Thursday, 20 December 2012

Three Thurses for thee: towards a demonology of consumerism

Here's an essay adapted from a talk I did last year at the RuneGild World Moot.

Three Thurses for thee: towards a demonology of consumerism

This article is partly a rant, and partly an attempt to isolate some of the demonic elements of consumerist culture.

Consider this pair of familiar propositions:
- We are all in a dream most of the time
- We can choose to wake up, but it takes work, and this is the Work of initiation.

So, in what sense are we in a dream?

Imagine you are watching TV, and you see an advert featuring sizzling rashers of bacon. Your mouth waters. You get up and go into the kitchen. You catch yourself, frying pan in hand, at the point you realise you aren't actually hungry. No harm done.

Now imagine you are riding in a car along a city street. You are wide awake, as aware as it gets. From a billboard, you see a face smiling down at you, lips parted, eyes moist and luminous... this is not just a rumbling in your stomach that emulates hunger, this is real desire; lust and happiness are fused in the eyes of the beloved, the woman, man or beast of your dreams that is used in that car or coffee or toothpaste advert. That image has wormed its way into your inner world, and it will keep on generating feelings. If they're pleasant feelings, you will probably not resist its internalization. It has become part of you, a powerful element in your mythic world.

We are all in a dream of this kind; that's what the mystics have been telling us for thousands of years: from Lao-Tse through to Plato.

We are all in a dream; that's what critics of consumerism tell us too: In the words of Walter Benjamin, 'the advertisement is one method whereby the commodity infiltrates the dream-world of the consumer.'

So, in critiquing consumerism, we may come to understand some important lessons for our illumination.
In doing so, we are following an ancient initiatory process. By unmasking and learning how to resist these Thurses, we come to free ourselves from their grip, and so we become more conscious.

So what are these forces, and to what extent are they Thursic?
I expect many of you will have heard of Crowley's Aeonics, that succession of principles around which human spirituality organizes itself in each historical era.

First there is Isis the Mother, the Pagan Aeon, ruled by the laws of Nature; then Osiris the Father, the Aeon of monotheism and most recently (1904 according to Crowley) Horus, the Crowned and Conquering Child, the beginning of the maturation of humanity beyond repressive laws.

Before I'd even heard of magick, I was a natural child of the Horus aeon. Freedom was my game. 'Playpower', a famous (and famously overrated) book from the years of my youth, gave us a term that seemed to make sense. 

And some of the things I dreamed about in the Playpower phase of my youth have come true, and I hate them.
As a youngster in the early 1970s, viewing the ruined industrial landscapes of North-East Sheffield's Attercliffe and Tinsley, the bit you see when you pass between turnoffs 32 and 31 of the M1 motorway, I cried out passionately that they be replaced by a children's playground.

The dream came true, the monstrous Meadowhall mall sprouted on the site of the steel industries' ruin. I served my time there in the run-up to Yule '95, the Xmas feeding frenzy, running a stall selling my aromatics company's products. Every day, driving home, I played the most nihilistic industrial rock I could find, to try and banish that consumerist hell. 

But the Aeon of Horus was needed: much of the old world had to go - in particular, the insane sexual repression of the Victorian era, which was dealt a significant blow by the lifestyle rebellion of the 60s. The Aeon of Horus was still making sense.

It still made sense to me in 1997, when I wrote Chaotopia!. In that book, I prized neoteny, which, biologically speaking is when individuals reach sexual maturity without developing all the other adult characteristics of their species. Neoteny is therefore a metaphor for continual openness to development.

That open-endedness is the crown and the burden of humankind - that we are creatures of chaos, that we don't really know what we are. That means we can and do become anything - our freedom produces Auschwitz, and Beethoven, James Joyce and Big Brother. So I stand by my defence of neoteny - minds that are flexible and adaptable are those which retain youthful characteristics, and in turn those qualities reflect one of the deepest features of the human mind. 
So let us look at the Thursic side of that Aeon. 

Here's one example of something I hope I am not alone in being sick to the teeth of : adults using baby talk.

The other week, I read a report of a magistrate doing the requisite telling-off thing to a woman described as 'heavily pregnant' for an alcohol related offence. The admonishment actually went, 'You've got a baby in your tummy...'
Yes, this is a magistrate we're talking about here, not some soppy teenage twit who gets a warm glow inside from saying the word 'tummy'.
Did she think the woman she was addressing was severely intellectually retarded? Aren't magistrates supposed to be mature and sensible members of the community? Apparently 'no' is the answer to both of those questions.

Even professionals like doctors and vets use the word 'poo' these days, a perfectly suitable term for 8-year olds, before they get the hang of what social contexts demand 'excrement' or 'faeces' and which 'crap' or shit'.

So what is that about, that infantile regression in an adult?
To cast the question wider: Why can't I jump on and off buses as they hang around in traffic? Is it because we can no longer stand to lose a few idiots a year in exchange for these trivial freedoms?
Are we thereby a more compassionate society?

That's the surface of it, that is what we are supposed to believe about this rubbish, but the rate at which the overprotection culture has conquered everything suggests a very strong economic driver.

That driver is insurance; this is what makes sense of the extreme anti-smoking notices, which in some places even appear out of doors these days, in defiance of any basic human sense. (Just for those who haven't yet worked out how deranged that notion is, just look up the term 'infinite dilution').
Harm is not the issue; the true logic of this idiocy is that some person might sue, and sue successfully, someone who allows smoke to drift over their home or business premises. After all, we are talking about a legal system that awarded a claimant against McDonalds for serving her the hot coffee she scalded herself with. I mean, I wouldn't mind seeing Mac's getting screwed into the middle of next week, but that decision has made the law into a moron, and one fears what such stupidity is capable of.

Thus, three Thurses for thee, dear citizen, and not, like in the words of Skirnismal, 'lust, loathing and lechery', but things far filthier and much less fun: things that contribute vitally to the nourishment of the system we find ourselves in, the sordid details of the pathology of consumerism.

That was the first one: Infantilization. It is the Thursic side of the Child principle, which is in itself no better nor worse than the Mother or Father principles. All Aeons get corrupted, cheapened, vulgarized; monetized, to use the most revolting of new expressions.

So we've isolated one horrible strand of modern politics and control: the Crowned and Conquering Brat, alive and kicking down the legal system...

Let's pan out to the bigger picture:

The BIG BOSS THURS - Consumerism;

This is fed by a whole slew of demons:
First, Control: - This is a genuinely Thursic force, one with no conscious side at all. William Burroughs had this one's number: Control doesn't operate rationally; its horizons are limited; hence it is a genuine thurs. Burroughs saw that it emerges from the fear of death and its appetite for more control is insatiable.
In a dialogue he conducted via cut-up trance, he asked:
'What does Control want?'
'More Control,' came the reply.

Control turns up in every society. It is an old whore, which will work for anybody stupid enough to employ it. It is not peculiar to our present age. Think of it like this: it forms the demand side of the economy of stupidity.

In its present form, it is nourished and strengthened by :  -
Infantilization - an Aeonic thurs, specific to the Aeon of Horus.

Let's look in more detail at infantilization.
It's in full swing with our claim and blame culture, surely the epitome of infantilization, the attitude that
the adult citizen is not responsible, that Baby needs protecting from Hirself every second of every day.

What then is its function of infantilization?

Its function is to keep us grasping, grasping for more, like a spoiled, unloved child.
It is the slave of corporations and advertising, which exhort us to buy much more stuff than we need.

According to a survey done in the late 90s, it was at that time only about the first £10,000 of income that made a difference to our material happiness; below that level, we are genuinely poor. Above that level, income only impacts our happiness to the extent it is more or less than what others are earning.

In other words, many people work long hours at boring, pointless, unsatisfying jobs simply to achieve status.
That strikes me as deeply pathetic:  people destroy their lives through work, to obtain something as ridiculous as relative financial status.
No wonder infantilization is necessary to drive consumerism; a truly grown-up person would not buy into such a crock of crap.

In a parallel and related development, you've probably noticed doctors getting more aggressive about health. Your health, that used to belong to you, to care for or abuse as you saw fit. Doctors have become as whiningly moralistic as priests, and the cult they are priests of is life-extension. This cult has become as powerful as the old priesthoods of morality and work. Recent attempts to destroy the free market in medicinal herbs is sold to the public on the basis of 'we know better than you do', but its real reason is obviously profit for big drug companies.

That link relates to a structural relationship: Infantilization is supported by:
Intellectual dishonesty.
This Thurs has really come out of the closet lately; governments are getting shockingly blatant in their lying. A recent example - 2 years ago, the UK Govt's chief drugs advisor, Prof David Nutt, was asked to come up with a scale of the harmfulness of drugs, both legal and illegal, based on objective, measurable quantities like hospital admissions.

He did so, and the Govt didn't like his findings. When Nutt defended them, they sacked him, saying that his scale of harmfulness - sanctified by scientific method - sent out the wrong message.

Let's run that past ourselves again: The truth, ie the best data we can get, sends out the wrong message.
Such contempt for truth would be funny if it wasn't causing so much harm.

Another Thurs that supports Control is:
Loss of trust in subjectivity.
We are living in an era where subjective reporting is not to be trusted. This of course links in to the  embedded institutional distrust of people's behaviour and judgment, which in turn feeds into our disempowerment by the medical profession.

Prizewinning American writer Marilynne Robinson tackles this problem. In her book 'Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self' , she writes:
'A central tenet of the modern world view is that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires. And - as an important corollary - certain well-qualified others do know them. ... of the ... testimony of individual consciousness and experience among us, ... We have been persuaded that it is a perjured witness.'

This reminds us of the mental violence done to the public by the arch-manipulators of the last century, particularly Edward Bernays and Emma Freud. Between them, these two demonized any inner authority humans might have and attacked autonomy and community, in order to reduce people to docile consumers. Where subjectivity is devalued, we have no position to fight from, no other source of authority to oppose the rapacity of government, big business and vested professional interests. 

Robinson is coming from the humanities side of the argument, and the whole territory of the arts is threatened with trivialization by the anti-subjectivist position. That position is associated, with some accuracy, with the scientific attitude. You may have seen articles with titles like 'Yes, we really do fall in love - brain scans prove it', as if subjective reports of feelings have no validity, and the objective measurements of science do.
So is Science then the enemy, the Thursic force here?

Before going into that big question, I want to say that I'd really rather you didn't take my word for any of this. Check it out for yourself. Confront, immerse yourself in, question, every aspect of this modern world and determine which you can use, which you need artfully to avoid, and which are your sworn enemies.
And with all of them, understand how to transcend their influence. Even those you approve of, you will eventually need to learn how to overcome in yourself, because they represent partial truths. 

A personal example: my Science story:
I remember vividly the moment I fell in love with science. It coincided with the first time I abandoned magical thinking. I was around 4, and my dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I replied: a magic wand, a real one, like Sooty's got, one that can do real magic. My dad told me then that magic wasn't real. I recall the moment precisely; we were facing a row of shops on a mundane street in the West London suburb I grew up in. At that point, something big happened inside me, and the next time I thought about that incident it was from the point of view of someone who had turned wholeheartedly towards science. Science represented power, and I had unknowingly launched myself into the mystery of the Faustian bargain, which is so much the modern history of the Indo-European people.

Many occultists , and even some magicians, believe that science is the enemy. It is not. Science is common sense, ordinary logic, in its most detailed form. It is foreign neither to our nature as human beings nor to the projects of personal power and initiation.

What is the enemy, has been called Parascience. The term was coined by Marilynne Robinson, and can be defined as the talking of science-like religious drivel by scientists.

I'll give you an example from a science writer I used to respect, Ben Goldacre. He critiques a parapsychology experiment which failed to demonstrate extraordinary powers; so far, so good - methodological criticism is part of the advancement of scientific knowledge.
But he is not satisfied with a mere technical critique; he wants people to stop conducting parapsychology experiments at all, because, quote, 'we know that ESP is not real.'
Do we? That sounds like a religious position to me; it is certainly not a scientific one.

Parascience is a very special Thurs, another one that is peculiar to the Aeon of Horus. We have rejected the religions of the monotheist Aeon, but we can't do without big, simplifying, stupid statements about the nature of the universe, so we form a new one. Parascience is a rather shabby attempt at a religion, and it is practised by a curious subculture, the best known member of which is Richard Dawkins.

Dawkinsites have constructed an argument which is superficially like science, but lacks it rigour. They have descended to a religious position that owes everything to Christianity's simplistic monochrome, in its energetic denial of some part or other of the human being, in its sterile inability to embrace the totality of what human experience is. They take science as their starting point, but then go way beyond its remit, much further than the evidence warrants, to present their hysterical-sounding denials. They are cops, patrolling the limits of reality with big sticks, falsely labelled 'Scientific Reason'.

Robinson writes:
'...the polemical impulse to assert the authority of science, understandable when the project was relatively new... is by now an atavism that persists as a consequence of this same polemical impulse.'

And further:
'A difference between ... science and parascience, is the desire in the latter case to treat scientific knowledge as complete, at least in its methods and assumptions, in order to further the primary object of closing questions about human nature...'
That pretty much pins down the Thursic nature of Parascience: the closing off of questions which have in no way been adequately addressed by science. The old separation into 'non-overlapping magisteria' is under attack from parascience,  and the flavour of this discourse is a shallow triumphalism, a territorial pissing match by scientists who have blundered into areas that their discipline is not competent to address.

True science is at home in the real universe, which is chaotic and open-ended; parascientists like Dawkins and Goldacre are deeply uncomfortable about that lack of closure; they are seeking faith in order and closure. Either Dawkins has no insight into his own psyche or he is being dishonest about the fact that he is seeking faith.

Many people confuse science with parascience, and none more so than in magic. This confusion is greatly to the benefit of parascience, whose adherents would love us to think they were talking real science, and it has led some magical writers to attempt to justify magical thinking by invoking the radical relativism of postmodern philosophers.

Whilst I salute the intention behind such attempts, I remain unimpressed by such short-cuts to magical belief as the following:
'... if everything we believe about the world is an arbitrary, socially-constructed symbol; if nothing inherently means anything; if reality itself - as many postmodernists claim - is just a collection of such arbitrary symbols, then magic becomes not only possible, but inevitable.'
That's a quote from 'Postmodern Magic', by Patrick Dunn.

The trick Dunn is using here seems to be to degrade the objectivity-status of consensus reality in order to make it more vulnerable to magic. We might call this the Chemotherapy Ploy: with cytotoxic drugs, we hope they will poison the cancer cells rather faster than the healthy host cells. Similarly, with PoMo anti-science we attack consensus reality, in the hope that the 'irrationalism' of magic gets a foothold before our universe crumbles into total incoherence.

Postmodern philosophy brought in a breath of liberating ideas, especially in analysing how philosophical positions are affected by the social reality of the writer. However, some of these tendencies have become profoundly toxic and downright silly where they've tried to deal with scientific epistemology.

PoMo critiques of physical science have delivered tools into the hands of the religious ultra-right, who are only too glad to be told that the theory of biological evolution (one of the scientific theories most consistently supported by the evidence), is just another possible viewpoint, to be placed alongside non-scientific views like creationism. The PoMo science agenda also benefits the rapacious corporations and their political puppets who would squirm out from under the mountain of evidence for global warming. 

Anyone who is still mucking about with PoMo anti-science drivel would do well to read theoretical physicist Alan Sokal's critiques of that tendency's worst excesses. In 1996, Sokal's article 'Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity' was accepted, and published in all seriousness by the prestigious American cultural studies journal Social Text. After its publication, Sokal 'fessed up to the hoax, declaring that every statement in that article was either trivial, nonsensical or meaningless, provoking a storm of often-acrimonious debate. One of the more delightful exchanges to emerge from this brouhaha was when one of the editors of Social Text declared that Sokal was 'under-educated' in the branch of philosophy he was critiquing; one of Sokal's supporters asked that editor: 'How does it feel to be duped by the under-educated?'

Basically, we don't need some hippy-dippy paradigm shift in order to fight parascience - all we need is clear thinking.

Let's go a layer deeper: much misunderstanding of what science is, is underpinned by confused notions of what materialism really is.
'Materialism' is often blamed by 'magicians' for the state modern culture is in. Is that fair? is Materialism a Thurs?

One understanding of the word, in which it means 'obsession with owning more stuff', is totally thursic. This pathology is better thought of as consumerism, which I dealt with above.

Consumerism is of course underpinned by the parascientific denial that there is any reality other than the external stuff we can measure; why should we seek anything except money and goods if inner states are not really real?

However, this position is actually pseudo-materialism, and is definitively demolished by British philosopher Galen Strawson. He writes:
'To be ... a genuine, realistic materialist, is to hold that experiential phenomena ... are part of this total physical existence.' 

So REAL materialism does not equal reductionism. Strawson writes:
'When I say that the mental, and in particular, the experiential, is physical, and endorse the view that 'experience is just neurons firing', I mean something completely different from what some materialists have apparently meant by saying such things. I don't mean that all aspects of what's going on in the case of conscious experience can be described by current physics ... Such a view amounts to some kind of  ... 'eliminativism' with respect to consciousness and is certainly false. My claim is quite different. It is that the experiential considered specifically as such ... just is physical. No one who disagrees with this claim is a serious or remotely realistic materialist. One might put the point by saying that real materialism is not reductive... It doesn't claim that experience is anything less than we ordinarily conceive it to be, but that matter is more than we ordinarily conceive it to be.' 

This materialistic monism is very close to panpsychism, which Strawson admits as his personal belief, and continues:
'... real - materialism involves full acknowledgement of the reality of experiential phenomena. Experiential phenomena are as real as rocks... ' 

No, real materialism, properly understood, is not eliminative of consciousness; it is not Thursic; its Thursic face is a subset of parascience, which we've already dealt with.

So, we have isolated our 3 Thurses, our toxic triad:
At the top, Consumerism.
This is fed by Infantilization and Parascience.

So, finally, how do we work against - or with - these entities?

Thurses we must fight; that is the nature of the path of consciousness. We must resist, critique, undermine and sabotage these forces of rampant stupidity. That is a life's work, and I wish you all persistence and luck in doing so.

However, some of the forces we've been considering are not Thurses, but Etins. Science, in both its methodology and its results, can be seen as Etinic. As Odin knew, Etins can give wisdom - as long as we are cautious and cunning in dealing with them.

In Vafthrudnismal, Odin, disguised as Gagnrath, must show that He has some wisdom too, or Vafthrudnir will not be interesting in playing the game. The questions Gagnrath has are cosmological ones - it is not hard to imagine Him as a cosmologist, questioning the universe through scientific procedures - He asks about moon and sun, about the origins of the universe.

"Tell me an eighth, Vafthruthnir,
since they say you are wise, and that you know:
what is your first memory, your earliest knowledge,
since you are wise, ettin?"

"In the endless winter,
before the shaping of the world,
Bergelmir was born..."

But in the end, Odin succeeds through a ruse:

"Far have I fared, much have I dared
oft have I tested the Regin.
What did Odin say to the ears of his son
before he was hoisted to the pyre?"

"No man knows that which you spoke
to your son in the days of yore.
It was with a doomed mouth
that I told old staves and spoke of Ragnarok.
Now I have exchanged my wisdom
in words with Odin. You are the wisest."

Odin wins by insisting on the primacy of the subjective: the answer to the riddle He poses is owned solely by himself. He values the wisdom He obtains from Vafthrudnir, but not to extent of wanting to drown in it and lose Himself. In the end, His own life, His own continuation as a principle of higher consciousness, must be valued above scientific knowledge. This is where Odin's approach differs from that of a scientist caught in the shallow illusions of parascience. He is the living principle of higher consciousness, so He must never lose sight of those higher perspectives. To do so would be to forfeit His life, lost forever in Vafthrudnir's vasty halls, and that is His lesson to us in dealing with Etins.