The Cycle of Scapegoating: Media and the Blame Game

The concept of scapegoating comes from the ancient Israelite ritual of the Day of Atonement, which designated one goat for blood sacrifice for Yahweh, and another to be sent out into the wilderness, its literal disposal meant to symbolically remove sin. Though this ritual has historical precursors (see link), the modern day etymology of the word “scapegoat” is derived from the goat sacrifices: to deflect blame by projecting fears unto others. Jews themselves were often victims of this concept, blamed for Jesus’ crucifixion, infant mortality in medieval times, and the most glaring examples of Nazi Germany, among other.

Within my focus on all things involving Satanists and Witches, there are multiple circles of scapegoating directed at and emerging from these contemporary groups and individuals, as accusations of child abuse, tension with popular and theological perception, and struggles for legitimacy all converge in a confusing mess of circulatory deflected blame.

To unpack this a bit, it is first important to state that there are multiple individuals and groups self-identifying as Witches and Satanists, all with different understandings on the nature of evil. However, three large groupings can be joined together for the purposes of this blog entry: Neo-Pagans/Wiccans, the firmly atheistic Church of Satan, and the loosely affiliated individuals and groups of Theistic Satanists, called spiritual, esoteric, or traditional Satanists [though I do note some inaccuracies with wikipedia, the pages are meant for the reader to get a basic idea]. All have wild rumours associated with their ideas, and most popular depictions and understandings of them are grossly misconstrued.

A typical scenario for scapegoating begins with an incident picked up by the media, usually a criminal act in which there were elements deemed “satanic.” These “satanic” elements can be anything from a pentagram drawn on the wall or floor to simply having a heavy metal band’s poster on the wall. The word is used in media copy to generate interest and titillate/horrify their audience; rarely is there actually anything satanic about the particular crime.

However, when media report on a imprecise “satanic” incident, they will often quote an equally hyperbolic reaction from someone echoing popular misconceptions. The formula goes like this: “There was an X satanic crime. Clearly we have moved away from God, and witches are to blame.”

The fallout from this type of claim then begins a cycle of scapegoating, which usually follows a pattern described by Diane Vera, a self-described polytheistic azazalian spiritual Satanists. The pattern goes like this:

Christians blame Witches—>Witches blame Satanists—>The Church of Satan blames theistic/spiritual Satanists—>Theistic/Spiritual Satanists deny.

That is, in the process of denouncing the crimes, the immediate reaction is to then pass blame along to another group. For example, if a lone teenager kills an animal and the media reports it as “satanic,” there will invariably be a quote from a Christian group claiming that witchcraft is rampant. Neo-Pagans/Wiccans then respond, “Witches are not to blame. Only Satanists sacrifice animals.” To which the Church of Satan claims, “We don’t believe in Satan or the Devil because we’re atheists. Animal sacrifice is anathema because there’s no real devil to sacrifice to. Theistic Satanists are to blame because they believe in a literal devil.” Theistic Satanists in turn, decry this type of scapegoating, claiming that, though they believe a satanic entity, it is not considered “evil,” because that is a Christian concept.

Vera ends her cycle here. And though I agree with her assessment, I would actually add one more, and close the scapegoating loop by suggesting that theistic/spiritual Satanists, in turn, blame Christians, i.e. if you think Satan is evil and wants you to kill animals, that makes you a Christian heretic, not a Theistic Satanist.

Christians blame Witches—>Witches blame Satanists—>The Atheistic Church of Satan blames Theistic Satanists—>Theistic Satanists blame Christians.

And on and on it goes.

Here’s the Cycle of Scapegoating represented in a nifty graph:

The larger point I am trying to make is that scapegoating reflects the struggles for legitimacy within a larger society that makes little distinctions between these groups and individuals, which are in reality rather different religions. They may use similar nomenclature (witchcraft, magic, etc.), but their foundational ideas are quite different, and sometimes diametrically opposed. Though they are all functioning within a Western context and responding to its concerns and ideas (and can certainly find points of contact), the scapegoating tactic is actually a legitimizing tatic. It is method of establishing an authoritative voice for their religion, attempting to define themselves by rejecting popular misunderstandings and deflecting accusations to the very groups that muddy the waters of these definitions. The larger population has little insight into the differences and regularly conflate and skew their foundational ideas; scapegoating is then a reaction to these conflations.

All of these religions denounce and decry animal sacrifice (even the ancient Jews, as they stopped practicing animal sacrifice after 70 c.e.) and criminal activity, though unstable individuals cannot be accounted for. Scholars (and journalists) are best to avoid the hyperbolic claim that if one individual from a fringe religion behaves criminally that that act is indicative of the entire religious body. The logical fallacy becomes obvious when we apply it to larger, conventional religions. By those faulty extrapolations, Christianity is responsible for most crimes (i.e. if most people incarcerated are Christians, therefore most crimes are caused by Christianity): a false conclusion and misleading claim, despite being statistically accurate.

Why did I write this blog post, you may ask? I’m researching articles for my upcoming Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion course, and still come across unchallenged scapegoating claims, wherein the author-scholar repeats the claim without critique. Chances are that if the group you’re studying says, “That’s not us. That’s ___,” that that group ___ presents an opposition to the first group’s reputation in the public imagination. The claim deserves an outright debunking at most, or a cautious footnote in the least.

Church of Satan Reverend Obtains Minister’s License in Virginia

In the revamped Satanism Today segment, hosted by the 9sense podcast, Magister David M. Harris interviews Church of Satan Reverend, Lee Crowell, a working attorney and adjunct professor, about his process to obtain a minister’s license from the state of Virginia in order to legally officiate weddings as Church of Satan clergy.

The most interesting parts are Rev. Crowell challenging the legal aspects that have implied definitions of religion (is the Church of Satan a “legitimate” church; do they have communion; do they assemble in physical buildings, etc.?) coupled with the judge’s moral objections. Crowell’s retelling of the process to obtain the license demonstrates his drive and careful machinations through the legal system.

The case is relevant to how marginal religions with unconventional practices such as the Church of Satan—which has no mandatory physical assembly, no official buildings, no ultimate belief in spiritual beings—address the issue of legal precedent. As most legal definitions of religion are based on Christianity-like religions (as it is with most Western nations), then religions that fall outside of that presumed model face the dual problem of first, being legally recognized as a religion, in order to second, obtain the various protections that freedom of religion laws advocate.

If your religion falls outside of the mold, the legal battle is amplified by moral objections to your religion.

Have a listen to the entire segment. It’s worth the time.

Satanic Imagery: Vision is a Carnal Way of Knowing

Mini-Drafts on Media and Magic: Imagery in Satanic ritual

Sigilofbaphomet (2)

Apart from the Sigil of Baphomet that is hung over the altar, other images are also used in ritual: photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures, or tableaus (LaVey 2005, 125). Depictions of your desires should surround you: photographs of your intended paramour; images of objects, wealth, or other materials wants; the portrayal of an enemy that you destroy by proxy (125). LaVey explains:

Imagery is a constant reminder, an intellect-saving device, a working substitute for the real thing. Imagery can be manipulated, set up, modified, and created, all according to the will of the magician, and the very blueprint that is created by imagery becomes the formula which leads to reality. (125)

The visceral provocation of images has traditionally been suspect. David Morgan writes: “Images work their magic by a subtle and often irresistible effect on the body: provoking fear, envy, pride, desire, obsession, rage—all the strong feelings and passions that grip the chest or rise in the blood, creep over the flesh, well up as tears in the eyes” (2002, 96). He states that images “appeal to and rely on the body,” and that this embodied experience is what has lead “philosophers, teachers, moralists, clergy, and parents” to be suspicious of the image, as they can quickly unravel the dogma of moral authorities (ibid). Again, it is the provoked emotions that are questionable, and reflect the ostensible mind-body dichotomy; anything rooted in the body, emotions, and uncontrollable reactions are suspect. As Morgan writes: “Vision is a carnal way of knowing” (2002, 97).

Satanists recognize this “carnal way of knowing” and maximize on the primal experience of the image. The image of our object of hate or desire compels an emotional, immediate reaction, wherein one re-experiences those feelings with simply a gaze. The idiosyncratic depictions collapse time and space into the immediacy of the image-experience, the gaze-feeling. To be incited and roused is to have a successful magical working.

Not only personal images are used, as Satanists also adapt thematic ritual aesthetics. Examples are: primordial creatures of the Lovecraftian Cuthulu mythos; Bettie Page to evoke the playful burlesque; and Norse runes and narrative to conjure the fierce warrior. Satanic ritual imagery is thus a combination of the idiosyncratic and archetypal icons.

LaVey, echoing threads of contemporary scholarship, laments how embodied experiences have historically been denounced. Satanists’ use of Satan reflects the popular and theological notion that the material image is lesser, “evil” even, than philosophical or intellectual pursuits. Satanists subvert this idea, and reinterpret the image-experience as a cathartic and powerful magical tool.

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Select Sources

LaVey, Anton Szandor. 2005 [1969]. The Satanic Bible. New York: Avon Books.

Meyer, Birgit. 2013. “Material Mediations and Religious Practices of World-Making,” in Knut Lundby, ed. Religion Across Media: From Early Antiquity to Late Modernity. New York: Peter Lang, 1-19.

Morgan, David. 2008. “Image,” in David Morgan, ed. Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture. New York: Routledge, 96-110.

Nemo, Magister. The Fire From Within: Volumn One. U.S.A.: CoS Emporium, 2007.

Academic Writing: Or, How to Avoid Being Sick Over Your Laptop

My writing process is thus:

1: Vomit words on a page.
2: Leave it for two weeks.
3: Re-write everything.

Or, as my friend Erik Östling puts it, the old “puke and revise” method.

Much of academic writing is taking two separate ideas and merging them together. A basic formula could be: here’s this one dudette’s theory on something religion-related, and here’s this religious group behaving in ways I find interesting, so my job is to see what is gained or lost by applying this theory to the practice. Does it fit well? Why or why not? What insights can we glean from the group’s practice? How could the theory be revised? Etc.

It’s simple enough. Good scholarship does this kind of thing seamlessly.

The problem, is that academics are rarely marrying just two ideas (that’s for undergrads [P.S.: I love teaching undergrads.]), but are instead trying to present a seamless disscussing on one topic by weaving in multiple theories, discourses, and ideas in a way that does not leave the reader confused, angry, and unwilling to fund, publish, and work with you.

I am obsessive. Before beginning to write I collect mass amounts of data before I get a clear idea of what it is I am actually trying to do, overwhelming the issue and confusing myself for days, before I finally streamline my thoughts. The eventual clarity is a glorious euphoria: Oh this is what my paper’s about!!!

The current problem under review: how do you write a thesis proposal on the Church of Satan, which incorporates two separate fields of study, western esotericism, and media/material culture studies? That is, how do I look at the material culture of these Satanists in a way that corresponds to similar studies on magical groups, without the study reading as disjointed?

For those unfamiliar, it is somewhat rare to study contemporary ritual/magical groups in terms of material culture. First, because modern magicians simply are not as studied, and second, because when they are, they are usually studied under the rubric of western esotericism (not material culture).

There is always overlap between fields. The issue, is that when you go cross-disciplinary, your methodology requires refining to adapt to the tug-and-pull of different disciplines, in a way that benefits the particular study best. The proposal I put together at the beginning of my doctorate is no longer completely relevant, as I’ve refined my approach. It’s now time to put it all together.

That’s where I’m at. I’m not yet certain how to do this. And I have a thesis proposal (over)due.

Lucky for me I can vomit on my blog.

Music for the (Satanic) Ritual Chamber: Sensorial Sound

This post belongs to a series of posts on media and religion, related to my dissertation on the Church of Satan. 

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Catherine Bell, in her book, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, focuses on underlying concerns that are addressed in the study of religion and media; she challenges the dichotomy that separates thought and action. First, she discusses a history of how ritual has been studied, and then second, she critiques how ritual has been isolated from theory and social activity. She proposes instead, “a focus on ‘ritualization’ as a strategic way of acting” (1992, 7). That is, that ritual is a thought-action, that communicates ways of being in the world through socially constructed symbols and meanings. It is, most importantly, not separate from theory. Ritual action is thought-action, and their ostensible division is a product of western history, tracing as far back as Plato, that denounces material culture over an exalted spiritual dimension.

The bipolar division of the world has contemporary repercussions in scholarship. Allow David Morgan to elaborate on the problem within his commentary on studies in visual culture:

As the set of practices, attitudes, and ideas invested in images that structure the experience of the sacred, visual piety cancels the dualistic separation of mind and matter, thought and behavior, that plagues a great deal of work on art and religion. (Morgan 1998, 2-3)

He promotes a dissolution of the dualistic approach, and instead examines material culture in terms of how people construct ways of meaning by their interaction with images.

A similar critique to the ostensible duality of human existence can be found in the Satanic worldview. Anton Szandor LaVey (1938-1997), the founder of the Church of Satan (1966), writes in his foundational text, The Satanic Bible:

ALL religions of a spiritual nature are inventions of man. He has created an entire system of gods with nothing more than his carnal brain. Just because he has an ego, and cannot accept it, he has to externalize it into some great spiritual device which he calls “God.” (2005, 44)

LaVey claims that humans worshipping gods are instead worshipping the humans that made those gods; he advocates eliminating the “middle man” and worshipping the self directly. He writes: “Man needs ritual and dogma, but no law states that an externalized god is necessary in order to engage in ritual and ceremony” (ibid). That is, that humankind, as solely carnal beings, can engage in ritual behaviour and ceremony that fulfills an innate desire for ritualization and meaning-making. They are meant as rites of communion with the self, as magical rites of autonomy. They define magic as a manifestation of the will; Satanic magical rituals are actions that effect desired transformations.

The Satanic Bible and other literature from the Church of Satan contains suggestive, not prescriptive, scripts for magical rituals, which employ scent, sight, sound, and touch to enhance the sensorial aspects of the rites. Individual members, however, alter the scripts to enact highly particular magical performances. These customized ceremonies are designed to arouse the senses of the participants; a highly emotional and stimulating rite is considered potent and successful magic. Though members of the Church of Satan adopt a firm secular worldview, with a strong atheistic foundation, their understanding of ritual is a hybridist carnal-magical practice that boosts the senses for a heightened and cathartic bodily experience.

Bell and Morgan promote similar notions to that of Lavey (though, obviously, with different intents and audiences): that ritual, practice, and materiality are paramount to constructing meaningful individual and social lives.

Given that I currently framing my research into Satanic Magic in terms of the sensorial media used within rituals, I am prompted to think about the emotive quality of sound. Isaac Weiner claims: “Perhaps it might be more appropriate to think of sound as a property or characteristic of a discrete material object” (2011, 110). That is, Weiner states that though you could consider the objects that create sound as material culture, he is more interested in the materiality of sound itself. He writes:

[To] focus on sound merely as a secondary characteristic of discrete material objects ignores how a sound’s material properties change as it emanates from its source. It ignores how particular sounds are affected by other aspects of the physical world, including weather patterns, the built environment, and the geographic landscape. And it ignores the vibrating of air on the eardrum that makes hearing itself a physiological process. (110)

Weiner is promoting the idea that sound, simply because it cannot be seen and is transitory in nature, should not be denounced as immaterial; it is, in fact, directly affecting its environment, and altering that which it encounters.

LaVey, a lifelong musician, would likely agree with Weiner’s statement, as he discussed the evocative effects of music (both in terms of physiological sound waves and emotive qualities) and how to use them for ritual magic. He notes: “Anything which serves to intensify the emotions during a ritual will contribute to its success. Any drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, photograph, article of clothing, scent, sound, music, tableau, or contrived situation that can be incorporated into the ceremony will serve the sorcerer well” (2005, 124). The point of a Satanic ritual is to have a heightened emotional experience for cathartic ends. Music, then, plays an important role.

Essays from LaVey’s book Satan Speak’s, “UR-Song, or Why There Are No More Volume Pedals,” and “Stereo, Scam of the Century,” describe how musicians should make music that compels people to “listen, rather than merely hear” (1998, 60). LaVey emphasizes tempo and dynamism, while lambasting stereo for eliminating musical nuance. He notes that music heard from one source is still binaural, as two ears act as “range finders for sound” (56). Too much focus is on the emitter of sound, and not the receptor of sound.

For Satanic magical rituals, he lists a range of classical music that he finds particularly evocative, such as:

Puccini’s Turandot, climax of first act:

Handel’s Largo from Xerxes:

Berlioz’ Funeral and Triumphal Symphony:

As Satanic rituals are highly idiosyncratic, many Satanists also use LaVey’s own Hymn of the Satanic Empire:

(Sheet music available on the Church of Satan website.)

The succeeding and current High Priest of the Church of Satan, Peter H. Gilmore—who holds a degree in music composition from New York University—offers some of his own downloadable classical music compositions. Gilmore has written about his love of bombastic symphony music, and how it creates “grand emotional expression” (2007, 112).

Gilmore attests that Satanic rituals are “self-transformative psychodrama” (2007, 223). One of the ways in which the transformation occurs is through the sound of music, but also through the proclaimed word. Performative utterances in ritual are proclamations of fact, not simply word references. When a marriage ceremony is conducted, a judge’s statement “I now pronounce you man and wife” legally changes the civil status of that couple. Similarly, when proclaiming “So it is done” in Satanic ritual, it does not merely describe the action, it is the action. It is another form of willfully engaging in suspension of disbelief; you act as if your desire has already been fulfilled. The sounded out words shifts the understanding of reality.

There are correlations to be made between sound in Satanic ritual and how Weiner advances his discussion on sound. He states:

Studying sound should direct our attention…not to discrete physical objects, but to the space—and relationship—between them. Studying sound implies a theory of religion that is inherently communal and intersubjective. To study sounds as material culture, then, is to attend both to their physical properties and to the historically specific processes through which broadcasters and receivers invest sounds with significance. (2011, 109)

This intersubjectivity can be applied to the emotionally cathartic goal of Satanic ritual. It is meant as a sensorial manipulation of one’s own psyche.

References

Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory: Ritual Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gilmore, Peter H. 2007. The Satanic Scriptures. Scapegoat Publishing.

LaVey, Anton Szandor. 2005 [1969]. The Satanic Bible. New York, NY: Avon Books.
—–. 1998. Satan Speaks. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Morgan, David. 2008. Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture. New York, NY: Routeledge.
—–. 1998. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Weiner, Isaac. 2013. Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: NYU Press.
—–. 2011. “Sound,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art & Belief 7.1: 108–15.
—–. 2009. “Sound and American Religions,” Religion Compass 3.5: 897–908.

Media Studies: Centralizing the Material in the Magical

For my proposed dissertation (an ethnographic study of members of the Church of Satan), I am increasingly interested in media studies, often studied under its umbrella discipline of communications. Media studies can be viewed as the study of material culture, but it is much more. It is the study of objects, technologies, music, and any other sensorial aspect of human experience that informs how humans behave and act. Materical culture has certainly been studied before under various disciplines, but when we merge them with religious studies, we begin to see a methodological divide between the material (historically denounced as lesser, base, and carnal) and the spiritual (the high culture, the philosophical, the superior). We therefore have an implied dichotomy, a fracture in our approach that places the spiritual above the material. I want to usurp that ostensible divide.

Jeremy Stolow, in his article, “Religion and/as Media,” claims that media has been credited with, “a key role in the world-historical disembedding of religion from public life, and its relocation within the private walls of bourgeois domesticity, or deeper still, the interior, silent universe of individual readers and their infinitely replicable activities of decoding texts” (2005, 122). Stolow is addressing the notion that “religion” is often considered a private, interior phenomenon, and that anything that happens externally from one’s thoughts is somehow lesser, not quite as genuine.

This type of scheme is a holdover from Protestant denouncements of Catholic rituals, now embedded in academia, which is itself an idea as old as Plato’s dualism. The same mind/body, spirit/material, divine/human (and its gendered equivalent: male/female) fracture gets played out over and over again in various forms, where the first is considered the ultimate, perfect, and pure, while the latter is considered flawed, imperfect, and corrupt. This ostensible dichotomy has only relatively recently been challenged in academia.

Stolow suggests that, while media and religion as an emerging discipline is naturally cross-disciplinary, that the most fruitful approach is to begin with the premise: “religion as media” (125). That is, that:

Throughout history, in myriad forms, communication with and about ‘the sacred’ has always been enacted through written texts, ritual gestures, images and icons, architecture, music, incense, special garments, saintly relics and other objects of veneration, markings upon flesh, wagging tongues and other body parts.

The premise, then, of media studies, is to center the technologies involved in mediating religious phenomena. Place them in the foreground, not relegated to (an implied lesser) afterthought. Much of the history of religious studies has emphasized philosophy, theology, interiority, and sincerity, and has then claimed that mediation has “compromised, diluted, or eviscerated religious belief” (Morgan 2008, 1). [1]

Stolow is instead claiming that religious studies have always been studies of media. Religion is, by nature, mediated. Given this, perhaps media studies is best understood as a methodological approach that places the communication through various media as the foundational starting point.

My next project/article is on media (the objects) used in Satanic magical rituals that have cross purposes: The Satanic Bible not only as ritual script, but as a talisman, an object of importance with aesthetic properties; writing out one’s own script is not solely for liturgical guidance, but has artistic value as the letters scrawled in cursive, written with nice pens, become word-images; music played during ritual is more than an aural experience, as your presence in the chamber alters the resonance and sound and promotes a physiological reaction. Books are smelled. Letters are touched. Sound is felt.

In Satanic ritual magic, heightened sensorial experiences are designed to stimulate a transformative and effective magical rite. The media, then, is the magic.

This next project on Satanic magic is cross-disciplinary, using studies in material culture alongside studies in magic and esotericism, approached with the intent of centralizing the material aspect. David Morgan’s introduction to religion and media studies lists the multiple and varied fields and scholars engaged with media studies, addressing similar questions in the field, stemming from different disciplines. It is fitting to end this blog post with his open-ended commentary that: “To date, participants have felt no urgency to limit the discourse or dominate it by discipline, field, or methodology. For many of us, this is a sign of robust intellectual health” (2008, 13).

[1] As an important parallel: challenging the very term “belief” as a defining factor of religion is an ongoing discourse in religious studies. I can state anecdotally that it is a hurdle introducing the concept that religion takes many (unrecognizable) forms to new students, many of which have little or nothing to do with “belief.”

Research and Academia: Or, what the hell am I doing here in Norway, anyway?

There are two main reasons for my presence in Norway.

The second reason, is that studying in a different academic environment other than my home university demonstrates to potential employers that I have international experience. My bachelor, master, and (in-progress) doctoral degrees have all been at the same university. The reasons for this are a combination of funding (I worked full-time throughout my bachelor and master degrees, in a job that was not guaranteed elsewhere), support for my research (my department has been openly encouraging of my fringe research from the start), and domestic logistics (I have animals. They are as important to me as children, and uprooting them is a serious consideration).

By studying abroad for a half a year it shows I can adapt to new academic environments. Doctoral candidates are in this odd liminal space, where we are often part-time faculty, yet still students earning our degrees. We are considered professionals, but professionals that are in the process of building our careers. My portfolio now includes specialized research abroad.

The first, more significant reason for being here in particular, is to study under Dr. Jesper Aagaard Petersen. We are examining two thematic currents: the very broad category of Western esotericism, and the more specific modern religious Satanism. My dissertation focuses on one of the self-identified religious Satanic groups, the Church of Satan. Satanism is born within and responding to contemporary popular notions, while also reinterpreting ideas from occult and magical discourses. That is, Western esotericism informs how modern Satanists think and act. My work with Dr. Petersen investigates the relationship to, tension with, and reinterpretation of these historical arcane ideas into modern religious activity.

Now here is the Most Important Reason for me being physically in the same space as Dr. Petersen: when we met for the first time we had a general conversation about our plan here and discussed esotericism and Satanism, and it was the first time, ever, in a dozen years as an academic, that I had had a long conversation with a scholar that knows the field more than I do.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this is to the process of academic learning. Being able to bounce ideas off of another scholar, even if, especially if, you disagree is an integral part of advancing as a critical thinker. My supervisor at my home university has provided necessary and unflinching critique of my work (he never holds back, and I’ve eaten humble pie a few times!), but Dr. Petersen can catch problems with my work that might not be seen by scholars that do not know my field. Between my home supervisor and the host supervisor, I have a critical balance of feedback.

To put it bluntly, I’m looking forward to arguing. And being a nerd about all the weird stuff that interests me.