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Theorising Practice – I

A great deal of contemporary magical discourse establishes a “hard” distinction between theory and practice – and between theory and experience. If you look on occult forums you’ll regularly see people indulging in a kind of magical oneupmanship by claiming that they have “direct experience” whilst others have only read books, so their views don’t carry as much weight. Equally, there is much bashing of so-called “armchair magicians” – people who have lots of theories or opinions, but haven’t yet made the leap into putting those theories into practice. There seems to be a general assumption that to be an occutist is to “practice”. This was pretty much my own stance for several years – I avoided “grand theories” of how various occult phenomena are supposed to work (whether they were based on jungian archetypes, “inner energies” or quantummery) and later, tended to avoid much of what I saw as the “theoretical overlay” of tantra as “unneccesary” to my practice.

This distinction between the abstractly theoretical and the practical is fairly common in contemporary western culture, particularly in modern education and professional contexts. Generally, “Theory” is conceived as being abstract and impersonal; its concerned with explaining the world, rather than acting on or in it. From theories are derived “rules” which can be applied to practical situations. yet there is a widespread perception of a theory-practice gap where students often feel that the theory they’ve been taught in universities and other institutions has no direct relevance for their practice. Equally, in practice-oriented disciplines, there is sometimes a suspicion of those who appear to veer too far towards the “theoretical”.

There are many aspects to this situation, I want to explore just one of them here, and how it relates to contemporary occult discourse. The first point I want to explore is the way that occultism has been influenced by what might be termed the “natural science” paradigm in this respect. In natural science, “research”is the means of discovering truths about the world. It is conducted in a systematic, controlled way, and its results must be empirically validated. This paradigm contains a number of basic assumptions: firstly, that there is a “real world” external to and independent of indidivuals. Knowledge of this world – discoverable empirically through proper methods – is “objective” and out there. Theory is therefore universal in scope and not bound to any one context – it can be distinguished from belief, opinion and subjectivity of any kind. Secondly, the research process consists of formulating hypotheses and validating them in terms of whether or not they fit the data accumulated through neutral and disinterested observation. In other words, scientists are “objective” and their personal values are laid aside when they “do” science. Thirdly, natural science seeks to explain the world using deductive/nomological modes of explanation. Donald Schon calls this ideology the “technical-rationality model” and that it privileges disengaged “theory” over practice. Theory, in the “technical-rationality model” is concerned with producing a body of knowledge which, through explanation and prediction, allows the world to be controlled. Practice is concerned with the correct application of “technique” (and rational decision-making) to solve problems.

You don’t have to look very far in contemporary occult “talk” to find the language of natural science. It’s common for occultists to say that they are conducting “research” – that occultism is thus “science” and proceeds by the same rules. The temple has become the laboratory. Looking back at my own diaries, I found I often used to justify my engagement with a particular ritual or practice in that I was “performing an experiment” in a very detached, “cool” way – being “objective” in other words. Equally, the search for “the right technique” (or the “right book” – which will contain the “right technique”) seems ubiquitous.

Then too, there’s the “rejection” of theory – the suspicion of taking on board someone else’s ideas. In some of my early tributes to Chaos Magic, I wrote that what attracted to me to the CM ethos was the emphasis on practice – the idea that it was more important to get down and “do” magic – and that one didn’t have to imbibe huge drafts of “theory” in order to do something practical. This attitude too, I think, comes out of the “theory-practice” gap produced by the natural science paradigm. In the 1970s, of course, this was presented as a revolutionary idea in occultism. But its roots are in the same Enlightenment ideology that produced natural science. Both Locke and Descartes view the acquisition of knowledge as an individual enterprise. Locke for example, asserts that when a person relies on the testimony of others what he in fact acquires is “borrowed wealth” which has the ephemeral quality of fairy gold, [it] “will be but leaves and dust when it comes to use”. For Locke, thinking independently requires standing back from opinion, custom and tradition. There’s also another element, the influence of which can be seen in modern occultism – the Enlightenment ideal of control over one’s passions – which was a key element in the development of the notion of the modern, autonomous individual. Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers produced a particular stance towards subjectivity – the “disengaged self” was capable not only of objectifying the world but also the individual’s own emotions and inclinations – achieving a kind of distance that allowed him to act “rationally” – becoming a human agent who is able to remake himself by methodical and disciplined action. The Enlightenment rationalist aspiration was to human perfectability through self-observation, discipline and control of the passions: “even those who have the feeblest souls can acquire a very absolute dominion over all their passions if sufficient industry is applied in training and guiding them.” (Descartes, “The Passions of the Soul”). For Descartes, it is the mind which directs the body, and orders the outside world. Again, this perspective is important to shaping the modern notion of the individual – which I’ll come onto another time, but I do think its interesting that a good deal of occult “talk” about not taking other people’s opinions or theories for granted is often presented as radical when in fact its just one aspect of a wider discourse in western culture that’s been going on for the last couple of hundred years.

To be continued…

One comment

  1. Alistair Livingston
    Posted September 23rd 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Theory and practice. Objective and subjective knowledge. At the risk of spouting rubbish…
    …after plodding through a worthy but dull bit of research into an obscure bit of eighteenth century Scottish history, I got bounced into the origins of global climate change in Manchester’s steam powered cotton mills.[See Chapter Six of ]

    Out of this I got a link (from Thomas Carlyle to Freidrich Engels) to Hegel. Unfortunately, Hegel makes Kenneth Grant look/read like a master of lucidity. After reading through a few attempts to interpret Hegel, I think what he was trying to do was square the circle between objective and subjective knowledge using his ‘dialectic’ as a dynamic process which resolves contradictions. So, in Hegel’s Logic part 1, ‘Being’ is shown to be equivalent to ‘Nothing’ and ‘Nothing’ equivalent to ‘Being’…

    Hegel was more interested in the philosophical consequences of the political impact of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars than he was on the Enlightenment’s less direct influence on Britain’s Industrial Revolution (which was practice rather than theory led). Hegel died in 1831, before Germany experienced its industrial revolution.

    If Hegel had lived longer, then maybe he would have been able to suggest a dialectic which can square the circle of global climate change. The theory -the existence and increase of greenhouse gases leading to global warming – is perfectly rational and objective. The practice- what the hell to do about it- is mired in irrational and subjective hopes and fears. Any workable solution is likely to shade off into what is effectively the practice of a pagan/magical world view – for example accepting limitations imposed by relying on the energy of wind, sun and water.

    Coming at this from green point of view, I used to assume that the natural science/Enlightenment approach would have to be overturned in order to re-enchant the world. The sustainable future a place of ‘windmills and psychedelic dreams’, with magic/ eco-paganism a substitute for consumerism and the society of the spectacle. Now, thanks to anthropogenic global warming (AGW), I am not so sure.

    To accept the reality of global climate change requires accepting the ‘hard’ science involved. The alternative is to accept some form of conspiracy theory and the continuation of ‘business as usual’. Yet to accept the reality of AGW and therefore the necessity of a shift to renewable/ sustainable energy sources implies an end or limit to the Enlightenment vision of an ever onward and upward progress towards ‘human perfectibility’. The great overarching theories and meta narratives flickering and fading once we have rely on sun, wind and water rather than coal, oil and nuclear power to fuel our philosophical machines/ mechanical philosophies.

    But if the Enlightenment project of continuing ‘progress’ stalls, if we are entering an age of diminishing expectations and shrinking horizons, will this mean a return to the type of religious superstitions the Enlightenment sought to banish? Once upon a time I hoped/expected that chaos magic would generate some useful/practical theories of magic as a middle way between science and religion. It is in the apparent absence of any such theories of magic that I have turned to Hegel.