Guttershaman – Toolkits

Since I actually used the phrase ‘Way of the Guttershaman’ last time, I should say a bit more about what that entails.

The Way of the Guttershaman cannot be taught. But it can be learned.

God, that’s really fucking pretentious, isn’t it?

What I mean is, the Guttershaman approach is just that – an approach, a set of habits, a perspective for interacting with occult possibilities. A bricolage of weird shit. In short, a way of making your own toolkit for working magic using whatever fits.

The toolkit idea is one that’s important to me. I’ve written about it elsewhere, in my thoughts about what I call the Tribe of the Strange, that Outsider-fanboy-weirdo cohort that pops up every generation, and has to find it’s roots elsewhere than the mainstream of its birthplace society. The Guttershaman approach can be seen as a toolkit for the magic-using wing of the Tribe.

So, assuming you want to… how do you make a Guttershaman toolkit?

You start with metaphors.

The definition of magic I came up with in an earlier Guttershaman piece goes like this:

Magic is the means by which some observers can use and manipulate the patterns they observe to change the world.

This means you’ve got to look closely at how your personal patterns interact with the phenomenal world. It also means the more (and wider) varieties of patterns you’re familiar with, the more scope your explorations will have. More symbol-sets, more metaphors. Better, more complex tools – ranging from metaphorical mallets to jeweller’s screwdrivers. And, always, a good reliable multi-tool for use in a pinch.

Your multi-tool, to push the metaphor, is having a solid yet flexible set of symbols which relate well to each other and pack together neatly. This means that somewhere along the line, you’ll have to study one occult system or symbol-set in depth. In my case, it was the combination of Western Alchemy and its Sufi parallels/influences – but as long as it’s a system with a lot of built-in flexibility, and one that you can relate to on a deep emotional level, it doesn’t really matter which one it is (though of course which one you work with will strongly influence all your other tools). It is vital, however, that you ingrain it deeply. In order to gain a working knowledge of what other bits and pieces will work for you, you have to have something to compare them to – this system provides your baseline.

(Hate to resort to yet another hoary cliché, but it’s kind of like jazz – before you can successfully improvise, you have to be able to play the bloody tune properly.)

And of course having an actual multi-tool is a damn good idea too – along with it’s communications equivalent, a smartphone. (More on physical tools and props below.)

I’d also strongly recommend you learn a martial art – not a fancy dojo-only dance, but something you can actually use in a street fight. A -jutsu, rather than a -do,  in Japanese terms. Nothing grounds you quite so well as knowing you can defend yourself, and specifically that you can use your body’s energies (Ch’i, Ki etc) and apply them directly. A spell, in the Guttershaman model, is simply ch’i with instructions encoded into it – so learn to push the ch’i hard and precisely.  Also, knowledge of tactics and strategy has an awful lot of application in magic, especially at the pointy end.

(I only ever recommend one book on martial arts… because while you can’t learn martial arts from a book, you can learn strategy and tactics. That book is A Professional’s Guide To Ending Violence Quickly by Marc ‘Animal’ MacYoung. All the practical tactical and strategic advice you’ll hopefully ever need. Though a look at Sun Tzu & Musashi certainly won’t hurt.)

Most of your toolkit will be things that you use to get you in the mood for magic, to raise the ‘energy’ for you to use – sets of associations with particular emotional states, that you can draw upon at will. My love of movies and TV means that a whole bunch of mine come from those media. (For example, I’m especially fond of the use of tunes from soundtracks and scores as musical cues for particular head-states. Make the associations deep enough, and you don’t even need a MP3 player… humming or whistling a couple of bars will do the trick nicely.) Particular ‘ritual’ clothes and jewellery can have the same effect – a practice that’s been codified at least as far back as Crowley.

This brings me to the subject of props. The actual physical tools of your toolkit.

They should generally be the best quality you can afford, though preferably something that can be easily replaced – but, most importantly, they should be the most apt object for the purpose, not necessarily the most expensive or rare. Some of them you’ll want to make for yourself – other bits you’ll buy off the shelf, and maybe customise to your needs.

(Here’s a lovely example: magician Jason Miller based a magic wand around a shop-bought replica of Doctor Who’s Sonic Screwdriver… which he enhanced with an elemental ritual. Nice bit of work, that!)

But at the same time, you have to be able to improvise, to use whatever is to hand – relying on your bespoke kit is fuck all use if you don’t have it on you, or it gets lost, or the batteries run out. Your primary toolkit is the collection of symbol-sets your imagination associates with magic – and that improv skill should mean you can pick up any object with a rough-and-ready resemblance to what you need and treat it as the exact, perfect tool for the moment.

(There’s a handy mind-trick I like to use for that, taken from live-action roleplay. Often, an object in the physical world of the game is considerably less accurate-to-type than what it is imagined to be in the fantasy setting – say, a tennis ball in place of a Magic Missile. These lesser objects are called Phys-Reps – physical representations. Maintain a catalogue of the archetypal versions of your tools in your head – usually, they’ll be considerably better than any object you actually use anyway. For example, if you like using lightsabres in magic – and, honestly, who doesn’t? – even the most expensive replica will pale in comparison to the one in your imagination. Make and keep that detailed imagined version of every tool… and when needed, superimpose that pattern on whatever phys-rep you actually have. Bingo! Instant enchantment.)

The majority of the Guttershaman perspective is learning which symbols and metaphors work best for you. This doesn’t mean just settling for a few different sets and leaving it there – it’s about using whatever you learn and applying it to how you interact with The Weird. Every fiction, every news article or speculative science theory, every dumb meme and ancient myth, should be grist for your mill. There’s always room to learn more, to think differently, to upgrade your tools. But you should also strive to remember: Never mistake your toolkit for reality – and respect the toolkits, the paths and stories, of others. Learn from all other ways, share the best of your own.

The Shaman part of Guttershaman, for me, is always about taking those tools and using them to go into the Weird and come back with more tools, more ideas… to hopefully enrich the Tribe of the Strange – and especially, to protect it. Not everyone who works magic is a friend or ally. Not all practitioners share our views or have our needs. Some, frankly, are just spiteful vicious cunts. If you’re thinking the Guttershaman path makes sense to you, never forget that the primary duty of the Shaman is to defend their tribe from demons.

I’ve been looking here at how the Guttershaman’s mindset works – how to construct working mindsets and models inside your head. Next time, I’ll be looking at the stuff that’s outside your head, and how you deal with it.

The little things. Like, for example, gods.

 

Guttershaman – The Ultimate Secret of Magic

If ever a modern writer could be described as a legend in his own lifetime, it is Alan Moore. Already considered a genius for his reinvigoration of the comic book scene, he upped the ante considerably when he announced, at the age of 40, that he was now a magician. He’s been publicly out about this ever since – one notable aspect of his praxis is his claim to worship the Roman snake-puppet god Glycon – a deity who was probably a con-job. (There’s an excellent piece about the history and veracity of the Glycon story in this month’s Fortean Times – issue 276.)

Another notable aspect of how Moore’s magical working blurs alleged fact and supposed fiction is his story of how he met one of his creations – the working-class mage John Constantine – in the real world. Twice.

In 1993, he told Wizard Magazine of his first encounter with Constantine (whose appearance was initially based on the pop-singer Sting):

“One day, I was in Westminster in London – this was after we had introduced the character – and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut, he looked… no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.

“I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.”

His second meeting with John Constantine is described in his performance piece, Snakes and Ladders (adapted in comic form by Eddie Campbell and available as A Disease Of Language), and it’s of considerably more importance…

Moore said:

“Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’ “

In a later retelling of the latter story, featured in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (which can be seen on YouTube here), Moore adds that the second encounter took place in a ritual context. Nonetheless: whatever you believe about how ‘real’ the encounter was, those words are worth considering very carefully.

Any cunt could do it.

Let’s assume that this instance of ‘John Constantine’ was telling the truth – admittedly a bit of a stretch for a fictional character, especially one noted for being something of a con-man… but let’s go with it. Let’s also assume he wasn’t being literal about the ‘any cunt’ bit – in this context, from a working-class Englishman, it should be taken to mean ‘anyone’. Besides, it’s certainly true that the successful practice of magic is not limited to those with vulvas.

So – the ultimate secret of magic is that anyone could do it. No limits of race, gender, religion, caste or class. Especially, no limits on how rich you are – magic is so very often what the poor have instead of material wealth and power (or, sometimes, a route to same).  Sure, it’s nice to have bespoke kit, your own house, a selection of good quality incense, candles, knives and drugs… but it’s not necessary. You can do very effective magic stark bollock naked in a bare room with nothing but your Will and your bodily fluids. Trust me on that.

There are those, of course, who would insist that the expensive kit is not optional – or, at least, that it brings a puissance to the whole affair that a lash-up job lacks. This mode of thought was nicely skewered in Lionel Snell’s article Paroxysms of Magick and the immortal line about the OTTO – Over The Top Occultist;

When the 70’s occultist says “there’s no point in using a silver censer when a coffee tin serves just as well”, the OTTO initiate replies “there’s no point in using a coffee tin when a 800 year old human skull looted from the ruins of a Mexican temple serves just as well.”

(The point being that few could acquire that skull besides the rich… or a thief. Hermes being the god of both mages and thieves, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Personally, I restrict my thievery to ideas…)

Magic is principally an act of applied symbolism – try hard enough and any concave surface is a chalice, any stick a wand. The shinier they are, the easier it may be to convince yourself of that – but it’s not actually necessary. That act of applied imagination can be done by anyone who wants to try it. It’s that universality, that ‘democratic’, equalizing aspect to magic that’s so important – and it often gets swept away in the Newage merchandise, the expensive tomes and especially the insistence that in order to do magic you have to be special.

I would say instead – you have to become special. The means to accomplish this are varied – and the how-to manuals are out there, prices ranging from ‘how much?’ to free-to-download. Any cunt could find it…

There’s another quote I love – and it’s perhaps apt that the source is a bit blurry:

“Magic is the defense of the self against the malevolence of society.”

-John O’Keefe

To be a magician is, at heart, a rejection of the societal definition of normality. It is a standing-apart from the accepted rules of the game. A consecration of self… regardless of externally accepted status. A rebuke to the ideas of privilege – be it privilege by reason of birth, by wealth or by habit. Deciding that your imagination and willpower have import and can affect the world and making it stick, whatever you’ve been told about Knowing Your Place.

The trouble is, of course, that the world of the Normal can still utterly and easily crush you, magic or no. No matter how well they chanted, the Native American practitioners of the Ghost Shirt ritual did not become bulletproof. But maybe a spell on a Level III ballistic vest might make it a tiny bit more effective… just enough to count.

I’ve said it before – although what goes on inside a magician’s head (and, occasionally, outside it in ritual space) is enormous and epic, the actual physical-world effects are usually minimal – tiny shifts in probability, a little tickle in a person’s mind at just the right moment… small changes with large knock-on events. A little bit of power, in (hopefully) just the right place.

The poor and weak and disenfranchised don’t have a lot of clout, but they can make the best use of what they’ve got. The Way of the Guttershaman, if you like. Having the posh kit will not make you a better magician, ever. Making the best, most creative use of the ideas, the symbols and mythologies – of your own breath and ch’i and sheer stubbornness – will. Those tiny changes can be made to grow, become stronger and/or better timed. All it takes is practice, working at it and keeping your connections to the Real and the Imaginal intact – too much of the former results in failure, too much of the latter leads to the egomania of mageitis.

Any cunt could do it. That doesn’t mean anyone can (or even that they should) – just that they – you – could.

And to anyone who tells you otherwise, for whatever reason… well, I’ll leave that to John Constantine.

 

Building Character 3 – Character Flaws

 

“I know what it’s like to feel unequal to the task required of you… to feel incapable. I’ll never be the man I was, but I’ve come to embrace those parts of my mind that are… peculiar and broken. I understand now that’s what makes my mind special. I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. You have no idea how extraordinary you are. If you can embrace that, there’s no end to what you can do.”

— Walter Bishop, in Fringe


Last time I was considering how pop-culture can inform (and occasionally misinform) one’s personality, especially for those of us whose interests in the spiritual lead us to draw on fictional sources. I asked;

“…when you’re actively trying to build or rebuild your personality around such a basis… what do you do?” How, exactly, does it work when you’re using riffs from multi-media as a way to explore and expand your personality?

Luckily, as I was writing, a perfect example came up. (Synchronicity is, as ever, the magician’s main ally.)

The above quote is from the penultimate episode of the third season of Fringe. For those who haven’t seen the series, (and I really recommend you do) it’s an odd little show which has grown from a monster-of-the-week X-Files vibe into a complex and emotionally satisfying piece of science fiction TV with a lot to recommend it. The quote comes from a scene where two of the protagonists are working on a dangerous problem which can only be solved by the harnessing of the suppressed psychic abilities of one of them, FBI Agent Olivia Dunham – powers which were induced during her childhood by the other, a full-blown Mad Scientist named Walter Bishop.

Walter is, to put it mildly, a broken man. A genius in several fields and a pioneer in the realm of fringe science, he’s no stranger to mind-altering drugs, spend seventeen years in a mental home and has had several pieces of his brain removed – apparently as his own behest. He has caused immense harm to Olivia in the past, but despite this they have become allies and uneasy friends.

I wept when I first saw that scene. Pure absolute recognition. It was like those words had been written to pierce straight through to my soul.

Of course, they weren’t. Despite the fact that I occasionally entertain as a useful exercise the thought-experiment of The Invisibles’ Mason Lang, that certain bits of pop-culture were created as messages and instructions for the rebellious and inquisitive, I don’t actually think that there’s a hidden Hollywood cadre of illuminated beings beaming Pure Truth to the Worthy. But sometimes it really feels like there is.

The parts of my mind that are, as Walter says, peculiar and broken, have a shape to them. And  sometimes, a film or movie or book or piece of music seems to fit into one of the gaps, drop into place almost seamlessly – and part of me that was incomplete and gaping open and raw feels, even if just for a moment, whole. I think that part of our development as people, what Jung called Individuation, is a process of finding such pieces, trying them out, seeing if they fit. Tessellation of the soul.

That’s why I don’t feel that incorporating a whole personality or a single mythos into your head works terribly well. We’re all of us broken and incomplete and flawed in different ways. I suspect that in most cases, dropping an entire fiction-suit over the top of all that doesn’t actually help to repair the holes, it just covers them up for a while. Band-Aids on arterial spray. It would, I think, be a terrible idea to just become Walter Bishop, even though he’s  one of the most delightful characters in modern television – he pisses himself occasionally, has crazed rants at supermarket packaging, makes terrible decisions that have catastrophic consequences… and, like all such people from all such worlds, he’s incomplete in a significant way, because he’s a fiction. Even more than the rest of us ‘real’ people. Drawing on these archetypal figures for wisdom and guidance, maybe even for the odd quirk or habit, is a good and useful start, but it’s just a start… because their creation is so very different from ours. Their strengths and deeds, flaws and weaknesses are not the same. Similar enough to be useful, but only in part.

I also think that it’s the very act of adapting to our flaws and weaknesses that constitutes spiritual and mental growth. But for that to happen, there has to be a wound to heal.

I don’t know a single person who’s a practitioner of magic or other spiritual exercises who has not, at some point, suffered greatly. Health problems, abuse, being outcast – these are so common among the Tribe of the Strange as to practically be signs of membership. It’s more than possible, I think,  that it’s these traumas – and, more importantly, how the survivor of them adapts and grows to compensate for them – that are where the magic enters. All shamanic systems rely on shock as a means of initiation – an attempt, I suspect, to induce these fractures into people to let the light in.

(This doesn’t always work, either when deliberately induced or accidentally endured. There are plenty of folk out there who are broken and this just doesn’t happen for them. The other factors involved are variable in the extreme. Plus, it makes an awfully convenient excuse for power elites to harm others in the name of Illumination and initiation. Nothing’s perfect.)

For those of us who are broken in this particular way, there’s usually some combination – between the yearning for greater completeness, connection with others and the world, and the initial breach – which makes for a mage, a shaman, a seeker. My own journey on that Path quickly led me to realise that wisdom, guidance – tools – can come from anywhere the soul can recognise as true. That fits those broken places.

This scene from Fringe not only speaks directly to that, but perfectly encapsulates it for me. It won’t for others. That may be the entire point. But if you’re one of the broken ones, one of the Tribe of the Strange… seek your stories, your metaphors, your Truths (the good ones are usually plural) and share them, compare them with others, regardless of their background and beliefs. We can only grow by combining our stories, our toolkits… using them to change our minds, literally.

And, like Walter Bishop said – if you can embrace that, you can be extraordinary.

 

Olivia: I know that you want to believe in me, and I want to believe in me. But believing doesn’t make it true.

Walter: Just try.

Fringe


 

Building Character 2 – Staying In Character

(Part 1 is here.)

 

Why don’t you be like me?

Why don’t you stop and see?

Why don’t you hate who I hate, kill who I kill to be free?

-The Monkees, Randy Scouse Git

 

Last time, I was talking about how pop-culture aspects are a viable source of inspiration, or even workable as a basis, for one’s personality. I also mentioned that sometimes this can go very wrong indeed.

Here’s an example.

 

Around British SF fandom in the 80s, there was a person who was known (behind her back – fandom, like any group, has its’ cliques and bitching) as Ratwoman. She was called this because of her hobby of keeping rats as pets. Now I’m not going to gainsay that as a hobby – I’ve kept fancy rats myself and found them amiable companions – but she kept (so the story went) over fifty of the buggers and let them run all over her house, with the attendant hygiene issues that implies.

 

Ratwoman was also, like many in the scene, an enthusiastic participant of the occult/pagan fringe of fandom. Her preferred mythos was Pern – the realm of telepathically-bonded dragon-riding heroes in the books of Anne McCaffrey. As you can imagine, Ratwoman getting to meet the author herself was quite an important moment… which she spent explaining exactly to McCaffrey what the books had got wrong about Pern, on the basis that Ratwoman had been there and knew better.

 

I’ve written about Otherkin before, and it’s a position I’ve a lot of sympathy with. I certainly understand from my own experiences the feeling of being so very different from everyone else around you that you really don’t feel, or want to be, human. Around the same time as the Ratwoman story, I was involved with a group of people in fandom who, before the term Otherkin was even coined, identified as being the reincarnation of Tolkienesque elves. (I wasn’t an elf. I had a whole blurry mythos of my own going on at the time, part-Lovecraft, part-Illuminatus. But we got on.) It’s a compelling feeling, that combination of outsider and tribe-member. So I completely get the idea of inhabiting a myth-structure that completely. But at the same time, I can’t help but see just how fucking presumptuous it is to tell the creator of said mythos, “You’re Doing It Wrong”.

 

(Now, if we want to get picky, the possibility that Ratwoman was right has to be mentioned… anyone who’s familiar with Alan Moore’s theory of Ideaspace could raise the possibility that there is a Ur-Pern out there in the imaginal realm, and that some folk could conceivably make contact with it. Or even that Pern, faults and all, truly does physically exist somewhere in deep space and she actually did pick up some telepathic vibe coming from it, or even translated her soul there in some manner. Nonetheless; if nothing else, going up to the person who is pretty sure they actually invented that world with overriding declarations of your version of their reality is, at the very least, impolite and tacky.)

 

I mentioned before that fannish excesses of this type, roleplay in every sense, can provide a useful place to experiment with the tenets of our personalities – and even in the face of such extreme examples as above, I believe that’s a useful and rewarding thing. But a necessary stage of that process is that sometimes, you have to leave the scenario. You have to step away. Or your personality becomes subsumed by the role.

 

It’s a particular problem for occultists. At some level, practicing magic is the assumption that your imagination can directly shape the universe. The problem there is that, if you don’t constantly cross-check what goes on inside your head with what goes on outside it, you’ll fall into the trap of what I call mageitis – spinning exquisite worlds in your mind of which you are the absolute ruler, while  living in your mum’s basement covered in fast-food stains, B.O. and ennui. This is difficult enough for anyone – neurologically, we’re hard-wired to treat metaphor as very close to reality – so unless you work hard at this, the possibility of being swallowed by the fiction is constant.

 

(Somebody once tried to gently question Ratwoman’s view of reality. She responded angrily that the person was so negative that they had “a grey psychic cloud the size of Moscow” over their head. Another danger of mageitis is hyperbole.)

 

Actors have known this for a long time. Examples of the performer being absorbed by the role abound – Jeremy Brett’s tragic battle with the Sherlock Holmes archetype is an especially sad one. The smart performers develop a balance, either a Method-based give-and-take of being completely in character and then fading back to themselves, or (mostly) never forgetting that it’s just acting, luvvy. But when you’re actively trying to build or rebuild your personality around such a basis… what do you do?

 

All personality has a performative aspect to it. Sometimes, all of us feel like the mere act of being ourselves is just too much bloody work. But I can’t help thinking that to just copy an entire personality-type, or character, or mythos from another – be it fact or fiction – is just plain lazy. I suspect a lot of that is an attempt to paper over perceived or actual flaws in one’s personality, bridging a gap between what you are and what you’re told you should be. It’s really easy to just pull on a costume, a fiction-suit, and call it good-enough.

 

Maybe it would have been easier if I’d just done that. But the cracks and flaws, the bits that didn’t fit, were either too big or the wrong shape.

 

And, I was increasingly suspecting, maybe those cracks and flaws actually had a purpose.

 

 

To be concluded…

 

 

The fall of mass culture, the rise of meaning

Stowe Boyd’s piece of this title is a response to comments about the shifting nature of modern advertising, in a piece by Arianna Huffington. But Boyd has something a little wider on his mind…

The decline of mass culture that is going on in the Western world is the direct consequence of the splintering of media and our defection from the communities that mass media defines.
The other day I saw Pew numbers showing that almost nobody below 25 watches local TV news anymore, for example. Which doesn’t mean that these folks are uninformed about what’s going on, but that the ‘imagined community’ that local TV broadcasting tries to conjure into being simply doesn’t exist for them.
The ‘message’ of mass  media is not about Iraq, American Idol, or the NY Yankees: it’s mass identity. And when people turn away from mass media — and mass advertising — they aren’t just becoming unaware of the goings-on on some reality show, they are walking away from belonging to a collection of cultural aspirations and obsessions.
And what fills the void for those that operate outside the limits of mass media, which are market-facing, and market-oriented? What happens when you aren’t bombarded with car ads, when you stop listening to music about bling and champagne, or you stop subscribing to fashion magazines telling you what to buy and wear?
One thing is clear: people’s extra-market motivations start to come to the surface. People begin to care more about connection in communities, the state of the world, and, at the most fundamental level, a meaning for existence.
This is being called social marketing. It’s a good term, for perhaps conflicting reasons. First, people associate ‘social’ with ‘social causes’, meaning ‘societal causes’ in a philanthropic sense. But more importantly, this marketing will take root in social media, where our connections to each other — the social context — is as important as the content.
This need for meaning often is trivialized as becoming cause-oriented, but our involvement in causes is the outgrowth of our desire to live meaningful lives, instead of as consumers.
I don’t mean this is some fuzzy spiritual way, some obsession with enlightenment or finding a path to heaven, but on a very practical day-to-day level. It comes down to this: How are we to spend our time, and what is worth being involved in?

He’s pretty much describing a lot of the key motivations and preferred actions of the Tribe of the Strange. And I think he realises that this sort of media-manipulation and the inevitable detournement it will provoke are just the sort of things the streets will find a use for. Or, that the Tribe already have.

Building Character, part 1 – Character Sheet

…state my assumptions.” – Darren Aronofsky, Pi.

 

All of my writing, from my earliest diary notes to Guttershaman and beyond are, at heart, an attempt to explain & justify my perspective of the world to others in a coherent and hopefully interesting way. That perspective is… hard to explain simply. But here goes, again:

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I was a lower-working-class kid with a weird-shit-inclined mind. The laddish, beer-and-footie culture of my surroundings was not exactly comfortable (or even comprehensible) to someone like me. Lacking a set of positive influences in childhood that were amenable to my… soul I suppose, I had to find my own where I could. I found ’em in books, films, TV – SF/horror, occult and Forteana were the places where I found perspectives that simply weren’t available in my given culture. (It’s fortunate that my parents were not strongly religious…)

In those days – I’m talking the late Sixties/early Seventies – being into this stuff was like a red flag to pretty much every bully in school. I was The Weird Kid. The Odd Boy Who Doesn’t Like Sport. The Target.

Weird Kid survived, left school and home as soon as possible, learned some nasty martial arts, met others like him & continued to construct his personality out of bits from here and there. Eventually, there came a point where I sussed that I was far from being the only person who did so – or, rather, not the only person who would admit it.

(Most of us do it unconsciously, by osmosis – picking up social cues and tells from others. Many simply become mental clones of their parents’ beliefs and attitudes with very little variation – and people like that really don’t understand or condone people like me.)

I had defined my personality, my character, for myself – as it were. But that was just the start of the process. When I began meeting others who’d done pretty much the same, in the SF fan culture, I found my first true friends. (Even messed-up loners need a few friends.) The things that drew us together were Fan things – cons, pubmeets, zine-making… but in the midst of all this was the pleasure of finding the crossover between various factions – how many in the fan community were also into magic or kinky sex or tabletop RPGs. All of those have that roleplay thing in common – its universally found in those realms. We find the bits that work for us & abide by them. We rehearse them in a relatively safe space – be it a gaming table, a BDSM scene or a convention. And both our personality and our spirituality develop out of those rehearsals.

One of the biggest criticisms of this kind of approach to personal spirituality is that it’s ‘pick n mix’. It’s not always – sometimes a movie or music or film or movement really seems to pick us. And the right ones speak to us deep in our souls, like members of the faiths we rejected say their god speaks to them.

The big difference is that, unlike those with a received belief system, we can speak back to those parts of ourselves: game them, field-test them, befriend them; get the various bits to blend into, or share, mindspace. (At best… have them not squabble constantly, at worst. Well, worst this side of either monomania for whichever model you’ve developed… or simple raving psychosis, often followed by fleeing to a fundamentalist belief. Or full-blown multiple-personality disorder…)

The modern world – at what point you start to date that from is a tricky question – is a place where many are actively avoiding the traditions of the past, especially those of their parents, faith and culture. The Postmodern model gives a certain flexibility in doing so. My path to alleged adulthood is one way to do it – there are others.

But why? Why bother with all this? Why not just accept given wisdom, time-tested ways and paths? The reason for not just blindly accepting the Old Ways is that those ways, the Grand Narratives, have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. Unworthy.

(The fact that many not only abide by these institutions but wish to make them more conservative, more hidebound & dogmatic, is sadly clear – and to me, it’s just as clearly a reaction akin to future shock… running away from the complex range of ideas available, wanting to be told a relatively reassuring Single Truth to follow.)

I think every generation produces kids who just don’t fit their immediate culture – my beloved Tribe of the Strange. I was a fairly extreme case, but not as extreme as some. Where else can kids like I was go to find authenticity, when the ‘authentic’ past paths are shown to be fake at worst, riddled with hypocrisy and venal bias at best?

Once you decide your identity will not simply be a copy of your given kin and culture, you have to make it out of what you find. Affinity groups – fandoms, clubs, gangs, even political parties & churches & protest movements. The stories and songs and moments that stir genuine wonder or terror or other such highly educational, imprint-producing emotions. And once they set in and become your personality core, it doesn’t matter if they’re recent, or jigsaw, or even based on the whole cloth of pop culture and cheesy newage – they’re YOU.

Trouble is, once that’s set, you’re just another bundle of dogma – it’s just a different dogma from your dad. And adding in new layers over this – of fashion (or ironic rejection of fashion) or cause, doesn’t actually help the core.

The tools of chaos magic & multimodel approach – the occult version of applied postmodernism – provide some adaptability in this… but also offer traps to get stuck in, like any set of beliefs.

What makes the difference between a person who consciously sets out to explore alternate models of thought, dress, action as self-improvement, and one who draws on all the same sources just for sake of irony or peer-group membership? Attitude. The ironic hipster stance is a shallow thing. The search for ones authentic self through pop culture, SF & horror & comics & movies & games & even new religious paths can be valid.

It can also be utter wankery.

 

More, inevitably, later…

 

 

 

 

It Gets Better – if you make it so

Two things…

A quick plug for my review of the Grant Morrison – Talking With Gods film, which is up at Plutonica.net

But more importantly, this:

Of all the many videos that have come along as a result of the It Gets Better campaign, many of which were moving and well-intentioned, this is the one that really hit home for me. It’s from the Scottish SF writer Hal Duncan. It’s sweary as fuck and kind of vicious. It’s also one of the few which notes that to a suffering, bullied teen, a bunch of folk telling you It Gets Better might not actually be that helpful to hear.

Hal’s approach brings the passion of bitter experience to the question. I think it’s a rant every bullied kid, every potential member of the Tribe of the Strange – gay, straight or whatever – could stand to hear. Take it away, Hal:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpiWXBDgS9k]

(Thanks to Jon Courtenay Grimwood for first sharing the link)

I have been …Weaponized

(Weaponizer logo design by Paul Sizer. This and similar goodies available here.)

One of the many creative offshoots of the Warren Ellis battery farm for genial artists, writers and other wonderful passionate madfolk that mortals call Whitechapel is the group writing blog Weaponizer. Under the kindly eye of Bram E. Geiben aka Texture, it’s set a very high standard of work in a short time.

So last weekend I thought I’d try submitting a piece for them, see if I was ready to play with the big boys and girls.

Seems the piece – Tribe of the Strange: Origin Myth – went down OK. Enough for Bram to invite me onto the team as a staff writer, working the Fortean and occult beat.

I am beyond chuffed to be doing this. I have huge respect for all there and hope my mad point of view finds a home among them.

First piece as staff writer – Frequently Asked Questions about Weird Shit – went live this evening. Hope you like my new(ish) direction…

(To come at WPNZR – more rumbling on about oddness and hopefully the birth of the Mason Lang Film Club!)

And here, the next Guttershaman – “…of Jedi and Jail” – coming soon.

Guttershaman – Of Avatar and Otherkin…

“…stories dramatize ideas and truths that we all intuitively recognize. Although these stories are not exactly ‘true’, they nonetheless offer a kind of Truth that is more compelling than hard facts.”

Rabbi Cary Friedman, ‘Wisdom from the Batcave

“Believe nothing,
No matter where you read it,
Or who has said it,
Not even if I have said it,
Unless it agrees with your own reason
And your own common sense.”

The Buddha

———————————

It’s an interesting time to be writing about belief and religion.

Consider, for example, the Avatar Otherkin.

Otherkin, for those of you who’ve not come across the concept, are people who believe they are (in some sense, be it spiritually or literally) non-human. There are lots of variations of this belief – some feel they are elves, vampires (in all flavours from Anne Rice-y to Twilight-ish), werewolves or dragons – others believe they are entities from what we usually call fiction – such as inhabitants of the Matrix, anime characters… or, recently, Na’vi from Pandora.

I trust I don’t have to explain what Avatar is.

What’s especially interesting to me (as someone who not only has a lot of sympathy for people looking to fiction for their spiritual metaphors but also who was involved with Otherkin earlier in my occult life) is not just how quickly this particular strain of Otherkin have emerged, but how vehement some of them are concerning their rights.

The Na’vi Anti-Defamation League were founded only a few weeks after the film was released. Their purpose is “to monitor and take action upon groups and individuals who are promoting hate speech and anti-Na’vitism against fans, Na’vi-kin, and followers of Eywa.” Now admittedly they’re a small group on Live Journal… but nonetheless, that they exist at all is interesting to me.

Why Avatar was the film which stimulated such strong feelings – among many people world-wide, not just the rather specialised area of the Otherkin community – is of course not entirely known. Some have suggested it was the exaggerated realism of the immersive 3D environment and computer graphics, or that its (to some folk) rather diluted version of classic mythological themes allows it to appeal to a wide range of viewers – or it could be simply that it’s the biggest hit movie of our time. For whatever reason, it’s become a major metaphor – to the point where Palestinian protesters in Gaza dressed as Na’vi when on protest.

After seeing Avatar, I have to say that all the criticisms – from plagiarism to white guilt – have justification. (A nice cumulative bitchslap version of them all here.)

But, you know, Smurf Pocahontas jibes aside… parts of the film still made me weepy with the sheer mythic aptness of it all. That much-maligned plot – a crippled warrior, twin of a dead scholar, seeks healing & truth in another world he enters through (more-or-less) lucid dreaming, finds magic powers after trials and ends as a fusion of his old and new cultures – None More Miffick.

You can certainly make a case that Na’vi spirituality is a watered down appropriation, a morass of once truly authentic cultural memes reduced to their lowest common denominator… but probably not to someone like me, whose view of the value of authenticity in mysticism is, shall we say, a tad harsh. It could be that the diluted Deep Green/Gaia Consciousness of Avatar simply fits some folk better than anything that other mythos of the world can offer.

And of course you could also make a case that Otherkin – Avatar or otherwise – are just mad. That they’re taking their imagination and wish-fulfilment too far, that they’re just sad fanboys-and-girls who’ve played one too many role-play games.

I wouldn’t.

For one thing – every religion or belief system looks crazy from the outside. All of them. Yes, even yours.

For another, these sort of beliefs are not only becoming more prevalent, but they’re also starting to be recognised as a legitimate expression of spirituality in our post-modern (and increasingly – I hope! – post-Judaeo-Christian) world. The sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai has coined the term “Hyper-Real religions” to describe them, and I’ll be coming back to that idea much more in later posts. Short version for now – people trying to seek meaning in a world where trust in traditional top-down belief structures has failed them often look for new myths to try and work out just who they are. They’re often a lot less picky about how ‘true’ something is for it to be ‘real’ to them… and there’s an awful lot of mythos to choose from these days. The end result – Otherkin, the Jedi religions and much else.

The Tribe of the Strange has a lot of overlapping sub-groups. The Venn diagram for ‘SF fan’, ‘occultist’, ‘tabletop role-player’, ‘BDSM/kink practitioner’, ‘polyamorist’, ‘Pagan’, ‘computer programmer’, ‘comic book reader’, ‘cosplayer’ etc. will often show a lot of people in any one category having at least two of the others going on. Unsurprisingly, they all feed into each other… so that, for example, the roleplayer  – whether in the form of tabletop or computer gaming or sexual exploration – will see a parallel between what they do in that state-of-mind and carry it across to their spirituality. (And if you’ve not yet experienced the kind of intensity which a good role-play session can create, the heightened unreality that nonetheless feels, at the time at least, utterly true and real… then your opinion is, shall we say, uninformed.)

But like any bunch of tribes, there’s a certain amount of internecine warfare going on among the conversations between them. (Drop words like ‘furry‘ or ‘Gorean‘ into some of those conversations, for example…) The degree of snottiness involved usually stems from one group having a perceived status over the other – of being more ‘real’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘proper’ or, my old fave, ‘authentic’. But there’s a phrase from one of those overlapping groups that fits pretty well here.

Your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.

Why not draw inspiration from a myth you know isn’t based on fact? Why does that idea harm your beliefs? For some folk, it just suits them more than the half-true (at best), ‘legitimate’ religions of the world. Some mystics would bluntly state both come from the same source (one version of which is Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace). Some would even say it’s more honest than insisting a blurry, ancient myth structure is unassailable truth. At worst, it’s a new perspective, a different angle from which to view the numinous signals that inspire all faith. (Assuming of course that you’re not one of those believers who’s utterly certain theirs is the One True Way…)

There’s nothing at all wrong with drawing on avowedly fictional sources for definitions of your personality, mysticism, even sexuality. The trick is, as I’ve said often before, being able to step away from that viewpoint from time to time, to consider it as if real, not as real. And to be fair, many of those who identify as Otherkin do so. It’s nowhere near as simple as these people suddenly deciding they’re a dragon and not actually thinking about what that entails…

From my experience in these realms, that’s actually hard to do. There’s something deeply attractive, even intoxicating, about getting some confirmation that not only are you not like everyone else, but that there are people similar to you who feel much the same way. The dichotomy of being an individual and being part of a tribe, combined. For me, finally, it was a good and beneficial place to visit, but I couldn’t stay there. For others, it’s a perfect fit. Same could be said of any faith or perspective, really.

But there’s no question that once you permit the possibility of a belief based on fiction having as much validity in consensual reality as established religions, all sorts of interesting problems occur.

Such as the one which sounds an awful lot like a bad joke, that starts “this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…

More on that next time…

“The movie is the modern equivalent of oral tradition. The indigenous people would transfer their theology and ancestral through storytelling. Those stories were mythological from modern standpoint, but still maintained identity in their cultures. Avatar is our equivalent of oral tradition.”

http://nadl-org.livejournal.com/1011.html

———————-

Post Script:

I’m far from the only occultist to note and draw inspiration from the Otherkin – the clear leader in this field is Lupa, whose drawing together of the Otherkin impulse and older shamanic aspects (such as shape-shifting) is well worth your time. Start here with her piece on Shamanism & Subjectivity. This old thread at Barbelith is also worth reading.

If you feel drawn to looking at the Otherkin community further, you could do worse than looking at the forums at Otherkin.com. But if you’re going to comment, don’t be so impolite as to troll or stir it – for one thing, they’ve heard it all before.

And a big retrospective thanks to the Elves – you know who you are…

Guttershaman Halloween Special – The Gutter Press and the Tribe of the Strange

 

 

“The majority is always sane.” – Larry Niven, Ringworld

 

“Happy Halloween, ladies… Nuns – no sense of humour.” – The Kurgan, in Highlander

 

——————————————————————

 

All my life, the stories that have spoken to me have invariable been from what are usually considered the ‘lesser’ kinds of storytelling – science fiction, comics, B-movies, horror, fantasy.

 

Why?

 

Mostly because I can more readily identify with the characters. The mainstream and ‘literary’ works I’ve read are about people who are utterly unlike me and those I know and care about. Their concerns (blood relations, conventional seductions, party politics, capitalist greed – in other words, the consensus reality called ‘normality’) are not my concerns. The people who are my heroes and inspiration in fiction are ‘larger than life’ – because my life, though not on the same scale as such figures, is still far closer to those ‘unreal’ tales than to the ‘real life’ ones. Being a magician in a world which mostly doesn’t believe in magic will do that, I guess.

 

I also think that genres which allow room to step outside contemporary society and look at it from an angle have far more to offer than those which reside utterly within it – it’s something at which SF and horror, at their best, excel. And that reading SF and other fantastical genres specifically stretches your brain in beneficial ways that mainstream works simply cannot do (one benefit seems to be a kind of memetic inoculation against Future Shock – once you’re used to considering complex multiple universes and ideas in your reading matter, rapid change of information and wider ranges of ideas in the physical world become so much easier to assimilate).

 

It’s not easy being at such a remove from consensus reality. Even ignoring the scorn (and occasional bullying) it can attract, just finding people you can talk to who Get It, who share some of your perspective and have read those same weird writers, seen the same odd films, was an uphill struggle. It’s easier now of course – the internet has made fandom much more accessible than back in the day when the only way to contact other fans was through mimeographed zines and occasional conventions. And though those folk are not always people I can get along with, I still feel a stronger affinity for them than those who stick to the mainstream of thought and art.

 

(It’s worth noting that there’s a huge overlap between fandom groups and other Outsiders – roleplay gamers, sexual and gender explorers… and, of course, magicians.)

 

Sometimes, I think of it as being a member of the Tribe of the Strange. Those (to adapt a quote from SF writer Bruce Sterling) “whose desires do not accord with the status quo.” And though inhabitants of that tribe do indeed work, love, make families and strive for some kind of everyday stability on which to base their existence, their idea of what that entails – and the values they espouse – are often qualitatively different from those of the mainstream.

 

It’s not simply a matter of the knee-jerk opposition to/rejection of the mainstream (though there’s always an element of that going on, I suspect). It’s more that there’s a greater breadth of possibility outside it. And it’s certainly not saying that those who live within the mainstream are inferior or wrong – just that other possibilities exist and can be just as valid (or more so to those who the mainstream consider outsiders). And some of us prefer to live in that tribe far more than any of the ones offered by the Normal world.

 

Interestingly, ever since the outpouring of the counterculture in the 1960s if not before, those stories and underground ideas have become more and more part of the mainstream. We’re now at a point where the most popular books ever written are fantasies about magicians and vampires, the best-selling movies are about robots, superheroes, spaceships and aliens. Yet somehow there’s still that disdain for the ‘Fantastika‘, both from ordinary people (who find it ‘weird’) and the academic intelligentsia (who find it ‘common’).

 

Co-opting of the counterculture is something that’s gone on for a long time, but the pace of it has increased rapidly as the mainstream has begun to run out of ideas. But what gets pulled into contemporary mainstream culture is of necessity diluted and superficial. And lacking in imagination – the fuel that drives both genre writing and magic… and which seems to be peculiarly limited in mainstream and literary writing. (After all, how much imagination does it really take for a middle-aged college professor to write a novel about the sexual desires of a middle-aged college professor?)

 

While out for a walk during the writing of this, I overheard a conversation which ties into this nicely.

A young-ish upper-middle-class couple, chatting after visiting a friend, who they were talking about:

“He’s just so… so unconventional“, they said. “I sometimes wonder if he’s got a screw loose.”

Unconventional equals insane? For a lot of folk, that’s about right. Showing even a tiny deviation from the Normal is an invitation to scorn, rejection – even violence.

 

But what the hell is ‘normal’, anyway?

 

To anyone who’s paid attention to history (and is not part of a religious or political tribe which rejects examining the past through any filter but their own) the definition of normality is a mercurial thing – changing constantly, no more solid and immutable than fashion. But all those definitions of normal have to be about stability, conservative (small ‘c’) attitudes, preservation of the status quo – and I do see the necessity of that. But at the same time, there needs to be room for outliers from that majority view, or the culture/tribe/country stagnates. There’s even indications that the lack of innovation caused by the rejection of the un-normal can destroy civilisations.

 

Perhaps this is why so many societies have times where the rules of the normal are temporarily suspended, where the usually despised and shunned aspects – sexual expression, weirdness, dressing strangely – are allowed to roam the streets. Carnival. Mardi Gras.

 

Halloween.

 

That lovely time of the year, when dressing like a monster (and increasingly, a sexy monster) in public is acceptable. When for a short while, Goths, gender queers and other outsiders can blend in, won’t be ostracised. When the rules of Normal don’t quite apply. Where the superheroes and wizards and beasts are, briefly, as welcome as anyone else.

 

And of course a time when the normal folk get to be tourists in the Tribe of the Strange… only to wake up the next day (possibly with hangovers and/or sugar crashes) and go back to the ‘real’ world where dressing up like David bloody Beckham is the only acceptable form of cosplay – and the demons and witches get put back in the box marked ‘unreal’.

 

I love Halloween. I love that everyone gets to join in. I don’t think the Tribe of the Strange needs a solid border between it and the ‘mundanes’ – but I know the difference between being a tourist and being a citizen, that me and mine can’t really do the same. That dressing up as a magician one night a year, and being one all the time, are quite different things. Part of me wishes my tribe and theirs could get along better… but that the distance and difference between us might actually be the whole point.

 

Another part of me looks at all this and sees something that looks a whole lot like cultural theft.

 

Think about it – the majority culture cherry-picks what it finds attractive from an existing tribal tradition, shows little or no respect to that tribe, commodifies what it’s nicked and still insists it’s somehow superior to the tribe that’s been pillaged… (Much like those ‘literary’ writers who co-opt SF and horror tropes without having actually read enough of the genre to avoid the worst clichés, then loudly claim what they have ‘created’ isn’t that horrible sci-fi but somehow better… the Plastic Shamen of the Fantastic.)

 

I don’t actually take that idea seriously. If anything, I see that the weird is actually colonising the mundane in many ways. As our world grows more complex (both technologically and in terms of how many competing ideas surround us), ordinary life more and more resembles the science fiction of only a few years back. Those discrete fandoms that used to be obscure are becoming more acceptable and fannish conceits (from the value of behind-the-scenes documentaries to slash fiction) are becoming part of the general culture.

 

But no matter how much is absorbed into the common culture, there will always be those ideas and people who are too weird, won’t fit, stay beyond the pale – no matter how much money and publicity gets thrown at Harry Potter and Edward Cullen (and as the latter so perfectly shows, even those parts of the weird which do creep into the mainstream are softened, bowdlerised, rendered safe). And as mainstream culture shifts from permissive to restrictive and back again, this will oscillate. Or the weird will simply, once again, fall out of fashion. For a while.

 

And outside the normal world, the Tribe of the Strange will persist. We don’t shift with the tides of fashion. We’re not tourists in the weird parts of life – we live here.

 

We’re not as scary or inhospitable as the mundane world thinks. We don’t want to take them over or make them go away – we just hope to find a place where we can all talk, hang out, celebrate life in all its oddity and loveliness. Maybe we’ll find that Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the fantastic and the ordinary are all one tribe.

 

On Halloween, perhaps?

 

——————————————————————

 

Buffy: “You’re missing the whole point of Halloween.”
Willow: “Free candy?!”

 

From Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.