Here’s chronological links to all the Guttershaman pieces to date, each with a few lines for you to get the taste…
“In many ways, I am not a refined or subtle man. I come from lower-working-class English mongrel stock, and despite a childhood where I was reading books and thinking thoughts far outside the experiences of my family, school ‘friends’ and teachers, the habits and speech patterns of that time stayed with me.
(It’s notable, for example, that whenever I become emotional about something my normally fairly neutral Brit speech patterns revert to those of my family – in short I sound like John Constantine getting stroppy! Well, without the Scouse undercurrents. You get the idea.)
(Also, I swear like a fucking bastard.)
My background meant that my first exposure to theories and concepts of magic came from my local library. Finding books on myth, then occult praxis, pretty much saved what for sake of argument I shall call my sanity. I never stopped reading – and after a while I noticed something very odd… that I was picking up a lot of useful ideas and myths from fictional works, perhaps more than so-called non-fiction.”
“For me, magic has always been about seeing and making patterns – connections between events, people, symbols, myths. What would be mere coincidence for someone who is not a magician can be a rich signal from Fate to one who is – or, depending on the timing and the mindset of the mage, just an amusing synchronicity. Pattern-making is the core of the oldest magical theories – from the Law of Similarity onward.
There’s a technical term in psychology for faulty pattern recognition –apophenia. It’s the sort of word used to dismiss conspiracy theorists and ‘schizophrenic’ points of view. The problem with that of course is, what exactly is ‘faulty’… especially if that pattern can give rise to a magical action which results in actual change in the world. (And of course, who gets to define faulty.)
Pretty much all human thought, by definition, is about manipulation of symbols. Language is made of patterns of symbols interacting – and if the language lacks a symbol for a concept, it can’t express that idea. Most people, most of the time, do not question the symbols they use, or the patterns made by them. They only rarely question whether the symbol-set they inherited is a faulty pattern or not. To do so isn’t just frowned upon, it’s immensely difficult to do – because the person doing so is trapped by their own language.”
“Earlier, I made the point that there’s a difference between what is (for want of a better word) real and what we can actually describe. This is an idea which many find a little troubling.
It’s not a new idea. Plato’s Cave model is a couple of thousand years old at this point, the acceptance that reality cannot be fully described a basic in Taoism, which is at least twice as old. The modern riff on this usually called Post-Modernism has been around long enough in modern society to become cliché.
I think the reason folk find this notion unsettling has a lot to do with the need for stability. Once you start considering just how much of ‘consensus reality’ is neither that real nor that much of a consensus, things get very unstable, very fast. People work harder to reinforce the boundaries of their version of reality when it is questioned – often falling back into simpler beliefs which they don’t have to think too hard about.
“Just keeping it real”…
Another reaction is, of course, to ridicule the idea. Often when the idea of a subjective element in perceived reality comes up – both in discussing post-modern ideas in general and modern magic in particular – the line of attack most used is “You don’t believe anything is real, right? So why can’t you walk through walls then?”, or similar.
It’s not that we think nothing is real. It’s just that we’re aware that local definitions of reality vary, that the context matters.If you change language, you change the way you think. Change the way you think, you change which parts of the outside world get filtered. The outside world doesn’t suddenly go away, you just notice different bits of it…”
“Previously, I made the point that any theory or description of how magic works will be necessarily subjective, partial and on some level utterly incapable of fully describing what happens. But I’m going to have a go anyway.
So, a magician takes patterns in their mind, forges meaningful connections between symbols, events, people and places and things. This set of patterns, their map of the universe if you like, orients them and shows possibilities of action.What happens next? That depends on the map.There’s a few ways of describing the overall patterns – the meta-models – used in most magical styles. A good summation of four rough types is here. Using that scheme, I’d describe what I do as a mix of the Energy and Information models, with a side-order of the Psychological. I don’t work the Spiritual model much, except when needed (i.e if I encounter something that acts like a spirit!).The Energy model – especially the Far-Eastern-styled variants – is pretty good for describing what I actually do and feel when I ‘do magic’. A ‘spell’ to me is basically a series of instructions imprinted onto personal energy and send out on a push of focussed emotion and intent. Like a martial arts punch – it’s not just the movement of hand and arm that matters, it’s the will behind it.And, again like martial arts… it’s all about the breath.”
Cultures are always a mix of the native and the foreign, the traditional and the new. Have been ever since humans started to trade. The quote at the start states the mix of currents in Chinese spirituality quite nicely, for example. The degree of mixing changes over time and place – sometimes just a touch, sometimes a dollop. Sometimes the mixings can provide something genuinely good – like the massive upgrade to British cuisine provided by Asian immigrants in the 1970′s. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well – such as Japanese whiskey. But cultures and traditions evolve through mixing and exchange of ideas.
This is especially true of Britain, a Mongrel Nation if ever there was one (as explained in scrupulous and often hilarious detail by Eddie Izzard in his TV show of that name). The original native British (and Western European) ‘shamanic’ traditions are all but gone too, banished by the Christians… but enough hints and pieces remain in myth and legend – in our culture – to inspire a new ‘tradition’ of mystical praxis to arise. It’s not terribly authentic, in all likelihood – there’s no way to really know (though many talented pagansand historians are doing their best to find out all they can about it.). Large chunks of it have been drawn from other native traditions. But it is powerful and quite beautiful at times. At other times, it can be a farrago of confused, misquoted and misapplied traditional currents, mixed in ignorance, stirred in arrogance. The result isn’t authentic at all – no matter how hard some Newage types try to claim it as such.
No question that the Plastic Shamen and their techniques are all-too-often a hodge-podge of different traditions and practices thrown together more-or-less at random. And, I have to admit, that could be said of what I do too.
That’s part of the reason I coined the term Guttershaman to describe my path/spirituality/whatever. Most people know what shaman – and gutter – implies.
To anyone who’s paid attention to history (and is not part of a religious or political tribe which rejects examining the past through any filter but their own) the definition of normality is a mercurial thing – changing constantly, no more solid and immutable than fashion. But all those definitions of normal have to be about stability, conservative (small ‘c’) attitudes, preservation of the status quo – and I do see the necessity of that. But at the same time, there needs to be room for outliers from that majority view, or the culture/tribe/country stagnates. There’s even indications that the lack of innovation caused by the rejection of the un-normal can destroy civilisations.
Perhaps this is why so many societies have times where the rules of the normal are temporarily suspended, where the usually despised and shunned aspects – sexual expression, weirdness, dressing strangely – are allowed to roam the streets. Carnival. Mardi Gras.
That lovely time of the year, when dressing like a monster (and increasingly, a sexy monster) in public is acceptable. When for a short while, Goths, gender queers and other outsiders can blend in, won’t be ostracised. When the rules of Normal don’t quite apply. Where the superheroes and wizards and beasts are, briefly, as welcome as anyone else.
And of course a time when the normal folk get to be tourists in the Tribe of the Strange… only to wake up the next day (possibly with hangovers and/or sugar crashes) and go back to the ‘real’ world where dressing up like David bloody Beckham is the only acceptable form of cosplay – and the demons and witches get put back in the box marked ‘unreal’.
The idea that spiritual purity and earthly success reflect each other – whether one calls it the Law of Attraction, Prosperity Theology or what have you – may seem to contradict the idea that the soul is more important than the material world. I think that it’s an inevitable result of how soul/body dualism is usually expressed in the West.
The idea goes:
“Money is power. If I have money, I am powerful. If there is a God or spiritual force, then surely my power and position show that God favours my endeavours? If not, surely I would be poor and powerless?”
Add to this the concept that the soul is immortal and thus above/better than the body… and you get the justification for an awful lot of cruelty and privileged behaviour.
“You’re poor? That means your soul is weak, that God does not love you.”
Then, up steps the Guru.
“I can make your soul better. I can bring you wealth in this world and the next. But in order to show you are ready, that your are committed enough to begin this process, you have to make an offering. A sacrifice to the coming purity of your soul and the inevitable favour of God.”
“That’ll be ten thousand dollars, please. Here’s your receipt.”
If you’re the Guru and your prime interest is making money, it’s quite an effective sales technique – and provides a lovely example of just how powerful the Guru’s mojo is. After all, look how much money he has! He must be good at this!
…and if you should fail at the various little tests at the weekend spirit warrior workshop…
…if you can’t break a board with your hand after an hour of preaching (rather than ten years of martial arts training and physical conditioning)…
…if you can’t stay conscious in a sweltering hut covered in plastic tarps with no water or ventilation…
…if you die while under the Guru’s tender care…
..well, that’s a shame. At least your soul learned something. Better luck next incarnation.
…of course you could also make a case that Otherkin – Avatar or otherwise – are just mad. That they’re taking their imagination and wish-fulfilment too far, that they’re just sad fanboys-and-girls who’ve played one too many role-play games.
For one thing – every religion or belief system looks crazy from the outside. All of them. Yes, even yours.
For another, these sort of beliefs are not only becoming more prevalent, but they’re also starting to be recognised as a legitimate expression of spirituality in our post-modern (and increasingly – I hope! – post-Judaeo-Christian) world. The sociologist Dr. Adam Possamai has coined the term “Hyper-Real religions” to describe them, and I’ll be coming back to that idea much more in later posts. Short version for now – people trying to seek meaning in a world where trust in traditional top-down belief structures has failed them often look for new myths to try and work out just who they are. They’re often a lot less picky about how ‘true’ something is for it to be ‘real’ to them… and there’s an awful lot of mythos to choose from these days. The end result – Otherkin, the Jedi religions and much else.
The Tribe of the Strange has a lot of overlapping sub-groups. The Venn diagram for ‘SF fan’, ‘occultist’, ‘tabletop role-player’, ‘BDSM/kink practitioner’, ‘polyamorist’, ‘Pagan’, ‘computer programmer’, ‘comic book reader’, ‘cosplayer’ etc. will often show a lot of people in any one category having at least two of the others going on. Unsurprisingly, they all feed into each other… so that, for example, the roleplayer – whether in the form of tabletop or computer gaming or sexual exploration – will see a parallel between what they do in that state-of-mind and carry it across to their spirituality. (And if you’ve not yet experienced the kind of intensity which a good role-play session can create, the heightened unreality that nonetheless feels, at the time at least, utterly true and real… then your opinion is, shall we say, uninformed.)
But like any bunch of tribes, there’s a certain amount of internecine warfare going on among the conversations between them. (Drop words like ‘furry‘ or ‘Gorean‘ into some of those conversations, for example…) The degree of snottiness involved usually stems from one group having a perceived status over the other – of being more ‘real’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘proper’ or, my old fave, ‘authentic’. But there’s a phrase from one of those overlapping groups that fits pretty well here.
Your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.
So, like I was saying earlier – this Jedi walks into a Job Centre…
Because it’s a British Job Centre and we’re the proud world leaders in intrusive CCTV surveillence, the staff ask our hero to lower his hood. (Of course he’s in hood and robe – Jedi, remember?) He politely refuses, on the grounds that doing so is against his deeply-held beliefs.
So they chuck him out. And he sends a letter of complaint.
A couple of weeks later, the Job Centre send him a formal apology for disrespecting his faith.
This delightful tale of modern manners is interesting to me for many reasons.
For one thing, it hit the news a couple of weeks before the finale of another case of alleged religious disrespect, one where the complainant didn’t get the result they wanted. In this case, it was a Christian woman, a nurse, who was asked not to have her crucifix-on-a-chain visible at work. She sued the hospital and lost.
The parallels are notable. For one thing, both complainants were making a fuss about a display of their faith which is not defined as either a right or requirement of their belief – the Bible has no “Thou Shalt Have Jesus On A Stick Swinging Around Thy Neck” commandment and the Star Wars films have many examples of Jedi doffing their hoods in a variety of public and private settings.
The major difference, the thing that really interests me, is that the believer in a completely fictional faith actually got more respect and better treatment than the one from the long-established, allegedly historically-based one. That’s a first, I think.
And it’s a game-changer.
What happens when belief systems which cheerfully admit they are based on fiction get the same recognition in society and law as the ones that claim they’re not?
Another notable aspect of how Moore’s magical working blurs alleged fact and supposed fiction is his story of how he met one of his creations – the working-class mage John Constantine – in the real world. Twice.
In 1993, he told Wizard Magazine of his first encounter with Constantine (whose appearance was initially based on the pop-singer Sting):
“One day, I was in Westminster in London - this was after we had introduced the character - and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut, he looked… no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.
“I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.”
His second meeting with John Constantine is described in his performance piece, Snakes and Ladders (adapted in comic form by Eddie Campbell and available as A Disease Of Language), and it’s of considerably more importance…
“Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’ “
In a later retelling of the latter story, featured in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (which can be seen on YouTube here), Moore adds that the second encounter took place in a ritual context. Nonetheless: whatever you believe about how ‘real’ the encounter was, those words are worth considering very carefully.
Any cunt could do it.
Let’s assume that this instance of ‘John Constantine’ was telling the truth – admittedly a bit of a stretch for a fictional character, especially one noted for being something of a con-man… but let’s go with it. Let’s also assume he wasn’t being literal about the ‘any cunt’ bit – in this context, from a working-class Englishman, it should be taken to mean ‘anyone’. Besides, it’s certainly true that the successful practice of magic is not limited to those with vulvas.
So – the ultimate secret of magic is that anyone could do it. No limits of race, gender, religion, caste or class. Especially, no limits on how rich you are – magic is so very often what the poor have instead of material wealth and power (or, sometimes, a route to same). Sure, it’s nice to have bespoke kit, your own house, a selection of good quality incense, candles, knives and drugs… but it’s not necessary. You can do very effective magic stark bollock naked in a bare room with nothing but your Will and your bodily fluids. Trust me on that.
The Way of the Guttershaman cannot be taught. But it can be learned.
God, that’s really fucking pretentious, isn’t it?
What I mean is, the Guttershaman approach is just that – an approach, a set of habits, a perspective for interacting with occult possibilities. A bricolage of weird shit. In short, a way of making your own toolkit for working magic using whatever fits.
The toolkit idea is one that’s important to me. I’ve written about it elsewhere, in my thoughts about what I call the Tribe of the Strange, that Outsider-fanboy-weirdo cohort that pops up every generation, and has to find it’s roots elsewhere than the mainstream of its birthplace society. The Guttershaman approach can be seen as a toolkit for the magic-using wing of the Tribe.
So, assuming you want to… how do you make a Guttershaman toolkit?
You start with metaphors.
The definition of magic I came up with in an earlier Guttershaman piece goes like this:
Magic is the means by which some observers can use and manipulate the patterns they observe to change the world.
This means you’ve got to look closely at how your personal patterns interact with the phenomenal world. It also means the more (and wider) varieties of patterns you’re familiar with, the more scope your explorations will have. More symbol-sets, more metaphors. Better, more complex tools – ranging from metaphorical mallets to jeweller’s screwdrivers. And, always, a good reliable multi-tool for use in a pinch.
Your multi-tool, to push the metaphor, is having a solid yet flexible set of symbols which relate well to each other and pack together neatly. This means that somewhere along the line, you’ll have to study one occult system or symbol-set in depth. In my case, it was the combination of Western Alchemy and its Sufi parallels/influences – but as long as it’s a system with a lot of built-in flexibility, and one that you can relate to on a deep emotional level, it doesn’t really matter which one it is (though of course which one you work with will strongly influence all your other tools). It is vital, however, that you ingrain it deeply. In order to gain a working knowledge of what other bits and pieces will work for you, you have to have something to compare them to – this system provides your baseline.
(Hate to resort to yet another hoary cliché, but it’s kind of like jazz – before you can successfully improvise, you have to be able to play the bloody tune properly.)
And of course having an actual multi-tool is a damn good idea too – along with it’s communications equivalent, a smartphone. (More on physical tools and props below.)