How Important Is Authenticity In Magic?

How Important Is Authenticity In Magic?

Chaos magic has a complex relationship with authenticity. It was born out of the postmodern rejection of metanarratives, it has a love of simulacra, of proxy.

It was midwived into existence by Maggie’s Harrowing of The North. From cities like Leeds it first emerged as a big, psychic middle finger to a society that had abandoned its core. Chaos magic was punk’s spooky-yet-kinda-hot younger sister.

It’s one of the things I like about it because it aligns with my left-of-centre political beliefs.

“Tradition” is so often a suppressive cultural device. Think of the monarchy or private gentlemen’s clubs (the non-sexy kind), think of primogeniture in family businesses, think of the ordination of gays and women in the church. Heck, think of The Ashes. All too often, “Tradition” creates an “us and them” barrier. (I consider this as separate from “initiation” as a legitimate and necessary threshold, naturally.)

One of chaos magic’s most important contributions was clearly demonstrating that magic still works if you rip it away from its concerns with lineage and classicophilia. (Presumably, I just made that term up but I love it. Pass it around.) Phil Hine speaks about it in a video that you can find here. Chaos magic is working class because it says fuck you very much and just gets on with it.

For a while there, the baby was most definitely out with the bathwater. Drawing Down Xena Warrior Princess, leaving psychic skittle bombs outside banks. Put it this way: I don’t miss the nineties. (But I do kinda miss Xena. Lame/Name drop: I met her once in Auckland.)

By now you probably all know my position on authenticity and magical ingredients. I consider it a nice-to-have, as they say in project management. It’s not on your enchantment’s critical path.

From an historical perspective, I consider Walmart or Tesco the ‘true’ descendants of the spice markets of old. Our magical ancestors didn’t deliberately ‘choose’ to shop for weird-ass ingredients in creepy markets. That’s just where they shopped. They didn’t have Tesco. Your local farmers market is not the direct economic descendant of pre-industrial marketplaces, at best it is related by marriage. (Which isn’t to say I don’t love them. I do. But I think this song captures it quite well.)

So I proudly flew the flag for Team Pragmatism. For authenticity to have ‘value’, it requires a Platonic (or potentially Aristotelean which is even worse) belief in an object’s “thingness” that I just don’t have. The idea that a nineteenth century King James Bible has some kind of “magical thingness” about it that a Kindle version doesn’t have sits uneasily in my pragmatic/poststructuralist/neophiliac/scientific pantheist/quantum panpsychic worldview. Physical stuff doesn’t even have “stuff”. How could it have this OTHER stuff?

And then I saw Michaelangelo’s David.

The Renaissance Gallery at the V&A in London

Now this is probably the second-most famous statue in the world behind that French chick in New York with the torch. (I forget her name.)

We all know what David looks like. We have seen his image or replicas thousands of times. In fact, there is an exact replica in the V&A Museum in London. I saw it in May. It’s extremely impressive.

But nothing -nothing- can compare to standing right in front of it. I was absolutely floored. It’s perfect.

In a very literal sense it is breathtaking. Because, as your eyes run over every inch of its surface, you can’t help but gasp.

There was SOMETHING about this one that none of the others have. And I don’t just mean the je ne sais quois that comes with experiencing the “real” thing. This was far beyond that. The feeling was distinctly external to myself.

Gods help me, David had a “thingness”. An extreme “thingness”. Which is good because it probably would have taken nothing less to prise my fingers off my cherished simulacra beliefs. “Thingness” had to sucker-cockpunch me in a dark alley before I would contemplate listening to it.

These thoughts rattled around in my head for the rest of the week in Florence. Which was just as well it turns out. This is a bit of a nerdy sidebar (RO will like it, I suspect) but it’s generally considered among academics that the Renaissance Hermeticists would draw down astrological energy into talismans but avoided doing so with statues or representations of the Classical Gods because that violated the Biblical injunction against idolatry.

In fact, they often had to specifically mention this when suspicious churchmen would go poking around in their libraries. Talismans: Good. Statues: Bad.


At least three of the statues in the Uffizi are still very much active. (Two Mars, one Venus.) Clearly there was at least one sneaky sorcerer calling down planetary energy into these sculptures. Their admonitions to the contrary were presumably just to avoid a fiery end. Which is perfectly understandable, of course. And I probably wouldn’t have noticed this “installed thingness” if I hadn’t been thinking of “thingness”.

The authenticity/pragmatism slider

In media we have something called the fidelity/convenience trade off.

Picture a spectrum with high fidelity at one end and high convenience in the other. There are more costs at the fidelity end of the slider, but the potential to make a lot more money.

Seeing U2 live at Slane Castle in Ireland is very high fidelity but extremely low convenience. Downloading the latest issue of Vogue onto your 3G Kindle is zero delivery cost (excluding Amazon’s cut of the sale) but you can’t charge what you could for those U2 tickets. So that’s low fidelity but extremely convenient.

It’s the middle of the slider (CDs, DVDs and printed books purchased in bookstores) that is getting squeezed because it’s neither convenient enough or ‘good’ enough to be worth the extra cost and effort. The ends of the spectrum are in rude health.

So here’s my proposal: Keep to the fringe. If you go authentic then go properly authentic. If you go pragmatic then peel off all those price labels and get to work.

Avoid the middle. It’s mutant.


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  1. 2
    Cat Vincent

    Thought-provoking as ever, Gordon.
    My own angle would be that ‘thingness’ and ‘authenticity’ (as it’s used in, for example, erstwhile practitioners of restored antique systems) are different things, but I do take your point that certain objects have unique resonance.

    As for the slider… I’m not sure the ‘authentic’ end is actually attainable, and thus I’m probably more in the squishy middle you recommend avoiding – but hey, I’m a mutant.

    Self-pimp – I chewed on the issue of authenticity as part of my interminable Guttershaman series, riffing heavily off of the rant in Warren Ellis’s “Doktor Sleepless”:
    Cat Vincent´s last blog post ..It Gets Better – if you make it so

  2. 4

    I too love what you said about “Chaos magic was punk’s spooky-yet-kinda-hot younger sister.”

    I went from no-thingness to thing-ness to somewhere in the middle. My thing-ness vibrates more in time to my personal cosmography and feeling with a certainity that something (an herb, a candle, a sneeze) is going to make something happen.

  3. 9

    If only….
    Having worked among people who are obsessed with the idea of being able to 3D scan and then 3D print a copy of nearly ‘anything’ (including entire buildings via drones and lasers) the idea of ‘thingness’ appeals to me greatly. This idea that a copy is as good as any original, in terms of artworks and things made, seems spurious to me.

    Had a conversation with a philosophy teacher once that centered on answering the question “What is the logical difference between a chair that is a hundred years old and a perfect-in-every-detail copy that appeared just this moment. Would you be able to spot this difference?”

    My answer, which apparently intrigued him no end, was that the difference is in the 4th-dimensional tail that the 100-year-old chair drags around with it; its literal connection with the past. An object that simply pops into being lacks this quality, ‘thingness’, as you might call it, and even though we might have no instruments to detect it, and our intuition is probably not sharp enough to pick up on it, I believe that someone out there would be able to discern the difference. Whether or not they know what that difference means, or can pick up on its nature, is another tale for another time.

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