Hegemony is a funny word. In studies of antiquity it is commonly found since it denotes the “Leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Today it has a vaguely imperialist taint, although it doesn’t necessarily require that one nation actually pillage another’s wealth or resources. The idea that people are, and should be, free is pretty much assumed in developed nations. Or so at least our rhetoric dictates. The word hegemony came to mind, however, as I saw an interview with a corporate leader. He was discussing how his company had budgeted for technology development on an increasing scale, to catch up with current developments, and then leveled the tech expenses off after that so that the business could move into its prime objectives. The reality was vastly different, however. Each year’s budget saw increasing technology costs and it shows no signs of slowing down. Every industry, it seems, will have to keep devoting larger and larger shares of its budget to technology. Hegemony.
It’s not that any one company is solely responsible for our obeisance to technology, so this hegemony has no head. It is the idea of progress gone wild. Last year as I set out for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, a notice popped up on my laptop that a software upgrade was available. Since I file that I required was no longer accessible unless I updated, I clicked through all the agreements and provisos that I can’t understand and began the upgrade. Download and installation time measured in hours rather than minutes and I soon had to interrupt the process to get to the conference. This had consequences that nearly led me to becoming utterly lost in a part of Baltimore I’d been warned to avoid. The gods of technology demand their due. Now, less than a year later, I can’t access certain files unless I upgrade again.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a complete Luddite. I enjoy the instant gratification of finding information in seconds through a web search, but I’m not always sure that I can believe what I read. Technology means photos can be manipulated, sounds can be fabricated, facts can be created, all with no basis in reality. I used to have students ask me if such-and-such a fact they’d read online was true. Facts, it appears, are now negotiable. Nobody’s really in charge, it seems. Instead we are lead by the vague idea of progress, a new god with technology as its prophet. Even now I know people who think they never use computers but they drive without realizing their car is full of them, and turn on the television not realizing that the tech is no longer chip-free. Meanwhile those in the technology industry seem to have plenty of extra cash around, while those of us in the humanities ponder whether the ancient hegemonies have really changed at all. Let me look that up on the internet, once this upgrade is through.
In the age of Steampunk, New Jersey is among the world capitals. Indeed, today is the second day that the International Steampunk City will be inhabited in Speedwell, home of the telegraph. For yours truly, Steampunk is an escape. Alternate realities often look better than the pedestrian one we’ve inherited, so we like to look at the world through steamy lenses and imagine how it might have turned out differently. New Jersey, in the spring, also hosts the Steampunk World’s Fair. Perhaps we have more pressures to escape here in the Garden State. Imagination is certainly in no short supply. I attended the International Steampunk City last year and decided that I’d like to be a part of it. Knowing a thing or two about ancient technology, I thought I might share a bit with the Steampunk crowd. What is Steampunk without tech? Some ancient technology, although not very well known, is perhaps of even greater influence than we might imagine.
One of the connections that is easily misplaced in this era of purely scientific advance, is that technology was devised in the service of religion. At least in the early days. The greatest architectural achievements came under the aegis of temple building. Domes, arches, and eventually flying buttresses that could hold tons of stone high over your head—these were to please the gods. We can’t imagine Stonehenge as anything other than a capitalist venture these days, a way of drawing in the money. Of course, ancient builders knew of the financial benefits as well; temples were often the equivalent of ancient banks. Still, beneath all the pride of accomplishment there was the belief that the gods were somehow pleased with our innovation. Perhaps we’ve just done away with the convenient myth. Steampunk often has a religious underpinning. Many of the stories I’ve read touch on our ancient mythologies. Only, in fantasy, there are different possible permutations.
We sometimes think that technology is a modern phenomenon. Actually, it is quite ancient, as far as human culture goes. The first “computer” was invented around about the first century. Since it didn’t have an obvious benefit to the control of the masses, however, no technological revolution took place. The steam engine was, in nascent stages, invented also in ancient times. Until we learned, however, that it could be enslaved to make certain industrialists rich, we had no need for it beyond a diverting toy. Technology does not take hold without a deeper purpose. Every now and again I get a little paranoid knowing that I carry a telephone that knows my exact location at all times. As if I were important enough for anyone to care. Then the feeling passes and I open my iBooks app and turn to my latest Steampunk novel. I am a slave. I wonder what innovations there will be at International Steampunk City this year that might change the world. Only the imagination will limit the possibilities.
Facial follicle emasculation, i.e. shaving, has some interesting religious implications. A recent Associated Press story highlighted this when students at Brigham Young University began a protest against the ban on beards at the school. Shaving has a very long pedigree but, as one who doesn’t shave I feel obligated to point out, not as long a pedigree as not shaving. Nobody knows for certain where or when shaving began, but it has been suggested Egyptian priests began the tradition. Others suggest it was an attempt among some early societies to control lice. Homophobic religions, it used to be, promoted beards as signs of masculinity. Alexander the Great, however, noted that beards are easy to pull during battle, although, for those who don’t fight it isn’t such an issue. Of the major monotheistic religions, Christianity is the only one that generally promotes shaving as the norm, and here it is only the practice in the western branch of the religion. Eastern Orthodox churches still retain bearded clergy. It has been suggested that the Roman preoccupation with shaving led to early Christian preferences for this practice, and there may be something to that.
Having an old-growth beard (I last shaved over a quarter of a century ago) I have often found myself in the minority. While beards—mostly highly styled or glorified stubble—are making a bit of a comeback in New York City, they are still not as common as the alternative. In one of my many preprofessional jobs (that of a bag-boy at a Pittsburgh grocery store) I was told I had to shave. “Customers don’t trust a man with facial hair,” my manager told me. Delving into this a bit, I was told that beards mask the facial nuances that an honest man wants to show. What’s a beard trying to hide? Watching what clean-shaven presidents and Wall Street moguls get away with as “honesty,” I think I’ll stick with my beard, thank you.
I’d trust this man.
Evangelical traditions, such as Mormonism, I long ago noticed, wish to control nature. Lawns must be manicured and trees, with their sloppy abundance of leaves, must be few and carefully spaced. Faces should be rid of the hair that Jesus and the disciples were said to wear, and clothes must be neat and tidy at all times. It’s an image thing. Among the evangelical crowd, those with beards keep them neatly trimmed, tamed, and penitent. For me, scraping my face with a cold bit of metal first thing in the morning is about the least civilized thing I can imagine. Spending too much time shaping and toying with DNA’s dictates seems to go against nature. Much of my beard may have gone white, but I have nothing to hide. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, my beard simply represents what it means to be human. Trust me.
Posted in Current Events, Egypt, Just for Fun, Posts, Sects
Tagged beards, Brigham Young University, Egyptian priests, evangelicalism, Monotheism, Mormonism, shaving
Irony is all around. When we hook words up into phrases or titles they often take on unexpected connotations. I often see the sign for Jesus’ Bookstore on a highway not far from here. I didn’t know the Lord sold books. In this economic climate, I hope he’s diversified his portfolio. One of the other ironies of life is that as soon as I started getting mailings from AARP (aarrpp, indeed! Retirement is a myth!) I also started to receive advertisements for funeral homes. While you’re planning for retirement (hah!) why not plan for the next step beyond? It is more certain. A nice, long sleep sounds good right about now. So I didn’t ignore the flier from the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What’s not to like about that?
That name, though. Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What sense of that troubling little preposition “of” is intended? Has the Holy Spirit been buried here? Or is it the of of ownership? One should probably be concerned with whom will be around the premises if one is to spend the rest of eternity there. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The drawing of the mausoleum indicates that this is an effort at fund raising. We certainly prefer our graves to be whitewashed. That is the biblical way.
“We sincerely regret,” the reverse reads, “if this should reach any home where there is illness or sorrow, as this was certainly not intended.” In a world of ubiquitous illness and sorrow, such must be a risky proposition from the start. Also, one might note, if one is not Catholic. Are those not welcome at the eucharistic altar welcome at the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit? What if one has a down-payment? Isn’t all of life a down-payment on eternity? In this day of facile information sharing, it isn’t unusual to have people you don’t even know wishing you happy birthday online (by the way, it’s not). It seems we’ve now gone to the other extreme to anticipate a happy death-day. That is, if I’m reading that preposition correctly.
I’m busy. Too busy most of the time. You see, I used to be able to keep my mental files neatly in order. Recall was swift and efficient. I suppose that was back when I was doing the job for which I’d been preparing my entire life. Then a midlife, unexpected career change shifted things a bit. That mental file that you always kept here has now been shunted over to there. I suppose I always knew this was coming, and that’s why I started writing things down. Of course, this led to stacks of papers and a whole series of notebooks that follow varying forms of logic. “Commonplace books” as they used to be called. Then computers. I never used a computer until after my master’s degree. My wife showed me how. And then writing ideas down became pretty easy—who could ever afford more than one personal computer? And since they were as heavy as a small television (cathode-ray tube variety, of course), you always knew where you’d find it. Then laptops. iPads. iPhones. Something called “the Cloud.” A computer on my person at all times and I still can’t find that ruddy file, and has anybody seen my phone?
I wrote an important (for me) paper back in 2012. Just two years ago. I remembered vividly typing it on my laptop, working on it for weeks. Recently I wondered where I put it. I searched my laptop. Not there. I must have backed it up. Checked my backup files, on CD. Not there. Where did I put the thing? Although a Luddite at heart, I don’t delete old files. Please, tell me I didn’t do something like back it up on a floppy disk! I can barely remember when we used those. No, no, it was much more recent than that. Was it on this laptop or the one before? Maybe I stored it on the hard disk of the antiquated one. When you get a new computer (or at least when I do) it is such a rare occasion that you don’t bother backing up every single little loose file on your old machine—there’s too much shiny new stuff to admire. But the file wasn’t there. Finally I attached a terabyte backup, admittedly overkill for someone of my limited mental ability, and searched. Although the icon said it was on the terabyte drive, the file was actually on the Cloud, and since I hadn’t updated my software in a while, I was denied access.
I learned to write with fallible pencil on cheap, lined tablet paper. Back when tablets were paper. Our ancient ancestors started the process by writing on clay. For some five thousand years this pressing stylus unto substrate method worked fine. All of scared writ was scrivener-mediated that way. When computers were new you stored your files on floppies. At least you knew where they were. Now dialogue boxes ask me questions in a language more obscure than Sumerian and quickly shuttle my files off to I-don’t-know-where, assuring me that I’ll be able to get them back. Honestly. As long as I remember to upgrade my system, which will, of course, require periodic outlays of substantial sums of money. You can choose not to pay, but your documents are with us. I’ve still got some clay here, and a sharpened flint taken to a twig will make a stylus, old school. And clay tablets have been known to last for millennia.
The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.
Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.
But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.
Posted in Consciousness, Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Annals of Improbable Research, BBC, Buddha, Faces in the Clouds, Ignobel Award, Jesus, Stewart Guthrie, University of Toronto