Friends, Wizards, Comrades,
The play of the day is my most recent publication, co-authored with David Lyttle, at Fall Semester. Now available online here. This work is in the second volume of their truly wide-ranging and fantastic collection of essays on aesthetics, politics, and so much more. I’m proud to have been included as a part of their fascinating and entirely necessary, perhaps more than ever, interventions. Our essay is part of a larger project (some of which is available in the last post.)
Enjoy! Critique! Or just lock yourself in a room and practice ritual magick!
[Dearest readers! What follows is a.) a small gesture to those few among you who might have been hoping I would actually produce content on this long-ignored blog, and b.) a small call for resistance in a dark political night. Things are bad. But I want to continue to believe in discourse and in truth. The following paper is a small portion of a larger project I have been working on with the inimitable and absolutely magickal David Lyttle. We first delivered it at the annual meeting of the Society for the study of Literature, Science, and the Arts in Atlanta, GA in November of 2016. Enjoy! Or critique. Hopefully both.]
By David Lyttle and (yours truly) Allison Schifani
“Magick is a culture.” So writes Alan Chapman in his Advanced Magick for Beginners.* Today, we are trying to take Chapman more seriously than perhaps he took himself by looking at the rituals of Western esotericism, also known as magick, as creative technologies that may be employed to engage and shape what Catherine Malabou has called “our brain.”** And to do so for radical ends.
Malabou looks at recent developments in neuroscience to position brain plasticity not only as a material fact, but as a political opportunity. We hope to look at chaos magick, a particular contemporary version of Western esoteric ritual practice, in terms of what it can do to and with the brain in order to answer the call Malabou makes.
Malabou writes “The word plasticity […] unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a mold.”***
Utilizing the juxtaposition of chaos magick and brain plasticity we hope to outline ways in which we might think of magick as already enacting in its practice epistemological gestures that parallel Malabou’s reading of brain plasticity. We also look to studies in neuroscience and psychology which point to magick in practice as a brain-shaping technology. Magick can provably shape the brain, we argue, yes, but it is also geared to do so in ways that do something to “our brain,” that is to say, in ways that can radically reshape the social milieu and work against capitalist productions of identity and the self.
There are a number of reasons, in any critique of capitalist productions of identity and the self, to look to magick. Western esotericism has remained countercultural, and if not ‘occult’ in the sense it perhaps once was, its wide collection of rituals, texts and epistemological structures persist in their resistance to legibility, and make magicians difficult to identify. Magick itself remains without a coherent identity. It could be said to understand itself as its own “agent of disobedience to every constituted form,” and also, just as Malabou’s plasticity, Magick “refuses to submit to a mold.”
Magick also remains counter-cultural in the sense that it is largely ignored by popular discourse (even discourse on religion or mysticism). This allows us a number of possible exploits. Our larger critical project, putting neuroscience, philosophy, and magick within the same milieu of resistant possibility, is, we hope, its own kind of magickal act.
For the purposes of this short exploration, we will be focusing on what is known as ‘chaos magick,’ rather than any number of other traditions. Although chaos magick exists primarily at the fringes of culture, it has in places had a broader cultural influence through the work of artists, writers, and musicians. For example: Genesis P-Orridge (of the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) founded an organization dedicated to magickal and artistic experimentation called the Temple Ov Psychic Youth. Comics writer Grant Morrison popularized chaos magick primarily through his series, The Invisibles, whose central plot follows a group of anarchist sorcerers conspiring to fight nefarious forces of control and domination. The writer William Burroughs (who P-Orridge describes as a “magical mentor”) became involved with chaos magick late in life as a member of the chaos magickal order known as the Illuminates of Thanateros.
The origin of chaos magick as a distinct esoteric tradition can be traced to the 1978 publication of Liber Null by the English occultist Peter Carroll. In Liber Null, Carroll proposed a paradigm of esoteric practice that did not require practitioners to use any one particular set of symbols or rituals, or to adopt any specific belief systems (supernatural or otherwise). Chaos magick adopted the skeptical, empirical approach to magick previously advocated by occultist Aleister Crowley, but went a step further by attempting to strip away obfuscating jargon, complicated symbolism, and specific metaphysical assumptions. By distilling magick to a set of simple, adaptable core principles and practices, chaos magick effectively lowered the barrier of entry to magickal practice, insisting that anyone could do magick. Chaos magick also eliminated the requirement that magicians must “believe” in any supernatural explanation for how magick works. Psychological and purely materialistic models are given equal footing with supernatural explanations, although practitioners are cautioned against dogmatically adhering to any belief system, and encouraged to entertain multiple, possibly conflicting models simultaneously. As Carroll writes,
It is a mistake to consider any belief more liberated than another. It is the possibility of change which is important. Every new form of liberation is destined to eventually become another form of enslavement for most of its adherents. […] The solution is to become omnivorous. Someone who can think, believe, or do any of a half dozen different things is more free and liberated than someone confined to only one activity.
Chaos magicians often utilize altered states of consciousness (called ‘gnosis’ in the discourse of Carroll and later writers) in conjunction with ritual and symbolic manipulation. Such states include sexual excitation, exhaustion, absorptive trance induced by meditation, hallucinatory states produced through drug use, sensory deprivation, and others. Gnosis is proposed as a means of disrupting the filtering and censoring mechanisms of the conscious, rational mind, allowing ritual and symbol to act directly on the precognitive and unconscious level.
Chaos magick is deeply invested in embodiment. And its investment, while plastic, always returns to a rootedness in the singular, experiential phenomena that can be produced by and through the body. It also ties both magical potential and liberatory capacity to the body.
(Carroll again:) There is a thing more trustworthy than all the sages, and which contains more wisdom than a great library. Your own body. It asks only for food, warmth, sex and transcendence. Transcendence, the urge to become one with something greater, is variously satisfied in love, humanitarian works, or in the artistic, scientific, or magical quests of truth. To satisfy these simple needs is liberation indeed.
The body, in this discourse, thus becomes a site of multiple potentialities. While it may be the site of care for the self, it is utilized as a way to destabilize imposed notions of care in favor of processual critiques of ‘self’ and ‘identity’ that can be accessed through physical experience. Gnosis works in part because these states of extreme experience derail the capacity of the practitioner to attach herself to a narrative of a stable ‘I.’
If we think in terms of Malabou, part of the material body on which ritual works would include, of course, the brain and the shape of our understanding of the self to which the conceptual formation of the brain is linked. But the idea that magick works on the brain need not be a metaphor for ideological critiques alone.
How do ritual practices, the focused use of language, and the various extreme states of being collectively referred to as ‘gnosis’ actually function to exploit neuroplasticity, and change the brain in measurable ways? Research addressing this question is, of course, still somewhat young, but there are several intriguing examples that hint toward the efficacy of these practices as tools for changing the brain, and by extension, the self.
Much of chaos magick involves the use of intense, focused attention, and the practice of meditation is considered a foundational tool for cultivating the ability to direct one’s attention. Meditation is perhaps the most well studied example of how embodied ritual practices can change both the functionality and physical structure of the brain. Numerous studies of experienced meditators (typically Buddhist monks with years of training), have shown that this practice changes the brain at both the functional level (brain wave activity as measured by EEG, functional connectivity as measured by FMRI) and the structural level (marked differences in cortical thickness in several regions, specifically those associated with emotional regulation, bodily awareness, and cross-hemispheric communication). Furthermore, the effects of meditative practices on the brain can manifest in a relatively short time: one study demonstrated that just 11 hours of meditation can induce measurable changes in brain structure in novice meditators.
Other methods for producing gnosis include the use of psychoactive drugs, a practice directly advocated by many in the chaos tradition and in western esotericism more broadly. Earlier this year, scientists released the first modern brain scans of patients who had volunteered to take LSD, among other hallucinogenic drugs. According to The Guardian’s summary of these studies:
The brain scans revealed that trippers experienced images through information drawn from many parts of their brains, and not just the visual cortex at the back of the head that normally processes visual information. Under the drug, regions once segregated spoke to one another.
Further images showed that other brain regions that usually form a network became more separated in a change that accompanied users’ feelings of oneness with the world, a loss of personal identity called “ego dissolution.”
And, of course, one of the central goals of gnostic ritual is the dissolution of a stable ‘self.’
Malabou’s own exploration of neuroscientific discourse is also deeply invested, if not in ‘ego-dissolution’, certainly in the implications of brain plasticity in terms of the possibility of gesturing toward the other by means of understanding our own material selves as plastic. Hers is a vision of plasticity that extends from the brain to its milieu–not just its body, or its environment, but its world.
In addition to the use of gnosis, chaos magick relies heavily upon the strategic use of language, rigorous self-analysis, and the manipulation of symbols to disrupt and alter existing patterns of perception, thought and behavior. Many of these techniques are similar to those used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The underlying premise of CBT is that upsetting emotions arise due to distorted patterns of thought and self-talk, and the treatment process consists of systematically disrupting these patterns and replacing them with new, more adaptive ones. CBT is one of the most successful and empirically-supported types of (non-pharmaceutical) psychological treatment in use today. Moreover, recent research has suggested that CBT, like meditation, can produce measurable changes in brain function and structure. Collectively, these results suggest that language, focused thought, and self-interrogation can indeed change the brain in lasting ways.
Certain practices within chaos magick can be seen as a sort of intense, D.I.Y. variant of CBT, in the sense that they serve to systematically uproot and replace patterns of thought, speech and action. However, there is a crucial difference: CBT, like many forms of psychotherapy, is designed to make patients more “functional” and able to cope within the broader social, political, and cultural frameworks in which they exist, without challenging those same frameworks, or implicating them as potential sources of the patient’s suffering. In contrast, magickal practice, rather than simply helping practitioners better navigate existing power structures, encourages critical engagement with the self and the broader structures in which the self is embedded. In Malabou’s terms, CBT proposes a model of flexibility, where magick seeks plasticity.
One potential pitfall of reading magick as a technology of resistance (even if that resistance leverages brain plasticity) is that capital produces itself as a magical. Melinda Cooper has called capital ‘delirious’ but this is a critical language that could just as easily be reframed in occult terms.+ What is the ‘invisible hand’ of the market if not an occult force? And its modes of abstraction and speculation also seem to be squarely within the category of magic. Not to mention symbol manipulation, the central component of magickal ritual practice. Ideological structures of contemporary capital remain bound tightly to the symbolic. This said, to think of resistant technologies in terms of magick is both novel (especially when we put magick in conversation with brain plasticity) and ‘old hat’: many of the resistant projects of the 20th and 21st centuries have appropriated capital’s magical logic. What this means is that both plasticity and magick are ambivalent in their relationship to the larger structures in which they operate. They can be leveraged for or against the status quo.
And if magick does not directly engage, or even care, about its impacts on the material brains of practitioners, its aim is certainly one of material change more broadly, and material change through individual and collective practice which can thus move on to change to directly shape the world.
To cancel the fluxes, to lower the self-controlling guard, to accept exploding from time to time: this is what we should do with our brain. It is time to remember that some explosions are not in fact terrorist — explosions of rage, for example. Perhaps we ought to relearn how to enrage ourselves, to explode against a certain culture of docility, of amenity, of the effacement of all conflict even as we live in a state of permanent war. It is not because the struggle has changed form, it is not because it is no longer possible to fight a boss, owner, or father that there is no struggle to wage against exploitation. To ask ‘what should we do with our brain?’ is above all to visualize the possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile.++
Chaos Magick, if it does nothing else, positions itself and its practitioners as open to the explosion. It is firmly anti-docility and vocally against the effacement of conflict. In other words, when practiced radically, magick is plastic. And the way it utilizes plasticity means that it might also help us to more sustainably and equitably use our plastic brains.
*Alan Chapman, Advanced Magick for Beginners, London: Aeon Books, 2008, pg. 18.
**Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
***Malabou, pg. 6.
+Melinda Cooper, Life as surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era, Seattle: U of Washington Press, 2008.
++Malabou, pg. 79.
Not long ago, oh kind followers, I went to see an installation at the Cleveland MOCA. The piece was “The Visitors” by Ragnar Kjartansson. It was astounding. Spectacular. And maybe a little bit upsetting.
I loved it. I really, really loved it. So much so that I went back a second time with a friend and demanded we sit in the dark room, surrounded by nine large screens, for the full 64 minutes. And, were the installation something more akin to a band on tour, I would follow it around the country. I would sit again and again, mesmerized by the house in Hudson in which the work was filmed, and by the ridiculously attractive musicians who, in real time, sing and play on their various instruments.
The piece is deeply affecting, in part, I think, because it does such work on the viewer as a body in space. Surrounded by screens that you cannot see simultaneously you have to move around, to choose where to rest your gaze. You also have to habituate yourself to being in more than one space, that of the gallery and of the house in which the piece was filmed, at once. The surrounding speakers and the music and other sounds they loudly deliver contribute to this effect, asking you to be both very much in your body and elsewhere.
Kjartansson seems to like to lull his audience in this and other ways. Repetition and reference are among his well-employed tools. But more than the dirge-like quality of the music, or the strange way his work both fragments and aestheticizes physical space, disorienting the viewer as it charms her, what threatened me by “The Visitors” was that it hit too close to the mark of my own aesthetic sensibilities. Kjartansson has been called a ‘hipster artist’ before and here he delivers something one wouldn’t be amiss to link to that banal (if slippery) cultural class. So I wondered if, perhaps, my love of the piece had something more to do with my data body in the ebbs and flows of late capital than it did with my own theoretical and aesthetic training, or my embodied experience sitting in the gallery*, or the strange pathways that led me to the piece to begin with.
There may be, though, a way in which the pleasures afforded by works like “The Visitors” aren’t just the same commodified and commodifiable aesthetics of hipsterdom (which is to say, of avant garde consumerism).
The answer likely lies in emerging theories of how to locate aesthetic practices in the contemporary moment. Nicolas Bourriaud has tried to trace such trends under the umbrella of the “altermodern,”** but I think I prefer the “metamodern” offered by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker.*** In their exploration of contemporary cultural objects they point to an insistence in many works on oscillating between irony and sincerity, between cynicism and utopic speculation. Kjartansson’s work does this to great effect. A kind of ambivalence might, in certain cultural contexts, prove critically potent.
If there is something I would want to add to the theories of contemporary art elaborated by Bourriaud, Vermeulen and van den Akker, it would be a closer look at the somatic. Hipsterdom can’t entirely conquer such terrain. My hope is that capital can’t either. And perhaps one way to read “The Visitors” is less to worry about the ways the viewer is interpolated by capital, and more to grab tightly onto the somatic joys the work offers her while still clinging to critical awareness.
I’m quite sure that capital can and does do its own metamodern work. And it’s worth worrying about the ways metamodernist art can and is appropriated by ideological forces to which I and many among us stand opposed. But perhaps there’s still an exploit for us somewhere, perhaps even somewhere in the ways our own bodies inhabit their environments and experience their worlds. I’m not sure. I’m cynical. But I am also moved, hopeful.
*I both laughed and wept. Seriously.
**See Bourriaud, Nicolas ed. Altermodern. Tate Publishing, (2009).
***Vermeulen, Timotheus; van den Akker, Robin. “Notes on Metamodernism”. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol. 2 (2010). pp. 1–14. [Special thanks to the talented Jeff Kruth for turning me onto the piece!]