Welcome back to the series of the Scarlet Letter (Magic of Meaning, Mark of the Witch). If you’re new, you will do fine without having read anything before, but some parts may be a bit difficult to understand without the themes introduced before (and I hope I haven’t written them for naught).
or us visual creatures, the darkness is the omnipresent metaphor of the unknown – that which is outside of our senses and faculties. Thus recognizing a “thing”; giving something a name, labelling it, or learning the “true name” means not only knowledge, but control.
Fear of the dark, fear of the dark
I have constant fear that something’s
Fear of the dark, fear of the dark
I have a phobia that someone’s
— Iron Maiden “Fear of the Dark” (excerpt)
The little trick I am using through these series is taking another time, the Early Modern Period (~17th), that looks a bit strange to us, and use that distance to describe phenomena that are still (or again) all around us.
Through the times, the secret and arcane was associated with darkness or with the colour black, whereas the public and known was associated with light and with the colour white. When historians knew little about a time as the contemporaries left few artifacts, they called it a “dark age” and when we started to value a public understanding of the world through reason, they called their era the Enlightenment.
Knowledge that was supposedly too powerful to be in the hands of everyone, was known as the occult (lat. occultus “secret, hidden, clandestine”), or the dark arts, or black magic. The “public magic” such as the religious miracles where considered “white magic” until Christianity deemed the whole concept of magic as satanic (and named it “miracles”). There was a shift of meaning from dark arts as “secret” to “nefarious” and it is perhaps connected to the rise of the “dark art” (that is writing and manipulating symbology) into public understanding: when writing and reading (of “unauthorized” papers) was on the rise in the Early Modern Period (ca. 1500—1800).
Religions are belief systems (“ideas”) heavily based around symbology that represent ideas, which control people. This isn’t a proper definition at all, but the one aspect which is interesting for our purpose here. It seems not too far-fetched to see humans trying to control these ideas in turn. The Kaballah claimed to provide such a power and it is perhaps not a coincident that it became fashionable in the Early Modern Period, along many other “occult” symbolic systems that claimed to give control over the supernatural (which I linked to symbolic culture). Perhaps it was a naïve attempt of “owning” in the 17th century? “Owning” was the process this whole series started with, how some person or group takes control of a term (or idea) and changes its meaning.
We encountered the age old idea of the “true name”, where knowing the name of some entity would give control over it, and thus it was a good idea to either keep the “true names” a secret or claiming that using such powers would bring ill fate onto the user.
In the Grimm’s fairy-tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a miller’s daughter makes a Faustian bargain with a Kobold (a sort of imp). She has to guess his “true name” to free herself from the deal again. In other words: to take control of the situation. She succeeds eventually when she overhears its name. Christians call their supreme deity “God” and not “Yahweh”, as in biblical times already, uttering his true name was forbidden. In both examples, “control by knowing” or even “banning by knowing” are noticeable themes.
The black knight wasn’t “evil” per se. It was a mercenary who fought without visible heraldry, perhaps blackened with soot, and offered their sword anonymously to some other lord. Their “true name” was concealed. Robber barons of course, wouldn’t show their heraldry around, either and the darker aspect shows through. My examples should be completed with the “black market”, which is the illegal, unofficial or “secret” one.
These examples show very intuitively how the metaphor of the darkness is very closely linked to both the threatening and dangerous unknown, as well as a protective cover which can be used for all kinds of purposes – not always sinister, but through the connection to the “unofficial” and “non-public” always somewhat shady. Once light shines on it, we attach a “name” (that is, a concept), “it” becomes recognizable and thus it is possible to take control of “it”. And “it” also becomes a separate entitiy.
Into the Light
Showing your heraldry around; using your real name online; being pushed onto a stage by Puritans and getting Scarlet Letter sewn onto your shirt; being featured as a person on a blog – these are all processes where something anonymous or unknown is made visible. In the recurring metaphor: put onto a well-lit stage, where it can be assessed, described, judged, but also seen by many people and thus enter more minds, and symbolic culture. As social beings the meanings must be shared, but when people effectively have to negotiate what something means, control is taken away again. (The occult may occupy a sweat spot. A cabal of few people believe to have control over something, and thus have more control over it — since less have a say). That makes the moment when something becomes “something” a very important one, as it sets the first meaning (this is important for the prerogative of interpretation, see below).
Who is in control of this immaterial thing — this meaning thing — that was summoned on this metaphorical stage like a demon or spirit, once everyone sees it? Who “owns” it? We can agree that it is very precious somehow. The “owner” is not always the same person who represents it. It will be a bit more clear once I’ve gotten around to write on Semiotics, but in essence: people have to agree what a word, sound, symbol (…) means. Similarly, they will want to agree on interpretations (more or less) to co-operate in societies. Thus, the thing (referent) and it’s meaning are separate things. And if the person is the carrier of meaning, it may not be in control of what they mean to others.
Many a culture or person in history had no say about their image, who they are (or were). It doesn’t matter how they really were, but how they appear to the crowd and how they appear in history books (that is, what they mean — are they known as conquerers or benefactors?) Another example may be artists who sell their name. Fans would exclaim they sold their “soul”, alluding to the Faustian bargain – and I think there is something to it (not in the supernatural sense, if you chimed in unprepared, nothing here involves anything supernatural). They allowed others control over what they stand for. Not the artists gets to decide who (or how) they are, but some management of a record label does.
In the first part, I suggested that our name and reputation are perhaps the closest thing to “souls” we can get. All the magical and supernatural concepts perhaps have a non-supernatural basis in the “ideas space”, or “symbolic culture” (compare “culture”, latin via Cicero “cultura animi”, “cultivation of the soul”). Heaven is the history book or memory of living people; spirits, spectres and demons are ideas, numinous forces that possess humans (Numen are potentials or active powers of roman gods); and magical spells are writing or saying a word, spelling it. The largest religions around us are based on scripture. Wielding words was indeed once a dark art, not widely known and perhaps somewhat shady for earlier humans. I would even hypothesize that Catholic clergy once derived their “awe” and respect from a monopolization of literacy.
The flipside to being known and seen introduces another psychological concept. That of the “gaze”. It introduces the person or better a crowd, that sees. It is akin to the human mind that wanders around in a meaningless (or less-meaningful) landscape until it hits upon something that has meaning, that sticks out in some sense. And a Puritanical stage does exactly that. It marks a place where something important or meaningful to the community happens and where they can gather and gaze upon the spectacle.
Imagine you are outside in total darkness, but you are the only one or thing that is well-lit and seen from afar. How would you feel like? This is a little bit scary, as you feel perhaps something else watches you. You “have constant fear that something’s always near”. Meet the other side of darkness: as protection. The crowd, the internet, are faceless and anonymous, but the person on the stage is seen and judged, “banned”, brought under control. They may become “the other”, the one to stay away from (Scarlet Letter), the example to stick to the rules lest you become like them. It could be applied in general sense to how we perceive things. If someone (or something) looks different, sticks out, in a society, they are as if they were on that stage, watched, singled out — always recognizable and not just “some person”.
We encountered a similar description with the artificial. Once humans come across something that stands out, we think it could have meaning, like carving a rock, or painting something onto a cave wall. Putting someone onto a stage in this figurative sense is thus the very same as changing a rock in such a way that it is artificial, i.e. singled out and recognizable – marked and described. The moment humans are singled in this way, they are vulnerable (the stage metaphor brings us quite far, people on stages are always in danger of losing favour, if not already setup that way as with e.g. pillories).
Shunning and shaming, as the Puritans did (as discussed in the first part) are one expression of it. Putting someone onto a stage, into the spotlight is like an act of showing or making “it” visible, where “it” can be studied and judged. This is where something becomes a “thing” (and where someone might enter history as an insurgent, hero or terrorist etc.).
The terrorists knows that societies work with such stages, and they found an ingenious way to use it for their purpose. The stage is, apparently, like a Jacob’s Ladder into “shared consciousness”, the culture, the history books and it can be used for good and bad. In some sense terrorists enter “heaven” in the non-supernatural way.
The person who is separated from the crowd and cast out of darkness into the spotlight is exposed, judged and gazed upon. They may bring this upon themselves (wanting to be famous) or they may be forced into the situation. Once they are exposed, they might make the best of it, “own” labels attached to them or just try to give a good impression. But the crowd below might also work against it with a different interpretation. The person on the stage and their actions are recognizable for the moment and may be used to further agendas, like claiming they were “terrorists” in order to change laws. Or in the Puritan example, as a reminder to not become like them – to not be “possessed” by the Scarlet Letter, we represented adultery.
I argue that supernatural concepts known in every society have something to do with these psychological states. Someone on a stage can be viewed by many people and so when they die one day, more people know of them, and thus keep them alive in their memories.
Princess Alice is Watching You
Biblical imagery of a heavenly court seems to fit fairly well. Some person stands before God and is judged, where God’s Judgement represents, in a way, public opinion. God is the crowd around the stage that passes judgement on the one on the stage, whether they enter the immaterial realm of ideas as a good person, or a bad one. Of course, they do not go anywhere in a physical sense. It is their name and reputation, their ideas and views that are like the soul. The relationship to meaning is near, as someone who didn’t do anything special won’t be recorded for something. Those who remain anonymous go – to use another afterlife concept – into a Hades where they fade away just as anonymously when everyone who knew them died. Until only artifacts remain, who might have a last glow of meaning to distant relatives.
The person on the stage and in the spotlight also has an awareness of being gazed upon, which has a profound effect on their behavior. Researchers of Queen’s University Belfast (published 2010) conducted an experiment where they invited kids to throw velcro balls onto a target. The adult would pretend they must leave the room for a moment, but the child could still make their throw. Many children gave in to the temptation and re-arranged the ball to get a better score. Another group of children got told they were being watched by an imaginary “Princess Alice” at all times. The adult again pretended to have to leave the room for a moment, but these children were much less likely to cheat. Just the feeling that they are being watched altered their behavior. The range of this behavior goes all the way from suggesting a societal purpose of watchful gods, to the debate how “real names” would improve behaviors on the internet.
How our names and “essence” are soul like, could be illustrated with an idea advanced by Douglas Hofstaedter who wrote in “I am a Strange Loop” (2007) how other people are really little emulations in your brain (i.e. representations, symbols in a sense). We all have, figuratively, a corner in our brains that “runs” another person, which we use originally to antipicate their behavior, like: “How would mom think about this?”
What makes real humans move and do their things, their brains, is the very same stuff that runs the emulation of them, on your brain! And when they one day perish, the emulation is still there and still running. They are still like little voices in your head and you still have an empathic connection to them. These “ghosts” of people have all the complexity described in the previous entry, their symbolical representation at the “top” where you think about them in words, all the way to “deeper” parts of the workings of your brain, visceral feelings of love maybe. Conscious memories and views on one side, and un-conscious on the other (as established, everything is more like a continuum. Forget about categories, they aren’t real). But the moment the representations are shared, we have the question who owns them?
Prerogative of Interpretation
So who owns the “soul”? Once visible, “it” – the person – put onto the stage can be labelled and brought under control. At this point the Prerogative of Interpretation becomes important. Opinion leaders, the media, politicians, demagogues, public speakers can offer their “label”, their naming, and their descriptions. It is a critical moment, and another point why the analogy to the biblical divine court holds up. The moment something gets known is a very important one and it makes for example “doxxing” problematic (the act of revealing someone’s identity against their will), because they will be described by someone else and had no way of establishing first what they wanted to describe about themselves.
The crowd might have had opinions that are more on a large continuum, but once labels are available, their views can “snap” to the closest term or meaning, which is shared by others. Once there is a “thing” with a name, it can be discussed and it thus emerges in the shared idea-space, it enters culture (our heaven-afterlife equivalent).
Everyone who uses the term then, will invariably influence its definition, but originally, a consent was manufactured by those who held the prerogative of interpretation.
When they warn about the “atheists”, and compare their views with either social Darwinism or Stalinism, to a lot of people, this is what “Atheism” is about. The implied appeal might be to shun and avoid such individuals, to increase social costs to “out” as Atheists, or to cause the crowd – despite different faiths – to unite against the “unbelievers”. And if “Atheists” won’t appear on the stage, it wouldn’t be a “thing”. Interestingly, having Atheists and other religions around also creates the illusion of a Christianity, which certainly didn’t exist during the 17th century when the denominations fought major wars and wrecked havoc across Europe.
But it is not just the big clashes of ideas. It happens on a small scale as well, in the comment sections when people overreach and want to declare what some other person was about. Some critics drew comparisons to the Puritans’ way of shunning and shaming. Others expressed they feel violated when they no longer have control over their own being and when others instead took control and sought to describe who they are – in a negative way. We call this smearing and defamation. The big denominations and worldviews at odds with each other are echoed by tribal cultures, and “with us or against us” mentalities.
Witch of the Week
You may have heard of the term “witch of the week” as used in the Atheist community that came to mean how a person is described by a hostile crowd that wants the person burned (figuratively), and “removed” by blog outrage. The witch ceases to control who she is. She is a token that stands for something, which must be destroyed (or warned about etc.)
Here we have the familiar terrorism theme again, when some group is described as “terrorists”, “conspirators”, “insurgents” or perhaps “harassers” —the opinion leaders, or those who have prerogative of interpretation can also frame it in such a way to elicit the response they want. They can control the public opinion, make them willing to give up all sorts of rights, and justify actions such as a “war on terror” or support for their agenda, whatever that is. Almost like a magical spell make people do things they want them to do (in some cases conjured up out of nearly nothing).
And so it comes full circle. If someone wants to avoid being put onto a stage, gazed upon, described by opinion leaders (and burned) they have to seek protection in the darkness, in anonymity and instead become a symbol they control. A pseudonym or a mask which represents them. And no surprise, the people in the public light who seek control have a vital interest of bringing the connotation forward of darkness as something sinister instead of darkness as something that protects.
Join in tomorrow, when we finally conclude a major theme of this series and please leave a comment down below. It got a bit lonely in the comments recently. 🙂