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Pop and Circumstance

How to Order by Jay Kinney

For us Americans, popular culture is the sea in which we swim. In ever accelerating fashion, the old distinctions between so-called high culture (opera, classical music, fine art, theatre, and "serious" literature) and popular culture (movies, TV, pop music, "trash" fiction, and everything from monster truck races to folk art) have evaporated. What is left is simply pop culture: the spectacular onslaught of rock operas, CD-ROM porn, NEA-funded performance art in nightclubs, infotainment, 900 numbers, celebrity journalism, Tina Brown's New Yorker, John Wayne Bobbitt's penis, Nancy Kerrigan's knee, Allen Ginsberg in Gap ads, Shirley MacLaine as spiritual adviser, Rush Limbaugh as political oracle, and on and on.

Like most contemporary Americans, I was raised on a steady diet of popular culture. When I was young, I prized my stacks of comics and Mad magazines, went to sleep at night with my earplug crystal radio tuned to the local Top 40 station, and parroted lines from TV commercials in unison with my grade-school classmates. The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion arrived in full force when I was thirteen, the perfect age to experience Beatlemania firsthand.

In high school I joined the ranks of science fiction fandom, found profundities in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, and orated on the metaphysics of Jimi Hendrix's first album for senior honors English class. The story is much the same for my college and art school years: I quickly became a published underground cartoonist and began producing pop artifacts as well as consuming them.

Of course I was operating with the comforting assumption that the pop artifacts that I was producing were part of a countercultural project doing battle with the insidious brain-numbing pop artifacts of mainstream culture. However, it only took the passage of twenty years and a few trips to other parts of the globe to realize that these distinctions were lost on most non-Americans. From their point of view, this was all American stuff, exuding that American naivete and vitality which the rest of the world finds so amusing. Pop was pop, and parts is parts, as the commercial goes.

Fast forward to 1994 and the GNOSIS office. Here we sit contemplating the hazardous interaction of popular culture and the esoteric. Does popularization cheapen that which it spreads? Can the subtleties of the ineffable survive the gauntlet of the assembly line and market place? When did the commercialization of the New Age reach the point of no return? Is this very magazine an example of that which it decries? Good questions all, and here we sit contemplating them in our navel-gazing way when The PoMo Tarot arrives.

In case you haven't seen this newly published Tarot deck by Brain Williams (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994; $30) let me describe it briefly. Better still, let me quote from its accompanying press release. "In The PoMo Tarot, Williams satirically co-ops [sic] pop icons, modern art, and the tarot and recasts them as immediately recognizable -- yet completely new -- images that transcend both art and the tarot. . . . Williams replaces the traditional suits of the Minor Arcana (staves, cups, coins, and swords) with TV's, bottles, money, and guns -- bringing a fresh relevance to this ancient divination tool."

Now there are two ways of looking at this item. The first is to embrace a certain playful spirit and chuckle knowingly: "Ah, now here's a Tarot for the '90s! It sums up the urban angst with an ironic cuteness that will be right at home for doing a spread over a couple of cappuccinos down at the neo-boho coffeehouse!" The second is to throw up one's hands in disgust and mutter expletives. "This @*#%$ deck is the ultimate in cynicism and triviality! It perfectly illustrates the fate of the esoteric in pop culture! Where's my Uzi?"

In either case, The PoMo Tarot highlights the tension between tradition and innovation, and between form and content -- two sets of polarities between which popular culture is continually caught. With the Tarot, you have a tradition that has grown by accretion, with later designers and thinkers building upon and superseding earlier renderings. In this respect the Tarot has been remarkably open to innovation. Yet the theory persists that the Tarot's original intention was as a set of didactic emblems that encoded an esoteric teaching. If this is true -- and some of the best commentators upon the Tarot, such as Paul Foster Case and Valentin Tomberg, have operated from the assumption that it is -- then to deviate too much from the traditional Arcana is to betray its purpose.

Then again, it can be argued that the typical Tarot buyer is not looking for encoded Hermetica at all. She (or he) is looking for a tool of divination akin to the I Ching that can encapsulate the present and point to the future. For this purpose, the cards themselves are secondary to the patterns of randomness that they portray when shuffled and dealt. Just as a "valid" I Ching reading can be thrown with three pennies from your change purse, so one could presumably derive a meaningful Tarot spread from a deck featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd: what's on the cards is largely irrelevant.

As luck would have it, another new Tarot arrived on our doorstep at nearly the same time as the PoMo -- in this case a CD-ROM Tarot program for the Macintosh called The Virtual Tarot (Virtual Media Works, P.O. Box 70030, Sunnyvale, CA 94086; (800)739-0301; $49.95). This innovative product also raises disquieting questions, although they are almost exactly the opposite of those raised by The PoMo Tarot. While the PoMo sticks with the traditional format of physical hand-sized cards but alters the traditional imagery, The Virtual Taro uses the uncontroversial Rider-Waite deck for its imagery and radically mutates the means of dealing and reading a Tarot spread. With this program, a random pattern generator in the software deals out video images of the cards (in any of ten different spreads) and information and interpretations of the cards are available at the press of a key. As these things go, The Virtual Tarot is a scrupulous and sincere program with a laudible attention to detail. What is uncertain is whether transforming the experience of tactile interaction with real cards into a virtual production on a computer screen inadvertently kills the whole point of the effort.

One common theory of Tarot posits that each person has their own magnetic charge, and that having the recipient of the Tarot reading shuffle and cut the cards temporarily magnetizes the cards with her energy, thus making the spread reflect her particularities of the moment. Obviously, if the Tarot cards are rendered into digital computer code and recorded on a disk read by a computer, the palpable "physical" influence of shuffling and cutting becomes highly abstracted if not altogether nonexistent.

On the other hand, if the Tarot mainly serves as a Rohrschach test composed of archetypal images with which one can engage in a self-analytical dialogue, then the real action is all in one's mind and the shift from physical to digital cards is not a problem. (And if you are of the school that finds the Tarot a distraction at best -- and CD-ROMs an expensive gimmick -- merely switch the example at hand to something like Christian hymns as sung by Elvis or Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men turned into a movie.)

If we step back from these particulars for a moment and try to capture the big picture, what do we see? Nearly all methods and traditions of spiritual development are predicated on the sincere efforts of the individual. Whether the means are meditation, prayer, study, observation, movement, or ritual, only you can experience it for yourself and only you can learn your own lessons in the process of trying. There may be some routes to realization that are more direct than others, but there are no shortcuts. This emphasis on the individual consciousness wrestling with the ultimate reality is the hallmark of the esoteric.

However, pop culture largely defines the individual as being part of a mass audience buying and consuming art/music/products/etc. which are produced by someone else -- usually a select group of artists and/or corporations. The lack of depth and meaning in most corporate pop culture is masked by sheer repetition, and the tedium which this invites is suppressed by the constant search for novelty.

In other words, pop culture both fixes the individual's attention externally and perpetuates a dependent relationship of consumer to broadcaster.

Pop culture also dotes on the ephemeral. It is superb at expressing the moment but generally awful at evoking the eternal or long-lasting. Thus the spiritual and the esoteric tend to run aground in the adamantly temporal and relative realm of pop culture. Insofar as the esoteric paths direct the individual toward the experience of the timeless and infinite, they are impervious to the dangers of vulgar popularization. However, since all paths and traditions must clothe themselves in some set of symbols or other, they are still susceptible to having their garments shredded, caricatured, and rendered overly familiar.

A recent ambiguous case: As this issue was coming together, the No. 1 CD in the Bay Area (and in the Top Ten nationally) was The Cross of Change by Enigma. You may recall Enigma's 1990 hit single "Sadeness," [sic] which featured samples of Gregorian chant overdubbed and mixed into a synthesized dance beat. Enigma's recent release goes light on the Gregorian, opting instead for vaguely Middle Eastern tinged trance mixes and New Age soundscapes. The lyric booklet inside the CD has hand-colored reproductions of alchemical, kabbalistic, Christian, and Islamic mystical designs and calligraphy. The back cover of the booklet displays a five-sentence quotation from Jelaluddin Rumi. Attached to the Rumi page is an order form for Enigma "official fan merchandise" including T-shirts, bomber jackets, and wristwatches!

Is this good or bad? Is it an exploitation of the esoteric or a subtle spreading of its attractions? It is almost impossible to tell -- probably both simultaneously.

Another recent example of the meeting of popular culture and esoterica is the new science fiction novel, Mysterium, by Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam, 1994, $11.95). In this book, an accident at a government research facility near the small northern Michigan town of Two Rivers transports the town and its inhabitants into an alternate reality where Gnostic Christianity is culturally dominant. Unfortunately the institutionalization of Gnosticism has resulted in a police state that is truly nightmarish.

Needless to say, since I have strong sympathy for the early Gnostics I was not very pleased with this portrayal of a Gnosticism gone bad. Yet here in the context of a science fiction novel -- the ultimate pop culture artifact -- the author created a plausible argument that it was all for the better that Gnosticism remained a marginal phenomena. Wilson affected my thinking even as I was immersed in the twists and turns of his dystopian page-turner. Not a bad achievement for something usually dismissed as genre fiction.

For the sake of a snappy wrap-up to this introduction, I wish I could render a judgment in black and white moral terms on pop culture's interaction with the esoteric and the spiritual. But as someone whose first venture into editing was pulling together a comic-book called Occult Laff-Parade, I find myself more of a defendant than a prosecutor.

Of one thing I'm sure: the process of commoditization and cretinization that is endemic to pop culture can't entirely wipe out the voice of the artist engaged in a spiritual journey, although it can make it rather hard to tell the difference between fool's gold and the real stuff. The best works of pop culture invite the viewer to wrestle with the issues they raise and complete the task of discovery in the individual's own life. Such works can serve as a pointer or inspiration to further study (or as a chuckle on the way), but they are not a substitute for such study.

With few exceptions the spiritual path entails aligning oneself with an experienced teacher or authentic tradition capable of guiding one's progress. Popular enthusiasms and trends may come and go, audiences may rise and fall, but the real work continues out of view.

Make no mistake, I still enjoy popular culture and find myself both producing and consuming it. This magazine is in many ways an exercise in making the difficult more accessible, that is, in popularization, and I consider this significant work. Many of the people discussed and interviewed herein could also be considered popularizers, and I believe you'll find their stories as interesting as I did. Ultimately we are all in the same boat, trying to impart meaning to our lives and pay the rent at the same time. May we all be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

(c) copyright 1994 by Jay Kinney

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