Self-Identity within a Virtual Pagan Community in Britain

Michael York

Bath College of Higher Education
Bath, England


Postmodernism has been identified as fostering the de-centered self of contemporary times. The argument against the postmodern call to hear the other is frequently one which claims that the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the discriminated have been made more invisible and less likely to be heard by assigning them to an abstract category called the ‘Other’. The concomitant loss of agency understood in the fractured and deconstructed self of contemporary Western society allegedly presents no subject to be ‘rescued’ under the banner of postmodern alterity.

This paper explores the British religious community which comprises the UK-pagans discussion list. How heterogeneous is this group? What are the patterns of interaction within the Neo-pagan network? What assessments can be made concerning self-identity versus the de-centered self within the context of this British-based virtual community? These questions are addressed to determine to what extent anti-humanist contentions are either supported or disconfirmed within the electronic network of British paganism.

being grandparents.



                                  Self-Identity within a Virtual Pagan Community in Britain

                                                                   Michael York

                                                   Bath College of Higher Education
                                                                   Bath, England


In a paper delivered by Marsha Aileen Hewitt to last year’s SSSR meeting in Nashville, Tennessee and which was entitled ‘Contested Positions: Modernity, Postmodernity, and the Feminist Critique of Saintly Ethics’, the allegation occurred that postmodernity represents a danger to the feminist agenda by masking real women - as it does other real people discriminated against on the basis of race, culture, religion, economic status or sexual preference - by hiding all behind some abstract category labelled the ‘Other’. Hewitt maintains that this postmodern subterfuge is simply an elitist ruse to maintain or re-establish hegemony by the status quo. In other words, Hewitt questions "the underlying regressive political tendencies of postmodernism" which can be discerned through its conceptualizations of human agency and its role in the production of history.[1]

Using a similar argument, Doug Porpora from Philadelphia’s Drexel University delivered a paper on December 12th of last year to the Bath College of Higher Education which he called ‘In Defence of the Self: A Critique of Postmodern Anti-humanism’. Porpora sees the post-Wittgensteinian denial of the causal role of reasoning centered in postmodern/anti-humanist theory. He argues that while French anti-humanists deny outrightly any coherent ontological self, Anglo anti-humanists do not deny the self but instead deplete it into merely a set of actions, discourses, roles, behaviors or so forth. Porpora is opposed to the anti-humanist sentiment currently hegemonic in the Academy. Hewitt is likewise concerned with the anti-humanist tendency as it re-suppresses women’s liberation efforts. She argues that without an existing subject, there can be no self or agent to be recognized through postmodern reforms.

After Porpora’s talk, I telephoned architect and theorist Charles Jencks and asked him what he considered the postmodern position on the decentered self and denial of the subject to be. He confirmed what I had already come to understand as his view along with the understandings of Charlene Spretnak, Andreas Huyssen, Margaret Rose, Linda Hutcheon, Umberto Ecco and so forth. These people comprise what I would call the ‘second school of postmodern thought’. Following upon Robert Stern, Jencks claims that both modernism and postmodernism consist of doubles. In other words, there are two modernisms and two postmodernisms.

The ‘earlier school of postmodernism’ is what it is currently fashionable to accept as postmodernism per se. Leading figures are of course Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. This deconstructionist or ‘decon’ school, Jencks contends, is really the second form of modernism following the Enlightenment. Jencks argues that it is this late modern idea which insists that the self does not exist or is at least only socially constructed. The decentered self can be traced through Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential ‘I’ as a no-thingness, Jacques Lacan’s psychology in which the ‘I’ can never be fully conscious of the ‘me’, Erving Goffman’s persona as a series of masks which stripped away reveal nothing, Louis Althusser’s claim that the coherent self is non-existent, Michel Foucault’s ‘death of man’, Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’, and so forth. When Hewitt claims that "The repudiation of the subject and autonomous moral agency occupies a central place in postmodern  thought," it is this initially French school of postmodernism she has in mind.

By contrast, the ‘recon’ school of postmodernism, the reconstructionists, accepts the ‘decon’s’ emphasis on the importance of language and the necessity for its deconstruction but then seeks to reconstruct from the deconstructed components. Where ‘decon’ thought, however, is pessimistic and cynical, the ‘econ’ is optimistic and affirmative. It recognizes the self as an emergent phenomenon. To use Porpora’s terminology, through language we become not just conscious but self-conscious: hence, we become ‘linguistic selves’. The mistake, as Porpora sees it, is to look for the self as the ghost in the machine: it is not what we possess, he argues, but what we are or become. So I want to argue that the current new religious movements known as New Age and Neo-paganism are fully postmodern in the second sense of the term through their quest for self-empowerment and emphasis on self-technologies. Like the positive school of postmodernism, they are attempts to re-center the self.

But we are still left with the question of what is the decentered self? Whether the loss of self or its fractionation is a product of modernity or postmodernity, does this theoretical incoherence have a psychologically manifest corollary? Do we who are sitting here today truly think of ourselves as fractionated beings? According to Fredric Jameson (1991:14f), the ‘death’ of the subject itself is still among the more fashionable themes in contemporary theory: namely, "the end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual ... and the accompanying stress, whether as some new moral ideal or as empirical description, on the decentering of that formerly centered subject or psyche." But again, what does this mean to us as living persons in today’s world?

Reflecting on this question, it would appear that two decentering pressures on our sense of integrated selfhood comprise increased mobility and the situation of war. The former is a product of modern technological invention. We travel more frequently and further today than our ancestors could have ever conceived of doing. So those of us here for this venue in Toronto are in some sense decentered. We are out of touch with our home base and grounding locality. We are being decentered through delocalization.

Technological mobility may be seen as the positive contribution toward the decentered self. Foremost among the negative influences which decenter the self are the upheavals brought about by war - not only dislocation, ethnic cleansing or forced migration, but also the very anxieties and terrors inherent in a belligerent condition when the individual is in some way under threat. But if contemporary society is considered to be itself decentering, is life then in the West at the end of the twentieth century itself to be seen as a war-type situation - with the individual pitted against macro forces, bureaucracies and depersonalizing social pressures?

A decentered self has been likened to the schizophrenic state. The contention behind the allegations of loss of self in contemporary society is that we are becoming a society of schizophrenics. But the decentered self is traditionally the province or product of shamanic experience. With the exception of the shaman, the perception by an individual of what is variously termed his or her shadow self or free soul or, in modern terminology, his or her fractured or split self is a portent of imminent death. For the shaman, by contrast, the ‘objective’ experience of one’s own dream-soul is his very raison d’ĂȘtre. It may be one thing to be a split self and another actually to see this kind of psychic fissure, but to the degree that contemporary social living accustoms us to a decentered existence, are we in fact becoming a society of shamans?

The stock-in-trade techniques of the shaman are the tools of invisibility and flight. These are of course metaphors, but they still have physical corollary manifestations. Western society is a society in which technological flight is becoming increasingly the norm. Many if not most of us here today arrived by airplane. The ability to traverse huge distances in relatively short spaces of time is what the attendee of international conferences, the corporate business man or woman, the tourist, the Olympic athlete and so forth all possess today. And this has been the traditional prerogative of the shaman.

The other shamanic feature beside that of flying is invisibility. It is the person who is not being seen who is himself/herself the seer. The technique of observation-participation by the sociologist is a form of seeing/observing while not being himself/herself observed. This is our means of gathering data without influencing or distorting the data in the process of gathering it. We become the audience, and like more and more of us in general who sit in the darkened social galleries - or hidden on the receiving end of the t.v. screen - we have become invisible witnesses.

So one possibility concerning contemporary society is that we are becoming a shamanic society - a society of shamans or at least a society in which a greater proportion of us are replicating something akin to traditional shamanic positions or attitudes. This is the positive appraisal. The converse is that we are becoming more schizophrenic and/or depersonalized as we lose our sense of community and locality. But even if this is so, the human entity is among the most innovative, resourceful, flexible and adjustable of species. We have ways of developing new spiritual connections with our immediate locality or, conversely, the impetus toward developing an expanded or even global sense of locality: the earth as a global village for instance. And likewise, we have not only the impetus but the technological means to develop new forms of community. The various discussion lists on the Internet may be seen as ex post facto efforts to form a virtual community.

When I conducted my research into the New Age and Neo-pagan movements during the late 1980s, one question I had wished to address at the time was the applicability of church-sect typologizing to such amorphous new religious developments. The conclusion eventually reached was that, while the denomination, cult and sect might be ideal-types which could be applied to various groups which came under the New Age and Neo-pagan banners, these sociological constructs are not useful for analyzing the phenomena as a whole. Instead, I found Luther Gerlach and Virgina Hine’s concept of the segmented, polycentric, integrated network or SPIN more pertinent to the many-headed, membership listlessness, perpetually shifting sociological coalescements and patterns of ingress-egress within the cultic milieu.

Gerlach and Hine, basing the development of their model on a study of the PLO, the Pentecostal Movement, Black Panthers and other similarly organized movements, claimed that the replicate functions and invisibility to a traditionally based perspective were a means for organizing dissent in a largely hostile environment. The early stages of the Christian Church within the Roman Empire may also be seen as evolving along the lines of a SPIN-type of organization. In all these related movements, the base structure is the network, that is, a network which is segmented into cellular or other type subdivisions, polycentric in having no centralized authority, and integrated in having developed viable communication channels between its various components.

The astonishingly rapid and effective electronic communication system known as the Internet which has rather dramatically emerged in the 1990s is simply an advanced technological means for groups of people to keep internally in dialogue. Whereas formerly it may have been necessary to walk next door to contact a neighbor or move physically across town to deliver a message to a co-member of an association, the postal and telephonic services rendered communicative intercourse a faster and more comprehensive process. With the development of the electronic discussion lists, communication is now possible between large numbers of people who are distributed over wide areas of physical space.

The popular name for such electronically connected groups is that of the virtual community. The difficulty with this term, however, is that it suggests that in some way the community does not exist. But the group which exists through the mediumship of an electronic technology is no less real than the association of people who communicate by letter or telephone. It is simply that the intensity and frequency of communication between various members within the group and between the members of the group as a whole has dramatically increased.

The list is typical of the burgeoning discussion group and provides a means for British pagans to identify and exchange information quickly across the entire British Isles and even abroad as well. The term ‘virtual’ for this kind of group is really a misnomer. The members simply are using a highly sophisticated means to keep in touch with one another, keep abreast of developments within the pagan community as a whole (such as festival celebrations, moots, road protests, and various gatherings, etc.), discuss what it means to be pagan (how such factors as names, circumstances, illness, being out or out-ed as a pagan and so forth have affected various participants on the list), suggest remedies for colds or flu, exchange recipes, discuss how to deal with the press, etc. And the list serves as a convenient means of making arrangements to meet at various local venues or recognize one another at such annual meetings as the November get-together of the Pagan Federation in London. The most usual physical get-together is called a ‘roadshow’ - either a gathering in a pub or a picnic which one or more members announce on the list by naming the venue in their locality to which others in the proximate region respond. By far, however, the most frequent ‘roadshow’ occurs in London.

In its welcoming introduction, the uk-pagans list declares that it "is open to all who are interested in paganism in the British Isles." In practice, this appears in addition to be generally restricted to residents of Great Britain and Ireland, though, judging from the -net and -com suffixes on several addresses, some are resident in the U.S. as well. Moreover, through various exchanges within the list and from declarations made on occasion from the list-owner, UKPML tends to restrict itself to practicing pagans and excludes people who are merely interested in learning about paganism - whether for personal reasons, academic pursuit or journalistic interests. If the list-owner is uncertain over questionable applications, she will post new requests to the whole list to solicit a consensus.

The question of confidentiality is an important issue for the list, and each message carries an appended author’s copyright notice. If a person is to be quoted outside the list, permission must be obtained beforehand. At one point, there was concern that non-pagan academics were on the list as ‘lurkers’. Since ‘lurking’ in general is frowned upon, these were asked to come ‘clean’. Pagan sensitivity relates to its impression that in the outside world, pagans are classified as satanic, mentally ill, deluded and/or stupid. The list-owner has proclaimed that to her knowledge she has not subscribed anyone who is not pagan, but she admits that people could lie to her over email and that there is little she could do about it. Since the list exists principally for those who are not in with the pagan scene generally, the ability to ask others to vouch for new applicants is precluded. Feedback affirms that the list compensates for geographic isolation for many of its members.

As of the 15th of May 1997, the list comprised approximately 150 members. In a November 1996 welcoming to new members, the list-owner mentioned the diversity of the list which varies from people with more than twenty years experience to those with less than a year. She also stressed the wide divergence both in practice and belief between list members and the consequent need not to attack other peoples’ differences. Commercial advertising is not allowed, though talking about what one does commercially is permitted. ‘Roadshows’ were explained as get-togthers for everyone on the list - with the caution not to assume that those who attend already know each other in ‘real life’. Confidentiality was again stressed along with the plea not to advertise the list publically. The list has been mentioned in one book, one Usenet newsgroup, one pagan magazine and on the web page for uk-pagans. The Usenet ad resulted in numerous applications from abroad which were turned down.

In general, pagans in Britain - if not elsewhere as well - are highly individualistic and self-affirmative with little overt sense of a decentered or fractionated self. This being said, the uk-pagans list serves many of its members as a forum of expression, exchange and debate as well as a means for making social arrangements; it allows the formation of a community of disparate individuals who nevertheless share a sense of religious or spiritual identity which remains distinct from that of Western society at large. From time to time, requests are made for re-introductions. Earlier this year, over 50 members responded. Of these, 34 were male, 21 female and 3 responded as couples. The medium age was just under 35.5. [2] In general, this is a wordy list and typically between 20 and 40 messages are exchanged on a daily basis. The overall impression is that those who ‘delurk’, feel safe and relaxed within the virtual community that comprises the uk-pagans list. Within this environment, they are able to raise personal questions, inquire after information, share deeply felt experiences as pagans and even on occasion enter into heated and passionate debate. I would assess this list as a community in the fullest sense albeit one in which most members at best only make the occasional physical contact. The solace of verbal contact, however, appears to provide a counter both to late twentieth century depersonalization and to the realities of alienation concomitant to a spiritual practice that is marginal to the dominant religious orientation of the host society. To the degree that contemporary Western paganism isolates or marginalizes its practitioners, the uk-pagans list is one viable means for a group of people who in general cannot indulge in physical gatherings to develop support and solace through a technologically innovative means of identity formation and connection.



[1] Marsha Eileen Hewitt, "Contested Positions: Modernity, Postmodernity, and the Feminist Critique of Saintly Ethics," paper delivered to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, annual meeting, Nashville, Tennessee, 10 November 1996.

[2] The youngest declared on the list was 19 (female); the oldest, 58 (male). The average age for men was 36.5 (10 in their twenties, 10 in their thirties, 7 in thier forties, 3 in their fifties and 5 undeclared). For women, the mean age was 33 (1 below twenty, 4 in their twenties, 4 in their thirties, 3 in their forties, one aged 55 and ten undeclared including one grandmother. One couple did not mention their age but admitted to being grandparents.