Category Archives: society

Religion and LARPing (Can We Tell the Difference?)

In this series, we began with a humorous look at the similarities between religion and nerd culture.  On the way to a more serious analysis of this similarity, we’ve looked at how the Western world gradually became “disenchanted”.  The ancient pagans lived in a world that was alive, filled with a dizzying array of gods, demigods, spirits, and demons.  Christianity gradually pushed these to the margins, though many remained in new forms–angels, demons, fairies, elves, and so on.  The Enlightenment saw the rise of reason over all, and gradually completed the process whereby Westerners went from viewing the cosmos as a living organism to seeing it as a dead machine, while at the same time traditional religion went into gradual, and now steep decline.  Finally, we saw the rise of pop culture and fandom, whereby fascination with fictional worlds gradually developed into obsession, then into a mainstream lifestyle choice.  In this post, I’d like to try to tie it all together, as far as possible with such complex phenomena.

I’ll start with the image at the top of this post.  Someone unfamiliar with pop culture and Catholic religious orders might think that the two sides of the picture were more or less variants on the same theme.  In fact, as I imagine most readers of this blog will have immediately noticed, the left is a group of Jedi.  No, it’s not a scene from a movie, and it’s not necessarily cosplay.  There is an actual, real-life movement in some countries to have “Jedi” or “Jediism” registered as an official religion.  How “seriously” this is intended is something we’ll come back to.  Meanwhile, in addition to these efforts, there are organizations for “real” Jedi.  That is to say, they take the principles and practices, either explicitly stated or implied, of the Jedi Order of the Star Wars franchise and try, as far as possible, to use those principles and practices as guidelines for living their lives.  Their real, actual lives in the real, actual world.  They do this by a combination of aphorisms derived from the Star Wars franchise (movies and extended universe), martial arts training, meditation practices, and so on.  They often, as can be seen, dress in attire based on that of the cinematic Jedi.  The right-hand part of the image above, by the way, is a group of Franciscan friars*.  Their expressions seem a bit surly–maybe it’s because they don’t get to carry light sabers….

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Fandom

Last time we looked at the rise of mass media and the resultant birth of pop culture as we know it.  Over time, as even cheaper forms of print came into being (penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and pulps) and new media were developed (movies, radio, and television), there came into being the phenomenon we know as fandom.

“Fan”, of course, is originally an abbreviation of “fanatic”.  A fan is fanatic about his favorite books, TV show, band, or whatever.  The term originated in America in the late 19th Century–not surprising, since America at that time was rapidly becoming the epicenter for all the various media that made fans and fandom possible.  “Fandom” appears around the same time, but is very rarely seen until the second half of the 20th Century, becoming more and more common from the 1970’s onward.  “Fandom” is the subculture of fans of a given franchise, property, or other media entity.  Such subculture includes, but is not limited to, networking among fans, fan clubs and societies of various sorts, fan-produced magazines (“‘zines”, often produced on the cheap with mimeograph machines in decades past), fan-written fiction (“fan fiction” or “fanfic”–with modern technology, fan films have become common, too), fan conventions (“cons”), cosplay, and various forums, discussion boards, and zones on the Internet.

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Mass Media and Lifestyle Fantasy

Last time we looked at the effects of the Enlightenment and the final disenchantment of the world, as both organized religion and everything perceived as being “irrational” were banished from polite society; or at least from the worldview of the elite.  The perfectly rational, logical man of the Enlightenment who would shake off the superstitions of his ancestors and move confidently into a Utopian future of reason and humanism never materialized, though.  Human nature being what it is, the loss of the transcendent and the supernatural left a void that needed to be filled.  Nietzsche expressed this poetically in his famous writing about the “death of God” (the quote below is from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche’s answer–that we must become gods–foreshadows his idea of the Übermensch, the “superman”.  As we’ve seen over the last century and a quarter since Nietzsche’s death, that didn’t work out so well.  The void remained unfilled.  What could fill it?  At this point, we must leave that question hanging for a bit while we look at another of the great societal changes to come out of the Enlightenment.  In the last post, we looked at the religious and philosophical changes brought on by the Enlightenment.  Here I want to look at a change that was partly technological, partly educational, and partly cultural–the rise of mass media.

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Quote for the Week

[A] problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them “solves” the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go away.

For human beings, at least, the archetypal predicament is the imminence of death. Facing it, we come up with responses that range from evasion and denial to some of the greatest creations of the human mind. Since it’s a predicament, not a problem, the responses don’t make it go away; they don’t “solve” it, they simply deal with the reality of it. No one response works for everybody, though some do tend to work better than others. The predicament remains, and conditions every aspect of life in one way or another.

–Archdruid Emeritus John Michael Greer; courtesy of here.

Quote for the Week

[When Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

–Interview by David Brancaccio, NOW (PBS) (7 October 2005); courtesy of Wikiquote

Where Have You Gone, Carl Sagan?

Sagan and Carson

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?  A nation turns its lonely eyes to you–Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”

Sometimes I feel that way about Carl Sagan.  Carl Sagan, for those of my readers who may be too young to know of him, was probably the greatest and most familiar science popularizer of the last century.  He was especially visible throughout the 1970’s, which was a partial inspiration of this series, of which this is the long-delayed first post. Sagan was more than just a 70’s icon, though.  I think he is a symbol of a bygone–and in some ways, better–time.

Carl Sagan had an M.S. in physics and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics.  At various times, he worked closely with NASA (he conceived the idea for the plaque placed on the space probes Pioneer10 and Pioneer 11) , had Top Secret clearance at the U.S. Air Force and Secret clearance with NASA, was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, published research on the atmosphere of Venus, and researched the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  For nearly the last thirty years of his life, he was associated with Cornell University.  Beyond his professional and scientific accomplishments, substantial as they were, Sagan was best known for his extraordinary effectiveness in bringing science to the masses through all the available media of the day:  print (magazines, newspapers, and books), film, and TV.  Had he survived to today (he died, tragically, of complications related to myelodysplasia at the age of sixty-two in 1996), I don’t doubt he would have had a substantial social media presence.

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Excursus: Neutrality, and Why I Am Neither For Nor Against It

yellow-neutral-face-hi

As I wrote the last couple paragraphs of “Heresy:  Systems of Control“, I began to fudge on the phrasing a bit, and it occurred to me that I ought to write another post explaining why, and elaborating the issues involved.  I almost said that in a pluralistic society we must respect all religious beliefs while keeping public policy neutral.  However, that little word–“neutral”–has caused issues in blog discussions elsewhere to which I’ve been privy, so I want to look at it here.

In a confessional state, there is no question of neutrality.  A given religion is the official one, simple as that.  How this is manifested may vary:  there may be no separation between church and state at all, or there may be moderate separation, or the state may acknowledge the state church in merely symbolic ways.  Religions other than the official state religion may be banned and persecuted, tolerated with restrictions, or left totally alone.  Regardless of the specifics, though, there is no pretense of neutrality–there is the state religion which is favored and enshrined in law, and there is everything else.

The United States, of course, not only has no state religion, but the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ensures that there never will be an American state religion.  We have been a pluralistic society from the beginning:  first, with most forms of Christianity represented in colonial times;  later on, with immigration and religious ferment, almost all human religions have come to be found within the boundaries of the USA.  As a result of this, we tend to think of ourselves as “neutral”–that is, people of all faiths are treated the same, and no one religion should have a special place over any other.  This had always seemed to me, for one, to be self-evident.  However, in the course of various blog discussions I’ve had over the last year, I’ve come across a frequently expressed counter-narrative.

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Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky

A discussion about workers rights, social justice, perversion of the political system, and such for International Workers Day.

Quote for the Week

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Just as language has no longer anything in common with the thing it names, so the movements of most of the people who live in cities have lost their connexion with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, Worpswede (1903); courtesy of Wikiquote.

Pop Culture Tricksters

L-r:  Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

L-r: Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

I posed the question, “Could Joel or Mike on MST3K have been a chick?” (to be flip) over here, and answered, “No.”  On the way to justifying that answer I looked at the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool.  Now let’s bring it back to pop culture and apply it.

I think the host/captive on MST3K is really just a specific example of an archetype that occurs very commonly in pop culture.  Two other exemplars are Pee Wee Herman and Weird Al Yankovic.  There are others that spring to mind–for example, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, and Ringo Starr have embodied aspects of the Trickster/Fool persona in movies and music–but the four I’m considering here are the best examples.  They are all about the same age and were at their peaks at approximately the same time.  More importantly, they all have embodied the archetypes more fully and consistently, and as a bigger part of their public persona, than the other actors and singers mentioned or for that matter than almost anyone else in pop culture.  There are also interesting parallels in their careers that I want to look at.

As one important proviso, I want to point out that when I speak of these worthies, I am speaking of their public personas, not their private lives, unless otherwise specified.  Thus, I’m not particularly interested in Paul Reubens or Joel Hodgson, but I’m very much interested in Pee Wee Herman and Joel Robinson, their on-screen characters.  Mike Nelson and Weird Al used their real names, but I am equally interested in their personas, not in them as individuals.

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