All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

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A Living World: Language, Memes, and Thought Forms : Moving Beyond 'Cultural Appropriation' Part IV

 

Many memes are communicated through language, and, like any tool, language shapes how we look at the world when using it.  Language facilitates some memes’ replication and makes the survival of others more difficult by shaping what relations are easy to notice and what relations require more effort. Different languages have different biases in this regard. One linguistic feature is particularly relevant here: do we experience our world primarily as objects, or primarily as processes and relations?  Clearly there is value in both perspectives, but which gets emphasis is in no small part shaped by language.

For example, English and most other Western languages are noun heavy and verb light compared to many, perhaps all, Native American languages. These languages possess fewer nouns but many more verbs. Nouns are things, verbs are processes. Our basic sense of a thing is it needs an outside force to act. This bias once encouraged scientists to think of animals and the human body as machines.  Most people have grown beyond this today, but the bias remains, as in the perpetual debate among scientists as to whether consciousness is really real.

By contrast, a verb is action. In the Potawatomie language 70% of the words are verbs whereas in English 30% are.  This difference shapes how they and we see and experience the world.  As Robin Kimmerer explains in Braiding Sweetgrass  “A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun it is defined by humans, trapped between shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa – 'to be a bay'– releases the water from bondage and lets it live.” (55) Kimmerer describes Potawatomie and similar languages as languages of animacy.

Some might say this Native American approach is simply a subjective judgement importing human traits into the wider world. It is nice for writing poetry, but bad for understanding reality.  However, this view ignores, or evades, how language shapes perceptions.  We all have heard the saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is seen in terms of its potential for being a nail.  The same applies more subtly with language. When everything is described in terms of being a noun, everything is a thing. 

Kimmerer explains “Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has grey hair.’ . . . In English we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as an it. . . . So it is with Potawatomie and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55) Indeed, from an animist perspective such as theirs, or mine, the dichotomy subjective/objective is a cultural meme that very imperfectly describes the world and has led to much mischief.

We have a hint of how this transforms our vision when we consider that Buckminister Fuller received considerable attention during my college years when he titled a book I Seem to Be a Verb.   Fuller’s title impressed many of us at the time as mind-stretching, but he simply recognized a dimension of who we are that our language tends to hide.  We are more process than thing. 

Native languages such as Potawatomie recognize this dimension as more basic to reality than beings’ “thing-hood.” Many Pagans will have sympathy with this perspective, and it certainly frees us from making errors such as treating ideas as things.

Thought forms and memes

As I came to a better understanding of how very secular scientists talk about memes, their similarity with the occult idea of thought forms and many Wiccan’s ideas about how magick is frequently linked to intensity and focus of will grabbed my attention. The objection many have to treating memes as real is the claim they are simply subjective imaginings. But we know from some of our more successful magickal practices that they have very real impact on our most tangible actions.  Those of us who have done much healing work with energy also know that intention and focus can influence not only our actions, they can influence what takes place in others. Consciousness as something we can influence is able to extend beyond our bodies.

In magickal terms, thought forms are usually described as deliberately created centers of focused mental energy possessing existence independent from any particular person. They exist so long as they possess sufficient mental energy.  If they are to last they must be able to renew the energy that gives them power- and often this is through being ‘fed’ by those who created them.  But not all such phenomena are deliberate creations.

In occult terminology an egregore is also a mental field with certain qualities that arises from the more diffused focus of many people in a common context, whether it be a football game, a Nazi Party rally, or the energetic feel of a city or neighborhood. Like a meme it can exist independently of particular people and influence them. I have described how they are able to put those influenced by them into a kind of hypnotic trance.

A meme is a center of mental energy with independent existence from any particular person, which exists so long as it is fed mental energy, but memes are not deliberate creations. They arise through a selective process that incorporates many minds in their maintenance. However if a meme attracts considerable emotional attention from a large number of people, and there is truth to occult understandings of thought forms, as I believe there is, then powerful memes will share important characteristics with thought forms.

Darth Vader is most certainly a meme.  Very early in my study of magickal realities I was a close but somewhat outside observer of a person afflicted by the thought form Darth VaderNo one deliberately created such a thing, and yet it had the power to cause very physical damage to people.

Bringing it all together

Appreciating the subtle psychic dimensions of memes, particularly powerful ones, deepens our understanding not only of memes, it transforms our view of ourselves in society to an even deeper degree than did memes considered in purely secular terms.

We live within a natural ecosystem and we live within an ideational ecosystem. In both cases we and the contexts that shape us influence one another. Our freedom as human beings is in significant degree rooted in our ability to actively and deliberately understand and manipulate our natural ecosystem. Exactly the same point applies to the memetic ecosystem that provides us the tools by which and through which to think.

Our unique freedom comes when we do NOT identify with these memes. When we do identify with them, we become their tools, not they ours.  Here I will integrate these concerns into the debate over cultural appropriation.

We get into trouble when we subordinate ourselves to memes, and so blind ourselves to what might not fit them, as those who emphasize the wrongs of ‘cultural appropriation’ do.

A culture is not a thing. It is an ecosystem of memes and their co-evolutionary impact on the people who comprise it. Cultures are not monocultures. Their members will see many issues differently, even issues important to their cultural identity.  Cultural identities are always dynamic in their details.  For example, some people argue the term ”Indian” is a word imposed upon the people who inhabited this hemisphere before Europeans invaded.  But many of these people have no problem with the term, and use it to assert their distinct identity from Euro-America. In Lawrence, Kansas, the most important university for ‘our’ indigenous peoples proudly proclaims itself as Haskell Indian Nations University.

b2ap3_thumbnail_haskell.jpg

Indian Nations. I find this a powerful statement affirming the worth of these peoples and their culture, not seeking assimilation or demonstrating cultural weakness. Note also the depiction of an eagle feather headdress.  It was not a feature of significance for many tribes, for example, the Cherokee,and Mohawk, both of whom were major tribes and are still important, but it was iconic in the popular eyes for those plains tribes that were among the last to be conquered. The headdress has become a meme connected with its original cultural role among the Lakota and other peoples, but now it also is a universal symbol depicting Indians- in the eyes of many Indians as well as other Americans. In some contexts it no longer has the cultural meaning it had for plains tribes, even for the plains tribes. The meme has a life of its own.

We live in a living world of multiple dimensions.  In both biological and ideational dimensions, we are important but not controlling members.  We share the ideational ecosystem with memes/thought forms, and they as much as we survive by acquiring energy from within the relevant ecosystem.

If we look at human history, people have always borrowed from cultures, regardless of whether one group was stronger than another.  In the process the ideational environment for all people has been enriched. At the same time the boundaries of specific cultures always interpenetrate others, possibly excluding very small isolated tribes.  Given porous boundaries it is only natural to expect some memes to replicate across them, and in the process of doing so, sometimes change.  Just as happens with organisms in ecosystems.

In short the language of cultural appropriation is inadequate to understanding either cultures or the relations people enter in to with members of other cultures.  Identifying people with, and subordinating them to, “culture” dis-empowers them for it is in our ability to separate ourselves from a meme that we have some agency with respect to it. It is sad that many good people are losing sight of the desirability of empowering people wisely, preferring instead to subordinate them to a rigid conception of culture that cannot adequately understand culture, ideas, or the people involved.


 

 

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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.

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