Post-Structuralism & Modern Magic
by Ed Richardson: Part II
In the last part of this essay, structural ideas were compared and contrasted in an attempt to achieve two aims. Firstly, by providing an account of Marxism I wanted to frighten any obsessive anti-Marxists. Secondly, the similarities between sociological and occult methodologies were shown. This was an attempt to deconstruct outmoded and unrealistic structuralist models and also provide a background for considering post structural sociology/philosophy. Post structuralism is currently part of the leading edge in social theory. Inevitably, social theory has an impact on all areas of culture including magick: Freudian psychology, Marxism, Feminism and Nietzsche being typical examples. If you are sceptical of the impact of Marxism on the occult, look at all the groups who think a new age (or aeon, if you prefer) will happen that’s going to be better than the current one! Did Marx not say the same thing? In this part of the work, post structural themes shall be explored as well as similar hut not quite as useful post-modern ideas. Post-modernism seems to be a bit of a buzzword in magick at present and some of its glamour shall be deconstructed. First, the early post-structuralist ideas of Nietzsche shall be considered, followed by the central ideas of Derrida. From here a background for post-modernist ideas will be provided which will be explained after considering some of the relevant ideas of Michel Foucault. Throughout, these ideas will be applied to the magickal/occult scene.
Neitzsche, Knowledge and Power
Structuralism was explained in terms of linguistics in the last part of this work, and this provides a framework for dealing with some of Nietzsche’s ideas (which shall become apparent when examples of the problems he highlights are given from the occult world). Language, as a structure, is to the structuralist part of the production of knowledge, and, indeed sets the limits of knowledge.
However, Nietzsche has a problem with knowledge itself, and as the first post-structuralist, sets the agenda for an entire movement in social science. Nietzsche took two characters from Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus, and applied these mythical characters to ideas about the human mind. Dionysus, as God of wine and ecstasy, represents the power of nature, emotions and wild, untamed aspects of our psyche. Apollo represents civilisation, law and the disciplining of human spontaneity. There is tension between these powerful forces and this is a characteristic of human life. We like to think we can provide theories about our experience and thus understand the world. However, this is not really possible as we only proicet our Apollonian desires to discipline and control nature onto the world around us.
Thus Nietzsche is a sceptic. Knowledge is merely an attempt to control the unruly ways of nature. The quest for knowledge is the ‘will to power’ which shows how knowledge and power are inextricably linked. This shall be further developed later in the section on the ideas of Michel Foucault.
When applied to the occult and magickal scene, the examples are fairly obvious. Look at all the umbrella organisations that say they represent paganism. They claim to be offering a service, protecting pagans from the media, social services, from nasty black magicians (which surely must be a racist fear if ever there was one) and so on. However, what they are really doing is telling a lot of people what to do, what to believe in. One of these umbrella groups even makes its members sign a creed! And I thought paganism was an individualistic path with people thinking for themselves!
Then there are all the books on how to do it. OK, so I’ve written one myself and this is not a criticism of others who have done too. However, we should be aware that magick is a living process involving change and that it has a lot of wildness about it. The danger is in writing too much describing magick as this limits what magick might be. Suggesting techniques rather than defining magick is probably more useful than Apollonian trends to dictate not only how magick works, but to peddle a whole load of accompanying bullshit ideas about karma restraining your enchantments and so on. Pour enough shit on something and it inevitably gets swamped, then drowns. Many of the books around claim to be helpfully informing us about magick and paganism but seem more like attempts to control the way we think. Hopefully the next section of this essay will be of use in dealing with this problem. By defining opinions as knowledge, authors appear to be linked to the same power process as that exercised by the umbrella organisations. More on this later when we have looked at Foucault.
Derrida and Deconstruction
Jacques Derrida’s ideas are not presented as any theory or collection of ideas. Instead he demonstrates a methodology for dealing with theories and assumptions called deconstruction. The following example of Derrida’s method concerns itself with Western philosophy. Early structuralism treated language as a servant of thought in the acquisition of knowledge. However, Western philosophy in general (in which Derrida includes structuralism) makes an assumption that language is not properly disciplined to generate knowledge as it is, but needs to he trained first. In this way philosophers say that there is a difference between literary language and philosophical (academic) language. Derrida attacks this position by demonstrating how philosophical ideas are often thoroughly literary.
Philosophy has concerned itself with the attempt to master language. Structuralists then showed how language itself can provide meaning beyond the subject, which undermines the philosophical linguistic project. 1-lowever, by theorising on language, structuralists have also attempted to use language as a tool in the production of knowledge. l)errida deconstructs this position by saying that language is capable of producing knowledge beyond the control of the theorists. Derrida says that any attempt to put limits on our discourse (this is the next big word) is a self-defeating exercise and demonstrates this in an example of the futile efforts of writers who try to distinguish between the real thing and something else that resembles it but is somehow lesser. philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described masturbation as a substitute or supplement to sex. Derrida shows how this literary distinction is meaningless. The separation of sexuality and masturbation breaks down and the relation of dominance between the two hobbies breaks down until sex can be seen as a form of masturbation. Thus, where structuralism had built itself on theories of opposition, Derrida collapses the notion of opposition.
In the Book of Lies, Aleister Crowley tells us to doubt. Doubt, says the big C, should be applied everywhere, even to doubt itself. This idea can be a useful tool for deconstructing occult "knowledge". Whilst I was completing this part of the essay, C.I.18 came out, complete with Dave Lee’s article on word viruses. This, I felt, was a perfect example of deconstructing the occult nonsense of today. This should be an activity of all magicians, as one of the first skills that should be learned is discrimination. Discrimination and doubt should be applied wherever an idea is presented as knowledge, or whenever a more visible structure is presented. Structures that fail this test should be discarded as all they do is restrict the freedom of the will in its own quest towards creativity and excellence.
This process of deconstructing should also be applied to notions of the self. If the self becomes one thing and stays at that relative position, the creativity of the will is stifled. Magick is about change and this has to filter through to the self as well as the world outside. Many fixed notions of the self are likely to either be false, or act as masks for obsession and these hold back the will. As the world changes, we are in a stronger position if we change. Traditionalist magickal paths look back and stay in the past, fixing themselves and their devotees in a static position, incapable of dealing with modern living with their weird, reactionary attitudes sapping them of social skills.
Foucault and Discourse
Another deconstructive measure to use with both sociological information and occult ideas is to view them in terms of discourse. Discourse is a term now popular in the social sciences, which although originally used by the structural functionalist Emile Durkheim, is more originally defined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault took the concept of discourse, which had previously meant argument, or opinion, and stretched it to include other ideas.
Marxism, as discussed in part one of this article, has fixed notions about the social structures of ideology, social class and so on. Similarly, feminism has notions about the objective reality of patriarchy. The Foucaultdian perspective views these structures not as objective reality, but in terms of discourse. In the same way sexism and capitalism are discursive phenomena.
The reasons for this shift are as follows. Foucault’s use of discourse is linked to the idea of context, or, using language as an example, what makes one statement appear instead of another in a conversation on any given topic. Discourse helps to understand what has been said by fitting it onto an historical matrix with associated conditions of existence. Edward Said is cited in Michelle Barrett’s The Politics of Truth as saying:
"What enables a doctor to practise medicine or a historian to write history is not mainly a set of individual gifts, but an ability to follow rules that are taken for granted as an unconscious a priori by all professionals."
More than anyone before him Foucault specified rules for those rules, and even more impressively, he showed how over long periods of time the rules became epistemological enforcers of what (as well as how) people thought, lived and spoke."
Here we see the power of discourse itself, and how discourse sets the agenda for practices. The magician must therefore be aware that discourse creates occult common sense. This is why the chaoist is shunned by the new ager. By stepping outside or even against established creeds, or discourses, we seem to be either subversive or mad as we revolt against what is perceived as common sense. In common with the post-structuralist use of the concept of discourse, chaos magick has redefined the word ‘paradigm’ to include the set paths of Thelema and Wicca, Satanism and Asatru, Druidry and Shamanism to name but a few. The word paradigm itself has different meanings depending on whether it is used in scientific or chaos magick discourse.
Foucault said that discourse is made up of statements that carry a coherence in content and style, such as economics, biology or English grammar. If the statements are regularly dispersed they make up ‘discursive formations’. If irregularly dispersed, the statements do not form a coherent discourse. Foucault’s concepts of knowledge, power and truth are linked to his concept of discourse and these shall be considered below before we look at post-modernity.
Foucault’s interest in discourse comes from his interest in history. Where structuralists focus on the human experience being ultimately based on communication, with structures arising from the rules of the communication, Foucault said that the historical context of social life was more important. Without this there would be a timeless, unchanging order. Foucault aimed to restore the historical issues at the expense of the system, thus totally rejecting structuralism. Also, by looking for differences in social phenomena, rather than the structuralist quest for unity, Foucault took an ‘anti-humanist’ stance, which attacked the subject by defining it by its context (see later for more).
In his attack on the notion of the subject, Foucault aimed to find the historical origins of the notion of the individual In this he looked at the appearance in history of modern organisational forms like the prison, the clinic and the asylum. To the structuralist these were all products of our social and linguistic structures. To Foucault, the reverse is true, that the language has its origins in historical context. For example, the clinic made medical ways of talking possible. Before this modern medicine was not thinkable.
The Enlightenment project had held that reason was the means to emancipation of the soul. Foucault demonstrated that reason was rooted in oppression. Concepts of reason are attached to concepts of madness. Foucault showed how the insane were first incarcerated in Europe when it became apparent that lazar houses were no longer being used to contain lepers with leprosy dying out. For the first time the insane were no longer cared for by their communities but were excluded from the sane by incarceration. Thus reason originates in domination of its opposite, unreason.
Incarceration is in itself a growing trend in society. Foucault demonstrates how prison came to replace brutalising the body with discipline being achieved by controlling the mind. Prison is 50 designed that continual surveillance is possible. Foucault describes surveillance as a metaphor for modern life, although more important than physical control is control of our thoughts.
Our thoughts cannot be physically restrained so are under surveillance from doctors, social workers, teachers, the police and so on. In his colossal work The history of Sexuality Foucault looks at the changing attitudes about sexuality. He points out how we think of Victorians repressing sex, even avoiding any talk about it whereas in these more enlightened times sex is no taboo and we are free to talk about it as we will. However, Foucault interprets this talk as a sign that we are under surveillance. In this society we are COMPELLED to talk about sex as civilisation DEMANDS it. Power has thus created a vast discourse on sexuality giving thorough access to our thoughts on the subject, making us amenable to regulation.
These examples show how knowledge and power are closely linked. In fact Foucault referred to ‘pouvoir/savoir’ or ‘knowledge/power’ joining the words together to show their inextricable links. Knowledge gives way to power which generates further knowledge through the process of surveillance and new discourses. In this way discourse also generates practise.
Power has been mentioned here, but Foucault’s notion of power is quite different to the Marxist notion of power. Foucault sees power not set in one centre, with one group dominating another, but operating more autonomously. We all exercise power, often in the most unwitting of circumstances. For example, social workers, who may have the most altruistic motives to help and liberate, are given the power to look into other people’s lives and then supervise them. Power thus works in a capillary fashion rather than being directed from a centre.
Much of what has been said here amplifies what has already been said on knowledge and power in the magickal scene under Nietzsche. However, the dimension of surveillance and the unwitting use of power can also be applied. Here surveillance is used in taik about magick defining what is to be considered normal practice. In the same way some Pagan umbrella groups define paganism and work out who the nasty South London subversives are (who might even be into chaos.. .aaaaaaggghhhhh! !!!!) so they can warn people off. The local contacts who "help" new comers will often unwittingly feed them the accepted belief. Before I get myself in further trouble, let’s look at post-modernity.
Post-modernity and post-modernism are two terms that have become quite fashionable amongst chaos magicians at present. They have often been used to mean the same thing whereas there is actually a difference. Post-modernism is a cultural movement that manifests itself mainly amongst artists and ‘luvvies’ whereas post-modernity is a process of social, political, cultural and economic fragmentation. Post-modernism is thus an aspect of cultural post-modernity.
First, the economic issues of post-modernity shall be considered. Capitalism has moved to a late stage which is marked by its becoming increasingly chaotic. Booms and slumps aside, capitalism once was reasonably organised and now is disorganised. This is associated with the move from the Fordist model in the West to a post-Fordist mode. The Fordist economics (named after Henry Ford, who was the first to manufacture massed-produced cars) worked from the late nineteenth century until around the early nineteen sixties and represented not only a peak for organised capitalism but also a peak for the enlightenment project that looked towards both efficiency and emancipation of the soul (more on that later). Industry was characterised by massed production and low wages battling against powerful trade unions (the battles between Henry Ford and trade unions are almost legendary). Manufacturing was the first source of income to the West and government economic policy was able to make a difference to the successes and failures of industry.
In the post-Fordist model the West has switched to a service industry base and Westerners are operating in multinationals for massed production. The multinationals move around relocating where production is at its cheapest, especially in terms of wages. Third World nations in the far Fast are therefore major producers of products once produced in the West. This has been helped by the acceleration of new technological advances, especially in telecommunications and computing. This allowed Nick Leeson to wipe out Barings International, which was based in the City of London from an office in Singapore. At the same time government economic policy is virtually useless as multinationals simply relocate if they don’t like the situation. Many multinationals have larger economies than small nations.
Counterfeit industries using both technology and non-interference by governments mean that a large proportion of what we buy is not what we think and often lacks the quality expected. In short the economy has become disorganised and globalised, shrinking the world and saturating us in advertising discourses and consumerism. The market is fragmented with anything for sale, but no guarantee that you get what you pay for.
Cultural post-modernity has come about partly as a result of economic post-modernity and the manufacturing of a multitude of styles. At the same time it has been influenced by the end of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a period of history characterised by its search for truths. Its aims were to emancipate the soul through finding truth and a grand narrative that would explain everything. Science, politics and philosophy were driven by this process from the Reformation onwards. In the nineteenth century, Darwin offered an alternative view of our origins to that offered by the bible. More importantly (a lot of people ignored Darwin) radical philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche offered different accounts of reality itself and showed different histories. With more than one history the ideas about grand narratives became shaky. With feminist accounts and post-colonial accounts from black historians, the whole notion of history is threatened. History becomes a relative argument (witches take note) and grand narratives collapse.
With the collapse of grand narratives and a fragmented market the individual develops a schizoid, jumbled up view of reality that is open to change (sounds pretty cool, eb?), and designer cults (like magick!) start to replace organised religion. At the same time organised religion becomes increasingly paranoid and fundamentalists learn to use guns and bombs.
The arts and popular culture lose their separation, with fine art no longer owned by the elite, but appearing on ‘I’-shirts. This fits in with waves of nostalgia with revivals in fashion being fashionable themselves. Teenagers rush out to spend their pocket money on the sort of flares I was FORCED to wear as a seventies kid by my parents. Temporal distortion accompanies this mixing of styles with cities having architecture from a number of different periods, again much of it counterfeit. Television has entered all homes and provides a blend of advertising/propaganda and programmes spanning the styles and different times (including the future), all in a couple of hours viewing.
Effectively culture has become based on surface over depth. This is reflected in the political world as political parties converge in their ways to end up almost resembling each other. With a fragmented and global market, governments carry far less influence and this is characterised by the growth in pressure groups. The pressure groups replace the political parties as the agents of political change by their ability to ‘think global, act local’, focusing on specific issues within wider spectra of interest. With the fragmentation of the self these projects are also more likely to be supported as they do not need to be attached to party political movements. Thus a Conservative can go on a Gay Pride march and a Labour supporter support the death penalty.
Magick stands to benefit from many of the effects of post-modernity. Firstly, the mixing of and times makes it easier to explore other paradigms to those we are more accustomed. The influence of television has provided plenty of images that we can attach ourselves to. (Thanks to Star Trek I learned to visualise firing bolts of energy around!) As post-modernity implies a depthlessness we are free to drop ideas or paradigms that are of no more use to us.
This is all useful in the process of deconstructing the self as discussed a little earlier. We should be free to explore different styles and different selves. By fragmenting the self and being selves instead we are open to change and are therefore more adaptable. There are limits to the use of post-modern analysis based on its depthless conclusions. There is no room for self-love in a universe of only surfaces. Similarly, the will also looks pathetic and pointless if it is only an issue of style. If the will and the originating self in the process of self-love are seen in terms of truth and subjectivity, post-structural explanation makes ample room for them.
Truth and Subjectivity
Much of post-modern theory has its foundation in post-structuralism, and on the whole the two theoretical ,perspectives can work together. However, there is an important difference between post-structural and post-modern emphasis on truth and subjectivity. Foucaultdian concepts of truth are based on concepts of discourse. Subjectivity is in itself defined by discourse. Foucault said that the individual is situated at the intersection of discourses. This idea shares with post-modernity the idea that the self is fragmented and open to a variety of different combinations and dispositions. However, this is where similarities end as whilst post-modernity neatly cops out of dealing with the concept of truth by saying that it does not exist, post-structuralism looks at truth and subjectivity in the same way. In other words truth is defined by discourse. As discourse generates action as shown above, there is a link between action and truth. Truth is effectively defined by what you are doing and/or discourse connected to what you are doing.
To magicians this should be obvious. Truth is the statement of intent. If nothing is true, there can be no statement of intent. We can agree that truth is not out there somewhere in the astral realms, it is not in any dogma or creed; but it is there in the intent, and this should be the only important structure in any ritual work or group. Any other structures are only important if they support this one truth. Effectively, the intent of the group, whether for one ritual or for longer, more permanent arrangements, is the mission statement for the entire show.
This essay first appeared in Chaos International, issue 19.