CFP: Music and the Occult

I have been writing about magic a whole lot lately, and suddenly I feel like I’m seeing a whole lot of CFPs (calls for papers/proposals) on magical themes. Maybe there’s something magical in the air? Are academics finally getting hip to magic, the occult, the supernatural, esotericism, or whatever it is we’re going to call it? Are the lonely redoubts of academic research in this area finally getting some reinforcements? Make no mistake, for years a small band of outstanding scholars have been working specifically on the history and ideas of Western esotericism: Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Antoine Faivre, and Wouter Hanegraaff come immediately to mind. And from outside the specific area of “Western Esotericism Studies” there has been a steady drip-drip-drip of academic studies and symposia on magical themes — magic and literature, magic and rhetoric, magic and the visual arts, but little as yet on magic and music. (Though this CFP sounds really interesting.)

S. Alexander Reed (author of the indispensable Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music) and I are co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Musicological Research that will attempt to fill this void. For a longish while, Alex and I have been talking on and off (mostly off) about organizing something on this topic. My original idea for a title was “Music and the Fucking Occult,” since “occult” is such a metal-sounding word you might as well go all the way.

nelsart dio


Cooler heads have prevailed, however, so herewith we bring to you our CFP for “Music and the Occult”:

Call for Papers
“Music and the Occult”
Due Date: September 15, 2016

The Journal of Musicological Research, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal published by Routledge, is seeking article submissions for a special issue on “Music and the Occult,” to appear in 2017 or 2018. The editors welcome submissions that occupy and/or concern the intersection of music and the categories of esotericism, Hermeticism, magic, mysticism, or the occult. Scholarly approaches may be historical, theoretical, ethnomusicological, or idiosyncratic to the subject matter.

Topics are not limited to any particular area of scholarly study, but possible subjects might include the following:

Music and paganism
Music and occult/pagan ritual
Esoteric and Hermetic philosophies of music
Neo-Platonic and Pythagorean music theory
Music in esoteric Christianity
Popular music and occultism
Music and theosophy (e.g. Alexander Scriabin, Henry Cowell)
Occult revivals (e.g. late 1800s and early 1900s, 1960s)
Music and the New Age
Nonwestern musics and magical traditions
Musicology and the occult

You can go to the Taylor and Francis site page for the official contact information, though of course you could also just get in touch with me or Alex.

Something the CFP doesn’t go into is why exactly we think this is an important and timely scholarly project. I can’t speak for Alex, but for my part I’ve argued at some length on this site about why I think magic and the occult (or, if we’re being dignified, “esotericism”) is a lot more pervasive than we are normally inclined to think. I agree with Ramsey Dukes that magic is one of the main axes of human feeling, thinking, making, and doing. Dukes contends that the other axes are science, art, and religion, but while people are happy to ascribe their motivations to those endeavors, very few will openly avow magical motivations for what they do and think. And yet, as I’ve said repeatedly here, magic — you’re soaking in it.

What happens when we share a habit of mind that is (a) ubiquitous, and (b) unspoken, repressed, demonized, and thus unknown to ourselves even as we entertain it? It becomes our shadow-side, and in the shadows it gathers power. Thus is this domain rightly called “occult” — meaning hidden — and so too does the word come to be garlanded with a certain obscure dread.

At its heart, the academic humanities is an Enlightenment project, even when its more postmodern practitioners try to distance themselves from Enlightenment values and assumptions. Humanities scholars, almost without exception, aim to throw light on dark corners, clarify what is murky, and make explicit what is unarticulated. And the occult is surely one of those dark corners. And yet it’s also one of those things, perhaps like music itself, that changes in our explanation of it. To continue with the dark-corner analogy, a dark corner flooded with light is no longer a dark corner; it’s just a corner. Which is fine if our aim was to understand the corner as such, with all “extraneous factors” removed, but not if what we wanted to understand is dark corners. 

There is something participatory about magic that makes distanced contemplation of it problematic. As I have argued before, magic tends to disappear when we approach it in instrumental-rational terms, or at least becomes something other than its experience. Practitioners of magic, like performers of music, have some real advantages over academics who write about the subject from a position of greater abstraction. But this CFP represents a wager on academics, too, having something to say in this conversation. At the very least, I think we might get away from the “here’s some crazy stuff that ignorant people used to believe in” kind of historicism that has hindered scholarly understanding of magic. I am hoping that this special issue on “music and the occult” might even show some commerce across the border between practitioners and academics.*

*I’ve noticed several publications lately that walk the line between scholarly and participant voices in writing. I have mentioned Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic elsewhere, and lately the London publisher Fulgur has issued two handsome journals, Abraxas and Black Mirror, that walk that line very well.

Update, a few hours after posting the above: Emily V. Leon has written to let us know of a future online publication, Desert Suprematism, that promises to do exactly this kind of scholar/practitioner crossover work on the occult and the arts.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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