Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The problem of simulacra in ritual traditions

The Anti-occultist has a post discussing the problem of magical theatre. While his points are valid, they are not an argument against ritual theatre for those who practice it: the symbolism of ritual is, like any system of symbols, arbitrary, and the very hackneyed familiarity of the systems played up in popular culture may in some cases be a strength. A ritual first generates an atmosphere, then super-arouses those partaking in it and uses unusual (memorable, not directly related to mundane experience) language (written, spoken, and in the form of narrative and symbolism) to push a message into the now highly suggestible ritual users. A ritual using a symbolic language taken from pop culture can be used on people exposed to those media it appears in with less initial conditioning, though symbolic languages quickly gain baggage, and old, popular symbolic languages (such as the hermetic/alchemical tradition) are difficult to use without unintended side effects due to masses of conflicting associations.

The above-mentioned post does, however, touch upon another of my special fields of interest: the question of how simulacra tend to differ from those things they initially derive from. Memetics tells us that simulacra will probably have their most spectacular details exaggerated and less memorable details lost. They will be simplified, but any aspect that encourages remembering or retransmitting the information will generally be preserved. In other words, the hollywood voudoun will be simpler (it will be spelled voodoo and will lack the distinctions between voodoo and hoodoo; loa will rarely be ridden and when they are they will be ridden in arbitrary order without respect for gatekeepers), it will be more viscerally memorable (iconic images of voodoo dolls, snakes, and bags of graveyard dust will replace less-iconic veves, and all rituals will have suspenseful music and frightening practitioners), and it will emphasize those things that make it desirable to reproduce (what special effects are used will generally remain cheap, the tradition will be disconnected from any geographical location so that it can be used in a variety of settings, and the details necessary to research will be minimized by encouraging the idea that there is little legitimate content to be known). Hollywood voodoo, in other words, becomes something that any actor or filmmaker can create and have it remain recognizable -- and therefore, becomes something that many amateurs can also create. The mere dilution of the tradition through a game of telephone is enough to egalitarize it; voodoo queens and priestesses are no longer required for the Hollywood version. Of course, if we go along with the psychological interpretation of the mechanism of action of magical workings (as I am prone to do), Hollywood Voodoo is potentially precisely as effective as authentic Hatian Voudoun. There are situations wherein an authentic tradition is less useful than its diluted and bastardized pop-culture clones, and if you want to perform a ritual through the medium of film using a large number of people, Hollywood Voodoo is a good choice. Everyone understands it, and though it is less subtle and flexible than a more authentic tradition often is (due to much use), imparting nuanced ideas through complex ritual on large groups of people is hard even with extremely well-conditioned groups (just ask the Masons -- or the Catholics, who have been doing it for nearly two millennia).

I have an old joke I like to tell. I sometimes attribute it to William Gibson, but I don't think he ever actually said it outright. The question is, in a forest with some real trees and some artful replicas, how does one tell which one is real? The answer is, the fake trees are the ones that look too much like trees. Nature isn't bound to obey our platonic images of things, so only man-made things look precisely like our mental models of them. Since systems of ritual exist for the sole purpose of manipulating mental models*, there is no reason a so-called 'authentic' tradition is necessarily better than the historically inauthentic Hollywood version.

* Note that I am writing under the assumption that the psychological interpretation of magic is at least somewhat correct. If the meat-and-potatoes of magical workings are, as Allen Greenfield suggests in Secret Cypher of the UFOnauts and The Secret Rituals of the Men in Black, then an authentic tradition matters very much.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote an essay in high school about how scientists were attempting to "play God" by trying to impersonate nature. I said that it could never be done. That was the seed of my thought, nowadays.

    Needless to say, I didn't receive a very good grade.