Occulted Relations and Digital Revelations: Freemasonry and Secrecy in the Information Age

Friday, November 20, 2015: 3:15 PM

Capital Ballroom 6 (Hyatt Regency)

Christopher Neil Butler (Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison)

With a visible architectural footprint in virtually any North American town or city, as well as possessing a broad global reach, Freemasonry is often described by members as the world’s largest secret society. However, many Masons have a seemingly uncomfortable relationship with the secrecy that characterizes their fraternity. Grounded in fieldwork with Masons at all levels of the institution’s hierarchy throughout Oklahoma, this paper explores the various strategies used by Masons to position themselves in relation to secrets that are at once both closely personally held and broadly acknowledged to be perpetually revealed in digital spaces and in the mass media. When asked about ritual or secrecy, members frequently assert that there are no secrets in Masonry, as they can easily be found online. At the same time, Masons also elide the ritual in conversation, often including ritual language published by state Grand Lodges, which are effectively public. One member summarized this position, stating that, although this information is widely available, no one would ever hear the secrets from him. In this context, in which even the revelation of secrets is made banal by digital accessibility, Masonic secrecy is not an instrumental mechanism for concealing information but rather a means to express loyalty to their organization and establish personal connections to fellow Masons. The deeply personal nature of this secrecy reinscribes the power of the ritually conveyed architectural and geometric symbolism that characterizes Freemasonry and endows everyday tools and structures with fraternal meanings for Masons.

A paper in the INFRASTRUCTURES, INSTITUTIONS, AND STATES panel.

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