Cults and identity
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about vampire cults (Vampire community? | Khanya), which at the time I did not realise went beyond fans of vampire fiction, and actually involved people who seriously believe that they are real vampires, and that fictional vampires are, well, fictional.
This is linked to the question whether celebrity cults are “religious”.
The idea that celebrities are “kind of” gods has a long history. Film stars have been talked about as goddesses since Hollywood began, and we are all very familiar with the term diva for female opera singers and, more recently, any successful female performers with high expectations and a penchant for drama, which comes from the Italian word for a female deity. In popular music we have our “rock gods” and “pop idols.”
Hat-tip for this to Andii Bowsher, and has written some interesting comments at Nouslife: on worshipping celebrities -or not:
So it comes down to the way that identification and identity construction takes place in our culture. However, the relation to authority is different from traditional religion as we have often known it -or is it? Is it just that the way that different socially-powerful institutions are able to ‘capture’ the narratives operating at a popular level? In this case, the media, fashion and entertainment institutions rather than churches, monasteries, courts or guilds.
There have been some quite interesting discussions about this on nurel : New Religious Movements — a discussion forum for those engaged in or interested in academic research into new religious movements, and I, for one, have learnt quite a lot from them.
One of the most interesting comments there came fvrom Jesper Peterson, who said
I make my daily bread researching small “identity groups” of “self religion” based primarily on very idiosyncratic readings of both popular culture and more traditional religious material, so I am frequently engaged in similar terminological discussions, defending the pervasiveness of detraditionalized religion and thus the importance of such research. I think John’s argument regarding vampires and the “vampire community” (from John Laycock’s book, which I have read and like a lot) is valid and parallel to similar work on satanists and witches, appropriating a negative term as a positive self descriptor.
Nevertheless I must agree with Steve that the issues of authenticity and indeed community are real, insofar we deal with loose relations not easily measured by academics. When are “invented religions” ironic? when are they “real”? when is the feeling of community something imagined, and when is it manifest in networks of “real” communication and social practice? As such, I actually think that Laycock’s use of the emic term “vampire community” is problematic, as it (perhaps inadvertently) imports a partly subjective, partly rhetorical sense of “community” into academic terminology. I would always use community in the plural and reserve other terms, like “milieu” and “occulture”, for the ephemeral networks. Community implies a unity that should be researched before it is stated.
Secondly, numbers. Such communities, groups and networks are small – perhaps their influence is more widely felt, but they are small. This shouldn’t mean that we refrain from studying them (quite the opposite, really), but I am very aware of the danger implicit in studying them for several years, as they often swell in the “academic imaginary” into something they’re not. I am not surprised that nobody knows of the satanic groups I am working on, and I would expect the same for vampires. On that note, we shouldn’t be so empathetic that we forget just how counter-intuitive these identity appropriations are for many people. They might feel right, and we might understand why they feel so, but a majority still understands “vampire” or “satanist” as something monstrous and react accordingly. We should understand that too.