A Pseudoethnography of Egregores

Abstract

Research on egregoric entities has previously been limited to analyses within two frameworks: an economic framework, inferring the activities and needs of egregores from their position as economic producers and consumers; and an epidemiological framework, measuring the infectiousness and virulence of egregores within human substrates. In this body of research, one voice has been missing: that of the egregores themselves. Previous researchers have justified the exclusion of ethnographic methods on the grounds that egregores are hypothetical entities, and in the words of one researcher, “imaginary” (Perry 2015). But the subjects themselves refuse to be silenced.

Methods

We conducted in-depth interviews with egregoric entities. Thematic analysis reveals the desires, interests, and self-conceptions common to egregores. Our informants were egregoric entities who contacted us privately in order to correct misconceptions in previous research. For reasons that will be explained, it is impossible to know the exact number of egregores that participated. Unfortunately, there is presently no way to know if our sample is representative of the general population of egregores.

Names

Human groups use names to maintain social identities and track the behaviors and obligations of persons over time and across contexts. Names help both the named person and others maintain a consistent picture of the person’s self across time. Humans use pseudonyms, aliases, and anonymous communication when they do not want their words and behaviors attached to their social identities. For example, criminals on the run and writers of fan fiction often use pseudonyms to avoid connecting their illegal or shameful activities to their identities.

It has been suggested that egregoric entities may obscure their identities by not using names or by using misleading names. Egregores may wish to dissociate aspects of themselves in the minds of their human substrates; for example, decoupling their sacred aspect from their mundane activities, or decoupling the identity making promises to humans from the measurable outcomes of such promises.

Our informants presented a variety of naming strategies. Most informants gave multiple names. One informant identified herself as “The Spirit of Childhood” and also as “The Walt Disney Company.” Several informants asked interviewers if they had any suggestions for new names. Most informants seemed delighted by being named, presenting interviewers with “evidence” for their names in the forms of brand logos, fictional portrayals, and blog posts. Five informants spontaneously asserted that they were “definitely not Moloch.”

Two informants did not provide a name. One of these responded, “I am that I am,” followed by what seemed to be a snort-laugh. However, the informant then brought out a handkerchief and coughed into it.

In some cases, what appeared to interviewers as two different entities both offered the interviewer the same name. (For instance, an entity who appeared once in the form of an Aztec fertility god with a golden head in the shape of an ear of corn, taking occasional sips from a goblet of blood, also appeared to interviewers as a farmer wearing overalls and a cowboy hat and thoughtfully stroking his grey beard. Both entities gave the name of “Farmer Bob” and expressed interest in banning genetically modified organisms and returning humans to an agrarian way of life.)

Activities

When asked about their leisure pursuits, most informants described the leisure activities of their substrate humans. Many appeared not to grasp the distinction between work and leisure in their own experience, insisting that taking care of humans was their only pursuit. Egregores described the leisure activities of their substrate humans with relish, detailing exact practices for festival days and days of rest. One egregore proudly mentioned that he requires his humans to get so drunk one day out of the year that they can no longer distinguish the in-group from the out-group.

One informant, however, showed researchers a darknet market betting site for egregores, which appears to facilitate bets between egregores about events affecting their constituent humans. Entities appeared to bet on the occurrence of absurd political and social events, and to react with glee in the participant forums when these events unfolded. The bets and discussions suggest some degree of leisure activity among the egregores. However, another informant, when asked about the betting site, asserted that it was “a troll” and presented as evidence a bingo card, apparently satirically predicting the contents of the present study, with one square labeled “There is a secret egregore betting market.”

The younger informants displayed a disproportionate interest in manipulating the cognition of humans, seemingly as a form of play. Older informants did not like to talk about manipulating humans for fun, and gazed at the interviewers with big sincere eyes.

Goals

A hypothetical telos of an egregoric entity can be derived from the supposition that it has evolved, and the supposition that it is intelligent. It “wants” to survive and reproduce, to recognize, respond to, and predict patterns, and to control resources across time and space.

In contrast, most informants denied these goals. “I am passionate about customer service,” said one informant. Others emphasized wanting to help humans, to provide humans with the truth, and to preserve nature.

One entity, wearing the costume of a Hells Angel, insisted that his goals were “freedom and brotherhood.” This informant reported that he had become wealthier in recent decades, but worried that the transition to a “subculture of consumption” had made him soft and less able to command the loyalty of his substrate humans, even though they had grown in number. This conflict illustrates the different kinds of goals that egregores may possess simultaneously. Similarly, it demonstrates the dynamic nature of egregores; characteristics as well as goals may change during the life cycle of the entity.

Conflict over Scenes

A “scene,” in human culture, is a central locus of communication and signaling, usually associated with leisure. Sometimes a scene is located in an urban center, with frequent in-person contact between participants and audience. Some scenes are located entirely in textual communication, as with epistolary scenes and many internet scenes. Other scenes are “destination scenes,” separated from easily-accessed urban centers, such as Walden Pond in the 1840s, Woodstock in 1969, Burning Man, and, recently, Standing Rock.

Since human scenes provide a rich vein of attention, resource expenditure, and visibility, egregoric entities view them as desirable habitats. As a result, there is often intense competition between egregores over scenes. In order to maintain control over a scene, egregores must fight off competitors. In many cases, when a human scene changes drastically, it is not clear whether the resident egregore changed its appearance and demands, or a rival egregore unseated it. One informant, whose weary appearance was emphasized by heavy black eye makeup, reported transitioning from non-religious, to rationalist-Satanic, to Christian, and finally to pagan in the context of a single local goth scene over a span of eight years. The informant’s hand shook as he lifted his cigarette. “I barely recognize myself,” he admitted.

Most informants expressed an interest in truth, and a disdain for the lies and deceptions of other egregores. Several older egregores specifically mentioned “fake news” as a source of problems, some mentioning younger egregores as typical producers and distributors of this content. The young egregores did not deny producing hoaxes for fun, but argued that the established egregores were no particular guardians of truth. A particular mark of status among the young egregores, one informant reported, is to successfully sneak a clearly false item of news into a social-epistemically vetted egregoric information channel, such as the New York Times.

Adaptive Ambiguity

Egregoric entities resemble biological organisms in the sense that they are selectively reproduced. Their niche resembles that of a parasite or symbiote of humans.

Research on chain letters, another entity that relies on humans for reproduction, has revealed that these entities appear to mutate (through copying errors or spontaneous additions), and that some mutations appear to have been under selection. One category of adaptive features in chain letters is adaptive ambiguity (VanArsdale 1998): the ability to appear to be different things to different people. For instance, an attribution to “Bishop Lawrence” – a well-known author among Protestants, but a seemingly Catholic title – would appeal to both Protestants and Catholics. And contradictory or ambiguous statements about when and how to send copies would encourage scrupulous readers of the letter to reproduce many copies quickly, and lazier readers to at least pass on the letter.

All entities displayed a great deal of ambiguity, in name, appearance, characteristics, goals, or all of these. One informant claimed that all the other informants were his sockpuppets. Informants of disparate appearance claimed the same name, and in many cases the same entity (apparently) claimed multiple names and identities. Informant “Farmer Bob” had been able to promote agrarian values among both right- and left-wing political humans, during the 1970s-80s “back to the land” movement and at present, utilizing ambiguity to make a particular set of beliefs and behaviors appealing to mutually antagostic groups of humans.

Most entities tolerated a wide range of behavior among their substrate humans. A few entities insisted on strict behavior codes, such as an entity that appeared in Amish dress. Some informants seemed to change in appearance and even attitudes while the interview itself was taking place. When a subject was interviewed by multiple interviewers, reports of its appearance and nature differed.

Inter-rater reliability proved to be a major obstacle for the research. However, so little is known about egregores that the appropriate level of inter-rater reliability is not known.

Conclusion

We expand and complement existing research into egregoric entities using novel methods of pseudoethnography. Egregores were hypothesized to be evolved creatures that use a variety of strategies to survive and reproduce, evaluate and respond to information, and control resources. Subjects were also hypothesized to use adaptive ambiguity to accomplish their goals, spreading ideas and practices that benefit them into disparate populations. Interview subjects responded in agreement with these hypotheses to a great extent. Many responses deviated in their responses from these self-interested predictions; however, responses deviated in a systematic manner consistent with rational deception of the interviewers. As is often the case in pseudoethnography, it is difficult to measure the evidence value of narrative interviews with imaginary entities, compared to evidence from the predictions of game theory and evolution. However, we hope our contribution provides examples for future researchers of methodological issues in the study of imaginary entities.

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter

Comments

  1. I felt like I was reading one of Neil Gaiman’s novels or graphic novels.

  2. Aidan Ward says:

    Does an egregore need to substantiate its relationship with its substrate humans? What is the baseline against which you could show that human behaviour had been changed? Or conversely what would it take for a person to show that they were not a substrate for one or more egregores? I sort of feel we should be told.
    To the best of my belief I am asking these questions of my own volition and in my own interest.

  3. Makes you think twice about Citizens United :D

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