Mary Apikos (1992) ,"", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 63-76.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 63-76


Mary Apikos, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York


Only recently has the study of New Age phenomena emerged within Anthropology. The majority of the academic literature on late 20th century metaphysical, supernatural, and "New Age" spiritual beliefs and practices is found in the work of historians, theologians, folklorists, psychologists, and sociologists.' This article, a study of the consumption of New Age material culture, is an adventurous attempt to contribute to that emergence.

My discussion begins with the descriptive phrases used for the New Age movement. In general these phrases fall within three categories - health concerns, material and economic lifestyle choices, and reflections of popular culture. Following Mary Douglas' call for an 'unprejudiced vocabulary' (Douglas 1982: 4)  have adopted the descriptions 'alternative spiritual imagination" and oppositional spiritual imagination" to characterize the two distinct forms of spiritual beliefs and social relations that I have found in my study of New Age spiritualism. The relationship between these two forms of belief and practice represents a continuum made visible through the study of the circulation and uses of ritual objects.

[Most literature on New Age phenomena is found in the non-academic domain. Citations below merely indicate the broadest direction of academic study.

Historical studies: 1) Spiritualism in England and North America from 1885-1915. Oppenheim: 1985, Barrow: 1986. 2) relationship between occult phenomena (divination, witchcraft, sorcery) and social structure and/or social relations. Morman: 1986, Ginsberg: 1991. 3) relationship between New Age and materialism. Ahlstrom: 1972.

Theological and religious studies: 1) development of therapeutic and transformative rituals within existing Judeo-Christian religious institutions. Driver: 1991, Grimes: 1982, Fuller: 1989. 2) feminist challenge and reinterpretation of Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices. Daly: 1973, Ruether: 1986, Culpepper:1987, Plaskow & Christ: 1989, 3) relationship of New Age spiritualism to Judeo-Christian theology. Peters: 1988, Groothuls: 1989, Muck: 1989)

Folklore studies: 1) "belief legend" or "belief story' Hand: 1965, Blehr: 1967, Degh: 1971, Bennett: 1989. 2) differences in official and folk religious beliefs. Yoder: 1974, 1972.

Psychological studies: 1) personality development in cults and "now religious movements." Galanter: 1989a & b, Campbell: 1977.

Sociological studies: 1) cult organization. Campbell: 1977, 2) influence of Theosophy on the American Zen movement of the 1960s. Ellwood: 1973, 1979, 3) emergence of popular religion. Swatos: 1991, Boil: 1977, 4) "Now Religious Movements." Needleman & Baker: 1978, Ellwood: 1978, Wunthnow: 1987, 1986, 1978, 5) unorthodox medical practices. Hufford: 19M.

Anthropological studies, 1) geomancy in Brittany. Badone: 1991, 2) cross-cultural firewalking. Danforth: 1989.]

The New Age participants reliance on context to determine meaning presents two challenges for the study of their ritual objects. The first challenge is to our understanding of the production and consumption of material culture. At issue is who actually sanctifies an object used in a ritual context, the producer or the consumer? My research indicates that consumers are the de-facto sanctifiers of most New Age material culture. A crystal bought one day as a beautiful piece of jewelry can become a healing instrument the following day. Every object consumed regardless of its beauty or homeliness, staleness or inventiveness, expensiveness or cheapness, has the potential to become a ritual object.

The second challenge involves the reinterpretation of the western concept of "materialism" and its association with acquisition and personal ownership. New Age objects tend to travel a lot. Their circulation among participants suggests that individuals consider themselves to be 'keepers" or "protectors' rather than .owners."  [This is an important distinction. During my direction of a two year project involving the care of Native American sacred medicine bundles in a non-Indian private collection, I maintained a clear distinction between "owner" and "keeper." This enabled the private collector, and Native American groups to agree on the repatriation of specific bundles for ceremonial use.]

In this paper, I challenge the assumption there is a monolithic New Age market through a comparison of the objects produced for three different New Age venues: the biannual corporate Whole Life or New We Expo, the local monthly Psychic Fair, and the annual Northeastern "Dianic' Wiccan market- place.

[Wicca or witchcraft is also referred to as the Craft. There are several distinct Craft traditions identified as; Traditional, Gardnarian, Alexandrian, Georgian, and Dianic. These traditions than either stand alone or as an umbrella for other sects. Dianic Wicca can be divided into two sects. Although both emphasize environmental activism and the worship of the Goddess, there are several ideological and structural differences between the two sects.

The foremost structural difference is the exclusion of men by one group. According to Adler, this female only group " ... is high on creativity, high on psychic skills, high on politics, and low on structure and formal rituals." (Adler 1986: 122) The annual Dianic event discussed in this paper is representative of such a female-only orientation.

For historical overview of Dianic Woes. see Margot Adler: 1986. For Dianic ideology see Z Budapest: 1980.]  This research indicates there is not enough overlap between the objects produced for these three venues to consider the New Age market as either unified or monolithic. My research clearly demonstrates that objects play a profound role in the facilitation, mediation, and maintenance of both alternative and oppositional forms of New Age spiritual belief. However, the production, consumption, circulation, and ultimately even the type of potential ritual object differ significantly along economic and gender lines.

Finally, several of the recurring themes, found at the micro level of analysis, can be considered as mechanisms that drive the consumption of New Age objects. To substantiate this assertion, I have drawn heavily from narratives collected of "urban shamans;" dowsers, diviners, and tarot card readers; women involved with feminist spirituality - specifically Wiccan and nonWiccan Goddess groups.

[The shamanic drumming group is affiliated with The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, Norwalk, Connecticut. It represents one of a dozen such groups in the Now York City area. In 1989-90 the size of the group varied from nine to eleven practitioners, the ratio of men to women remained 3:8. This group was formed in 1985 and remains active today.

Interviews with tarot card readers, dowsers, and diviners took place from May 1991 to date. The majority of these individuals are affiliated with two suburban Now York State groups. Membership in one of these groups is limited to dowsers.

Research involving feminist forms of spirituality was undertaken at an annual Wiccan event in Pennsylvania (May 1991 and May 1992) and through extensive interviews with individuals involved with the non-Wiccan feminist collective 'Temple of the WomanSpirit' in Wilmington, Delaware from May 1991 to date. This is the first feminist spirituality collective to be Federally recognized (19M) as a church.] Although rarely a collaborative effort, ethnography is a product of many voices.

The incorporation of practitioner's narratives in this text reflects their prior approval of the passages cited. Further, these narratives are inset to easily distinguish them from my own voice. All references to documentary photographs and interviews are excerpted from ongoing research started in 1989..

Empathetic Understanding: '...there are no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses." (Williams 1958, 83-4)

Any study of contemporary spirituality involves the collapse of boundaries between observer and observed. This becomes a serious factor as anthropologists find "New Age" participants within their own culture, profession, and personal relations. James Clifford has told us that "ethnography encounters others in relation to itself while seeing itself as the other." (Clifford 1986: 22-23)

There has been a tendency, however, to reduce the experiences of commonality found among individual practitioners, to the level of exotic surface phenomena, or to use odels of pathological deviance to explain participation. These approaches circumvent the entire discourse on belief as a mechanism for resistance and empowerment. [What Geertz has referred to as metasocial commentary.] There might just be more to consider than 'the Barnum effect. [Bourdieu has argued that distinction is culturally mediated. Ultimately critiques which limit the scope of inquiry serve to classify the classifiers. The "Barnum effect' refers to circus owner P.T. Barnun's famous remark 'there is a sucker born everyday"] Mary Douglas has gone so far as to write that,

"The argument which seeks to explain behavior by reference to maladjustment, compensation, deprival is always fair game. When it rears its ugly head among empirical sociologists it is a particular duty to give chase." (Douglas 1982:5)

The epithets indicate an obvious resistance toward the understanding of beliefs and practices found outside the realm of rationality. According to Victor Turner, social scientists demonstrate "a general disregard of the liminal and marginal phenomena of social process and cultural dynamics...' (Turner 1978:1) Medical sociologist David Hufford addresses this lack of charity and warns that both skeptics and believers "face each other in mutual incomprehension.' Hufford advocates an "experience centered approach' in which researchers either believe their informants or at least do not disbelieve them . [For a discussion of this issue in anthropological theory see Morris: 1987. Morris identifies three paradigmatic approaches that have contributed to a sympathetic understanding of this material: contextual, symbolist, and intellectualist.]

Similarly, Pino-Cabrai (1988) has argued that Anthropology has no language to deal with continuities, similarities, and recurrences in belief gestalts. As a result of this inadequacy, the continua of belief and practice are mistakenly categorized as discreet historical movements, stockpiled as grist for historians, folklorists, and future charismatic leaders.


Although there is nothing "new" about the current world-wide florescence of both the alternative and oppositional spirit" imagination, there is a clear and urgent: need for newness. The 'New Age" spirituality marketplace is driven by two interdependent desires - a need for newness, and an insistence upon authenticity.

[Every article on New Age spiritualism, whether written by an academic or not, emphasizes the bottomless pit of beliefs and practices available to New Age participants. Implicit in these descriptive phrases is an assumption that innovation and hence diversity make it impossible to define the boundaries of the participant's social relations. This is the conclusion reached by Ellen Badone in her 1991 article on geomancy in Canada, 'Ethnography, fiction, and the meanings of the past in Brittany."

"It is important to recognize that the New Age is not an organized movement with well-defined boundaries. Rather, it represents loosely defined collection of individuals and groups practicing activities as diverse as crystal healing, meditation, spirit >channeling', tarot reading, neopagan magic, and color therapy, among others.' (Badone 1991: 535)

When anthropologists limit their fieldwork to brief encounters with participants whose beliefs and practices are, usually, the most easily accessible to observation by an outsider, they are operating from the assumption that diverse equates to amorphous social relations. As such, the forms of spirituality discussed are dramatic, physically visible, and often symbolic markers in the community in which the practitioner lives. The reader must keep in mind that Badone's article is based on a single Saturday morning interview with one family.]

For NEw Age leaders and producers of ritual objects, this dual focus on innovation and authenticity brings with it the problem of locating beliefs, practices, and ritual objects within historical time. To what degree do prominent New Age leaders allow for historical continuity between current forms and those that have their ancestry in 18th century Swedenborgianism, 19th century spiritualism, Christian Science, Now Thought, and Theosophy? The perception of too great a link with the historical past will: 1) tarnish the allure of newness, 2) diminish the producer's prestige derived from invention, and the participant's pride in discovery, 3) place unwanted attention on ordinary, secular time, 4) decrease the participant's possibility of achieving a spontaneous liminal state of consciousness.

The perception of authenticity is also linked to the producers' interpretation and incorporation of historical continuities. New Age leaders, especially those that espouse shamanism and Goddess worship, frequently remind their audiences that their vision, and their product, is 'not New Age but stone ago." These producers are not innovators, but rather elaborators whose synthesis of historical phenomena amounts to a selective packaging of ancient goods in shiny now boxes. More important to this discussion is that so-called "historical continuities' are often invented by producers. The most visible example of this are the shamanism groups that have developed over the last five years.

To be successful in the New Age market, producers of alternative products must reflect an idealized history but never directly confront or dwell on actual historical phenomena. For example cultural anthropologist turned shaman, Michael Hamer reminds his audience that:

'What I've found was that we're not introducing something exotic 'we're just going home. European's had shamans up to a few thousand years ago. In fact' the last Northern Europeans, the Laplanders, had shamans up to the 1930s. So we are talking about ... not something exotic but some ancient capacity that is right there and only needs to be waked up by certain proven techniques. So it's quite practical and sometimes almost embarrassing how easy it is to do this work because you ordinarily think you should be wowing a hair shirt and be in a cell for 30 years suffering to do it but it's really in fact not that difficult for most people." (Mishlove 19N: Interview with Hamer)

In the Social Science literature, in general, definitions fall into three distinct deterministic categories. These categories suggest a causal relationship between New Age spirituality and health, economics, and popular culture.  [For relationship to health, see Luhrmann: 1989, Fuller: 1989. For relationship to economic factors, see: Badone: 1991, Ahlstrom: 1972. For relationship to post WW II industrialization, see, Wuthnow: 1986.]

If the first two categories represent mechanisms for personal gain and consumption, the third category provides insights in the circulation of New Age spirituality over space and time. Individuals involved with alternative forms of spiritualism readily identity themselves as "into" a specific type of healing or belief system. These identifications, which Imply serious involvement or knowledge, are very misleading. They tend not to provide information on the articulation between the specific form of spirituality and the practitioner's social relations. In fact, the extent of involvement frequently is limited to participation in a one day or weekend workshop, or more often, to the purchase of a single book or audio cassette.

'New Age" has become a buzz expression, and category, used by the popular media to describe beliefs and activities that are outside the orthodox or are on the fringe of what is mainstream. Media coverage is not a limiting factor in the relationship between New Age ideology and popular culture.

In America, popular culture has become the foremost vehicle for the circulation of New Age material. Theologian Ted Peters has noted that "New Age ideas travel last because they are borne by the electric and print media." (Peters 1988: 764)

Scholars characterize the health aspects of New Age spirituality as a college of metaphysical or nonwestern healing systems to prevent or cure disease. The relationship between alternative forms of spirituality and alternative forms of medicine has a very long history, and it remains to be studied how New Age participants incorporate this historical relationship.

The economic connection between the "babyboom generation" and New Age spirituality, as represented by the corporate New Age Expo, has not gone unnoticed by demographers, scholars and journalists. [Demographics available for the New Age population come from the New Age industry itself. Marketing surveys conducted by the New Age Publishing and Retailing Alliance, various New Age magazines, radio stations which highlight New Age music are available for analysis, and New Age dating services. These sources indicate that the New Age consumer tends to be college educated, affluent, white collar. Ninety-one percent of the subscribers to New Age Journal are college educated with an average household income of $42,000, and a median age of 39.5. Time-Life Books reports that the buyers of their series, Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown, are in their late thirties and have an average income of $45,000. These figures reflect the audience for the highly advertised Whole Life Expos, but do not reflect those who frequent either the hometown Psychic Fairs or the Dianic Wiccan events.] Sociologist Robert Wunthnow (1986) attributes the rise of alternative forms of spirituality during the three decades following World War II to: the number of young people coming of age in the 1960s, the advances in science and technology, and the corresponding increase in higher education. It is also important to consider that much of New Age irrationalism is a reaction to deep disappointment in the efficacy of technology. Woody Allen was right, "God is dead, and you can't find a plumber on Sunday either.'

Scholars have also noted that economic and health concerns are not mutually exclusive. For Sidney AhIstrom, New Age "harmonial piety" and "spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person's rapport with the cosmos." (Ahistrom 1972: 119) Similarly, Ellen Badone writes, 'Mile emphasizing spirituality and self-actualization, the New Age teaches that these goals are fully compatible with material success, and may in fact contribute to its achievement.' (Badone 1991: 535)"

Ultimately, definitions that rely on causal relationships are of limited value because they do not give us a large enough picture of social relationships, the dynamics of newness, the mechanisms for reproduction and resistance, and the historical relationships that underlie current forms of New Age spiritualism. Note that alternative forms rarely represent a direct challenge to a failed social matrix, but oppositional forms nearly always embody resistance.  [Essentially an economic argument, this line of thinking beam a striking resemblance to the relationship between the protestant work ethic and capitalism discussed by Max Weber.]


In this period of late capitalism, New Age charismatic leaders and participants are both consumers and producers of spiritual accoutrements. Although this discussion focuses on commercially mass produced or locally produced objects, I have omitted two important "" of objects from the analysis, the 'found" object and the homemade object. [Another venue for production and consumption, the New Age weekend workshop, will be discussed in a future study. Many weekend workshops commodify what Joseph Campbell has referred to as, "an experience of being alive."] Circulation of New Age accoutrements occurs not just through purchase at expos, fairs, and occult bookstores, but also through barter and gift giving.

It is apparent that a large population of participants Is not represented if the corporate Whole Life Expo is used as a primary a measure of New Age beliefs, practices, and material culture. More importantly this population's economic critique of the New Age Expo will be lost.

The Whole Life Expo is big business and there are a lot of the muckaty-mucks. Its a big extravaganza. The psychic fair is more like a hometown flea market. Its expensive to got a booth in there. [interview RFM: May 1901]

The presence of such an event in several large cities in the United States indicates there is a burgeoning New Age market. Some writers, such as John Naisett and Patricia Aburdene, speculate that the 'New Age Market' presents unlimited economic opportunities for producers. In fact, these authors devoted an entire chapter in their bestselling book, Magatrends 2000, to the rise in religious revivalism as the millennium draws near.

It may appear, on the surface, that similar desires are being successfully commidified, however, objects sold at the corporate Whole Life Expos, the small hometown Psychic Fairs, and the annual Dianic Wiccan events, demonstrate these three venues have different audiences. There is no such creature as a typical New Age consumer.

The Whole Life Expo and the Now Life Expo are different annual events, although both last from Friday to Sunday, and have occurred at the same hotel in Now York City. A California company, Whole Life Productions, Inc., produces The Whole Life Expo. This company also represents several prominent New Age speakers such as, shaman Lynn Andrews and channeler Kevin Ryerson. Serentity Health Organization, Inc., publisher of NEWLIFE Magazine, sponsors The Now Life Expo. NEWLIFE Magazine is an wholistic health magazine.

In 1990 the Whole Life Expo offered lectures and workshops with nearly all of the 'big name' speakers -Lynn Andre", Bemis Segal, Sun Bear, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Marianne Williamson, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, John Lee, Wallace Black Elk, and Kevin Ryerson. The official press release shows the diversity of interests represented at this Expo.

The Whole Life Expo for Body Mind Spirit is a unique event addressing the whole array of human needs, interests and ways of actualizing our highest potential. Visitors will have the opportunity to listen to renowned speakers who are in demand for their penetrating insights and views on personal fulfillment. The choice of topics, in areas of health, spirituality, new science and human potential, is unmatched. Expo role models effectively communicate "whole life" scenarios and inspire audience excitement with their expertise, conviction and the power of their personality. [emphasis in original]

Consistent with a basic New Age tenet that Native Americans embody a special access to the sacred, it is not surprising that the only prominent speaker to appear at both events, the 1990 Whole Life Expo and the 1992 Now Life Expc, was Wallace Black Elk. The New Life Expo's inability to draw other prominent speakers led to the elevation of formerly mid-level speakers, Solaw and Reverend Capers, both present at the 1990 event. Another significant difference between the two events was the Now Life Expo's incorporation of several features typically found at the local Psychic Fair - a separate "Psychic Room' for tarot readers, lectures on UFO's and extra-terrestrial creatures, and lectures on the healing properties of magnets.

By contrast Psychic Fairs lack the glamour and expansiveness of the Expos. These events take place in community centers, local high school gyms, municipal buildings, and motels with banquet halls. There is very little if any advertising. The announcement of the events is through low-cost direct mail or word of mouth. Advertising, if used, takes the form of small, publication created ads in free distribution, non-subscription publications.

A further contrast is the Womongathering Festival, an annual Dianic Wiccan event. In this discussion it is representative of a dramatically different consumer market than represented by either the expos or the psychic fairs. This event draws approximately 350 to 450 women to a campground in rural Pennsylvania. Announcements for the event appear in several journals devoted to feminist spirituality or lesbian culture. All of the print material associated with this event, (advertisements or program guide) replace the words women and woman with the words "wommon,"wimmin", or 'womyn."

For this discussion, I have summarized some early comparisons of the objects found at these three events in chart form.


In this paper, the terms "alternative" and "oppositional" signify two different approaches to spiritual belief. Anthropologist Raymond Williams in his essay "Bass and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory." suggests the terms but not in relation to spirituality. According to him both the alternative and oppositional sons" of the world, and the possibilities for agency, originate from outside corporate culture.

"[alternative] ... someone who simply finds a different way to live and wishes to be left alone with it, and [oppositional] someone who finds a different way to live and wants to change the society in its light." (Williams 1980:42).

I have associated them with two different expressions of spiritualism, "alternative' with the personal, and "oppositional" with the communal. [See also Biwood's use of "emergent and excursus religion.' According to Ellwood emergent religion "does not set up altar against altar, or doctrine against doctrine, in opposition to the Judeo-Christian establishment, so much as present itself as dealing with aspects of life other than established religion, and with teachings which, rightly understood, only complement the received confessions. These movements are ostensibly noncompetitive with the great denominations, even as they survive on religious interests and needs aroused -but perhaps not met-by them. (Ellwood 1979: 33) It should be noted that since I have not categorized beliefs on the basis of size, no assumption is made that an overarching religious social structure exists.] While both forms of spiritualism challenge mainstream religious orthodoxy in some way, their differences are dramatic. Alternative forms challenge aspects of mainstream ideology, while oppositional forms challenge both ideology and structure. Listen to feminist cleric Faith Queman, the founder of the first Federally recognized feminist spirituality church Temple of the Womanspirit. The passage begins with a reference to women entering sacred ritual space.

We first spend time quieting the chattering, and we come in. Women don't like to quiet down. Most of us who do this are in rebellion of the churches we were raised in, of the quiet we were kept in, of the nonresponsiveness, and non-aliveness of our religions. Womanspirit is alive. ft's a growing, moving, processing - live experience. 'Womanspirit" meaning woman's spirituality, in particular the way we practice it. I can I speak for everyone. [Interview FQ: March 24, 1992]

The term "spiritual" is part of both descriptive phrases bemuse New Age participants identify with this term rather than the term "religious.' This identification is a result of an alienation towards mainstream religious ideology and church structure. The distinction between terms allows the individual to pursue their spirituality in complete privacy, sampling from an eclectic mix of Western, Eastern, native american, and invented beliefs.

In some contexts, imagination mews a creative process by which individuals make purposeful use of physical objects and emotional images and/or symbols for their psycho-therapeutic value. Combining imagination with spirituality allows the believer to collapse the boundaries of space, time, and self, ultimately identifying with a sense of universality. This is an enormously creative process, The alternative spiritual imagination is a long journey in which objects are the way stations to remember, regroup, or reevaluate the form and merits of the journey. Charts 1 - 3 demonstrate that the material referents of this spiritual imagination, especially in an alternative system, are mind-boggling in their diversity.


The exploration of the production and consumption of objects presents several recurring themes. At this stage, these themes are not all inclusive but represent strong tendencies that form 'working categories' for my continued research.

Robert Ellwood demonstrated, in his groundbreaking 1979 work, Alternative Altars that it is possible to categorize the similarities and differences between alternative and oppositional forms of spiritualism. In expanding on Ellwood's work, I have found it useful to plot recurring themes in three concentric circles - the inner most circle representing mainstream religion, the middle circle representing alternative spiritualism, and the outer most circle representing oppositional spiritualism. This arrangement enables the researcher to gauge the individual practitioner's social distance from the orthodox.

1) Meaning for New Age participants is increasingly constructed or intuited from the ordinary events, routines, memories, and images found in the individual=s everyday world. Synchronism plays a significant role in the interpretation of meaning.

Context and meaning effect the individual's perception of time and place. At this point, we must simply explore the processes through which context and meaning merge. One of the hallmarks of the alternative spiritual imagination is an emphasis on synchronism. In narratives, events are tied to the experience of intuition. Both alternative and oppositional practitioners find connections between themselves and others, the material and the imagined, and "ordinary' and 'non-ordinary or extra-ordinary reality." These connections are invisible threads between person and person, person and object, person and place, person and time, person and spirit.

Listen to Rosaleen recall her experience at a Foundation for Shamanic Studies' workshop. [Rosaleen Fehilly Murphy has been a practitioner of several different alternative forms of spirituality, dowsing, tarot card reading, Harrier method shamanism, psychometry, and past life regression. She is a 49 year old woman, first generation Irish-American, married to a blue collar worker, and a suburban home owner. Her exploration of alternative forms of spiritualism began during high school and intensified 14 years ago after she was diagnosed with Hodgekins disease.]

You know I had the rocks. Bring the rocks, bring the rattles. So of Course I brought two. And he [Michael Harner] said, "Ok who forgot their rocks?' And everyone, like sheepishly, raised their hands. He says "Now everybody knows, somebody has to bring two. Who's the people with two?" And we raised our hands - matched! Five didn't bring, five had extra. It was amazing!

Michael said, 'you to him" and he pointed 'take it over there." He pointed to where the rocks went, the extras. Then we started to do the rock divination... [he, (the rock holder)] he said 'By the way where did you got this rock?" I said "From the Esopus River." Fie said he left his upstate. He purposely went upstate to where he was born to got this rock, and he left it home. Flo lives right on the Esopus River... it was meant to be his rock. Why I took that one? That's why. [interview RFM: May 7, 1989]

It is possible to explore synchronism as a form of what Mary Douglas refers to as "ritualism.' According to Douglas ritualism is "the heightened appreciation of symbolic action' manifested as the belief in the efficacy of instituted signs and a sensitivity to condensed symbols. (Douglas 1982: 8)

In the following narrative Faith Queman discusses the objects that women bring to construct sacred altars for collective ritual. She begins with a reference to the use of multicolored silk cloth, hung over a clothesline, to create one wall of the Temple of the Womanspirit. This cloth divides the room into secular and sacred space.

The doorway of the temple, the clothesline... This is material, cloth that we have caff led for years and years -and it is added to. I mean, someone brought their sarong this time to hang, that they wore to their senior prom! It's amazing! It grows out of women's experiences, and women's sacredness, and it's our colors and our expression - and that's the aliveness too. I mean what did churches use - black and white!

What had been a plain room an hour before is a magical space. it is alive with the physical, emotional, and spiritual. Women bring things to the altars that are of their physical life, poem& that are of their minds, pictures of ancestors. I mean they bring anything they want to bring. The emotional parts of themselves. Things that have been great giftings to them they bring. And the altars are made up of these things, the dearest most spiritual things. [interview FO: March 24, 19921

2) alternative forms of spirituality often emphasize the experience of liminality or an other-worldly state of being, while oppositional forms often emphasize the experience of communitas and incorporation.

These two forms of desire are reciprocally related. They also indicate a socially constructed continuum of experience through which participants are able to gauge their status. At one end of the continuum is the alternative practitioners quest for a sustained experience of liminality or other-worldly state of being. At the other end of the continuum is the oppositional practitioners quest for identification with the common group and social stasis.

[Victor Tumor in his 1982 assay, 'Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow, Ritual' argued that the liminal and the liminoid, as types of transition experiences, can be distinguished from each other. Turner argues, that liminal or liminoid experiences depend on the degree of industrialization found in a given society, whether the society makes a distinction between work and leisure, and the degree to which individuals feel obligated to a larger social group. Turner characterizes liminoid as,

,...plural, fragmentary (from the point of view of the total inventory of liminoid thoughts, words, and deeds), experimental, idiosyncratic, quirky, subversive, utopian, and characteristically produced and consumed by identifiable individuals, in contrast to liminal phenomena ... which are often anonymous or divine in origin.' (Turner 1978: 253)

Following Turner's distinction, a 'betwixt-and-between' experience in New Age spiritualism would be a liminoid experience. It must be noted that Tumor's characterization of liminoid phenomena is made only with regard to leisure activities." While the liminoid might resemble the liminal, it also would have a self-conscious aspect that is not present in the liminaJ since people make a conscious distinction between work and leisure in industrial societies. Theologian Tom Driver has recognized the artificial nature of this distinction. He writes,

"The difficulty of using liminoid and liminal for purposes of classification becomes apparent also when we think of the rites of now religions. (Driver 1991: 236)]

3) Practitioners frequently mark a synchronic experience by amassing very specific types of objects. Given the interdependence of context and meaning, the qualitative resonance of these collections in the environment may facilitate an alternate sense of time and place.

One significant characteristic of the New Age spiritual imagination is the ability to hyperbolize the intuited idiosyncratic moment when the extraordinary is seen as a measure of the average standard of spirituality. [See also Knox 1973:2.] In this case, the extraordinary refers to the numbers of similar objects amassed. it is not uncommon to find diviners who own up to 75 tarot decks, or dowsers with pendulums and dowsing rods made from wood, stone, magnets, crystal, copper wire, and Bic ball point pen barrels.

All forms of hyperbolization may be considered as "extravagant exaggeration... representing something as much greater or less, better or worse ... or that depicts the impossible as actual." (Webster's Third: 1112)

It then follows that drama and performance provide the perfect flexibility against which to construct alternative and oppositional practices and eschantological meaning. Historian Clark Garret has pointed out that "the best way to understand enthusiasm is as sacred theater... both performer and audience have socially constructed roles, share meanings, values, ideologies of personal salvation and universal regeneration." [See also Gothman: 1959]

Out of this performance frame of behavior, practitioners create a heightened interior sensibility. A sensibility that is often expressed through nostalgic forms, and is always expressed through hyperbolized collections of objects. Simply put - more is better! The more contact the individual has with ritual objects, the greater the probability of uncovering the value inherent in the belief or practice embodied by that object. A good illustration of this point is the costume of "urban shamans." Every individual attending a Foundation for Shamanic Studies' workshop, or the bi-monthly shamanic drumming group, owned at least one tee-shirt, piece of jewelry, or medicine pouch (worn as a necklace), emblematic of their tutelary spirit guide or 'power animal.'

Another example of hyperbolization is Rosaleen's ritual care of her crystals. In the following narrative she describes both a cleansing and energizing ritual.

I take an individual stone - and I put it in that little glass pyramid that lifts up. And then I put this pyramid over, and that, you know picks up energy through that. (Interview RFM: December 1991]

As I have shown, the experience of intuition is often expressed through hyperbolized, highly suggestive, or symbolic forms. Both the experience and the representation of the experience are ahistorical phenomena, in the sense that for the believer, meaning and context constitute each other. Anthropologist Peter Stromberg has recently illustrated this idea in his article,

"Symbols into Experience: A Case Study in the Generation of Commitment."

"To become aware of the constitutive function of symbolism, to say that the meaning of a symbol is tied to the situation, is also to say that the meaning of the situation emerges through the symbol." (Stromberg 1991: 104)

Although Stromberg's basic idea is sound, he has neglected to deal with the shifts in meaning that occur with each encounter of the symbol. He omits a very particular aspect of the negotiation of time - the ability of people to occupy, what Ernst Bloch, has called "different

Not all people live in the same Now. They do so externally, by virtue of the fact that they may be seen today. But that does not mean that they are living in the same time as others. Rather they carry earlier things with them, things which are intricately involved. One has one's times according to where one stands corporeally, above all in terms of classes. Times older than the present continue to effect older strata..." (Bloch 1968: 22)

As Bloch might have anticipated, narratives of participants reveal a phenomenological shift in the meaning of the time and place in which they experience the symbolic form. This is a process of maturation through which new connections are made to the original experience that led to the hyperbolization. The result of this is that later encounters with the symbol may result in the examination of the encounter for new meaning, and hence, a now sense of self identity. In the following narrative Rosaleen discusses how she amassed her sizable collection of crosses. She displays these crosses throughout her house.

I like the symbol of the cross and those crosses that I have special meaning to me... So I guess that they also came to me. And my father gave me a silver crucifix a while back. So I guess they have meaning for me that I don't thoroughly understood. That I have to have them around me. I think that you sometimes need certain things, even though you don't realize it, so if you don't go and seek them out, they find you. I don't consciously go out and look for a cross and buy a cross ... come to think of it what did my boyfriends give me? They all gave me crosses! Maybe they're afraid of me. Maybe they think I'm a witch! That's right, everyone I went steady with that was their first gift. They gave me a cross. That's amazing I never thought of that till now. I guess this is a symbol for me that I should have around me whether I am conscious of it or not... it finds me. (interview RFM: May 1991]

The importance of time, as a unit of analysis, has been discussed by Swedish anthropologists Jonas Frykman and Orvar Lofgren in their book, Culture Builders., A Historical Anthropology of Middle-Class Life. They discuss the cultural construction of time by examining how it is negotiated to encompass hegemonic forms, to measure enclosure or to signal transformation. They write:

How a culture conceives of time reveals a great deal about the way people live and think; it gives us a key to the understanding of society's cultural foundation ... altered views of time can clearly reflect radical changes in society... The problem is, however, that there is not one time but many. (Frykman & Lofgren 1990: 13)

4) Particular types of desire are commodified for the New Age consumer. Desire for nostalgia, authenticity innovation, and the experience of fascination figure prominently int he personal narratives of urban shamans, diviners, and practitioners of Goddess worship.

A romanticized vision of the past is hard to resist even for academics like Raymond Williams who sees merit in "reaching back to those meanings and values which were created in real societies [emphasis mine] in the past.' Williams 1980: 42) At issue is the location of this gaze backward. To whose ancestors does the participant look for knowledge?

The data gathered from the shamanic drumming group indicates that, at least for fledgling urban shamans, anyone's ancestors are up for grabs. Due in part to the collapse of geographical distances and the technology of popular media, exotic and non-western cultures are viewed as interchangeable and distinctions of class, race, gender, age, and ethnicity are lost. The transliteration of Native American and Asian Indian peoples is a common illustration of this point: at any Psychic Fair one can buy an "American Indian mandala." In that this object is for meditation it resembles a mandala, however, its general form bears a resemblance to a Plain's Indian leather shield with stroud cloth streamers.

With New Age shamanism, we must scrutinize the methods used to appropriate the spiritual practices and material culture of indigenous peoples. New Age consumers are unaware of the issues of power and representation involved in their purchases and pilgrimages to .power places." it is not surprising that tensions exist as a result of the production and consumption of these material expressions of spirituality. Ms. Andy Smith, a Cherokee activist, writes:

"On the surface, it may appear that this now craze is based on a respect for Indian spirituality. In fact, however, the New Age movement is part of a very old story of white racism and genocide against the Indian people. The "Indian ways" that these white, New Age 'feminist' are practicing have little grounding in reality ... Of course, white "feminists" want only to become partly Indian. They do not want to be part of our struggles for survival against genocide, and they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse. They do not want to do anything that would tarnish their romanticized notions of what it means to be Indian. (Smith 1991: 44)(An analysis of Smith's derisive remarks are beyond the scope of this paper, however, it is particularly disturbing that Smith sees no boundaries between 'white feminists" and New Age practitioner's.]

Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart has also noted that, "Even consumption is a production, a production of class, privilege, the power to model reality, or a production of relationships ... " (Stewart 1988: 234)

To accomplish this commodification, charismatic leaders and producers of New Age accoutrements merge previously exclusive categories of experience. Annual Wiccan events are stylized as, simultaneously, a pilgrimage to Goddess sights, a shopping trip, an exotic relaxing vacation, and an attempt at reconstructive anthropology. Carefully ignored are how these categories of experience merge and the degree of collusion that occurs at the level of the hosting country or tribe.  [The island of Lesbos has aggressively marketed itself to the American gay and lesbian community and is the site for an International Gay and Lesbian Spiritual Retreat. Likewise, several Native American so-called 'traditional healers' and "medicine" people (Amy Lee, Kachinas Kutanei, Brooks Medicine Eagle, Sun Bear) appear as regulars on the New Age circuit of Expos.]

Although there are several Native American groups that have published lists of "plastic shamans," there has been virtually no criticism of Indians who work the New Age circuit of Whole Life - Now Life Expos and create hierarchical spiritual organizations.

5) The ritual use and display of objects is a mechanism to facilitate, mediate, and maintain both the alternative and the oppositional forms of New Age spirituality.

While objects may be the harbingers of meaning, and they may serve as mnemonics for facilitating an altered state of consciousness, we should not forget that objects are merely the messengers. The real message is encoded in the unseen, hidden recesses of an objects attributes. Symbolic objects either refer the participant to a primary experience or memory involving a specific time or place, or they refer to a secondary experience involving the physical senses or perception.

Theologian, Rudolf Otto, recognized the importance of objects to negotiate belief when he wrote "...this feeling or consciousness of the 'wholly other" will attach itself to, or sometimes be indirectly aroused by means of, objects which are already puzzling upon the, natural plane, or are of surprising or astounding character..." (Otto 1950: 27) [According to Otto, the 'Wholly Other cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; and everything that comes 'of the spirit' must be awakened." (Otto 1950: 7)]


The qualitative resonance of New Age objects around the individual, whether worn on the body or placed in the daily living environment, has a dramatic impact on the individual's perception of self, time, and place. First, the individual's reminiscences of meaningful time and place are continually contested, negotiated and connected to direct physical referents.

Second, keeping in mind, that every secular decorative object has the potential to become a sacred ritual object, what the individual feels to be true, meaningful, and significant becomes inextricably linked to the display of objects. In fact, many New Age consumers purchase objects that they, suspect will reveal hidden meanings at a later time when the individual 'is able to hear what the objects has to say.' In effect participants purchase the object for the experience of what remains hidden and nonmaterial - they purchase the doughnut to experience the hole.


I am grateful to the individuals, especially Rosaleen Fehilly Murphy, Faith Queman, Yvette Rudnisky, Marie Hutton and George Pichowsky who shared with me their search for meaning, and who made a place for me within their rituals. Many other people have generously contributed their time, humor, and insights to this study. Scholars knowledgeable about ritual: John Beatty, Jane Schneider, June Nash, Donna Jordan, and Scott Bennett; research assistant Pamela Gurman and the students in my Advanced Seminar in Popular Culture.






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Mary Apikos, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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