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Embodied knowledge – an opening shot

Last Saturday, wandering into Treadwells whilst on one of my pre-xmas rounds I had an enlivening conversation with Ellie and Suzanne – mainly about what Suzanne’s recent (9th December) “Interview with a witch” evening was like. One theme that we batted around was that it’s fairly common for occult books to present information such as theories, correspondences, rituals, etc;, but still people appear to find it difficult to practice this information – to make it meaningful within their day-to-day lives. Indeed, there seems to be a widely-held belief that magical practice takes place in an entirely seperate space to “everyday life”. Some of what we discussed reminded me of some of the earlier posts I’ve made here – relating to the perceived split between “theory” and practice, and when, a couple of hours later, I was in Blackwells, glancing through Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and Skill (Routledge, 2000) I spotted something that seemed apposite to our discussion.

In his opening chapter, Ingold relates how, when he was a child, his father – a botanist – took him for walks in the countryside, pointing out plants and fungi: “His manner of teaching was to show me things, literally to point them out. If I would but notice the things to which he directed my attention, and recognise the sights, smells and tastes that he wanted me to experience because they were so dear to him, then I would discover for myself much of what he already knew.” Ingold points out that years later, as an anthropologist, he found that Aboriginal peoples in Australia pass their knowledge across generations using much the same principle, and cites Mervyn Meggitt’s study of the Walbiri of Central Australia, which describes how a boy being prepared for initiation would be taken on a grand tour lasting several months, during which he would be shown the “flora, fauna and topography” of the country, whilst being told (by an elder) the significance of various localities.

In his ensuing discussion, Ingold makes some rather telling points: “My father’s purpose, of course, was to introduce me to the fungi, not to communicate by way of them, and the same is true of the purpose of Aboriginal elders in introducing novices to significant sites. This is not to deny that information may be communicated, in propositional or semi-propositional form, from generation to generation. But information, in itself, is not knowledge, nor do we become any more knowledgeable through its accumulation. Our knowledgeability consists, rather, in the capacity to situate such information, and understand its meaning, within the context of a direct perceptual engagement with our environment. And we develop this capacity, I contend, by having things shown to us.” (author’s italics)

Ingold is, I think, making a point which could be easily applied to contemporary occult practice – that the accumulation of information is often equated with being knowledgeable, but that this accumulation doesn’t necessarily lead to an individual being able to situate that information in terms of their living environment. Ingold suggests that in order to do this successfully, requires someone else to show us. This relates to something which Suzanne & I were discussing – that we both had our “formative” magical experiences within a social context – a group (or at least with other people), in other words, rather than, as we suspected is more often the case nowadays – by reading books or primarily engaging in online interaction. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in and of itself, but it does seem to me, at times, that there is a widespread attitude that it “should” be possible to learn magic without actually engaging with other people at any point in the proceedings. In some circles, actually admitting that one has, or has had a fruitful relationship with a teacher is identified with either a lack of creative abillity or being subordinated to the teacher’s perspective. For me, I’d say I really didn’t get anywhere “magically” until I met other people I could talk to, hang out with, and learn from. I spent about five years just reading anything I could get my hands on and ended up horribly confused – and probably spent double the amount of time (if not longer) “unlearning” much of the stuff I’d taken on board uncritically. This aspect of magic, remains to an extent hidden.