Meaning, Class, and Belief

March 10, 2014 — 18 Comments

While working on the first chapter of my work on Pagan Anti-Capitalism, I encountered an interesting thing I’d forgotten about for awhile.  As Capitalism is a Socially-Real system (that is, created and enforced by social interactions) and not a naturally-derived system (that is, it does not appear to mimic any other physical or social processes observed within nature, barring some clunky and agenda-ridden attempts to re-work biological evolutionary theory into social processes), it exists as Artifice (that is, “created.”)

In attempting to disambiguate both Nature/Natural (if you think it’s difficult to talk about the gods amongst Pagans, wait ’till Paganism has enough intellectual work to tackle inherited notions of Natural Law from the Enlightenment…), and to extricate Capitalism from Exchange (that is, Capitalism is a form of Exchange, not Exchange itself), I found myself confronted with that thing I’d forgotten about.

No other living thing systematically engages in Symbolic Exchange or Trade.  I’ve read some attempts to compare human linguistic activity to the communications amongst other species and find them fascinating, but the realms of Meaning ascribed to those sounds (that is, the symbolic behind the signal) are particularly human and extend beyond linguistic activity into entire spheres of activity and transform the whole of human (or human-as-animal or human-as-part-of-nature) relations and behavior.  Ideology, Theology, Philosophy and general ontological systems can radically change human activity.

Another thing which has gotten me thinking about this matter is John Halstead’s recent post on The Allergic Pagan where he explores the potential of a Devotional Practice with the World at its Center.  Ignoring the unfortunate comparison of devotional polytheists to “evangelicals” (the original language said Pagan polytheists, but at another writer’s insistence, this was changed to become more directed in its aggression), there’s a lot worth considering here for Paganism in general, particularly concerning the affective nature of belief and the difficulty in crafting religious systems from within a specific social reality.

Belief is amongst the categories of symbol and meaning which affect the activities of humans.  Belief in divine beings alters the actions of individuals and groups to be in accord with those systems of Meaning, just as belief in no such thing (a positive statement, as Atheism and Theism both make assertions about the existence of gods, rather than a Agnostic or apathetic stance) likewise compels behavior in accordance to that system of meaning.

A couple of questions come about from this.  First of all, why did the majority of intellectual critiques of Capitalism insist on A-theism?  Historically I suspect this derives more from whom was taken seriously as intellectuals during the 1800’s then from a necessary stance.  Also, western society has secular pretenses to cover its deep racist and imperialist stance, and while there’ve been religious and indigenous critiques of Capitalism since its nascence, none would ever make it into a textbook anymore than folks like Vandana Shiva or Arundhati Roy get any press beyond certain media outlets.   All of that is to say–Marxists and Anarchists are not and need not be inherently Atheist, despite the theological stance of some of their early intellectual proponents.

Secondly, the materialist/secular stance is incomplete as a critique of Capitalism.  Both Hegelian and Marxist Materialism have become quite divorced from their original critiques and instead seem to infect quite a few modern intellectuals who attempt to use it as a continued critique of society without its context.  Consider the “radical” feminism of Deep Green Resistance, which posits not an endless variation of gender but the end of gender altogether as a way of destroying what they see as the root of ecological damage–not Capitalism and Industrialisation, but Patriarchy.  This is no more rooted in historical truth then some Pagan ideas of an early, peaceful Matriarchal society, and, worse, it posits that transgendered and queer folks are really playing into the Patriarchy by embracing gender fluidity.

The mess of logic here has less to do, I suspect, with the personal positions of the folks involved in such messy translations of radical theories into de-contextualized nightmares; rather, I think it derives from untethering concepts from their contexts.   In some arguments about polytheism, such untethering has led to endless frustration in which words are said to “lose” their meaning.  What is really being said in those (very valid) complaints, however, is that concepts are losing their context.  When someone describes themself as polytheist and yet does not believe in the existence of gods, what has happened is not necessarily a willful appropriation of the term “polytheist” but rather a failure to understand that polytheist is the word used to describe a particular thing.

Any sound can be linked to any particular thing, of course.  That being said, the purpose of that sound (its symbolic function) is to refer to (that is, to be a symbolic representation of) a specific thing, be it a physical object or an ideological category.  I can just as easily refer to myself as a transperson, a person-of-color, or an Atheist, yet by doing so I’ve untethered those symbols from the things they represent.  That is, in the Symbolic Realm (the Social-Real), I am an aggressor against Meaning, regardless of whether I intend to be, because I am none of those things.

This sort of thing spirals endlessly outward the further away we get from the context of any particular categorical critique.  Consider Privilege.  Starting as a critique of Whiteness and Maleness, it’s become divorced from its original referents and now means very little because it can apply to anything (I was recently told that I have a significant amount of privilege as someone who has been poor my entire life, because that poverty confers privilege).  Worse, it makes actual criticisms of actual oppressive behavior lost in a mire of subjective arguments where the complaints cannot be heard because the words used refer to no-thing.

Belief and the Bourgeoisie

What fascinates me particularly about the untethering of Privilege from its context is that many of the complaints are quite valid, but fail to acknowledge a simpler category because it’s generally verboten in American discourse: Class.  Much of the systematic oppression which Privilege is used to address fits squarely within the traditional description of Bourgeoisie, even within Pagan contexts.  The discussions of Wiccanate Privilege, for instance, might have been better served by pointing out that the context in which many (white, middle class–that is, bourgeois) people organize gatherings for Pagans and speak on behalf of other Pagans is a place of assumption of normality, a defining characteristic of the Bourgeoisie.  Many of the Naturalist vs. Polytheist debates likewise could be better described as such, as it is a uniquely bourgeois insistence that the secular modalities which sustain Capitalism (and their position of power) must be the truth by which all other truths are measured.  Anything apparently anti-thetical to the continuation of the bourgeoisie, then, must be fought off, silenced or belittled, depending on the apparent threat.

Monotheism and its eventual secular facade (including Evolutionary Psychology, which despite its anti-Christian stance benefits from and utilizes many of the stances on Nature developed by Protestants) allowed for the creation of the Bourgeosie and continues to sustain their existence as a class, crowning them as the moderate center of society against which all else is aberration.  Polytheistic beliefs and practices which predate the bourgeoisie by millenia were not seen as much of a threat during the age of enlightenment, as anyone who embraced them were part of the same category of people (subaltern peoples whose stories do not appear in the grand narrative of western society even as they lived through it all) who had no political voice except violence or revolt.  Similar, as well, to the gender trans(gressive) or sexual deviant, even when they sometimes existed within the same class as the Bourgeoisie.

The fact that we’ve either collectively abandoned, forgotten, or ignored the existence of the Bourgeoisie in religious and gender debates significantly contributes to the difficulties in our discussions.  Modern Environmentalism for instance, is awfully bourgeois, as it attempts to re-inscribe critiques of Capitalism into a Liberalism (Liberalism is essential to Capitalism) which does not affect the existence or status of the Bourgeoisie.  In the same way, some Naturalists can be said to be doing the same thing, attempting to create a Paganism which does not challenge the conditions upon which their material existence is predicated.

This isn’t to say that Naturalism or Environmentalism should be abandoned or seen as false.  Rather, I suspect both could benefit greatly from addressing this problem and find themselves transformed into something more radical.  For Environmentalism, this should be obvious, as it began as a critique of Capitalism until it became defanged in order to meet the demands of the bourgeoisie (hybrid cars, changing lightbulbs but not actually changing economic behavior or dominance).  For Naturalists, it’s a bit more murky, but I would think addressing the function of belief would be invaluable to help them become a sustainable position.

That is, if belief in an Other (whether that be an immanent or archetypal Other) does not change the actual conditions of existence but rather justifies a current existence, then it might be constrained by class considerations.  Back to Marx–one of the more significant critiques of religion was that it helped justify the physical suffering and exploitation of the poor and served as a pain-reliever (opiate denoted anesthetic rather than stupefactant, again why the tethering of words matters) for them without addressing the underlying causes.  Polytheism and Animism both present powerful criticisms to the foundation of Bourgeois existence by addressing its Protestant/Secular reality.  I suspect it’d be possible for Naturalism to do the same, if it can abandon its bourgeois restraints.  And if it does so, it could be quite a powerful thing and avoid the fate of other religious tendencies which have sacrificed their radical potentiality on the altar of Capitalism. And if Naturalism can avoid that fate, I suspect Polytheists and Naturalists would be able to work together as separate aspects of the same alignment, rather then the current position pitting Radical critiques against Re-inscription into bourgeois ideals.

But as a good friend points out, I’m kind of naive sometimes.

18 responses to Meaning, Class, and Belief

  1. 

    Reblogged this on Lighthouses of the Soul and commented:
    I’m too shattered to elaborate, but here: post of awesomeness, with lots of pers… perspica… clever bits. You should read it.

  2. 

    A couple of questions come about from this. First of all, why did the majority of intellectual critiques of Capitalism insist on A-theism? Historically I suspect this derives more from whom was taken seriously as intellectuals during the 1800′s then from a necessary stance.

    Probably because you can’t have capitalism without a Mind/Body dualism and Manifest Destiny, both of which were religious.

    Any sound can be linked to any particular thing, of course. That being said, the purpose of that sound (its symbolic function) is to refer to (that is, to be a symbolic representation of) a specific thing, be it a physical object or an ideological category. I can just as easily refer to myself as a transperson, a person-of-color, or an Atheist, yet by doing so I’ve untethered those symbols from the things they represent. That is, in the Symbolic Realm (the Social-Real), I am an aggressor against Meaning, regardless of whether I intend to be, because I am none of those things.

    The purpose of a sound (or word, or glyph) is to refer to socially negotiated meanings which are inherently contextual. In fact, identical linguistic symbols can mean different things depending on the transformation of the context. Jagger’s tom-cat drawl on “Satisfaction” is protesting too much. Mothersbaugh’s clipped vocals are a caged animal beating itself bloody against a cage of commercialism.

    The semiotics of individual words and their meanings can only be understood in the context of grammar, pragmatics, and culture. Its the reason why I can object to “queer” as a slur used against me, and identify myself as queer, bisexual, and pansexual. I can see an insult like “switch hitting bisexual senior citizen” and rhetorically reframe it as something positive (unfortunately I’m not yet a senior citizen.)

    Attempting to invent an abstraction such as the “Social-Real” often works in the interest of furthering various oppressions. Take, for example, the insistence that the purpose of “marriage” is to refer to a specific heterosexual and reproductive relationship. I point out that this insistence that gay rights politics is about the “Meaning” of marriage is revisionist nonsense, since the anti-same-sex-marriage acts were pushed in states where same-sex-marriage wasn’t on the horizon in response to piecemeal recognition of same-sex partners. The appeal to an objective Social-Real is also liberally used to deny the experiences of trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming persons.

    It’s actually a bit of ugly fight I find myself in lately is the way in which radical queer descriptive language has been replaced by categorical and essentialist language in which identities compete with each other (“bisexuality is not sexual fluidity”). There’s an echo of that in “(… as Atheism and Theism both make assertions about the existence of gods, rather than a Agnostic or apathetic stance),” which are arbitrary boundaries that modern theology and atheism liberally cross, never mind that it’s really hard to call Huxley or Spencer “apathetic.” Maybe it’s because I’m coming out of a philosophical tradition that’s inclusive of monism and pluralism, skepticism and belief, that much of the polemics of the last few months just don’t make sense to me.

    For Naturalists, it’s a bit more murky, but I would think addressing the function of belief would be invaluable to help them become a sustainable position.

    You mean, as opposed to Deep Ecology, Deep Time, inherent sovereignty, animist phenomenology, non-anthropic mysticism, and ecological ethics? I actually find the fixation on belief to be primarily a carryover from Christian thought myself. I’m also going to be a bit of a curmudgeon and suggest that this “discourse” such as it is, has primarily been multiple rounds of “John Halstead is wrong this month.” This is often true, but doesn’t say much about some of the basic principles of Earth-focused religious relationships.

    • 

      I see your fear about the Social Real, and yet would throw both Derrida and Foucault at that problem. In the case of Marriage, Western discourse over the matter speaks of marriage again without context. It isn’t an ancient institution traditionally available to all, nor is the nuclear family older than Capitalism, it’s a (recently-created) social construct.

      I’m really glad you brought up queer attacks on language, because our existence transforms those social relationships and re-assigns meaning. In fact, the radical potential of queers is that they exist as concrete transformations of the symbolic (rather than mere untetherings of meaning). This would require a few more essays, and isn’t my focus currently, but our potential is that of rough bards re-arranging the symbolic. Unfortunately, too much of it gets left at the “words can mean whatever you want” without manifestation of the “want.”

      Regarding the dualism requirement for Capitalism–I need to disagree. I dislike dualism as much as everyone else, but I don’t think it’s a requirement for Capitalism but actually a product of it, at least the Cartesian sort. The protestant abolition of the Catholic magical ban on usury (only god(s) can/shall create ex nihilo) and the widespread destruction of shrines and wells in England had more to do with it, both changing the relationship of humanity to land and the gods.

      As another word, I’m not sure where I came off saying “John Halstead is wrong.” Actually, as I point out, I’ve got great optimism for such a project. I’m afraid Naturalists have spent too much time arguing against folk on spiritual matters which they won’t accept anyway, rather than working through the political implications of their own beliefs. And polytheists are just as guilty, which has led to a shift in my own focus away from defending myself against accusations from certain folks of the Naturalist tendencies towards helping Pagans (polytheists in particularly) acknowledge their radical potential and helping Pagans in general understand the workings of Capitalism and how to stop it.

      • 

        As I said in our private correspondence, I think that it is a mistake to mark Polytheism as necessarily radical. The political coloration comes from the deployment of Polytheism, rather than anything innate to it. After all, Christianity emerged as a radical critique to Roman hegemony: Monotheism and Polytheism are both capable of sustaining a radical agenda. If radicalization is all that you care about, then I don’t think that Polytheism is a necessary part of that project.

        I don’t see why Capitalism requires Cartesian dualism. Indeed, if there is a dualism inherent in Capitalism it is Self/Other not Mind/Body. Sharp distinctions between Self and Other allow for a usage based understanding of the Other rather than a network or system based understanding. Capitalism is predicated on a system of usage or commodity, which demands a subjugation of Other to Self. Only objects may function as commodity, and such a principle, broadly applied, strips the possibility of interiority from the Other, and instills it only in the Self.

      • 

        It isn’t by nature radical except in context to the current constellation of the secular compromise. One can easily conceive of a reactionary polytheism or capitalist-supporting polytheism, but it won’t happen on my watch. : ) Though I still think polytheism is harder to control, and fits under Negri’s conception of the Multitude.

        Capitalism is predicated on a system of usage or commodity, which demands a subjugation of Other to Self. Only objects may function as commodity, and such a principle, broadly applied, strips the possibility of interiority from the Other, and instills it only in the Self.

        I’ll need to quote this in my work, my friend. Also, you’ve just aptly described the process of disenchantment.

      • 

        The central objection I have to the idea of appealing to a singular “Meaning” at the Social-Reality level is that the Social-Reality level is sexist, heterosexist, and ethnocentric. On that level, polytheism is defined by religious studies scholars and cultural anthropologists who think that your views are much less significant than their ability to put primarily non-European indigenous cultures under an etic microscope.

        I think a bit of linguistic separatism from that is likely a good thing. I respect the definitions of polytheists because I think you have every right to define it that way, and the idea of outsiders claiming to be more authoritative than people about their own lives is ridiculous.

        As another word, I’m not sure where I came off saying “John Halstead is wrong.”

        I think much of the whole discussion about the semiotics of polytheism is built on a Halsteadism. I don’t consider polytheist identity any of my business as a bird-and-birdshit-tree-worshiper. I’m not convinced it’s a general issue for Earth Worshippers, except as the blog argument that just won’t die.

        Not to mention, you explicitly cited and linked to him.

        I’m afraid Naturalists have spent too much time arguing against folk on spiritual matters which they won’t accept anyway, rather than working through the political implications of their own beliefs. And polytheists are just as guilty,…

        These statements always strike me as having a bit of bias built into them. I can confirm the observation that arguments tend to get more hits and views than devotionals.

        Most of my disagreement with theists comes from the perception that they want a walled garden to keep us out, along with a convenient side-door to unload a periodic batch of night soil onto my garden. You’ll have to pardon me if I’m not entirely receptive to people who habitually show up in my yard with a wheelbarrow of bullshit.

      • 

        You know I always appreciate your comments and insights, even when you suggest that those of us who believe in gods “habitually show up in [your] yard with a wheelbarrow of bullshit,” right?

        I completely understand your critique of the Social-Real, though I think I haven’t made something clear which may be contributing to a misunderstanding. I’m no universalist, nor do I think there is one “objective” linkage of any meaning. It’s Social, so it’s localized and culturally specific. There are multiple linkages, each within contexts. The issue comes when we abandon context altogether except “individual” context.

        Let’s take it out of the polytheist debate altogether for a second, because it isn’t even what spurred this realisation. As I said, I was attempting to talk about Capitalism as a Natural system, and realized that I can barely even talk about Capitalism, let alone Nature, without having to re-attach threads of meaning and correspondence to the terms. Some very, very intelligent people have voiced to me a misunderstanding of Capitalism as mere buying and selling (or economic exchange), and this is not the fault of their intelligence but rather of the particular problem we find ourselves in when speaking about anything.

        Zizek and many European theorists have pointed to this particular de-linkage as being a function of Capitalism itself, because any and all “reals” must be subjective and personal in order to transform a person into a producer/consumer. Consider Marx’s description of what happens with the Bourgeoisie:

        “All freed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

        This mirrors Orwell’s fears about the loss of language, and Zizek says it most succinctly:

        We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.

        Thus so much effort on language. Besides, words are the art of the Bard, and I’m trying to understand precisely what Oghma’s power has become under disenchantment.

        In relation to your point about Halstead, I fear you’ve misunderstood me. Months ago, when I wrote that piece called Radical, Agressive,…etc., I mentioned in my comments to John that I’d intended to help show how Naturalists and Polytheists could get along within Paganism without some sort of ridiculous split. It’s as such that I have any interest in this at all (and why he was the first person I had “pagan tea time” with). Both sides have become unduly obsessed with each other because they seem to represent in the minds of the other a negation of their position. I’d like to see that change, and I get flack for it on all sides. My theist friends can’t see why I bother, while others accuse me of being dangerous to the mental health of people, politicking, being condescending or, as you say, in essence shitting on you.

        Gets a tad bit tiresome.

      • 

        I probably get unreasonably twitchy when it comes to linguistic flat-eartherism for the sake of making an appeal to “Meaning” because it’s the root of so much ugliness in queer and racial politics around here. It doesn’t help that some of my prior research included sociolinguistics, so I can’t not see a lot of language as political. So I apologize for my tone there since this is turning out to be an ugly week. Betkowski just said it better and more gracefully than I can, that understanding the language of another culture, even the one next door, requires a lot of work.

        On Nature and Capitalism, I agree there’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done to define both.

  3. 

    There are a LOT of ideas in this relatively short essay. I am looking forward to the book length version, wherein these can be unpacked in greater detail. Yet, so many things you say are things I’ve noticed *and also* are things I struggle with personally. I’ve accepted that there is no End Sum, no perfect stance, no Right Behvaviour, and thinking there are (and then failing to live up to those standards) is way in which our bourgeois capitalism keeps us beholden to them. Or the flip side: buy your way to environmental/social/economic change!

    And yet I still need light bulbs. I’m so glad you’re writing about this. My posts on Pagans and money are basically just calls for people to even start *talking* about our attitudes toward money and to stop Othering each other. I never even called for an examination of how we function in the larger wheel! So I’m glad (and a bit relieved) that you’re doing it!

    • 

      There are multiple other ways that Capitalism keeps us beholden to it which are sort of terrifying. They all come down to dependence, and (this will be in the book) we have become dependent upon it for things that we can do ourselves. One of those things is food production, but even tiny acts like growing a bit of one’s own food (or, say, having a chicken coop in the backyard…) get us closer to independence from it and interdependence on others doing the same thing.

      Generally the end of Capitalism is thought of as requiring lots of blood and violence. I think it’s much more possible that we can grow ourselves out of it significantly so that our attachment to it is so minimal that any aggression from those who have the most interest in keeping it around (multinational corporations, mega-capitalists) won’t have any support.

      • 

        Yes! Moving bits and pieces away from capitalism/dependency is super important to me. And/also supporting small, local businesses that honor community and the earth, for example getting honey from the local bee keeper and face cream made with some local botanicals. But it’s ALSO a feminist issue for me in that I cloth diaper, use ‘mama cloth’ (instead of traditional menstrual products), breastfeed, and try to cook as much from scratch as I can. (Of course, not choosing or being able to do these things is not necessarily anti-feminist.) My feminism and also my spiritual beliefs – both intertwined – attempt to remove me out of the vicious cycle of low worth/spend money/be dependent.

        I too would like to see a bloodless revolution. I am….. agnostic on this point. I refuse to jump to the conclusions that many peak-oil people put forth, which is basically apocolyptic. Nor do I accept that this is the best it can be. But it’s so hard to imagine a revolution that doesn’t cause violence, instate a different version of tyranny, or only benefit a few.

      • 

        I’m agnostic about violence, too, but I also have a uncommon view of violence, particularly when it comes to “violence against property” (which I think is an impossible act, as property is a category, not a thing-as-thing). Also, there’s so much violence inherent in the system that gets described as not-violent because it’s systematic, so the arguments about violence which don’t take those things into consideration seem to miss an important aspect.

  4. 

    There’s a reason you’re engaging with Halstead: he’s smart, thoughtful, kind, and cares deeply. He’s not just trolling for hits or out to tear people down. He’s really working out his experience. And he’s open to learning. I don’t always agree with what he writes, but I always learn something. You’ll get no flak from me!

  5. 

    I just want to tell you that it makes me happy to see a discussion and think “Wow, these waters are too deep for me. I’ll have to come back when I’m a stronger swimmer”. Thank you. 🙂

  6. 

    Don’t have much of substance to add other than to say that I’m excited to see you working on this project, and enjoying the series. And — a tangent — if you feel that devotional polytheism being compared to evangelicalism is somehow an insult, I’d love for you to read the excellent memoir of evangelicalism by my friend Patton Dodd, _My Faith So Far._ After I read it, I understood why we got along so well, because even though he and I were pursuing gods in different religious contexts, we really have a great deal in common. 🙂

    • 

      Glad you like it! And my reading list grows ever onwards!

      Hardly “insulted.” Just find it unfortunate, particularly when it creates artificial divides between gods-worshipers (the changing Pagan Polytheist to “Devotional” Polytheist), and the constellation is highly flawed (politically, socially, and theologically). But it shouldn’t negate the meaningfulness of Halstead’s work here, which is why I suggest people look past it and understand the context of the language.

      And on the matter of commonality, yes–I’ve found much in common with Christians in general, more so with Episcopals and Catholics than evangelicals, as the liturgical and Mystery side of the old Christianities resonates highly with my belief. Evangelical Christianity’s massive lack of shrines, altars, venerations, oblations, sense of sacred space, ancestor veneration, priestly functions, high holy days, use of magical process in worship, as well as the incense and candles (not to mention the political differences!) makes it a bit hard to talk about my belief with them. That isn’t to say there isn’t a commonality amongst people seeking the Other in a myriad of differing traditions, but in my experience, I’ve worlds more in common with Atheists than with most Evangelicals. 🙂

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