[NB] Sex, Embodiment, Gender, Ecstatic Religion

Breathe. Breathe in through your nose, exhale. Breathe in through your mouth, exhale. Consider that with these two breaths you have fed your senses, bringing in the scents that surround you, bringing in the subtle tastes that move through the air. Consider your eyes, your ears, how closely they are to the channels of breath, how they are channels, too, of sights and sounds.

Follow your breath into your lungs, follow your breath out to its sympathy with your heart, pumping the blood, both oxygen and carbon dioxide rich, through your body. Consider how far the sights and sounds that reach you may be, and how close all of this is, how all of this pulls together the world into a tight knot of awareness, whether that awareness be acute or limpid.

Are you in pain? If not, recall the last time you were, recall the last time you felt yourself gathered on sharp jolts or rocked by dull aches. Recall the last time you really wanted something, how similar to pain that can be. Consider, now, the animal roots of all this. Consider what it means to articulate so much of your conscious being through this fleshy vessel organized by animal desire. Consider how rich an instrument this body is, but how few the notes it oft employs.

Because today I want to talk about our bodies, about a peculiar dimension of our embodied experience, gender and sex. That will take me through some terrain which can get a little abstract, but as you follow me through that terrain, I want you to keep in mind this sort of entanglement. I want you to think about how breath, smell, and taste comingle though we casually and technically differentiate them. This is similar.

Keep in mind how viscerally desires express themselves, how difficult it is to fully separate from each other, from our embodied awareness. Consider how entangled those bodies are with subtle realities like our DNA and gross realities like the environment to which our bodies are modeled. Consider how basic sex is to the continuation of the species and how fundamental sexual differentiation is in that. Try to keep an eye, at all times, on the ever-present knot this forms in experience, and how startlingly flexible this anchoring reality can become in conscious experience.

Keep that in mind as I proceed through abstractions. Run the abstractions back down toward this potent knot of your embodiment, because when I think about the Kabbalistic material and its broader gnostic horizon, it is difficult to ignore its gendered dimensions.

The question as to how seriously to take the gendering takes me down into the realities of our embodiment. This is present implicitly in the Saadia diagram, where the sefirot are anchored in direction, in time, in moral behavior. When you look at what the sefirot orient, it is a body. Though it is absent from the sefirot, it manifests in their interaction. This mystery opens into the embodiment of consciousness in other bodies, but I’m going to dive deeply into this human one here.

It will take me in an (surprise) unusual direction, so don’t expect too much familiar terrain here. Or, well, actually do expect familiar terrain but a very different path through it.

This isn’t the first time gender has appeared here. It plays a pretty big role in what I wrote about distinguishing broadly Middle Eastern magical practices in diaspora around the rough and ready ideal poles of goes, goos, and magi. When I talked about the goos, I suggested that much of what I group under the rubric of goes can be understood to be the masculine appropriation of magical techniques from a feminine body of practitioners.

In making that suggestion, I was thinking about numerous ethnographic accounts of gynocentric cults turning into more hierarchical and androcentric religious groups. Gordon suggested that this might have been reading a modern situation backward into a time period where it did not really apply. I suspect, though, that the modern situation exploits fundamental dimensions of human experience and that they were exploited in a similar fashion in the ancient Greek context.

In other words, looking to this question of gender and embodiment as they are used to symbolize mythical and sacral realities, I find myself tipping headlong into discussions about the relationship between actual men and women, not just abstract ideas about them. The Saadia diagram helps me to anchor this. At the highest points of the pillar, for all the questions about symbols and myth, it becomes clear that their is a moral, behavioral dimension to all this symbolic talk. What is highest in each pillar, then, is not abstract symbols, but codes of action, relating to the behavior of gendered individuals.

A lot of people don’t like to think about this. They want the mystical reality, but not the moral strictures that tend to accompany preparation to receive them. They don’t pay attention to the strictures placed upon Tibetan monks to practice neither astrology nor medicine (which sounds more like a prohibition on magic). They don’t pay attention to the geas and taboos that structure and define the highest initiations in Ocha. They don’t note how strictly mystics like Ibn al’Arabi is about following the dictates of the Qur’an or how strictly the Jewish Kabbalists adhere to the Torah. Heck, they don’t often pay attention to the small-scale promises and demands that structure humbler looking spirit-pacts in witchcraft.

Too often, instead, they play the differences between the content of these moralities against each other. They dismiss them as irrelevant because they do not agree. Bringing embodiment to bear, though, this dismissal comes to look a good bit like dismissing flight because bats, birds, bees, and helicopters don’t fly in quite the same ways. Similarly, dismissing them because they tend to change only under great pressure seems to be akin to dismissing the shape of the wings because their forms change slowly, more in response to situations than ideas.

None of this is to dismiss catastrophic and sudden changes, but simply to locate it as a particularly exceptional situation. It is also to note that even when obvious changes aren’t taking place, variations within communal practice can become anchor points for adapting and transforming ethical standards in response to changes in the world. Communities, given the chance and the freedom to do so, will adapt themselves in response to their members.

See where this is going? When we start reading I. M. Lewis (Ecstatic Religion), Fritz Kramer (The Red Fez), Susan Kenyon (Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan), Rebecca Seligman (Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves), Carlo Ginzburg (The Night Battles), etc., etc., etc., what we are seeing again and again is the spiritual world under pressure and responding dynamically to achieve a new ethos through which moral agency can be asserted.

The exact nature of this pressure is often to difficult to precisely locate. It cuts across many domains of life. It tends to accompany social and political disruption which are in turn caught up in ecological disruptions. Sometimes the spiritual presences manifesting in these movements seem to be instigating or predicting these changes, other times they seem to be responding to them. The very situations where they are most acute are precisely the ones where the usual categories for containing things breaks down.

George P. Hansen talks about how anti-structural paranormal events are and it seems like in many cases ecstatic movements are partially structured by this anti-structural force. Like a swimmer who learns to transform their movements to adjust to and exploit the alien pressures of water, ecstatic movements allow themselves to be restructured to adapt to the disorder.

If a structure takes hold and stabilizes the situation from within the ecstatic movement, it will be shaped by the peculiar form of the disruption that defined the ecstatic phase. It will, however, be antithetical to it, because the rapid transformation that ecstasy allows is not conducive to supporting social order. The frequency with which this pattern produces patriarchal societies I suspect results from a fundamental attribution error, one that inscribes a statistical reality (more women than men in ecstatic, anti-structural movements) into concepts about women generally.

In other words, it presumes (1) that the capacity of a specific woman to achieve an ecstatic state makes them unable to act in non-ecstatic fashion and (2) that the disposition of woman disposed toward ecstasy is shared by women generally. Similarly, it treats men capable of engaging in similar states as less manly thereby, once again conflating levels. Taking into account how embodied our thinking is, some of this conflation is probably both inescapable and productive. Because the error is real but integral, the efforts to grasp and overcome it produce more complex forms of thought, which furnishes a culture with its liveliness. (Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralism comes into play here.)

This isn’t an excuse to naturalize patriarchy but a warning about how easily it can manifest because of our animal being. There are non-patriarchal forms of social organization even within the most patriarchal phases of American culture. Pay attention to that, too. Think of queenship, think of Kimpa Vita or Joan of Arc, think of women’s activism.

Okay, got all that? I hope so, because with all this in place, I want to turn to our understanding of human sexuality articulate it with both magical and religious contexts. The subject is huge, so take for granted that what I am doing is necessarily schematic and terribly partial. I am going to overstate the case, slightly, to counter the habits of overlooking it. Even schematically, this may very well end up being the longest post on this website. Hopefully, saying it at length will make it easier to say more compactly later.

The studies of human sexuality that began with individuals like Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century did not end with him (they didn’t even begin with him). They have blossomed into a richer and more complex forms, inside but also, and especially, outside the psychoanalytic context. These studies differentiate broadly male and female patterns of sexual response and behavior as well as provide clear evidence of wide variations between specific individuals.

While it may seem lurid to turn toward studies of sexuality to explore the experience of religious ecstasy and the techniques developed to regulate it, it ought not be. Our experience is entangled with our body and the means we have for experiencing ecstasy utilize many of the channels we have for experiencing the intensities of sex. In saying this, I hope you are keeping in mind the knot, because it keeps this from being reductive. Sex is a key part of the knot, but it is not the only part. Just as ecstasy slides into sex, so too does sex slide into thought and joy and sadness and pain.

The situation is rather subtle. Just as we develop a symbolic world out of our mute experience of things like color, so, too, do we develop a kinaesthetic and tactile vocabulary of affects out of our experience of things like pleasure and desire. Sexual responsiveness, being so basic to our organism, forms one of the primary palettes for painting ourselves a world and one of the most basic means for painting ourselves into that world.

Add to that, we should observe how fundamental sexuality is to many accounts of ecstasy. Whether we look at the proximity of sex magic to most kinds of magic, the centrality of lovers to myths of all sorts, or the language of lovers being used to describe connection to the divine, it appears that our species’ (modest) gender dimorphism and its consequent impacts on sexual behavior plays a significant role.

Our more conscious responses (the act of painting in the metaphor two paragraphs up) to less conscious processes (the palette) also come to shape our less conscious processes. The metaphor works well here: mixing the paints changes how the paints appear. This means that our feeling and affect are reflexive and reflective in ways much like our so-called ‘higher’ conscious faculties to reason. How we feel about what we feel (reflexive-reflective) changes what we feel (unreflective). Similarly, much like the color palette, there is a limit to how much we can change our less conscious responses. We can mix yellow and blue, but we can’t make them red.

(Remember those feminist thinkers I mentioned? Folks like Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz, and Luce Irigaray all explored just this sort of terrain. By pushing the discussion away from sexuality strictly defined, we can talk about how this flexibility impacts all kinds of things. Things, for example, like relationships with spirits which develop through a relationship to our unreflective fund of experience.)

It has been an open secret, at least since the days of Kinsey, that there are (statistically) broad differences in how men and women experience and describe their sexuality. From the article just linked:

“Nonspecificity of genital responding may therefore be part of a broader pattern in female sexuality. Indeed, some have speculated that this pattern, in which one sex is categorical with respect to their sexual interests whereas the other is more flexible, is characteristic of mammalian species (Goy & Goldfoot, 1975); among humans, women may be the more flexible sex.”—”Gender and Sexual Orientation Differences in Sexual Response to Sexual Activities Versus Gender of Actors in Sexual Films” by Chivers, Seto, and Blanchard (1118)

That’s a mouthful of scientific jargon, but it can be reduced to this: statistically, women respond to a broader range of stimulus as having sexual significance and are more likely to experience changes in that over time. Now, if you want to appreciate that, I encourage you to read the article because the details are a little more complex than that (and kind of exciting).

I suspect that images like Babalon develop within this matrix, though follow that line of thought with caution. While the figure may develop within this matrix, the forces that animate shouldn’t be reduced to it. Not only do we need to keep in mind the concrete spirit(s) involved, but also the highly androcentering role played by Aleister Crowley. Above I was talking about the way structuring habits would incorporate the anti-structural? I suspect much of the iconography of Babalon suffers from this problem, being essentially a structural, androcentric take on a more fundamental and feminine potency. Ymmv.

Individuals like I. M. Lewis have noted that as ecstatic movement begin to acquire social cache, they attract more men and those men tend to push the movement toward a male-centric hierarchy. The movement also develops an increasingly categorical theology which seems to parallel the ‘categorical’ male pattern of sexual response. This seems to suggest that the basic affective world of our sexuality also has an impact on how our ‘higher’ rational faculties take shape.

This influence is complex and often indirect, but we can suspect that the forms of reason enshrined in most forms of social structure are in the hands of more men than women, even though it is often precisely upon the experience and thinking-affects of women that this’pure’ and categorical thinking develops.

How does this happen? Well, it probably comes down to that categorical desire of men. What happens for the newcomers is that they fixate upon a particular form born out of the ecstatic movement. They attach increasing significance to it and elaborate upon it rather than developing variations of it. It becomes a symbolic strange attractor, if you will.

These sorts of men aren’t the only players described by observers of ecstatic movements, though. There are frequently also gender-variant men involved in the movement from its earliest inception. So, if we are going to take these observations seriously, we need to take a look at them and at their sexuality, too.

To do this in a meaningful way, though, we must be absolutely clear that both transgender and cisgender individuals are identical in the influence of their sexuality on the development of their affective worlds. It is just that because transgender individuals manifest patterns that deviate from a statistical norm, they stand out more clearly when viewed from socially normalized cisgender patterns. It is essential to have that on the table at this level of discussion. Cisgender affect is as sexual as transgender affect. Male affect is as sexual as female affect. The sexual nature of one stands out as sexual only because of certain social habits that conceal the sexual roots of male and cisgender affect.

Consider, for a moment, a well-worn bit of witch lore regarding the faerie lover. In general, men are advised that they must court and pursue theirs, while women will find themselves courted and pursued by theirs. Fit this into a broader pattern of spirit work. Imagine what happens when you have a society operating according to principles rooted in categorical male affect, one that makes placating primary. Well, okay, you don’t have to imagine, you just have to look at the shape of imperial religion and its sacrificial theology.

Think like this carefully and it becomes clear that the sexual response is never purely biological, right? It is symbolic, too. Just like language begins with the landscape and can’t be entirely separated from it, so, too, do symbols begin with sexuality and can’t be entirely separated from it. Inversely, though, neither language nor symbols can be reduced back to landscape or sex. (Geomantic aside: remember Puella and Puer?)

There is some very unpopular research on male-to-female transgender individuals that reduces transgender subjectivity to simple perversion, using terms drawn from antiquated sexology. What happens if we stop using antiquated, pathologizing terms and look at the data being used in a more descriptive light, one that takes into account the presence of ‘feminine’ men in most ecstatic movements? What if we stop trying to qualify their existence as a negative deviation and instead look to it as a positive variation?

First, we will have to confront that some of the ‘feminine’ men involved are not actually transgender at all, but are called feminine by an established categorical structure (often but not necessarily patriarchal) that generally demeans women and uses femininity as an insult. We are also going to find a network of women who are not themselves ecstatic but who are drawn to the symbolic world being born in the movement.

While I think it of the utmost importance to attend to the embodied existence of properly transgendered people of all sorts, I want to highlight that these non-ecstatic men and women are very important. Not only do they provide their support to the movement, but their attitudes are likely to provide us with at least one way to think about less hierarchical society, a less patriarchal society, a road to a more structured religion that nonetheless does not collapse into the uglier forms of patriarchy.  Both these men and women have a more flexible relationship to the movement’s symbolic world even if they do not participate directly in the production of it.

Turning to the actual transgendered individuals, though, we have to acknowledge a different mode of sexuality and symbolic responsiveness. Here we will have to look to another dimension of the ecstatic birth of new symbols, namely the process of identification. This is what allows us to transform the simplistic account of transgender experience as autoerotic fetish and see in it a special sort of self-consciousness.

Some of the work of Rachel Pollack is important here, where she talks about the ecstatic reception of the feminine. So, too, is much psychoanalysis, since it places identification at the center of several processes. It would probably be wise, too, to pay attention to the mimetic theory of religion put forward by Rene Girard.

In ecstatic movements, there is a receptiveness to the divine, a taking it in that is central to those at its center. When multiple spiritual forces become involved in these movements, the manifestation of spirit becomes increasingly fluid. The ambiguous sympathies between the cults of Dionysus and Cybele are useful to examine here. In the madding crowd through which they encounter each other, it is difficult at times to tell who is receiving whom, whether it is sometimes a maenad and at other times Cybele, or whether it is Dionysus or one of the galli. To say nothing of the galli becoming Cybele or the maenad Dionysus.

Notice, too, that in this account we start to catch some sight of the sacred possibilities of transgender experience more generally, not just that of ‘feminine men.’

In talking about the ecstatic dimensions of transgender identities, it’s important to pay attention to their development outside of the ecstatic context. While the dramatic ecstasy is vital, we need keep sight of the fact that what makes these people so important generally is the form of self-consciousness they exemplify. They carry the ecstatic identification back into a transformed life, a new ethos. They embody the possibility of the new order.

It is also important to not overly romanticize this. Just as not all women are ecstatic, neither are all transgendered people. Rather, what needs to be understood is that the specific affective dimensions that make their forms of subjectivity possible, are the same ones that are exceptionally well-suited to receiving ecstatic experience. Inversely, those with a more categorically-delineated subjectivity are not denied ecstasy, it is just that their subjectivity is less-suited to it.

Given the robustness of this phenomenon, it suggests that this is variation is as basic on some level as that between men and women, though not as immediately visible, and that its forms of expression, while not entirely determined, are also regular and not rooted in social mores alone.

I would go further, in fact, and say that part of the problem with many of these discussions about affect and sexuality take place at the level of concept rather than affects. People get picky about their terms, when what they need to get picky about is their personal experiences and their responses to them. It matters less whether an individual can check a specific box to describe their affective identity than that they can utilize whatever conceptual categories are available to them to explore and appreciate their specific affective existence.

Let’s unpack ‘can utilize.’ For a person to explore their specific affective experience, they have to have the freedom to modulate existing concepts to that end. They need to have the freedom to develop new (and even redundant) concepts where they need to. While many people will likely be able to do this within the confines of a structured discourse, not all will. That freedom needs to be recognized as a goal and defended as best as possible.

I take this to be one of the major problems of the discourse that I have been using. It is so technical that it floats almost entirely detached from the affective lives of the individuals it describes. That isn’t a bad thing in its context, but it becomes a bad thing when that context becomes the battleground. If we have to debate terms like ‘phallogocentrism’ just to start talking about some gender and sex, we are going to be stymied in making use of any insights derived from such debates. (bell hooks is on-point on these issues.)

I know many people get frustrated with discussions around these issues turning into a technical soup of identity-jargon, but I want to emphasize that identity-jargon is exactly what this discussion shouldn’t turn toward. The point of talking about the affective and sexual dimensions of spiritual experience is that it should help us appreciate that there are variations in spiritual experience rooted in pre-conceptual factors, factors we can’t easily couch in concepts. We have to live through these, with ourselves and with each other.

These factors have to be lived and the process of finding your way to a magical practice that works for you is a process of finding your way to an embodied practice that suits your affective being, in its stability and its transformations over time. That means, for everyone, learning to recognize differences and resisting the urge to demand affirmation from others. However, even as we struggle to not demand affirmation, we must pay attention to how this rich world opens where there is a diverse community in place to support and share in it.

The isolation of one of these elements from the other is the beginning of communal failure.

When we look to the history of magical practices, though, we need to look to certain problems that recur on the basis of how certain forms of affect manifest and are displaced by others. The tendency of ecstatic movements to be transformed into well-structured ones must be confronted as introducing a fundamental distortion to the historical record.

Let’s go further. It could very well be that at the ecstatic roots of religious life we find women and gender variance and that this root is constantly obscured and concealed by implicitly or explicitly masculine practices.

Okay, well, this was long, and a long-time coming. Obviously, while this is informed by many people, but the peculiar formulation here is my own.

After thunder, rain.


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