Thursday, May 31, 2012

I follow some blogs that deal with issues like peak oil, and three of them (The Archdruid report, Club Orlov and Nature Bats Last) have simultaneously been mulling over the role of spirituality if and when this economy and society truly take a nosedive.

It stimulated me to dust off an article that I had published back in 2008 on the question of spirituality as a tool for re-making yourself and your relationship to your society.  It's included here in its entirety:

Witchcrafting Selves: 
Remaking Person and Community in a Neo-Pagan Utopian Scene.

In 2008 Exploring the Utopian Impulse, Michael J. Griffin and Tom Moylan, eds.

Dorinne Kondo’s 1990 ethnography of a Japanese workplace, Crafting Selves, was influential in cultural anthropology because it articulated an important change of emphasis for this field of study.  This change in emphasis was to treat the individual not just as a product and carrier of culture – but as an active agent who was manipulating cultural materials for various ends – including the creation of a socially embedded self.  This perspective does not replace earlier insights that individuals are intimately constructed within social and cultural environments.  In Kondo’s ethnography, a stress upon individual agency does not mean that these workers then transcend culture, or gain some particular, self-conscious vantage point from which they can view their own efforts at strategic self-construction.  Kondo is describing people who are acting with and within culturally-ordered expectations – they are being Japanese; being women; being young women; and being Japanese employees.  The point is that their renderings of the cultural scripts are by no means static, passive or predictable.

This paper, however, looks at people who are actively trying to transcend their culture.  In so doing they are seeking to re-create not only a new kind of socially-embedded self, but a new kind of culture as well.  In some sense this brings us back to old dilemmas of structure and agency.  As we try to conceptualize and explain the actions of human beings, where do we strike the balance between treating people as self-willed, creative actors, and treating them as things that simply derive from particular environments and histories?  In the case described below this dilemma itself is a place of self-conscious, dynamic tension.

On the agency side of the spectrum we have ideologies of individualism and the “cultural supermarket” of the United States, wherein a large part of the population regards religious practice and political ideology as a matter of individual choice and preference.  People can seek out religious, spiritual and political stances that “suit them.”  They and their orientations are not bound or created by their backgrounds.  On the structural side, there is an acknowledgement by many people that external structures have the power to shape the individual – whether these structures be family life, gendered expectations, the social constraints of mainstream society, or the habits of consumer capitalism.  For people in the utopian scene described below, we see an attempt to resolve the contradiction between agency and structure by choosing spiritual practices which are meant to replace one structure with another.  The very recognition that communities and individuals themselves have been and continue to be constructed and molded in the most fundamental ways by a mainstream society leads to a situation where the structuring, de-structuring and re-structuring powers of cultural practices are purposefully brought into play.  Religion, mythology, language, economics, consumption, and daily practices of all sorts are being used to remove the person from one sort of constructedness in order to make possible a reconstruction into the revolutionary. 

I describe here part of an ethnographic study of a radical political and spiritual scene in the U.S. city of Eugene, Oregon.  This is not an intentional community characterized by boundaried place or membership or unified by any specific political or social manifesto.  It is rather the case that a significant minority in the city occupies a vibrant, but disorderly milieu where political and cultural experimentation is common and vigorous.  A major portion of this scene is characterized by witchcraft, politicized neo-paganism, goddess worship and eco-feminism.  People with ties to the scene engage in the systematic rejection of a mainstream society that they universally regard as destructive and unsatisfying, and through their spiritual practice and political activism, they see themselves working toward the creation of a fundamentally better world. 

In other words, Eugene plays host to a utopian experiment, although the situation there does not fit neatly into Lyman Sargent’s (1994) influential typology of utopias or intentional communities.  In fact, drawing from American vernacular I call it a utopian “scene” in order to underline the difference between this and more familiar utopian or intentional communities.  One can talk about a “pagan utopian scene” in the same sense that one can talk about the “New Orleans jazz scene.”  A scene is an observable, usually self-acknowledged set of social networks that is not well-defined or well-boundaried; that enables varying degrees of commitment among the people involved; that is symbolically ordered rather than socially or institutionally integrated; that may move from moments of clarity and consensus to ferment and dissension and back again; that may or may not have leaders; that is organized along flexible axes of physical proximity, interlocking roles and shared understandings; that is characterized by some freedom to enter and exit at will;  that favors the sanctioning power of collective regard, more than institutional power of any sort; and that is often characterized by an ongoing process of metamorphosis. 

As Levitas (1990) has noted, there is no reigning consensus in utopian studies as to the specific object of the field.  I will leave it to others to determine where or whether this fits into a typology of utopianism.  As an anthropologist I take it for granted that people’s lives are organized on the one hand through playing by the rules of culture and on the other hand, by creatively and collectively dreaming (and acting) beyond a culture’s apparent, delivered limitations.  When “social dreaming,” as Sargent calls it, becomes a defining characteristic of living, as it is for the people of this study, we enter into the realm of creative utopianism.

Neo-Paganism:  A History of Adaptation

Neo-paganism is a blanket term often used to refer to a diverse range of new religions (or spiritual practices) that have developed recently in the West as a kind of subset within the so-called New Age.[1]  There is no formal church organization, and no one voice or collection of voices speaks for all Pagans.  Furthermore, creativity and improvisation among individuals and small-groups is typically expected and encouraged, and the variation within Paganism is extensive.  In general, Pagans practice a nature-oriented religion that involves some sort of ritual magical practice.  In a conspicuously active process of syncretism, they draw upon the practices and pantheons of religious systems from around the world and throughout history.  They may see themselves specifically as Pagans, Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, Witches, Druids, though many would not consent to having themselves confined to any such category.  They tend to be polytheistic and emphasize the immanence of the divine – it’s potential to be anywhere in the world.  They usually view themselves as inheritors or re-discoverers of pre-modern, pre-monotheistic spiritual practices – either narrowly out of European and Mediterranean traditions of witchcraft and paganism or more broadly out of a more general, pan-human, Paleolithic legacy that survives in indigenous traditions to this day. 

To the extent that neo-paganism can be “summed up”, it has been called a post-modern religion for its rejection of totalizing structures, its hostility toward delivered truths, and its prioritizing of the individual path and perspective (Eilberg-Schwartz 1989).  The analysis of this paper, however is not meant to sum up Paganism in general or universal terms.  This is an ethnographic look at one particular variant, which I have called Politicized Paganism in order to highlight an intersection of radical politics and alternative spirituality that I think deserves to be fully considered as a contemporary utopian experiment. 

At its modern inception in the hands of men like Gerald Gardner and Charles Leland, witchcraft, including what would become neo-paganism was not overtly political, though it had its anti-modern overtones.  Their 20th century practices were portrayed as a rediscovery and re-emergence of an ancient, pre-Christian nature-religion focused on the worship of pagan gods and goddesses.  Gardner, an amateur anthropologist, in 1939 claimed to have been initiated into a witches' coven and subsequently went on to write about, organize, and popularize this kind of witchcraft.   An historical legitimization bolstered by a selective use of popular and scholarly works in anthropology, archaeology, and folklore, was constructed.  This eventually unraveled under the attack of critics hostile both to the scholarly works and the uses that the Pagans made of these works, though even today Paganism preserves distinct echoes of such works as Bachofen’s (1861) evolutionist work on matriarchy and Murray’s (1921) history of European witchcraft. 

Pagan writers came to shift their claims to validity away from narratives of antiquity and historical continuity, and re-oriented toward claims about the efficacy of Pagan belief and practice for meeting human needs and articulating the truths to be discovered in (and beyond) the human psyche (Adler 1986).  Paganism became more concerned with how magic works to effect change both internal and external to the individual.  Discussions of validity came increasingly to be put in terms of psychology, para-psychology, and the effectiveness of the magic in enabling a desired change.  The new emphasis on the psychological aspects of Pagan witchcraft made it attractive to women with feminist concerns.  Indeed, for the particular variety of Paganism, which I have labeled Politicized Paganism, the interaction with feminist ideas proved to be transforming.  Feminism has a long and multifaceted history in the U.S. and Europe.  It has been characterized by various goals, various ideologies, and various strategies, including occasional forays into spirituality and occultism.[2] The post-World War II period saw an especially dramatic redefining of gender related issues.  The intellectual, political and utopian aspects of this redefinition came to the fore in the 1960's and 70's with the women's liberation movement.  The most public and socially contested endeavors of the women's liberation movement concerned issues such as equalizing economic opportunity and expanding the social definition of women's roles.  Complement to this, however, was another current running through feminist thought and political action.  There was a growing realization that much of the liberation of women would need to be accomplished upon an intra-psychic landscape.  Psychologically oriented feminists began to argue that what was needed was a change of consciousness and a counterculture.  That is, the limitations on women's self-definition and aspiration were to a great extent internalized by women themselves, and the undoing of these patterns was destined to be a complex and devastatingly difficult task.

At some point it appears that the feminist "consciousness-raising" group met the Pagan witches’ coven and something new was created.  Paganism offered a mythology which gave women a central and valued role, and tools of a "magic" that was to be turned toward personal transformation, psychological empowerment, and the creation of sisterhood.[3]  For the woman struggling to disentangle herself from a patriarchal society, which she saw as oppressive to women, Paganism seemed to offer a precedent and template for the feminine exercise of power.  It offered spiritual expression to women who were ideologically alienated from Christian and Jewish traditions.  And it offered a potentially new, less contaminated language in which to articulate new ideas, whether political, aesthetic or psychological.  The apolitical nature of many Pagan groups testifies that Paganism is not inevitably political.  In the hands of feminists, however, Paganism has shown itself amenable to political uses.

Much of feminist Paganism has been separatist in nature.  Z Budapest (1979), one of its foremost witches, has called Pagan witchcraft "Wimmins Religion" and declared that it is closed to men.  Among the Politicized Pagans I knew in Eugene, however, Budapest was little known, and it was Starhawk who was much more influential.  In her widely read book, The Spiral Dance (1979), Starhawk focuses on women's issues and a woman-centered symbolism, but also indicates an important, complementary role for men and "male energy."  She also explicitly addresses issues of oppression not limited to gender, and enjoins a political responsibility to the earth, which includes such issues as ecological and anti-nuclear activism.  It seems that at some point, with Starhawk as a major popularizer, Paganism comes to be a form of religious expression upon this political and environmentalist fringe.  As a form of spirituality first adapted to the needs of feminism, it proved adaptable to people pursuing various political, social, and psychological goals. 

A Pagan Scene

Eugene is a place that is widely known for its lively “alternative scene.” It is a small American city with a mixed economic base that traditionally emphasized agriculture and the timber industry. It contains a University and a smaller community college, and there is a vigorous and variegated political culture, both mainstream and alternative.  Political demonstrations are well-attended, and there is an array of politically active organizations and cooperatives.  In the 1990’s when this study was undertaken, there was a tremendous range of political stances available up to and including an idealistic advocacy of revolution.  Political activity was interwoven with a kind of cultural ferment as well.  Within this particular city there was a bewildering array of alternative lifestyles and related spiritualities.  Varieties of New Ageism, Eastern mysticism, Native American ritual systems, yogic regimens, bits and pieces of a "hippie" lifestyle, and anything that could be conjured out of the literatures of religion, mysticism or anthropology was fair game.  The cross-pollination among all of these has been extensive.  Politicized Paganism was located within this context, and being an orientation given to experimentation and eclecticism, most people seemed to have a knowledge of, and an interest in, a wide variety of spiritual and cultural systems.  Pagans were also part of a local exploration into a wide range of ritual technologies.  Dance, drumming, chanting, meditation and the manipulation of ritual objects were common, as well as visualization, trance, story-telling, scrying, feasting, fasting, singing, sweating, sex and psycho-active drugs.  From out of this kit of potential ritual tools and based on the tastes and goals of any given group, Pagans created rituals and practiced their magic.

In sum, by the early 1990’s in Eugene, there was a neo-pagan scene where people articulated a utopian vision of a culture that could sustain itself without destroying the environment and which could guarantee that each individual have a chance at intellectual, spiritual and emotional self-actualization.  Politicized Paganism offered a worldview that encompassed this utopian vision and reinforced it with corresponding ritual and symbology.  It offered habits and rationales for action and evaluation, and served to lend form, validity and vitality to a lifestyle that was adapted to life on the cultural, economic and political margins. 

There is nothing inevitable about this admixture of Paganism and politics.  The majority of Pagans in the U.S. and elsewhere seem not to be exceptionally political (Adler 1986; Luhrmann 1989).  And certainly political expression even when it does occur within Paganism is neither consistently radical nor utopian (Kuhling 2004).  In turn, much of the political fringe seems to operate comfortably without an overtly spiritual emphasis.  Thus, the complementarities that I outline between Paganism and radical politics does not determine that a Politicized Paganism must emerge, it simply makes its appearance comprehensible.

An Old Paradigm: Structural Functionalism

I would like to use a somewhat old-fashioned anthropological paradigm to explain something of the contours of this utopian political and cultural scene.  Anthropologists spent much of the 19th and early 20th centuries analysing how people occupied communities and maintained a semblance of organization and consensus without states or bureaucratic institutions and often without official leaders or fixed hierarchies.  They noticed people were knitted together into groups by things like religion, ritual, language, symbols and myth.  They also noticed how material production and consumption, reciprocity, and daily practices of all sorts anchored people into coherent and structured social and cultural lives.  Among North American anthropologists, one of the reigning paradigms during much of the 20th century was “structural functionalism.”  In this model, any given aspect of culture that was not directly explained by the needs of subsistence and survival could be explained by showing that it played a role in integrating and stabilizing a cultural community.  Thus, we could understand things like religious beliefs, dietary restrictions, gender roles, residential patterns or economic practices by looking at how they played a function in maintaining the structure.  The model, at least as a guiding paradigm, was forced into thorough retreat under a well-deserved barrage of criticisms including especially that it tended to be blind to the heterogeneity of cultural spaces and to the conflicting projects of the people and groups involved – and too often it begged the important political question of who wanted the status quo stabilized and why.  It may seem odd to propose a paradigm that has been discarded as too politically conservative and blind to diversity, in order to examine the heteroglossic and contested terrain of a utopian scene, but that is precisely what I propose.  Because I believe that this is what the Pagans themselves have done.

A defining characteristic of Paganism is ritual magic and the manipulation of symbols and myths.  The Politicized Paganism I describe has shown a preoccupation with the re-articulation of myths, and their applications in ritual – and these have implications for a revolutionary agenda.  I have argued elsewhere that myths and rituals are important, even in our own society (Brown 2005).  Myths are not simply badly researched histories or stories to entertain.   The most central cultural tenets of a society can be reinforced with these symbolic tools. Kluckhohn, in a classic evocation of structural functionalism, states that myths,

promote social solidarity, enhance the integration of the society by providing a formalized statement of its ultimate value-attitudes, and afford a means for the transmission of much of the culture with little loss of content-- thus protecting cultural continuity and stabilizing the society. [Kluckhohn 1942:62]

It is clear that myths and rituals do indeed offer some statement of "ultimate value-attitudes," even in our own society, and Pagans seem to take them seriously for this very reason.  Yet the example of Politicized Paganism shows that these myths are not inevitably the socially conservative force that Kluckhohn describes.  In cases where those value-attitudes are being contested, myth can become another forum within which culture is contested and debated.  In a further twist, a mythology of revolution works to simultaneously integrate and disintegrate.  The Politicized Pagan project of defining a new mythology can be understood as a tripartite attempt, firstly to disentangle individuals from the powerful and conservative webwork of standard mythology,[4] secondly to develop and occupy a mythology of revolution and utopian transformation; and thirdly to harness the structure-building powers of myth, ritual and symbol as an integrative force within their own ranks (and even within their own psyches).

As I mentioned earlier, some feminists and others had come to conclude that the crucial work of political and cultural liberation would have to be done within the mind.  The failures of past utopian projects were not proof of futility, but rather a warning that the utopian visions of social reformers and revolutionaries can only succeed with individuals who have been freed from all of the subtleties of social control. As an illustration, Jeanine was a young woman in Eugene who identified herself as a pagan witch.  She felt she had trouble asserting herself in relationships, sexually or politically.  She could complain articulately about how gender roles are consigned by patriarchal society and how passivity and complaisance is imposed not only on women but on citizens generally. She could evaluate her own behavior and try to change this, but among Pagans there was a willingness to admit the difficulty of this act of will.  Paganism offers a language and the symbolic tools with which people attempt to undertake personal change and by extension, cultural change.  In order to help herself become more assertive, Jeanine would invoke the Hindu goddess, Kali, who for many Politicized Pagans had come to embody action, assertion, destruction and inevitably, creation.  Jeanine read about Kali, meditated upon a representation of her, and could perform rituals either alone, with supportive friends, or in the context of a fully committed coven.  She may have been seeking to name and therefore grasp an archetypal aspect of her psyche that has been repressed or was perhaps harnessed to the service of the mainstream culture. She may have been seeking to communicate with a being, "Kali," who could offer her strength and power to transform herself and others.  The typically fuzzy nature of language around magic leaves vague just what may be going on.  At the very least, Kali served as a complex, polysemic symbol onto which she could attach her feelings and conflicts, and with which she and her friends could talk about and re-think female power.

Kali was just one symbol among many that were being mobilized in this scene in order to undertake a utopian re-making of individuals and their cultural surroundings.  One of the more dramatic sets of symbols in Paganism was to be found in the conceptualization of change and transformation.  In Pagan thought as it was developed in myths and ritual, the concept of death (or its cousin, destruction) contained not just the ending of something but the necessary clearing of the stage for something new.  The fifteenth figure in the Tarot deck was not "Death," but "Death-and-Rebirth."  The waning and waxing of the moon, the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of life from animate to inanimate and once again to animate were all discussed in light of the generative nature of death.  It is a metaphor that served as a framework to both their strategies of psychological empowerment and to organized group action.  Persephone from Greek mythology and Inanna from the myths of ancient Sumer were two of the most commonly evoked goddesses and the two that most often represented this process of change.  Both descend into the world of the dead, leaving behind all worldly things.  They re-emerge from this death transformed. Though the symbolism of Death and Rebirth is partly a political parable, it is also a set of symbols through which people were dealing with the stressful, disorienting and oftentimes painful project of de-coupling themselves from their culture.  In fact, the deeply entrenched and psychologically active feedback loops that exist between spiritual practice, individual subjectivities and social group dynamics are familiar to anthropologists who study religion.  Their presence here is one of the reasons why I think it is important to take seriously this utopian scene as a important experiment in crafting a utopian culture. 

Politicized Pagans and some others with revolutionary agendas consider it an essential political act for the individual to disentangle itself from the (psychological, spiritual and material) limitations placed upon it by a hostile and repressive society.  If this is to be the revolutionary task that these Pagans discuss, it will be a difficult process.  Durkheim overstates the absolutism of cultural embeddedness, but nevertheless evokes the entangling nature of culture when he discusses the power that fundamental social and religious categories hold over the minds of individuals:

[Society] uses all its authority upon its members to forestall such dissidences.  Does a mind ostensibly free itself from these forms of thought?  It is no longer considered a human mind in the full sense of the word, and is treated accordingly.  That is why we feel that we are no longer completely free and something resists, both within and outside ourselves, when we attempt to rid ourselves of these fundamental notions, even in our own conscience.  Outside of us there is public opinion which judges us; but more than that, since society is also represented inside of us, it sets itself against these revolutionary fancies, even inside of ourselves; we have the feeling that we cannot abandon them if our whole thought is not to cease being really human. [1915:30]

What these narratives about Persephone, Inanna and Kali encompass is the painful process of change and loss.  Geertz has noted, "As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer"(1972:173).  These myths, along with an entire arsenal of other symbols were being put into play to lend collective meaning and emotional resonance to an ongoing process of breaking old patterns in order to create new patterns.  The power that religion, ritual and social relationships can exert to structure and maintain humanness was being turned toward a project of altering and subsequently re-establishing humanness..

The Politicized Pagan symbolism of transformation is, of course, meant to extend beyond this attempt at individual, psychological renewal.  As a group these particular Pagans espouse a radical transformation and reformulation of society.  Their willingness to embrace in idealistic and spiritual terms the notion of destruction-as-creation paves the way for a commitment to disruption and revolution that is otherwise more problematic to engage.  For a person who wants to revolutionize society and who sees the present society's destruction as a necessary precursor to that, an ideology which emphasizes the positive aspects of destruction must have obvious appeal.  I should probably note here – in the midst of this language of revolution and destruction – that the particular Politicized Pagan scene I observed was more or less committed to pacifism.  Physical interference (like chaining oneself to logging equipment or pouring sand into the petrol tanks), and the modest violence of scuffling with police or security guards at demonstrations against nuclear power or militarism, was incidental rather than central to political activities.  People didn’t really seem to entertain much interest in violence as a means of transforming society.  Instead, what was meant to turn things would be some combination of effects from their lives and their rituals, their political activism and a coming, universal realization about the disastrous nature of modern living.[5]

I have focused on myth, ritual, religious beliefs and practices, because they are important ways through which human communities organize themselves as cultural beings.  And I have sought to show that, within this scene at least, this knowledge has led people to try to craft a more satisfying arrangement of meanings.  Structural functional analysis was never limited to these spiritual and psychological dimensions, however.  In fact the paradigm’s emphasis on integration implied that most aspects of human living would reinforce one another and could be interpreted in such terms.  Economic exchange and networks of reciprocity are another of the most important means through which people build cohesion and order.  Social analysis, from Mauss’ study of gift exchange to the critiques of the inheritors of Marx and Engels, have viewed people and groups as fundamentally shaped by the nature of their economic relationships.  Among the Politicized Pagans of Eugene, the potentially conservative and integrative force of economic participation was being used to disintegrate and reintegrate people into a coherent place on the margins of the mainstream society.  If Paganism in general varies widely in terms of its spiritual and political practices, it varies even more widely in regard to its relationship to wage work, consumerism and the cash economy (Kuhling 2004). One of the most striking characteristics of the Politicized Pagan community in Eugene is the way in which the individuals were disentangled from the demands of the mainstream economy and how they seemed to be organized into a kind of alternative economy through a different set of entanglements. 

The degree of participation in the cash economy was variable, but all employed some means of minimizing it.  The usual commitment ranged from people like Marcus who worked 4-10 hours a week in the local tofu factory, to Cathleen who worked at a day-care center as a teacher 20 hours a week.  Gregory worked in a bakery for 30 hours a week until he moved to an organic farm where he lived rent-free and was paid $100 a month for his labor.  Many people had a more or less profitable sideline such as a technical form of healing like Reiki massage or the concoction of herbal tinctures; or a craft such as hat-making or drum-making.  These products or services were traded and sold among networks of friends and acquaintances as well as at the weekly town market and various pagan or political "gatherings."  Since work for wages was considered an unpleasant compromise with the mainstream society there was no shame in not working. 

People reduced their need for money by living together in more or less dilapidated housing that most people could finance with as little as 6-10 hours per week of minimum wage work.  Other expenses of modern life were simply avoided.  "Dumpster diving" was an acceptable means of getting food, though many people worked in the natural food industry that was burgeoning in the city.  Life in a group house might mean that the household had a 20% discount at the local grocery store, a 30% discount at the juice cooperative and all the free tofu that they could eat.  Since this discount was often extended to friends it permeated even further.  Mistakes, surpluses, and unsalable articles that would otherwise be discarded were distributed through an informal network of acquaintances that served to integrate a kind of alternative moral-political economy. 

The relative economic poverty, including the scrounging for food, far from being considered tiresome or embarrassing, was made meaningful and virtuous through Pagan political philosophy and spirituality.  Ideals of success were not articulated through mainstream consumerism.  This rejection was reinforced by a reading of the American capitalist culture as profligate and an engine of social injustice and environmental and spiritual destruction.  Consuming little and even living off the surplus becomes an urban-dweller's method of "living lightly on the Earth."  Lust for consumer goods is the awful antithesis. 

Clearly, the religious and ideological systems of Politicized Paganism constitute a way in which a dissociation from one’s society can be made meaningful and attractive.  However, I also want to make the point that these practices, which disentangled people from the mainstream society in very concrete ways, were a necessary condition for participation in the activist practices of Politicized Paganism.  Many of the most effective threats that the mainstream culture can bring to bear on political and cultural dissent involve economic sanction and exclusion.  Concerns about jobs, about economic security, about economically dependent ambition, all contribute to people's willingness to conform to the established rules.  This was clearly illustrated in the context of direct political action.

During the time of the study, for example, Earth First!, a radical environmentalist organization, engineered a "tree-sit" in the National Forest.  Earth First! is not a Pagan organization, but in Eugene at that time its membership included many Pagans..  The tree-sit meant occupying a section of old-growth forest slated to be clear-cut by timber companies.  A camp was set up at the end of an access road where food was cooked and people gathered.  Several of the enormous 500-year old firs were scaled by experienced climbers who established living platforms sixty feet above the forest floor.  An individual tree sitter camped on each.  The activists' goal was to be as inconvenient to dislodge as possible, and hopefully to slow down the process of deforestation.  Even if they could not save this particular grove some of the activists hoped they could draw media attention and inspire other opposition, thus creating a more favorable environment and more time for the litigation and lobbying efforts that many environmental groups were pursuing. Typically, not everyone agreed with this political calculation, however.  I knew one of the tree-sitters, Ted, who was deeply involved in Paganism.  He objected to this political rationale for his actions, and spoke about the tree-sit as an act of spiritual sympathy to the pain of the earth-- an act of moral support.  He was annoyed by the concern that many of the others were showing for more mundane political machinations. 

There was an expectation of confrontation between the activists and the police or forestry officials.  A division of labor developed depending on each individual's commitment to this kind of confrontation.  First were those most committed who were willing to tree-sit or lock themselves to logging equipment with chains and bike locks.  This involved a risk of arrest, internment, and physical injury.  A second group maintained the camp and looked after the needs of the tree-sitters.  This group also faced possible assault and arrest though arrest only for lesser charges.  The third and largest group of activists comprised those who supplied food or materials for the action or came out to the site to socialize and lend moral support.  The action offered a communal and social context where a range of political activism could be expressed.  To a striking degree, the most committed activists were the least integrated into the mainstream economy.  A person simply cannot spend weeks demonstrating in an old growth grove, possibly followed by weeks in jail – and expect to hold a normal job.  Among the Politicized Pagans, the kind of economic exclusion and marginalization that normally functions as a threat and a punishment had already been embraced, freeing people up for political work.

There are many other ways through which people are enmeshed (or un-meshed) with social life and culture – and I could do a similar analysis on other aspects if time permitted.  In the case of Jeanine, with her icons of Kali and Persephone, efforts to re-make herself and her world were supported by a whole set of interrelated orientations.  For instance, critical social theory has emphasized that people are constituted through their participation in relationships of power.  For Jeanine, there were the positive practices of her political activism – not just rituals, but participating in demonstrations and in consensus building meetings within the progressive community. On the other hand, hierarchies like bureaucracies, corporations, and workplaces played little role in her life.  She worked part time in a health food store and supplemented that with soaps that she would make to sell or barter.  Her domestic situation – living with three other women in a house that they called the “Mama shack” where boyfriends were the interlopers – also served to locate her outside of the mainstream in numerous practical and symbolic ways.  Altogether, she lived and socialized and worked in places that had different aesthetics and different rhythms – and different politics.

Consumption is another way through which people constitute themselves in contemporary U.S. society.  In the Politicized Pagan scene, consumer temptations like cosmetics, fashionable clothing, expensive hobbies like boating or downhill skiing, were not only beyond people’s financial means, but were also explicitly devalued.  Jeanine, like her friends, had withdrawn her attention from popular mass culture.  Instead potlucks, camping, visiting, and music at the local community center were inexpensive centers of activity.  The effort to re-constitute oneself (literally) was especially marked in that unavoidable form of consumption, eating.  Food is a quintessential marker of culture.  Food preferences, food taboos, habits of sharing, and exclusivity are always weighted with symbolic meanings and embedded in complicated ways into family and social life.  For Politicized Pagans, like Jeanine the decision about what to eat is one of the most intimate expressions of political, moral and spiritual stance, and can involve a seemingly arcane calculus of desires and priorities.   Jeanine’s vegetarianism and other decisions about what to eat and what to consume carried all of this weight – and distinguished her in very distinct ways from non-Pagans. 

Here in Eugene it was striking, the degree of internal coherence that was being put into place.  So many aspects of the local culture seemed to be turned toward organizing a solid community and subjectivities appropriate for that community.  From that point of departure, I have been stressing a kind of functional congruence between Politicized Paganism and certain types of revolutionary politics, which makes their admixture in the case I describe sensible.  I have tried to show that these forms of human endeavor resonated with one another and from this was created something distinctive culturally.  I do not want to make the claim that the precipitate is perfect or stable or viable in the long run.  This Politicized Pagan scene may be discussed in a structural-functionalist framework, but it exhibits many internal stresses and inconsistencies, and it puts itself in the path of external stresses, which could very well overwhelm its ability to offer something meaningful to its adherents.  And it is unquestionably a system undergoing change and modification.  Although I have sketched something like an analog to the pre-modern village – this community is thoroughly involved in the global, post-modern imperative requiring the construction of identities and communities in a destabilized and polyglot world of continual destruction and reinvention.  What I’m arguing here is that this situation does not mean that our cultural toolkit (which Homo sapiens has been assembling since at least the Paleolithic Age) disappears as irrelevant.  In fact, although culture is not imposed or transferred in the same ways that it may have been in traditional societies, it does not necessarily lose its power to organize people’s humanness. 

I do not have any real way of measuring their political success.  Pagans cannot claim to have stopped militarism or environmental despoilment, though they may claim that it would have been worse without the efforts of activists.  They cannot point to a utopian revolution in the U.S., though they might claim to be leaders of a “re-enchantment” of North American spiritual life.  I do not have the cognitive data to know to what extent even personal transformations really happened – though I believe people were changed – whether dramatically or partially.  At the moment I don’t have the longitudinal data to know where these lives went – though I do know that a few of the individuals are still there.  Most have gone elsewhere: some to the woods, some to the cities, some to work.  For many, what I witnessed was youthful experimentation – and for some probably a mistake.  However, interestingly enough, the scene remains.  Eugene is still a hotbed of utopian experimentation – an island of radical political expression and spiritual ferment. The scene is not anchored by a leadership or a core membership – but is a place that continually beckons to people dissatisfied in particular ways with their modern world and dissatisfied with their participation in it.  The scene draws them to this utopian workshop, and makes them part of it.  By the time they leave, if they leave – passing on their tattered sleeping bag and their bicycle to some new immigrant – they have done their part to perpetuate this experiment in utopian creation.


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[1]  Analysts use the label “neo-paganism” in order to distinguish these new practices from those covered by the more traditional use of the term “paganism”.  In this paper, however, I usually drop the prefix and follow the usage of the “pagans” themselves, who (in Eugene, at least) mostly collapse the distinction.
[2] Mary F. Bednarowski (1983) examines the histories of three occasions that feminism has incorporated an occult rhetoric, namely, 19th century Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Feminist Witchcraft.
[3]Many feminists in common with Pagans use the word empowerment to mean a kind of psychological liberation from the dominating culture.  Only when a person is freed from the crippling inhibitions of their enculturated ideas about gender, power, individuality, etc., can they begin to act effectively politically.  Thus empowerment is both an internal experience and a political result.  I follow their usage here.
[4] Here one could include narratives of social progress or individual success, femininity as developed in boy-meets-girl stories, and so on.
[5] From Marx onwards there is a familiar critique that treats religion as politically enervating, at least in part because its faith in supernaturally enforced justice distracts from the requirements of actually creating worldly justice – and you could certainly hear versions of this criticism in Eugene.  See Puttnick (1997) for a description of this critique vis a vis feminist spirituality.  In any case, however, social science offers no effective way of evaluating the real political effectiveness of culturally reinforced radicalism such as I describe.

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