NEOFOLK: Religion, Rebellion, Renewal
Written by KRS & LJN
For years, admiration of social Darwinism, vˆlkisch writers, European paganism, together with condemnation of religion, technology and the modern world have come to define the so-called "neofolk" scene. This collective movement, with its base and ideology in centuries past, has attempted through song, in print, and grassroots activism to contest a postmodern landscape. However with the rejection of religion, poor comprehension of forms of power and a flexible, highly developed late-capitalism, does this musical sphere and its related social movements serve any purpose?
Today, issues of hyper-reality, economic deregulation, cultural deterioration, defeat of grand theories and the intensification of social isolation, fragmentation and zero-consciousness have increasingly altered the way the world functions. Consequences of this period have created new networks of power, from supra-national organizations to corporations, beginning and ending ubiquitously, defining truth and modern reality. Yet, despite the contentious times, for these "neofolk" units and related social movements there is an inability to articulate the world around them, ultimately discovering themselves unable to adapt their critique. Instead, as a group, "neofolkians" are more fascinated with archaic hobby research, Germanic fashion, and the efforts to reconstruct the past. When pressed in interviews to address the mass culture they are supposedly defying, vague topics of "art," "personal enjoyment," and the wishy-washy, ironic "non-political" answers become routine. If their aim is simply self-expression, why put out any public release, be it in print or compact disc? Is it simply notoriety? If not, what is the objective? Music groups, admittedly, are never the vanguard of scholarly thought, nonetheless if "neofolkians" and the general pagan social movement which accompanies it see themselves outside the capitalistic spectrum (thus retaining a "higher goal") and do intend to assess critically the contemporary Western worldview, then a reassessment of their collective philosophy, including fresh looks at late capitalism and less radical confrontations with religion are essential. If not, a once promising assembly will continue down the path of an ever-shrinking subculture - lacking credibility and intellectual substance.
While pagan musicians and the connected social movement appear to grasp early twentieth century European reactionary modernism, albeit frequently in broad and generic terms, their seemingly total lack of awareness of the consequences, scrutiny and examination of late-capitalism has left one to wonder if the postmodern world has passed "neofolk" by. To understand the themes, outline and critique of today it is necessary to look at several key figures and their critique. Arguably one of the most notable thinkers critical of the tactics of the modern world was the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s renowned writings on modernity, the examination of history as will to power and scorn of the Enlightenment, Foucault would develop this philosophical line of thought, bringing to the forefront interrogations of power/knowledge regimes and multiple layers of order, from the state to the private sector. Foucault’s conceptual foundation was an examination of the Enlightenment, which the Big Other had championed as an attempt to remedy past injustices and lack of understanding. The Enlightenment’s outward expression of liberal democracy, capitalism and science were said to bring in a new age of humanity’s freedom, however Foucault observed new forms of control developed in its place - universal conformity infused through soft totalitarianism. Labeled knowledge and power, Foucault linked these terms to modernist beliefs, regulation, production and categories. Knowledge was defined through social development and discourse – networking from institutions to individuals, utilized to create "truth." Knowledge and power were interlocking puzzle points, only developed when brought together to such a degree where "there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations." (1) This domination to Foucault"is fixed throughout its history, in rituals, in meticulous procedures that impose rights and obligations." (2)
As society developed, increasingly complex situations of power and control had emerged where the new regime found it essential to discipline the individual entirely. (3) In short, today’s world was that where normalizing soft disciplinary power became issues of national policy, as Lawrence Kritzman wrote: "(Foucault) argues, in effect, that we must no longer analyze modern politics as a concealed and essentialized conflict between master and rebel, but rather as a dispersed and infinite field of power relations or strategies of domination." (4) This would extend to a central term in Foucaudian discourse: biopower - an unconditional array of controls through microtechnology and specialization that produced the conditions of existence. Biopower, in its unseen uses, expands life management and domination, presented now as the everyday routine by altering natural processes of human activity in the name of efficiency and desire, thus in turn depersonalizing individuals by reducing them to units of influence for activity in any given environment.
Essentially taking up where Foucault had left off, activist philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their popular works Empire and Multitude explored and updated topics of control network and the power matrix of twenty-first century postmodern capitalism. Postmodern in this case is defined as radical nihilism: the loss of spiritual belonging, disunity, assimilation of organic and inorganic, breakdown of meaning and barriers, all exploited for economic manipulation, hyper-reality, and niche marketing where "free will" has simply become a slogan to a mobile, flexible desire machine relentlessly building and rebuilding. In this contemporary mass culture, the tactics of knowledge and power have now been altered to serve different needs. Now knowledge is predominately linked to profit margins, brands and patents, operated from the public sphere to those working in the shadows drafting trade regulations and human rights codes. (5) Like Foucault, Hardt and Negri saw power is no longer a traditional imperial state, as in the times of the Enlightenment, today it is decentralized governance that controls forms of geopolitics: nations, while never giving up sovereignty, have reconfigured their networks to the aforementioned knowledge regimes - supra-national organization and corporations to create reality, structure societies that produce needs, social relations, bodies, minds, ultimately life and death itself. (6) In Hardt and Negri’s words: "the source of imperial normativity is born a new machine, a new economic – industrial – communicative machine – in short a globalized biopolitical machine." (7) With this new biopolitical machine comes an attempt at the end of history and ideas, a total conquest of liberal democracy and the free market.
Jean Baudrillard offered an additional critique of late-capitalism in the form of sign value and hyperreality. In his analysis, the once-thought secondary aims of capitalism – consumption, symbolic value, and seduction – have been repositioned to the forefront, changing the behavior of the socio-economic order. In what would be labeled hyperreality, Baudrillard described a world where the real and symbolic have become distorted, having lost meaning and foundation in a never-ending attempt of reproduction and flux. In this hyperreality, the individual comprehends a (re)production of images, illusion and simulations to the original object. An example of this hyperreality, often-sighted, is that of Disneyland. Baudrillard had written that "Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the Real." (8) From television to the media the ideological result is to "digest the American way of life" and eventually come to idealize this altered interpretation. (9) This was echoed by Slavoj Zizek in Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002) where it was stated: "the late-capitalist consumer paradise is, in its very hyperreality, in a way unreal, substanceless, deprived" where "the ultimate truth is the dematerialization of ‘real life’ itself, its reversal into a spectral show." (10) The final result is that hyperreality has proved the benchmark for late capitalism. The individual is brought into a network of objects and brand names that represent sign value: the value of power, status and lavishness. Today one becomes so intertwined that "we identify our own fulfillment with the survival of the system." (11) Why is this significant to "neofolk"? In an every changing world, "neofolkians" must come to understand and adapt, a "neofolk 2.0" so to speak, to comprehend the problems of the twenty-first century.
While it is essential for "neofolkians" to appropriate and address the serious critique of power, it is also important to address philosophical reconfiguring of metaphysical categories found within history; religious and otherwise. Religion should be approached practically, existentially, and most of all personally. If sociality affects individuality, and if religion is fundamentally both a social and individual experience, then how the individual is defined will ultimately relate to the social, and vise versa, thus one’s experience of religion takes on more creative dimensions. This was the concept taken up by the classical American pragmatist John Dewey with his writings on naturalistic religiosity. "Naturalism" in religion, Dewey argues, is a difference between "religion" and "religious." (12) In his book A Common Faith, religious is described as the devotion towards an ideal, where through that ideal one may gain a faith in experience and acquire motivation to effect social and political change. For Dewey to have faith is to have faith in experience. This view grounds transcendental claims about unknown objects of religion (God) and place those objects within immanent contexts (nature; acts of social transformation). Dewey addressed a problem of depersonalization (lack of community) and institutes a need for a faith in community. In religion, he saw it as a means to enact social change and consider history in new light. While Dewey predates today’s postmodern philosophy and his connection might not be so obvious – his naturalism in religion, concern over the depersonalization of the individual and view about religion being a means to social change is certainly in association with it. Dewey and his pragmatism is to be considered in this regard and serve as a bridge in grounding religious needs for transformation in the world of social experience.
One must come to recognize that God or ideas won’t be productive unless those beliefs actually unite in theory and practice. In American pragmatism one can be horizontally motivated to create (in "neofolkians" case producing records or magazines), but if one lacks vertical orientation (religion), direction lacks as well. In general, "neofolkians" have no sense what it means to be religious or dedicated to an ideal. Their movement isn’t going to change the world, let alone allow for self-change until they understand better what it is they want to retrieve or accomplish. A new conception of religion would help connect religion and life, supernatural to nature, cherished tradition to walk of life, theory to practice – in short "grounded invocation," to use pragmatism’s term.
While taking a different direction, those like Slavoj Zizek are similar in their aims of reconstructing philosophy according to radical religions pluralism. (13) For Zizek, Christianity is one such way of social change. Contrary to what the "neofolkians" accept as true, in its historical origins early Christianity instituted authentic forms of life, community and genuine pantheism. This was primarily due to the work of Saint Paul, who preaches to the pagan communities that would end up integrating the words into their own. In its Pauline forms, it is not the Christian of popular conception – the "neofolkians" have only thought about religion by capitulating to historical nihilism (in effect remaining within onto-theological history by redistributing its categories). Forms of early Christianity evade the history of onto-theology by reinstituting the Real and acknowledging the rupture of the Event: God cannot be said only pointed to in Real communities within violent interruption. In Zizek’s recent writing on religion, he detailed the revolutionary nature of Christianity that deflects efforts to dismiss it, or any radically religious essence prima facie, given that it is united with the Real, more so than the new age concepts that "neofolkians" connect with. This Real opens the radical essence of religion, the aesthetic critique of political theology.
Where it stands today, "neofolk" is in a perpetual rut of hobby research and historical reenactments, incapable to come to terms with the postmodern world of hyperreality and fragmentation, globalization and post-industrial capitalism. It is critical that "neofolk" look inward, to a radical renewal of thought and reworking of ideas for the existing issues of the twentieth-first century. For this, religion, a topic usually scorn if not outright rejected by "neofolkians," presents groundwork yet to be explored for personal growth and revolutionary change. This essay attempted to present some philosophers and thinkers generally outside the "neofolk" worldview of vˆlkisch writers, who have attempted to address concerns from postmodernism to religion. It is essential for collective pagan community to ask what they are looking to accomplish – is it just "art" and fame? Or is it, as they hint to but never seem to develop, some "higher goal"?
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977), 27
Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" in The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, volume 2, ed. James D. Faubion, (New York: New Press, 1998), 377.
Nancy Fraser, "Michel Foucault: A Young Conservative" in Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault, ed. Susan Hekman, (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 26.
Michel Foucault, "introduction" in Foucault: Politics, Philosophy and Culture. Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence Kritzman, (New York: Routledge, 1990), xvi.
Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Picador, 1999), 440, 441.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), 21.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 40.
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 12, 13.
Ibid 12, 13
Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (New York: Verso, 2002), 13,14.
Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York, Basic Books, 2003), 6.
John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1960), 2.
Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003)