The New Metaphysicals:

Grasping for authenticity

posted by Andrew Perrin

The New Metaphysicals offers a peek into a world that I found at once pedestrian and strange, and the information that it gives us about so-called “spiritual but not religious” people is invaluable. The new agers, mystics, yoga instructors, and other metaphysicals whose words animate The New Metaphysicals seem quite foreign at first blush, and it’s to Professor Bender’s enormous credit that she theorizes the milieu without undermining the authenticity claims and struggles in which her subjects engage. At the same time, I found myself wanting more of a critical stance, a more thoroughgoing interrogation of the epistemologies that these subjects espoused.

Authenticity is a constant struggle for Bender’s subjects, amongst whom a common theme is the sense that their metaphysical pursuits offer something more real, more genuine, than the routine life of urban Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Bender conducted her fieldwork. Hans, for example, had developed an extensive theory of ethnic authenticity, applied as “the coloring, the embellishment” of generic shamanism, and had sought vainly for a sufficiently authentic Germanic shamanism to match his ethnic heritage. Along the way, though, he laments the fact that Native Americans, who constitute for him a kind of Platonic ideal of indigenous authenticity, don’t really seem that interested in his shamanic group. “We consider ourselves a multicultural drumming circle,” he tells Bender, tongue apparently not in cheek, “and what we mean by that is that we want to attract people from other than white ethnicities. Occasionally we have two Latinos, who were educated here. Nobody indigenous. We don’t have any African Americans, no Native Americans, which is a bummer.”

A bummer indeed. But stop a moment to savor the cultural work Hans does to sustain this peculiar jargon of authenticity. He begins by distinguishing among indigenous Germanic, Celtic, and Siberian shamanism, treating indigeneity as entirely unproblematic, its only real downside being that “[The Nazis] took [it]… for their own and totally mixed it up.” When American Indians, the very image of indigeneity, don’t live up to his ideal, it’s a “bummer,” but still, apparently, not an opportunity to reconsider the “authenticity” he is seeking. The return to “white ethnicities,” which a moment earlier had encompassed at least three named indigenous groups (Germanic, Celtic, Siberian), now features boundaries large enough to encompass virtually the entire drumming circle, save for the “two Latinos,” who are only partly outside due to their having been “educated here.” Surely Hans’s use of the term “multicultural” is overly expansive in the context of all the cultural lumping and splitting going on.

Consider, too, Bender’s experience with Wes, an “energy intuitive.” An extended excerpt of two fabulous paragraphs is in order:

At the end of our first interview Wes said he could teach me how to “read” my own energy and offered to give a short demonstration. I agreed and turned off the tape recorder. He asked me to put my arm on his kitchen table, and he put his hand on my wrist and instructed me to do the same. He closed his eyes, took a light breath, and then asked out loud, “What did the energy feel like in Courtney’s mother’s womb?” He continued to sit quietly, and I squirmed in the awkward silence. He then opened his eyes and said, “See?” I nodded, not sure what else to do. I hadn’t felt anything, and was not sure in fact whether it was he or I, or both of us, who was supposed to feel this. I wondered also about the significance of the womb, but mostly I felt quite uncomfortable that Wes believed that he could in fact feel or sense something. Whatever it was he felt or didn’t feel, he did not let on. Rather, he asked me to do the same for him, to ask what the energy felt like in Wes’s mother’s womb. Again I closed my eyes, wondering what I was supposed to feel. When I opened my eyes, he asked what I had felt. I answered honestly: “Nothing, nothing in particular.” Wes did not seem particularly discouraged. Rather, he said, “You see, this is how I teach. I teach you how to do it for yourself—so that you don’t need someone else to diagnose.”

Despite my not having felt anything “energetic,” and my strong suspicion that the same was true for Wes, I was nonetheless surprised at how put off I was by Wes’s claims that he had found a way into my energetic interior, or rather, that our energetic interiors were so readily available to touch and sense, and that all that we needed to do was ask. I took comfort that night in reading about prior Americans’ fears of metaphysical practitioners’ claims for “mental penetration of the self,” but wondered how much more clearly these intrusions were felt when the claim was not entering another’s mind but, rather, their energetic and true body, that is, nothing less than an energetic womb.

 The first thing I want to point out is the ethnographer’s courage here. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to let on that I’d felt “nothing in particular” in this context. Furthermore, the analytic tone Bender strikes here is great—neither dismissive of Wes’s dedication to his metaphysics nor, importantly, weakly reverential of his unusual commitments. As it would many of us, the scene discomforted Bender, both intellectually and emotionally. The treatment here conveys that very discomfort, the worry about the imbrication of mind, body, and spirit, and the frank likelihood that the whole thing was less than it seemed, a charade carried on between a disappointed energy intuitive and the researcher he had tried, but failed, to “read.” This passage then forms the basis for a discussion of the ways that metaphysicals treat the body, its boundaries, privacy, and individuality.

Later in the book, Bender hints at a critique of these grasps at authenticity. Many of her subjects

presumed that these vibrations were ingrained in… the true self…, yet at the same time were linked to a person’s biological origins, or perhaps ‘culture.’ Wes rarely stopped to figure out the details of this confused system, nor did he or anyone else stop to reflect on the fact that Americans carried with them the vibrational tones of past nationalities. Americans, it appeared, had (have) no vibrational tone of their (our) own, raising a host of questions. At the end of the day, however, Wes and Julia were less worried about the confusing theoretical, geographical, or theological import of their ideas than assessing their practical effects.

 I found myself wanting more of this sort of critique. While I admire the self-control that enabled Bender to restrain herself from dismissing her subjects as just plain loony, many of them do go through remarkable rhetorical contortions to make the elements of their narratives fit together adequately. Many of these contortions map onto terrain that has been covered over the past century or so by sociological, anthropological, and cultural theorists agonizing over precisely the same chimerical authenticity that seems to motivate many of Bender’s subjects. Why do these academic critiques not carry the same weight among the metaphysicals? Particularly when they seem to get so close to recognizing the toxicity of their naïve brand of authenticity, it seems like Cantabrigians, of all people, ought to be able to take the next step and confront the fundamental slipperiness of that authenticity. Bender demonstrates (eloquently and convincingly) the pastiche that makes up these narratives, the ways they borrow, reframe, and reinterpret elements from myriad sources in order to navigate twenty-first-century Cambridge. But what explains the specific, peculiar kinds of narratives they select? What colors their approach to the authentic, the scientific, the mystical, the inexplicable? I would have welcomed more theoretical guidance from Bender in this strange world.

The strange world Bender investigates is embedded, too, in lots of other strange worlds. In high school, across the river from Cambridge, I remember a dismissive comment from a favorite teacher, a staunch Thatcher conservative nonetheless: “libertarianism, like socialism, is the kind of ideology that thrives in places like Cambridge and nowhere else,” sniffed Mr. Dudley. Similarly, folk-singer Orrin Star quipped in the 1980s that Cambridge was the only town in America where you waltzed into the drugstore, asked loudly for a pack of condoms, then whispered conspiratorially to the clerk: “and a pack of cigarettes too, please.” Cambridge in general, like Bender’s subjects, is at once sui generis and iconic. Bender’s subjects experience it as oddly placeless and secular, an example of polluted urbanity to be escaped through mysticism and ventures into nature. But in addition to political and religious marginality, Cambridge is home to extraordinary intellectual and scientific virtuosity, which must have played into the metaphysicals’ sense that they had to constantly blend spiritual narratives with scientific and pseudoscientific explanations. In the heady environs of Cambridge, this probably played a dual role: at once claiming legitimacy among intellectual neighbors and distinguishing themselves from more traditionally “religious” people whose spirituality is, by implication, incompatible with the scientific ethos.

That said, the subjects’ deployment of evidence is tendentious, to say the least. Cathy, a believer in past lives, has become convinced that, in a past life, she had been Max, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist (at times a biochemist, a physician, and even, ironically, a semiotician) who had escaped from Nazi Germany. Upon discovering that a Jewish scientist with a similar name had escaped from Nazi Germany, Cathy exclaims: “It’s a real person. They existed….there were just too many parallels.” For further evidence, she calls on the fact that Max’s wife had suffered postpartum depression and financially supported her husband; now, “I consider myself in a support position to my husband’s job.” These are very common experiences, shared by an enormous proportion of contemporary American women; they become evidence for reincarnation only through a very elaborate interpretive frame. Indeed, speaking sociologically, the fact that both Max’s wife and Cathy experienced similar mental health and family concerns in different countries at different times is evidence of the widespread, cross-cultural reality of gender roles and their consequences. What inspires Cathy to see it—frankly, implausibly—as evidence not just of the existence of past lives, but of a specific historical figure as her prior incarnation? How often do believers like Cathy think they were once common criminals, anonymous working-class stiffs, or others forgotten by history?

Marcy, on the other hand, is convinced that she and her former husband were connected across multiple lives, but hoped that realizing this and actively rejecting that connection might “lead to spiritual progress.” Philippa, an astrologer, uses recognizably scientific language (gamma rays, matter, Pluto, Prozac, Ritalin, even “a wobble in Mercury’s orbit”) all to establish the reality of the planet Vulcan. Each of these individuals engages in reasoning that strikes me as essentially post hoc, selectively deploying observations, likely random in origin, as evidence for a predetermined conclusion.

Bender notes that sociology deploys its own invisible forces (“the state,” “the economy”), and cautions against the facile claim that these are no different from metaphysical ones (“karma,” “energy,” “soul clusters”). But the fact that many metaphysicals take on the challenge of demonstrating these forces in a scientifically-constituted world makes the selective engagement with “evidence” particularly interesting, all the more so among the intellectual elites in Cambridge. I assume that, were Philippa to take her talk to the Astronomy department down the street, the evidence she mounts would be unlikely to convince the faculty there that Vulcan exists. So why the attempt at a common language? Why not just adopt a dismissive attitude toward observational evidence, claiming spiritual, metaphysical space for themselves and leaving material, physical space to the scientists? Bender’s narrative provides great insight into what the new metaphysicals believe and how they engage that belief, but why they believe it and how they reconcile that belief with the outlook of less-metaphysical friends, neighbors, and family, are open questions.

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2 Responses to “Grasping for authenticity”

  1. avatar Kate says:

    I can’t wait to read this book! The quoted paragraphs are written in the deft, calm, and bluntly honest tone that I admire so much and have come to expect from Courtney. And working with the subjects she chose sounds like it was probably a lot of fun.

  2. All this reminds me of the petit-bourgeois habitus described in Bourdieu’s Distinction. “Authenticity” looks to me like a kind of symbolic capital that’s particularly accessible to people with a modicum of education but not much cash. What do all the groups that the New Agers categorise as “indigenous” have in common? They’re all dominated groups, or rather groups that are not conceptualised as having exercised any sort of domination. The New Agers see Americans as having “no vibrational tone of their own” because the US is the dominant state in the world. “Shamans” are conceptualised as dominated by organised religion. Native Americans must seem like an especially good source of authenticity for American New Agers, since they’ve been dominated by the very state that these New Agers live in. Identifying with dominated groups is a convenient way of advertising your own moral superiority, and it costs nothing.

    As for the use of scientific jargon, if your habitus includes a smattering of half-understood scientific concepts that are recognised (but not mastered) as cultural capital, you can use that kind of language to make your New Age beliefs sound plausible to people who have a similar habitus. As Bourdieu argued in The Logic of Practice, it doesn’t matter if your beliefs are actually logically coherent; they just have to appear “coherent enough” to people who have the relevant habitus.

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