Subtitle

The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Culture Porn

My friend Holly has a sister who was, in her early 20s, "looking for meaning in life" and, as tends to happen, ended up with a weird cult living in Oregon on a parcel of land that they call, appropriately enough, The Land.

Now, what separates this from the commonplace, run-of-the-mill "gee golly, my sister ran off to join a cult" story* is the fact that this is a "shamanic" cult. I use quotes because, frankly, as far as I can tell, this is just a bunch of suburban whiteys who've seen Dances With Wolves one too many times and who know as much about shamanism as Lindsay Lohan knows about organic chemistry. However, they have fun dancing about wearing mock animal heads and pretending to be in touch with nature spirits, when all they're really in touch with is their own pretentiousness**.

I live in Santa Cruz, which means that I have encountered these sorts of people before and will, no doubt, encounter them again. They're a dime a dozen**, and generally not that interesting. However, their obsession with attempting to create (or as so many of these people claim resurrect or continue) a shamanic religion is kind of interesting to me, though not for the reasons that most of them would hope.

Typically, the desire to have a shamanic religion seems to come not from an understanding of shamanism, but rather from a desire to "get in touch with the Earth, y'know, like the Native Americans!" (but, again, see the ** footnote). I have written about the social fetishization of Native American peoples before, the tendency to ignore who these people really are and instead focus on (and/or try to emulate) a stereotyped or oversimplified caricature.

We see similar patterns play out with many different cultures. For example, there are those who claim to be deeply interested in India and Hinduism, but know little more than that for Hindus there is a belief in both ascendance and reincarnation. these people are generally more interested in posing as "spiritually deep" than in actually finding out why some Indian mystics choose to leave the world or why Hindus generally hold certain animals sacred.

Odds are that you know at least one person who claims great knowledge of Japanese culture, but who has gained their...ahem..."extensive" knowledge from reading comic books and watching cartoons. And so many of these people have never even seen a Godzilla movie...they should be ashamed.

And then there are the wanna-be shamanists, who use the trappings of shamanism found in any low-grade 50's jungle movie and mix it with a heaping dose of new-age philosophy and claim that it's how the Native Americans/People of Africa/Australian Aborigines/insert-group-here view the universe.

I refer to this as Culture Porn: it's the creation of a sleek, sexy, but ultimately empty simulacrum of another culture, produced and packaged for easy availability to any consumer. Just like pornography, the simulacrum is airbrushed, free of the blemishes that real people and cultures have, often modified to suit the desires (or perceived desires) of the consumer. The consumer of culture porn is no more looking to understand the other culture (as it really is, warts and all) than the consumer of pornography is looking for real, messy sex. And like pornography, the consumer may forget that they are looking at a construct, and begin to think that this is not only what truly exists, but what they deserve to have.

Unlike pornography, however, the consumer of culture porn typically doesn't see himself/herself as a consumer, but instead manages to convince themselves that they are "culturally sensitive" or "coming to understand the superior spirituality of these others" or some such thing.

Some strains of culture porn have their roots in the past. The tendency for many to obsess over the religious and/or medicinal practices of Asian cultures without regard to the context in which these practices developed and exist bears more than a passing resemblance to the racist 19th century view of Asians as "celestial people" of the "mystic Orient." Likewise, the naive shamanism described above seems to be descended from the fascination of 18th and 19th century Europeans with the "mystical" practices of the native people of colonised regions - often espousing attitudes towards these people, such as that they were "closer to nature" or "part of a mythic past but irrelevant to the present and future", that were often used in justifying their subsequent second-class position within colonial and post-colonial societies. That these qualities are now viewed as admirable rather than detrimental doesn't change their origin or their falseness, nor does it change the bigotry inherent in them.

Other strains of culture porn seem to be rather more modern. The suburban kid obsessed with Japanese pop culture but possessing little real knowledge of Japanese culture or history often begins their interest because of an aesthetic or thematic interest in the material - and there is nothing wrong with this as long as it does not develop into a hubristic belief that the pop culture fan has become an expert on the nation that produces that pop culture.

And none of this is to discourage people from genuinely trying to learn about and understand other cultures. Hell, I'm an anthropologist by training - how would that have happened if I did not think that trying to understand others was an absolutely worthwhile pursuit. Likewise, there are those who truly do come to understand cultures other than their own, but they do so not by putting the culture up on a pedestal or treating it as a thing to be admired or aspired to, but rather by getting truly into it, working to understand the context of the culture, and knowing that it has both its positives and negatives.

However, this degree of effort and engagement is, in my experience, typically lacking. More common, we see people ignore the reality, brush aside the real people, and purchase the porn. And so, at this moment in Oregon, there is probably someone wearing a paper mache bull's head doing the cultural equivalent of masturbating.




Special link: I love the Onion.




*Holly and I have learned quite a bit about this group, and despite their weird, and frankly laughable, ways, they are quite harmless. Otherwise I wouldn't be making light of the situation like this.


**And these sorts of groups should not be confused with groups that do genuinely carry on an older shamanic tradition, or with groups who have actually bothered to learn about the nature and history of shamanism before attempting to create their own, new practices. Whatever else one may say about these groups, they generally are something other than a bunch of pretentious people who want to feel special.

3 comments:

Evan Davis said...

I like the comparison. It helps define why someone would be interested in these types of groups. Imagine if people tried to view the world through the reports on the onion?

Kay said...

Fromthe Onion article

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This book is on my coffee table waiting for a review. How odd to see it in an Onion article.

Anthroslug said...

I occasionally do meet people who view the world through reports in the Onion. Like the guy who runs the Felton Bigfoot museum.