DOKTOR SLEEPLESS #5: The Authenticity Rant

Posted here for reference, one of the most important things I ever read in a comic book: the rant on the nature of ‘authenticity’ in music, personality and life from 2007’s Doktor Sleepless issue 5, “Your Imaginary Friend”.

I gave a spoken-word performance of this piece in 2014 at Treadwells as part of my talk ‘Cthulhu, Fiction and Real Magic‘.

(Worth noting that an earlier issue also contains the retelling of Alexandra David-Néel’s tulpa experience, which I discuss in my recent academic paper The Tulpa In The West.)

I was also recently delighted to discover one of the ur-texts for this piece: Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor  (ISBN: 9780571226597, which has the Big Bill Broonzy information and a treasury of other tales in this fascinating area. A must-read if any of this interests you.

All rights to this piece remain with writer Warren Ellis, artist Ivan Rodriguez and Avatar Press.

doktor5.3

 

It’s 1991. Richey Manic is carving something into his arm because Steve Lamacq has suggested that The Manic Street Preachers lack an essential authenticity. What’s echoing in the backstage room is the voice of Ian Brown, still saying “Cos it’s 1989.Time to to get real.” In 1999 Godspeed You! Black Emperor start releasing CD’s sleeved in untreated cardboard. Intended or not, it denotes authenticity. Keeping it real. Like brown paper bags from Muji, founded 1980: Full name Mujirushi Ryohin, which means “No Brand, Quality Goods.”
Godspeed You! Black Emperor didn’t play the media game. Half of them were anarchists, and all of them hated the music industry. But of course they had a brand. You can’t help but notice that Naomi’s Klein’s book “No Logo” had a fucking logo on the front. Godspeed’s brand was authenticity. That’s what they had to sell. And if they didn’t sell records and gig tickets, then they were just 12 guys in Montreal eating ramen until they died. Richey Edwards couldn’t be Richey Manic, THAT RICHEY, unless he sold you on the concept that he was 4 real. Ian Brown and the Stone Roses couldn’t be that band, the band of the moment with the authentic voice that turned out to be the band in the right place at the right time and raised everyone up – unless they were more real than you.

 

Around the turn of the century Justin Timberlake began to carry around with him a group of black vocalists, whose job it apparently was, in live performances, to declare how “real” Justin Timberlake was before he began to sing. In 1938, sharp-dressed bluesman Big Bill Broonzy who’d been tearing up Chicago, played New York for the first time. But a blues guitarist in a good suit brewing up the primal muck of rock n’ roll with drummers and bassmen didn’t seem authentic enough to the Carnegie. So the concert programme described him as a poverty-stricken farmer who “had been prevailed upon to leave his mule and make his very first trek to the big city.” And they had him do acoustic guitar blues on his own. From there to his death twenty years later, he booked pretty much nothing but solo acoustic gigs. Because fake Big Bill Broonzy was deemed the authentic version.

 

No matter that he pioneered electric instruments in the blues, and was also recording with people like Pete Seeger, who wanted to take an axe to the cables when Dylan went electric in 1965. He changed his story in later years, but he was clearly offended by Dylan’s sudden inauthenticity, that maybe he’d been championing a fake all along. Because no one ever knew, or every one pretended to not know, that Bob Dylan was a fictional person. His authenticity was entirely constructed. Bob Dylan and Superman are the two greatest American myths created in the last century.

 

Who the hell wants to be real?

 

In 2006, Bob Dylan’s playing ” The Levee’s Gonna Break” Except the song’s called ” When the Levee Breaks” and it’s by Memphis Minnie. And she’s playing it in 1929, a few years before she moves to Chicago to tear up the town with Bill Broonzy. Who’s Memphis Minnie? One of the other great electric blues pioneers. And her name is actually Lizzie Douglas. And she’s not from Memphis either.

 

Authenticity? Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today. We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

 

You know why Grinders never got any respect in this town?

See if any of these comments are familiar:

‘You should be happy with who you are.’
‘Be yourself’.
‘That stuff is just fake.’
‘Don’t get any ideas above your station.’
‘Take that shit off.’
‘Dress Properly.’
‘Why can’t you be like everyone else?’

 

Yeah?

 

We are not real enough. We are not authentic to our society. Free speech does not extend to our own bodies.

 

But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “Fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to be someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about.” And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the same decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

 

Be authentic to your dream, be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies and become your own invention. BE MAD SCIENTISTS.

 

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.”

 

Guttershaman – Toolkits

Since I actually used the phrase ‘Way of the Guttershaman’ last time, I should say a bit more about what that entails.

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.)

I’d also strongly recommend you learn a martial art – not a fancy dojo-only dance, but something you can actually use in a street fight. A -jutsu, rather than a -do,  in Japanese terms. Nothing grounds you quite so well as knowing you can defend yourself, and specifically that you can use your body’s energies (Ch’i, Ki etc) and apply them directly. A spell, in the Guttershaman model, is simply ch’i with instructions encoded into it – so learn to push the ch’i hard and precisely.  Also, knowledge of tactics and strategy has an awful lot of application in magic, especially at the pointy end.

(I only ever recommend one book on martial arts… because while you can’t learn martial arts from a book, you can learn strategy and tactics. That book is A Professional’s Guide To Ending Violence Quickly by Marc ‘Animal’ MacYoung. All the practical tactical and strategic advice you’ll hopefully ever need. Though a look at Sun Tzu & Musashi certainly won’t hurt.)

Most of your toolkit will be things that you use to get you in the mood for magic, to raise the ‘energy’ for you to use – sets of associations with particular emotional states, that you can draw upon at will. My love of movies and TV means that a whole bunch of mine come from those media. (For example, I’m especially fond of the use of tunes from soundtracks and scores as musical cues for particular head-states. Make the associations deep enough, and you don’t even need a MP3 player… humming or whistling a couple of bars will do the trick nicely.) Particular ‘ritual’ clothes and jewellery can have the same effect – a practice that’s been codified at least as far back as Crowley.

This brings me to the subject of props. The actual physical tools of your toolkit.

They should generally be the best quality you can afford, though preferably something that can be easily replaced – but, most importantly, they should be the most apt object for the purpose, not necessarily the most expensive or rare. Some of them you’ll want to make for yourself – other bits you’ll buy off the shelf, and maybe customise to your needs.

(Here’s a lovely example: magician Jason Miller based a magic wand around a shop-bought replica of Doctor Who’s Sonic Screwdriver… which he enhanced with an elemental ritual. Nice bit of work, that!)

But at the same time, you have to be able to improvise, to use whatever is to hand – relying on your bespoke kit is fuck all use if you don’t have it on you, or it gets lost, or the batteries run out. Your primary toolkit is the collection of symbol-sets your imagination associates with magic – and that improv skill should mean you can pick up any object with a rough-and-ready resemblance to what you need and treat it as the exact, perfect tool for the moment.

(There’s a handy mind-trick I like to use for that, taken from live-action roleplay. Often, an object in the physical world of the game is considerably less accurate-to-type than what it is imagined to be in the fantasy setting – say, a tennis ball in place of a Magic Missile. These lesser objects are called Phys-Reps – physical representations. Maintain a catalogue of the archetypal versions of your tools in your head – usually, they’ll be considerably better than any object you actually use anyway. For example, if you like using lightsabres in magic – and, honestly, who doesn’t? – even the most expensive replica will pale in comparison to the one in your imagination. Make and keep that detailed imagined version of every tool… and when needed, superimpose that pattern on whatever phys-rep you actually have. Bingo! Instant enchantment.)

The majority of the Guttershaman perspective is learning which symbols and metaphors work best for you. This doesn’t mean just settling for a few different sets and leaving it there – it’s about using whatever you learn and applying it to how you interact with The Weird. Every fiction, every news article or speculative science theory, every dumb meme and ancient myth, should be grist for your mill. There’s always room to learn more, to think differently, to upgrade your tools. But you should also strive to remember: Never mistake your toolkit for reality – and respect the toolkits, the paths and stories, of others. Learn from all other ways, share the best of your own.

The Shaman part of Guttershaman, for me, is always about taking those tools and using them to go into the Weird and come back with more tools, more ideas… to hopefully enrich the Tribe of the Strange – and especially, to protect it. Not everyone who works magic is a friend or ally. Not all practitioners share our views or have our needs. Some, frankly, are just spiteful vicious cunts. If you’re thinking the Guttershaman path makes sense to you, never forget that the primary duty of the Shaman is to defend their tribe from demons.

I’ve been looking here at how the Guttershaman’s mindset works – how to construct working mindsets and models inside your head. Next time, I’ll be looking at the stuff that’s outside your head, and how you deal with it.

The little things. Like, for example, gods.

 

Too good not to post… Glass on Unicycles

via Bruce Sterling, who so often gets the good stuff, this splendid piece of street theatre/music.

A segment from the amazing street performance “Glissendo” at a French art festival: “Lightning” by Philip Glass. Concept and technical design by Ulik (the mechanical clown).

Unicycles, or Segways (or Daleks) under the robes? Doesn’t matter. This made me chortle like a happy baby.

No hay banda!

Been on a bit of a David Lynch binge the last couple of days – with both Beloveds away, I can induge those pleasures neither appreciates. As ever, that man’s movies get me all kinds of mystical and Mason Lang-y. (More about Mason and his odd tastes in movie criticism later.)

So, without further ado, featuring the talents of Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Richard Green and the glorious voice of Rebekah del Rio… the Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Dr.

(Interesting postmodern analysis of the movie – spoilers galore – and the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ here.)

Guttershaman – The Authentic Shaman

‘Of course the Chinese mix everything up – look at what they have to work with! Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.’ Egg Shen in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China

(Disclaimer: I am, to quote Jim Jarmush’s great film Dead Man, a Stupid Fucking White Man. I have no formal training in the deep mysteries of any native ‘shamanic’ or tribal tradition – of any single tradition at all, for that matter. I am just a product of my time and place, trying to find my way. That perspective is the basis for all that follows.)

The title this time around is a misnomer. There are no authentic shamen. Not any more.

The term ‘shaman‘ is a specific one. It refers to Tungus-speaking tribal practitioners of folk magic and spirituality. They were wiped out so completely by Soviet and Chinese Communism that Western ‘neo-shamen’ from Michael Harner’s school came over and instituted their own versions of ‘shamanic’ practice to replace the native tradition. So that makes anyone claiming to be a shaman – neo or Gutter or otherwise – inauthentic.

The idea of shamanism we have today, which draws ideas from many different tribal and native traditions (via anthropology, which co-opted the term), is likely a very different thing than the original Siberian form. The word ‘shaman’ has become a placeholder, a symbol for something else – usually describing various interpretations of traditional and tribal spiritual praxes involving a rather borderline position to the rest of the tribe, consciousness-alteration and ‘travelling’ to spirit realms for healing and wisdom. Of course, in considering the use of tribal spiritual motifs from other cultures, we soon hit a problem… which is usually called cultural ‘theft’ or appropriation.

There’s no doubt that an awful lot of problems have arisen due to the heavy-handed appropriation of older cultural concepts. The Native American Nations have often complained about (mostly) white New Age practitioners taking elements of their practices and touting them, out of context, as a spiritual path. Interestingly, common terms used by Native Americans to describe these Newagers are ‘plastic shamen‘ and ‘shake-and-bake shamen’…

I think the key factors here are around concepts of respect and authenticity. (A third factor is, of course, commerce. That’s a big enough can of worms that I’ll have to open it in a later post.)

The respect part I get, absolutely. Barging into a native tradition and announcing you’re not only a fully-fledged practitioner of that traditions mysticism but that you’re improving it and that the natives are Doing It Wrong, is insulting and crass. “Taking the piss”, as we Brits call it.

If you’re going to work fully in a magical or spiritual tradition, I would say showing due respect to the culture it came from is just good bloody manners, as well as good sense. But at the same time, worrying about how the symbols and memes of such cultures are used (or even misused) outside of their native context often seems more a matter of colonial guilt and shame than disrespect. It’s a complex set of issues.

(Plus, some of those tribal traditions have attitudes and practices – homophobia, misogyny, isolationism, child abuse, human sacrifice – which are frankly best left to the past. Of course the actions of colonial invaders in the past were often just as vile… and I can’t offhand think of a culture that has not been invaded and colonised at some time in their past, or been the invader, or both. Like I said, complex.)

Is it cultural appropriation for a white man to enjoy (or perform) Afro-Carribean-based music? Or for an Indian movie maker to be inspired by Hollywood (or vice versa)? Or an Amazonian native to wear a Manchester United t-shirt? For a magician to use laymans versions of quantum or meme theory as magical tools?

To me, that’s kind like asking whether Crossroads Blues was performed better by Robert Johnson or Cream. Or more directly, which is better – traditional Yoruba magic, Haitian Voudon, New Orleans Voodoo or Cuban Santeria?

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 pagans and 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.

Yes, I picked up my information from libraries, other practitioners, movies and TV shows – and I made a whole bunch of stuff up, based on my experiences and discoveries. At the same time, there was always something about the shamanic concept as I understand it that called to me. The elements of being an outsider to the tribe as a whole, but still in some sense having a responsibility to it. The use of ecstatic and terrifying occurrences as a tool for spiritual development. The process of bringing something back from ‘the other side’. And, ultimately, the sense of being called to the path by something beyond the normal world. If there’s any ‘authenticity’ in what I do, it’s to that.

My wife is also a ‘shaman’. Her path, to put it mildly, differs from mine. She found that her way is Curanderismo – the Hispanic American folk practice. She has spent a long time in Peru, learning it first hand from a master whose family has worked in this path for generations. She’s also a neuroscientist by training, and has picked up more than a little of the multi-model approach to magic both from myself and her own studies. Thus when she thinks about that path, there is a degree of both distance and immersion, depending on circumstance and context.

Also… her master has taken the sacred songs (icaros) from many different tribes in Peru and elsewhere to bring into his praxis. And… that tradition is itself mixed with Catholic elements brought over by the Conquistadors. In fact, the majority of the lyrics to the icaros are in Spanish and use Christian imagery. The pure native tradition just isn’t there any more.

Is the system she follows ‘authentic’? Is it more or less so for her (an American woman of East European Jewish ancestry and a trained scientist) to practice it than for her Columbian-born, mixed-race, Catholic-indoctrinated Maestro? And is she more or less of a ‘shaman’ than I?

Put it this way – she and I both get results. And we work together great.

It’s the concept of ‘authenticity’ that gets in the way, I think. It’s like ‘purity’ in some ways – an impossible, and sometimes dangerous, ideal. Except, perhaps, when talking about being authentic to an ideal…

To feel your true identity is not based in your immediate family, your tribe, your country and its religious and social habits – but is something you sense and strive towards – is not easy. Sometimes an idea from another culture is exactly the thing you need to, forgive the term, become yourself. Sometimes who you’re born and raised as isn’t who you are. It isn’t theft to find a different culture to your own enriching – as long as you are authentic in your respect, that you strive not just to take but also to give.

As long as you don’t take the piss.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

‘Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today.

We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

…See if any of these comments are familiar:

“You should be happy with who you are.”

“Be yourself”

“That stuff’s just fake.”

“Don’t get ideas above your station.”

“Take that shit off.”

“Why can’t you be like everyone else?”

Yeah?

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society.

…But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said, “fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to become someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about”. And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us, living here in the future, can achieve.

Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention.

Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.’

Warren Ellis, in Doktor Sleepless Issue 5, ‘Your Imaginary Friend.’

POSTSCRIPT – In researching this piece, I came across a lot of very interesting writing on the subjects discussed. Two I found – one long, the other very short – are especially worth a look.

(Next on Guttershaman – Culture, money and morality. Tricksters and thieves. Probably.)

Subjectivity 2 – The Revenge

I suspect my last post may have prompted the odd ‘what the fuck is he on about’ moment.

As I’ve said before, minds tend to work well when given a metaphor to sift ideas through. I’ve been spending a lot of my down time (well, most of my life really, but it seems to have been especially on my mind recently) trying to put my thoughts about belief, trust, religious and philosophical categories into some kind of form I can express.

Everyone has some opinions about such – and everyone has strong opinions about the kind of music they like (and especially the music they loathe). It struck me just how similar the expression of those can be – hence the last brain-spurt.

The music/belief parallel can be stretched further. And I’m gonna.

I have several friends who think very highly of The Smiths. I, to put it mildly, do not. Among these friends I’ve noticed an odd tendency towards evangelism… every single one of them has, apropos of nothing in the conversation at the time, suddenly tried to convince me of the genius of Morrissey at some point.
And I have to say to them;
‘Seriously – I don’t care how influential were, how Morrissey’s lyrics epitomised the Thatcherite zeitgeist or how ‘good’ a guitarist Johnny Marr is. I think they suck. Listening to them hurts my head and makes me stabby. Morrissey couldn’t write me a fucking shopping list.’

Despite this, I still love those guys who tried to convert me. I don’t hold their (dreadful) taste in music against them and, indeed, there are several bands we enjoy in common.

Which one of us is right? What’s the truth here? Were they wrong to try and share their love for The Smiths with me? Am I just too narrow-minded to appreciate the subtleties of their oeuvre? Or The Smiths really and truthfully a bunch of overrated whiners?

There is no right answer to these questions.

I know damn well my dislike of The Smiths (or Linkin Park, or Coldplay-Who-Are-Shit) is utterly subjective – just the same as my love of Gabriel-era Genesis, 13th Century Troubador songs, the voice of Lisa Gerrard and Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for ‘The Fountain’ is.

But there are those (my dear friends are not among them, I emphasise) who will cheerfully tell you that The Smiths are the best band in the world and anyone who doesn’t think so is an idiot. Or that the music of Bach is ‘inherently superior’ to that of Robert Johnson. Or that ‘jungle music’ is damaging to the soul.

Those kind of folk are rather harder to have a conversation with.
It’s not what they believe – it’s how they act upon it that matters.

I don’t have any problem at all with people believing something different about the nature of the universe than I do.
I don’t even mind them being passionate about their beliefs and expressing that passion to me.
I do have a problem with them telling me that they are indisputably right and that I am stupid/deluded/evil for believing otherwise.

But what about things that are absolutely true? Not subjective at all, like musical tastes, but testable facts?

I would say that there really aren’t that many such absolute facts, and that even these are mostly subject to interpretation.

And this pisses off two superficially different, but fundamentally (pun intended) similar groups – the Christian Fundamentalists and the self-styled ‘Rationalists’.

I’ll be picking a fight with them both soon.

Subjectivity

I have a friend who is unable to utter the name of the popular beat combo Coldplay without adding the phrase “…who are shit”.

Now, I am sure that there are many people in the world whose opinion of Coldplay differs from his. After all, they are a very popular band. There are likely many folk for whom Coldplay is the epitome of contemporary rock music and who have found deep emotional and personal resonance with their work.

But you won’t convince my friend of this. You could play him track after track, attempt to point out the lyrical expertise… it will not shift his opinion. His loathing for everything Coldplay stand for comes from a very deep place – his conception of what is ‘good music’ is only one factor, I am sure.

Now, unless Coldplay do something utterly miraculous, or my friend undergoes some kind of transformative experience, this will not change.

But who is right? Are Coldplay shit?

Well, yes. They are.
But not as shit as Linkin Park.

This is the entire history of human religious debate in a nutshell.

The Mutual

Warren Ellis has an occasional podcast series of cool and interesting music from original creators online – he calls it The 4AM. From these I discovered Dorian Wood, a man with a great voice and some very tasty songs.

This is the video for his track The Mutual. It’s a very odd video – NSFW due to male and female nudity, general grotesqueness (and a guy with a doll’s foot growing out of his forehead).

I like it a lot. That probably says something about me.