Originally published at Ekunyi's Embers. You can comment here or there.
The Kemetic Round Table works to connect Kemetic bloggers of various practices and paths in order to provide helpful information for those new to Kemeticism. More information about the project can be found here.
This week, members of the Round Table were given the following prompt: “UPG, or Unverified Personal Gnosis, and doxa are a large part of many modern Kemetic practices. For this round, we discuss the nuances of UPG and doxa. What do these terms mean? Are there rules regarding these terms? How important is UPG and doxa in your practice, and how important should others’ UPG and doxa be in my practice?”
My issue with the acronym UPG (used for “Unverified Personal Gnosis”) largely resides in the first word of the three.
Personal is fine. UPG does relate to a personal idea or belief. It is a term which refers to something that happened in your life, or perhaps something that you alone experienced.
Gnosis is a little more complicated, if only in that it’s a complex, multi-faceted concept being shoved into three word phrase. But for now, let’s call it — extremely roughly, mind — knowledge, or insight.
Back to Unverified. Unverified, by virtue of that lovely prefix at the beginning, seems to suggest that it exists as part of a binary. Something is verified, proven to be true, proven to be real, proven to be authentic, or, quite simply, it is not.
And that’s about as gross an oversimplification of the matter as my awful two word definition for gnosis a few lines back.
Now here’s why:
Language is a tricky little git. It gives the illusion of presenting an honest to gods replica of that which it describes, but it never completely encompasses the genuine essence of the experience. Events do occur in time, bodies move, interact, live, breathe, and die — but as soon as any given moment has passed, it can never fully be experienced again save through representations that attempt to revitalize that moment in art, in text, in speech. But none of these ever truly allow the moment to be as it was again: it will be always be bounded by someone’s choices in how to create that representation. The colors, voices, words that are used to encompass some portion of the moment affect how others interpret it in turn, constructing new interpretations of the moment in variations upon variations.
So it goes for our concepts of history.
When I talk with some of the war re-enactors involved in my research, to a man they all contrast the re-enactment history of their group with the “history history,” placing the unverified traditions of their organization in stark opposition to textbook-verified traditions. The re-enactment history: a modern bugle song, anachronistic to the war they seek to portray, yet used for the past 20 years because that’s the way they’ve always done it, becomes a sort of… UPG to these men. A meaningful experience, and yet viewed as a personal choice, something they’ve brought into their own monthly ritual of the re-created war camp without backing it up with proof. In contrast, a brass arrangement of a mid-19th century broadside ballad provides something from the “verified” history — never mind that the primary source was pulled from an edited collection, and that the performance practice is based on a modern-day scholar’s argument of how it might have once been played.
And that’s the issue here: even the “history history” has a touch of “unverifiability” to it. Historians make choices when they decide what goes into their book and what doesn’t. They present us with certain ideas — some backing these ideas up with sound logic and sources, others not — but these ideas still shape how the history is conveyed. No one writing about ancient Egypt today lived there to tell us how things truly were, we only have the writings of academics, mediated by background and belief and schooling, to give us possible interpretations. And granted, even in considering the history we have lived? That’s mediated too, by emotion, by memory, by nostalgia.
The question raised at the end of all of this: what is the authentic, real, verifiable “history”?
My response: There isn’t one.
You’re nuts, Saryt. You might say to this. Why the heck are you involved in a reconstructionist faith if you don’t think there’s a history to be re-created!?
Well here’s the thing. You’re right in saying I don’t believe there’s a history to be re-created. I believe there are histories: personal, communal, national… and each and every one of them valid to the beholder.
And indeed, the way to deal with this plurality of histories and memories is to shift the questions around. I offer the following:
In her seminal work In Search of Authenticity, folklorist Regina Bendix wrote this critique of research projects devoted to seeking out the history or tradition which was purportedly “authentic” or “real.”
The crucial questions to be answered are not ‘what is authenticity?’ but ‘who needs authenticity and why?’ and ‘how has authenticity been used?’ (Bendix 1997: 21).
With this in mind, let’s ask the following: (a) Who needs a verifiable, authentic Kemetic faith and why? (b) How have verifiable, authentic concepts of Kemeticism been used?
(a) Who needs a verifiable, authentic Kemetic faith?
In my humble opinion, this applies anyone who wants to be a part of the Kemetic community and claim a Kemetic religious identity. There are certain aspects of an identity that can only be stretched so far before it ceases to serve as a marker of a group. There is room for flexibility here: no two people claiming any sort of identity are going to be exactly alike (as a self-proclaimed Irish-American who barely drinks, boy howdy do I know that!) But certain points, certain tenets, must be mutually valued amongst those claiming the title, why else have a title at all.
Chances are good that if you claim to be Kemetic, you’re going to worship certain gods and not others, but the hard versus soft polytheism may vary. Chances are also good that you’re going to find value in the concept of ma’at, but whether or not that becomes a historically informed interpretation of ethics or a more immediate experience of “balancing” in your interactions with gods will different from person to person.
(b) How have verifiable, authentic concepts of Kemeticism been used?
I would argue that verifiable, authentic ideas in Kemeticism, much like any form of historical re-construction (be it other recon-oriented faiths, re-enactment, or even Early Music Performance), are often — but not always! — viewed as a form of what I’ll call subcultural capital. Sarah Thornton defines subcultural capital as that which:
..confers status on its owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder. … Subcultural capital can be objectified or embodied. Just as books and paintings display cultural capital in the family home, so subcultural capital is objectified in the form of fashionable haircuts and well-assembled record collection … Just as cultural capital is personified in ‘good’ manners and urbane conversation, so subcultural capital is embodied in the form of being ‘in the know’, using (but not over-using) current slang and looking as if you were born to perform the latest dance styles. (11)
Many of the individuals that have garnered a fair amount of esteem in the virtual Kemetic community, be they bloggers or spiritual leaders, have objectified subcultural capital: impressive libraries and even degrees. For example, while Hemet balances her academic background with spiritual and community-service based reasons for leadership, people outside of Kemetic Orthodoxy mainly recognize and respect her work courtesy of the several advanced degrees she holds in topically-relevant fields. These individuals also have embodied subcultural capital: they site academic sources, they know the feast days and esoteric information, they write lengthy, academic blog posts. It has arguably become a point of status in the community, certainly a point of recognition, to be well versed in the academic history of Ancient Egypt.
And don’t get me wrong: all of these folks definitively deserve our respect. They’ve worked hard to know what they know, to produce their extensive writings and share their expansive projects. We need folks like them to continue to share what we know of the past, to maintain representations of what was in as close and accurate a replica, mediated though it must be, as words or art can convey. They maintain the community I discussed in point (a) — if newcomers to the faith don’t have access to the vital ideas that allows us to mutually define ourselves as Kemetic, if we lose sight of the agreed upon essentials, we aren’t going to have a community.
But it’s worth it to remember that in the end, both the verifiable “history history” and the unverifiable experiences that we bring to our own interpretations of history are, in their own ways, constructed. Better to be aware of why you need a particular spiritual idea, what it contributes to your religious experience, and to be aware of where that idea came from, be it a textbook, the gods, or your own creative mind, than to beat yourself up over whether or not you can verify it as genuine. That knowledge, that awareness of how the idea was constructed, will serve you well in adding to our community, keeping the debate going as to how we define ourselves now and in the future, and keeping the Kemetic tradition vibrant, changing, and alive.