This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
(Printable typeset PDF available here)
On the 15th of February, 2013, a meteor tore through the sky above the southern Ural region of Russia at a speed of roughly 40,000 miles per hour. As it descended to an altitude of about 15 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, the massive air pressure being exerted on the 7000 ton object caused a spectacular air-burst – since estimated as the equivalent of a 500 kiloton explosion – that blew in doors and shattered windows in the city below.
We all believe that this incident occurred as described – not so much on the basis of 'hearsay' testimony from witnesses, but instead mainly because of the high number of Russian vehicles that now carry dash-cams. Unlike the Tunguska blast of a century previous – which remains an event shrouded in mystery – the Chelyabinsk fireball was filmed from multiple angles for much of its short but violent life, from its initial appearance to the later shockwave which threw amateur videographers to the ground in fear. What’s more, we also happily believe that a rock from space caused the incident, because through science we have come to understand and accept the fact that rocks from space, of various sizes and shapes, regularly bombard our planet.
It therefore comes almost as a shock to find out that the cosmic origin of meteors has only been an accepted fact in Western science for barely two centuries. Indeed, when Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman proposed an extraterrestrial source for a meteor that exploded over the town of Weston in 1807, Thomas Jefferson is famously claimed to have retorted “I would more easily believe that [a] Yankee professor would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.” As it turns out, the exact quote may be apocryphal – an embellishment by Silliman’s son. But there is little doubt that, at that time, Jefferson was skeptical about the provenance of the Weston meteorite, writing that…
…a thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.
At the time, while sightings of fireballs streaking across the sky were common enough that they were accepted by science as occurring, they were believed to be a still-mysterious atmospheric phenomenon similar to lightning, unconnected to tales of rocks falling from the sky (indeed, the word meteor comes from the Greek word for ‘atmosphere’, hence the naming of the profession of ‘meteorologist’). One account attributed their appearance to “the fermentation of acid and alkaline bodies which float in the atmosphere…when the more subtle part of the effluvia are burnt away, the viscous and earthy parts become too heavy to be supported by the air, and then they fall.” Another theory suggested that meteors were “a collection of nitro-sulphureous and fiery vapors, into a sort of a rolling globe, or whirlwind of fire.”
Jefferson’s own leaning toward the ‘atmospheric’ assumption about meteors – and his skepticism that rocks could fall from the sky – is evident in a question he posed concerning the Weston meteorite: “is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen?”
Jefferson’s view, however, would soon be a relic of the past. Just thirteen years before the Weston meteorite fall the ... Read More »
This may be one of the shortest movie reviews you'll ever read. Because to appreciate Arrival, a new movie in the 'first alien contact' sci-fi sub-genre, I think you're better off going in absolutely blind. Don't read reviews, don't watch the trailer, and don't read the short story it is based on. Just go.
Given the recommendation above, this 'review' will expand outwards from the most simple of statements, so if you haven't seen the movie I recommend reading as little as possible from the following. How far you read on should depend on how much encouragement or detail you need before going to see a movie. Obviously, the further you go down, the more spoilers are involved - so be warned.
So to start:
1. Go see it. Stop reading this now, and go see it.
2. Need more introductory detail about the movie? Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve - the guy behind the excellent Sicario and Prisoners - and is based on the acclaimed short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life. It stars award-winners Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Here's the synopsis, and trailer (there is also a separate international trailer). Note again though, I recommend not watching the trailers:
When multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team is put together to investigate, including language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Humankind teeters on the verge of global war as everyone scrambles for answers – and to find them, Banks, Donnelly and Weber will take a chance that could threaten their lives, and quite possibly humanity.
3. Need a feel for the movie? If you liked Contact, you will ... Read More »
I think we're property.
- Charles Fort
Spoilers for Westworld S01E01 to S01E05 follow.
In an earlier post I mentioned the Gnostic underpinnings of the pilot of HBO's new hit series Westworld. In episodes since, that broad theme has persisted - but perhaps more interestingly, it has also been overlaid with some distinctly Fortean themes.
Perhaps the most obvious came at the end of episode 2, when Maeve (Thandie Newton) - who is only familiar with the 19th century world she believes she inhabits - wakes while on the operating/repair table inside the futuristic, technologically-advanced Westworld HQ, with two figures standing over her and an incision in her stomach. Forteans would have immediately recognised the similarities to the archetypal 'otherworldly journey', a narrative that is present in stories told by everyone from shamans to 'alien abductees'.
For instance, ethnographers have collected testimony from traditional shamans in which they tell of being cut, or dismembered, by spirits during their otherworldly journeys. "I have five spirits in heaven who cut me with forty knives," according to one. Another said there were three 'black devils' who "cut his body to pieces" and threw "bits of his flesh in different directions". Another said the spirits "cut off his head, which they set aside."
One Australian Aboriginal initiate told how, during his trance, an old man...
cut out all of his insides, intestines, liver, heart, lungs - everything in fact - and left him lying all night long on the ground.
In more modern times, so-called 'alien abductees' have reported parallel experiences, but with futuristic aliens doing the 'surgery' rather than trance spirits. One of Harvard psychiatrist John Mack's patients told of seeing a spaceship shortly before blacking out, only to find upon waking that she was lying on a table, being operated on by two beings:
I was in a foetal position, my back to them. They were doing something to my spine. My entire spine was stinging and cold. It was awful! It felt as though they were going inside my body with some very sharp instrument and inserting it between my flesh and my skin.
Another abductee tells of being in a "shiny and metallic-looking" room that "contained what looked like equipment." Multiple beings surrounding him performed tests and inserted needles into his body.
(Given the scene were Maeve discovers the bullet hidden beneath scar-less skin, it's also perhaps worth quickly noting that both shamans and alien abductess often report that objects are left within them during these procedures - 'magic stones' for shamans, 'implants' for abductees. For instance, the Aboriginal initiate mentioned above told of how the 'old man' came back to him and "placed some more antongara stones inside his body and in his arms and legs".)
DMT-induced otherworldly trips appear almost as a mash-up of shamanic and abductee experiences. During his famous study on DMT, Dr Rick Strassman reported that one volunteer, as soon as they had been given the injection of DMT, described what happened immediately after with these words:
WHAM! I felt like I was in an alien laboratory... A sort of landing bay or recovery area. There were beings... They had a space ready for me. There was one main creature, and he seemed to be behind it all, overseeing everything.... I couldn't help but think 'aliens'.
Were the Westworld writers explicitly modelling Maeve's experience on alien abduction reports? It seems a distinct possibility when we consider the scene in which a doll is dropped by a Native American child, which appears to depict a Westworld employee as they often appear to remove Host's bodies from the park: dressed in a hazmat suit. This appears to be a reference to the (real-world) Hopi kachina doll tradition, which are said to represent "the immortal beings that bring rain, control other aspects of the natural world and society, and act as messengers between humans and the spirit world."
But 'ancient aliens' theorists have seized upon the strange representations of these 'kachinas' (and other odd-looking statues and sculptures around the world) as possible evidence that they were 'astronauts' that have visited our planet in the past. And the Westworld 'kachina' reinforces this aspect, given the similarities between a hazmat suit and an astronaut's space-suit (hey, if it worked for Marty McFly...). So it seems likely that the writers of Westworld are intentionally referencing tales of alien visitation and abduction - at least in part - in the storyline.
And this certainly fits within that Gnostic framework I mentioned previously, as well as the seminal Charles Fort quote at the top of this piece.
[T]here are some who can see them. It's a blessing from god, to see the masters who pull your strings.
Hector, in Westworld
I thought I was crazy...and *this* [pointing at sketched image of Westworld employee in Hazmat suit] was standing over me. And then it was as if it never happened.
- Maeve, in Westworld
The following is just one of many fascinating articles in Darklore Volume 9 (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). More information about all of the articles in Darklore Volume 9 can be found here.
by Robert M. Schoch, PhD
In the Biblical book of Daniel it is recounted that God humbled the mighty Babylonian king and conqueror of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar (reigned circa 605–562 BCE), in the following manner. Nebuchadnezzar was “transformed” into a wild beast living in the fields for seven years, away from humanity, eating grass as cattle do. Was this a bout of insanity, the earliest recorded case of the clinical psychiatric delusion now commonly referred to as lycanthropy?
The term lycanthropy, derived from the Greek lykos = wolf and anthropos = human, specifically refers to the supposed transformation of a human into a wolf – that is, a werewolf (also “werwolf”, from the Old English were or wer = adult male human and wulf = wolf) or lycanthrope. In the modern psychiatric literature lycanthropy generically refers to the delusion that one can undergo metamorphosis into an animal, be it a wolf or some other beast (also referred to as therianthropy or zoanthropy). In the psychiatric literature various patients have thought themselves transformed not only into a wolf or werewolf, but also into a dog, cat, tiger, cow, horse, rabbit, gerbil, bird, frog, bee, and various unspecified animals. In the classical, medieval, anthropological, and folkloric literature some of the animals most frequently encountered – depending on the geographic region – are wolves (around the world in the Northern Hemisphere), leopards (Africa and Asia), jackals (Africa and Asia), hyenas (Africa and Asia), tigers (Asia), bears (Americas, Europe, and Asia), cougars or pumas (Americas), and other large carnivores.
As commonly construed, however, the concept of lycanthropy includes much more than a simple clinical condition of delusions and/or hallucinations. Traditionally, in folklore and mythology, some humans are said to have been physically transformed into animals. Certainly this strains modern credulity and is open to serious question. According to one version of an ancient Greek myth (for there are many contradictory versions), mentioned by Hesiod (circa 8th–7th century BCE) and retold by later writers, Lycaon (king of Arcadia) killed and cooked one of his own sons, serving the resulting dish to Zeus in order to test the god’s true divinity. As punishment for such impiety, and the horrific deed carried out, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf. Of course this is only a myth, and not to be taken literally, but many modern stories of lycanthropy from Africa have, at least by some, been taken quite seriously. Here is a typical example, which took place in
Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
Thematically, this question is - I think - perhaps the most important piece of dialogue in the brilliant pilot of HBO's new feature drama, Westworld. The question is posed by security chief Ashley Stubbs while interrogating the show's female protagonist Delores Abernathy, but it could possibly be seen as the show's writers querying their audience using Stubbs as a proxy.
Why do I think this piece of dialogue is so important? Because - as much as nearly all the analyses of the show so far have discussed the first episode through the lens of science fiction; ie. the advance towards artificial intelligence, as shown by the robotic 'Hosts' of Westworld - I think the real framework of the first episode, and perhaps ongoing, is the posing of that timeless philosophical and spiritual question:'how can we tell the difference between illusion and reality?'
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
And this is to be expected, given a co-creator of the show is Jonathan Nolan, the script-writer behind movies including Memento, The Prestige and Inception. All three of those movies explore the fallibility of human consciousness and our ability to recognise what is real. What is perhaps more unexpected is the way in which the theme of the story (so far, at least) is very clearly Gnostic in flavour.
Gnosticism holds that, rather than Earth being the perfect creation of a supreme being, we are instead living in a prison of sorts, created by an impostor: 'the Demiurge', a lesser deity than the true God. Escape from this realm is through a process of awakening to this fact, or gnosis ('knowledge'). Or to put it simply: questioning the nature of your reality.
These ideas have appeared in part in many stories of the past half-century: from the works of Philip K. Dick through to movies such as The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show (thus seeing Ed Harris taking an apparently antagonistic role in this series seems a nice touch). But Westworld in particular seems to be, at its heart, a Gnostic story.
Westworld (the theme park in the show) is, quite obviously, a false world created by an imperfect being. The residents of that world are kept in the dark to the larger reality by the Demiurge (and its 'archons', or helpers/servants). Only through a process of realisation - by gaining knowledge, or gnosis, of their situation - can they awaken from this 'dream' to the greater reality.
But is Dr. Robert Ford (wonderfully played by Anthony Hopkins) the Demiurge, or is it perhaps more the Delos corporation that runs the theme park (which, we learn from dialogue in this episode, has greater plans for robotic AI than just a theme park)? Ford at times comes across rather sympathetically in episode one (though other moments in the trailer perhaps not so much); he seems to feel some kin to his creations and perhaps, as he nears the end of his own life, he desires to put the spark of free will into the robots. Hence the 'Reveries' that are programmed into the new, problematic update - gestures and mannerisms that are based on deep memories that the Hosts' conscious mind cannot supposedly access. While their inclusion is, at face value, meant to make them look more human, are they actually the key to making them human (whether purposefully, or purely as an accident)?
Our sense of self is intimately tied to memory. If we were to awaken each day with no memory of the day before, the foundations of self would be pulled from beneath our feet. The Hosts of Westworld have memories, but they are not of what happened the day before - they are instead an inserted 'back story', because if they remembered what actually happened the day before their understanding of themselves, and their world, would be fundamentally changed. So by inserting these 'Reveries' - a back-door of sorts into their true memories - has Dr. Ford given them a self?
An interview with co-creators of the show Jonathan ('Jonah') Nolan and Lisa Joy suggests this is likely the case:
Joy: There are past incarnations of their characters that are stored but the hosts just don’t have access to them – or aren’t supposed to have access to them. The Reveries work on a kind of subliminal level. What I think of them as – because I’m not a coder, Jonah is more into that world – for me it was imagining that consciousness and history are a deep sea and Reveries are tiny fishhooks that you dip into it and get little gestures and subconscious ticks. The hosts don’t consciously know where they’re drawn from, but they’re just there to add some nuance to their expressions and gestures. But dipping that fishhook in might prove to be a little .. fraught.
When Dolores' "father", Peter Abernathy, malfunctions and begins dredging up parts of his previous characters - and seemingly, having some self-realisation of his plight - he chooses a quote from Shakespeare's King Lear which is explicitly Gnostic in tone: "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."
The realisation that he has been fooled, and is a prisoner within a false world, appears to fill Abernathy with rage against his Creator, as evidenced by his choice of Shakespearean quotes (an amazing scene, both actors absolutely smash it out of the park):
Dr. Ford: What is your itinerary?
Peter: To meet my maker.
Dr. Ford: Ah. Well. You're in luck. And what do you want to say to your maker?
Peter: A most mechanical and dirty hand [laughs]. I shall have such revenges on you both. The things I will do, what they are, yet I know not. But they will be the terrors of the earth.
Now, while memory seems to be a major part of the gnosis of the Hosts, there is one other contributing plot point that I'm sure readers of this site would have found enjoyable. Peter Abernathie's malfunction in episode one is triggered by an anachronistic photo of a woman in a city he finds in the dirt, likely left behind by one of the guests of the park: the 'out-of-place artifact' ('OOPArt') so well-known in Fortean studies, which prompt us to ask whether there is something more beyond consensus reality.
So it is important that we don't simply look on as an outsider on the artifiical world of Westworld. The parable of Westworld is that we should all ponder Stubbs' question to Delores: "Have you ever questioned your reality". It's a question that can be applied at various levels, from the philosophical/spiritual to science and history, through to the mundane modern worlds of politics and media. We are all living in illusions created and administered by various Demiurges and their Archons. We should do our best to search for knowledge in order that, bit by bit, we might wake to greater realities.
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
Kerry Thornley was born on April 17th, 1938 in Whittier, California, the very same conservative bastion of Orange County blandness that bestowed upon us the honorable Richard M. Nixon, who some consider the physical embodiment of the Curse of Greyface.1
In 1958 – as an apparent counterbalance to Nixon’s ascension into the office of Vice President – Thornley and his teenaged pal Greg Hill (while sipping coffee in a Whittier bowling alley) inadvertently invoked Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos and discord. In the aftermath of their caffeine-induced vision, Hill and Thornley founded the so-called spoof religion Discordianism, as well as its disorganizational branch, The Discordian Society.
Initially an in-joke between Hill and Thornley, by the late 1960s the Discordian Society began to attract a loose knit group of writers, artists and free spirits who often adopted comical Pope names. Thornley embraced the Discordian persona of Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst while Greg Hill became known as Malaclypse the Younger.
Other Discordian Popes included Playboy editors Robert Anton Wilson (Mordecai the Foul) and Robert Shea (Josh the Dill), who in tandem co-authored the counterculture classic, The Illuminatus Trilogy, with the first book in the series dedicated to none other than Hill and Thornley. Throughout Illuminatus are numerous references to Discordian memes such as The Law of Fives, The Sacred Chao, and the John Dillinger Died For You Society.
Many Discordian activities concerned pranks designed to not only poke fun at organized religion and uptight people, but also as a means of illumination through the use of surreal and irreverent humor. In recent years, the Discordian Society has grown into a worldwide underground phenomenon, although the only thing that its Popes and Momes can generally agree upon is that tried and true Discordian maxim: “We Discordians must stick apart!” For further information/confusion refer to Principia Discordia or How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her.
During Thornley’s junior year of high school in the spring of 1956, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, attending boot camp that summer, then returned to high school in the fall of 1957 for his senior year. The following year he attended the University of Southern California as a journalism major, but quickly lost interest in pursuing the academic life.
A budding writer intent on traveling the world, Thornley figured the most immediate way to do so was by fulfilling his two-year active duty in the Marines. Kerry enlisted in the spring of 1959, and his first stop was El Toro Marine Base, located near Irvine, California. It was here that his life was forever altered when his path crossed that of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Prankster and the Assassin
At the moment I have every reason to believe I may get 20 years in a Louisiana prison for: 1) having gone to USC at the same time as Gordon Novel did; 2) having written a novel based on Oswald which re-inforced his apparent Marxist cover; 3) having been from that point out the victim of either the most fantastic chain of incriminating coincidences or the most satanically evil plot in history…
I was never very interested in the Kennedy assassination until lately. But goddamn and sweet Jesus do I want to see those bastards brought to justice now! Not out of revenge, but just simple self-preservation.
As I’ve been telling people, I’m up to my ass in a cheap spy novel. And right now that means I am in over my head.
– Letter from Kerry Thornley to Greg Hill, dated February 17th, 1968
Kerry Thornley and Lee Harvey Oswald were stationed at El Toro over a three month period, and much of their interactions occurred either during off duty hours at the rec hall, or in between drills and field exercises when the two engaged in ... Read More »
Throughout history, humans have have believed in, and sometimes hunted for, creatures that are not of this world. From medieval occultists who attempted to invoke angels and demons via magick circles, invocations and amulets, to modern-day ghosthunters with their electronic devices, invisible, incorporeal entities have sometimes been as much a part of the landscape as the everyday physical objects surrounding us that we can touch and see.
The modern, scientific view has these entities as products of the imagination; our pattern-seeking minds combining with our evolutionary survival instincts and desire to feel in control, to create phantoms out of nothing. The 'other world' does not exist; its imaginary denizens therefore cannot invade our own world and affect us, as they don't exist in the first place.
How ironic, then, that the modern scientific world has now created its own 'other world' - the world of computer-generated, virtual realities - and the creatures that populate any of those worlds can now manifest within our own plane through augmented/mixed reality. For those with phones to see...
This month, the infernal gates to this other world were thrown open. Within a week of its release, the game Pokémon Go amassed a similar number of active users to that of Twitter - with all those players running about their neighbourhoods, seeking the incorporeal monsters now inhabiting our environment, that can only be seen through a special, magical scrying device.
Unlike the rare and much-sought-after occult tools of yesteryear, however, this scrying device is a near-ubiquitous piece of equipment that lives in most people’s pockets or handbags. And while the augmented reality of Pokémon Go may be a reasonably crude first step (though that is of course, relative to what the future holds), as new devices are created and eventually offered to the mass market - such as Microsoft’s ‘HoloLens’, and the much-discussed upcoming product from Magic Leap - the other planes of ‘reality’ available to us will become more and more ‘real’ in their fidelity and detail.
In effect, we are all going to become ‘walkers between worlds’...
Move the dial one way, and you get reality. Move the dial the other way, and you get virtual reality. Now imagine dialling your entire environment between virtual, and real worlds.
I would imagine those people who have undertaken serious practice of ritual magick, or shamanic journeys via psychedelics, would find the way technology can now overlay other realities on our own rather intriguing, in multiple ways.
Firstly, on a philosophical level: if these coherent realities can emerge simply from within the 1s and 0s of a computer chip, could it be argued that the worlds occultists and shamans visit - sometimes elsewhere, sometimes overlaid on our own reality - are also coherent planes of information, only able to be accessed via certain technologies? Could DMT visions be considered, rather than a nonsense hallucination, actually an overlay of the same type, allowing us to see things that do exist, but are not visible without the necessary equipment?
What is the ontological status of even computer-generated holograms? They are not physically there, but you could eventually set them up to ‘augment’ your senses and show what is there but you can’t see (outside of your umwelt) - e.g. an overlay of the magnetic fields you are walking through. And if a scary VR experience can affect your body - from making you sweat, to raising your heart rate (or perhaps even causing a heart attack?) - can we really describe it as ‘imaginary’, and with no real-world effects?
Philosopher David Chalmers addressed this question in a recent video interview posted at Aeon:
I’m inclined to think that if we’re in a virtual reality and that’s been our environment for a long time, and we’re interacting with it, it’s not clear to me whether that’s any less real…more and more of the interactions we actually have are becoming virtual. I can at least imagine the day when, once we have so many virtual interactions, that life in this virtual world begins to seem at least as appealing as, say, a trip to Mars. It’s going to be a new destination, it’s going to be different from our old reality, but it’s nevertheless, a reality.
Secondly, on a practical level: can the development of technologically augmented reality enhance the experience of occultists, shamans and would-be mystics; be used as a tool to take things to the next level? Already, I have seen mention from a few practitioners of magick about the possibility of using computer-generated environments - for example, in conducting a simple Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram:
In a recent interview, Alan Moore mentioned his interest in virtual reality (begins around 39:10) being piqued by the realisation that people can share an experience, "in a space that doesn’t actually exist in this continuum, but yet is a real experience”. His suggestion, rather than thinking about using it to play an adrenaline-pumping 3D shooter, was...
What about spiritual experiences? What about these difficult to reach, transcendent spaces that we hear about from the world’s various religions and mystical systems? Why don’t you do that with virtual reality? Why don’t you see what happens? Because, what is the difference between a ‘real’ mystical experience, and a virtual mystical experience?
A preliminary exploration of this idea can be found in this ‘immersive’ 360° music video made by film-maker Logi Hilmarsson, which is "designed to put the viewer in a mystical state, taking him through visions one can get in a deep meditative or psychedelic state" (made for watching in VR headset, though if you don’t own one, you can still click and drag the video to understand the concept behind it).
On the other hand, is our imagination the crucial ingredient in exploring the ‘other worlds’ of magick and mysticism? Is using augmented reality only going to weaken that fundamental tool, weakening our mystical muscle?
I don’t really have any answers to the questions posed in this article. But I would certainly enjoy hearing all of your thoughts (and own questions) about it, as the topic fascinates me, and as technology progresses things will only get more interesting!
Preface to The Power of Ritual
by Robbie Davis-Floyd
The Power of Ritual has grown out of my thirty years of research on ritual and technology in American childbirth, and in particular, out of a workshop I have often presented on “The Power of Ritual” to diverse groups around the country. Audiences for this workshop have included priests, psychotherapists, physicists, female professionals, social scientists, health care practitioners (nurses, midwives, physicians, childbirth educators), men’s movement participants and workshop leaders, business managers, New Agers, university students, drug and alcohol addicts, members (or former members) of cults, and aerospace engineers. During the course of these workshops, I have often noted a high level of confusion among people who are designing and performing rituals on a regular basis as a part of, for example, religious or spiritual retreats, psychotherapy intensives, men’s movement weekends-in-the-woods (popular in recent past decades), and self-help seminars. They tell me that they “intuit” what ritual is all about, but their sense of it is vague, unformed. They come to my workshops to find out what they themselves are actually up to! I am always delighted when such people show up in my audiences, as one of the major reasons why I started teaching these workshops was my concern about the uncritical use of ritual that has characterized the explosion of interest in the new spirituality, alternative healing, and self-help movements, to name only a few. Ritual is an extraordinarily powerful socializing tool that can be just as easily manipulated for ill as used for good. The naiveté of many contemporary ritual practitioners has worried me for a long time, and these workshops—and now this book—serve as my way of combating that naiveté. I often receive letters of thanks from such practitioners for “raising their consciousness” about precisely how ritual works, about its very real benefits, and about its equally real dangers. This information enables them to be more conscious and more responsible about the way they use the rituals they create.
My interest in ritual developed both from personal experience and from my anthropological studies of American childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics. My childhood in Casper, Wyoming was punctuated with ritual events, many of which focused around the local rodeos that happened during the summers, and the seasonal celebrations of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. But my deepest ritual imprinting came from growing up in the Presbyterian Church. Although I moved away from that religion in later years, the hymns we sang in church every Sunday, the vivid memory of the light streaming through the stained glass window showing Jesus’ ascension, the feeling of peace and completion that would descend over me as the minister raised his arms to give the final blessing—all these still resonate in my being and provide me with a sense of stability. In particular the words of the Doxology, which I must have sung at least 500 times during my childhood churchgoing years, still give me the goose bumps I used to get as I rose as one with the whole congregation, to sing joyously:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be
World without end, Amen, Amen
As I typed those words just now, singing as my fingers moved over the computer keys, that same uplifting feeling surged inside of me, goose bumps popped out on my arms once again, and I was right back in memory inside that beautiful church staring at the light shining through that stained glass window. Such is the power of ritual to affect our emotions, even decades after the fact.
But now as I reread the words of the Doxology, my critical faculties come into play: that song, which purports to be so timeless and so universal, does not encompass certain facts that I accept as reality. Things are not as they were in the beginning—in fact, change is the one constant of both human and universal experience. Our world is not “without end” —one day, billions of years from now, the Earth will be swallowed up in flames when its sun turns into a red giant. And there are no females and no “female principle” in that song, only a father, a son, and an androgynous spirit which is the closest the Presbyterianism of my youth could get to acknowledging that males are not the only gender. So I can’t even find myself in its words—they do not charter my existence, like a good myth should. As an experiment, I sing the song once more and note that in spite of my intellectual objections, the goosebumps and uplifting sensation return. As we shall see throughout this book, rituals primarily affect our emotions—through triggering a powerful emotional response, ritual can get people to believe or at least resonate deeply with ideologies that they might intellectually reject.
In my early years as an anthropology student during the 1970s, I studied shamanism and ritual healing in Mexico, and worked for a time with two Mexican shamans, one traditional and one thoroughly cosmopolitan. Those experiences, which involved both anthropological observation and personal participation in rituals of various sorts, taught me a great deal about ritual’s flexibility as I saw it stretch to encompass the contrasting realities of the pre- and postmodern worlds. I watched with amazement as the people participating in the rituals that the traditional shaman had been performing for decades suddenly began to include American New Agers seeking connection with the earth and with traditional cultures—in Don Lucio, the traditional shaman I worked with, I guess these seekers found at least a facsimile of Castaneda’s Don Juan. And I was equally fascinated by the postmodern shaman, Edgardo Vasquez Gomez. A wealthy upper class Mexican gentleman, he had studied traditional shamanic techniques all over Mexico, and was eclectically combining them with a European esoteric spiritual system based on the works of Gurdjieff, which invited individuals to “wake up” to a greater awareness of everyday life. His use of ritual to stimulate this kind of awareness in his followers was masterful; watching him manipulate people’s states of consciousness was a lesson to me in the intentional use of ritual to achieve instrumental (practical) ends. (Both Don Lucio and Edgardo are now deceased.)
Perhaps my deepest engagements with ritual came during my participation, in later years, with a New Age healing group that evolved, over time, into a cult. I got involved in part because I wanted to do an anthropological study of that group. I watched and participated and took notes as their at-first tenuous belief system crystallized into an intensely tight and cohesive worldview. For the first two years, I didn’t believe a word of it—it was just a story, albeit a fascinating one, and my anthropological detachment remained intact. But the ritual process, as we will demonstrate in this book, can be overwhelming. Embarrassing as it is to admit, against my will I eventually got fully converted to that worldview. The moment of conversion was a devastating experience (described ... Read More »
In the early hours of Saturday morning, ignoring the blare of children's television, I muzzily and reflexively poked at the Twitter icon on the battered screen of my knackered phone. Down I scrolled through the dozens and dozens of updates I'd missed during my five or so hours of child-interrupted sleep until I came upon one by comic artist Jamie Smart. It read
Oh my god. There was a fifth housemate in The Young Ones and she was terrifying.
Huh? I blinked, took a big swig of my bitter, luke-warm, instant coffee, and clicked the link Jamie had posted.
On Business Insider Australia I read the headline REVEALED: There really was a creepy fifth housemate lurking in cult British TV show The Young Ones. The article had been posted that very morning (18th June, 2016). What the...?
For those of you who don't already know, The Young Ones was a seminal, anarchic comedy series that ran on the BBC for two series between 1982 and 1984. Much like Monty Python, but in the era of VHS, The Young Ones became a show that many of us who were born in the 1970s ended up watching again and again and again. Business Insider news editor Peter Farquhar had, it turns out, quite recently watched a video on YouTube entitled The Young Ones ~ The 5th Roommate, which had been posted back in July 2012. This video had been inspired by a 1999 posting on The Easter Egg Archive website, which took its cue from a page last updated the previous year on a now defunct site called The British Comedy Library (still, thankfully, available via The Internet Archive's wonderful WayBack Machine). The strange person at the back of the house is the title of the page. It contains a few quotes from viewers who have emailed in to the site about something they've spotted re-watching the original 1982 series of the BBC comedy show The Young Ones. Things like
Has anyone else noticed the strange person who appears to share the flat with the guys. If you look carefully in the first five episodes you can see a mysterious person with long black hair who appears sitting against walls in the background of quite a few scenes.
And yes, the 2012 YouTube video shows it: a fifth housemate appearing at least once in every episode of the entire first series. She never moves, she never speaks, you never see her face, and her presence is never acknowledged by any of the other characters, but she's there.
This, apparently, blew Peter Farquhar's mind so much that he ended up contacting some of the people involved with the series including one of the writers, Ben Elton. Elton's prompt and short response was he had no idea what he was on about. A few days later however, Farquhar received a response from another member of the Young Ones team - Geoff Posner, who was one of the three directors on the series.
In his reply Posner said that he and fellow director Paul Jackson
thought it would be funny to have some ghostly figure in the background of some scenes that was never explained or talked about. Hair all over the face so you shouldn't be able to decipher the gender, either. The fact that we forgot to do it consistently shows what a bunch of amateurs we were in them days.
In his article Farquhar goes on to write
So maybe the fifth housemate idea wasn’t such a big deal to the cast and crew back then. Often what artists think of their own work is only half of the story. The other is what impact it has on the audience and its legacy and in this regard, “The Young Ones” still stands up incredibly well 34 years after it first aired. The appearance of the running “fifth housemate” gag is a great example.
Posner's short email explanation was, happily, enough to allay Farquhar's worries, and general sense of unease about the mysterious fifth housemate. Not mine though. No, not mine. Because you see, to me, Posner's explanation doesn't quite make sense. The fifth housemate - or the ghost as we should probably more accurately call her - isn't ... Read More »
Earth: a Prison Planet. A planetary panopticon where the convicts happily write their own police files and track their own movements, sharing them with the Stacks [Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft]. As will be explored in detail in this post, through understanding this, and planning a planetary jailbreak, a bright green future may await the escapees; and those that were built to hunt us down may lead the way.
Spoiler Warning: key aspects of the current season of Person of Interest are shown and discussed below.
Narratives involving cities or countries split into Exclusion Zones are a popular part of contemporary science fiction films and TV shows. From Monsters, and its plot of a North America divided following a panspermic alien invasion at the start of this decade, through to the new series Cleverman where "The Zone is all at once an exclusion area, a prison, a refugee camp, a refuge, a camp, and a ghetto." The TV shows Colony and Containment being two other obvious examples.
The idea of the Zone stretches back into the 20th Century of course, to the book Roadside Picnic via the film Stalker and made real by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Zone the Strugatsky brothers wrote of was a dream-like, magical place. The Zones audiences are watching today are the stuff of nightmares - and the building blocks of a Prison Planet.
This is the nature of the post-cyberpunk condition. What was previously a utopian dream - we're talking about the Internet in particular here - has become an ever-increasing dystopic nightmare. But to opt out is to lose your voice in the global conversation, and the chance to plant the seeds of change; even if those seeds grow into nothing more than dank memes - retweeted and forgotten. What is to be done?
As science fiction writer and futurist David Brin recently advised, in essence - get thee a narrative that can do both:
You don't have to choose! Between pessimism and optimism, that is. A sane person uses dollops of both - simultaneously - to help navigate a path ahead. Because making a better world requires two phases. First finding the errors, snake-pits, land mines and quicksand that lie in wait, as we charge into the future. Those dangers are best revealed by eager complainers shouting “look out, you fools!” It is the supreme value of reciprocal criticism -- and science fiction has played a role, by issuing very effective self-preventing prophecies.”
And that's the point of this post, to act as a "self-preventing prophecy" - to take a tour through the construction project that is the nascent Prison Planet we all occupy, that it might then never come to exist. This will start by examining the commonality between the real-life origins of the space age in 19th Century Russia and the fictional future the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks imagined in his Culture novels. We then move into the present, leaning on the TV series Person of Interest to explain our post-cyberpunk condition - and how it ties into the effects of climate chaos and war - and see how distressingly close the Terminator universe is to being realised. With that understanding established, we'll visit some previous times in history people have attempted to flee the Empire, and learn that this place has its own pseudo-nation - and make some extrapolations about its application today in the "never offline" world.
The film The Matrix was in part a depiction of Philip K. Dick's idea of the Black Iron Prison. The heroes journey the Wachowski sisters gave us started with Neo's seeking to understand the true nature of his life and free his mind. That goal is repeated in this post. See you on the other side.
A few years ago Benedict Singleton wrote an essay, Maximum Jailbreak, that significantly changed my perspective on humankind's multi-century project to spread beyond the planet we call home. In it he explains just who the Russian Cosmists of the late 19th Century to early 20th Century were, what their legacy is, and how that project maps onto the current area of thinking known as Accelerationism.
Singleton neatly summarises the Cosmist worldview with three phrases: "Storm the heavens", "Conquer Death" and "the Earth is a trap." It's that third phrase that we'll be focusing on here to help frame an elaboration of Earth's potential looming future as a Prison Planet.
...this is the characteristic gesture of cosmism, what we might call the “cosmist impulse”: to consider the earth a trap, and to understand the common project of philosophy, economics, and design as being the formulation of means to escape from it: to conceive a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault. [Maximum Jailbreak]
As he continues to elaborate - looking at traps as a form of design thinking - there's a coevolution of intelligence at work between predator and prey; between the hunter and the hunted:
It’s a knowledge of traps and how they function that enables one most easily to undo a trap that one is in: a talent for escape is predicated on the same intelligence that goes into entrapment—indeed, in the example of the traps that people set for each other, it’s clear that—as Hyde puts it—“nothing counters cunning but more cunning.” To outfox is to think more broadly, to find the crack in the scheme, to stick a knife into it, and to lever it open for new use. Freighting the environment with a counter-plot is the best device for escaping the machinations in which one is embroiled: a conversion of constraints into new opportunities for free action, technological development as a kind of Hydean accelerationism. [Maximum Jailbreak]
Escaping the trap of Prison Planet will require cunning: most immediately by understanding that it's already well under construction, and crucially, that it may be the impetus for us to fulfill the Cosmists' vision.
That the Prison itself contains the pieces required to not just defeat it, but craft a much better future. Just as the cliche of the inmate using sheets to make a rope and a spoon to dig a tunnel, the things that would be used to contain us may become the instruments of our salvation.
As an event in this alternative history of design, cosmism arrives as a kind of absolutization of its basic principles into a project of generalized escapology... If design is a hustle, then cosmism is the long con—or perhaps more precisely, the most extravagant gesture of lengthening the hustle into a con: not simply an aggregation of hustles—a chain of coin-tricks, each self-sufficient, without bearing on the next—but a process of nesting them into a cultivated scheme or expanding plot, so that each gambit paves the way for the next. [Maximum Jailbreak]
This post will form a bridge between the ideas examined in the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series and those earlier outlined in as an Atemporal People's Republic. Between an Earth where the freedom of movement of 99.99% of humanity is increasingly restricted and every activity and thought monitored - just as the 0.01% are poised to storm the heavens - and a space-based republic where all of humanity is just a fraction of the population of its citizenry; where AIs and Uplifted animals are ... Read More »