Academia, Magick and the Occult
I don’t really intend this to be a rant against academia, however I have been thinking about this and what its role is with regards to magical knowledge.
I probably should start by saying that my perspective may be somewhat skewed in that my background is scientific rather than artistic or literary, however for reasons I will discuss below my interest is experiential rather than trying to prove magic and the paranormal to the world (which I think is very difficult if not actually impossible). I always used to be quite mystified as to why some people are uninterested in the paranormal and nowadays just leave them to their own things. I basically see myself as an explorer, exploring for myself rather than trying to find occult gold to enlighten humanity.
I think that academia is quite odd and in many ways academics are a law unto themselves. They see themselves as the holders and the guardians of sacred knowledge and the only ones who can grant access to it. Once outside that community it is very hard to be accepted or even printed in Journals such as Nature. This causes massive problems in that subjects which are seen as politically bad choices for research are automatically ignored. Placing them below the discussion threshold means that this can happen without debate.
For example I remember the outcry among archaeologists when John West and Robert Schock argued for the water erosion of the Giza Sphinx. In the Horizon documentary it was reported that geologists were given pictures of the Sphinx with the head taped over (so it looks like any mass of rock). Many (if not all) argued that this was water erosion until the tape was removed where they refused to be associated as it was not PC at the time to question the archaeological "history" in place.
Similarly we have Robert Bauval's Orion correlation. As far as I know no academic would even look at the research. Regardless of whether the correlation is true or coincidental (And Andrew Collins work on Cygnus raises a number of issue with Orion correlating to the pyramids on the Gisa plataeu) at the time it should have been examined and discussed by peer review.
For a third example we have the sceptical parapsychologist argument against ghosts. Following on for Richard Wiseman [sic] not particularly original research which argues that scary places make people imagine ghosts, there seems to be a global "see ghosts are not real" belief even through this research does not really come anywhere near looking at the broad spectrum of ghostly phenomena which gets reported, such as crisis apparitions, poltergeists etc. Stepping back for a moment there doesn’t seem to be much thought amongst academics regarding psychic perception in cases of apparitions and people are still looking for (and expecting to photograph) ghosts made of a form of matter.
Another tactic is to ridicule subjects by drawing on the more dubious fringe elements or blinding people with wooly logic. Richard Dawkings argues against phenomena in “The Blind Watchmaker” by using the example of statues moving and discussing the number of atoms which would need to move for this to happen, James (The amazing) Randi spends his time tilting with Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne using the absurdity and question marks which often surrounds these people as ammunition for an assault against more serious people such as Rupert Sheldrake, Dean Radin or Brian Josephson.
Finally we can resort to name calling. Randi (I know he is not an academic but he is used by academics in supporting their claims - eg the Jacques Benveniste "water memory" episode) labels us all WooWoo's. Dawkins labels atheistic scientists "Brights".
When we do find a supporting academic, such as Jacques Vallee or John Mack in UFO research they do produce often startling and paradigm shifting research which is often worth the hassle we get from the rest, however the true pioneers are rare and often caught in the quagmire of backwards thinking; these are people more interested in protecting the status quo or the "validity" of their latest book. A kind of “old boys network” kicks in and that myths becomes self perpetuating in a way sidereally illustrated in Borges "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" where a false and synthetic archaeology and history begins to supplant real history.
I also believe that even with acceptance the academic approach will cause problems. I think that should magic and psychicism ever become accepted I think there are limits to where academia can go. Perhaps we should ask ourselves what role academia plays in magick?
Should it be there to record our history, recording the acts of magicians throughout history and in which case what purpose does this serve? Ordinary people are not necessarily interested in magic, and occultists will already know the histories of other magicians. Also the academic “fact” ignores the mythic element - as a magician I am more interested in the mythic Merlin rather than any historical person.
If we (say) take Dave Evans “History of British Magic” at face value, and pretend that (in this parallel world version) it was more accurate than it actually is (ie he doesn’t say Dion fortune founded the Servants of the Light or waste time discussing how many occultists are in the UK, he doesn’t rely on anonymous anecdotes and he was fair and respectful to researchers like Kenneth Grant) would the book have any real value except to people curious about such things. It is only recording history within a very very narrow band (in terms of time and scope) and has only limited use.
Speaking academically I think his use of anonymous people such as "starbeam" rather damning. A historian relies on a paper trail and spends a lot of time looking at documents and other evidence rather than hearsay which is effectively what it is. I have no way of tracking his sources and for all I know he might have made them up. This means that no future work can build on this history of magic and I cannot see how this contributes to the sum of human knowledge given its unreliability - not even necessarily because bits are wrong, but simply because we cannot verify them.
In the world of Dennis Wheatley, academic study of magic is often life saving, especially when Duc de Richleau runs of to the British Library to look up a rare ritual before returning in time to save the day. In reality I doubt the de Richleau would even get past the guards at the door of the BL. But this sort of research doesn’t seem to interest academics, and it is people like Kenneth Grant who study folklore, tradition etc as well as magically bringing through a gnosis of lost knowledge to light documenting and exploring these fragments, which can then be used to form a ritual capable of keeping the likes of Mocata at bay.
However Kenneth Grant as a magician also has a great deal of insight which comes from his own personal gnosis. This is something which does not have a paper trail and whilst of massive value to us as magicians not something academics will be able to work with.
Having said all that there is value in a rigorous academic study of the history of magic. It was once commented to me that this does bring a perspective on the state of societies and how they change over time. It must be accurate however or there is a risk of placing undue emphasis on history and personality rather than magical practice, which IMHO must be the most important thing.
As a magician it is the magick which interests me the most and even a grimoiric mishmash of traditions can have much value to an occultist evben though it is historically inaccurate (even made up_. An example of this is Andrew Chumbleys rebooting of traditional witchcraft with the Azöetia where he pulls elements from Egyptian Magic, Qlippothic practice and Enochian to form the whole.
Perhaps we need to ask with work such as this which many find valuable (not me particularly although it does give me odd dreams) is this value coming from Andrew Chumbley as a scholar or Andrew Chumbley the Magician? (The pedantic bastard running in my soul also wants to point out whether we are not better working with the sources afresh rather than working with someone else’s vision)
Does magick have a place in academic research science?
The second type of academic is the scientist who takes information and then uses this to expand on knowledge using research.
To me it seems a bit of a strange quirk that magic and Esoteric Sciences are currently the domain of the scholar rather than the scientist. Partially this is due to the political bias which scientists have against researching such subjects. Secretly many may hold that there is a lot of worth in studying the paranormal but know that it is not worth their careers to go talking about it too much, especially while fundamentalists such as Dawkins and Randi seem bent on making belief in science the new religion.
I rather think and hope that inventions such as the internet will change this bias. In the past universities were the storehouses and the guardians of information holding the final approval of what gets studied and what gets swept under the carpet. Maybe we will see a new distributed model of research take place as the internet puts different groups together in researching paranormal and occult phenomena in a way which doesn’t allow the establishment to tie researchers hands together.
It would be interesting to know how much research secretly has a psychic base for example how many archaeologists get a prompting telling them to "dig here".
To someone such as myself with a strong scientific background I rather horribly suspect that is may not be possible to scientifically study the paranormal. Or at least we cannot study it in an empirical manner. My argument is very much that a scientist works from scepticism and has to work by disproving things. For example if there was a scientific theory suggesting that all swans were white, it is not possible to prove it positively by showing all white swans, but very easy to disprove by finding just one black swan.
So a scientist is automatically looking for areas where a theory breaks down. This isnt itself a bad thing and in most sciences this tightens knowledge to a degree where we can make some very precise predictions.
However with psychic and magical phenomena (remember there is no way to objectively measure spiritual attainment [whatever that may be], but we can measure movement of objects and transfer of information) the belief in the phenomena is one of the triggers which gets things working. A scientist taking part in the experiment (even as an observer) becomes a part of the group mind and his or her scepticism naturally makes the phenomena hard to reproduce - actually as parapsychology seems to show the believing parapsychologists get results the disbelievers don’t and then place the believers ability or truthfulness in doubt.
This makes the scientific understanding of magic very difficult even if it were possible to found a department of practical magical studies at some university. I suspect that things wont really progress unless some revelations about the nature of reality come from somewhere like particle physics (and I have massive issues with that) which leads back to a rewrite of scientific epistemology hopefully opening up new branches of research.
Until then it seems to me that the politics of what is scientifically acceptable to research coupled with a generally materialistic societies disinterested in these matters makes it seem unlikely that I will even see magic practically studied at an academic establishment. Which is a pity as a title Doctor of Practical Magick sounds like a great job and a damn site more interesting than corporate IT in a bank.
However speaking as a magician and a psychical explorer I don’t really feel the need to seek academic justification to my beliefs and actions. Maybe we have all achieved an initiation of sorts in we known such things as ghosts and spirits exist and have encountered them, have worked with them and even made deals with them, whilst academics are either debating their existence or denying it entirely.
Having said all that, a big fat lottery win will see me back in an academic ivory tower.
I am currently re-reading "Jonathan Stange and Mr Norrell" and this is strangely appropriate here in that the authoress has portrayed a parallel England where Theoretical magicians (academics) argue about magic but not a single one does any until Norrell and Strange arrive on the scene.
Please post your thoughts