Post-Structuralism & Modern Magic
by Ed Richardson: I - A deconstructive look at structuralist theory
A post-structuralist stance in modern magic can be best summed up by referring to a Taoist concept outlined in the Tao Teh King. The word ‘Tao’ is in itself effectively meaningless as it is not a linguistic term and can be applied to any ‘way’ or ‘method’, beyond any imposed limits from language. Therefore the argument shall be made by quoting the Tao Teh King, substituting the word path for Lao: ‘The path that can be named is not a true path’. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are terms which belong to social sciences, yet their meanings and implications are massive. Sociology claims to be the science that considers how human beings interact, and so operates on many levels and within other disciplines, including psychology and magic. The difference between sociologists’ and magicians’ explanations of social change is that magical attempts tend to come from an uniformed, ‘cosmic’ point of view, and tend also to be over-idealistic. Occultists tend to make poor armchair sociologists.
To understand Post-Structuralism it is necessary to first look at Structuralism. This should hint at how Post-Structuralism came about, and if not it will at least provide a background tbr the more explicit explanations in the second part of this essay. It will also provide all the non-occult definitions needed as we proceed. Afterwards these ideas will be applied to magic, and also a look at the magical concept of aeonic progression in terms of l~ost-Modernity. I shall not waste time defining magic as hopefully you are reading this because you already have a few ideas of your own.
Structuralism is the world view that the structures within society shape our own individual structures and behaviours. Social structures here include the political, ecological, religious, economic, magical and a whole host of others, the important point being that behaviour is structured by these extemal (and sometimes internal) influences. For example, AB. Hollingshead & F.C. Redlich (1958) Social Class and Mental Illness showed how mental illness manifested itself in the urban community of New Ilaven, U.S.A. They divided the population into five classes according to wealth, class I being the richest and class 5 being the poorest. Class I consisted of 3.1% of the population and had 1% of community psychiatric patients belonging to it. Class 5 consisted of 17.8% of the population and had 36.8% of community psychiatric patients belonging to it. There were more eases of psychosis at the poorer end of the scale and more cases of neurosis in the richer classes. This would suggest that social class influences mental health.
Structuralism itself can be divided into two major types of theory: Consensus theory shows structures holding and binding society and individuals together in a benevolent way, whereas Conflict theory shows structures of oppression. where structures serve the interests of particular groups or individuals, often at the expense of others.
Functionalism is a type of consensus theory within structuralism. Its major theorists include Emile 1)urkheim (1858-1917) and Talcott Parsons (1902-79) and though having declined after the 1950s due to the popularity of Neo-Marxist thought, is now making a revival in the USA. It basically views society as a system, which is worth more than its total population and is self-regulating. Institutions appear, expressing the needs of society and to provide solutions. These institutions are also the forces within society which give it shape and regulation. Such institutions include morality, religion and divisions of wealth and labour. More complex societies have more complex concerns and therefore, more complex institutions. Institutions and individuals, and the actions they take, serve functions (hence ‘Functionalism’) within a society to maintain the status quo, the media being a typical example, as it helps define and maintain the class system, which is seen as inevitable and necessary in Functionalist thought.
Another example is religion serving the function of maintaining moral unity. Even crime has its place, as it shows the acceptable boundaries of behaviour and may play a part in social change. It also highlights any dysfunctions within society. In this way society maintains its own equilibrium, so social change is very gradual, comparing with Darwin’s notion of evolution. Politically this approach lends itself to traditional conservatism.
Conflict theory has its origins in the study of oppression and the works of Karl Marx. Its later developments include the works of Max Weber. feminism, black power, grey panthers, Neo-Marxism and Neo-Weberian approaches. Strictly speaking, the ideas of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini belong to Conflict theory. However, Mussolini made up his theories after taking power in Italy so he could legitimise his position. Hitler combined racism with misunderstanding of Nietzsche and both dictators were reactionary enough for their theories to be considered ludicrous by anyone with a grain of intelligence.
Marxism, like New Age magic, sees social change occurring in a series of epochs. Each epoch is governed by its economic method, its mode of production. Our lives are intricately bound to the mode of production. however, each epoch is characterised by contradictions which provide the seeds of social change. The mores in each epoch are governed by social and public relations which are in the interest of dominant classes who control the mode of production. Epochs experienced so far include tribal communism, followed by slavery, then feudalism, and now capitalism. After revolutionary change, capitalism will be replaced by socialism which will develop into communism, the last stage in social change.
Capitalism is of vital interest to Marx and Marxists as by studying it they can understand how our current epoch may change. As previously stated, dominant classes control the mode of production (industry) which they use to maximise their capital. The proletariat (workers) own only themselves and sell their labour to capitalists. This is one of the contradictions which must be resolved, as is the fact that workers receive wages whilst the capitalists receive surplus value, or profit. Thus the proletariat are underdogs and are open to all sorts of exploitation they have to sell their labour or starve.
Marx studied society in much more depth than this, and Marxists, such as Gramsci, looked at other factors such as ideological domination by the ruling class. As society is far more complex now than it was when Marx wrote his theories, and that his most important prediction has not come to pass, NeoMarxists have worked to revise his ideas. This key prediction was that the proletariat would become aware of its plight (which it did) and form a revolutionary movement (it formed the Labour Party instead!). After a period of violence a socialist administration organising common ownership with government regulations would be set up and after an unspecified period of time a withering away of the state would occur, leading to communism.
Max Weber wrote as a Marxist but accused Marx of being an economic determinist, He suggested that inequality was related to other powerful factors such as the Protestant Work Ethic, brought about by Puritan Christianity and making capitalism possible. He also looked at how class domination can take place beyond economies, locusing on status and party (the way groups organise themselves to achieve goals, such as clearly discernible ‘staffs’ of power holders). lie also pointed out how dominant classes look to legitimate their holding of power. Weber’s aims were not to totally disagree with Marx (he did not hold idealistic hopes lbr a revolution) but were more to refine Marx’s theories. However, Weberian and Neo-Weberian theories have developed based on Weber in his own right.
There is not space to look at all of Conflict theory, but a brief word on Feminism shall be included. Feminist theory has some of its historical origins in Marxist thought and can be approximately divided into several different schools including Radical, Socialist, Liberal and Marxist Feminism amongst others. However, all forms of Feminism concern themselves with one particular problem, namely patriarchy. The different schools approach the problem from different angles and suggest different solutions, but they all aim to relieve the oppression of women by a male-dominated society. This branch of sociology has directly influenced the occult, especially Radical Feminism which has brought about Women’s Mysteries’ and all-female groups.
Conflict theory has become very sophisticated, with many changes in the different approaches. Ultimately, from Structuralist Conflict theory came Post-Structuralism, with the help of cool philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche along the way. However, before we consider Post-Structuralism we should consider Semiotics (the study of signs) within Strueturalism, as Post-Structuralism builds its ideas on this. Before this, though, a brief magical interlude.
A Deconstructive Interlude
So what’s all this Sociology bollocks all about then? Well, so far it has all been about mainstream society. However society is just a great big group and a lot of this can be scaled down to smaller groups, such as magical orders, covens etc. Most magical groups function in a Structuralist mode.
Structuralist magic can be divided into two types: Consensus and Conflict. Consensus groups tend to be traditional magical orders, where there is a hierarchy with everyone knowing their place and carrying out their function. Nobody complains about being at the bottom as that would show how ‘unenlightened’ they are. Persistent trouble-makers end up expelled or running the group so as not to upset the status quo. Some covens with authoritarian High Priestesses operate on a consensus basis as are many ‘traditional’ paths where people look to the past for authority. There are in existence larger organisations that foster this kind of approach too.
There are a number of problems with Consensus/Structuralist magic. Firstly, this type of group or individual is often incapable of moving with the times and dealing with new issues, such as the Criminal Justice Act (and any magician calling himself a libertarian yet not concerning himself with this act has SHIT for brains) and road building. Secondly, they tend to foster inequality in their power structures, such as degrees of initiation providing how much weight your ideas carry in a group beyond intelligence or experience. Thirdly, the many rules and ‘traditions’ restrict self-expression (and therefore Self-Love). Hierarchy adds further restrictions and guarantees a largely unintelligent! over-religious mass instructed by an elite. Finally, such groups tend towards political apathy due to having no interest in social change or the future.
Conflict theory lends itself to structuralists who recognise the problems within Consensus models, both within the occult and the wider society. Its supporters include magical orders and covens that claim to represent a radical change. Also included are individuals following paths who reject the orders and covens as they disagree with initiation, hierarchy or the rules but still have similar practices. There are also the political or separatist groups who want to right the wrongs of the world, such as patriarchy. Finally there are the umbrella organisations that claim to represent ‘paganism’, ‘magic’ or a ‘tradition’ in terms of ‘rights’ and such in a conflictual occult world.
There are a number of problems with this type of approach too. The main problem is the tendency to remove existing structures (in the ease of radical groups). New structures may be just as limiting as structures in the Consensus model. Specialist groups representing the needs of a particular tradition or cause, or separatists, are often overly idealistic and escapist, further alienating their participants rather than solving the issues they set out to tackle. They also tend towards political extremism and encourage the advance of their own special interests, whilst ignoring wider, more important issues (like the destruction of Twyford Down). Overall, Conflict
Structuralists run the risk of becoming their own worst enemy when attempting reform. It seems that, generally, structures get in the way of actually doing anything useful.
l3cfore you start to violently disagree, or worriedly try to work out which category you belong in (which is not the aim of this essay), there is light at the end of the tunnel. Most-Structuralism and its mutant bastard child, Post-Modernity, come to the rescue offering a real alternative and hopefully some of the deconstructive arguments shown so far hint at more. In Part Two we shall consider Post-Structuralism in some depth and the final section of this essay provides a background to this.
Semiotics and language
Semiotics, the study of signs, has its origins in a fusion between linguistics and anthropology, and particularly in the ideas of Claude Levi-Strauss and Ferdinand de Saussure, who coined the term. Levi-Strauss focused on myth and had a notion that it worked by underlying structures. Similar underlying structures were to be found in other forms of culture and in wider society, hence the term structuralism. Myth was a means by which these structures could be studied, and most were seen to be linguistic. Through language, each individual is socially constructed. This idea will be considered again later, in the context of Post-Structuralist analysis; in which no single agent is responsible for our social construction, thus giving the Chaoist the power to move from one construct to another, using belief as a magical weapon to achieve this.
Returning to Levi-Strauss, he was very much influenced by the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist, lie had said that language is made up of two components: langue (the system or rules) and parole (the content). Levi-Strauss aimed ultimately to discover the langue of any given culture through analysis of its parole. However, he suggested that the langue of myth was universal (not in the same sense as Jung), as it dealt with cognitive powers of categorising information in terms of binary opposition, Hence, whilst in myth anything can happen, the same themes are reproduced world-wide, and can be translated into different languages, whilst poetry cannot. He took a functionalist position, saying that myth served the function of being a tool to deal with Society’s intellectual problems.
Pierre Bordieu built on these ideas, speaking of ‘habitus’ or dispositions. Habitus is a product of history, and works on both individual and collective levels. Individuals do not simply absorb information passively, but interact with it according to their habitus. In doing so they create further dispositions, in an ongoing dynamic fashion, thus constructing reality, and reasonable, common-sense views and behaviours. The world is a multi-dimensional space through which individuals can move. However, differentiation occurs by people constructing ideas of relative position, such as race, class, gender, etc. In reality, these concepts are illusory, but we act as if they were real as we construct properties, including power relations which then define our behaviour.
Marxists are quick to criticise this position as it ignores the very real issues of economic inequality and the notion of struggle. Marxist critical theory is however influenced by Strueturalism and Gramsci’s ideas of ideology. Roland Barthes, in his book Mythologies, looks at the French media and advertising, as creating and legitimating the myth of bourgeois values, lie illustrates this by deconstructing mythical signs in a dynamic, demystifying way, showing how myth is related to meaning and form. A rose becomes a passionitied rose’ carrying the myth of romantic love. As a Marxist he always emphasises how these myths, or semiological systems, relate back to bourgeois values, or avant garde struggles against them.
Post-Structuralism came about as a reaction against Marxist over-simplification of a more complex power system. It built on this linguistic tradition but is highly critical of much of it. In part two of this essay, we shall consider a PostStrueturalist analysis of the magical world and the effects of Post-Modernity, and how both can provide rich pickings for the opportunistic sorcerer.