by Heinz Insu Fenkl
Itís a truism by now that the contemporary counterparts of the gods and goddesses of Olympus are the stars of Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe as Venus, Paul Newman as Apollo. In fact, by calling them "stars," we even lend a deeper and cosmological sensibility, paralleling the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger to Orion the Hunter, or Jennifer Love Hewitt to the Princess Cassiopeia; constellations are visible from this world, but they are also symbols of unreachable ideals that offer some form of guidance, as in astrology and navigation. That the gods and goddesses affected the course of human history, and that demigods (half god and half human, like Hercules) enjoyed special status and special powers -- these can all be paralleled, quite easily, in Hollywood terms to figures like Angelina Jolie (daughter of John Voight) and Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen (sons of Martin Sheen). Political figures court public favor by associating with the stars, and sometimes the stars even come down to espouse political causes (Charleton Heston advocating for the NRA, Barbra Streisand fundraising for Clinton). Hollywood stars are as much a fixture in the contemporary mythic consciousness as the gods and goddesses were in ancient times.
We can take a dispassionate look back at former religious traditions, particularly "dead" ones like the Olympians, and, without much alarm, understand their comparison to a form of entertainment. But what if we stay closer to home, turn the analogy around and examine entertainment as a form of religion?
If you doubt this comparison, consider for a moment that stars make their living because the public pays lots of money to "worship" them on the big and little screens. This worship involves the audience members temporarily giving up their real worlds to immerse themselves in the fictional narratives that play out on screen. We call this kind of engagement the "willful suspension of disbelief." Likewise, the public that participates in a major organized religious tradition (be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism) pays a lot of money -- though it is construed as donations -- to worship in churches or temples, where they imagine mythic narratives, making those myths real through the power of belief.
On the pulpit and behind the scenes in the administration of the churches and temples, we find the counterparts of directors, producers, and other Hollywood executives. A few centuries ago, when the wealthy merchants of Europe were buying indulgences from the Pope, which were the guarantee of divine forgiveness for earthly money, this odd hypocrisy was understood by the general public -- sort of like the groundlings envying those who got balconies and preferred seats.
During the depression era, American theaters began to take on cathedral-like qualities and became, for the common person, places in which to escape the grim reality of food lines and impoverishment. In the lushly appointed Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings, people could leave behind their mundane reality to enjoy various fantasy lands which, as Hollywoodís income grew, became more and more lavish themselves. In the imaginary worlds on screen were played out epic narratives of every genre -- amplifications and idealizations that made the real world pale by comparison. (The irony is that the studios were making great amounts of money off the poor. To paraphrase the famous quote of Karl Marx more accurately, it is entertainment, and not religion, that is "the opiate of the masses.")
Things have changed quite dramatically in the world of movie-going with the introduction of television, then video, then cable, then the Internet -- all technologies that bring the imaginary world (and the so-called "real" world of media journalism) into the mundane world of the home; but even so, the typical American in the past half century is likely to have spent more hours in a theater than in a church. We spend more time looking at the flickering lights on the silver and phosphorous screens than at what goes on behind the candles on an altar.
What does this mean?
Since folklore overlaps so much with myth and since myth is the underlying structure of religion, and since both folklore and myth happen to be the convergence of the real and the imagined (one could say fact and fantasy), the ramifications of what Iíve discussed above are quite profound. Indeed, the topic is one that most people would rather not address because to think about it consciously would be to challenge their unexamined notions about the meaning of religion and moral virtue.
With the introduction of the media blitz on particular "real" topics like the Gulf War, the O. J. Simpson case, and the explicit fabrication of reality -- its actual construction right under our noses in pseudo-real programs like MTVís "Real World" -- the blurring of boundaries has become commonplace. When a film like "The Truman Show" appears to introduce the theme to us, it is actually behind the times, when thousands of people are already allowing their lives to be scrutinized around the clock by their Webcams.
Reality is created by consensus, and that consensus is in the process of changing quite rapidly and radically; it is created in the interactive space, that nebulous interstice, between the "real" and the imagined.
There are another people, barely hanging on these days, for whom this interpenetration of the real and the imagined has an entirely different value. They are the Australian Aborigines, whose culture, it is generally agreed, is the oldest continuous tradition on the planet. By some estimates, the Aborigines -- and not the Africans -- are the actual ancestors of modern humans, since their mitochondrial DNA has the highest degree of mutation among human populations (you might recall that the "African Eve" was traced through mitochondria DNA, which is carried exclusively through the maternal lineage).
Among the Australian Aborigines, who, at one time, were considered the most primitive people on the planet, there is the tradition of the Dreamtime. For most Americans, the common understanding of the Dreamtime, drawn from a few films and the literature of the New Age, is of a sort of parallel world which the Aborigines can enter in a trancelike state. By accessing the Dreamtime, the Aborigine can gain special information about hunting, weather, and future events. The Dreamtime also offers a rich and sophisticated spirituality that compensates for the Aboriginesí (by our standards) otherwise impoverished and primitive lives. Narratives like Mutant Message from Down Under (a sort of Celestine Prophecy from the Antipodes, which was originally sold as a memoir but then reclassified as fiction when it went mainstream), mythify the Aborigines and their Dreamtime tradition, posing them as the potential saviors of the world or as the last holdouts to a worldwide corruption caused by destructive ideology of Western Civilization.
The Dreamtime is hard to explain in logical terms because it defies the logic of most human language. (In fact, when Aborigines talk of the Dreaming, they use a specific verb form reserved for that purpose.) The Dreamtime is what preexisted human history, and yet it is the state to which things will return in the end; at the same time, it is a state of reality parallel to our own, and which actually weaves together with our reality at particular intersections. Aborigines can access the Dreamtime by performing particular rituals, but they can also drift into it during any time of day. The Dreaming is the most profoundly sacred thing, and yet it is also entirely matter-of-fact. (You will notice here that I am having to use the structure of binary opposition to describe the Dreamtime, but that grammatical/logical structure is hardly up to the task. I might as well be talking about the Tao.)
Let me list some of the general features of the Dreamtime: The past, the present, and the future are all continuously present there. It is the storehouse of cultural knowledge. It is accessible from a state of consciousness different from our typical state. It is a medium through which practical information as well as myth can be communicated great distances. In it, things can be simultaneously one thing and another. Access to it is enhanced by ritual objects (like crystals) and the use of ritual ornamentation (red ochre). It can be accessed from anywhere, although there are sites especially conducive.
The Dreamtime Law, which provides specific and stringent rules by which the Aborigines must live, is largely responsible for their lack of interest in "developing" or "advancing" by western terms; it is also the reason that they have been the single most difficult people for Christian missionaries to convert (one mission in central Australia had fewer than ten converts in half a century). When each individual has direct access to the divine and the mystical, it is not necessary (nor attractive) to take on a religious tradition in which the divine is experienced through an intermediary, like a priest, who happens to be part of an administrative power structure, like the church, which exists by raising money from the faithful.
It is true that the Aborigines are uniquely privileged with a Dreamtime to which only they have access. But there is another, more powerful, Dreamtime that is destroying that of the Aborigines, and it does, in fact, come from the West -- more specifically, its origins are in America as a mutation of film. It is television.
The Aborigines, as I have mentioned, have been considered the most primitive people still living on the earth. Up in this hemisphere, we Americans are (arguably, and by our standards) the most advanced people on the earth. And we have our own Dreamtime, which we access every day. Children average over 3.5 hours of this access each day, in front of whatís been called the "boob tube" and the "glass teat" (a reference not only to the breastlike shape of the TV tube, but to its ironic form of nurture and its use as a convenient childcare tool).
The word "television" means, literally, "distant vision," referring to the ability to see things that are far away. Initially this term was coined to refer to geographical distance, but over the years it has also come to mean things that are distant in time. On any given viewing day across the globe, much of the entire brief history of television is being transmitted. The cliché used to be that at any given moment in the day, somewhere in the world, a rerun of The Lucy Show was on. (You might note the ironic parallel of this cliché with "The sun never sets on the British Empire.")
The parallels between the Dreamtime and television are uncanny when one considers them as general features: The past, the present, and the future are continuously transmitted on television -- the past in reruns (though, technically, even first run shows are a representation of the past), the present in live telecasts of news events and sports, and the future through myriad science fiction and fantasy shows (these might be construed as a sort of mythic vision, but much of the televised future works like a template to which reality catches up). Television is a vast storehouse of knowledge, particularly now that there are specialty channels like the Discovery Channel, A & E, and the History Channel; mythic knowledge gets transmitted also by AMC, HBO, and Showtime in the form of major films. All of these shows are transmitted great distances, continuously representing the entire range of human knowledge (from archaeological speculation to futurist projection). On television, the forms of things are utterly malleable. Not only can actors play a range of characters, they can become the voices and personalities of otherwise inanimate objects; animation and CGI effects can metamorphize anything into anything. Television can be accessed from (nearly) anywhere, and access is enhanced through various reception devices which rely on crystals (semiconductors) and antennae (metals). People engage with television viewing as a kind of ritual process (kicking back after a hard day at work, or turning the lights down to produce a theatrical effect for serious viewing), or they may access television casually throughout the day. (When is the last time you did not see a TV screen throughout an entire day, even if you werenít watching?)
In the same way that the Aborigines use a particular verb form for discussing the Dreaming, we tend to lapse into present tense when talking about TV shows that have engaged us in the past. And television is certainly a state of reality that parallels and intersects with our own because we often find ourselves in it or on it; we also have access to its mythic figures in their more mundane form.
I could go on with the general parallels here, but I think Iíve established enough for you to draw your own. What I want to do is to get at the deeper parallel between television and the Dreaming, one that explains why one form preserves the world and the other is one of the causes of its destruction.
It has been a well established fact, from scientific sources, that ancient holy sites are almost always located in places with high levels of geomagnetic activity. In the old cultures, these locations are said to follow ley lines (in Celtic lore) or in places with concentrated chíi (in Chinese lore). Recently, close links have also been made between geomagnetic activity and UFO sightings as well as alien abductions.
Magnetic fields have a powerful effect on the temporal lobe of the human brain, which is the area linked to out-of-body experiences, near death experiences, alien abduction, and certain states of spirituality. (Michael Persinger, a Canadian psychologist, has been able to create out-of-body and abduction experiences in subjects by directly stimulating their temporal lobes with electromagnetic fields.)
There is a strong suggestion that psychic activity among humans oscillates in direct correspondence to lulls in sunspot activity, which is when the earthís magnetosphere is the least active. This means that sunspot activity interferes not only with communications technology (radio and television), it also directly inhibits the electrochemistry of the human brain as well. Humans, like most animals, are able to sense the Earthís magnetic field. In animals, we can see this most apparently in their ability to navigate (homing pigeons are a prime example), but in humans we usually talk about this geomagnetic sense as a sense of direction or a certain form of kinesthetic intuition. Even when people are underground with no astronomical cues to give them an indication of direction, most can still intuit north unless their directional sense has been scrambled by the proximity of a magnetic field. In one famous experiment, blindfolded subjects who had magnets taped to the backs of their heads could not orient themselves, though others could.
We also talk about psychic abilities in terms of "vibes" and "reception," using the vocabulary of radio. It just happens that the human pineal gland, located in the brain and said by Dessartes to be the seat of the soul, contains an unexpected substance called "brain sand," which is made of tiny quartz crystals. How it ends up in the brain remains a mystery, but oddly enough, crystals are used in radio receivers (some of you may recall the crystal radios you made as science projects in elementary school). Crystals have piezoelectrical properties, which means that when they are compressed, they produce an electrical current, and when they are affected by electrical current, they vibrate at highly regular intervals (which is why they are used in quartz watches).
Aborigines seem to have a highly developed perception regarding geomagnetism, and it is thought among some tribes that the internal organs of powerful shamans have all transformed into quartz crystal. In Aboriginal languages and culture, one finds distinctions between potential and actualization that seem, at first, to be too abstract for such a "primitive" people. It would take a volume to make this argument at any depth, but the blunt fact is that Aborigines have somehow maintained the direct ability to perceive geomagnetism and other electromagnetic phenomena. That is why their languages often seem to be more in keeping with that of quantum physicists than with the Stone Age. And that is why much of the fantastically abstract and colorful artwork by the Aborigines, which seems on the surface to be abstract and unexpectedly modern, is actually representational. The compositions of colored dots and lines are actually accurate pictures in the same way that a "realistic" painting of a bowl of fruit would be representational in the west.
Perhaps itís just coincidence that the images on a television screen are also arrangements of bright, colored dots brought to us through an electromagnetic medium. Those images are transmitted via radio waves and projected onto the picture tube after the waves are converted into electrical pulses. We happen to be surrounded, continuously, by electromagnetic radiation of all kinds (including an alarming and increasing array of overlapping signals from sources ranging from AM radio to cell phone transmissions). If we could hear all of this radio wave activity, it would go beyond the category of noise pollution. Even without sunspot activity, there is plenty of electromagnetic noise on the earth to inhibit what may be a natural human psychic potential. But when we watch television, we willfully participate in affecting our psyches by forming a special relationship with the radio signal.
The illusion responsible for the picture on the tube is caused by the brainís interpolation of alternating scan lines -- the picture is created in the brain and not on the tube. And oddly enough, watching the flickering colors on the tube, while having the brain create the illusion of the moving picture, is relaxing, much like sitting and watching a campfire at night. The act of watching television puts us in a state of consciousness close to the alpha state, in which we are highly susceptible to both information and suggestion, making us prime targets for advertising and propaganda. (Although television tubes with higher resolution and without the subtle flicker have been tested on focus groups, people prefer the flickering because it makes the picture seem more "alive.")
An alien anthropologist would probably conclude that television held great religious significance in our lives because of the prominent place it holds in the typical household, much like an altar in other cultures. In fact, in recent years, with the introduction of the large format flat screens, television has become even more of a substitute for the theater, which I compared, earlier, to a place of worship. And that brings me back, full circle, to the issues I brought up at the beginning of this essay.
If we draw out the analogy and consider television to be a modern and technological parallel to the most primitive extant natural religious tradition, then where does that lead us? Consider, for a moment, the general categories of what gets communicated via television: news, weather, finance, education, and entertainment. The first three categories are parallel to the immediate utilitarian function of the Dreaming as a medium for finding food and shelter. The latter two categories are comparable to the mythic function of the Dreaming. But there is a profound and fundamental difference in what underlies television and the Dreamtime.
The unpleasant truth is that televisionís primary function is to make money; it is an offshoot of a technology controlled primarily by financial organizations and military governments (who use the radio waves to protect their interest in their nations, which means the ownership of land, capital, and natural resources). On the other hand, the primary function of the Aboriginal Dreamtime is to keep humans in their proper relationship to the earth and cosmos. Whereas western laws are made by those whose best interest is to exploit the earth for the sake of accumulating power and wealth, Aboriginal Dreamtime Law clearly forbids the unnecessary exploitation of the earth for human convenience.
We modern humans have been unwittingly re-creating, through the use of advanced communication technologies, a virtual Dreamtime. It is a substitute for what may be an innate human ability (call it psychic potential if you will) that the Aborigines have kept alive for thousands and thousands of years. The irony is that, in the process of re-creating a Dreaming, which characterizes a most "primitive" culture that lives lightly on the planet, we, the most "civilized," have actually given up and further inhibited our natural potentials with a lifestyle that is killing the planet. In the religion of the Dreaming, the Aborigines have a clear sense of where they will go at the end of the world. We should ask what the Dreamtime of television really promises us.