Thursday, May 31, 2012
Babies, Bathwater and the New Age
The New Age movement is one of the great enigmas of our time. You won't find hardly anyone willing to defend it or define themselves as a "New Ager," and yet the movement has slowly and quietly (some would say insidiously) changed the culture at large, for better and worse.
I didn't know there even was such a thing until Shirley McLaine brought it into the mainstream with the 1986 TV movie of her autohagiography, Out on a Limb. Of course, I'd been heavily immersed in the movement prior to that but what I thought I was involved with was an underground and vaguely outlaw occult movement that itinerant Deadheads were introducing lost and bored punk rockers to in the mid-80s.
It seemed to be a rich and loamy mission field-- the first wave of hardcore punk had fallen apart, giving rise to Nazi punk, thrash metal and nihilist grunge. None of the energy or optimism of the early 80s was left in the movement, as a great darkness had descended over the scene. A lot of punks were gagging for an antidote.
There were certain precedents in Post-Punk, particularly the British bands (Killing Joke, Comsat Angels, Coil, Current 93, etc) who toyed with the kind of post-hippie occultism that would have such a decisive impact on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and the rest of 80s British Invasion, but I would definitely credit the 80s renaissance of The Grateful Dead for the clandestine spread of the "New Age" ideas in the counterculture at large.
None of us had any idea that there was a "New Age" movement already at work, particularly in the American West, and very few would want anything to do with such a touchy-feelie, post-hippie kind of thing if we did. The 70s occult underground-- centered around hotspots like Manhattan's Magickal Childe-- was a better fit.
It must be said that the 1984 film Repo Man does an amazing-- almost prophetic --job in capturing this weird conjunction between disaffected punks and aging hippie mystics, especially considering that such a thing was completely unrecognized at the time.
The admixture of themes like late-period Cold War paranoia, Fundamentalist brainwashing, working class collapse, UFOlogy and Synchronicity are thick and gooey layers of radioactive icing on this dense, thorny layer cake.
There were other streams feeding into this as well, also tangentially related to The Dead; the personal computer and hacker scene, the nascent Cyberpunk scene (William Gibson's Sprawl books are as much about alt.spirituality as they are about tech), the vogue for outlaw physics championed by people like Jack Sarfatti and Saul Paul Sirag and then-fashionable deep ecology movement signaled that the New Age wasn't hostile to science (especially weird science), it embraced it.
Old counterculture icons like Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson enjoyed new interest in their work. The Burning Man movement arose during this time and caught on like, um, wildfire, capturing the unconscious impulses of a new generational counterculture.
Of course, then Shirley MacLaine put a stop to all of that- or most of that-- almost immediately and the New Age became the almost-exclusive province of declawed neo-hippies and a certain breed of middle-aged housewife who became the New Age equivalent of Dana Carvey's Church Lady.
Whitley Streiber's Communion steered what was left of the counterculture New Age into the New Ufology and Grunge- the dreariest and most negative microculture vying for dominance in the late 80s rode to victory on the back of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and left nothing but teenage rubble in its wake.
The Tech boom of the early 90s leeched away the Cyberpunk crowd with the promise of Silicon Valley riches. Cyberpunk bible Mondo 2000 tried to create the "New Edge"-- essentially gathering up the same elements of the New Age counterculture-- but that effort was bled dry by the new Gold Rush and the increasing power and prominence of the Neo-Theosophist faction that had taken control of the New Age movement in the wake of the unparalleled popularity of Shirley MacLaine's and JZ Knight's books, as well as The Celestine Prophecy and later, The Secret.
The mighty Religious Industrial Complex didn't sit by idly and watch of this go down with bemused befuddlement- it saw this new counterculture as a serious challenge to its power, influence and financial security.
The Christian Right went into a full-blown meltdown over the New Age, with writers tearing themselves away en masse from their airport men's room perches, peepshow stalls and favorite rest stop clearings to man the typewriters and word processors in defense of the Faith of their Fathers. They were goaded on by an obsessive harpie from Michigan who saw the New Age as nothing less than the work of Beelzebub himself, and who'd been shrieking about the movement to anyone who'd listen since the 70s. Nobody much listens anymore, but she's still shrieking.
The importance of the anti-New Age agenda was impressed upon the shills in the Conspiracy underground as well. Soon, intel dupes like Bill Cooper and Serge Monast were warning of the "New Age One World Religion," an self-contradicting impossibility given that the movement was by definition fractured, decentralized and creedless; the old cat-herding bit, in other words. At the same time Cooper and Monast were tapping out their screeds with aching forefingers, their handlers were creating the real one world religions; Fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic.
Which is not to say that the New Age movement itself is blameless, and was not infiltrated and used for nefarious purposes, one of which was the testing ground for MK techniques that were subsequently exported to the Megachurches. At every turn ideas that took root in the New Age movement were appropriated and mainstreamed, an inevitability in a movement that lacked any kind of structure to guarantee simple quality control, never mind control of intellectual property.
At every turn, bad actors appeared to peddle crypto-authoritarianism and create dangerous cults which sucked away people's self-will almost as quickly as it drained their savings accounts.
Again, the fingerprints of secret gov't creepie-crawlies can be found everywhere you look. The looming shadow of Theosophy darkened the movement, or at least the unsavory legates of Blavatsky like Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Alice Bailey (the former was infinitely more dangerous and powerful than the latter, but served the ultra-right agenda, so the conspiratainers were told to leave her alone).
Indeed, for many people the movement was known more for the hucksters and charlatans that used the open source aspect of the New Age-- which the old hippie idealists saw as a strength and necessity-- as a license to loot and plunder. I don't have to name names here; I'm sure you all have your favorite examples.
And there were/are a lot of foundational ideals in the movement that drove people away: misguided, "we are the world" Globalist cheerleading, knee-jerk ecumenism ("all paths lead to the Source"), contentless spirituality ("It's all energy"), a kid-in-a-candy-store approach to ancient symbol systems, the aforementioned neo-Theosophical authoritarianism, and a troubling insensitivity to human suffering ("You have cancer because that's the path you chose.")
But with the New Age you almost have to see it as an impulse (or a loose confederation, at best) than an actual movement. The various subsects usually had little in common and only interacted at expos and conventions, if at all. Adherents usually didn't describe themselves as "New Agers," that was a pejorative thrust upon them by the media.
And indeed, the New Age as a concept soon gave way to endlessly subdividing factions: the self-improvement movement (which grew out of the human potential movement), neopagans, Goddess-worshipping feminist separatists, Chaos magicians, neo-traditionalists, and on and on. For all intents and purposes, the New Age is simply a marketing catchphrase, the section at Barnes and Noble where I find the books I want to read (very few of which have anything to do with Oprah or Shirley MacLaine, of course).
And several important and meaningful ideas were brought into the mainstream via the New Age movement. Which is not to say there isn't fraud and abuse and irritation galore to bemoan, but that's the cost of living in an open society.
Health Awareness: "Health food" and organic food was once cloistered away in dingy hippie co-ops, now it can be found in supermarkets. Junk food profiteers are still in business but under pressures they didn't have to face before the rise of the New Age movement.
Vegetarians and vegans were once seen as the equivalent of devil-worshippers; now they are simply part of a menu of lifestyle choices. Exercise is now seen as desirable activity and not just a chore. Smoking is no longer socially acceptable. It hasn't always been pretty or painless, but this is in large part the legacy of the New Age movement.
Alternative History: Books like The Da Vinci Code and The Last Templar mainstreamed alt.history in a fictional context (often to the extreme annoyance of some alt.historians), but the New Age market helped make bestsellers of books like Fingerprints of the Gods. Orthodox historians still laugh it off but are finding themselves with a smaller amen corner every year.
For all its faults, the success of Ancient Aliens has gotten people talking about a subject that was quashed by the Religious Right.
Détente between Science and Spirit: The Establishment-- particularly their little media toadies-- seems heavily invested in driving a wedge between science and religion these days, despite the fact that the Vatican has totally changed its tune on science (including on evolution) and that many of the scientists and engineers doing the heavy lifting these days were raised in conservative Asian religions and have no trouble reconciling their faith with their work.
What is being put forth by the media is fundamentalist scientism and fundamentalist religion. It's a false dichotomy that is being deliberately whipped up to cause trouble and sow dissension.
At its best, the New Age movement had no time for any of that. No less a luminary than JZ "Ramtha" Knight unleashed the What the Bleep do We Know quantum physics primers, for whatever they're worth (I haven't seen them in their entirety). Call it "woo" if you must, but don't say they're anti-science just because you disagree.
Alt-UFOlogy: I'm always stunned by how simple-minded the debunker set are when it comes to UFOs. To them, they have to be spacecraft from another solar system or some joker is igniting cow farts. This shouldn't be a surprise-- none of the debunkers I've come across seem terribly bright (even if some are indeed booksmart) and they spend most of their time talking to each other, reinforcing the feedback loops.
Regular readers of this blog know I'm not big on the ETH (extraterrestrial hypothesis) and that I believe a careful study of the UFO phenomenon through history (and prehistory) reveals something that acts more like an espionage program than the work of curious, labcoat-wearing alien Margaret Meads.
Nick Redfern's new book suggests that a lot of UFOs are in fact beings, which makes me want to go back and rewatch all those "sentient orb" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
There's no shortage of messianic UFoology in New Age circles, but the blurring of the boundaries that the New Age once chased after also gave voice to Alt.Ufology, particularly the work of people like John Keel and Jacques Vallee (indeed, the old East West bookstore had a big UFO section, where I first saw Passport to Magonia). And of course, ancient astronauts are a given in the alt.research community that grew out of the old New Age movement.
Psi Research: As with UFOlogy, I don't much go for the clairvoyance-on-demand myth peddled by professional "psychics", all too common in New Age circles. And it's a good thing, too; you think surveillance is out of control now, just imagine if there was an army of mind readers keeping tabs on everyone. It would be intolerable. I know we're constantly hearing how mind-reading machines are right around the corner, but I think it's a pretty big corner we're talking about- they've been "right around the corner" as long as I can remember.
I do think there is interesting work to be done in psi research, the kind of stuff folks like Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake have done. I'm not entirely sure how useful laboratory experiments are, since I think this potential taps into a non-reptilian aspect of the brain and tends to be inhibited by the hostile conditions you'd find in a lab.
There are any number of useful and important tasks the human mind performs that can't be summoned on-demand, so any laboratory experiment that doesn't confirm psi is merely proving that psi doesn't flourish in such a contrived and artificial environment.
But making the leap that psi doesn't exist based on laboratory experiments (we'll leave aside what dens of fraud and deceit labs-- especially corporate labs-- often are) is kind of like showing a gay male naked pictures of James Randi, PZ Myers, and Penn Jillette and declaring homosexuality doesn't exist when they inevitably fail to achieve an erection.
Positive Thinking: This one gets a bad rap these days, but was a central tenet of human potential. We are bombarded with negativity-- now more than ever before-- and there's no question it has a deleterious effect on our psyches, our health and our souls. The adolescent quest for "Cool" that grips our society (as well as the adrenaline rush you get from fearporn) makes positive thinking anathema; it's far more fashionable to be grim, defeatist and miserable. It's much easier, too.
However, positive and negative thinking are self-fulfilling and a society that embraces negativity is a society destined for failure, just as a society that embraces nihilism (which is what the Skeptics and nu atheists are really offering). Certainly the corporate embrace of people like Tony Robbins and before him Norman Vincent Peale has understandably soured people on positive thinking, but I'm not really sure how much longer we can sustain ourselves with the negative thinking monkey on our backs.
I've never believed in "Cool"; "Cool" is cowardly and shallow, in my estimation. A human being is cool when they are dead. I believe in being hot-blooded, passionate and lusty.
There are other positive effects the New Age has had: a new appreciation for the Sacred Feminine, a more relaxed approach to office environments, a new engagement for men in child rearing and the household, a more holistic to environmentalism.
There are also any number of undesirable effects as well; the nanny state approach to health, a tendency to religious hysteria regarding environmental issues, institutionalized political correctness. But the movement has been remarkably effective in changing society in its own image, for better or worse.
I don't believe in the "New Age"- it's one of those linear approaches to human events that assumes that everything is progressing in a straight line to a utopian future. And the movement itself was co-opted before some of you were even born, giving rise to what is often an insufferable and denatured new kind of Puritanism. I think it tends to a kind of reflexive androphobia that robs it of dynamism and balance.
But it did open things up and create a space where new ideas weren't seen as inherently threatening and in that regard it's had a positive effect on society. Plus, there's that handy section at Barnes and Noble to take into account...
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