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.
Comrades, oh dear comrades!
The play of this autumnal day is the publication of my most recent article (co-authored with my lovely and brilliant colleague, Katie Kelp-Stebbins) in Media Fields.
You can read it here if you so desire.
Everyone, it seems, in neoliberal camps, in maker-collaboratives, in venture capital firms (although, I admit, in very different ways) is swooning over the figure of the entrepreneur. We, in contemporary U.S. culture, like the start-up company. We applaud the risk-taker. We cheer on people with big ideas and little capital who make things in their garages no matter what the naysayers, well, say. (And no matter that the ‘garage’ is likely not a garage at all).
I like productive outliers and do-it-yourself-ers. I like ambition, too. Don’t get me wrong. But I have developed, of late, a resistance to the rhetoric of entrepreneurialism. This will not be surprising to many among my (small in number but totally glorious) readership. And they will already understand why I want a way of describing creative, novel intervention that knows the banner of entrepreneurialism is a very clever way to obfuscate the facts of contemporary labor: that is to say, that it hides the logic of precarity by suggesting creative work (without pay, or with only meager compensation) done in one’s leisure time is an individual and social good. And, of course, by suggesting that those among the entrepreneurial ‘creatives’ who do their work well will both change the world and grow spectacularly rich doing it. The fact that very, very few entrepreneurs ever get rich seems to consistently escape popular notice.
What may be worse, however, is that the kind of entrepreneurial ‘spirit’ we seem so vocally to root for is never about real, culture and world-altering public good. (Which, by the way, we expect to just emerge and never to pay for.) What we want is for the entrepreneur to wow us with his new, exciting gadgets, social media platforms, and sexy, quick solutions to slow, difficult, problems. Such problems are not per se technological in nature but are instead enmeshed in social and political networks as much as they are in the world wide web.
The discourse around the entrepreneur has also sucked the marrow right out of creativity. ‘The creative’ has become equated with the entrepreneur. Producers of art are only ‘creatives’ if the result of their labors can be monetized. That sleight of hand, to swallow up creativity and spit it out as not a way of engaging in the world, of connecting with others, of authentically expressing desires and hopes and political critiques and inviting sustained thought and reflection, but rather as a way of getting investors is more than a trick. It is a violent foreclosure of alternative futures in favor of one, endless, awful reproduction of the capitalist status quo.
We may be deeply compelled by the ingenious creatives among us, but maybe, as Benjamin Bratton (in this very engaging and smart anti-TED TED talk) among others have suggested, we need not uncritically celebrate the idea man without an accompanying, difficult, slow and well-grounded critique of his ideas and of the idea of the ‘creative’ itself. That new gadget now being developed, we should all have learned by now, is not going to save us from ourselves and it absolutely will not save us from global capital.
A few months ago my mother (thanks to the strange combination of her love for me and her somewhat Luddite-adjacent position in relation to contemporary information technology) looked my name up using the Yahoo! search engine. She found, much to our mutual surprise, an article written about a paper I gave at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in early 2012. I had never seen it before.
The piece appeared on the conservative Accuracy in Academia* web site. It lambasts my (albeit amateurish) paper, and me. Apparently I “indignantly claimed” some things. And, what’s worse, I wasn’t all that psyched about state and/or corporate surveillance. Nor was I celebratory enough of the liberating and happiness-producing capacity of the internet for concerned citizens who love capitalism and the police, naturally. And, for God’s sake, I did not take the language of a corporation’s promotional materials as a clear and honest delivery of their political, cultural and social commitment to the common good. Oh, and I didn’t talk enough about literature. Because: disciplinary boundaries.
Accuracy in Academia “wants schools to return to their traditional mission-the quest for truth.”** And they’re worried about what young, radical intellectuals like me might mean for the future of our country. To go after this lofty goal, the organization claims to “expose political bias.”
Just so you know, I gave the paper on a panel devoted to trends in Marxist thought. And, while I take Accuracy in Academia’s scathing review of my work as a badge of honor, I think I was chosen as the target (despite being the only graduate student on the bill) because my paper was considerably lighter and more digestible to outsider audiences than the exceptionally rigorous and densely theoretical works offered by my fellow, far more seasoned and respected panelists.
If it weren’t for Yahoo! (and my mom), I’d never have seen this thing. It doesn’t show up on a Google search of my name for pages.*** I’m not sure if its existence is good or bad for my nascent academic career, but its burial deep in the internet jungle does give me some hope that conservative, anti-intellectualism veiled as civic, pro-education activism doesn’t hold as much purchase in the American political landscape (or at least its virtual info-scape) as many of us often worry that it does.
I also take from this happenstance discovery that you never really know all of the magical machinations of your public presence. Because: Interwebs!
*I love this organization’s name. I’d liken it to some of my favorite super pac titles: “Endorse Liberty,” “FreedomWorks,” and the Romney-loving “Restore Our Future.”
**Um. Yeeeah. Okay. Simple.
***Speaking of academic explorations: I’d really like to know what Lacan would think about what has to be a somewhat common compulsion, sometimes motivated by paranoia, to Google one’s own name.+
+I’m officially coining the term ‘autogoogle’ for this act. The gerund: autogoogling.
I recently came across a link to this promotional video for the city of Cleveland.* Titled “A Cleveland Anthem,” it does a more or less predictable job of articulating an image of the city as full of food, drink, sports and rock and roll (oh, and shopping. Obviously. Lots of shopping.) . It also presents the Cleveland populous as a ‘go-your-own way’, hardy and rabble-rousing sort who won’t be kept down and who don’t really give a shit what you think about them or their city. It sells Cleveland in the vein, as my friend pointed out, of the ‘keep Austin weird’ campaign or any number of other off-center city attempts at self-promotion.
I could offer several of criticisms of the video, point out the ways it elides immense and problematic urban phenomena precisely by offering a more digestible version of Cleveland’s hard-edges. But I won’t. Because promotional videos are just commercials. Pepsi sells Beyoncé sells Pepsi sells Beyoncé, and so on, ad infinitum. Capital dressed as culture unfurls its tentacles in all directions. The “Cleveland Anthem” was never going to be about urban blight or development or cultural revolution or even about the sometimes wildly engaging things Clevelanders are doing with and for their city. That wasn’t its investment in the city or its audience.
But there is a way in which such material works its way into popular conceptions of what cities are, what they do and to whom they really belong. However much I may despise (or, for that matter, adore) some of the ways Cleveland fashions itself for an audience, or the way any city I care for does, those representations matter well beyond the bounds of their brief viral explosion on Twitter.
So if no city is going to produce feature-length, in-depth, Marxist-leaning documentaries about its complex and various tribulations, triumphs and speculative futures,** what, exactly can we do with what they do produce?
Three modest proposals:
1.) Basic media literacy and regular old literacy campaigns: People can read the way they are being sold by and sold to only if they know how to read visual and textual products. This is not a particularly radical solution, but it’s one of which I am particularly supportive. Literacy matters more, perhaps, in Cleveland than many cities. Given the abysmal statistics, any increase in literacy could mean a very different sort of city and a much broader scope of participation among the populous.
2.) Alternative cultural products: While the internet may not be so liberatory a virtual space as Marshall McCluhan and his ilk initially imagined, it does offer relatively wide access to a variety of tools that allow for mashups, remakes and novel production of all kinds of alternative urban narratives. If we want to have a hand in the representations of the cities we live in, we might aim to contribute a voice or two to the din. “The Cleveland Anthem” is ripe for hacking. The city is yours only if you make it.
3.) Opt out(ish): I think there is a general human need to lay claim to the cultural mystique of our cities. We tend, as part of this need, to adopt the slogans and stories shared among us as our own–sometimes without critically engaging them. But perhaps instead of fondly swapping theme songs, we might do a little more conversational legwork and ask, among those we love in our cities and those we might not know at all, about what it actually means to sell a city and to whom we might (or might not) want to sell it. I am not suggesting that opting out of the whole affair of urban representation is a good idea. I don’t think it is. I’m suggesting that we try to consciously mark what it is we feel about representations of the places we inhabit and that we share those feelings, in some way, with those around us. This is the softer stuff of cultural criticism, I suppose, but I like to believe that even in a hard city, soft is still something.
*See also this, very different sort of Cleveland material, which happens to be hilarious.
**Too much to ask?
Much has been written on the atomising nature of car culture in Los Angeles. All of us (who can afford it) ferrying ourselves to and fro on the wide network of freeways that cover the sprawl–isolated in our capsular space, shuttling forward at high speeds (or, given the traffic, at virtually no speed)–are said to be without a public space any longer, without even a notion of our neighbors. Our fellow Angelenos, so close yet still so far away from us, are themselves isolated inside, captured, really, by their cocoons of metal and steel and rubber.
I agree, for the most part. The automobile, and more-so, the automobile industry has made this city a network, has collapsed the center and spilled what remained of its guts in all directions, morphing LA into a labyrinth of commerce devoted to the isolated spender with a big trunk. Car culture has bulldozed and forgotten what was once a functional trolley system. It has, too, brought with it a near-constant cloud of cancerous pollution which weighs heavy in the air on hot days and seems always to specifically target the poor and the marginalized, the communities built up against the complex of freeways for whom car ownership is less and less possible. As ubiquitous as it is, it denies access still to exactly those who pay the largest price for its excesses.
But one hates to ignore, at least I hate to ignore, something compelling, something common in our not-so-new, ever-mobile cybernetic selves. Even when we can in the same breath critique the automobile (certainly LA’s most emblematic, if not its most common cybernetic appendage) and its impact on the production of the city, might we too find something of value in it? That human thing, as I see it, might just be the total release such strangely fashioned, such costly privacy affords us drivers in a city that belongs not to drivers but to cars.
Every once in a while I like to test this theory of mine out. Usually simply by singing, loudly, along with the music playing on my car’s quickly failing radio. But sometimes, to maximize effect and highlight in the extreme the kind of solitude a car can provide, I scream.
I roll down all of the windows and scream as loudly and for as long as my lungs allow. It’s a habit I picked up in college when I was first learning the freeways. It felt at the time like a way of marking space in a city that is under constant self-erasure. Now that I know Los Angeles well, or at least well enough that even in its continuous transformation and re-fashioning it feels like a city to which I belong, the screaming just feels good. Or if not good, it at least always feels.
That, in the end, is sublime. And it is also the stuff of connective tissues between us, post-human and machinic though we may be. Maybe no-one hears me literally screaming past at 70 miles per hour. But they don’t have to. Because once in a while I bet some other driver, in their very own strange shell, is probably screaming too.
“Traffic is Junkspace,” writes Rem Koolhaas, “from airspace to the subway; the entire highway system is Junkspace, a vast potential utopia clogged by its users, as you notice when they’ve finally disappeared on vacation …”* I think maybe the utopic on the highway is indeed clarified by a kind of absence. But even on packed highway, utopia as the someday Los Angeles comes as all no-places (which are perpetually absent, after all), all would-be places that are not yet but still might impossibly be, come. It comes as hope in the form of some kind of speech, some sign-making. Perhaps particularly in the animal universal of one long, loud, zooming primal scream.
*Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October Vol. 100 ‘Obsolescence’ (Spring 2002) pg. 180.