Pagan Studies

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Inappropriate applications of the commercial metaphor

Recent experiences have shown me that more and more relationships are being described in terms of customer and vendor, even when that application of the commercial metaphor is terribly inappropriate. Where this problem disturbs me the most is in misunderstandings of magical and religious relationships.


My partner and I have both been ordering new business cards lately. We got a follow-up mailing from one company that was advertising its other services to help him "connect with his customers." The offer struck both of us as rather bizarre, because he trying to do more networking with peers and employers, not trying to attract customers. I'm sure that some enterprising career counselor would love to tell us all about how viewing potential employers as one's customers is an interesting perspective shift, but really, this was just the latest example in a long line of reasons that I am tired of a commercial metaphor, especially the relationship between seller and customer, being applied in places where it is inappropriate.

Describing students as “customers” has been a growing problem in higher education. One reason this description is inaccurate - which should be obvious - is that learning is not always comfortable. Implying to young undergraduates that they are the consumer makes them entirely too prone to demanding that they be accommodated in every way to the point of hurting the learning process. To be clear, I’m not saying that learning should often be uncomfortable, nor am I advocating for some status quo of abusing undergraduates; I’m saying that there are obvious cases of the student-as-customer argument being taken to its illogical conclusion and seriously damaging educators’ ability to do their jobs.

In both examples, the customer-vendor relationship does not map onto the existing relationship, and trying to apply it distorts the reality. I find the application of commercial metaphors to the relationship between devotees and deities in Paganism equally inappropriate. The relationship between a Power and an individual or group can take on many, many forms, but it is almost never one of simple economic exchange which is described by the customer-vendor metaphor.

In Paganism, an unfortunate example of these commercial metaphors occurs in the writings of Isaac Bonewits. This misapplication is quite strange, as Bonewits is usually very aware of the implications of his metaphors. Although he showed plenty of awareness of the subtleties of interactions between people and Powers in his more detailed writing, Bonewits consistently showed an unfortunate tendency to condense the relationship into an economic metaphor, specifically focusing on the mechanics of exchange and the value of what is exchanged.

The interactions that I have experienced with Powers and spirits have been exactly the opposite of commercial; they have been deeply personal, even intimate, in a way that commercial relationships simply can't approximate. My relationships with Powers do include exchanges and agreements, but the different underpinning for that relationship puts the exchanges and agreements on an entirely different footing than a commercial exchange or contract, even if on the outside they appear similar.

My suspicion is that Bonewits’ early work with game structures which emphasize quantification and in particular the metaphor of “mana points” influenced his thinking too much later on. The temptation to reduce complex, nuanced interactions to simple exchanges of spiritual currency is precisely the kind of distortion fostered by inappropriate applications of the commercial metaphor.

Describing everything in terms of a spiritual currency is a convenient way to quantify how much metaphysical beings care about things like offerings of food and drink. It also tempts us to try to quantify everything on a single scale: x minutes of worship is y mana points, which is the same as z liters of whiskey…

Reducing the interaction between devotee and deity is a convenient answer to the wrong question, and the reason we ask the wrong question is because of the inappropriate application of the commercial metaphor. The economic simplifications of the customer-vendor metaphor encourage the idea of spiritual currency. The deeper question of why metaphysical beings care about things like offerings or devotion cannot be answered by simply trying to convert from one currency to another.

Currency is a way of turning valuable things into commodities by separating them from their context and the relationships in which they occur. Money is a commodity; a dollar is supposed to be the same whether I spend it to buy bread or jewelry. But most things are not commodities, and their meaning changes depending on the context. A business card has a different meaning for a salesperson and a job seeker; discomfort has a different meaning in a party and a classroom.

Our offerings and devotion have meaning based on the context of our relationships to the Powers we work with, and they cannot be isolated away from that context any more than the gifts given between lovers can be reduced to dollar amounts. The inappropriate application of the commercial metaphor is appearing in more and more places. One of my great hopes for Paganism is that by engaging the spiritual imagination, we counter this spread and emphasize the importance of context and relationship.

NB: In my next post, I will discuss an example of contextualized relationship with the landbase. Several ideas alluded to in this post are related to my work on nonlinearity and magic. If you’re interested in more, I’ll be presenting on that and other topics at Fertile Ground Gathering.

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Monday, 03 March 2014

    Thank you for an interesting article. I think people often fall prey to treating things (and people) as commodities because the relationship is simple. One thing or service is exchanged for another, according to the rule of reciprocity. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

    One difficulty lies in the fact that even commodity exchanges are not really so cut and dry. There's bargaining, discounting, swindling, buying on credit and all manner of variations to the process. But of course, the biggest complication to this simplistic view of things is the wondrous and unpredictable variable called life. Life in humans, other animals, plants, birds, microorganisms, etc. There's nothing at all cut and dry about that.

    Viewing things (and life forms) as commodities is, ultimately, a vain attempt to reduce them to their least common denominator and, therefore, devalue them. It leads to such things as slavery, exploitation and dehumanization.

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