The following is a transcript of a talk delivered on behalf of Hawthonn at the Horse Hospital, 30 May 2019. It was part of Strange Attractor’s Towards a Progressive Magick event with Amy Hale, which culminated in a performance by Hawthonn. Thank you to Mark Pilkington for arranging the evening, and to all who attended. The transcript presented below is a heavily edited version of a longer piece, which I hope to see published in time.
MATERIA MAGICA NOVA:
TOWARDS A CRITICAL MAGICK (BREVIS)
A talk delivered at Strange Attractor presents:
Towards a Progressive Magick,
30 May 2019 at The Horse Hospital, London.
I. The Genius of the Crossroads
In a recent paper on the ethnography of esotericism, Susannah Crockford and Egil Asprem observed that: “The valorisation of individualism in new age spirituality suggests the influence of neoliberal ideology. Emphasising self-reliance is a way of naturalising a political economic project —removing the social safety nets of the welfare state. ‘Self-help’ and ‘self-care’ are not neutral discourse; they encourage acceptance of particular political and economic projects through the sacralisation of individuality and by attributing responsibility solely to the self. Examining contemporary esotericism requires a serious engagement with the ways that esotericism is not only a marginalised victim of history, but itself plays a role in legitimising dominant ideologies (e.g. neoliberalism) and reifying global power asymmetries.” (2018: 18-19)
It was reading this passage in particular that seemed to sum up many of our feelings about the relationship between the esoteric and the contemporary political landscape. It made us particularly consider how the ‘sacred’ – by which we mean that which is traditionally beheld as transcendent, untainted, ideal or otherwise partitioned from the mundane: the province of illumined magi and ‘aristocrats of the soul’ – has been used to enforce a variety of dominant ideological and political positions, from neoliberalism and ultra-libertarianism, to notions of racial purity and gender essentialism, and the enabling and proliferation of fascist ideals. We became particularly interested in how we could create forms of practice which subvert these implications of the esoteric worldview. Although we would not declare theism and tradition as irrevocably tainted by fascism, the idea of exploring ritual through an anti-spiritualistic, anti-essentialist position, intrigued us.
Historically it often seems as if the left have thrown up their hands in horror when faced with the occult, esoteric or irrational. There is, of course, the dominance of Marxist materialism on much leftwing thought, alongside Theodor Adorno’s famous proclamation that occultism “the metaphysic of dunces”. Although this is a simplification: beyond his criticism of the occultural mainstream, Adorno, arch materialist was the unlikely friend of arch religionist Gershom Scholem and was fascinated by Kabbalistic theories of language (Wasserstrom 2007) – indeed, the pair had been brought into a 30-year long correspondence through their concern for mutual friend Walter Benjamin, and particularly the curation of his legacy following his suicide in 1940.
Benjamin feels like an emblem for approaching the esoteric from a standpoint that attempts to be more aware of the social and political implications of the magical worldview. Benjamin found himself caught between two worlds – the archaic religionism of Scholem, versus the uncompromising anti-essentialism of Adorno. His eclectic, sometimes contradictory thought, often attempts to synthesise and struggle with Romanticism, Marxism, Idealism, positivism and mysticism, shot through with socio-political critique. Benjamin engaged in a critical encounter with surrealism, upheld experiential value and reality of dreams, and often lamented that modernity lacked a mode of cosmic experience that was well known to archaic civilisations – even viewing astrology as a naïve way in which people sought to re-connect to the cosmos by identifying themselves with the stars. Most importantly, he did not advocate for an erasure of civilisation, and a return to primitive, monarchic, theocratic or otherwise Traditional hierarchies, but for a critique of both the modern and ancient conditions, juxtaposing myth and modernity. Adorno famously chastened him for standing at the ‘crossroads between magic and positivism’, and this is how we invoke Benjamin today: as the genius, or tutelary spirit, of these crossroads.
Of course, by deliberately moving emphasis away from an essentialised, hierarchical and faith-based system, we would seem to be wandering down that faithless, materialistic branch of the crossroads which Cornelius Agrippa called the ‘demonic path’ of incertitude and vanity – a dark path, away from what is commonly conceived of as ‘the light’: the patriarchal, hierarchical, often conservatively moralising, explanations of how the esoteric and religious cosmos functions, and the maps and correspondences which we rely on to navigate them, all of which are based on notions of metaphysical certitude.
II. Drinking from the Well Head
In traversing the demonic path, we alight from the crossroads to and find ourselves in the woods, before mouth and trough of an ancient well. The Well Head marked our first attempt to try and develop some sort of ritual in an anti-essentialist, anti-perennial paradigm. To quote from our introductory note to the rite:
Jungian archetypes are out, as are Platonic essentialisms about truth, beauty and gender. We emphasise that Jung, Corbin, Eliade and the Eranos Scholars, whose influence on modern esotericism has been so profound, did not in fact re-discover a transcendent perennial philosophy. Rather, they were all-too-human interpreters who constructed their own relationships to myth and esotericism: ones whose legacy is not unimpeachable, but which – particularly in the present climate – invites challenge. The experience of imagination and subsequent meaning-making can be so rich and powerful that we do not need to dream of transcendent powers, nor do we need to uphold the belief that symbolism reflects the reality of some transcendent plane.
Yet, we recognise that, even when approaching the subject from this angle, the inspiration, vision, or germ from which a work arises must have its roots in the ‘irrational’: a profound impression that overtakes us, a vision that arises when we lose ourselves in trance (which we may romantically identify as communion with our daimon), or a dream that lingers with us and begs to be consciously unfolded further. It was from the last of these that we drew inspiration. Layla has had a number of powerful dreams where she identifies with or becomes stone. Here is an account from her dream diary:
I am a stone carving, a female figure above an old well, now long since forgotten. The well is now just a trickle of water. Moss and ivy grows around my limbs. My eyes are half blind with lichen but I can see the sunlight through the trees and the woodland clearing in front of me. I can hear the wind through the beech trees and the wych elm whose roots curve under my feet. The faint sound of the river in the distance still flowing strongly.
As I stand in the dappled light, I can hear the sound of footsteps in the woods. Someone approaches, halting briefly in the clearing and scanning the rocky outscarp for my presence. They move through the bracken and branches, and begin pulling ropes of ivy away from my arms and legs. I am still bound by wrists and ankles, my eyes still partially obscured. I feel a stirring, water flowing. The person bends down between my legs to drink. This action causes more water to flow and I feel alive. I am able to move once more… to embrace them… to make love.
Our first inclination may be to attempt to scour the dream for archetypal significances into which we can slot our experience, and certainly there is a strong thread of rebirth imagery: the restoration of a lost watercourse, and the transformation from stone into flesh. However, we wished to eschew the obvious interpretations and instead use the dream as a vehicle to explore other directions, less rooted in archaic myth.
Guided meditations, or pathworkings, have been used by occultists and psychotherapists alike to explore both metaphysical and traumatic terrains, and it was this approach that we used to re-engage the dream. Importantly, we approached it from the perspective of materiality, rather than archetypalism. We concentrated on the process of identifying with the stone figure, and as a consequence, with stone’s relation to deep time: that is, the procession of geological epochs which formed it, thrust it up from the hadean oceans, and saw it quarried and given form by humankind.
The pathworking is, of course, a form of invocation – identifying the sitter with the stone, and one whose poetic form draws upon earlier invocations, such as the calls to the chthonic goddesses of the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri:
You came into being thousands of millions of years ago, born in the Hadean age: when the earth’s core cooled and the atmosphere condensed.
You dwelt within a mountain, in the darkness of the ocean.
It is apparent that, from a material perspective, we lack what Agrippa called the two great ‘helps’ of magic: Catholic faith and superstitious credulity (Occ. Phil. III.iv): we must seek elsewhere for overwhelming visions which put humanity in their place amongst other powers – which evoke grandeur and respect. We have already intimated that deep time is one (and provides a narrative which may still embody a passage from genesis to apocalypse if we require it to do so). Animic ontology, vibrant materialism and pan-psychism have also been hinted at – and it is this which we would like to unfold a little further with regard to our own work.
III. Traversing Animic Edgelands
The approach suggested by Layla’s dreams, and explored in The Well Head, is to invoke not gods, but other forms of being: other things. At present many philosophers and scientists are re-evaluating the relationship between life, consciousness and matter. A strand of new vitalist philosophers see the world not as a the story of humankind’s estrangement from the vital power of nature, but rather situate humankind within a web of nonhuman agency, described by Jane Butler as “the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (2010: viii). The position of vibrant materialism – with its redress to human hubris of seeing matter as ‘dead’ material for exploitation, along with a rejection of essentialism – resonates deeply with what has been termed ‘animic ontology’. Animic ontology views the world as populated not by things inhabited by souls (as in 19th century animism), but as being shared between human and other-than-human beings: cloud people, river people, tree people, rock people (e.g. Wallis 2009). The Well Head begins by attempting to evoke (or invoke) the sensory experiences of the ‘rock person’ in question:
You can feel sound waves – the voices of birds, the wind in the trees – reflecting on the stone surface of your body. In this manner you are able to hear.
You can sense the dappled sunlight falling through the branches of the trees, warming areas of your surface. In this manner you are able to feel, and even ‘see’ – insofar as you can perceive light and shadow as it falls upon you.
To navigate the world with an animic outlook collapses hierarchical assumptions, placing humankind not as dominators of nature, but as part of a complex web of anarchic forces. It also offers a form of what has been called ‘horizontal transcendence’ amongst non-theistic pagans and practitioners of green spirituality which – unlike traditional views on transcendence – “does not delude us with a questionable sense of permanence, but no less than other forms of transcendence, sustains us with a sense of awe and reverence for the mystery that encompasses us” (Kalton 2000).
We do not need to appeal to the divine or supernatural to perceive the other-than-human beings: alive with agency, sensuous, and composed of the same primordial cosmic material as us. Our work together has led to many encounters with these beings – tree-people, plant-people, stone-people, and in particular our recent exploration of mugwort was conducted with an awareness of animic ontology.
We had heard of mugwort’s use in dream provocation, scrying, and balancing the menstrual cycle, although it was a 2011 article on the herb by Dr. Robert J. Wallis – which explores Anglo-Saxon magic from the animic perspective – which provided a framework for our interactions with the herb, to treat its effects as a gift from the plant-person; to engage in mental conversations with the plant, and to treat it as a living thing, rather than a resource.
To negotiate questions of dose – just enough to sharpen dream-vision, not so much as to induce soporific amnesia – as a matter of conversing with and learning from the plant, rather than simply a question of weight and measurement deepened our relationship, as did a knowledge of our bush’s provenance, relocated as it was, from a hillside we had walked many times. Such cognitive realignments can themselves be enough to bring about a number of ‘mighty revelations’ and glimpses of horizontal transcendence. It can easily be overwhelming: to look at all that surrounds you, from trees and clouds, to your clothing and mobile phone, and witness the genesis, formation as well as the ultimate flow and intentionality of all things. One is almost reminded of the visions, which drove James Webb to suicide, in which “Things would not ‘stand still’. No sooner did he look at something than he saw its entire history, its present, past and future. An oak was an acorn, then a rotting mass of mulch” (Lachman 2001): even a material esotericism can be the harbinger of initiatory madness as dangerous as any god.
Fig. 1 Mugwort, from Theodor Dorsten’s Botanicon (1540).
IV. Pan Controlled Zone
Moving from the mugwort-choked edgelands takes us into the urban – away from the reveries in the arms of other-than-human beings, and firmly into the human social sphere. In our minds, we may have collapsed the hierarchical and temporal outlooks of the traditional cosmos, but that means little in terms of street politics, where ideals of dubious authoritarian utopianism, conservative morality, and identitarian essentialism rule the roost. These positions are more often than not driven by a fear of the other – an idea that if everyone was united under the same cultural or religious authority, and adhered to the same strict laws and moral codes, then everything would be perfect.
Watching the ideological battle for the streets between a variety of extremist factions, we were drawn to the declaration of particular areas as ‘zones’ using stickers on street lamps. The Salafi jihadist group Al-Muhajiroun began using Shariah Controlled Zone stickers in the early 2010s, which were then countered by responses from nationalist factions including British Freedom Party and National Action. Of course, the latter responses also propagated the most common and unpleasant of anti-Islamic tropes. The proscriptive nature of the zoning stickers and posters seemed ripe for some form of détournement, leading us to ask: what if we claimed a zone as a vision for some sort of idealised anarcho-paganism? What if we replaced ‘do nots’ with suggestions of things to do? How would we like to see people use their environments?
Fig. 2. Zoning stickers produced by Al-Muhajiroun, The British Freedom Party, and Hawthonn.
Our idea of a Pan Controlled Zone was fairly tongue-in-cheek (- Murray Bookchin would doubtlessly dismiss it as bourgeois ‘lifestyle anarchism’ -), but some of the ideals seem to have struck a chord, especially the edict to grow vegetables on unclaimed land. Of course, the fascist creep is such that pagan and ecological ideals have been thoroughly co-opted into movements like National Anarchism, and it was this awareness that prompted the tag-line ‘cosmic anarchism at play’, since the all-encompassing cosmos is probably about as conceptually far away from ideas of race and nationality as it is possible to get.
Fishing in such dark waters made us realise that we have lost the ability to articulate ideals about what society should be: to dream of utopias. Of course, a utopia is by definition a non-place, one that can never be fully realised on our blighted star, but nevertheless, we need desperately to conjure a multitude of possible visions to counter the simplistic, but alluring narratives of the right. It is also too easy to fall prey to an overwhelming pessimism, but we should not lose sight also of hope and the possibility that we are all engaged on a slow, sometimes painful, journey, guided by our hope for something better. As Ernst Bloch, theoretician of radical hope said to the broadly pessimistic Adorno: “[H]ope still nails a flag on the mast, even in decline, in that the decline is not accepted, even when this decline is still very strong. Hope is not confidence. Hope is surrounded by dangers, and it is consciousness of danger and at the same time [conscious of] the determined negation which continually makes the opposite of the hoped-for object possible” (Bloch 1989: 17).
If we look around us, we can also discern slivers of hope – even in decline. The contemporary construction of the goddess Babalon as a figurehead of radical femininity, sexual liberation, apocalyptic change and magical embodiment is but one. Peter Grey closes The Red Goddess by saying that “Love and War are written on the sides of the coin we throw into Her lap. She does not see any difference between them” (2007: 229). Although Grey suggests that we “should not shy from considering the possibility of a final war” (:227), we should also not shy from considering love and war as analogues for hope and struggle. To paint an allegorical image: Hope rests in the lap of the Goddess.
V. Nothing is Sacred, Everything is Political?
What we have discussed above is a rough outline of a few of our first, faltering contributions in nudging the experience and aesthetics of Western esotericism away from its oft-ignored political assumptions.
While exploring these ideas, we coined the slogan ‘Nothing is Sacred, Everything is Political’. It does, of course, draw upon the oft-repeated maxim attributed to Hassan-i Sabbah that ‘Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted’. It is a provocation, and naturally lacks subtlety. Like Sabbah’s maxim, it contains a form of liar’s paradox: if everything is political, then that would include the sacred. Perhaps a personal experience of the sacred may be apolitical territory, although we would also ask – in the spirit of what we describe as ‘critical magick’ – that one considers what happens to this experience when it is ‘earthed’ and becomes part of the wider social and political networks in which we exist.
Fig. 3. Nothing is Sacred patch, by Hawthonn.
Of course, we should be explicit that we do not consider our material re-imagining of the esoteric to be the only correct way. Our personal intention has been to begin exploring a form of thought that does not fall back on perennialism to tell us ‘how it is’, but is reactive, rather than reactionary. We are not averse to tradition, but we are critical of a dominant form of conservative ‘lazy traditionalism’, which suggests a monolithic, unchanging edifice, underpinned by eternal ideals.
Beyond our individual practice, critical magick can manifest in the way we present what we do. This is not a question of preaching to the converted – although overtly oppositional stances do serve a purpose – but rather of knowingly shaping our discourse and aesthetics thoughtfully and subtly in order to make others, who had perhaps not even considered the implications of such ideas, begin to engage: many occultists and pagans are, at heart, naïve romanticists genuinely oblivious to the sorts of discursive implications which we have been talking about this evening.
The invitation of critical magick is to question the status quo; to return again and again to dig for treasure at the crossroads; to examine one’s own path and beliefs and their wider socio-political implications, rather than shy away from addressing problematic elements of discourse. To organise, and push back by whatever suitable means present themselves. It is an invitation to struggle and hope; and to re-think and/or re-claim not just the symbols we use, but also the very terrain of the irrational and intuitive.
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