Singular explanations -especially materialist ones- fall into the category of ‘necessary but not sufficient’. For instance, you could make the case that the reason Original Botanica was so busy first thing on Saturday morning -busier than any of the other (admittedly only four) times I had been there- was down to the ‘real’ US unemployment rate sitting around 23%.
But I have a job and I was there. Also I was far from the only gringo in the botanica. Come to think of it, the clientele was practically a Benetton ad of diversity. Like Sydney’s Chinese hoodoo, this store is no longer (just) purveyors of your grandmother’s Hispanic folk magic.
It’s been around three decades since Pete Carroll observed that there are more wizards and sorcerers alive today than at any other time in human history. In absolute terms, this has presumably remained true as the total human population continues to climb.
But there is something else, isn’t there? The occult revival has entered a new phase. The condom that contained it has broken and its heroin is now seeping into the bloodstream of the global mule that is our monoculture. The Irrational will not be denied. Take it away, Chris Knowles:
Human beings are religious animals. Scientists and sociologists will bore you silly with their theories as to why this is so. Of course, my explanation is that the spiritual world is a reality and it has its effect upon the human organism in the same way that many other ostensibly invisible forces do, such as gravity and radiation.
It’s not something I need to argue, it’s self-evident to me. Probably to most of you as well.
Seeing how human beings and societies function without spirituality– which is to say they slowly fall apart– is all the evidence I really need anyway. It’s why even doctrinaire atheists like Sam Harris or philosophers of science like John Horgan are so desperate to find a spirituality beyond theism (you could argue that certain forms of Buddhism fit that bill already)– they know the stakes.
This new phase of the magical revival is both a symptom of our current collapse as well as some of the first green shoots hinting at what comes after. Jason, in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek, “damn-kids-get-off-my-lawn” post, recalls how the Irrational found itself in a pre-internet age.
We didn’t have social media then either. No Facebook. No Yahoogroups. No MySpace. Not even fucking Friendster. You couldn’t find the other people in the world with the exact same myopic opinions and interests that you have. No groups for just for Celtic Taoists, Thelemic Palo Mayomberas, or people following the Key Of Solomon to the letter. You just had to form a study group, cabal, or coven and put up with whoever showed up. You had Setians participating in Wiccan Circles, Tantrikas going to OTO meetings, Chaos Magicians showing up for Modern Magic practice sessions because that is all there was in your area, and at least it was something.
It is certainly true that magicians found each other before tumblr was there for them to share altar photos, and Facebook was there for them to pick arguments about whatever it is people tell me other people are arguing about on Facebook these days. (Imma guess… grimoires?) The problem then, is not the existence of these connection platforms per se, it is that we probably have not found an efficient way of leveraging them to make meaningful connections. In the above post, Jason mentions print-outs and photocopies from libraries, as well as landlines. When he was making these calls in the 80s, telegraphy -if not telephony- was a century old. And scalable reproduction of the printed word was knocking on its thousandth birthday.
Web-enabled smart phones? I have literally eaten older cheese.
Thus, we simply do not have the data to determine which connection strategy is the most effective over the long-term. Notice I said connection strategy. Genuine magic transcends its media, be they parchment scraps or snapchats. Both can be -and historically mostly were– quite shit, also-ran affairs.
There is a separate post coming about the implications for magic about changes to media technology because the much-vaunted end of things like the book, the newspaper and even the standalone website really does appear to be happening now. This is not just some far-off trend. We are living through it and the question then becomes what does, for instance, a grimoire become in a post-book world. Honestly, much of the grumbling about publishers who flog expensively-printed versions of publicly available texts -not that they hold much appeal for me personally- is a misunderstanding of this very process… we are witnessing the book transforming from the least-worst content delivery mechanism available to being a fetish object snatched from a foreign world. (Which, incidentally, is the status books held for most early modern witches.)
It seems to me that whichever combination of platforms is best at delivering offline, decentralised networks at scale needs to be pursued. Because, as this remarkable, mandatory piece by Nassim Taleb shows, we are in an era of unprecedented fragility and -like I have been saying for years- only the decentralised will flourish as it ends. It requires free subscription but just do it.
Simply put, fragility is aversion to disorder. Things that are fragile do not like variability, volatility, stress, chaos, and random events, which cause them to either gain little or suffer. A teacup, for example, will not benefit from any form of shock. It wants peace and predictability, something that is not possible in the long run, which is why time is an enemy to the fragile. What’s more, things that are fragile respond to shock in a nonlinear fashion. With humans, for example, the harm from a ten-foot fall in no way equals ten times as much harm as from a one-foot fall. In political and economic terms, a $30 drop in the price of a barrel of oil is much more than twice as harmful to Saudi Arabia as a $15 drop.
For countries, fragility has five principal sources:
- a centralized governing system
- an undiversified economy
- excessive debt and leverage
- a lack of political variability
- and no history of surviving past shocks.
Applying these criteria, the world map looks a lot different. Disorderly regimes come out as safer bets than commonly thought—and seemingly placid states turn out to be ticking time bombs.
The first marker of a fragile state is a concentrated decision-making system. On its face, centralization seems to make governments more efficient and thus more stable. But that stability is an illusion. Apart from in the military—the only sector that needs to be unified into a single structure—centralization contributes to fragility. Although centralization reduces deviations from the norm, making things appear to run more smoothly, it magnifies the consequences of those deviations that do occur. It concentrates turmoil in fewer but more severe episodes, which are disproportionately more harmful than cumulative small variations. In other words, centralization decreases local risks, such as provincial barons pocketing public funds, at the price of increasing systemic risks, such as disastrous national-level reforms. Accordingly, highly centralized states, such as the Soviet Union, are more fragile than decentralized ones, such as Switzerland, which is effectively composed of village-states.
Just as states composed of semiautonomous units have fared well in the modern era, further back in history, the most resilient polities were city-states that operated under empires that provided a measure of protection, from Pax Romana to Pax Ottomana. But at the tail end of their existence, many empires began to centralize, including Pharaonic Egypt and the Ming dynasty in China. In both cases, the empires tightened the reins after, not before, they thrived, ruling out centralization as a cause of their success and fingering it as an explanation for their subsequent failure.
City-states both old and new—from Venice to Dubai to Geneva to Singapore—owe their success to their smallness. Those who compare political systems by looking at their character without taking into account their size are thus making an analytic error: city-states are remarkably diverse in terms of their political systems, from the most democratic (Venice) to the most enlightened but autocratic (Singapore). Just as an elephant is not a large mouse, China is not a bigger version of Singapore, even if the two share similar styles of government.
One of the most observable indicators of increasing volatility is an eruption of the weird, the Irrational… the return of magic. And I want to be clear that when I say ‘the return of magic’, I mean to monocultural awareness. It is always with us. While we are arguing over appropriation or crowdfunding the conference room rental of some Doubletree out by an airport somewhere, Italy is still putting on actual Mystery Plays. Seriously, check that shit out.
Magic has always been there at the margins, but every few decades or centuries, it seeps up from underneath a dissolving monoculture. Growing up in Australia, I never thought I’d see the day where we’d have Aboriginal cleansing ceremonies as part of (very) minor building dedications. Culturally, we knew our treatment of the Indigenous people had been a disaster, but it seemed like the best we could do in recompense was to pay some Aboriginal artists to design commemorative stamps. Now we are using full-blown magic at a state level.
Full-blown magic at a state level when most of the states on earth are at One Minute to Midnight. My, but these are interesting times.
Be back before dawn.