Tag Archives: definition of terms

Neoclassical Syncretism: A User’s Guide

At this beginning of this project I described myself as a Neoclassical Syncretist, and then briskly moved along without bother to properly explore what I meant by that. My interest in developing this idea as a practice has grown out of the deep wealth that we have in the Western Art History and Literary cannon that has been profoundly influenced by Classical Greek and Roman mythology and religion. For as powerful an effect that Christianity has had on Western creative production, the influence of Greek and Roman thought has been just as, if not more, profound. With my background in the arts, I had been immersed, from a very young age, in that tradition. Despite being raised in Christianity, I have travelled through my life with the presence of these Gods and concepts for the span of my living memory, and in many cases have felt much more kinship for the beings which have appeared in sideways references and allusions in the popular ephemera of my life than the concepts of the religion that I was raised in.

Syncretism has been a powerful force in religion almost certainly since its inception. I have spoken before of the strange ways in which the interactions of the cultures of Mediterranean led to fascinating blending and overlapping in the discrete traditions, and the difficulties inherent in trying to isolate and reconstruct particular belief systems. The impact of Greek thought on Egypt led to a radical reworking of the Egyptian religion, and vice-versa (consider the spread of Isis through Hellenistic Civilization). However, this in no way illegitimates the results as authentically Egyptian. Even before that, the Egyptian religion, generally viewed as an unchanging monolith (probably as a result of the power of the architectural remains) experience dramatic modifications over the course of Egyptian culture frequently tied to dynastic shifts. My method of Neoclassical Syncretism simply extends this procedure through to the modern era.

One of the great conundrums of Modern Paganism is lineage, as I have discussed before. We view ourselves, frequently, as competing with faiths which have extended in unbroken tradition back a thousand or more years and so feel the need to legitimate ourselves by making similar claims. Consider the claims of early Wicca, that it was merely the bringing into the light a religion which had existed for centuries hidden by a secretive sect of English witches. Despite the eventual debunking of those claims, many people to this day still assert that Wicca represents an ancient faith with just as much authentic lineage as Christianity. I do understand the necessity people feel to establish themselves on an unshakeable foundation, I just personally feel that this particular strategy in fundamentally flawed.

Part of the difficulty with accurately reconstructing the ancient Pagan faiths is that we have very little authentic first hand information on the actual practice and structure of those faiths. Most of what survives of Celtic and Norse tradition was recorded by Christian monks or Roman invaders. The struggle of reconstruction is to identify what elements of those writings are true depictions and what represents a Christian or Roman interpretation. Reconstruction is very much an art, and a very subtle and mindful one — it requires a great deal of familiarity with the concepts not only of the culture which one is trying to reconstruct, but also the concepts of the cultures whose lenses we are forced to look through. Reconstruction seeks to correct the distortion applied to the material by the invading cultures: like a plane of polarizing glass, it removes the wavelengths which obscure the desired image. Reconstruction avoids the problem of lineage by attempting to go back to the source and rebuild, as accurately as possible, now extinct belief systems from currently available data.

Neoclassical Syncretism, on the other hand, looks to the places where the traditions have been preserved. While it is true that as a spiritual system, the religions of the Classical Greece and Rome have died, they have continued to be developed in literature, art, and popular culture. Essentially, Neoclassical Syncretism is a way of approaching texts. With this strategy, the idea of holy text is reconfigured. This approach allows for new insights on traditional concepts by exploring the ways in which these concepts have been deployed through the arts, and the ways in which we as a culture have continued to build upon ancient cultures. While I myself am personally drawn to the fine arts and philosophy, this strategy works equally well with popular culture, and, when employed thoughtfully, can yield perfectly valuable insights into our relationships with the ancient gods.

Of course, I am not suggesting that this strategy be employed haphazardly. Like Reconstruction, it requires a strong understanding of the core concepts being explored, and the development of a sharp hermeneutic to cut away frivolous or inconsequential references. Not every reference will be of use, and many times the appearance of Classical Religions in subsequent culture betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts being deployed. By analyzing typically non-religious texts with an eye toward spirituality, Neoclassical Syncretism allows one to find connections with the divine spread throughout our culture.

As an example of the way this strategy may be realized, I recently read Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, a novella length retelling of the myth of Atlas and Herakles. The book itself is less than perfect, but it Jeanette Winterson’s handling of the interactions of the characters and their passage through into modernity is compelling, particularly the way in which Atlas conceives of himself and his relation to the world. Winterson explicitly preserves the strange dichotomy of Herakles, which the Greeks themsleves were never able to resolve to their own satisfaction: Herakles is emphatically simultaneously both human and divine, entirely and in equal measure. Herakles is a paradox. He himself does not understand his nature. He knows that he is more than human, though his relation to the divine is more problematic (is he more, is he less?). His own mortality is less than certain, he has been to Hell and back, quite literally, more times than bear mentioning, and yet quite probably can die, maybe. Herakles, by Winterson’s account, is simply emphatically other. His strength lies in his otherness, and the choice between the human and the divine is essentially his undoing.

After reading Weight, I returned to a book I had read much earlier this year, Grief Lessons, a collection of four of Euripedes’ plays recently translated by Anne Carson. Two of the four plays feature Herakles (the first being the eponymous Herakles), and the handling of Herakles there is just as stunningly ambiguous. Euripedes, filtered by Carson, builds up a Herakles who, while the greatest of all men, is bowed down and broken by the weight of the gods, by divine imperatives which he cannot comprehend and more often than not appear as mere catastrophe. Herakles is never given a moment of emotional stability, he swings through triumph, anguish, hope and hilarity and despair in just a few pages. Herakles is emphatically shredded by his nature. He does not have the luxury of semidivinity. He is fully divine and fully human, and because of that has earned the wrath of forces that he cannot understand or control. The Gods of Euripedes are frightening, not because of their power, but because of their prerogative. Herakles, the most powerful of men, the God trapped in flesh, cannot resist the divine, burgeoning within him and pressing down from outside.

Herakles represents an incredibly difficult relationship to the divine, and his struggle to fix himself at one point on his polarized nature is reflects that. Herakles’ nature emphatically “others” him, it queers him from the rest of society, from his peers. Herakles is made strange by divinity. Comparing these two texts allows us to see more clearly the ways in which Herakles works through his relationship to the divine.

Neoclassical Syncretism takes the first part of its name very seriously. Neoclassical here means that the work done is grounded heavily in traditions past. What differentiates it from simple modern eclecticism is both focus and scholarship. Theology is developed along lines of scholarship originating in the target culture. I apply Neoclassical Syncretism to Hellenistic Civilization, but it could just as easily be applied to Celtic or Germanic civilizations. Starting with an understanding of the parent culture, Neoclassical Syncretism moves forward examining texts spread throughout time, and assembles from them a growing theological/philosophical practice. Unlike Reconstruction, which has an end point in mind, the successful reconstruction of the target religion, Neoclassical Syncretism is entirely open ended.

Neoclassical Syncretism aims to provide a basic groundwork through which multiple personal experiences within a particular faith path can relate through their fundamental grounding in the same tradition and technique while still providing a great deal of room for personal expression and exploration. This approach thus removes the difficulty of unverified personal gnosis, as each practitioner will eventually establish a unique and idiosyncratic view of the parent tradition. Indeed, Neoclassical Syncretism prizes variation, as a plurality of voices provides more and more room for insight.

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The Being of Being and Time & Towards a New Ontology…

I spoke to Mallory last week about our ongoing Onto/Theological project and we both expressed our frustrations wit the way in which I have presently been handling whole affair. I realized earlier this month that I have been going around in circles, defining and redefining terms, pouring over minutia and attempting to produce a razor sharp set of definitions from which I could then proceed. Unfortunately, I think the end result of all of that work is largely impenetrable. Hence my relative silence on that front. I’ve let that project fall away to focus on other material until I can relax enough to approach it again from a different perspective.

Mallory suggested to me, as a means of re-entry into the topic, that I find a succinct article or some-such on the internet which has already done the necessary work for me and link to it, then move on from the foundation already laid. Well, as luck would have it, upon checking the other blogs that I read this morning, I have found what seems to be the perfect solution. Philosophy & Theology posted this lovely set of youtube videos: Hubert Dreyfus explaining existential phenomenology.

I thoroughly encourage anyone interested in the discussion thus far to watch the full interview. It is split over several ten minute chunks, but it rather thoroughly investigates the movement out of which my own ramblings have emerged. It is worth paying particular attention to the way in which Heidegger describes the human experience, which he calls Dasein: Dreyfus’ explanation of that topic in particular is of crucial significance. It is worth noting that my usage of the Subject (definite article, capitalization) parallels Heidegger’s usage of Dasein in the simultaneity of the singular instantiation and the abstracted set of phenomenon (i.e. a person/all persons). I take, a feel, a slightly more radical position regarding the formation of the Subject than Heidegger does when discussing the presence of a Dasein among other Daseins, but the basic framing is the same, and also quite important.

It’s also fascinating where, and this isn’t directly addressed in the interview itself, the Foucauldian ideas of historicity pick up from Heidegger’s description of being.

And, again, because I just can’t get off my soapbox, these concepts are also precisely why I despise the vast majority of occult philosophy, especially nearly everything produced by Hermeticism.

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All or Nothing: Science Fiction, Law & The Subject

A while ago, I wrote an essay concerning Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and the Supreme Court’s curious decision to rule in favor of Citizens United. The essay is too long to post in fullness here, but given my recent discussions of the subject, I wanted to return to some of the arguments presented in that essay.

I really do suggest that anyone interested read the ruling, it is a fascinating document. What I found so striking about it was the way in which the Justices, particularly Justice Kennedy, took the subjectivity of the corporation for granted at the very outset. There is, of course, a strange contradiction here. When we think of the subject, of a person, we are inclined from the outset to think of something like us. However, is it absolutely necessary that this be the case? We work from the presumption that all subjects must appear like us. However, how do we actually judge the presence of another subject? This has, in various forms, been a fascination of science fiction nearly since its inception. The android, the robot, the alien are all basic challenges to our traditionally held views on subjectivity. All of these forms are more immediately recognized as subject when they more closely resemble the human, but frequently the tension within a work of science fiction arises when the encountered being resembles us less and less.

Let us consider a small handful of examples. Stanislaw Lem’s classic and frankly quite bizarre Solaris spawned two quite different films made almost thirty years apart, each dealing with the encountering of a vastly different and strange form of intelligence. The terror of the film develops out of the strange manner in which the titular phenomenon, Solaris, interacts with the crew of the space station sent to study it. The manner of interaction, the creation of eidolons out of the minds of the human crew, is so shocking that the nature of Solaris goes unrecognized until nearly the end of the story. The basic presumptions of the crew, that only that which resembles us can be a subject allows them to mistake the apparitions which appear to them as real people, as true beings, and not extensions of the subjectivity of the planet Solaris circling below them, even when the synthetic beings behave in ways utterly unlike humans (the miraculous resurrection of Hari/Rheya).

Star Trek: The Next Generation tackles the issue much more directly with the presentation of the character Data. Data is an entirely artificial humanoid robot who does not, apparently, experience human emotions. A great deal of his character arc deals with the tension between his synthetic nature and his subjectivity. The unspoken question which follows him around is quite simply, “Must a man be flesh to be a man?” Data resembles the human in manifold ways, but is clearly inhuman. Yet, despite his superhuman abilities, he is regarded by the vast majority of the people who interact with him as human. His struggle is largely, save in a few key episodes, presented as an internal one: the android wondering if he is human enough to be human. Star Trek answers the question of Data’s humanity quite succinctly and tacitly: all the outward signs signal that Data has an interior life, that he behaves as a subject in the proper sense. Data is as subject because he behaves like one.

Oddly enough, that seems to be the logic which guided the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Citizens United. Citizens United was granted the legal status of a subject (at least within the realm of campaign finance) because it acts like a subject. The decision was essentially a pragmatic one. If Citizens United was not considered a subject, what would it be considered, and what would the ramifications of such a decision be? Given that it displays all the outward signs of subjectivity, is it not then deserving of the recognition of such? More simply put, how do you sensibly define the subject so as to include all beings which we traditionally accept as subjects and exclude those which we do not without also removing the traditional subject from that definition? The idea that the subject must resemble the human form seems insufficient, for what, precisely, about the outward appearance of the human produces its subjectivity? If the recognition of the subject is reliant upon the recognition of the presence of internal states, then mere behavior becomes the only viable rubric for judging the human.

Now, of course, the comparison of Citizens United to Star Trek’s Data is insufficient. Despite is variance, Data is still recognizably humanoid. A much better analogy would be to the Borg. The Borg are the most well known presentation of a corporate subject within popular science fiction. The Borg are no longer quite human, though they look human, they realize a strange paradox, the human embodiment which no longer contains a human mind. The Borg reverse the traditional problem of the subject as expressed by science fiction (and, perhaps, return to an earlier, folk loreic conception of the problem of other minds), here the body is human and the mind is substantially other. While the Borg are, for various reasons, horrifying, the basis of their terror rests upon their inversion of the subject. The Borg subject is moved out of the singular body and into the mass of the population. The Borg are not subjects, but subject. Each component entity within the Borg acts as an extension of its bodily mass. The more entities which comprise it, the larger its field of action becomes. The mind of the Borg is elsewhere, the bodies which compose it are merely limbs.

Thus, Citizens United, or any corporation, functions similarly. The total mass behaves as a subject and so is recognized as such regardless of the particular embodiment of that subject. Of course, the analogy is loose and fails to meet the conditions of the corporation on one very important point. Within the corporation the component entities which compose it do not lose their individual characteristics in their incorporation (indeed, they gain another characteristic, that of incorporation). The horror of the Borg arises in the deletion of the individual in favor of the collective, the corporation does not, in fact, behave in that manner (despite the insistence of modern capitalism and its drive towards total homogeneity). If the corporation is to be recognized as subject, that recognition derives from the subjectivity of its constituent subjects.

The corporate subject, as recognized by the Supreme Court functions as a subject due to the powers of the subjects which compose it. Each subject functions autonomously yet cedes a certain realm of action to the corporation, and lends to the corporation the use of its subjective capacity. Thus, the corporate subject is the sum total of its constituent subjects acting in unity with the corporate identity. The corporation behaves as a subject do to its composition, in other words, the corporation’s embodiment is such that it is capable of producing a subject. The particular embodiment of the subject need not take any particular form, the only requirement for such an embodiment is that it be capable of producing a subject. The subject, judged from without, it recognized through its behaviors, and as such, the corporation, the corporate subject, can be recognized as a subject if its behaviors are sufficient to produce such a judgement.

Within the essay which I wrote I do not use the above analogies, though they seemed fitting for the present purposes. My primary argument, however, is the same: behavior is the only appropriate rubric against which to judge a being’s subjectivity. There are a great deal of ramifications for the recognition of the corporate subject, primarily the effects which such a subject would have on its constituent subjects. Due to the unique nature of the corporate subject and its embodiment, I believe that the only way in which the corporate subject is truly capable of maintaining its subjectivity is by allowing for the full expression of its constituent subjects’ subjectivity and that the negation of any individual subject’s rights compromises the subjectivity of the entire corporation. However, I think that is a long and complex argument which doesn’t have much place in the present discussion (though I may return to it later if there is sufficient interest).

I wanted to return the this set of ideas because I realized some time ago that the set of arguments that I developed in favor of the corporate subject were popping up in the project I’m currently engaged with Emjay in developing. If we are working towards an Ontological Subject and the Theology of the Subject, then the definition and exploration of the subject becomes the center out of which everything else expands. Essentially, we are working backwards to the center of experience so that we make work forwards to the world and the divine.

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Only Forward!

I have largely neglected this whole enterprise, for which I feel the need to apologize (even if I’m only apologizing to the three or four friends of mine who may occasionally check this blog). The last few months have been, honestly, a bit of a mess. So much has happened, and a great deal of it has been quite good. I’ve gotten engaged, finally managed to motivate myself to start working to positively change my position in life, and a good deal of other things that have been lacking any kind of organization or coherence. Therefore, in the efforts of collating everything and proceeding forward, I’m picking up this project once again.

I don’t feel like I have, as yet, properly elucidated my intentions with this collection of writings. It is my desire to use this space to explore the spiritual not in terms of theory, which I am, as my friends know, deeply interested in investigating, but in praxis. For me this has broad and diverse ramifications. Foremost, my focus on spirituality is a creative one. I have come to firmly believe, through experience and reflection, that creativity is that vital spark that links us to the divine and opens the formal world to subjective experience and change. I will be turning my attention here, then, largely to the arts, and my own artistic pursuits.

I seek to explore the ways in which Spirituality (and I intend the capitalization here to delineate an expansive spirituality) is firmly embedded in a large range of human experience. I am increasingly of the opinion that honest subjective experience is exactly what is meant by the word Spirituality, and that all discrete operations of that word earn the lower-case spirituality. I have never been fond of the idea of essences or ideals, and so I do not wish to claim that there is some removed realm of Spirituality, but rather that Spirituality is immanent and present throughout all human experience. Spirituality, upper-case, is the field in which spirituality, lower-case, instantiates. Thus, I suppose, when I refer to Spirituality, I am referring to that which is unique in subjective experience as a class, whereas spirituality, lower-case, is to be used to describe discrete experiences. I am working from the presupposition, which, I realize, I must at some point expound upon, that the Subject is innately Spiritual.

I also intend to use this space to reflect upon issues which I find interesting, troubling, or otherwise worth discussion within spiritual discourse. While I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as Pagan, I feel a great deal of fondness toward the Pagan community. I honestly feel that my own approach to religion, worship, and the Spiritual is too iconoclastic and idiosyncratic for me to claim allegiance to any particular tradition, even one as diaphanous and ill defined as Paganism. That said, I am deeply interested in investigating Paganism as a spiritual movement, and the ways in which modern Pagans interpret and investigate the world around them.

In conclusion, then, I will make every effort to write regularly and I encourage comments and feedback, as I hope, more than anything, to inspire conversation with this project. Again, I apologize for not keeping in better form with this endeavor, but this whole investigation is of great importance to me, and so I will make every effort to continue this exploration.

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