Archive for the ‘postmodernism’ Tag

The gods

Following up on the post on crafting simple ritual, I believe the gods as we understand them are human responses to external stimuli, in the same way as the concept of a thunderstorm is a human creation, a structured yet arbitrary interpretation of the sensations that enter our subconscious and are ordered by the structuring system of our conscious mind (which operates like a language). It’s impossible to know the ‘real’ gods, or the underlying reality they occupy, without recourse to the linguistic structuring of consciousness.

This underlying reality can be thought of as the realm of spirit, a unified place of infinite potential, the raw materials from which all interpretations of the world are forged through the process of classification. Things in the conscious world are sacred because they reflect this underlying potential. They are the stories and songs of our relationship with spirit. As I recognise this as being true for everything, so I believe that everything is sacred.

To those who honour the gods, they are as real as a table or a rainbow. As our structuring process is inherited, and as the gods were a crucial element of our ancestors’ worldview, so polytheism seems such a natural way to respond to the world for so many people today. Polytheism is a prototype, fossilised in myth, of our modern way of structuring the world. Accessing it speaks to something very elemental within us, connecting us to our earliest ancestors and reminding us of our place in the long process of becoming human and relating to Other.

Reason and logic are also ways of structuring, and often incompatible with the belief in deity. They don’t easily fit. To hold both is to be exposed to the gaps between the structures we use to conceptualise the world, to recognise that the process is arbitrary, an interpretation of an infinite underlying potential, not the sum of everything that is. But it’s not just their incongruity that makes the gods worthy of attention.

Our pre-modern ancestors had an innate recognition that experience was but a reflection of an underlying, unknowable reality. Language and cognition were but translations of that reality, subjective and arbitrary yes, but infused with poetry and artistry. Modernity brought an end to that realisation, in a process of disenchantment, when a worldview that had become standardised through shared language began to be mistaken for objective reality. An appreciation of deity re-enchants us, in that it reminds us of our relationship to the unknowable, to that which exists on the other side of language. It removes us from the centre of our cosmology, humbling us with the knowledge that we are subjects of our reality, not masters of it.

We need to honour the gods to remind us, and them, that we are still part of nature, still reflections of an underlying infinite potential.

Paganism and gender

I have recently been reminded of some of the less progressive attitudes to gender displayed by certain Pagans. Here’s an extract from one of my posts on the TDN forum from a while ago, dealing with this issue:

I don’t feel that feminism has gone far enough in modern Paganism, as gender stereotypes are just as prevalent as they always have been, if not more so. Liberal feminism, while a necessary first step in re-addressing gender inequality, has only altered the balance of power superficially while preserving the unhelpful distinctions been masulinity and femininity that upheld women’s oppression in the first place.

For all the celebration of the feminine the distinction hasn’t altered, women are still expected to be feminine (intuitive, mysterious, maternal) and men are still expected to be masculine (practical, strong), to the detriment of both men and women, and especially anyone who deviates from the norm.

Think of some of the stereotypes of modern Paganism that are still strong today. Think of the artwork in an average Pentacle or Pagan Dawn magazine – the slender nymph, the muscular hunter. Who can live up to these reductive stereotypes, and who would want to?

One of the reasons that I’m turned off by Wicca is the dualistic focus on masculine and feminine energies, with little questioning of how this axis of difference and maps onto biological sex and sexuality. What draws me to Druidry is the plurality, the celebration of all life, of the particular, of the individual.

Someone then asked how Paganism can be compatible with a feminism that on the one hand wants to remove gender differences, and on the other acknowledges them through Goddess and women’s mysteries? I responded:

Not all feminism is concerned with doing away with gender… more with recognising it for the cultural construction that it is. In realising it is arbitrary, yet nevertheless important in shaping our lives, we can be better equipped to navigate through life as men and women. Just because something is a cultural construction doesn’t mean it is any the less ‘real’ to us. Without cultural interpretation we wouldn’t be able to operate as humans … we wouldn’t be able to think or talk about the ‘real’ (whatever that may be).

I’ve heard the word ‘deconstruction’ a couple of times in this conversation and I usually shy away from it as so often it’s used outside of its specific Derridean context. Here, however, I think it is applicable. Sometimes, by focusing on the less dominant part of a binary pairing (in this case ‘feminine’) it is possible to undermine the structure of that pairing, showing how it is reliant on other terms to operate … meaning is deferred … and its artificiality is brought to the fore. Hence the introduction to feminism of French philosophy in the 1980s and 90s and concepts such as ‘ecriture feminine’ (google Julia Kristeva or Helene Cixous). So a focus on the Goddess as the ideal of femininity, on her contradictions and difficulties, is not necessary at odds with feminism.

Someone then suggested that feminism was now redundant now that equality was enshrined in law. My response:

Law is only a part of it. There’s no law to say that young girls can’t starve themselves to death to live up to an artificial ideal of femininity presented in the media as natural. There’s no law to stop women who decide not to have children being made to feel like they’re unnatural. There’s no law to stop the slur of being called ‘unfeminine’ or ‘unladylike’. Society upholds and polices the notion that gender is natural in a thousand different ways.

Paganism seems to be quite positive in this respect, in that a lot of Pagan women seem to have opted out of this cycle of conforming to gender stereotypes compared to non-Pagans. This is a bit of a generalisation, but I would guess that this drops off considerably at the ‘New Age’ end of the Pagan spectrum however. And I’m sure we can all think of a daughter, sister or friend whose life is still ruled by how well they conform to gender ideals.

Postmodernism and awen

There’s an interesting thread about postmodernism on Philip Carr-Gomm‘s blog at the moment. According to a creative writing tutor at the University of Sussex, with whom Philip recently discussed the subject, no concept of awen could exist in a postmodern universe.

My response was as follows:

I’m a post-structuralist po-mo and the concept of awen is very important to me, and funnily enough the desire metaphor is probably one of the best ways to explain it.

Our perception of the universe is structured linguistically because language is nothing more than a way of classifying experience. Without it everything would be amorphous and undifferentiated. Without language we cannot make sense of what we perceive.

Language is not perfect though. Words are artificial and do not align perfectly with our constantly changing perceptions. Western rationalism, however, teaches that this should not be the case, that what we perceive is objective reality, not reliant on the frailties of our structuring process.

There is a gap between the ideal and the perceived. No word or words are ever good enough to describe our object, our beloved, adequately. We are always required to qualify, our descriptions proliferating down a never-ending chain of signifiers.

But no matter how hard we try we can never attain ultimate Truth, never achieve unity with the Other. But we must try. The desire is what makes us human, what makes us thinkers and artists and lovers. It is the Awen.