Semiotics & the Meaning of the Crystal Craze

What’s the Deal with All the Crystals? Signs of Emerging Romanticism 

There are signs of an emerging romanticism at work in American culture, where the received wisdom of “pure” scientific, critical rationalism is being challenged and sometimes replaced by alternative systems of thought and expression.

This challenge is evident in the field of medicine and in the marketplace of ideas where yoga has come to supplement religion and wellness is no longer a term of art but has instead become a fully explored belief system with countless books on offer to help us achieve it.

The signs are all around us. Leading publications like The Atlantic have recently run articles on a surge in witchcraft practitioners, the rise of Reiki in formal health care settings, and the upswing in exorcisms across America.

Of course, these movements cannot be conflated as a single conceptual trend. They occupy different social trenches, yet they do speak to a general shift toward a way of thinking that helps to answer the otherwise nearly impossible question: Why do people keep giving me crystals?

The intellectual history of the West has been a history of rationalism and romanticism taking turns as the ethical and aesthetic principles driving society. As a paired set of terms, we can see these philosophies as binary opposites.

Rationalism consists of a fundamental insistence on the power of scientific models to explain the world on every level. It is rationalism that gave us the Enlightenment and pushed the earth out of the popular conception of the cosmic center, replacing it with the heliocentric model and later the Big Bang universal model we use today.

Rationalism has given us a lot. But it hasn’t given us everything.

As potent and persuasive as rationalism can be, there is inevitable push-back. The push-back is what we call romanticism, a belief system that questions dogmatic adherence to scientific models and entertains the possibility that pure reason cannot explain everything.

Romanticism opens the way for individual “recipes” that might combine science and religion. It’s romanticism that gave rise to the philosophical and political ethos that girds the entire premise of the American Dream, positing the notion that the individual is the ultimate source of potential, the sacred soul that owns the right to insight, intuition and a personal relation to the cosmos.

Romanticism has a history of great literature, from William Blake and John Keats to Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. It’s an ambitious aesthetic principle that produces memorable work. So, it may be good news that a new romanticism is on the way.

There is something slightly sinister about it too though. And this is because we have developed such a profound adherence to the belief that we live in a rationalistic era. “Science” is invoked as an ideal. Yet this statue we’ve erected seems to be crumbling.

The reasons for a move away from rationalism are not clear. But what is clear is that Foucault was right when he argued that knowledge is a social concept, a category of human thought that is as flexible as our philosophies.

Michel Foucault articulated the idea that every era has or is its own episteme. An episteme is a shared perspective on how knowledge functions, how it is developed, and how it is defined.

For this subject, crystals again offer a very clear example. Twenty-five years ago there was no way to “know about crystals.” This phrase would have indicated an oxymoron.

The spiritualism evoked in those words would have stood in direct contradiction to the definition of what knowledge was. “Knowing about crystals” would have been the same thing as having a dream.

Not everything counts as knowledge.

(The rejection of certain modes of knowledge can sometimes be pernicious. For Foucault, that is why it’s important to unearth the principles at work in our own episteme.)

Yes, it’s clear what the words mean, but dreams and crystals were incompatible with the fundamental notion of what knowledge was. Society’s influence on our modes of thought would have trained us to reject the idea out of hand, no doubt applying some colloquial denigration like hooey or bunk.

Now, websites like Healthline promote crystals for their healing properties:

“There are a number of different types of crystals, each filled with their own healing abilities for the mind, body, and soul. They’re thought to promote the flow of good energy and help rid the body and mind of negative energy for physical and emotional benefits.”

There are many implications we can take away here, but clearly one of them is that the phrase — “know about crystals”— has acquired whole new resonance. You can legitimately “know about crystals.” At least, the concept now seems to align far better with our cultural outlook than it once did.

This is only made possible by a cultural shift away from a “pure” rationalism and toward a way of thinking that is more open to personal assertions of truth, individual perspectives, and belief in the potential for the unexplained and inexplicable to rival the explained and explicable when it comes to truth value. In short, a shift toward romanticism.

It’s important to note the correlation between the politics of individual perspectives in a world that has gone through several political correctness revolutions.

The cultural moment today is anchored in the social-political insistence that every individual has a claim to a certain degree of absolute, self-determined truth. This point of view is built into any debate on pronouns. And while it may seem odd to draw a connecting line from Reiki to the campaign for a gender neutral pronoun, there is more than coincidence at work here.

Even the articles that seek to debunk the healing properties of crystals do so respectfully, by and large, and tacitly acknowledge the primary impulse at work here — an individual’s right to a personal relationship to “truth.”

The emergence of a new romanticism is political in these ways and more, just as the last romantic era was political (and just as any ethical-philosophical system is bound to be political).

But it’s not good or bad politics. (It’s actually bigger than that because our episteme will define our ethics and define good and bad.)

Let me close by taking a step back. I don’t want to overstate things here.

Skepticism about crystals today is at least as strong as belief in the healing properties of crystals. The point here is not that we have suddenly arrived at a brand new relationship to scientific rationalism, rejecting it in favor of a looser, more individualistic intellectual ethos.

The point is just that the signs are pointing toward greater comfort with alternatives to strict rationalism. That means we can read the signs emerging today as a potential turn toward romanticism.

Again, we see it in medicine. We see it on the book shelves.

There is a crystal on your table or your windowsill. Isn’t there?

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Published by eric m martin

A writer, teacher and coffee shop owner living in the southern reaches of the Mojave Desert.

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