Conformist Culture and Magical Initiation

What is the System?

Here “the System” is used to describe the prevailing structure or organization of society or culture in general.  It is synonymous with “the social or cultural establishment,” as in: to work within the System instead of trying to change it.  Specifically, the System can be defined as a vehicle for “the set of values and beliefs people have about how the world (both nature and society) works as well as the norms of behavior derived from that set of values” (see Gorodnichenko and Roland 1).

Those within the System think with its mind, which is a function of conformist culture.  It stresses obedience to social norms according to the economic class into which a person is born.  If you are middle-class, you are handed middle-class values; the range of your acceptable life choices is middle-class; you earn a middle-class income; you have middle-class fears and desires.  The same holds true for upper-class and lower-class individuals.

The System can be said to create a false consciousness to the extent that it interposes itself between the individual and the endless variety of potential experiences in life, channeling and conditioning the individual’s perceptions and behavior as a means of control.  It is the ultimate panopticon, the ultimate command-and-control hierarchy.  The fundamental benefit of the System is that it organizes human experience and behavior to increase productivity and decrease instability in all areas of society.  But to do this, it must unjustly and violently (primarily as a matter of structural violence) interpolate people into its mechanisms from birth without giving them a chance to opt out.

However, an initiatory shock can cause an individual to question the class values and assumptions that make up the perceptual categories through which he or she has been conditioned to find and invent meaning.  An initiatory shock exposes the System as an artificial construct, a perspective that can be chosen or discarded.  One does not have to accept the class values and assumptions imposed at birth.  In fact, one does not have to make any choices to affirm any part of the System; though, the System will, like any social construct (discourse) seek to defend its existence, its status quo, by alienating and demonizing those who question its legitimacy and its version of reality. 

There is, more or less, a psychological struggle taking place in every person who chooses to think for him- or herself instead of with the mind of the System.  The struggle is grounded in messages of fear: get in line or you will be rejected and shamed.  Get in line or you will starve and suffer.  The fear that this creates in some people can be intense enough to (temporarily) keep even a questioning individual from abandoning his or her preordained role in the System.  If the person does not give in to this pressure, he or she enters into a relationship with the System characterized by having to live in a state of social alienation punctuated by continual attempts on the part of the System to reassimilate the individual.

One cannot exist in this state for very long, even if one has the emotional and financial resources to remain apart.  The instability of living in a state of radical alienation from society can result in mental illness, addiction, and even certain physical dangers that come with isolation.  One reaches the point where it is necessary to create a separate peace, what Hakim Bey, in the Temporary Autonomous Zone, calls a “pirate utopia.” 

The developmental trajectory from the first shock to existing in a pirate utopia is both initiatory and counter-initiatory.  It is initiatory in the sense that one is initiating oneself into one’s own miniature truth system—a system that contains an idiosyncratic set of values and assumptions that reflect the good life one has discovered and created for oneself through introspection and mindful action.  Some of these values and assumptions will coincide with those of the previous conformist System.  However, the initiate’s “pirate utopia” will not exist within or as a function of that.

It is counter-initiatory in the sense that once the person attains his or her “separate peace,” it is impossible to effectively reintegrate into conformist culture.  When one realizes that it is possible to exist and even thrive apart from the System, one becomes impervious to most fear-based assaults.  One has developed a set of eyes that see beyond System-authorized categories of meaning and prescribed fields of System-supporting endeavor.  One has grown in ways that prevent fitting back into the mold.

Having attained this state, one is also able to operate inside the System, entering and exiting at will.  One might be considered dangerous, but only to the extent that one is visible to the modes and instruments of enforcement the System uses to protect and perpetuate its existence.

Only two questions remain for the initiate at this point: (1) What do you want?  And (2) What do you need?  These questions are dependent on each other.  The initiate creates and maintains a “pirate utopia” that satisfies his needs.  From that foundation, he pursues his wants.  He actualizes his wants by building (conceptual or physical) structures in his utopian autonomous zone.  In the process, he discovers new desires.  He augments or rebuilds previous structures, while creating entirely new ones.  This is why schools of the Left Hand Path sometimes refer to such coming into being as the process of becoming more of what one already is

In order to answer the question, “What do you want?” one engages in a lot of illustrative self-work and non-linear perspective shifting (i.e. magic).  But the individual’s progress from initiatory shock to a separate peace (and beyond) is never smooth or simple.  Her preexisting roles within and connections to the System will result in many reversals and contradictions as she tries to develop an extra-System awareness and, by extension, a unique way of living in the world.

Parts of the System will eventually become aware of her and react aggressively to her burgeoning awareness, trying to intimidate and distract her back into a state of compliance.  But that sort of norming doesn’t work for long.  Once a mind becomes slightly free, it inevitably seeks greater freedom.  Once an individual breaks away from imposed control, it is impossible to authentically return to the previous state of subjection—no matter how much one may want to go back.

As mentioned earlier, fear and distraction are the two weapons used to keep original thinkers in line.  Not surprisingly, fear and distraction are co-dependent.  Remove one of them and the other will soon follow.  Therefore, it is essential that the initiate turn inward to find his or her idiosyncratic values and focus intensely on them.  If this is accomplished, the “consequences” communicated by the threatened System will have less impact and the System’s attempts to sidetrack the individual will be less effective.

The message that the individual needs the System and cannot make it outside the System’s boundaries will be frequent and inevitable.  This message may originate in the natural human tendency to fear the unknown but, whether it is intentional or instinctual, it is always false.  There may be safety in numbers from predators.  But the exceptional individual, who has learned to survive apart from the herd, becomes an apex predator in his own right.

Sometimes, when the System can’t scare or distract the individual into submission, it will attempt to conscript the person as a high-level agent, offering him or her a high status and the opportunity to be seen as a successful result of the system’s processes.  This is a seductive form of assimilation, which, while it seems to offer relief, still requires a deep-seated submission—the willingness to abandon self-development in exchange for a more exotic form of (distraction) sleep.

At this point, one faces and hopefully passes the final test, that of dedication to the singularity of oneself at the deepest level.  Having accomplished this, one essentially disappears from the awareness of the System and its subjects.  One has become sui generis to the extent that the perceptual categories of the System neither recognize nor describe his or her state of being.

Likewise, the wants and needs created as motivation for the inhabitants of the System are no longer relevant to the individual.  This is the “dynamic solipsism” of the completely idiosyncratic individual.  The person has “crossed the Abyss” in the sense that she no longer relates to culture in a conventional way.  And yet the basic personhood of the initiate remains intact.  He is who he has always been, only more so.

Because fear and distraction seem to get in the way of this development, the competent beginner learns to engage with the mundane aspects of her life in a way that changes them so that they serve her initiatory process.  Shortly after the first initiatory shock, the inexperienced magician evaluates the resources at her disposal—how she can meet her basic needs without capitulating to Systemic pressure. 

The more experienced practitioner takes a different approach.  After functioning in the way of the beginner for a time (and perhaps because of early attempts to repurpose the mundane) she reaches a point at which her basic needs are being met almost effortlessly.  Instead of changing the mundane so that it serves the initiatory, she learns to recognize the initiatory value of things in themselves.  She consequently operates on a much deeper, more profound level, moving through a magical landscape that gives more than it takes.  From then on, she may decide not to interact with the System at all, given that she completely trusts and dwells almost entirely within her subjective universe.  Any additional interactions with the System or its denizens will be entirely at her discretion. 

The emphasis and attention in one’s self-work can thereby shift away from the spectres of fear and distraction conjured by the System in favor of the personal, private, idiosyncratic system that is constantly under development.  The wise magician realizes that the punishments threatened by the System for non-compliance only exist for those submitting to its jurisdiction.  However, because the System contains humans but is not human (perhaps it is inhuman), it cannot conceive of anyone or anything existing beyond its authority.  It resembles a maniacal dictator commanding a distant mountain range to obey. 

Put another way, the System is more like an artificial intelligence than a living person.  It is capable of drawing complex conclusions within established parameters, but it is not original or spontaneous, such that it can design novel ways to reassimilate disaffected, disenfranchised, or otherwise alienated individuals beyond its preconceived boundaries.  Its tactics are always the same: intimidation, then distraction, then seduction.

 

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Nyarlathotep

“And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare. Never before had the screams of nightmare been such a public problem; now the wise men almost wished they could forbid sleep in the small hours, that the shrieks of cities might less horribly disturb the pale, pitying moon as it glimmered on green waters gliding under bridges, and old steeples crumbling against a sickly sky.”

— from “Nyarlathotep” by H. P. Lovecraft