Alexander Panchenko on the New Age Project

In this interview with Alexander Panchenko, the head of the Russian project team, we learn about his understanding of New Age culture, his personal connection to our object of research as well as his expectations of working with the German colleagues from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz led by Birgit Menzel.

Alexander Panchenko
Professor of Anthropology of Religion, European University at St Petersburg

What are your visions of the project and its objectives?

The project is an excellent opportunity to discuss how late Soviet and post-Soviet societies created their own transcendent worlds and how these worlds match with global trends of “post-secular” ideologies, practices, and concepts. This international collaboration of scholars with profound expertise in the topic promises to provide both inside and outside analytical views of late and post-Soviet New Age culture and its global contexts. Although there are scholars and publications dealing with the subject of our project, it is still little investigated. So our objectives should include not only providing insights in particular cases and research problems, but also the establishment of Soviet and post-Soviet New Age studies as part of international academic networks. We should also connect our research to various disciplinary contexts, from anthropology and sociology of religion to literary and cultural history.

What does New Age signify to you? Do you think that New Age should be narrowly defined?

We are all aware that New Age (NA) is often used as an umbrella term, so for me, it requires rather theoretical discussions of trends and patterns than a narrow definition. There are some general points that I would start with: Instead of composing yet another empirical list of NA ideas and practices, I would rather like to give a couple of theoretical examples. First of all, I think it is still possible to discuss NA as a religion. Today, many anthropologists criticize the usefulness of “religion” as an analytical concept. It is considered to be shaped by modern European and Christian culture. The opposition of religious and secular when employed for studies of non-European and non-Christian cultures seems to make understanding of the latter even more problematic. Moreover, as Talal Asad put it, “a transhistorical definition of religion is not viable”. This criticism seems to be mostly true. However, it is possible to refer to another analytical perspective provided by present-day cognitive science of religion. Here, in particular, we are invited to study religious ideas and practices in terms of agency attributed to both human and non-, semi-, or superhuman participants of ritual process. “Semiotic ideologies” that underlie religious practices proceed from close connection between cognitive statuses of partners in communication, the value of information, and modes of its transmission. This interdependency is clearly demonstrated by Pascal Boyer who suggests that agents like gods, spirits, and ancestors are “full access agents” (FAA), i. e. those who “have full access to strategic information”. “Strategic information,” he argues, “is the subset of all the information currently available (to a particular agent, about a particular situation) that activates the mental systems that regulate social interaction. <…> In social interaction, we presume that other people’s access to strategic information is neither perfect nor automatic. <…> …There is a general difference between our intuitive representation of humans we interact with and our intuitive representation of supernatural agents. The latter are full-access strategic agents – agents whom one construes as having access to any piece of information that is strategic. That is, given a particular situation, and given some information that activates one’s inference systems, one assumes that the full-access strategic agent has access to that information.” In other words, strategic information here is the necessary condition of our choice in every social context. That means that FAA are not necessarily believed to be omniscient, but their knowledge is rather thought to be of critical importance for our individual and collective action. Boyer discerns three types of such agents – legislators, exemplars, onlookers – and argues that the third type is usually in the center of all religious practices. In his argument, Boyer mostly discusses examples from archaic cultures and world religions. However, his model can possibly be employed for the analysis of NA cultures as well. Aliens, “ascended masters,” and other agents NA practitioners deal and communicate with are no less culturally and psychologically important than gods, spirits, and ancestors, so it seems really valuable to look at how both human and non-human agency is created, represented, and transformed by NA rituals, practices and techniques.

My second example deals with the question of how NA ideas and practices are related to “alternative” epistemologies and forms of knowledge production presented by Michael Barkun in his studies of what he called “stigmatized knowledge”, “that is, knowledge claims that have not been accepted by those institutions we rely upon for truth validation.” Barkun’s initial goal was to explain how believers in conspiracy theories could accept various forms of NA culture including alternative healing and beliefs about Atlantis and UFOs. His theoretical contribution, however, brings us to more general issues of how various forms and ideologies of knowledge production work in present-day societies. From this point of view, we look at NA as only a part of broader social flows.

What are the specifics of New Age in Russia?

Western NA in the 1960s and 1970s was a form of counterculture and, at the same time, an eschatological movement. In the Soviet states it looked like a technological utopia, a form of an ideological alternative challenging but also reinvigorating official ideological declaration. In the USSR, NA ideas and practices were popular among technical specialists, academics, writers, and artists. In a way, they connected the official intellectual establishment with the cultural underground. In the 1990s, NA was becoming a part of popular culture merging with other forms of “alternative” or “stigmatized” knowledge.

Ideologically, post-Soviet NA culture in Russia is predominantly oriented towards conservative nationalism, imperial resentment, conspiracy theories, and so on. It would be not surprising, however, if we would start to look at contemporary NA as part of popular culture and ideologies.

Do you have personal memories or connections with New Age or New Age activities?

I do indeed, and in many respects. As a field researcher in the domain of post-Soviet religious culture, I met a lot of NA practitioners and activists, especially in the Last Testament Church which Siberian settlements I visited several times in the 2000s. In a way, this religious movement represents most of the principal trends in post-Soviet NA culture. It was not necessary, however, to go to Siberia to meet NA practitioners in late and post-Soviet times. I was born in 1971 in Leningrad and, in a way, witnessed how NA was becoming less and less “underground” and “elitist”. My friends from the late Soviet hippie movement practiced a lot of things we can define as NA, from yoga and “eastern martial arts” to UFOlogy and extrasensory perception. Today, however, most of their “countercultural” and “exotic” ideas and practices have become “common” and “mainstream” knowledge in Russia and other post-Soviet states.

How do you envision the future of New Age?

For a social scientist, it is always a bit tricky to speculate about the future of any cultural or social phenomenon. There might be many factors (political, social, and economic) that may influence the future of NA. No need to say that NA ideas, concepts, and practices have already become an important and at the same time less visible part of popular discourses and mass culture. I am sure, however, that transformations of both NA and present-day culture in general are and will be closely related to the development of media, information technologies, and biopolitics. The more digital and virtual our reality becomes, the more our understanding of the human body, technologies, knowledge, and social relations will change. In this perspective, I expect that the “digital segment” of NA culture will inform many aspects of collective imagination.

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