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ordering-machine: meaning & mapping

One of the reasons that I was drawn to studying occultism in the nineteenth century was its relationship to the colonial enterprise – something which first struck me when watching Adam Hart-Davies’ 2001 BBC series What the Victorians did for us was how much of the Victorian enterprise was bound up with the drive to order the world – be it through colonial management and its practices (census-taking, fingerprinting, anthropometry), mapping, and the emergence of new disciplines such as sexology, anthropology, and comparative religion. Ordering – and thereby managing these emerging ‘territories’ underwrote the great projects of the Victorian age, and I began to think of Victorian occultism as another example of this trend. Obvious examples that springs to mind of this drive to map and categorise are the tables of correspondence of the Golden Dawn and the numerous hierarchies and convoluted schematas produced by members of the Theosophical Society. Charles Webster Leadbeater’s book The Astral Plane is a case in point as it presents as both travelogue and scientific study – Leadbeater, in the introduction, makes an explicit link between the work of the “trained” psychic investigator and explorers “on the physical plane” in charting the scenery of the astral world – and his representation of what constitutes a “trained” investigator are remarkably similar to the Royal Geographical Society’s “Hints to Travellers”. Bearing in mind Felix Driver’s point (in Geography Militant, Cultures of Exploration and Empire) that maps not only describe but also create space (in order that it can be mastered) I began to look at Leadbeater’s representations of occult territories (the astral planes, thought-forms, the chakras, etc.) as a kind of cartographical project.

I have come to think of occultism as a kind of “ordering-machine” – one that still makes its presence felt in the desire to, for example, fit everything and anything onto the Tree of Life – to join the dots between different representational schema and give everything its assigned place; to arrange deities in neatly-ordered pantheons cosmological maps, in other words. Cosmological maps are often decribed as “worldviews” or “magical systems” and there is often an assumption made – that the religious/magical representations of a given group (or “culture”) are consistent, patterned, and structured. Furthermore, “worldviews” are often treated as though they are “monolithic” – that there is one particular schema that is representative for all individuals/groups who exist within the boundaries of the system – so it is not uncommon to see the proposition expressed that all “Native Americans” or “Eastern Peoples” share the same worldview.

So what’s a worldview? Definitions abound, but there seems to be some consensus that “worldviews” include five interrelated elements – ontology – a theory of what exists in the universe; world order – beliefs or theories about how things relate to each other; axiology – a value theory; epistemology – beliefs relating to the extent to which it is possible to know what exists; and ethics – how should we act?

One of the ways in which I familiarised myself with Qabalah was to photocopy the “map” of the Tree of Life and gradually, assign correspondences and colours to each sphere – memorising the colour scales, correspondences, Gods, etc. In some ways it was very familiar and comforting – like filling in the blank areas in a colouring book. But occasionally, it would strike me how abstract this process was – that I was interposing this system of order/connection-making between myself and my direct experience of the world. It’s fairly common nowadays to find occultists describing the Tree of Life as a map – and a cognitive map at that.

Susan Greenwood, in her The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness (Berg 2005) suggests that the ability to make “cosmological maps” is a key feature of what she calls “magical consciousness” – “Human consciousness the world over tends to be concerned with cognitive mapping and creating meanings between things.” Furthermore, she suggests that magical consciousness is a pan-human faculty of mind and one that is potentially innate to humans. She seems to be arguing that the human capacity for cognitive mapping is related to the holistic worldview which she views as central to her presentation of magical consciousness – that it is via the cognitive maps that we are able to make connections, analogical relationships, etc. that enable humans to experience participation with a greater totality.

That human beings have a capacity for mapping is not particularly contentious (leaving aside the issue of innateness for the moment), however, taking a cue from Tim Ingold, (in The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, Routledge, 2000) I want to take a look at how we tend to think of these cosmological maps.

Ingold points out that “the justification for extending the map metaphor into the domain of cognition must lie in the assumption, more often than not unstated, that what the map affords is a representation of things in space that is independent of any particular point of view.” He goes on to discuss how scientists refer to their theories as maps, and how anthropologists attribute a maplike quality to society and culture. Ingold also notes that the maps favoured by modern cartographers and cognitive map theorists are oriented towards verticality – they present an abstract conception of space as though one were looking down upon it from ‘above’ – and that these representations assume that “the structure of the world, and so also that of the map which purports to represent it, is fixed without regard to the movements of its inhabitants. Like a theatrical stage from which all the actors have myseriously disappeared, the world – as it is represented in the map – appears deserted, devoid of life.No-one is there. Nothing is going on.”

Ingold is mostly discussing maps in the sense of navigating, but I think his argument can also be extended to cosmological/magical maps because they are often treated as though they are “independent” from cultural attachments – from the people who actually produce them – and often as though they were unchanging – springing from a deep historical “tradition” (or “higher reality”) rather than being revised and changed. The top-down view grants a “god’s eye” perspective that allows us to look at cosmological maps from the “outside”, and is underwritten by the western presupposition that “real” knowledge is distant, objective, and detached. Moreover, occult discourses tend towards the view that maps are interchangeable – that one map can be superimposed on another map and that maps are non-indexical to locale or practices.

I’ll leave it there for now – but what interests me is how much of an ordered “magical map” does one actually need to get by in the world? I suspect, that for much of my own practice, its been something more akin to a rough sketch than an a fully-ordered schema.

5 comments

  1. Hierax
    Posted April 20th 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    “…what interests me is how much of an ordered “magical map” does one actually need to get by in the world? I suspect, that for much of my own practice, its been something more akin to a rough sketch than an a fully-ordered schema.”

    I read something once in a Marshall Macluhan book (I forget which one) that the need for highly coherent world models began with writing – the need for eliminating or justifying contradictions in Scripture. He argumented that non-writing cultures (perhaps a generalization as big as “Oriental people” or “native people”) had specific knowledge “islands” without much need of tracing a coherent whole.

    Thanks for the great article. 🙂

  2. Gordon
    Posted April 21st 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Right there with you on the Victorian thing.

    In fact, the lack of a wider understanding of how Victorian imperial ideals underpins a large parts of modern magic frustrates me.

    I wrote something about this the other day if you’re interested.
    http://runesoup.com/2010/04/historiography-the-wizards-lost-art/

  3. scribbler
    Posted April 22nd 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I learned esoteric kabbalah from the usual sources (Crowley, Regardie, Case, etc.) in my teens, which puts it over thirty years ago. The odd thing is that although I don’t at all strictly follow the rigid scheme of correspondences and paths the Golden Dawn laid out, I find that the tree is just “there” in my head, even after a period of about fifteen years in which I didn’t actively pursue Western mysticism, only martial arts and far eastern philosophy. But the tree is there.

    Your closing remark: “I suspect, that for much of my own practice, its been something more akin to a rough sketch than a fully-ordered schema.” struck a chord in me. That’s more or less how I view it anymore. It’s a convenient pattern to use for analyzing things or to impose a pattern to clear the fog when things get confusing, but I don’t engage in foolish efforts to try squeezing everything that exists (kicking and screaming as you squeeze them) into pigeonholes, just so I can feel the comfort of having everything sorted. You have to live with the fact that lots of times you’ll be surprised by where you find things and what you find them associated with.

  4. Phil Hine
    Posted April 22nd 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    He argued that non-writing cultures (perhaps a generalization as big as “Oriental people” or “native people”) had specific knowledge “islands” without much need of tracing a coherent whole.

    I’m more familiar with Walter Ong’s work on literacy and culture – but this is certainly a thread I’ll be picking up on in due course.

    the lack of a wider understanding of how Victorian imperial ideals underpins a large parts of modern magic frustrates me.

    I did feel that way myself, but as I began to study the 19th century in more depth, I began to find it downright fascinating.

    I’ll be returning to some of the ideas I’ve presented here in due course – particularly the comment about “sketch maps” in relation to scribbler’s point to impose a pattern to clear the fog when things get confusing.

  5. Psyche
    Posted May 10th 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    This brings to mind Ronald Hutton’s quip that:

    Traditional scholarly magic was at basis an elaborate way of ringing for room service.

    I’m on the fence as to whether or not this is desirable, though I’ve little doubt it remains true.