In the last couple of months,* I have been trying to show that magic — or, as one musicological friend put it, “speculative metaphysics and prima facie bonkers-seeming ideas” — is maybe not quite as bonkers as it might first appear. Or if it is, then we are all more bonkers than we first appear, as we are all constantly doing magic (or at least engaging in magical thinking) whether we know it or not.
When I posted an essay on the rational demon that we sometimes wish would just shut up, my old friend Jim Buhler responded with a blizzard of insightful tweets, starting with this:
Regarding the first one, yeah, personifying a complex intellectual problem (in this case, the reductive and disenchanting rationalistic style of modernity) and calling it a “demon” is pretty radical “as if” operation, if by “radical” we mean “hard to swallow.” But Jim, being one of the more venturesome thinkers in our profession, tries to figure out how this might possibly work anyway. And so Jim suggests that the one who wields this “as if” doesn’t really believe it, but only “works to produce that illusion”—the illusion that (for example) there really is a demon, or at least the illusion that he does in fact believe it.
And this is sort of true, though it’s also sort of wrong.** What’s right is the suggestion that the belief in the demon matters much less than the work entailed by a belief in demons. Jim calls that work “produc[ing] an illusion,” but I am going to avoid the word “illusion” for now, because to say that someone is working to produce an illusion suggests an intent to deceive, and I don’t think that’s necessarily what we’re talking about here. And this brings me to what I think is wrong with saying that the magician doesn’t “really believe” that demons are real but tries to make it seem otherwise. I would argue that the magician works within a mental framework in which the question of whether demons “really exist” is beside the point.
To ask whether a demon really exists is already to make the realist assumption that there is a reality out there that goes on behind our backs, regardless of what we think about it, and that it’s that reality that matters when we try to say what’s really going on in any given situation. This is such a common way of viewing the world that some readers might be surprised to learn it’s a point of view at all and not just the way things are (i.e., not “the real” but realism, a mere ism of the real). But there’s a lot of people throughout the world who don’t automatically think this way, including magicians. As Ramsey Dukes says, “‘really’ and ‘believe’ are not words that go happily together in magical thought.” [S.S.O.T.B.M.E. Revised, 96.]
What matters, as I’ve said, is the work or action entailed by a belief, not the belief itself. Let’s say you act on a belief (however flimsy or provisional) that ghosts exist by doing a ritual to summon one. A ritual is an act that demands an intensely focused mental state quite different from our everyday, distracted condition; it is an altered state in which the present felt moment, the experience, expands to fill the whole of mental life. For its charged duration, the ritual is your reality, not the idea of some objective reality happening out there beyond the ritual space. If you did the ritual and all the while said to yourself, I’m doing this ritual even as I know that ghosts don’t exist—or, more succinctly, I’m only pretending that ghosts exist—you’d be doing the ritual badly and distractedly, or arguably not even doing the ritual at all.
For while ritual is an experience, thinking about whether ghosts really exist in some reality going on behind your back while you’re doing the ritual is not the experience, it’s an idea pertaining to that experience, or an explanation of it. I can have the experience of seeing a ghost, and I can immediately dismiss the thought and say “I didn’t see a ghost, it only seemed to me that I was seeing one—what I took to be a ghost was only a breeze blowing through the living-room curtains.” But the experience is not at all the same thing as the explanation. As Duncan Barford writes, “I can only experience seeing a ghost; I can’t experience ‘seeming’ to see one.” [Duncan Barford, Occult Experiments in the Home: Personal Exploration of Magick and the Paranormal, x.]
Alan Chapman says all this quite clearly in his Advanced Magick for Beginners:***
If your reality rests solely on the magical act, and so you can change your experience as you see fit, then any viewpoint or belief is true at the moment you experience it.
To argue about “how magick actually works,” as if the truth is not in the experience itself, is indicative of a failure to understand magick.
An example of this is the ubiquitous debate on the occult scene as to the true nature of spirits, usually taking the form of a discussion around “are they real,” versus “are they just amplified parts of my psychology?” If you decide to interact with a god and do so, but then go down the pub to tell your friends you believe gods are simply parts of your personality, you have failed to understand that the truth is in the experience. You may believe gods are part of your psychology, but belief only becomes genuine when it is experienced. [AMFB, 55-56.]
I first started thinking about organized irrationality — or, to coin a term, “xenorationality,” or “strange rationality,” since the kind of thinking I’m describing has its own coherence and sense — when I was in graduate school and researching 1960s counterculture and finding stuff like this:
These are John Sinclair’s liner notes for the MC5’s legendary debut album Kick Out The Jams. Sinclair was an interesting guy. A poet and underground journalist, he led a Detroit-area hippie tribe that started as a Beat artist collective called the Artists’ Workshop and soon transmogrified into Trans-Love Energies, then the White Panther Party, and finally the Rainbow People’s Party, each name change marking a stage in the development of the counterculture’s social imaginary like the successive styles of Spinal Tap’s early hits. In its most militant, Black-Panther-emulating version, the group imagined itself an autonomous revolutionary nation with Sinclair as its “Minister of Information” and, like Revolutionary France, its own calendar: 1968 was the “first year of Zenta.” “Zenta” was Sinclair’s name for the fundamental spiritual force in the universe, and he thought that the high-energy music he loved—Sun Ra and Coltrane and the MC5—realized this force here and now, sort of the same way that Schopenhauer believed music directly manifested the Will.
These liner notes are not even close to the most far-out thing Sinclair wrote in these years, but they convey the flavor of his idea of cultural revolution well enough. Sinclair advocated a theory of revolution in which “rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets” would precipitate revolution, or somehow be revolution all on its own . . . a revolution would happen just as soon as people could dig it, or maybe had already happened within the space of his self-created nation.
I found a copy of Sinclair’s Guitar Army and was fascinated by the world that emerged from its pages — a world of consensual illusion in which several dozen people managed to live for several years. I was scornful at first. I mentioned it to Michael Cherlin, my doktorvater, and said something like “There’s no way these people could possibly have believed all this bullshit about Zenta and music as revolution and hippie nations in the belly of the beast. No-one could believe that. They were just pretending.” Michael commented that a lot of people believed things like that back then. He challenged me to find the sense in what looked like nonsense.
About the same time I was starting to listen to Cold War exotica pop—music from a very different part of the postwar American cultural landscape—and found that it too seemed to be making preposterous claims (in this case, claims of ethnographic authenticity) with a straight face. Or at least as straight a face as Mean Gene Okerlund can manage when Macho Man Randy Savage is cutting a promo.
Exotica pop, hippie communes, pro wrestling . . . these admittedly rather disparate phenomena are similar insofar as they demand impossible beliefs from those who enjoy them, and also insofar as the enjoyment of them demands participation in those beliefs. I wrote an article about aesthetic participation, and this is was the conclusion I came to:
Ray Mungo, co-founder of the Liberation News Service (which supplied stories to the underground press), became estranged from the Movement in the 1970s and suggested in hindsight that “Most of us in Washington didn’t really believe in ‘The Revolution’ to come . . . or else we acted like the revolution was then and there; we tried to enjoy life as much as possible, took acid trips, went to the movies, and supported people because they were fun or well-intentioned or in need.” When you act as if the Revolution is at hand you do not take a stand on whether the Revolution really is at hand, any more than someone participating in exotica’s aesthetic bargain takes a stand on whether Ritual of the Savage is authentic African music. In either case you engage instead in a practice of thought within which you can act on these beliefs without explicitly engaging them as true or untrue things. You might suspect, in some corner of your mind, that the Revolution will never arrive in its advertised form or that the tribal drums on Ritual of the Savage are being played by session pros in a Hollywood studio, but there is nothing about your experience that demands you think about such things or take a stand on them. Your experience is aesthetic, and the demands of an aesthetic experience are not the demands of truth.
I’ve made the distinction between summoning a ghost and pretending to summon a ghost, and have argued that the magical act is not simply pretending. But even in the few examples I’ve given, you can see how it gets slippery. You can start off pretending and get into your act so much that it becomes real to you. As Chapman says, belief becomes genuine when it is experienced.
I remember going to the Sudbury Arena with my buddies in high school to watch pro wrestlers passing through on their circuit through Northern Ontario, Quebec, and the Upper Midwest. The same guys would come into town at regular intervals, unpacking their practiced gimmicks and grudges along with their underwear and shirts. In their shows, as in soap operas, they were caught in a kind of whirling stasis, where titanic clashes would happen every week but nothing ever really changed. We sometimes sat close enough to see the wrestlers convulsing in agony from punches and kicks that had come nowhere close to hitting them. Everything was phony as a three-dollar bill. It could not be attempted to be believed. Except that didn’t matter, because you weren’t there to believe in it, you were there to get involved, participate, yell, jump up, high-five your bros, flip the bird to the heels . . . and let me tell you, in short order it just doesn’t matter what you think. You are just acting, and that takes on a life of its own. It’s true, you’re acting as if it’s all a thrilling athletic contest, but as you participate the as if fades away from immediate consciousness. You just do what you do, and your friends do it to, and for a while you all live in a consensual illusion that you do not really experience as an illusion, at least while it’s happening.
That’s xenorationality. It’s not completely irrational; it’s rationality within another mental framework. It’s how we are in dreams, bound by their rules and accepting the special kind of sense they make. The people who lived within the shared dream of the White Panther Party accepted the rules of their self-made world and reasoned within them: their politico-cultural analysis, roughly outlined above, was arrived at through intricate and exhaustive ideological wrangles in meetings they tape-recorded for posterity. (These recordings are now held in the University of Michigan’s special collections library.) I have dubs of some of these tapes, and they’re trippy. For all the stoned cerebration and playful screwing-around captured on these tapes, what no-one ever says, not once, is “yeah, but we’re only playing here, right? We’re only acting as if the Revolution is here. We all know it isn’t really.” They remain securely within the rationality of their strange world, like dreamers in the dream, within which all their thoughts and actions make perfect sense. Out here, in our world, they don’t.
As I’ve insisted again and again, what I’m calling “magical thinking” is not confined to magic as such. It is a fundamental aspect of who we are and how we function. Maybe you think you’re too clever to take part in this silliness. Professional wrestling! Séances! Hippie communes!
Yes, even you.
**I should point out right away that Jim immediately started pounding his own starting idea into a dialectical hash and ended up somewhere else entirely, as is his wont. So I am really not doing justice to his whole sequence of tweets. God, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. But Jim is one of those people who can do real thinking in tweets and who makes the medium seem almost — almost! — worthwhile to me.
***Note that Chapman uses Aleister Crowley’s spelling, “magick,” which I do not. Crowley wanted to mark a clear distinction between his kind of magic and the illusionist’s art, but I don’t find it necessary: I doubt anyone who had read anything I’ve written on the subject has had the slightest difficulty understanding which sense of “magic” I’m using.