Perhaps this is what happened to the elves when mankind discovered magic? They moved deeper into the Otherworld.
JJ Abrams ruining Star Trek and Star Wars, Joss Whedon writing the one story over and over and over, Chris Nolan turning every superhero and villain into the same character… his own misogynistic, sado-fantasy.
Hollywood ruined by endless repeats and reboots.
Comics existing solely as loss-making testing grounds for ideas to turn into movies (that are quickly rebooted).
Evaporating TV audiences ruining the networks’ appetite for ambitious programming, bestseller lists dominated by celebrity cookbooks and sportsperson biographies.
As for the internet, the great hope of Alternativia?
Cats, bacon and spooks. (And more misogyny.)
It would be tempting to say “twas ever thus for the Seeker, now get back to work.” But that’s not quite it.
It is as if we have woken up one morning to find the ocean of inspiration is now two miles further out from the beach… leaving nothing but wet sand and flapping fish as far as the eye can see. (See above image for flapping fish.)
And whilst, in ages past, one might risk physical death for the pursuit of the Mysteries, for sources of inspiration that have been suppressed; today they aren’t suppressed, they are ruined.
Understanding the difference between suppression and ruination, commodification, is crucial. Welcome to the wasteland. Welcome to the Kali Yuga.
We turn first to so-called ‘Geek culture’, via an article Chris Knowles shared on Facestalk, about a reality programme I had previously never seen or heard of, Fangasm.
In reality (no pun intended), what we casually refer to as “geek culture” has in the last 10+ years ascended from a derided subculture to a massive consumer class actively serviced by virtually every commercial sector in America, a fact that’s put an existential challenge to the nature of “geekdom,” particularly its claim to underdog status. That Fangasm exists at all speaks to this notion of cultural currency, but unfortunately it’s the literal currency that is the most basic and base element of the entire Fangasm enterprise, which we discover is even faker than the kinds of series — to use the reality show parlance – it throws under the bus.
However, it is through Fangasm’s breathtakingly brazen expression of unreality and exploitation that we ultimately see the truth of how geek culture is understood by those to whom geeks pledge their once hard-earned allegiance, and perhaps by a generation of geeks themselves.
If we accept Fangasm as the reality of geek culture, then this reality is the worst of all possible timelines. It says geek culture isn’t a community of human beings brought together by a shared passion for interesting and creative things that have enriched their lives, but about reflexive, unchallenged brand loyalties; celebrity worship; and enduring social exile. It says that unlike the “guidos” of Jersey Shore or the artisans of Heroes of Cosplay or the cooks of Top Chef, there is nothing unique or special or misunderstood about being “a geek”; that geeks or fans or nerds or whatever you want to call them are at worst just the same bad stereotypes they’ve always been, and at best just ferocious consumers in Batman t-shirts.
There are two main challenges when it comes to examining “fringe inspiration”, like “Geek culture”. The first is that many of its cornerstone symbols (Batman, Superman) have, for much of their history, supported the dominant cultural and political agenda. So their deployment in service of our deranged, hyper-consuming, post-apocalyptic culture is not without precedent. As such, their role as nodes or rallying points for fringe groups has always been somewhat precarious.
Secondly, any discussion of the mainstream of Geek symbols very quickly gets hijacked. The level of sexism encountered -as if girls couldn’t possibly enjoy comics or sci fi novels or Blood Bowl- is genuinely better suited to the Saudi Arabian educational system. It is appalling and in no way matches my own experience of being a kid growing up playing tabletop wargames or Star Trek card games. There were girls everywhere. They were freaks to be sure (just like we were), but they were still girls.
My two Geek schoolfriends and I had to invent code words for discussing the previous evening’s episode of Star Trek back then. When one of the girls in our English class broke the code, it was like some kind of revelatory Christmas Day. The code wasn’t particularly sophisticated. The discussions were referred to as ‘The Masquerade’ after a certain vampire role-playing game, which, in hindsight, is sort of like concealing a paedophile by dressing him up as a priest. She was familiar with the game. She worked out what was on television the night before, as she had watched it, and boom. The rest is history. That weekend we were all listening to The Pixies and building Werewolf: The Wild West characters. (I don’t care what you say. I liked Werewolf: The Wild West. Go ahead and picture a bunch of Australian kids in a coal mining town pretending to be American Indian wolf spirits in their suburban attics. The nineties!)
The second challenge with discussing “Geek culture” -and let me assure you it is intimately related to the first- is the dominance of fat, loudmouthed Reddit-types whose militant atheism is scorching the earth of High Strangeness upon which our freak cathedral was once built. Talk about not knowing your own history!
This is the same earth scorching we see everywhere that genuine inspiration, truth, or expression might attempt to grow. You may be familiar with the Wikipedia Wars. Here are the demographic reasons why it is being waged:
Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-ranking quality scores.
The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.
Historically, the “Geek economy” had always been large enough to accommodate an ‘inspirational fringe of the fringe’. Don’t like Spiderman? There’s always Alan Moore. Don’t like AD&D? Try Wraith: The Oblivion. (DO NOT try Wraith: The Oblivion unless you want to be-haunt your own house. That game might be the actual Necronomicon. One in three times it would trigger poltergeist effects.)
Due perhaps in no small part to the collapse of the economics of content, I’m not convinced there is an ‘inspirational fringe of the fringe’ for the earnest Seeker anymore. And I’m not even sure that it matters at this stage of the game. It’s rather like asking the flight attendant if you can change your order from fish to chicken while the plane is crashing.
And that brings us to the second current in need of some higher ground… magic and the occult.
Musical ‘artists’ using alleged Illuminati symbolism, Peaches Geldof joining the OTO (actually, that one doesn’t bother me), the rise of appalling, occultish TV programming and… GASP… hipsters now practicing magic.
Leave it to the artisanal crowd to gentrify even that part of American life.
As Newsweek reports, the occult is now very much a thing for the kind of people who have also ruined popular music, home cooking, farming, and recreational drugs:
“Upwardly mobile millennials are often accused of being self-obsessed and afflicted with “special snowflake” syndrome, but that’s not the only reason more and more smart, savvy and usually cynical 18-to-30-year-olds are dabbling in the occult, from astrological natal charts and tarot to séances and full-moon ceremonies.”
Young hipsters are paying their rent by helping businesses “brainstorm” with tarot cards; buying $14 prayer candles from Urban Outfitters (Dios Mio! Don’t you people know where the botanicas are?); and clogging their tumblr dashes and Pinterest boards with pictures of seances and alchemical symbols. [More. Found via Lunar Barbecue.]
There may well be a temptation to look back into recent and less-recent history for examples of when mysticism was on trend. You had The Craft and Charmed in the nineties. You had Castaneda and channelling in the sixties and seventies, you had The Beatles and TM, you could make the case that the post-WWI fad for spiritualism was in a similar vein.
Yeah, that’s part of it. We’re definitely in a magic/psychedelic/AAT/Gnostic cycle not seen since the late nineties (and the late seventies/very early eighties before that). But actually, the precedent you should look for is Hoodoo. Stay with me on this.
A few years ago, I asked what magic comes from this unrest? In the Newsweek article referenced in the above quote, we read:
We’re currently in the middle of an occult revival, says Jesse Bransford, a New York University art professor who co-organized an occult humanities conference earlier this month. He sees a connection between increasing interest in the occult and postrecession anxiety. Magic “has always been a technique of the disenfranchised,” he says. “It’s something you do when the tools you have available don’t seem like they’re enough.”
Tarot is “super useful for clarifying my own confused feelings about where I’m headed or what I’m doing,” says Allison Chomet, a 23-year-old digital archivist in Philadelphia. Martha Windhal, a 30-year-old tarot reader in Los Angeles, says she’s always turned to tarot and astrology when things were difficult in her personal life; she started reading professionally after she graduated from college and couldn’t find a job. “They’re untapped resources when you feel like you have a loss of power,” she says. Business is so good that Windhal can pay her rent by booking private appointments and packed events—she recently did 40 consecutive readings one day at the New York Art Book Fair.
Occult revivals happen regularly throughout history and are often “intensely marginalized,” the Occult Humanities Conference’s website explains. But this time, the revival seems to be a crossover hit, going mainstream, as evidenced on screen—Witches of East End, Beautiful Creatures and American Horror Story: Coven are just a few of the witchy films and TV shows that debuted this year – and even on the fashion runways[.]
Is the revival going mainstream or is it that absolutely everyone is fucked? Magic flourishes in communities that have no other options, communities that are fucked. And today’s twentysomethings are fucked. We know this because we fucked them. They are in the first stages of separating the rescue mission from the salvage mission.
Blaming hipsters for ‘special snowflake’ syndrome is egregiously unfair as we are the snowclouds.
Do I personally wish this occult revival looked different? Yeah, obviously. The idea that there is a frikking waiting list for prayer candles at Urban Outfitters is just… so… ugh. But I choose to see this jam jar of microbrewed nettle ale as half full.
What did we expect the re-enchantment of modern culture to look like? Christianity began as a wacko mystery cult for freaks… and there was an inevitable signal loss as it scaled up into a mechanism of imperial control. That’s exactly what we are seeing here. But, in Christianity’s case, the common people still left offerings at wells and mystics still managed to have misinterpreted Magonian experiences.
Wherefore the Seeker?
Seeking will get harder. Get over it. We had a brief, postwar flowering of a culture that provided a comparatively unimpeded route to personal gnosis, but the empire struck back. (“Do you know what happens to a toad that gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) Did you honestly expect the Quest for your own Source would be like ordering a pizza on your iPhone?
Renaissance rules now apply. American protestantism has influenced popular magic to such an extent that ‘do the work’, in a very Calvinist sense, is the unthinking, unsophisticated response to everyone and every situation. It has escaped most discussions, however, that ‘do the work’ also applies to the armchair… now more than ever. So get better sources.
Next, I would suggest remembering Jonah and the whale. Think about it… Go ahead, archonic culture. Eat Batman, eat The Invisibles, eat Star Trek, eat Thor, eat Tolkien, eat Thelema. Go back for seconds. Be my guest. Sooner or later, it will find something that it can’t digest, and that thing will burst from its stomach, holding The Grail.
Following on, in an era of cultural bankruptcy, there is nothing for it but to give yourself a classical education. I don’t mean Aristotle, I mean They Live and The Earthsea Quartet. Perhaps ironically -which is only appropriate- the cure for the hipsterisation of magic is to go vintage.
Finally, be platform agnostic. Not only has the internet turned out to be a dubious saviour of inspiration and mystery, its existence as a unified space is coming to an end. Frankly, I don’t know where to look next, only that we know that we don’t know where to look next.
Which brings us back to the beach with the missing ocean. If you ever find yourself physically in such a situation, as my mother the psychonaut did in Tonga a few years ago before a tsunami, make for the hills. Oceans don’t stay missing for long.
I don’t know what’s up there, and you’re welcome to wait it out on the beach, but I’m going to seek the higher ground. What fish that remain aren’t worth the risk.