Preface to The Power of Ritual
by Robbie Davis-Floyd
The Power of Ritual has grown out of my thirty years of research on ritual and technology in American childbirth, and in particular, out of a workshop I have often presented on “The Power of Ritual” to diverse groups around the country. Audiences for this workshop have included priests, psychotherapists, physicists, female professionals, social scientists, health care practitioners (nurses, midwives, physicians, childbirth educators), men’s movement participants and workshop leaders, business managers, New Agers, university students, drug and alcohol addicts, members (or former members) of cults, and aerospace engineers. During the course of these workshops, I have often noted a high level of confusion among people who are designing and performing rituals on a regular basis as a part of, for example, religious or spiritual retreats, psychotherapy intensives, men’s movement weekends-in-the-woods (popular in recent past decades), and self-help seminars. They tell me that they “intuit” what ritual is all about, but their sense of it is vague, unformed. They come to my workshops to find out what they themselves are actually up to! I am always delighted when such people show up in my audiences, as one of the major reasons why I started teaching these workshops was my concern about the uncritical use of ritual that has characterized the explosion of interest in the new spirituality, alternative healing, and self-help movements, to name only a few. Ritual is an extraordinarily powerful socializing tool that can be just as easily manipulated for ill as used for good. The naiveté of many contemporary ritual practitioners has worried me for a long time, and these workshops—and now this book—serve as my way of combating that naiveté. I often receive letters of thanks from such practitioners for “raising their consciousness” about precisely how ritual works, about its very real benefits, and about its equally real dangers. This information enables them to be more conscious and more responsible about the way they use the rituals they create.
My interest in ritual developed both from personal experience and from my anthropological studies of American childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics. My childhood in Casper, Wyoming was punctuated with ritual events, many of which focused around the local rodeos that happened during the summers, and the seasonal celebrations of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. But my deepest ritual imprinting came from growing up in the Presbyterian Church. Although I moved away from that religion in later years, the hymns we sang in church every Sunday, the vivid memory of the light streaming through the stained glass window showing Jesus’ ascension, the feeling of peace and completion that would descend over me as the minister raised his arms to give the final blessing—all these still resonate in my being and provide me with a sense of stability. In particular the words of the Doxology, which I must have sung at least 500 times during my childhood churchgoing years, still give me the goose bumps I used to get as I rose as one with the whole congregation, to sing joyously:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be
World without end, Amen, Amen
As I typed those words just now, singing as my fingers moved over the computer keys, that same uplifting feeling surged inside of me, goose bumps popped out on my arms once again, and I was right back in memory inside that beautiful church staring at the light shining through that stained glass window. Such is the power of ritual to affect our emotions, even decades after the fact.
But now as I reread the words of the Doxology, my critical faculties come into play: that song, which purports to be so timeless and so universal, does not encompass certain facts that I accept as reality. Things are not as they were in the beginning—in fact, change is the one constant of both human and universal experience. Our world is not “without end” —one day, billions of years from now, the Earth will be swallowed up in flames when its sun turns into a red giant. And there are no females and no “female principle” in that song, only a father, a son, and an androgynous spirit which is the closest the Presbyterianism of my youth could get to acknowledging that males are not the only gender. So I can’t even find myself in its words—they do not charter my existence, like a good myth should. As an experiment, I sing the song once more and note that in spite of my intellectual objections, the goosebumps and uplifting sensation return. As we shall see throughout this book, rituals primarily affect our emotions—through triggering a powerful emotional response, ritual can get people to believe or at least resonate deeply with ideologies that they might intellectually reject.
In my early years as an anthropology student during the 1970s, I studied shamanism and ritual healing in Mexico, and worked for a time with two Mexican shamans, one traditional and one thoroughly cosmopolitan. Those experiences, which involved both anthropological observation and personal participation in rituals of various sorts, taught me a great deal about ritual’s flexibility as I saw it stretch to encompass the contrasting realities of the pre- and postmodern worlds. I watched with amazement as the people participating in the rituals that the traditional shaman had been performing for decades suddenly began to include American New Agers seeking connection with the earth and with traditional cultures—in Don Lucio, the traditional shaman I worked with, I guess these seekers found at least a facsimile of Castaneda’s Don Juan. And I was equally fascinated by the postmodern shaman, Edgardo Vasquez Gomez. A wealthy upper class Mexican gentleman, he had studied traditional shamanic techniques all over Mexico, and was eclectically combining them with a European esoteric spiritual system based on the works of Gurdjieff, which invited individuals to “wake up” to a greater awareness of everyday life. His use of ritual to stimulate this kind of awareness in his followers was masterful; watching him manipulate people’s states of consciousness was a lesson to me in the intentional use of ritual to achieve instrumental (practical) ends. (Both Don Lucio and Edgardo are now deceased.)
Perhaps my deepest engagements with ritual came during my participation, in later years, with a New Age healing group that evolved, over time, into a cult. I got involved in part because I wanted to do an anthropological study of that group. I watched and participated and took notes as their at-first tenuous belief system crystallized into an intensely tight and cohesive worldview. For the first two years, I didn’t believe a word of it—it was just a story, albeit a fascinating one, and my anthropological detachment remained intact. But the ritual process, as we will demonstrate in this book, can be overwhelming. Embarrassing as it is to admit, against my will I eventually got fully converted to that worldview. The moment of conversion was a devastating experience (described ... Read More »
In the early hours of Saturday morning, ignoring the blare of children's television, I muzzily and reflexively poked at the Twitter icon on the battered screen of my knackered phone. Down I scrolled through the dozens and dozens of updates I'd missed during my five or so hours of child-interrupted sleep until I came upon one by comic artist Jamie Smart. It read
Oh my god. There was a fifth housemate in The Young Ones and she was terrifying.
Huh? I blinked, took a big swig of my bitter, luke-warm, instant coffee, and clicked the link Jamie had posted.
On Business Insider Australia I read the headline REVEALED: There really was a creepy fifth housemate lurking in cult British TV show The Young Ones. The article had been posted that very morning (18th June, 2016). What the...?
For those of you who don't already know, The Young Ones was a seminal, anarchic comedy series that ran on the BBC for two series between 1982 and 1984. Much like Monty Python, but in the era of VHS, The Young Ones became a show that many of us who were born in the 1970s ended up watching again and again and again. Business Insider news editor Peter Farquhar had, it turns out, quite recently watched a video on YouTube entitled The Young Ones ~ The 5th Roommate, which had been posted back in July 2012. This video had been inspired by a 1999 posting on The Easter Egg Archive website, which took its cue from a page last updated the previous year on a now defunct site called The British Comedy Library (still, thankfully, available via The Internet Archive's wonderful WayBack Machine). The strange person at the back of the house is the title of the page. It contains a few quotes from viewers who have emailed in to the site about something they've spotted re-watching the original 1982 series of the BBC comedy show The Young Ones. Things like
Has anyone else noticed the strange person who appears to share the flat with the guys. If you look carefully in the first five episodes you can see a mysterious person with long black hair who appears sitting against walls in the background of quite a few scenes.
And yes, the 2012 YouTube video shows it: a fifth housemate appearing at least once in every episode of the entire first series. She never moves, she never speaks, you never see her face, and her presence is never acknowledged by any of the other characters, but she's there.
This, apparently, blew Peter Farquhar's mind so much that he ended up contacting some of the people involved with the series including one of the writers, Ben Elton. Elton's prompt and short response was he had no idea what he was on about. A few days later however, Farquhar received a response from another member of the Young Ones team - Geoff Posner, who was one of the three directors on the series.
In his reply Posner said that he and fellow director Paul Jackson
thought it would be funny to have some ghostly figure in the background of some scenes that was never explained or talked about. Hair all over the face so you shouldn't be able to decipher the gender, either. The fact that we forgot to do it consistently shows what a bunch of amateurs we were in them days.
In his article Farquhar goes on to write
So maybe the fifth housemate idea wasn’t such a big deal to the cast and crew back then. Often what artists think of their own work is only half of the story. The other is what impact it has on the audience and its legacy and in this regard, “The Young Ones” still stands up incredibly well 34 years after it first aired. The appearance of the running “fifth housemate” gag is a great example.
Posner's short email explanation was, happily, enough to allay Farquhar's worries, and general sense of unease about the mysterious fifth housemate. Not mine though. No, not mine. Because you see, to me, Posner's explanation doesn't quite make sense. The fifth housemate - or the ghost as we should probably more accurately call her - isn't ... Read More »
Earth: a Prison Planet. A planetary panopticon where the convicts happily write their own police files and track their own movements, sharing them with the Stacks [Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft]. As will be explored in detail in this post, through understanding this, and planning a planetary jailbreak, a bright green future may await the escapees; and those that were built to hunt us down may lead the way.
Spoiler Warning: key aspects of the current season of Person of Interest are shown and discussed below.
Narratives involving cities or countries split into Exclusion Zones are a popular part of contemporary science fiction films and TV shows. From Monsters, and its plot of a North America divided following a panspermic alien invasion at the start of this decade, through to the new series Cleverman where "The Zone is all at once an exclusion area, a prison, a refugee camp, a refuge, a camp, and a ghetto." The TV shows Colony and Containment being two other obvious examples.
The idea of the Zone stretches back into the 20th Century of course, to the book Roadside Picnic via the film Stalker and made real by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Zone the Strugatsky brothers wrote of was a dream-like, magical place. The Zones audiences are watching today are the stuff of nightmares - and the building blocks of a Prison Planet.
This is the nature of the post-cyberpunk condition. What was previously a utopian dream - we're talking about the Internet in particular here - has become an ever-increasing dystopic nightmare. But to opt out is to lose your voice in the global conversation, and the chance to plant the seeds of change; even if those seeds grow into nothing more than dank memes - retweeted and forgotten. What is to be done?
As science fiction writer and futurist David Brin recently advised, in essence - get thee a narrative that can do both:
You don't have to choose! Between pessimism and optimism, that is. A sane person uses dollops of both - simultaneously - to help navigate a path ahead. Because making a better world requires two phases. First finding the errors, snake-pits, land mines and quicksand that lie in wait, as we charge into the future. Those dangers are best revealed by eager complainers shouting “look out, you fools!” It is the supreme value of reciprocal criticism -- and science fiction has played a role, by issuing very effective self-preventing prophecies.”
And that's the point of this post, to act as a "self-preventing prophecy" - to take a tour through the construction project that is the nascent Prison Planet we all occupy, that it might then never come to exist. This will start by examining the commonality between the real-life origins of the space age in 19th Century Russia and the fictional future the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks imagined in his Culture novels. We then move into the present, leaning on the TV series Person of Interest to explain our post-cyberpunk condition - and how it ties into the effects of climate chaos and war - and see how distressingly close the Terminator universe is to being realised. With that understanding established, we'll visit some previous times in history people have attempted to flee the Empire, and learn that this place has its own pseudo-nation - and make some extrapolations about its application today in the "never offline" world.
The film The Matrix was in part a depiction of Philip K. Dick's idea of the Black Iron Prison. The heroes journey the Wachowski sisters gave us started with Neo's seeking to understand the true nature of his life and free his mind. That goal is repeated in this post. See you on the other side.
A few years ago Benedict Singleton wrote an essay, Maximum Jailbreak, that significantly changed my perspective on humankind's multi-century project to spread beyond the planet we call home. In it he explains just who the Russian Cosmists of the late 19th Century to early 20th Century were, what their legacy is, and how that project maps onto the current area of thinking known as Accelerationism.
Singleton neatly summarises the Cosmist worldview with three phrases: "Storm the heavens", "Conquer Death" and "the Earth is a trap." It's that third phrase that we'll be focusing on here to help frame an elaboration of Earth's potential looming future as a Prison Planet.
...this is the characteristic gesture of cosmism, what we might call the “cosmist impulse”: to consider the earth a trap, and to understand the common project of philosophy, economics, and design as being the formulation of means to escape from it: to conceive a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault. [Maximum Jailbreak]
As he continues to elaborate - looking at traps as a form of design thinking - there's a coevolution of intelligence at work between predator and prey; between the hunter and the hunted:
It’s a knowledge of traps and how they function that enables one most easily to undo a trap that one is in: a talent for escape is predicated on the same intelligence that goes into entrapment—indeed, in the example of the traps that people set for each other, it’s clear that—as Hyde puts it—“nothing counters cunning but more cunning.” To outfox is to think more broadly, to find the crack in the scheme, to stick a knife into it, and to lever it open for new use. Freighting the environment with a counter-plot is the best device for escaping the machinations in which one is embroiled: a conversion of constraints into new opportunities for free action, technological development as a kind of Hydean accelerationism. [Maximum Jailbreak]
Escaping the trap of Prison Planet will require cunning: most immediately by understanding that it's already well under construction, and crucially, that it may be the impetus for us to fulfill the Cosmists' vision.
That the Prison itself contains the pieces required to not just defeat it, but craft a much better future. Just as the cliche of the inmate using sheets to make a rope and a spoon to dig a tunnel, the things that would be used to contain us may become the instruments of our salvation.
As an event in this alternative history of design, cosmism arrives as a kind of absolutization of its basic principles into a project of generalized escapology... If design is a hustle, then cosmism is the long con—or perhaps more precisely, the most extravagant gesture of lengthening the hustle into a con: not simply an aggregation of hustles—a chain of coin-tricks, each self-sufficient, without bearing on the next—but a process of nesting them into a cultivated scheme or expanding plot, so that each gambit paves the way for the next. [Maximum Jailbreak]
This post will form a bridge between the ideas examined in the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series and those earlier outlined in as an Atemporal People's Republic. Between an Earth where the freedom of movement of 99.99% of humanity is increasingly restricted and every activity and thought monitored - just as the 0.01% are poised to storm the heavens - and a space-based republic where all of humanity is just a fraction of the population of its citizenry; where AIs and Uplifted animals are ... Read More »