Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Return of the Awful I

Moving on from - though perhaps tangentially related to - my last couple of posts dealing with religion, more news on Vermont's very own Lovecraftian horror, The Awful:

Mr. H.P. Albarelli recently contacted me, having been understandably offended by the sarcastic tone I took toward his article in the Northwest Vermont County Courier concerning the Awful. In any case, I requested details of the sources of the contested Lovecraft quotes. A protracted exhange then followed during which Mr. Albarelli clearly stated his position: that Lovecraft's involvement was peripheral to the whole matter. I countered this by arguing that his original article had strongly emphasised Lovecraft's role in the story of the Awful.

Mr. Albarelli did go on to state that the letters from which he quoted existed in a public archive (though at this point he did not include any additonal information about this archive). An implied accusation of my being a Lovecraft fanatic followed, which was fair comment, although the added insinuation that I had lost touch with reality because of my obsession with the letters smarted: indeed, a rather odd claim given that all I was trying to do was establish the existence of a letter and not that of a winged monster which supposedly haunts the wilds of Vermont...

Sarcasm aside, I must admit to being not entirely unsympathetic to Mr. Albarelli's claims and I certainly don't think he is involved in a purposeful or malicious hoax. Similarly my own intentions toward Mr. Albarelli are not malicious (though I hope he might find it in his heart to forgive me for the occasional dig I make at his expense!). Even so, an important epistemological issue underlies my somewhat dogged pursuit of this case: namely the manner in which Lovecraft's name is often deployed within contemporary occultures as a source of legitimicay. In fact, what one usually encounters in these instances is a kind of non-sequitur appeal to false authority (two fallacious arguments for the price of one).

In any case, I've decided to include herafter the full text of two of the later e-mails which I sent to Mr. Albarelli, with summaries of his replies. In fairness to Mr. Albarelli, please do bear in mind that what follows is my own biased account of the exchange:

Dear Mr. Alberelli,

The letters are of importance insofar as traceable sources are necessary to validate the claims that Lovecraft did go to Vermont to investigate 'the Awful' in 1925, and that the experience subsequently influenced his writing career - and that is all I am trying to establish here. A matter, as you say, of remaining grounded in reality.

My own experience is that Lovecraft has gained far greater recognition than you give credit for - both in North America and abroad (in France, for example, Lovecraft is considered the literary equal to Edgar Allen Poe). This was why I raised the issue of your mentioning Lovecraft in the first place - certainly on the few forums where I have seen your article discussed, the Lovecraft link seems to be one of the key talking points. In all honesty, for me this begs the following question: if you feel Lovecraft to be such a minor figure, why do you give him such a central
role in your account? I'm not asking you to respond to this; I'm simply indicating that this as a question which has been raised.

I'm guessing that the publicly accessible archive you speak of is the collection of Lovecraft's letters at John Hay Library, Providence R.I.? It would be most helpful if, in your update, you could provide exact dates of the letters in question, if possible with details as to their recipients?

Yours sincerely,

Justin Woodman

It turned out that Mr. Albarelli was not familiar with the John Hay collection. He did, however, say that more information about the Lovecraft sources would be appearing in a second article he was preparing about the Awful. In response I sent the following e-mail. To give some context to this, I was responding to Mr. Albarelli's claims that Lovecraft was a marginal literary figure and that it was doubtful (as I had earlier suggested) that he was considered the equal of Poe in French intellectual circles:

Dear Mr. Albarelli

I was not at all implying that you should not mention Lovecraft in your article, but mentioning him in relation to a matter that has escaped the attention of those of us interested in him as an important literary figure is something that is going to draw attention to your claims. As an aside, the fact of the matter is that Lovecraft is now a significant international literary figure - in the United Kingdom, for example, a review of his work have recently appeared in at least one major national
broadsheet newspaper; also the French (and international bestselling) author Michel Houllebecq recently published a lengthy essay on Lovecraft (introduced by Stephen King). Lovecraft has also been discussed by Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher whose work has become internationally recognized since the 1990s. The list of French scholars and intellectuals who have come to recognize Lovecraft as a literary figure equal to Poe goes on. Millions of copies of Lovecraft’s work have, since the 1970s,
been made available in paperback editions; as well as being incredibly popular now in Europe and North America, I understand that Lovecraft has attracted growing audiences in Japan, South and Central America and Eastern Europe (indeed, the Russian president Putin was recently asked, jokingly, how he meant to deal with the return of Cthulhu).

In any case, I was wondering whether, prior to the publication of your second article, you would be willing to furnish me with the sources of the following quotes:

‘When H.P. Lovecraft returned to southern Vermont from Richford he told friends he was convinced that the Richford locals he had interviewed were "not in the least mistaken about what they had witnessed." Lovecraft later wrote, "The Awful became ample sustenance for my imagination" and "over time the creature became the basis for many of my own fictional inventions."’

If you do not wish to furnish the requested citations yourself, you mentioned in a previous e-mail that ‘The letters cited have been sitting in a publicly accessible archive for decades’ and also that the references in question were provided to an internet site months ago. Could you provide further details about the aforementioned archive and the internet site?

I’m almost beginning to feel sorry for being so tenacious about this, but it is simply that I cannot seem to trace any mention of ‘The Awful’ in the four volumes of Lovecraft’s published letters that cover his life from the period of 1925 until his death in 1937. I sincerely hope that you can understand why I’m so curious about this matter: if Lovecraft’s investigations into the Awful had such a profound effect on him, I have to ask why it isn’t something that he returns to time and time again in his letters (where he otherwise amply elaborates on the sources of his fictional ideas). I think that there is also a secondary issue here in that Lovecraft was an avowed rationalist, atheist and mechanistic materialist - a point he reiterates time and time again in his letters, and a viewpoint which he held from a very young age until his death. Lovecraft certainly was familiar with the writings of people like Charles Fort, but nowhere does he seem to intimate any interest of belief in
cryptozoology, the supernatural or other ‘Fortean’ phenomena - other than to publicly debunk them.

Also, the renowned scholar and biographer of Lovecraft S.T. Joshi, who is the person most familiar with the collection of Lovecraft’s letters at John Hay library, fails to make any mention of Lovecraft’s trip to Vermont in 1925 or of the influence of the Awful on Lovecraft’s writing in 680+ pages of his carefully documented and rigorously researched biography of Lovecraft (‘H.P. Lovecraft: A Life). Given the wealth of information now available about Lovecraft’s life, I hope you can understand my scepticism regarding your claims - it’s simply that this matter has not (to my knowledge) been mentioned before in any of Lovecraft’s published writings.

Another of the reasons why I so curious about these claims is because at least one individual has already used your article to make (what I feel to be) spurious on-line statements about Lovecraft - statements to the effect that Lovecraft whole-heartedly supported a belief in the existence of a range of occult, Fortean, cryptozoological, ufological and supernaturalist phenomena (again, a claim that is unsupported in Lovecraft’s published letters and essays). Also - a fact you may not be aware of - your article was cited in a recent edition of the The Fortean
Times (which has a readership in the UK of, I believe, around 100,000; I also know that it is published in a North American edition). As such, the claims found in your article will potentially have acquired a larger readership than, perhaps, you intended. Of course you cannot help how some people have interpreted the information contained in your article once published. However, the problem here is that people seem to be viewing this claim uncritically simply because Lovecraft’s name is invoked. This is why I feel it so important that the sources of the quotes/claims are
made available.

Yours sincerely,

Justin Woodman

Mr Albarelli then informed me that the letters from which he quoted were not in the public domain, but did in fact reside in the hands of two individuals in Vermont (one of which is a minister). Further to this, he told me that more information regarding the Awful was to be found in a) the archives of a Richford newspaper, and that possible one of the contentious Lovecraft quotes could also be found in the journal of the Masonic Lodge 9 based in Richford, Vermont.
Hopefully more news regarding the sources of the alleged Lovecraft quotes will be made available when Mr. Albarelli returns to the matter of the Awful in his next article. In the mean time, I propose to do a bit of background research into the journals of the Richford Masonic Lodge.

Understandably the individuals' possessing the Lovecraft letters were not named. This does, however, mean that clear and unambiguous evidence of Lovecraft's alleged involvement in the affair of the Awful cannot be ascertained (at least to my satisfaction). In light of which, the weight of evidence still lies with what Lovecraft himself has said and which is in the public domain, and which also supports his well-documented skepticism of things Fortean, and certainly offers no suggestion whatsoever that he either investigated the Awful in 1925 or that his alleged investigation of said beast profoundly influenced his weird fiction.

At this point Mr. Albarelli seems to have given up the ghost with the Lovecraft connection, informing me that henceforth the story of the Awful would stand on its own two (cloven? webbed?) feet without Lovecraft's aid. To reiterate - and in fairness to him - I fully believe that Mr. Albarelli is quite genuine about his interest in and pursuit of the Awful, and I'm quite prepared to believe that he has seen letters purporting to be from Lovecraft. Indeed, there is something about the style of the contested quotes that rings true to my ear (which is not to say that Lovecraft's style isn't easily copied), so it could well be that the letters (assuming they are real) are also genuine Lovecraft. If this is the case, then the context of the quotes needs to be assessed. Even if Lovecraft himself made these statements, the Old Gent was prone to the occasional joking turn of phrase. This certainly wouldn't be the first time that Lovecraft's own words have been taken out of context by Forteans, esotericists et al.

Anyway must dash now, but some additional commentary on this - regarding sites that have uncritically assumed Lovecraft's involvement in the tale of the Awful to be genuine - in a few days.

Friday, July 27, 2007

'The Cancer of Superstition' II

First up, a big thank you to GB Steve (one of the moderators over ay yog-sothoth.com) who informed me in a comment to my last entry (which I have since revised due to the number of grammatical errors it contained)that he has syndicated the blog's RSS feed to a group of his friends. Steve also raises a question about my previous claims regarding the 'naturalness' of religion, providing me with the opportunity to do something I've been meaning to do for a while here: give a somewhat detailed overview/summary of current cognitive theories of religion - a set of theories which I generally subscribe to. Again, this is a far cry from the usual Lovecraftian goodness we like to provide you with at Ghooric Zone central. That said, I'll reiterate the point that the following fits generally with Lovecraft's own materialism and anti-supernaturalism, and in fact is a contemporary take on Lovecraft's own views on religion as expressed in some of his letters and in parts of 'The Whisperer in Darkness'. Also, some of the ideas contained herein will probably inform later ramblings dealing with the Lovecraft-occultural interface. That said, I'm pretty busy with a number of other projects at the moment (painting miniatures as well as writing my book on Lovecraftian occultures!) so although this entry will be far from brief, it is not going to be thoroughly or properly referenced or contain footnotes, etc.

The 'Naturalness' of Religion
First off, I think Steve is quite right to question the notion that religion is 'natural' because to assume such is the case means that us atheists are somehow 'unnatural' or 'abnormal'! In any case, such a claim is something that definitely requires clarification. Here I’m following Pascal Boyer (see his book Religion Explained) who refers to the ‘naturalness of religious ideas’ in the following sense: it is not so much the case that it is ‘natural’ to believe in the supernatural because of how our brain is wired; rather it is the case that religious concepts can come to seem ‘natural’ and acceptable because the ability to conceptualise the supernatural is an offshoot or by-product of the very ordinary, mundane, and ‘natural’ but often unreflective aspects of our day-to-day cognitive functioning (what Boyer calls our ‘ontological intuitions’). This is an important distinction - that religion is a by-product but not a function of how our minds work. Hopefully this will be further clarified at various points throughout this post. In fact, Boyer and some of the other theorists I'm going to be talking about below are perhaps less concerned with why people believe than with the cognitive capacities that enables the human mind to conceptualise and entertain ideas about the supernatural in the first place.

Also I'm not convinced that it is always fruitful to encourage people to critically review their beliefs on the basis that said beliefs are irrational (even though I perosnally believe this to be the case). In part, this is probably down to my background in anthropology which emphasises sensitivity to other 'ways of seeing'. In this respect I think Dawkins 'evangelical' evolutionism tends to do more damage to his own argument than is necessary. This is because all of us in all sorts of ways apply and demonstrate counter-intuitive and counterfactual ‘magical’ or 'religious' thinking on a daily basis: for example we probably all unreflectively and implicitly attribute human-like characteristics to non-human things or inanimate objects (getting annoyed with your computer when it crashes, or with your car when it won’t start). As Marx also pointed out, under capitalism people tend to attribute organic properties of self-replictation to money (bank advertisements talking about ‘letting your money grow’ and so on), obscuring the actual exploitation upon which the accumulation of capital depends.

Returning to the important distinction above, this doesn’t of course mean that we actually come to believe that money is a living, breathing entity, simply that we are capable of thinking in that way, and that the ability to think like this may be the consequence or by-product of a helpful survival strategy by which we deal more effectively with our environment by projecting human-like qualities on to it (partly a consequence of the complex forms of 'social intelligence' which humans possess). In the theory I’m going to summarise below, this propensity for anthropomorphism is (according to one anthropologist at any rate) the foundation upon which all complex religious doctrines and supernatural beliefs are built. Importantly, its root cause may be the evolved but ‘hyperactive’ ability humans possess for detecting predators.

I'd also like to emphasise the fact that religion is not being treated here as a functional aspect of how our minds work - humans have not 'evolved' the capacity for religion because it is 'useful'; rather, religion is a spandral or by-product of our evolved cognitive architecture. Which is to say that humans beings, once they 'have' religion, can put it to all sorts of uses (engendering social cohesion, for example). However, religion, as a by-product of 'normal' brain functioning, is not in itself inherently useful.

Neurotheology, the God Module and the 'Function' of Religion
A counter-argument to this is sometimes referred to as the 'committment' theory of religion, or more popularly as the 'God Module' theory: a ‘hardwired’ or ‘neurotheological’ view of religion which I am suspicious of. According to two of its main exponents, Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, humans have evolved as part of their brain structure a ‘God Module’. In their 1993 article ‘Religious and mystical states: A neuropsychological model’ in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science) D’Aquili and Newberg have also argued that various religious practices (meditation, trancing, etc.) generate neurological changes, including an increase in activity in the frontal lobes. It also leads, they claim, to decreased activity in the superior parietal lobe (the part of the brain which generates an awareness of the physical limitations of the self)which in turn leads to a sense of transcending material existence, or a feeling of unity with god, oneness with the universe, etc.
D’Aquili and Newberg go on to argue that experiences such as these are more likely to be generated in ritual context, where they create a feeling of unity and connectedness with others. As such, the ‘god module’ may be an evolutionary adaptation to enhance social co-operation. In effect, neurotheology has tried to place Emile Durkheim’s claim that religion is concerned with social cohesion on a neurological footing. This is perhaps a useful way of understanding how ritual functions to facilitate group bonding; this 'neurotheological' approach also suggests that religion is an ‘illusion’ created by neurological processes. However, it also leaves open the doorway for ‘intelligent design’ for the more savvy of creationists: namely that god has used evolutionary processes to open a neurological doorway to communion with he/she/it (the fact that god tends to be gendered is an important point to which I’ll return later). It also posits a hardwired view of religion that does, again, implicitly suggest that us atheists are not functioning properly.

The prevailing view (at least as I see it) is that whilst religion is an outcome of evolutionary processes, it is not an evolved adaptation per se. Steven Pinker has, for example, argued that:

‘Many of our faculties are adaptations to enduring properties of the real world. We have depth perception, because the world really is three-dimensional. We apparently have an innate fear of snakes, because the world has snakes and they are venomous. Perhaps there really is a personal, attentive, invisible, miracle-producing, reward-giving, retributive deity, and we have a God module in order to commune with him. As a scientist, I like to interpret claims as testable hypotheses, and this certainly is one. It predicts, for example, that miracles should be observable, that success in life should be proportional to virtue, and that suffering should be proportional to sin. I don't know anyone who has done the necessary studies, but I would say there is good reason to believe that these hypotheses have not been confirmed’. (pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/ media/2004_10_29_religion.htm)

Scott Atran also suggests that god module theory is profoundly flawed: the claim that religion offsets apparent disadvantages is countered by the fact that it creates other disadvantages. Thus most theories that have been posited to explain religion in functional terms can be countered by showing how religion also does the exact opposite:

‘It tries to answer the question Why? It prevents answers to the question Why? It creates meaning for an arbitrary world. It postulates and imaginary world that hides reality’s reason. It discovers the origin of nature’s regular occurrences…It disguises the origin of nature’s regular occurrences…It relieves anxiety. It terrorizes…It aims to overcome evil, suffering, misfortune and injustice among believers. It aims to cause evil, suffering, misfortune and injustice among nonbelievers…It benefits elites. It benefits the downtrodden…It’s the workhorse of war. It’s a player for peace’ (Atran, 2002. In Gods We Trust, pp. 6-7).

In their joint article (www.bbsonline.org/Preprints/Atran-12172002/Atran.doc) Atran and Norenzayan go on to claim that whilst ‘commitment’ theories of religion like the 'god module' are useful for understanding how religion can faciltate the kinds of non-kin-based and non-reciprocal altruism necessary for the survivial of human grousp, they are not sufficient explanations of religion in and of themselves. The problem being that such theories don’t account for the apparently universal belief in supernatural beings: the existence of Marxism and humanism as non-religious moral systems suggest non-religious moral systems that do not invoke supernatural agents can be sufficient to engender human co-operation. As such, commitment theories are incomplete explanations of religion because they fail to account for the specificity of its supernaturalist elements.

The approach outlined below is, I think, incredibly useful in helping to demonstrate how and why people potentially acquire religious concepts by understanding religious thought not as 'innate', 'natural' and necessary but in naturalistic terms which are explicable via material processes and by a secular scientific understanding of the universe. In brief, this approach states that religion can be both extremely useful to humans and highly damaging, but in either case it is not necessary for humans to function and survive. This is also sometimes refered to as the 'spandrel' theory of religion: a spandrel being an architectural term for describing an aspect of a builing which was not designed with a function in mind, but is a by-product of the functionality of some other aspect of the building (the space under the stairs is often used as storage, but it was not designed as a storage space; rather, it is necessary to have a space in the building at that point as a consequence of the stairs).

The 'Spandrel' Theory of Religion
An initial step in understanding how people are capable of conceptualising the supernatural begins with Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind(ToM) is the remarkable ‘mind reading’ ability that most humans possess which allows us to impute motivations to others. By ‘mind reading’ I am referring to our apparently natural aptitude for inferring what other people are thinking and feeling and predicting their behaviour accordingly, based on visual cues, body language and the like rather than any kind of genuine ‘psychic’ ability! Another key definition of ToM (which I will return to in the epilogue to this piece) is the ability to detect false beliefs in others (I think that she thinks so-and so, even though I know so-and-so to be false). In fact, this is how the 'existence' of ToM is generally demonstrated: if you show a child of around 5 years of age a box of sweets and ask that child what they think is in the box, the will usually say 'sweets!'. Then you show the child that the box actually contains pencils. A second child is brought into the room. The first child is then asked what he or she thinks that the second child thinks is in the box. A child who demonstrates ToM will reply sweets, even though they know it contains pencils. What is demonstrated here is the ability to think about what other people are thinking, even if you know that the other people's beliefs about the world are mistaken.

All in all, ToM is a pretty remarkable ability, but one that we take for granted. This kind of slippage towards taken-for-grantedness is, I think, important in understanding why people are often likely to accept religious ideas and supernatural beliefs (i.e. the dominant beliefs in most cultures have a taken-for-grnated character). This is probably because ideas and beleifs about the supernatural emerge from very banal taken-for-granted cognitive capacities that most of us possess.

With regard to religion, the important thing about ToM is that it allows us to impute a seemingly invisible motivational force to other human beings (‘mind’). We are used to dealing with other humans who have corporeal bodies but are also agents with recognisable motivations, feelings etc. When we encounter a dead body, we are suddenly faced with the corporeal body that is lacking agency and a motivating force. As Pacal Boyer has it, it is then only a small step to inferring the existence of this ‘invisible’ and seemingly non-corporeal mind as something which has ‘left’ the body, and which is, indeed, independent of the body. ToM is one factor that allows us to hypothesis the existence of human-like but non-corporeal entities (i.e. gods, spirits and demons). However, ToM does not demand beleif in said hypothetical otherworldly agents.

The complex kinds of ‘social intelligence’ demonstrated by humans (which allow us to establish massive coalitions such as nation states or global religious communities)are fundamental to our survival (which, for humans is massively dependent on social co-operation - especially in terms of parental investment for human infants - even though humans still remain the main predators of other humans). As such, the social intelligence we possess presumably spread through populations in our evolutionary past as a consequence of its usefulness. However, one of the things about social intelligence is that we simply can’t ‘switch it off’. A consequence of this is that we tend to maintain social relationships with the dead (visiting graves, etc.): especially with members of our immediate family or close friends (with who we have shared deep emotional ties and who, presumably, we depended on in various ways for our daily well-being) even after they have died.

Added to this the human ability for anthropomorphism which cognitive archaeologist Steven Mithen claims is probably a result of ‘cognitive fluidity’. Cognitive fluidity is tied to the idea of ‘modularity of mind’: that the human mind is not some big general all purpose learning tool - if it was, we probably wouldn’t be able to communicate meaningfully via language. The fact that we have language is, according to the 'modularity of mind' theory, a consequence of our having developed a specialised ‘lingusitic intelligence’ mental module. A useful analogy here is to think of a non-modular mind as being like a toolbox containing some nails, a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver and a wrench. There’s lots of stuff you can usefully do with all of this equipment (cut down a tree and build a shelter), but the toolbox has rather limited application when your computer breaks down. For this kind of repair job, you need a specialised toolkit. Understanding weather patterns may be important for successfully undertaking activities like hunting and farming, but the weather doesn't really impact upon the way we learn language. However, the claim is that if we don't possess modularity of mind, we simply would not be able to realise what factors are important when it comes to hunting, and what are important when it comes to learning language. The net result being that it takes much longer to learn how to farm and to learn how to speak a language. Human children appear to be born with a 'technical intelligence' module which means that even very young children find it easy to learn basic tool use. However, the same does not appear to be true of infant chimps who often take a very long time to master using rocks in a simple hammer-and-anvil technique to break open nuts.

What has this to do with religion? What humans also seem able to do think across these mental modules or domains of knowledge - i.e. cognitive fluidity. The dates remain contentious, but this may have been one of the major evolutionary shifts that brought about the 'cultural revolution' or explosion that seems to have taken place somehwere around 70-40,000 years ago. Generally speaking, this period also evidences the emergence of religious thinking amongst anatomically modern human beings (burial sites, rock art, etc.). In any case, cognitive fluidity allows for analogical thinking which is an incredibly useful tool. Not only does the ability to think analogically enable technical development (thus greater human control over the environment and increased chances of survival), it also seems to underlie a great deal of scientific thinking (looking for universal principles of motion by comparing a birds wing to a fish’s fin).

Cognitive fluditiy also means that when social intelligence (the part of the mind we use for dealing with other people, i.e. ToM and the like) interacts with natural history intelligence (the part of the mind we use for dealing with, thinking about and categorising our environment) we can come up with concepts such as an animal who thinks and acts like a human. This can be an incredibly useful way of interacting with one’s environment, and it certainly seems to be the case that human success in hunting comes from attributing human-like qualities to prey. However, it also allows us to attribute a human-like mind to a tree or a statue. In brief, this ability for analogy and anthropomorphism may have tangentially given rise to the ‘earliest’ kind of religious concept: animism. To reiterate, cognitive fludity does not require religion; rather, religious concepts (along with art, poetry, etc.) are by-products of the evolved capacity for cognitive fluidy (which in and of itself is a useful day-to-day survival strategy).

In enabling symbol use, analogy, metaphor, etc. (‘the wine dark sea’) cognitive fluidity also faciltated the development of complex forms of communication that have also allowed humans to establish and maintain equally-complex forms of social networks and relationships previously mentioned. Things like nation states and religious communities are often dependent on ideas about 'fictive' or 'metaphorical' kinship. To the extent that symbol use, analogy and metaphor are also central to the development of various artistic forms, I wonder if the links between cognitive fluidity, anthropomorphism and animism indicates why, for much of the time we've been on the planet, human artistic endeavours (whether literary, visual or plastic) often deal with religious or supernatural themes. This is also one of the reasons why I think that there is a significant overlap between contemporary occultism and the literature of the fantastic. However, one thing I’m not claiming here is that art, poetry, etc. are inherently religious pursuits.

Tying all of this in a roundabout way to the racist invective we find in Lovecraft, Steven Mithen also makes the interesting point that prior to acquiring cognitive fluidity, humans simply may not have been capable of racist thinking: while cognitive fluidity allows us to think of animals as being human-like, it also allows us to conceptualise other humans as animal-like or less-than human (this doesn’t, of course, mean that animosity between humans wouldn’t have existed prior to cognitive fluidity; but according to Mithen such animosity wouldn’t have been given expression through the discourse of race).

As a consequence of ToM, social intelligence (what Boyer generally refers to as 'intuitive psychology'), religious concepts, universally, seem to be constrained by a propensity toward anthropomorphism. The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie (1993, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion) reiterates this in claiming that the most efficient interpretation that human beings can place on events in an uncertain world is to assume that those events are structured by a human-like intentional agency: that shape in the distance might be a boulder, or it might be a bear. It is better to assume that it is a bear if you want to ensure your survival. If it turns out to be a boulder, you've lost nothing. If you think it's a boulber but it turns out to be a predator, you're in trouble. In this respect, anthropomorphism may be relate to an evolved adaptation which (if I recall aright) psychologist Justin Barrett calls the 'Hyperactive Agent Detection Device' (HADD) - a biased psychological-perceptual capacity for ‘over detecting’ potential predators. Like social intelligence, this is 'hyperactive' because we simply cannot turn it off, and in the bear-boulder example above it is a useful survival strategy t to start from the assumption that the boulder is a predator. The HADD kicks alerts us to potential danger when, for example you hear a floorboard creaking downstairs at night, or you hear a rustling behind you during a walk in the woods. The floorboard may be creaking because of temperature changes, and the rustling behind you might just be the wind, but our intuitive response is to react as if a potential predator is in the vicinity. The implications being that the HADD often leads us to detect for agents where none exist. In conjunction with ToM and so forth, this can add weight to the notion that non-corporeal human-like agents exist. The reason why it is human-like spirits that are posited is because the main predator of human beings has been other human beings. Thus the HADD is more likely to lead us to infer human-like predators rather than animal-predators.

This returns me to Tylor's minimal definition of religion as a 'belief in spiritual beings' mentioned in my last post: doctrinal aspects of religion do not necessarily reflect what people think at the 'grass-roots' of religious belief and practice. Christianity holds that god is atemporal, omnipotent and omnipresent; however, when praying people often make different inferences about the nature of god - that 'he' experiences time like other human beings, and that he is specifically focusing on the person praying. In European Christian art, God is often represented in gendered, corporeal, tangible and anthropomorphic form (i.e. a bearded old man enthroned in heaven); in the Bible, God also has human attributes (i.e. being jealous and wrathful). Similarly, Justin Barrett found that many Hindu’s applied anthropomorphic qualities to deities in everyday situations, even though when questioned about the nature of deities in a more formal setting would recapitulate formal, learnt theology that claimed otherwise (J. Barrett, 1998. ‘Cognitive Constraints on Hindu Concepts of the Divine’ in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion). What this indicates is that human religious concepts are, to an extent, constrained and are ‘minimally counterintuitive’. While cross-culturally gods and spirits may be conceived of as all-knowing, there are innumerable instances in the myths of various cultures where humans are able to trick supposedly omniscient gods and spirits.

The Counterintuitiveness of Religious Ideas
Similarly, Pascal Boyer argues that supernatural concepts seem to follow a cross-cultural template, and the nature of such concepts appears to be constrained by existing intuitions about the world which are either innate or which humans acquire early in childhood. These ‘ontological intuitions’ form the basis of what anthropologists refer to as ‘folk knowledge’ - namely implicit assumptions about the way the world is ordered. In brief, humans recognise distinctions between animate objects, inanimate objects, natural kinds, artificial objects, and persons. For example, if we encounter an animate object we have never encountered before, we are able to quickly infer a number of things about it: it has four legs, fur and moves, so it is probably an animal. As an animal, we infer that it is mortal, eats to live, reproduces, etc. We are so used to this that it seems unremarkable, but without these pre-existing ontological intuitions which allow us to cognitively structure our environment in relatively coherent ways (and which are presumably a product of long evolutionary processes) we would have difficulty in recognising that a rock is of a different kind to a fish.

In any case, Boyer what is characteristic of religious representations is that they violate these ontological assumptions in some way. The reason why religious representations become widespread is because they disrupt out ontological intuitions, and as such become more salient or memorable than other kinds of knowledge or ideas, and thus more likely to be passed on. Again, this doesn';t mean that such ideas will necessarily be believed, but it suggests a reason why mental representations of the supernatural become widespread through populations.

However, the implication of this claim is that the more 'outrageous' or ‘counter-intuitive’ a religious idea is, the more likely it is to be remembered and transmitted. Boyer suggests otherwise: a balance is usually struck in religious concepts between being counterintuitive enough to be memorable and being so counterintuitive that the concept no longer sensibly fits with out intuitive understanding of the world. For example, the belief in ghosts, spirits and deities fits into our intuitive assumptions insofar as these entities are classified as persons (sentient beings that have intentions, desires and motivations); however, they are also counterintuitive according to our folk concepts of biology, psychology and physics (they can move through walls, see everything, etc.).
On the other hand, a chair that exists only on Thursdays or (to borrow Justin Barrett's example) cat that never dies, has wings, is made out of steel, experiences time backwards, lives underwater and speaks Russian is so counterintuitive to our concept of a cat that it could no longer be classified as a cat. It is certainly so outside our experience as to be wholly unbelievable. In brief, only concepts which are counter-factual and counter-intuitive in a limited sense are likely to become transmissible and culturally salient. Beliefs that are ‘excessively’ unusual or violate our ontological assumptions to the extreme are likely to be rejected as unbelievable. As an aside, this is something I hope to revisit with regard to representations of the Old Ones in Lovecraft. Following China Mieville's comments at the Weird Realism conference about the overdetermined nature of Lovecraft's descriptions (despite his use of adjectives such as 'indescribable'), I actually think that Lovecraft's representations of the Old Ones are much more anthropomorphic than is often assumed.

In summary, ideas about gods and spirits - which seem to constitute the 'core' of religious and supernatural beliefs cross-culturally - are 'universal' because they only require a slight modification of Theory of Mind, because of social intelligence and because the posited HADD encourages a belief in non-corporeal persons or agents. However, all of these things together produce religion as a by-product of cognitive functioning, but the production of religion is not the function of these ordinary (although in some senses remarkable) human abilitites. In brief, religion is not an evolved adaptation necessary for human survival or co-operation. Human beings can do quite well without it.

That said, Scott Atran does see scope for incorporating 'committment' theories into a more general understanding of the evolutionary contours of religious thought. Earlier I mentioned that Theory of Mind enables humans to recognise false beliefs in others. This also allows us to represent and communicate counterfactual or false beliefs to others. The capacity for deception is useful for our survival, but as social beings it is also a potential threat to the social order. Scott Atran points out that 'religion often involves hard-to-fake public expressions of costly material commitments to supernatural agents, that is, offering and sacrifice (offerings of goods, property, time, life). A general problem in the maintenance of cooperation is how to distinguish people who are altruistically committed to a coalition from those who are not. One way to test who's genuinely committed is to see who is willing to undertake a costly sacrifice. Painful ritual practices such as tattooing, scarification and circumcision are not the kind of thing that anyone would do unless they took their affiliation with the group seriously.'

Our ability to recognize potentially false beliefs (including supernatural beleifs) also means that most human societies are always under threat of defection. If some better ideology comes along there is no longer any reason to accept the current ideology. Once human beings have the ability to conceptualise supernatural agents, such agents become incredibly useful in encouraging people not to defect from the group, especially if this supernatural agent is believed to possess the power to invisibly check and review people's thoughts and behaviours, and can punish them accordingly. The 'social usefulness' of the supernatural (despite the fact that this can also be incredibly damaging on a personal and individual level) may also be an important component to understanding why religious moral systems are more widespread than non-religious ones, despite the fact that (as Atran himself seems to recognise) non-religious moral systems can also be used to facilitate social co-operation. On this point, I am not advocating the necessity of religion; rather, I'm pointing to a factor that might be important in understanding the social contexts underpinning people's 'preference' for supernaturalism and resistance to atheism.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

'The Cancer of Superstition'?

As returning readers may be aware, we at Ghooric Zone central are not afraid to take the occasional meander down avenues somewhat tangential to our favoured Lovecraftian topics. This post being no exception (although I will justify it as being in the spirit of Lovecraft materialist atheism).

Guardian readers out there will no doubt have encountered Gordon Lynch's piece berating Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett popular books on religion (published Saturday 21st July 2007) which can be found here.

It seems to me that, as one commentor to the article has already noted, Lynch has constructed something of a straw man argument: invalidating Dawkins and Dennett's claims not by what they have said, but what they have failed to say. In all, this seems to be a case of sour grapes on the part of a sociologist of religion who is a bit miffed that his particular field of expertise has not achieved popular recognition in the way that Dawkins and Dennett have popularised their take on religion.

The problem here (or so it seems to me) lies in the 'crisis of representation' afflicting the social sciences since the 1980s (especially in the wake of Clifford & Marcus' 'Writing Culture'). In brief, this 'crisis' (which has led disciplines such as anthropology to argue themselves into a corner) was the consequence of concerns surrounding how a range of literary and rhetorical devices were being deployed (in anthropological writings, for example) as a means of presenting partial and culturally-biased 'data' as scientific fact. This was highly problematic because of the way anthropological writing in particular presented often deeply ethnocentric views of other cultures (views which implicitly asserted the 'superiority' of the Western anthropologists' own culture) as 'factual'. Further to this, postmodernist and poststructuralist trends in the social sciences have also emphasised the folly of pursuing 'objective' knowledge, and have maintained that 'Western' science is a myth or 'discourse' (an approach which fails to take into account the fact that centres of scientific thought have, of course shifted geographically across the duration of human history), and that 'rationality' is a culturally and historically contingent product of the European Enlightenment rather than a panhuman propensity. Don't get me wrong - there are sound and important epistemological issues being addressed here, not least of which is the way politics, ideology and knowledge become intertwined. As an anthropologist, I absolutely recognise the many problematic ways in which my discipline is founded on - and has been used to support - colonial expansionism and the exploitation of people's across the globe. Furthermore, 19th Century pseudo-scientific anthropological theories (outmoded even in the 1920s) were brought to bear as 'scientific proof' of Nazi racial doctrines. Thus Nazi scholars used anthropological pseudo-science to justify the Holocaust. More than enough reason to exercise caution when one encounters claims that a particular set of ideas is 'scientifically proven' (New Agers take note).

A consequence of these debates is a kind of epistemological double-bind meaning that social scientists become complicit in their own marginalisation. Eschewing explanations of human behaviour - particularly those grounded in the 'myth' of science, rationality and reason - many social scientists have come to favour self-conscious and reflexive 'interpretations' of human behaviour. Said interpretations also favour an outmoded view of a)the mind as tabula rasa and b)the social and the cultural as forces which exist external to human beings.

As mentioned above, there are good reasons for this turn away from science in the social sciences. However, emphasising the role of the social on our behaviour has enabled social scientists to dispense with the need for investigating 'human nature' or to have outright rejected the notion that such a thing might even exist. I personally don't doubt that culture and society have a profound part to play in shaping our behaviour; however, if one goes looking for books on human behaviour, what one tends to find on the shelves of most major bookshops these days is a range of popular science texts written by biologists and geneticists offering 'hardwired' explanations of said behaviour. It is unsurprising that ideas about human behaviour have eclipsed sociological and social anthropological thinking about the same issue, because said texts offer concrete explanations of human nature. Social and cultural anthropologists, on the other hand, tend to offer very wooly semi-autobiographical musings about (to paraphrase Clifford Geertz) their own interpretations of other peoples interpretations about what they think they might be doing.

For all their rejection of science, social scientists have tried to write themselves out of this mess via an elistist retreat into obscurantism which, paradoxically, legitimises itself through the deployment of 'technical' and quasi-scientific jargon (for an excellent critique of this - though one generaly rejected by the social sciences - see Sokal's 'Intellectual Impostures') disguised as genuine knowledge (a huge generalisation, I know, but we of the Ghooric Zone are not known for out impartiality). I should know, as I've been guilty of this myself on more than one occasion. To be frank, I find this obscurantism both patronising and incredibly hypocritical given that it almost wilfully re-instates the very problem that responses to the aforementioned 'crisis of representation' sough to address. This, of course, compounds the problem of the marginalisation of the social sciences because people who might otherwise be interested in what anthropologists and sociologists have to say are quickly put off after encountering even the most 'basic' of introductory texts. Compared to the mass of popular texts about human behaviour produced by natural scientists like Dawkins, I can think of only two popular books written by social anthropologists in the past twenty years.

The accessibility of the social sciences is further compounded by the claims iterated by Gordon Lynch in his article (and nicely summarised by another commentor on the Guardian website): that to fully understand the issues in their depth and complexity, one must have read X,Y & Z. While a broad knowledge of the intellectual history of a given field is always desireable, failure to take into account the breadth and depth of that history doesn't logically invalidate the claims of Dennett and Dawkins.

What Gordon Lynch does not address here is the fact that Dennett's work (if not Dennett himself) is informed by a wide array of research provided by long-standing and respected anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer, Dan Sperber and Scott Atran - specialists who aware of the history of their field and who do explicitly address the shortcomings of prior anthropological understandings and theories of religion.

American anthropologist Scott Atran (in his book In Gods We Trust), for example, has taken pains to demonstrates the failure of previous approaches in the social sciences to develop anything close to a comprehensive explanation of religion. At heart, Atran's argument is quite simple: every (functionalist) theory of religion can be countered with by an example of religion acting to support an opposed function. For example: 'religion is a way of dealing with anxiety in the face of death'. Yes, but religion also generates anxiety in the face of death (i.e. the threat of what might come in the afterlife, hellfire and damnation and so on). In effect, Atran (along with Boyer) argues that prior explanations of religion are not, in fact, 'scientific' expanations; rather they are a kind of interpretive folk-psychology or folk-sociology masquerading as scientific theories. What Boyer and Atran do instead is to posit a generally non-functionalist cognitive theory of religion: the human ability to conceptualise religious and other kinds of hypothetical otherworlds, spiritual beings etc. is simply a by-product of our mundane everyday cognitive functioning (itself a product of millennia of evolution). What this approach also suggests is (to borrow a phrase from Boyer) 'the naturalness of religious ideas'. In otherwords, religion can be understood not as 'irrationality' or 'superstition' (although of course Dawkins often couches the issue in comparable terms) but as a 'natural' outcropping of our day-to-day cognitive functioning. This is, I think, where people like Dennett and Dawkins fall short and where I probably find myself partially agreeing with Lynch: as an atheist, I can't but help regarding religion as part of what Lovecraft called the 'cancer of superstition'. However, from another point of view I can understand why religion is unlikely to go away: it's simply part of how our mind works, and the production of religious concepts and representations well be tied to the same cognitive capacities (the production of symbol, metaphor and analogy) which allows our imaginative faculties to flourish and which (oddly enough) enabled Lovecraft to produce his visionary but atheistic fictional otherworlds. Of course, simply having the capacity to cognise hypothetical otherworlds doesn't necessarily mean we have to believe in them!

In fact, the general approach of Atran and Boyer (which to my mind is part of a hugely significant, groundbreaking approach to the understanding the origin of religious concepts) is profoundly indebted to the intellectual history of their discipline, starting with 19th century anthropological and psychological theories of religion posited by Edward Tylor, who offered a minimal definition of religion as a 'belief in spiritual beings'. Interestingly, Talal Asad is invoked in the Lynch article as demonstrating the partial and ethnocentric definitions of religion deployed by Dawkins and Dennett. This leads me to raise a point that perhaps addresses some of Lynch's concerns: does Buddhism (a non-theistic religion) not, therefore problematise this presumably ethnocentric definition of religion as a belief in spiritual beings (one based, according to Asad, in the Christianity and philosophy of Western Europe)? Probably not. Social anthropological studies of Buddhism have themselves supported the view that non-theistic and 'rational' forms of Buddhism found in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand are, in part, fairly recent European 'inventions'. In brief, the 'elite' (often middle class) forms of Buddhism found in these areas (which espouse non-theism and demand that Buddha was just an enlightened human being) are, to some extent, products of a Buddhism transformed by European colonialism and reinterpreted by European scholars to fit a 'rational' Western world-view, then fed back to indigenous populations via Western forms of education. However, as the scholar of Buddhism Martin Southwold points out, localised village and rural forms of Buddhism in places like Sri Lanka do in fact incorporate spiritual beings into their beliefs and practices, and various Buddhist scriptures also support the 'supernatural' nature of Buddha. What this brief example hopefully goes some way to showing is that the consequence of reviewing the intellectual history of (in this case) anthropological approaches to religion - and the subsequent recognition that cultural and historical contingencies shape the content, meaning and character or 'religion' - does not necessarily invalidate the apparently ethnocentric claim that religion is concerned with spiritual beings. (Further to this, psychologist Justin Barratt has undertaken a number of research projects which appear to demonstrate cross-culturally that, regardless of what a given doctrine teaches, in informal settings human beings tend to think about religion in terms of human-like but supernatural beings such as gods and spirits).

It seems to me, then, that the argument Lynch employs is typical of the self-sustaining (and condescending) argument marshalled within the social sciences in order to promote the continued neccessity of (increasingly marginalised) social sciences specialists: i.e. we are the only people who have the time and resources to read and properly understand all of this stuff - if you challenge our view or fail to buy our books or accept our ideas that is a consequence of your ignorance, not a failure on our part to communicate our ideas clearly or to support them with hard data.

Again, this is why people turn to the likes of Dennett and Dawkins: they offer concrete explanations (not 'interpretations') grounded in empirical data (not 'discourse'), and couched in an accessible and comprehensible style. This is not to say that such popular reviews of religion are without flaws. However, the emphasis on interpretation over explanation provided by social scientists is generally not satisfactory for the majority of human beings. This latter point is indeed one that anthropologists have themselves recognised. Why is it, then, that they have consistently failed to operationalise in their own field of study? A failure to 'properly' understanding the complex role of religion in the modern world lies not with the Dennett and Dawkins, but with the inability of those who oppose them to mount anything close to sustainable defence.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Vote Yog Radio!

Yog Radio - Yog Sothoth.com's podcast about Lovecraftian games and gaming - has been nominated for this year's Gen Con EN World rpg award (the 'Ennies') for best gaming podcast. We at Ghooric Zone central would ask all of our regular blog viewers to head over to the Ennies site here and vote for Yog Radio. If you haven't yet had the opportunity to listen to Yog Radio, mp3 files can be downloaded here. Though Yog Radio's general emphasis is on the Call of Cthulhu rpg the show demonstrates a much broader remit: the most recent episode including, for example, an interview with Brian Aldiss. Fans of things Lovecraftian are certain to find something of interest in the Yog Radio vaults so please do take the time to check out some of the episiodes and cast your vote for Yog Radio. The hosts Paul Maclean ('Paul of Cthulhu'), Fin Patterson and Neil Young provide an excellent, informative and highly entertaining show in addition to maintaining yog-sothoth.com - currently in its ninth year of existence and without doubt the best provider of on-line resources and support for the international community of Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian roleplayers (as well as being kind enough to host the mp3 files of my 'Lovecraft and the Occult' lecture series).

Vote for Yog Radio now. You know you want to.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New Cthulhu Movie?

Unless you've been hiding in a lead-lined bunker with no internet connection for the last few days, likelihood is that you've encountered some aspect of the viral marketing campaign for JJ Abrams forthcoming untitled movie aka 'Cloverfield' aka 'The Parasite' - think Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. If not, you can view the trailer that started the whole ball rolling here. Though I'm loathe to be party to said viral marketing, one claim that keeps cropping up is that the movie might be inspired by Lovecraft, or be about the return of Cthulhu. Though my own gut reaction is that this will probably turn out not to be the case, the buzz of interest this is generating around Lovecraft may well mean that Hollywood moguls will begin to take heed of the call of Cthulhu...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Chariots of the Dark Gods?

A recent thread on yog-sothoth.com brought this ufo sighting to my attention:

The underside of the vehicle is also marked with the following characters:

While I'm in no doubt that this is a hoax, the following site claims otherwise. Specifically, the author of said piece claims that the symbols on the craft (one of which is, according to a commenter on the yog-sothoth.com thread, the Japanese for 'hoax') signify a kind of ET technology or alien superscience akin to magic:

'a language, that could quite literally execute itself, at least in the presence of a very specific type of field. The language, a term I am still using very loosely, is a system of symbols (which does admittedly very much resemble a written language) along with geometric forms and patterns that fit together to form diagrams that are themselves functional. Once they are drawn, so to speak, on a suitable surface made of a suitable material and in the presence of a certain type of field, they immediately begin performing the desired tasks. It really did seem like magic to us, even after we began to understand the principles behind it.'

The author also provides images from a 'linguitic analysis primer':

As well as reiterating the Lovecraftian (and Clarkean) theme of magic-as-superscience - and that of (imaginary) non-human languages which paradoxically signify the inconceivable or represent the unrepresentable - the above 'interpretation' (worth reading in its entirety) may well have taken its conceptual lead from Delta Green, a sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu rpg. For those unfamiliar with Delta Green, it reframes the Cthulhu mythos in terms of late-20th Century conspiracy theories, particularly those surrounding ufos, alien abductions and of course the now-legendary Roswell incident. Without giving too much away, Delta Green includes information concerning symbols suposedly found on the crashed Roswell saucer, wherein the source and function of said symbols are grounded in the now familiar time-and-space warping non-Euclidean geometries of the Lovecraftian cosmos. According to Delta Green's take on modern ufology, those that learnt the secrets of the saucer's language invariable went mad, died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Needless to say, Delta Green implicates the Greys as agents of Unseen Powers From Beyond.

All in all, I'd say that this case presents us with additional (albeit circumstantial) evidence of how Lovecraft's influence - via a roleplaying game - continues to be felt in contemporary ufological lore. This will probably feed into a forthcoming post of mine dealing with the controversial topic of roleplaying and the occult.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Hello Dave!

Dr. Dave Evans has recently returned to the UK and his new book (based on Dave's PhD thesis) exploring the contours of contemporary occultures post-Crowley is now available. Although I've yet to read Dave's book, I understand that Lovecraft gets a look in (presumably with regard to Kenneth Grant, whose work I believe form's a focal point of Dave's book). A review will hopefully appear here once I've had a chance to pick up a copy, but word is that this is defintely one not to miss so be sure to order your copy from Amazon forthwith

Dave will also be speaking at Treadwell's in August:

16 August 2007 (Thursday)
The Amado Crowley Phenomenon
Sons and Lovers
Dr Dave Evans
7.15 for 7.30 pm start

Amado Crowley claims to be the son of Aleister Crowley and has published numerous books on the alleged private teachings he received. Dave Evans has researched in detail the claims and proven biographical details of the individual in question. He lays out his findings on this night, and makes some remarks on wider issues raised: the role of the teacher, discipleship and hero-worship in Western occultism, as well as that sub-culture’s ideas on magical heirship, lineage and transmission. Dave Evans has recently completed a Ph.D at Bristol, the results of which are published in his History of British Magic After Crowley: Kenneth Grant, Amado Crowley, Chaos Magic, Satanism, Lovecraft, the Left-Hand Path, Blasphemy and Magical Morality (Hidden Design, 2007).

On a similar note, I will be revisiting 'The Occultural Lovecraft' at London's Moot With No Name (run by the redoubtable David V. Barrett and compered by the mighty Steve Wilson of 'Chaos Ritual' fame) on Wednesday 29th August 2007. More details to follow.

You're my wife now.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Back with a Vengeance II: The Profligate Weird

Perhaps as a consequence of the relatively recent ‘Weird Realism’ conference at Goldsmiths College, the concept of the ‘weird’ suddenly seems profligate online - particularly as a focal point of academic inquiry. It may be just me, but this seems a typical strategy of the academy (especially within the realm of the social and cultural ‘sciences’): namely the (jaded, populist) theoretical encompassing and championing of anything which smacks of the marginal, anomalous and oppositional simply as a consequence of said phenomenon’s perceived oppositional nature.

Academia is by its nature elitist and while I don't want to be accused of anti-intellectualism, the need to categorically define concepts such as ‘the weird’ and to erase any sense of the porousness of their boundaries smacks of a kind of 'colonisation of consciousness' and often prefigures the commodification and emasculation of said terms/concepts.

As an aside, I’m curious why the notion of ‘the weird’ (including the much vaunted ‘new weird’) has suddenly gained wide currency, particularly with regard to Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft seems to have used the term interchangeably with ‘the supernatural’ and also as an adjunct to - but in this instance not necessarily interchangeably with - his own cosmic indifferentism (granted, I might need to dig up some quotes to justify this). One wonders if there a danger lies in this tangential sideslip toward a concern with the weird: namely that of diverting attention from the more challenging problem of the cosmic (whose presence in Lovecraft's tales threatens to overthrow all categorical distinctions as the product of anthropocentric thought).

Back with a Vengeance I: Intellectual Decompression Chamber

It has come to my attention that misunderstandings about what I was banging on about at the Weird Realism conference continue to abound. No doubt this matters to no-one else other than my curmudgeonly very own self; but some recent disparaging remarks about Lovecraftian magicians coming from within the academy has left me with a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth, hence the following tirade: that Leftist academics (in whose company I generally, but not exclusively, count myself) actually seem to have a great deal of trouble grappling with the materiality of human agents when said agents intervene into the otherwise tidy abstractions of theory (most of which, it seems to me, have become increasingly distant and disengaged from the political realities of everyday life). This probably explains why I became an anthropologist, being generally better at dealing with people than I am with theories...

I'm also incredibly frustrated by the impenetrable Lacanian pseudo-psychology that informs much of the current intellectual critique of capitalism. Which is not to say that said theories and approaches do not have their value, but in most cases academics are working with incredibly outmoded, unsupportable or folk- theories of the mind (usually some variant of the tabula rasa) that have been left far behind by current research in neuroscience, the cognitive sciences more generally and (the ever unpopular) evolutionary psychology. That said theories are still presented as having explanatory power without, it seems, actually being testable compounds the problem.

That aside, an accusation made against Chaos magicians' that their position on Lovecraft was politically 'unsound' was, in any case, a position I myself expressed (or so at least I thought!) at the Weird Realism conference. Not wanting to detract from what was an excellent day, I must say that I'm still somewhat flummoxed as to why a number of the discussants failed to realised this. Ultimately, though, there is no-one to blame but myself and my inability to communicate ideas clearly and succinctly. Also granted that the theme of my paper seemed somewhat out of alignment with what the conference was supposed to be about. In any case, there seemed no point in mounting a 'defence' of my comments as at least two of the more challenging questions they raised appeared to reiterate the very points I was trying to put across.

Claiming that Chaos magical co-options of Lovecraft is ineffectual and politically unsound also demonstrates, to my mind, a deep rooted fear of the magical (itself a reiteration of capitalism’s own rationalizing discourse) which also ignores the potential ‘radicalism’ of magic and religion. This brings to mind the anthropologist Peter Worsley who, employing a Marxist analysis, attempted to demonstrate that millenarian movements in colonized areas such as Polynesia and Africa were not simply the responses of an ‘irrational’ peoples to colonization, but laid the foundations for later more overtly ‘politicised’ independence movements.

Given that the capacity to generate magic, religion and overtly fictional fantasies may very well intimately interlinked via our cognitive evolution, one wonders why academics thus deem fantastic and weird fiction worthy of investigation. Magic and the literature of the weird and fantastic participate in a shared field of relations. Indeed, much of what passes as ‘theory’ partakes of the fantastic to such a degree that I would consider much of it a form of ‘magical thinking’! On a final accusatory note, I really don’t see how the theorizing of the Left in and of itself constitutes an effectual alternative to capitalism, especially when it has come to constitute (at least for Luddites like myself) a form of cultural capital indented in the elitism of its own obscurantism.

Even so, I'm also feeling rather quixotic this morning so will try to respond (yet again) to how Chaos magickal appropriations of Lovecraft can be potentially 'revolutionary': identification with 'alien otherness' - whether through the embodiment of possession or whether simply reading sci-fi - has the capacity to transform consciousness and raise awareness through the adoption of a different position or perspective. (In this respect, Lovecraftian magick might even be considered to be an occultural variant of standpoint theory). If this is any different to what most politically-engaged academics are trying to do (albeit not very effectively given the aforementioned obscurantism that has spread with viral-like intensity throughout academic discourse) then I don't know what is.

Something else I have decided to address here is the fascistic overtones of Chaos magick - a point raised on the day of the Weird Realism conference. This is, indeed, a point that I have myself raised on occasion. They are certainly there, although on this point the blame again lies squarely on myself in highlighting apparent links between Chaos magick and right-wing occultures (though in fact most Chaos magicians of my acquaintance seem to be more left-leaning). The whole issue was initially exacerbated by my statement that Chaos magick involves the imposition of one's will upon the cosmos. In actual fact, Chaos magical practices tend (at least in theory) to emphasise the attunement of one's 'will' with the universe. In this respect, the notion of 'will' closely follows that of Crowley's; and rather than magick being an act of violent imposition, it is concerned (again) with the transformation of awareness: namely, unbinding oneself from dualistic assumptions about the universe and instead recognising the permeability between one's microcosmic self and the macrocosm. Of course, as an atheist and materialst I hold all of this to be hogwash; even so, as I think Patricia MacCormack argued in her recent paper at Treadwell's, notions of permability, of flux, of amorphousness found within Chaos magick (and particularly in its engagement with the Lovecraftian demonic) offer an alternative to phallocentric hegemony (at which point I have, of course, rendered myself guilty of using the same obscurantisms for which I just admonished the rest of academia...)

Rant over (if, indeed, that made any sense whatsoever). I do of course welcome comments to this post, but following the example of Mr. Alberelli don’t be surprised if I’m not of a mind to respond to them...