Anyone who hangs around here for any length of time will probably quickly get the impression that I’m talking about something called ‘magick’ or variously, alchemy, hermeticism, yoga, or any number of other things. It’s sitting prominently in my sidebar, I refer to it in almost all of my podcasts, and the vast majority of links in my sidebar are either by magicians or have clear magickal sympathies or interests.

This label is problematic in a number of ways, which is part of the reason why I and so many others, use so many different words for our ‘field’ and constantly grapple with a satisfactory definition ( you may currently see the baptists doing just this perennial problem further justice ) .

For starters, it’s vauge. What’s magick? It’s what magicians do. And what is it magicians do? Magick, you dumbass. And this is about as good as it gets in many quarters and even for those of us who do ‘it’, this situation is frequently infuriating and counterproductive.

Further, even if you accept that it’s ‘what magicians do’, what those magicians are actually doing is never quite the same, from person to person sometimes even in the most fundamental ways. This is further aggravating to newcomers and makes conversation within the community almost pointless at times, because there are precisely zero shared assumptions or foundational premises. If not in truth, then at least in practice these foundational premises or practices, if they exist, can almost never be agreed upon.

On top of all that, often people who could and should rightly be interested in the body of knowledge and skill that the field traditionally known as magick has to offer, cannot see past the semantically loaded labels and cultural baggage around the words we use. If you start talking about sorcery, demons, invocation, or similar terms from the middle ages or earlier, which carry connotations of rudderless superstition, sloppy thinking, and unprovable metaphysics, they will frequently assume that you are soft in the fucking head, quite frankly, and in many cases these days, rightly so.

All this, to further compound the dillema, almost pro forma puts you at odds with any or all of the established knowledge fields or skill sets in existence today, let alone anything discussed by serious scholars, academia or the professional realms. Not that anyone should necessarily be overly concerned by that, but to have that door simply closed from the outset is little more than an intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual ( not to mention financial) ghetto.

Many people forget that in the renaissance it was practically required to have a magus on hand, and that characters such as john dee were massively influential in all kinds of areas ( mind you the local peasantry branded him a demonologist and burned his house down, with all his books in it, but you can’t please all the people all the time ).

And even given all that, and I doubt many will seriously dispute what I’m saying, most practitioners of the magical arts don’t care, or at least pretend not to care, and satisfy themselves with their marginal status, while they strive for acceptance and recognition in more socially palatable areas. This is a very old scheme, and historically a fairly successful one. Often the magus these days is a successful or aspiring writer, artist, scientist, codemonkey, or professional of some stripe, who happens to have recourse to certain alternative methods of pursuing their goals in private.

Thus the knowledge base that magick represents seeps into the mainstream in various forms, but the thing itself remains hidden, marginal…indeed, occult. It is the dirty secret of human history. Scrape the surface of almost anything you take for granted, and there you will find a shaman, there you will find a sorceror, there you will find an alchemist. It’s almost comical in it’s ubiquity.

And yet, every time someone wants to reapproach the wellspring of human endevour, where do they find themselves? Inevitably, they find themselves back in the ghetto.

I’ve been grappling with this problem for some time now, and I do believe I’ve found a way out.
…more to come.

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10 thoughts on “Building a Better Brand: Magick in the Ghetto

  1. Antoine Faivre’s definition of “Western Esotericism” comes to mind. It isn’t quite occultism per se but it is the larger milieu in which occultism exists. He uses a phenomenological definition that has six components (two of which are optional). If something, in practice not in dogma, expresses these components, it is part of the larger tradition of Western Esotericism. This basically artificially creates a definition, so it is useful really as a research tool, but allows otherwise disparate things to be compared to one another.

    The value is that you can go from treating every weirdass instance of esotericism or occultism as unique unto itself and use the components to compare traditions or even trace the influences (such as the fact that Marsilio Ficino through Agrippa created the practice of talismans as it is used today…).

    Faivre lists the four required features as: (1) Correspondences; (2) Living Nature; (3) Imagination and Mediations; (4) The Experience of Transmutation. The two non-essential but common components are (5) The Praxis of the Concordance; (6) Transmission (Access 10-14).

    I’ll quote from my Master’s thesis here:

    Correspondences: According to Faivre, this is the belief that there are both symbolic and concrete correspondences “among all parts of the universe, both seen and unseen” (Access 10). These correspondences come in two forms. The first are those that exist in nature, such as between the seven planets and the seven metals or between the various parts of the human body and the planets. An example of this is when the Sun is said to correspond to the human heart or Mars to anger. This belief is the basis of astrology and of the magia based on the sympathy between two objects. The second form of this belief is concerning those correspondences that are “between Nature (the cosmos) or even history and revealed texts” (Faivre, Access 11). This is at the root of Cabalistic practices which relate the contents of sacred texts, such as the books of Genesis or Revelations, with either natural phenomena or history. Through the study of a specific sacred text, insight is gained into the nature of the cosmos or history by this belief.

    Living Nature: This belief that the “cosmos is complex, plural, hierarchical” and that “Nature occupies an essential place” in this cosmos making it “multilayered, rich in potential revelations of every kind” (Faivre, Access 11). This results in magia being “simultaneously the knowledge of the networks of sympathies or antipathies that link the things of Nature and the concrete operation of these bodies of knowledge (Faivre, Access 11). This is an awareness of the nature of the universe, which Faivre calls “knowledge – in the sense of „gnosis‟” (Access 11). With this intimate knowledge of the true nature of the universe, combined with other components of esotericism such as correspondences, the esotericist is able to practice alchemy or the other esoteric arts. Hanegraaff also makes the point that “since it is the force of divinity which „enlivens‟ Nature, the concept is most properly described as a form of panentheism” (398).

    Imagination and Mediations: This is two complementary notions regarding both sensing the unseen and a mechanism for interacting with it that form one complex component. The first portion is that imagination or the “mind‟s eye” allows the esotericist to perceive those previously mentioned correspondences in living nature. The imagination allows the access to spiritual or non-physical truths. This is based on the idea that the imagination, rather than simply being a subjective aspect of a person‟s mental processes, is a “kind of organ of the soul” (Faivre, Access 12). Faivre beautifully illustrates this idea by saying that “the eye of fire pierces the bark of appearances to call forth significations, „rapports‟ to render the invisible visible, the „mundus imaginalis‟ to which the eyes of the flesh alone cannot provide access, and to retrieve there a treasure contributing to an enlargement of our prosaic vision” (Faivre, Access 13).

    The second portion of this component is the concept of mediation. Faivre states that the esotericist can “use mediations of all kinds, such as rituals, symbolic images, mandalas, intermediary spirits” to act in the world or on others (Access 12). The use of imagination to perceive symbolically “allows the use of these intermediaries, symbols, and images to develop a gnosis” (or intimate knowledge) and “to put the theory of correspondences into active practice, and to uncover, to see, and to know the mediating entities between Nature and the divine world” (Faivre, Access 12). The combination of imagination and mediation as a unified component gives both a means of sensing and a mechanism for influencing the invisible undercurrents of the world in western esoteric thought.

    The Experience of Transmutation: Faivre states that the belief in transmutation is the key component that takes western esoteric beyond the limits of simply being “speculative spirituality” (Access 13). It can be used as synonymous with metamorphosis. It is the modification or transmutation of the basic nature of a thing being acted upon, whether that is a person being initiated through rituals into a new and better life or the transmutation of lead into gold. It is the ability to alter the intrinsic nature of the substance being acted upon into something else. Hanegraaff notes that alchemical terminology, from which “transmutation” is borrowed, is “used here to convey the notion of an inner processes or mystical “path‟ of regeneration and purification” (399). This gives the concept of transmutation a soteriological value in which humanity can be perfected or rescued from its current state into a better one. Hanegraaff believes that “the principle tool to this end is the imaginatio, which gives access to the intermediate realms between spirit and matter” (400).

    The Praxis of the Concordance: This is a tendency to see there being a unifying philosophy or theology that provides the basis for the apparent theologies or philosophies of different traditions. Faivre states that “this shows up in a consistent tendency to try to establish common denominators between two different traditions or even more, among all traditions, in the hope of obtaining an illumination, a gnosis, of superior quality” (Access 14). This is the drawing of meaningful identifications between separate ideas or activities in different traditions on the basis of a belief in an underlying philosophy. Through this identification, disparate concepts or practices are unified into a single whole within the context of this belief. An example of this is the belief in a unifying esoteric philosophy from which all religions are derived and which serves to unite them if it can be ascertained and examined. Transmission: This the specific transfer between individuals of some spiritual element, knowledge, or energy in a direct fashion. Faivre states that it “implies that an esoteric teaching can or must be transmitted from master to disciple following a preestablished channel…” (Access 13). Deriving from this belief, there are also often secondary beliefs that valid knowledge is passed through a lineage which gives it authenticity (and knowledge outside of this transmission is inauthentic) and that this passing is done by some means of initiation (which may related to the previous component of “transmutation”) (Faivre, Access 13-14).

  2. Oh, and the point has been made though I don’t have it above that the presence or absence of mediation is what separates practice magic from mysticism.

  3. well my question might be: whats the point of trying to define it? from what im increasingly experiencing, its not the defining part of you that actually engages in the magic itself. although actually thats not quite accurate, since magic seems partly to be about defining or redefining reality. so maybe that sabotages my whole point, i dont know… i guess im in the nike “just do it” camp is what im trying to say, although its taken me a long time to grasp just what it is im “doing”

  4. yeah i get you. and that aspect of it is always there. it’s the fact of being seemingly stuck with it that doesn’t work for me. but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself…

  5. I think part of zac’s thing, though (correct me if I’m wrong zac), is clarifying and unifying all these seemingly disparate ‘magickal’ ideas, practices, traditions and what not, and distilling them down to the essential elements that actually work. That requires cutting through a lot of the confusing or otherwise off-putting jargon and other bullshit that tends to get in the way of accessing the actual, relevant information – and which keeps most people from engaging in these realms of thinking or approaching their lives, at all. It also requires replacing that with something better, clearer, more useful for this time, this cultural context. A redefining, if you will.

    So, ‘just doing it’ for zac might include that, if that’s a part of his purpose. The world can certainly benefit from it. Someone needs to make this shit more accessible and be more realistic in their approach, but without compromising the integrity of the ideas. Otherwise we get overly, overly simplistic (but at least ‘accessible’) crap like ‘The Secret’ filling that void, and that’s just saddening.

  6. What can I say? I’m excited! At last, some genuine (and quality) debate regarding the definition of magic. I was beginning to think no one gave a shit.

    I agree with Tim that you don’t need to ascribe to a specific definition to actually get on with it. But I think it is inevitable that a magician must adhere to some kind of ‘definition’, whether consciously deliberated or not, based on experience and culture, that informs his or her approach. What you think of magic may limit what you actually practice and what you aim for, and so I believe it is imperative that magic isn’t undersold to newcomers who may be misled as to what is achievable, or what benefits may be gained from being a magician. For example, if magic is nothing more than medieval NLP (which is a ‘definition’ touted on many a forum), why dress up in robes and invoke a ‘guardian angel’ like a nut job, when you can instead study a reputable ‘scientific’ practice and earn a bucket load in the process?

    I think Brooke hit the nail on the head – magic does require periodic redefinition in order for it to stay vital; magic is just like every other Western culture in this respect. A redefinition of magic is way over due in my opinion.

    I think a definition should not only tell you the what, but the how and why of magic as well, being as comprehensive as possible without imposing any unnecessary limitations (which is what I’ve attempted over at the BH).

    I’m very much looking forward to the continuation of this debate, and any future posts on this topic (you are a tease, Zac…).

  7. Is magic really something you want to deliver from the ghetto? Sure, the term is loaded with negative connotations. It has been made ridiculous. But perhaps someone who isn’t willing to endure a bit of ridicule shouldn’t be doing magic in the first place.

    Not that I’m the person to decide that. But nor am I sure making magic more respectable is a great idea. One way or another, it seems, the powers that be find a way to keep this stuff away from the mere masses. Now that literacy is an epidemic with the common folk, we must guard them from stumbling upon the power of their will by making the practice an object of derision.

  8. Where magic attempts to go mainstream, religions appear. This has happened time and again. It happens because most people just don’t get it – and maybe are incapable of getting it.

    Most people are identified with their minds, their intellect. It takes an immense amount of resources and luck to get people this far. Magic subverts or challenges this identification in a way that is a step too far for most people.

    I’ve started teaching meditation recently, and it’s amazing the lengths that people will go to *not* do it. Most people will *not* sit and confront their minds. What hope have they of taking up magic? It takes an extraordinary person to want to do this.

    Magic is elitist. If it’s a ‘ghetto’, it’s an inverse ghetto of the spiritually privileged.

    Magicians demanding credibility, respect, cash, even whilst forming the cutting-edge of human evolution? Maybe that’s asking too much…

    But can’t wait to see where Zac’s going to take this!

  9. This is a really interesting discussion… & a timely one for me, considering where I am at in my personal studies.

    I believe that thinking of oneself as being in the ‘ghetto’/ fringe in any endeavor speaks to the basic self-consciousness one feels while working outside the established (or perhaps more correctly, the perceived) ‘norm’. The sense of ‘looking from the outside-in’ seems emblematic of the process of establishing one’s ‘sea legs’ in life, trusting in one’s own voice/ approach/ style, whatever one’s particular focus may be… in art, ‘magic/k’, work, etc… whatever.

    Consider for a moment that most meaningful trends or changes ‘bubble’ up from the vital wellspring of the fringe or ‘ghetto’ (in truth, ‘real’ life) ‘up’ to popular culture (the broader & yet more illusory ‘consensus’ reality). Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is immaterial… it appears to be the way things ‘are.’ What is important is that this process is a vital one. If I even remotely understand certain esoteric tenants, this concept of vitality, or energy current, is reflected in the proper ‘magical’ concept of establishing a circuit (or ground, depending on one’s predilection) along which the creative ‘current’ might travel.

    I suppose I personally prefer not to get too caught up in strict definitions regarding a lot of this stuff. I suspect that best one might hope for is to ‘talk around’ the issue of magic/k in order to ‘define’ it, hence the preponderance of seemingly deliberately obscure writings regarding the subject. Much like a map loosely represents a territory, poetry of a sort as well as symbology, sounds, & music may be as close as we can get to defining ‘magic/k’ … which, unless I am totally fucktarded, is basically what Mr. Boucher has been ‘playing’ with of late.

    At any rate, magic/k seems to me to be a liminal relative of religion & philosophy, itself being more akin to a multi-disciplinary art, or a craft, in that there are a multitude of ways to achieve a similar end… thus contributing to its mercurial, hard to define nature. Once you ‘define’ it, it necessarily changes, evolves, mutates… because to define is to limit it & to limit the creative current is a dead end… an oxymoron, as the creative current is very much alive. The Tao ain’t the Tao ‘n’ all that shit.

    While I am amused by those who approach the study of magic, or any pursuit, with an elitist attitude, I agree with the gist of what Duncan is inferring, if I understand him correctly. Only a diligent few pursue their studies to an ‘elite’ level of understanding. One need only look around them to realize that, in fact, few folks pursue any course of study or profession with sufficient vigor to be considered adepts, in the dictionary sense of the word. For all those who exhibit a proficiency in a subject matter/ skill, there are generally only a damn small handful that are the ‘go-to’ guy or gal. This is true in any office as well as, I suspect, in any magic/k/al lodge, study group, etc…

    At any rate, good stuff from all. In particular, I look forward to hearing your latest insights, Zac. 🙂

  10. You’ve come firing on all engines, Zac. Just trying to catch up on all the recent posts here.

    Any successes or tastes of something more I’ve gotten from that private practice with many a name has sort of come out of a process that has gone–intuit, contemplate, build up focus and obsession in the ol’ headspace, then improvise and see what happens; then when something happens, it usually leads me to seek out more concrete info from sources, which feeds back into the same process loop. So in my limited experience, anyway, there’s room for “just do it” and also studying, defining/refining and reworking.

    As for the PTB keeping anything from the masses, joechip–there’s a symbiosis there, too, i/m/h/o. And part of what keeps “the masses” down is that they live within the illusion that there IS such a thing as “the masses” instead of “you and you and you and you and you…and me.” Believing in this fiction called “the masses” and identifying with it too fully is a great why to stay stuck and never really do anything, which is why, for all its ambiguous repurcussions, I see the western individualist strain as being a powerful corrective (though…when you dive into real deep…well, I end up starting to see the wisdom in the traditionalists, as shady as they might be).

    Great stuff.

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