The Null Device
Youth subcultures, as many middle-aged former teenagers have lamented, aren't what they used to be. In the old days, you see, you had to make your choices (or have them made for you by which class you had been born into and, in the light of this, what would get you camaraderie and what would get you beaten up), and stick with them. You were either a Mod or a Rocker, or a Punk or a Grebo or something, and you would live (and, in some cases, die) by that; you wore the uniform, listened to the music, and had little tolerance for other subcultures; if you fancied the other side's soundtrack or sartorial style, you would keep it to yourself, or else. But kids these days (kids these days...!) treat subculture as if it were a supermarket, or perhaps Noel Fielding's dressing-up chest; the entire back-catalogue of young cool is there for the taking and the mashing up, with elements going in and out of style by the season, to be worn as accessories. Beyond the dress-up element, the default becomes a globalised homogenate, a sort of international Brooklyn/Berlin/Harajuku of skinny jeans/
folkbeards/vividly coloured sunglasses/patterned fabrics worn by the international Hipster, and, more intensely and urgently, by their adolescent precursor, the Scene Kid. Subcultural music, meanwhile, is a post-ironic soup of the last few decades of influences, refracted through the prisms of trend blogs (drum machines, hazy synths, skronky/choppy guitars, That Krautrock Drum Beat, and so on). Parties are inevitably called “raves”, whether or not they bear any similarity to MDMA-fuelled bacchanales around the M25 circa 1987. Increasingly, the content of the subculture becomes interchangeable, and the process of performing a subculture becomes the subculture; almost like a masked ball, or a postmodern reënactment society for the youth tribes of the 20th century.
But once one goes beyond the idea of a subculture as being based around fashion or music, things sometimes start to get much more unusual. One case in point is the Tulpamancy subculture; which, could be summed up in three words as “extreme imaginary friends”. Tulpamancers essentially invent imaginary friends and believe in them really hard, to the point of voluntarily inducing dissociative personalities in themselves, hiving off one part of their minds to be another, autonomous, personality, with whom they can interact.
The term tulpa is a Tibetan word meaning a sentient being created from pure thought; the practice crossed over from Tibetan mysticism into the Western occult/esoteric fringe in the early 20th century (the explorer Alexandra David-Neel was one pioneer), but the modern version owes more to internet “geek” subcultures; it started amongst Bronies (dudes who are really into My Little Pony, which may be either a repudiation of gender dichotomies or the ontological equivalent of a frat-bro panty raid on the idea of “girl”, or both or neither), before spreading to other branches of “geek” culture/fandom.
Tulpas remained the preserve of occultists until 2009, when the subject appeared on the discussion boards of 4chan. A few anonymous members started to experiment with creating tulpas. Things snowballed in 2012 when adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – known as “bronies” to anyone who's been near a computer for the past three years – caught on. They created a new forum on Reddit and crafted tulpas based on their favourite characters from the show.
In the cross-pollinating fields of the internet, it wasn’t long before tulpamancy also started to attract manga and fantasy fans. “My tulpa is called Jasmine,” says Ele. “She’s a human but from an alternative reality where she can do magic. I created her a dozen years ago for a fantasy series I write and then made her into a tulpa.”Being a fandom subculture, there are, of course, plenty of drawings (of varying levels of execution) depicting tulpas; one probably would not be too surprised to find that many look either like anime bishonen with fox ears/snouts and/or variants on Hot Topic Darkling. Because, of course, that's what one's magical alter-ego looks like in fandom.
As for the creation of, and interaction with, these tulpas, an entire methodology has evolved for bringing them into being, and interacting with them. Tulpamancers don't so much consciously think up their spirit critters, but rather mentally create a wonderland, imagine themselves in it, and let them come up from their subconscious and meet them. From then on, they practice imagining them, allowing them to become clearer, and ultimately being able to hallucinate them in everyday reality, which is where the fun starts:
While voice is the most common way tulpas communicate with their hosts, tulpamancers can learn to stroke their tulpa’s fur, feel their breath on their neck and even experience sexual contact.
Tulpas soon get curious about their host’s body; some want to experience life as a “meatperson”. Indulgent hosts then use a practice called “switching”, which allows their tulpa to possess their body while they watch from the ringside of consciousness.This, of course, sounds a lot like disassociative personality disorder, something not generally seen as desirable. Some tulpamancers, though, have turned that claim on its head; rather than dissociation being a disorder, or a symptom of one, what if it could be a way of self-medicating or coping What if, in other words, the optimal number of personalities in one body is, in some circumstance, greater than 1?
Koomer’s case is rare, and for Veissière “schizophrenia [could be understood as]… an incapacitating example of ‘involuntary Tulpas’", therefore, by forming positive relationships with their symptoms, sufferers can start to recover. It's an idea shared by the “Hearing Voices Movement”, who challenge the medical models of schizophrenia and suggest that pathologisation aggravates symptoms. “My schizophrenia manifested itself by having many thoughts and ideas all conflicting and shouting at me,” says Logan, who wanted his last name withheld. “Turning them into tulpas gave those thoughts a face and allowed them to be sorted out in a way that made sense.”