an underclass.

The promise of heaven as a reward for suffering was supposed to be the key to making a hierarchical system work. A better life after death, why bother with the here and now? Religion as opium...

With the rise of advertising to inform the public via a flood of technological advances, heaven became material, and advertising promised better ways to live life, better ways to eat, better places to go and better ways to wash hair, bodies, cloths and carpets.

Debord notes that products must be 'value added' to make them the new heaven, and this virtual overlay of 'value added' and 'best value' is the spectacle.

But of course this advertised, new and shinny benefit does not benefit everyone, or even provide benefit! Not everyone wants a faster broadband or car with proximity sensors, and it is hard for many more people to actually believe that life is made better by possessing shoes and bags augmented by the correct symbols.

Organised, state religion -be it football, the Olympics or the church- exists because people enjoy spectacle. To me it seems that the real problem of the spectacle is one of authenticity, of how much does the spectacle actually fit the real needs and wishes of people. When the spectacle is inauthentic, a set of meanings that had grown up with a phenomenon or behaviour are replaced by a new set created by a team of experts to subtlety change what is seen. At its worst an environment is designed to be Teflon and non-stick...but that's just me.

In terms of Eleusis all that was promised was a better life after death.

A religious education is a curious thing; I was fortunate, mine was chosen rather than forced upon me. The benefit of choosing to learn a religion is that the type or nature, the creed or denomination of the religion isn't as important as the nature of religious thought.

The religion I learnt the practices for was once clearly shamanic, there are layers of philosophical additions over the top of the original structure, but even today the shamanic core remains in the five stages of a practice:

1/ Creation of a liminal space by visualising a protective barrier around oneself.
2/ Making offerings to a deity.
3/ Evocation of the deity.
4/ Becoming the deity and..
5/ dissolution of the visualisation.

The purpose of most of the practices is not shamanic. The purpose is fundamentally what the Pythagoreans meant by purification.Though the definition of purification and what is purified derives from the influence of the Alexandrian Greeks, the more recognisably 'shamanic' practices such as the binding of harmful spirits and the methods of creating special offerings, remains.

The last time I went to a church service it seemed to me that Christianity had maintained a similar ritual pattern. Offerings and visualisations are in the form of form of hymns. A hymn describes how great God is, and the visualisation is in effect the evocation. Asking Jesus to be within one's heart is 'purification'.

Christianity took so much from Plato that anything mystical became problematic, likewise any sense of religion as felt rather than thought out. Submission to God and a refusal to criticise 'devine' law appears alien and terrifying to those who believe that God is made in man's image. Religion is supposed to be rational? it goes.

Religion, taken to its logical conclusion is a kind of crossing over, of allowing the virtual reality map to become as real as the actual, un-augmented world. But the habit of religious thought is universal -I am defining religious thought as the phenomenon of believing in a virtual overlay.

A religious person has imported a ready made template, a web of meanings, a lexicon of symbols and practiced using these. In terms of the spectacle, a ritual is meaningful to those who have chosen to attach certain meanings to certain symbols and it is assumed that the linkage is authentic because of the universality of the link -offering candles, the prayers for others, the feeling of opening ones heart, and the sense of the numinous are made bigger and deeper by practice. A non-religious person has only the cultural language of his society, and the cultural language changes rapidly, never amassing enough words or meanings to open up deeper paths, plus as Debord points out "The illusory paradise that represented a total denial of earthly life is no longer projected into the heavens, it is embedded in earthly life itself...the modern spectacle depicts what society could deliver, but in so doing it rigidly separates what is possible from what is permitted. The spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence".

In light of this, religion becomes an act of subversion.

Meanwhile non-religious people tend to see religious people as other, generally as entranced, or 'lost'. I remember some visitors tiptoeing around me whilst I was 'practicing' in a shrine room and trying not to 'disturb' me. Meditation is supposed to be difficult and noise is supposed to be disturbing, but really all things are a part of the practice, there is nothing to shut out and nothing to disturb. Nor is there mindless trance, or a sense of 'possession' when I say "I am in the form of" and then "become" the deity.

Crossing-over has more in common with playing a computer game than being 'Holy'. The practice of religion is the ability to believe in a consciously imported reality and to make it so.

Yet religion too becomes spectacle, when it is believed to be something other. The habit of being rational extends, without a religion to balance it, into philosophising reality which reduces real life to a universe of speculation and inaction.

Meanwhile two main problems arise from the concept of religion as being other; the first problem is that people imagine that religious people are different in some way to ordinary people. Religion itself is somewhat to blame for this. To maintain an esteemed position in society religious people must be different or else the amount of money they are given, and the amount of time handed over to them would be foolish!

I don't believe that this is a consciously designed phenomena, it is simply the way it works. It functions in exactly the same way within secular institutions.

Post Reformation the meme operates at the point of use for a 'neophyte', there is a difference between *you* as a new student and the *elders*  based on something more than experience and knowledge. The real difference created by experience and leading to understanding, may depend on time spent within the religious institution, but this is not always so, often too much time within a religious institution is the perfect way to remain ignorant of how one's mind actually works, and the nature of the Holy.

People are generally judged within a religious institution by how much time they have spent there. More importantly knowledge is assumed to be linked to language, it is assumed that a  knowledgeable person will use certain key words and phrases. When there is no way to actually judge what is right or wrong (and this is so in religions -for there is nothing to actually test) words and phrases and numinous narratives, become all. A hierarchy requires *difference* and the method is to check for 'insider' and 'outsider' phrases.

For instance, saying that a Depeche Mode song can express a higher truth, or that Heavy Metal is the sound of a 'Wrathful' puja, wont do...key words and concepts cannot be played with, subversion is never popular.

The second problem with religion as other, is fear. Religious habits such as prostrating, mumbling prayers, use of prayer beads etc mark one out as *feeble minded*, or worse, recall ancient fear of witchcraft. Meanwhile people are not expected to look for scientific solutions to their problems because science is supposed to be very difficult (scientists, as the religious hierarchy of the past found out must make people believe that scientific people are somehow *special* or else the amount of money they are given the amount of time handed over to them is foolish!).

Subversion is rarely considered a good thing, though reclaiming symbols (words and icons) from tyrants is understood in the public imagination as probably a 'good' thing to do.

Subversion tends towards destruction, or towards a nihilistic version of the world; as meanings are dragged away from symbols.

Or, subversion as a form of anarchy may be the only honest way to approach a hierarchically constructed reality.