It’s been a few shitty-ass mental health months for me, but I’m trying to stay engaged. I’ve been reading some essays on aesthetics and philosophy (the former I would heartily encourage any sufficiently serious polytheist artist to have at least a basic understanding of in how it pertains to their tradition), and I’m getting pretty interested in how this relates to our cosmologies, the narratives of meaning we tell about ourselves and our powers, and how we communicate this meaning through visual art and design.
Sarah Perry over at The View From Hell wrote about the current state of fungibility and where it might go in the future – I danced around this subject quite a bit in Art and Numen, but the “demandingness” of objects and social constructs in our lives plays a big role in my thesis. Basically, if a polytheist world is necessarily one of stratification and differentiation, of “a time and place for everything” as per the requirements of being able to entertain a concept of the sacred at all, then we are fundamentally at odds with fungibility.
Most kitchen knives are purchased at retail outlets, like most goods. These knives are made primarily of stainless steel, a rust-proof alloy that does not demand much from its user. You can leave it in the sink overnight and it will just sit there, not rusting, shining up at you damply. Unfortunately, stainless steel is a poor material in terms of taking a sharp edge from sharpening. Indeed, it seems that over the past few decades, Americans have largely lost the skill of sharpening knives at all in their home kitchens. Most home kitchens I have visited contain dull stainless-steel knives, from the cheap knives John Thorne has accused of having “been made to look like a knife rather than to be one” to expensive Wusthofs.
Knives have become easy, non-demanding, non-functional, and sad. They no longer demand much from their users, but they certainly don’t deliver much. I suspect this is why vegetables are increasingly available pre-cut in plastic packages, obviating the need for the home cook to slice them up at all. Vegetables themselves demand less from the cook, simultaneously decreasing the reward the cook can receive.
The current secular moral climate of most western societies rewards fungible goods, labor, actions, and ideas. Sarah Perry makes the obvious argument that this has a pretty measurably negative impact on the well-being of both humans and our environment – increasing fungibility would seem to neatly correlate with an increased tendency toward disposability of both people and things, most prominently. Fungibility would also, then, undermine any progress we western moderns might make toward reclaiming more vernacular relationships with the world,. This is why I strongly (and contentiously) endorse that artists move away from digital media: the “demandingness” of tangible objects requires from us investments of time, skill, patience, and care in ways that ephemeral software will never ask, and those requirements are vital to maintaining right relationship with each other, our powers, and the world that we live in. It should be no surprise then that things which make no overt demands from us – no “near pain” – do not contribute to a healthy, lived cosmology. And the rest is usually a Faustian bargain anyways.
A related thought is the question of how we polytheist artists can contribute to the meaning-making, the poiesis, of our religions through our work. But the art world is swimming in talent, or pseudo-talent, and the blogger over at Liposuction makes seven neat and rather damning observations about the world of art right now – applicable to both the fine arts and the popular arts – that dovetail nicely with the concept of The Great Stagnation. What kinds of risk are we willing to take, or do we pursue our work with the rigor of the circlejerking hobbyist? How highly do we value innovation in our traditions? We’re open to new religious technologies like novel divination systems, forms of magic, types of altered states and prayer, for example. But these things operate at the level of the individual, which is generally understood to be on the lower end of things by us – as opposed to hard pantheists, new age transcendentalists, followers of promissory doctrines, etc. who believe man is the measure of all things – but are less and less accepted the further up the cosmological ladder you go. We are very skeptical about accepting new gods, but that doesn’t compare to the ire we often reserve for reinterpretations of established gods. How open to newness we are, and in what arena, is something artists have to consider carefully. Novelty for novelty’s sake doesn’t belong here, and I would argue that there ought the be a very good reason to break from established aesthetic tradition: “because I want to” doesn’t cut it. There should be a need. And while these needs do in fact exist, it’s rare that I see them being honestly recognized, evaluated, and met. (Usually because the artists in question would prefer to perform Perry’s “fake experimentation”, or “recycling”. Odin as queer liberator in drag, anyone?) Our powers aren’t paper dolls.
The problem with “Things I Like” is that, unlike most other egoistic pitfalls, it is not about virtue signalling, even when it appears to be. It’s about comfort. Dopamine is a completely internal reward system decoupled from the social, economic, political, and domestic life of the individual. It doesn’t even depend on performing virtue. It’s one of the things you take with you to your solitary confinement on the proverbial desert island because it doesn’t need anybody else. It’s emotional masturbation. Not that there’s anything wrong with masturbation per se. But what the dopamine won’t ever tell you is that there is a time and place for everything. And by extension, everything in moderation. Polytheism has the tools and the need to describe this phenomenon, and to tell the truth about it. Unfortunately, the author departs from my analysis in their post on narrative types, in that they believe that narratives which “punish hubris” like this are “bad”:
The Greeks were wrong, there are no gods to punish us for flying. This doesn’t mean flying won’t create new problems, it’s just better to not run from the challenges they present. Like Stewart Brand said, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
Personally, and I think you all can agree with me here, is that our powers do punish bad behavior, and they’re so good at it that they don’t even need to be present to do it, just by the nature of wyrd, or whatever correlate your tradition has, and that they punish each other by the same mechanism all the time. What left-brain thinkers don’t understand is that causation, which can rarely be established empirically anyways, doesn’t look the way that they think it does, because it usually takes a mytho-poetic form rather than a reductionist one – which is just as well, because a poetic injury usually hurts a lot more. But this is besides the point.
“Things I Like” is quite the entropic, miasmic force. It seeks to break down boundaries, muddy differentiation, raze the mountaintops of experience and fill the valleys with their rubble to create a bland, hazy, vaguely rewarding homogeneity. The Liposuction author’s “unbundling” is one of the deadly sins here, and unbundling, surprise surprise, serves the project of fungibility, or perhaps its more commonly known close cousin, fetishization.
In the previous post about this, it was suggested that direct experience was the best way to combat the psychological mud of “Things I Like”, and I’m still inclined to agree. We should be encouraging direct, ecstatic experience as often as appropriate. There’s nothing more sobering than feeling the presence of your god. Of course, not even that is perfect – we are human, after all, and an encounter with Hera could well be mistaken for an encounter with another divine matriarch, or for a smaller spirit, or for a sock puppet. Or vice versa. Unfortunately, it’s the best thing we’ve got, and with a healthy cultivation of discernment techniques, a practitioner can get quite good at these forms of mytho-poetic communication. But what of those who can’t do any of this, and who are forced rely on the testimony of others?
To them, I say continue to try – at the very least, the focus will bring you closer to right relationship, whether you can feel it in your bones or not – and to seek out good art.
And artists, it’s our job to do the experience justice.
Do not lead them astray.