Productivity

The slow, agonising death of postmodernism is one among many factors in our current cultural turmoil, but it has special relevance to chaos magick, which is founded so squarely on postmodernist thinking.

Since the far right also began embracing the notion that truth is relative, postmodernism is not looking quite so clever. This has placed chaos magick in a difficult position. The bad news was broken first by Gary Lachman, in his Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. But there has been little discussion of this crisis from within chaos magick itself.

Having listened to a recent discussion on chaos magick between two eminent practitioners, Patricia MacCormack and Phil Hine, I wondered how the effects of this unaddressed crisis might continue to unfold in contemporary occultism.

Phil Hine and Patricia MacCormack, speaking at an event hosted by the Whitechapel Gallery, livestreamed on 18 September, 2021.

The notion of truth as relative has offered a reliable resistance to oppressive, absolutist “grand narratives”, and has been one of the great appeals of chaos magick. Phil Hine sets out bravely on this trusty steed, by describing how contemporary occultism has become constrained within a limiting dichotomy:

It’s either about bringing about a desired condition – money, love, sex, security – or it’s a transcendent trajectory towards a spiritual goal, whether that be union with a higher self, or a sense of divine participation, or even escaping from the materiality of existence. I think what binds those two trajectories together is the idea that magic has to be productive of something. It’s easy to see how both of those productions very quickly have become entangled with ideas of neoliberal governance. In fact, they are articulations of neoliberal ideology, if you like. (Whitechapel Gallery  2021: 45’32”)

Hine is highlighting the oppressive constraint of the neoliberalist paradigm, and showing how – because no paradigm has a greater claim to truth than any other – this is subvertable by exposing that it is merely a claim. Neoliberalism claims that only what is productive is valid, he shows us, but magick that is unproductive will escape from this.

So far, so good. But how do we subvert a paradigm that makes no claim to truth?

Increasingly, as the political right has commandeered postmodernism for its own ends, this is what we are facing. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, for instance, cannot be subverted by exposing their lies, because they were never trying or even pretending to tell the truth in the first place. The chaos magical dictum “nothing is true; everything is permitted” suits them just fine. As it does Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and all the rest.

Lachman explores this problem in his distinction between “lying” and “bullshitting”:

Where the liar knows the truth and respects it – he does not want to get caught in his lie – the bullshitter couldn’t care less about it. He isn’t interested in the truth […] He is interested in the effect his bullshit has on his audience […] For chaos magick and postmodernism, whether something is true or false simply no longer matters. Truth or falsehood are beliefs which we can take on or put off as need be. (Lachman, 2018: 75)

Neoliberalism, unfortunately, is postmodern. It is bullshit. So it cannot be subverted by pointing out that its claims to truth are lies, because it makes no such claims.

Neoliberalist capitalism is now widely accepted as the only system that can work (Fisher 2009). Consequently, it does not need to make a case for itself. It does not matter what kind of impact it has, because there is no alternative.

Neoliberalism is much younger than the exhortation to productivity that Hine defines it as. (For example, the far-older “protestant work ethic” fits this definition just as well.) The chief characteristic of neoliberalism is its concession of authority to the market rather than to human ideals. When it is supposed that there is no such thing as truth, then all human ideals are merely competing narratives, none truer than another – in which case, why shouldn’t the market decide? When the principle of “nothing is true; everything is permitted” falls into the hands of right-wing demagogues, this is the type of result we can expect.

Within an economy determined by markets rather than by human need, neoliberalism, to ensure our compliance, engages and distracts us into a project of constant adaptation and self-improvement (Han 2017).

I recently left a job where I was providing assessments and counselling within a national employee assistance scheme. I was struck by the frequency with which employees described bad working conditions but had come seeking therapy or (more usually) medication, because they regarded themselves as the problem. Neoliberalism is hugely successful at persuading us the only viable reality is one organised according to market forces rather than by human ideals, and that it is our own responsibility to either adapt to this, or else consider ourselves failures.

“[S]elf-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages”, writes the psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe:

[T]he freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age. […] We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance […] our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. (Verhaeghe 2014)

Hine suggests that magick which resists neoliberalism should avoid productivity and purpose, and cultivate instead a sense of wonder.

It can be as simple as the joy you feel in your heart when you see a friend on the street you haven’t seen for years, or just becoming lost in the in the play of the sunlight on a puddle […] That mode of perception itself creates a kind of occult artistic practice where all things can be magical […] the desire and delight in perceiving in a magical way. (Whitechapel Gallery  2021: 51’06”)

When we are forced into constant productivity then, indeed, non-productivity might look like a form of resistance. But exposing how the real aim of neoliberalism is only to extract productivity from us does not pull out the rug from under it, because neoliberalism does not pretend otherwise. It is postmodern. It does not insist on market forces because it regards these as either good or true, but just because it can. It does not hide any lies from us; it is pure bullshit.

There is nothing wrong with finding rapture in a puddle. Unless we have been forced into it, and under the inhuman pressures of neoliberalism have lost all hope of either goodness or truth.

Rather than renouncing productivity, another form of resistance might be to hijack the resources of neoliberalism for production that serves our own ends. This might be through magick, or more quotidian forms of causation – although to avoid unwanted attention magick might be the better option. The aim would be results, but for our own purposes, not in the service of market forces. Recent examples that spring to mind are the videos posted online by Shana Ragland and Beth McGrath, both former Walmart employees who used their employer’s public address system to air their grievances. Hine himself describes how he once placed a spurious sign in the executive restroom of a company where he worked, enjoying the chaos that ensued (Whitechapel Gallery 2021: 88’25”).

Beth McGrath: “Everyone here is overworked and underpaid… Fuck management and fuck this job! I quit!”

Sadly, chaos magick that previously worked well is no longer likely to do so against oppressive ideologies that are themselves postmodern.

During their livestreamed conversation, it was pointed out to MacCormack and Hine that their suggestion that magick should be purposeless is, of course, paradoxically ascribing a purpose to magick. (“Nothing is true” has always been, in itself, a claim to absolute truth.) Hine accepts that complete purposelessness may be impossible, but describes what, for him, comes closest to this.

I do a lot of – if you like – devotional practice to a particular goddess, and the whole idea of these practices is to dissolve that sense of distinction between you and the divine. So, I’ll often attempt to feel that goddess’s presence in my body and in the world around me. And that is a very weak purpose. Rather than saying: “I’m invoking this goddess in order that she might interfere with my continual fight to get the roof fixed”, the purpose is: “I want to experience the divine presence of the goddess”, which I think is a lot looser purpose. (Whitechapel Gallery 2021: 98’01”)

Having rejected results-based and transcendental forms of magick as both constrained by a neoliberalist notion of productivity, in the end Hine chooses the transcendental as his least worst option. Not because he regards it as better or more true, but because he seems to regard it as simply the least purposeful option.

But I wonder if this might not be what it seems. I wonder if actually Hine takes refuge in the goddess not because she is his least purposeful option, but the truest and the best. If this were true – or even if it were false – then it would then have a definite relationship to the truth. And in that case, it would certainly not be bullshit, although it would mean abandonment of postmodernism.

References

Mark Fisher (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Alresford: Zero Books.

Byung-Chul Han (2017). Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, translated by Erik Butler. London: Verso.

Inside Stories (2021). Walmart worker quits over intercom, https://tinyurl.com/uys9uktm (youtube.com). Accessed October 2021.

Gary Lachman (2018). Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. New York: TarcherPerigree.

Paul Verhaeghe (2014). Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us, https://tinyurl.com/uw3nyfap (theguardian.com). Accessed October 2021.

Whitechapel Gallery (2021). Magic: documents of contemporary art, https://tinyurl.com/3hwfsjbe (youtube.com). Accessed October 2021.

Sigils

Sigils are a hallmark of chaos magick, yet it was interesting to hear Phil Hine suggesting recently that the chaos magickal approach might actually have over-complicated their usage (Ross 2020: 11’53”).

Peter Carroll in Liber Null and Psychonaut (1987: 20-22) delineated the classic process for sigil magick: construct a glyph from a written statement of intention; focus upon the glyph and enter an altered state; and then, after the climax of the rite, forget all about it.

Carroll’s technique was based on the writings of Austin Osman Spare:

When conscious of the Sigil form (any time but the Magical) it should be repressed, a deliberate striving to forget it, by this it is active and dominates at the unconscious period, its form nourishes and allows it to become attached to the sub-consciousness and become organic, that accomplished, is its reality and realization. (Spare 2001: 177)

In Spare’s view, conscious desire or belief separates us from what and who we really are – which is unconscious. Spare, in turn, was influenced by Freud. Spare’s sigil magick produces a symbolic form for an intention, but then, by disguising and forgetting that symbol, it supposedly creates a means for the intention to fall into the unconscious where it becomes “organic” – part of our lived nature rather than merely a desire for or a belief about ourselves.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

A process or a technique is a means of causing something to happen. Spare’s use of sigils supposedly turns a belief or an intention into a realised, unconscious aspect of the self. But because he draws upon Freudian thinking Spare is open to some of the criticisms levelled at Freud, including the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument that Freudian thought is bedevilled by a confusion between reasons and causes.

For instance: low atmospheric temperature causes snow. But the reason for snow is the air being cold. What distinguishes a reason from a cause is meaning: the interposition of a perceiving mind between one thing happening and another. Cold weather causes snow regardless, but a reason for snow arises only in a perceiving mind that has or shares with other minds a lived experience of snow.

Wittgenstein criticised Freud’s tendency to suggest that psychoanalysis revealed the causes of human behaviour and was therefore a science. Certainly, this is not the case. However, in Freud’s defence, in the realm of the mind reasons often carry more significance than causes. Consider: the cause of a depression is decreased serotonin, but the reason for it might be the death of a loved one. Reasons are how reality operates at the human level.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Freud set out by attempting to account for human mental processes at a causal level, but soon abandoned his so-called Project for a Scientific Psychology (Freud 1895) and psychoanalysis was born. It is a mistake to regard psychoanalytic entities such as the id, ego and superego as anything more than theoretical constructs. Through these constructs psychoanalysis offers not causes but reasons for various types of human experiences. Freud may have wanted to intervene at the level of causality, but the degree to which therapy is effective lies in its exploration of reasons for suffering, offering possibilities to change the meanings we ascribe to experience rather than necessarily altering the conditions that cause it.

What chaos magick incorporated from Freud, via Spare, is perhaps a similar preference for causes rather than reasons. However, the skeptics who insist that magick does not work are correct in the sense that magick does indeed lack any basis in causality. Instead, it operates at the level of mind, of reason. Where the skeptics go wrong is in supposing that by “mind” is meant something not wholly sufficient in itself nor quite real.

Carroll’s procedure for sigil magick yields results, but it does not work (in the sense of causing something to happen). Alan Chapman and I made the experiment of messing around with Carroll’s technique, sometimes leaving out the altered state of consciousness, sometimes intentionally remembering the sigil and/or the desire it represented after the ritual. Guess what? The magick still bore results.

Servitors are another staple of chaos magickal practice: these are thoughtforms or entities created by the magician to perform a specific function. The advantage of a servitor over a sigil is not having to start a working completely from scratch. If you need to heal someone or find a new job or a place to a live, you fire up the servitor previously designed for the purpose. Yet this evidently contradicts the principles on which sigil magick is supposed to work. How could it be that sigils work only when we forget them, but servitors work (supposedly with increased efficacy over time) if we give our attention to them frequently and repeatedly?

Many magicians will have had the experience of deciding to cast a sigil, only to find that the desired result manifests even before they get around to doing it. This suggests that results from sigil magick arise regardless of whether we forget the sigil, alter our state of consciousness, or – indeed – whether we actually produce a sigil or perform any kind of ritual at all!

Alan’s conclusion:

Magicians (in their various guises) have always strived to understand “how” magick works so that they might be able to do it “correctly”. But whenever a magician wonders “what is the correct method of getting a result?” they are falling victim to the fog of simplicity — because what you do, and the result you get, is your decision. There are no laws (unless you create them) and there are no secrets (unless you pretend). (Chapman 2008: 36)

There are no causes in magick, only reasons. And because reasons proceed from mind (rather than from matter, as it is conceived by materialists), then we can determine them for ourselves to a significant degree. Magick can change and expand experience because it is not restricted by causation.

If we suppose instead that magick “works”, that it operates according to specific principles or techniques, then we enter the realm of technology. I disagree with Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke 1973: 21). Technology is a kind of image or echo of magick. There is always a significant difference between them: magick expands or changes experience, whereas technology seeks merely to replicate inner experience outwardly. For example, internet technology connects us in an ersatz telepathy but has not changed human experience itself in ways likely to facilitate the union of humankind any time soon.

Nevertheless, technology is valuable. Meditation and prayer are technologies: methods for replicating certain states or insights. But whether they produce genuine growth and change depends on our reason for practising them. “Magick works in practice but not in theory”, Peter Carroll commented recently, and was seemingly taken aback by the implications of his own remark (Carroll 2020). There can be no theory of how magick works other than the theory that it does not work at all, because magick operates in the realm of reasons rather than causes.

Having a reason to use magick is all and everything we need.

References

Carroll, Peter (1987). Liber Null and Psychonaut. San Francisco: Red Wheel / Weiser.

Carroll, Peter (2020). Magic works in practise [sic] but not in theory. https://tinyurl.com/y8y2l9p2 (specularium.org). Accessed January 2021.

Chapman, Alan (2008). Advanced Magick for Beginners. London: Aeon.

Clarke, Arthur C. (1973). Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. New York: Harper & Row.

Freud, Sigmund. (1895). Project for a Scientific Psychology, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, vol 1: 281-391. London: Hogarth.

Hoenisch, Steve (1996). The myth of psychoanalysis: Wittgenstein contra Freud. https://tinyurl.com/y7exutz2 (criticism.com). Accessed December 2020.

Ross, Keats (2020). Pragmagick: Phil Hine’s varieties – beyond chaos. https://tinyurl.com/y6vg2sop (wethehallowed.org). Accessed December 2020.

Spare, Austin Osman (2001). Ethos. I-H-O Books.