A Return to Beauty

I have previously spoken about the experience of art as a return to surface: the experience of art is the experience of pure perception. Indeed, the experience of aesthetic arrest I think perfectly illuminates my conception. Aesthetic arrest is typically used to describe the apprehension of beauty, which is itself a tangled and complex word, but I would argue that beauty, in the traditional sense of the word is unnecessary and vague. What we are struck by, in moments of aesthetic arrest, is not pure beauty, but pure perception. What, for example, significantly differentiates perceptual the apprehension of striking beauty from the apprehension of striking ugliness? Both captivate and bewitch us. Marina Abramovic’s frightening performance piece, Art Must be Beautiful, defies beauty. The performance is stark, obsessive, and disturbing. There is little within it that one would actually call beautiful. Yet, one is brought up short, arrested, by the experience of the piece.

I turn here to Merleau-Ponty who, in his mammoth work, The Phenomenology of Perception, describes moments when perception fails to align with the expectations of the analytical mind. He calls these moments queer. Queer perceptions turn the entirety of our world, they stop us and demand attention. These queer moments are not in themselves beautiful or ugly, those terms come after. Beauty and ugliness are characteristics applied by analysis, they do not spring forth from the experience itself, but arise from reflection. The maxim, the mantra which Marina Abramovic repeats only flourishes into meaning once the experience of the art itself has moved through perception into thought. The beauty of art exists only in as much art stops thought for perception itself to exist authentically, so that thought may return and bear judgement.

Beauty and ugliness exist in equal measure in aesthetic arrest. One is captivated by beauty and ugliness only in as much as they defy one’s expectations of the world. Andy Warhol’s Disaster Series directly address this concern. Horror is rendered into beauty through an analytic interpretation of the mode of representation. The images themselves shock through their disregard of the expectation of beauty in art, and then proceed through to beauty again from the analysis brought to bear on the formal qualities of the work (the repetition, the use of color…). Warhol’s Disaster Series emphatically queers the expectations of the viewer (especially at the time of their production) and achieve their effect by return the viewer to act of pure perception. The image must be understood, brought back into line with the world itself. That action complete, the beauty or ugliness of the image can then be ascertained. Art queers is such a way that the queerness of the interaction of perception and judgement is itself illuminated.

When art is beautiful, it is in as much as it disregards beauty. Beauty emerges from shock, from arrest. Art functions as the skillful manipulation of formal elements to achieve this return to perception, to enable the viewer to look without judgement.


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The Being of Being and Time & Towards a New Ontology…

I spoke to Mallory last week about our ongoing Onto/Theological project and we both expressed our frustrations wit the way in which I have presently been handling whole affair. I realized earlier this month that I have been going around in circles, defining and redefining terms, pouring over minutia and attempting to produce a razor sharp set of definitions from which I could then proceed. Unfortunately, I think the end result of all of that work is largely impenetrable. Hence my relative silence on that front. I’ve let that project fall away to focus on other material until I can relax enough to approach it again from a different perspective.

Mallory suggested to me, as a means of re-entry into the topic, that I find a succinct article or some-such on the internet which has already done the necessary work for me and link to it, then move on from the foundation already laid. Well, as luck would have it, upon checking the other blogs that I read this morning, I have found what seems to be the perfect solution. Philosophy & Theology posted this lovely set of youtube videos: Hubert Dreyfus explaining existential phenomenology.

I thoroughly encourage anyone interested in the discussion thus far to watch the full interview. It is split over several ten minute chunks, but it rather thoroughly investigates the movement out of which my own ramblings have emerged. It is worth paying particular attention to the way in which Heidegger describes the human experience, which he calls Dasein: Dreyfus’ explanation of that topic in particular is of crucial significance. It is worth noting that my usage of the Subject (definite article, capitalization) parallels Heidegger’s usage of Dasein in the simultaneity of the singular instantiation and the abstracted set of phenomenon (i.e. a person/all persons). I take, a feel, a slightly more radical position regarding the formation of the Subject than Heidegger does when discussing the presence of a Dasein among other Daseins, but the basic framing is the same, and also quite important.

It’s also fascinating where, and this isn’t directly addressed in the interview itself, the Foucauldian ideas of historicity pick up from Heidegger’s description of being.

And, again, because I just can’t get off my soapbox, these concepts are also precisely why I despise the vast majority of occult philosophy, especially nearly everything produced by Hermeticism.

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I have always been aware that I am susceptible to the emotional states of those around me. As I child I was both very emotional and very empathic, some times cripplingly. Over the years as I grew up, I gradually closed myself off. However, I have always been, as they say, sensitive. The silly thing is, that now, as an adult, I had all but forgotten about how heavily the emotions of others press on me.

These last few weeks I have felt bogged down and listless. I have had a hell of time motivating myself, I haven’t seemed to have any energy to get things done; even my creativity has waned. A few days ago, I realized that this wasn’t just a phase. I decided to make a conscious effort to improve my mood and motivate myself.

I always get a little irritated with the people who tell you to “think happy thoughts,” as though being happy were as easy as that. As someone with depressive tendencies, such advice always struck me as vapid and hollow. It’s patronizing. If I’m sad, I have reason to be sad, and when I don’t, I know that it’s my brain being weird and I work around it. Well, I realized that this long stretch of ennui wasn’t for any good reason, and I have to work around it. Thinking happy thoughts doesn’t work, so what does?

A few months ago, Emjay suggested a book to me, which I promptly forgot about and then only again remembered when she posted a review of it on her blog. I promptly bought and read Sophie Reicher’s Spiritual Protection, and then, as I do, filed it away as useful information to return to later. Well, as it turns out, I’m kicking myself for not having immediately put the ideas in that book into effect. As I said previously, I tend to forget how susceptible I am to the moods and emotions of those around me. Also, working at a coffee shop, I encounter a lot of less than lovely people who range from casually cruel to actively spiteful. I simply hadn’t thought, as a spiritually aware and active person, how much of the negativity of other people was beginning to collect around me and weigh me down.

So, earlier this week, I pulled out my chunk of black tourmaline and after grounding and anchoring myself, charged it to deflect and absorb the negativity, petty viciousness and outright cruelty and malignancy of the people and forces that I encounter. I have taken particular time to strengthen this charge before going to work. As silly as it is, I have to say that these last few days I have been feeling quite lovely.

Now, I am always hesitant to ascribe a magical/spiritual cause to anything. It is possible that the effect is entirely psychosomatic. I have this stone in my pocket that I touch occasionally when I feel pressed upon, and I am taking time every few hours to control my breathing and center myself. Already that is enough to ease my tensions. I have found my head to be clearer and my energy levels to be much improved with no other real changes to my routine.

One of my very few objections to Sophie Reicher’s book is the immediate assumption that you are under spiritual attack. The entire text is written as though you are under siege from malign forces, as though you are surrounded by malign practitioners bent on making you suffer. On further reflection, however, I find myself largely agreeing with her position. Though I think that your average spiritual practitioner is hardly likely to be under active magical attack, my experience of the last few weeks has certainly led me to believe that for the spiritually aware person, the world is quite overflowing with things that we need to protect ourselves from, be they conscious attacks or casual unpleasantness. I would hardly say that I am under attack, but I do know that there are people around me who enjoy provoking and antagonizing those around them. I have come to the conclusion that for my own well being it is necessary for me to take steps to protect myself mentally and spiritually from such malefic influences.

I have been thinking, recently, that as we become more spiritually aware of ourselves we become more, and I hesitate to quite use this word, but I shall, vulnerable to the spiritual influences around us, for good or for ill. As much as I flex against the idea that we are constantly under attack, I’m not certain if that it actually a bad metaphor. While we may not be the direct targets of negativity, we are certainly besieged by it. I have come to realize, lately, how vital it is that I be aware of and combat these forces in my life. I think that it is important to come to terms with the fact that we don’t live in perfect little spiritual bubbles. We are influenced by the world around us and we need to be capable of protecting ourselves. The world is not sunlight and roses and puppy dog kisses, and no matter how good a person you are, no matter how enlightened you may be, that won’t protect you.

I was planning on writing a fairly detailed review of Spiritual Protection, but honestly, I don’t think that I have much more to say than Emjay already said, and so suggest that you go read her review instead. Now that said, I’m not necessarily, after that long preamble, advocating that you cling to every word that Sophie Reicher wrote. Spiritual protection is incredibly important and Sophie Reicher’s book is a very good, concise and detailed volume describing various techniques for various situations, but, as in all things, every individual is going to have different view points. I suggest detailed research and investigation, and Spiritual Protection is a good place to start, but it is by far not the only text available. In the end, all that matters is that we be aware of the forces around us, that we understand ourselves well enough to recognize when we are feeling the effects of forces outside of us, and that we are able to act appropriately. It’s not so much that we are under attack, I think, as we are surrounded.

They’ve Got Us Surrounded!

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Under the Blue Moon

This Friday past was the blue moon. I decided, on the cuff, to get some friends together and go moon gazing on the hill top in Frick Park. We picked up a few bottles of wine and around 10:30 wandered off into the park. Now, I will admit that my initial intention was to perform some sort of experimental group ritual, though with the final composition of the group it became apparent that was not going to happen. In the end, though, I think we all had an enjoyable, variously enlightening experience.

There is something quite interesting to me about the blue moon: unlike other astronomical events, the blue moon is an entirely calendrical artifact. The blue moon only has significance because of the way that we decided to carve up time, a sidereal calendar wouldn’t produce blue moons. Yet, something about the approaching full moon at the very end of August felt somehow special, alluring. I wanted to use this as a chance to experiment in fairly low stakes environment. If the ritual ended up as nothing more than a silly pantomime, or failing catastrophically, well, it wasn’t marking anything in particular, save an occasional calendrical oddity: the full moon will come again.

I have been deeply interested in the function of ritual, lately, and particularly given my own spiritual orientation, I find a good deal of group rituals to be less than thrilling. I admit, that I have attended relatively few group rituals, and that there has only been one local organization which has consistently impressed me not only with the precision of their rituals, but also with their scholarship, a local chapter of ADF. The reason that I have been repeatedly drawn to the open rituals of this particular group is because of how engaged they are with the theatricality of ritual. They seem to recognize how important it is to capture the attention of the participants and viewers and engage with their spirituality through their imagination. The rituals of theirs that I have attended included a lot of story telling, singing, chanting, divination and  costume. All of this has gotten me thinking on what is actually necessary in ritual. If you recall a prior post of mine, I have taken a semi-phenomenological approach to materia magica, and I think I similar approach is useful here.

For my birthday, a friend danced a blessing for me. Her spiritual practice is sacred dance. No words, just movement. In absolute honesty, I was shocked by how much power she was able to draw upon, by how much energy she worked up by dancing. In the Western Occult tradition we are repeatedly told how important the words, the words, the words are, and never shall you ever tamper with these spells handed down from times immemorial. Of course, modernity has struggled with this concept, and intent has krept in, weaseling around the edges, acknowledged but poorly explored. Intent, we are told, again, is vital and perhaps all of magic reduces to intent, so maybe all you need to do is intend really, really, really hard, and then, whizz bang, magic! Intent itself is a tricky subject, as a great deal of human experience is bound up in intent, and if we are going to have a functional definition of magic, shouldn’t it be precise enough to exclude the mundane intention of paying your cell phone bill from the uncanny intention of warding your apartment? Intent alone is insufficient, just as the word alone is insufficient. The dance succeeds because it looses both word and intent in the action.

I want to pull in here, as well, my previous musings on art as something which pulls you back to pure surface, to the act of perceiving. Indeed, I think ritual operates in a very similar way. Frequently one encounters descriptions of the importance of trance states in magic. Thusly, I posit that trance operates as a restoration of perception to itself. Descriptions of emptiness, of the perceiving of nothingness, of the evacuation of I, the ego, the subject, the cogito in the trance state, I suggest, are descriptions of perception returned to itself, reflexively engaging with itself. When one is in deep trance one is perceiving oneself perceive. I argue, then, that ritual aims to bring its participants fully into the state of pure perception. Magic, will, intent, may then spring up from that perceptual reflex.

My intention on the hill top under the light of the blue moon was to begin exploring these ideas in a group setting. In the end, though, everyone so inclined wandered off from the group, found a quiet patch on the greensward and offered themselves up to the beauty of the moonlight. The moon, that night, was truly beautiful. It shone brighter than I have seen in a long time, and the entire park was uncannily lovely. Myself, I offered up a libation to the moon and praised its beauty, its clarity, its radiance. Strangely enough, all our private adventures on that hill top provided a comforting sense of community. Some of us worshipped, some of us prayed, some of us simply enjoyed the beauty of the evening, and others chatted quite happily in the cool breeze, enjoying the companionship. It wasn’t a group ritual, but the space became special, spiritual, regardless.

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Theory, Practice & Confidence

August has been a very busy month for me so far, and I I feel the need to apologize for not updating as regularly as I would like. I have had a lot of family and social obligations that have kept me far too distracted to properly organize my thoughts.

However, all of this plays fairly neatly into some things that I have been trying to work out for a while. I have been struggling for a very long time about asserting my spirituality and my spiritual practice. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have a sense of shame surrounding my practice, merely that I am intensely private when it comes to my spirituality. When my now husband and I first started living together, I did everything in my power to keep my practice out of his sight. It’s not to say that he wasn’t aware of my work, merely that I have been so solitary for so long, that the mere presence of another person, even someone that I love deeply, utterly altered the tone of my work, and I really didn’t know how to adapt. Over the course of a few months, however, I became comfortable with engaging in my practice in front of another person.

Now, I hardly do anything advanced or complicated on a daily basis, the vast majority of my practice consists of meditation and mantra work, however, this deeply personal, internal work doesn’t really leave room for other people. It doesn’t help that I’m pretty damned reticent to reveal my work to other people. I am an incredibly private person, and, for a very long time, I have lacked the confidence in my work to be comfortable dealing with other people questioning my practice.

Lately, though, I haven’t had the luxury of privacy. From various family obligations that have kept me away from home or my work schedule, split between two jobs, I haven’t really been able to establish a regular routine. I’ve been meditating in a rush, in little corners or places tucked away, trying to find some privacy. My practice has really suffered for it.

I have always had a hard time organizing my time, but when I have any kind of outside pressure, my schedule collapses entirely. Sadly, my spiritual practice is the first thing to suffer. I’ve realized recently, that for as much weight as my spirituality plays in my life, I haven’t done the personal work necessary for it to really support that weight.

It has become incredibly apparent to me that I need to spend more time not only building up my confidence in my practice, but also my assertiveness when it comes to that practice. I need to be willing to make time for myself to practice even if that means revealing my practices to the people around me. I know that in no small part, my hesitation stems from an assumed antipathy that I feel other people, especially family, would have toward me. However, I’ve reached a point in my life where this secretiveness is no longer helpful.

Early in anyone’s spiritual development, I do believe that privacy and solitude are terribly important, however, there comes a time when one must be willing to embrace that spirituality in all aspects of there life. What I find so strange about my own behavior is that I am quite comfortable talking about my spirituality in a theoretical sense, as far as discourse goes, my spirituality is pervasive. However, my practice remains, as silly as I find this phrase, deeply in the broom closet.

I have become, over the years, quite confident in my theory. I know that a good deal of this is a result of my academic nature. I have always been fascinated with theory. Now, as a result, words, language, philosophy dominate a good deal of my practice, writing this blog is deeply tied to my spiritual and magical practice.

My personal project for the next few months is thus to engage more deeply with my practice and build up my confidence.

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All or Nothing: Science Fiction, Law & The Subject

A while ago, I wrote an essay concerning Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and the Supreme Court’s curious decision to rule in favor of Citizens United. The essay is too long to post in fullness here, but given my recent discussions of the subject, I wanted to return to some of the arguments presented in that essay.

I really do suggest that anyone interested read the ruling, it is a fascinating document. What I found so striking about it was the way in which the Justices, particularly Justice Kennedy, took the subjectivity of the corporation for granted at the very outset. There is, of course, a strange contradiction here. When we think of the subject, of a person, we are inclined from the outset to think of something like us. However, is it absolutely necessary that this be the case? We work from the presumption that all subjects must appear like us. However, how do we actually judge the presence of another subject? This has, in various forms, been a fascination of science fiction nearly since its inception. The android, the robot, the alien are all basic challenges to our traditionally held views on subjectivity. All of these forms are more immediately recognized as subject when they more closely resemble the human, but frequently the tension within a work of science fiction arises when the encountered being resembles us less and less.

Let us consider a small handful of examples. Stanislaw Lem’s classic and frankly quite bizarre Solaris spawned two quite different films made almost thirty years apart, each dealing with the encountering of a vastly different and strange form of intelligence. The terror of the film develops out of the strange manner in which the titular phenomenon, Solaris, interacts with the crew of the space station sent to study it. The manner of interaction, the creation of eidolons out of the minds of the human crew, is so shocking that the nature of Solaris goes unrecognized until nearly the end of the story. The basic presumptions of the crew, that only that which resembles us can be a subject allows them to mistake the apparitions which appear to them as real people, as true beings, and not extensions of the subjectivity of the planet Solaris circling below them, even when the synthetic beings behave in ways utterly unlike humans (the miraculous resurrection of Hari/Rheya).

Star Trek: The Next Generation tackles the issue much more directly with the presentation of the character Data. Data is an entirely artificial humanoid robot who does not, apparently, experience human emotions. A great deal of his character arc deals with the tension between his synthetic nature and his subjectivity. The unspoken question which follows him around is quite simply, “Must a man be flesh to be a man?” Data resembles the human in manifold ways, but is clearly inhuman. Yet, despite his superhuman abilities, he is regarded by the vast majority of the people who interact with him as human. His struggle is largely, save in a few key episodes, presented as an internal one: the android wondering if he is human enough to be human. Star Trek answers the question of Data’s humanity quite succinctly and tacitly: all the outward signs signal that Data has an interior life, that he behaves as a subject in the proper sense. Data is as subject because he behaves like one.

Oddly enough, that seems to be the logic which guided the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Citizens United. Citizens United was granted the legal status of a subject (at least within the realm of campaign finance) because it acts like a subject. The decision was essentially a pragmatic one. If Citizens United was not considered a subject, what would it be considered, and what would the ramifications of such a decision be? Given that it displays all the outward signs of subjectivity, is it not then deserving of the recognition of such? More simply put, how do you sensibly define the subject so as to include all beings which we traditionally accept as subjects and exclude those which we do not without also removing the traditional subject from that definition? The idea that the subject must resemble the human form seems insufficient, for what, precisely, about the outward appearance of the human produces its subjectivity? If the recognition of the subject is reliant upon the recognition of the presence of internal states, then mere behavior becomes the only viable rubric for judging the human.

Now, of course, the comparison of Citizens United to Star Trek’s Data is insufficient. Despite is variance, Data is still recognizably humanoid. A much better analogy would be to the Borg. The Borg are the most well known presentation of a corporate subject within popular science fiction. The Borg are no longer quite human, though they look human, they realize a strange paradox, the human embodiment which no longer contains a human mind. The Borg reverse the traditional problem of the subject as expressed by science fiction (and, perhaps, return to an earlier, folk loreic conception of the problem of other minds), here the body is human and the mind is substantially other. While the Borg are, for various reasons, horrifying, the basis of their terror rests upon their inversion of the subject. The Borg subject is moved out of the singular body and into the mass of the population. The Borg are not subjects, but subject. Each component entity within the Borg acts as an extension of its bodily mass. The more entities which comprise it, the larger its field of action becomes. The mind of the Borg is elsewhere, the bodies which compose it are merely limbs.

Thus, Citizens United, or any corporation, functions similarly. The total mass behaves as a subject and so is recognized as such regardless of the particular embodiment of that subject. Of course, the analogy is loose and fails to meet the conditions of the corporation on one very important point. Within the corporation the component entities which compose it do not lose their individual characteristics in their incorporation (indeed, they gain another characteristic, that of incorporation). The horror of the Borg arises in the deletion of the individual in favor of the collective, the corporation does not, in fact, behave in that manner (despite the insistence of modern capitalism and its drive towards total homogeneity). If the corporation is to be recognized as subject, that recognition derives from the subjectivity of its constituent subjects.

The corporate subject, as recognized by the Supreme Court functions as a subject due to the powers of the subjects which compose it. Each subject functions autonomously yet cedes a certain realm of action to the corporation, and lends to the corporation the use of its subjective capacity. Thus, the corporate subject is the sum total of its constituent subjects acting in unity with the corporate identity. The corporation behaves as a subject do to its composition, in other words, the corporation’s embodiment is such that it is capable of producing a subject. The particular embodiment of the subject need not take any particular form, the only requirement for such an embodiment is that it be capable of producing a subject. The subject, judged from without, it recognized through its behaviors, and as such, the corporation, the corporate subject, can be recognized as a subject if its behaviors are sufficient to produce such a judgement.

Within the essay which I wrote I do not use the above analogies, though they seemed fitting for the present purposes. My primary argument, however, is the same: behavior is the only appropriate rubric against which to judge a being’s subjectivity. There are a great deal of ramifications for the recognition of the corporate subject, primarily the effects which such a subject would have on its constituent subjects. Due to the unique nature of the corporate subject and its embodiment, I believe that the only way in which the corporate subject is truly capable of maintaining its subjectivity is by allowing for the full expression of its constituent subjects’ subjectivity and that the negation of any individual subject’s rights compromises the subjectivity of the entire corporation. However, I think that is a long and complex argument which doesn’t have much place in the present discussion (though I may return to it later if there is sufficient interest).

I wanted to return the this set of ideas because I realized some time ago that the set of arguments that I developed in favor of the corporate subject were popping up in the project I’m currently engaged with Emjay in developing. If we are working towards an Ontological Subject and the Theology of the Subject, then the definition and exploration of the subject becomes the center out of which everything else expands. Essentially, we are working backwards to the center of experience so that we make work forwards to the world and the divine.

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Beauty and Emptiness

I find myself constantly returning to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” I also constantly connect this with Marina Ambramovic’s disturbing refrain, “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.” Art in my understanding of it is only and only ever can be two things: beautiful and useless. All other qualities, all other descriptions, come from outside of art. Art itself, pure, actual art is merely beautiful and useless: art is empty, evacuated, devoid.

What does art do that nothing else can do? It presents, perfectly and wondrously, pure spectacle. Art restores the world to pure surface, it signifies absence. It marks perception as perception, restores beauty to its primal state, before commodity, capital, value. The allure and seduction of art lies in its vapidity, in its total lack of depth. It is entirely because of this that from nearly the beginning of human history, art has acquired a value beyond measure: art is precisely that which negates all value.

Let us not, now, elide the techniques of art with art itself. The techniques of art, of its production, of its mystique have been utilized across time and culture for purposes which are distinctly anti-art. The most obvious of these to the modern mind will be propaganda and advertising. Both of these forms utilize the techniques of art, but unlike art, which is entirely kenotic, attempt to cover over the empty plain of pure surface with meaning, to mine into and implant social, political and commercial depth. Propaganda and advertising aim to tell you things, they carry with them a terrible depth, a drowning depth which seeks to override your own perceptions, to alter and subsume them into the desires of others for you.

These schemas blaspheme the face of art, which is entirely indifferent, blind. The aim of propaganda and advertising is to penetrate you, to fix you in the gaze of the political, the commercial, to transform you into an object of political and commercial power. Art itself serves only to deliver you back to yourself through its frigidity, its vacuity. What is absent in art is delivered into it through your perceptions. Art, strangely and viciously, however, remains entirely detached, it has given you back to yourself through its indifference. Art remains unaltered by you, by your perceptions. Your perceptions echo back from the pure surface of art and through you entirely into your own echo chamber. That which resonates in art is yourself.

There are, of course, the softer declensions of the techniques of art, those which maintain the usefulness of objects: crafts, and the like, those operations which concern themselves with the beautifying of things. A carpenter makes a beautiful table. The table is not art, it is foremost characterized by its use, it will always be a table, until it rots, or breaks, or is replaced, at which point it becomes garbage. The beautiful once table may be transformed at anytime into art, once its use is stripped of it, once it no longer becomes defined solely by its table-ness. Museums are full of antiques that once served as along side their peers to fill grand houses, demarcating social space and the use thereof, now, inert, next to busts and vases, they are returned to total object-hood, again empty, returned to the total surface which defined their materials before production.

Yet even the museum serves as an engine of commodity, marking what it acceptable as art and what is not. The contents of museums suffer and decline, loose some of the gloss of their pure surface in the face of the grand institutionalization of the commodity of art. The museum, the cultural bastion, seeks to implant depth, cultural depth back into art. Only the most dramatically useless, the most woundingly beautiful works can survive this violence. The great artists are held to be great because they strangely succeeded in creating total absence, art which endures is the art of nothingness. Only nothing can withstand the cultural turbines of the historicizing institutions.

Let it be clearly understood: art is not a mirror. A mirror serves to show you to yourself, to return to you your image. Art does not serve. It maintains itself in its uselessness. When you engage with art, you are engaging in a feedback loop within yourself, you are confronting the total surface of pure objects and the surface turns your perceptions back upon themselves. Art makes you perceive perceiving, and so doing, multiplies bizarre effects as perception, that which goes unnoticed, is thrown into sharp relief within the psyche and it becomes the only thing noticeable. Pure surface returns perception to you, fills you with it. You perceive not yourself, as in a mirror, but your perceptual powers themselves. Art is when it restores perception to you, when it collapses the reflex of perceiving into a single action, and embeds you psychically in perception, destroying your detachment from subject and object.

This is, obviously, a polemic. It suffers, as all polemics must, from an incredibly narrow and reductive focus. For that I apologize. There is a great deal here that I intend to return to and expand, to open back up.

I have been struggling for some time to write about the role of art and art making in my life and spirituality, but I have found the process much more difficult than I had originally realized. I found myself over and over writing mere validities like “art is deeply important to my spirituality” and then being unable to continue.

I realized after writing the above polemic that there I simply care too much to simply write about the role of art in my spirituality. I have too many theories about the political power and importance of art, about the cultural relevance of art, about the commodification of art and its position within capitalism to talk merely about its spiritual significance, especially as for me, the spiritual role of art penetrates into all of these other fields of discourse.

And so, I am opening up yet another project on this blog: an exploration of the spiritual import of art and its ramifications on the function of art in society.

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Towards a New Ontology, Part 3

Again, I present another digression before moving on with the discussion at hand. I apologize for the crawling pace at which this discussion is proceeding, but at nearly every step I encounter a more quandaries which I feel I must address before moving forward.

Before beginning this series, I emailed Emjay about it asking her permission as well as sending her a draft of the first post. The two of us do, I admit, rather ominously, have further plans involving this theory, but I thought that it was important for my own understanding of it to begin working through it and presenting it here. In that initial draft, I had a throw away line which I then excised before posting, about how I felt Emjay was irritated with me for my final hesitation. She clarified, saying that she was not irritated with me, simply confused.

She suggested to me the reasons for my balking, and I do believe that her analysis of my reaction was correct. Our ur-theology is terribly open ended. That was, of course, the intent. And yet… Emjay suggested that I am too uncomfortable with a theology that tolerates all moralities, including those which I, I feel justified in claiming, find to be reprehensible and destructive. I feel like part of our disagreement stems from our views on the purpose of theology. I personally feel that it is quite important to keep a sharp line between ontology and theology, as I feel that they have very particular domains.

Emjay and I have since engaged in a rather truncated discussion of the role of theology in morality (mostly do to both of our schedules and our erratic response time to emails).  She, scolded me for implying that theology plays a vital and formative role in morality. In a message to her I said, “Ontology shouldn’t produce morality, but theology should. Have we produced a theology or an ontology? I do think that the ontology is secure, but if the theology cannot function to produce a faith, then it kind of fails. Isn’t morality part of spirituality? Are they not somehow linked? I don’t mean to say that one must know god to have morals, I believe one can derive them entirely humanistically, but isn’t that still an appeal to transcendance, merely human rather than divine?” I am not comfortable quoting Emjay’s response here, as I haven’t asked her permission, but I will summarize her rebuttal. Her response was that morality is not linked to theology (and that such a position was dangerous, as it allows for religious culture warriors to claim to have the only true rights to morality) but culture. Further, such a position invalidates Humanist and secular moralities.

I certainly do not disagree that morality is a social function. It is in operation within the social sphere and has a strong component, perhaps, honestly, the strongest component, of social concern. However, I think that it is also important to recognize that theology serves a similar function, in its embedding within society. Here I think we see a parallel evolution, theology and morality grow alongside and influence the development of each other. I think it would be a mistake to sever all linkages between morality and theology. While one may not precede the other in origin, each inflect and disturb the other through their growth. Thus, theology and morality are organically linked in the roles they play not only within society but within each other. After the fact, however, or perhaps even during, theology is viewed as the dominant partner in the relationship. Retroactively the social forces which shaped morality are shifted in the domain of theology. Taboos previously established because of social factors become divine edicts. Thus, theology serves to reinforce and preserve moral codes. Religion acts conservatively, resisting social pressures and maintaining a particular moral code of conduct. While theology is flexible, I would argue that social and culture forces are much more protean, especially in the contemporary world. Therefore, the function of religion in the moral sphere is to resist cultural and social pull. So, theology is likely not the dominant player in a society’s moral development, but it certainly has a hand in the longevity of any particular morality.

So, religion, as the theological institution, becomes an institution of morality. I use the indefinite article quite purposefully here, as I see no reason why there cannot be manifold institutions of morality, or perhaps, more controversially, moral institutions. Religion has historically been viewed as the dominant moral institution, though it is by no means the only one. Platonism in its pure form is largely unconcerned with religion and spirituality, indeed, Plato’s writings have a largely secular focus, and yet Platonism has served as a moral institution for centuries in various forms. Stoicism as well, which stands directly opposed to the metaphysical, is a philosophical movement caught up entirely with morality. Again, a moral institution which derives its force not from appeals to divine transcendence, but from appeals to lived experience and rationality.

Modern Secular Humanism owes a great debt to Stoicism in particular, I feel, for its approaches to morality. Thus, Secular Humanism functions in the moral realm in a way quite similar to religion, merely with different derivations. In place of theology, Secular Humanist moralities derive from philosophy. I hold that neither is necessarily incompatible with the other. Theology first places authority in divinity, while philosophy privileges human reason. Neither need contradict the other. Difficulties emerge when particular theologies and philosophies denounce the privilege of their peers. A particular theology or philosophy may instantiate a flawed morality, but this does not contradict the functioning of morality within the class of institutions deemed moral, be they secular or religious.

Must morality be institutionalized, then? There is a great danger in answering yes to the question, as then morality is removed from the individual and implanted within the group. As such, there would be no individual accountability, all moral force is transferred to the group, for good or for ill. Thus, no single person is responsible for their actions, as their actions are merely reflections of the collective’s morality. One is moral or immoral in as much as the group is moral, and moral judgements can then only be made from outside that group, as each constituent actor would be acting in accordance with group morality, thus nullifying moral judgements as a class and defining them instead as forms of cultural warfare. I propose, then, that moral institutions serve not as the moral actors, but as libraries of morality. Moral institutions preserve and disseminate moral knowledge (which, of course, is heavily inflected by the social and cultural forces of the group in which such institutions are embedded). Moral knowledge is not, however, predicated on the presence of such institutions.

Morality, I suggest, is praxis. All that is absolutely necessary for the presence of morality is a theory from which it derives. The motion from theology to morality is exactly analogous to the motion from theory to praxis. The same motion, of course, occurs between philosophy and morality. Morality is the active practice of theology or philosophy within the social sphere. Therefore, the individual is entirely responsible as a moral actor. The individual is responsible for the derivation or acceptance of any theory or worldview presented, and thus responsible for the moral choices which proceed from that theory. Morality, while linked to society and institutions remains foremost within the individual and actions which that individual engages in in relation to others. Morality proceeds through the actions of the individual from the underlying theory.

I do not believe that I am mistaken in my desire to establish a strong link between theology and morality. Of course, the project which Emjay and I have engaged in is fundamentally different from the model I described above. We are not dealing with an organically developing theological/moral matrix. We are creating a theology out of whole cloth. What, then, is incumbent upon such a theology? How does such a theology relate to morality: how must it relate in order to preserve its position as theology, rather than drifting into mythology (which can still be immensely powerful, but differently so)? These are questions which I am still very much engaged with and as yet unable to answer to my satisfaction.

Thus, I have been very purposeful in this project in my selection of the term ontology: the study of being, emphatically not the study of god. So far this project has not even touched upon Divinity. Nearly every other essay I’ve written here references the Divine in some sense, and I am not decidedly not bringing that concept into play here. There simply is no room for it. This discussion rotates around the Subject. This discussion takes place before God, it precedes and anticipates Divinity, but it is emphatically not addressing the Divine. The Divine must relate to, must be of the Subject, and until the Subject there is no Divine. So, ontology, not theology. I am here merely defining the ground out of which a theology may emerge, and, eventually, I hope present why the theology which Emjay and I have developed progresses logically and consistently from this ground.

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Materia Magica

Over the last few months, my personal practice has come to include more and more materia magica. The particular functioning of these things (stones, herbs, bent pins…) has become something of a fascination for me. I have encountered several different explanations for the operation of materia magica, and, honestly, I find very few of them to be satisfying.

I simply cannot accept the idea that materia magica function solely as a focus for the will. A great deal of the discussion of modern magic places power entirely within the operator. While I certainly do think that there are certain forms of magic which work in this way, such as Chaos Magic, certain types of contemporary Hermeticism as well as certain strains of contemporary Alchemy, I find the idea that all magic is of the subject rather … off putting. In the case of materia magica, it seems to me as though if it were the case that the materia possessed no special properties, then the particular materia are of no importance: ritual baths could be assembled out of anything as long as the will of the operator was correct. There is a rebuttal, then, that particular materia are required for generating the correct mental state, but then, again, it seems as though one is shifting the power out of the subject, or at least splitting it with the materia.

High Ceremonial magicians rely on particular atmospheric effects, of incense, color and various paraphernalia, yet are frequently quick to denounce the necessity of such accoutrements. It seems to me that either the materia magica is vital, or else absolutely unnecessary. I may be making too harsh a distinction, but if one is determined to achieve a certain mental state, does that not imply that the mental state alone is sufficient? Now, to say that the various materia are an aid seems unsatisfactory. From a phenomenological perspective, the changes which the necessary materia induce on consciousness can only be achieved through the lived experience of those materia. The embodiment of the operator is inescapable. So, then, the accoutrements of High Ceremonial Magicians are the source and fulfillment of their power. All the window dressing is as absolutely necessary to their success as their intent, as all of the complex atmospheric effects are caught up in the spell craft, regardless of their individual powers.

It appears, then, that I am moving toward a basic supposition: materia magica is effective because of the particular effect it has on perception. However, I feel like this is far too basic to be of any real use. All objects, being perceived, produce effects within perception. The use of materia magica relies on the assumption that they possess some special qualities which make them particularly suited to magical acts.

Now, I must shift slightly. I do think that there are some materia which do operate predominantly on a symbolic level: the bent pins in a Witch’s Bottle or the sword of a ceremonial magician. These things operate largely within the subject, their effects are interior. These sorts of materia are intended to act predominantly within or upon subjects (the magician, in the case of the sword, malign spirits, in the case of the pins). That materia which is is actant upon the Subject need not possess anything more than the power assigned to it by the operator/Subject. Therefore, symbolic power is power which manifests within the Subject, and that materia which acts predominantly upon the Subject need not possess anything more than symbolic power, fulfilled in the Subject.

Now, what makes basil a good luck charm? I must say that there is some quality possessed of basil that attracts good luck. It seems to me that magic pretty much must be a thing in the world, possessing formal qualities. If we, as subjects, are able to recognize and manipulate it, it must share some properties with other things which we manipulate. That is to say, magic must always react in the same way given the same circumstances. Magic must be as formal as the rest of the world. I may be making a mistake in naming magic as the thing manipulated. Magic may be a frame in which things are manipulated. However, my argument still holds. Objects, being bound by formal relations and bound as well by magic, so, if such is the case, magic must be a formal relation. Magic is shifted into the world itself, as gravity or strong nuclear force. Magic, however, remains somehow unique, as it appears to be a force accessible only to the Subject.

So, I recognize that these musings are largely incomplete: I’m really just trying to air some ideas. It seems to me like magic must be more than just an effect of will, and, if so, then materia magica becomes incredibly important.

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I woke up this morning from a strange dream. I have been having very strange dreams these last few weeks, but this one in particular left me, well, shaken.

I dreamed that I was walking along a busy street. It was a city that I’ve never been to, but it was the city I lived in. I was quite familiar with everything. I have to say, too, that it was a lovely city, full of sunlight and white stone and well kept gardens.I found myself caught up with a group of women dressed like conservative Jews talking in hushed tones amongst themselves. Evidently they were on a mission, a very important mission. We all stopped before a long slung stone and glass structure, vaguely Japanese looking, with broad overhanging eaves and a lovely garden of small herbs set in a patch of pale grey stones. The women had either not noticed or did not care about my presence, and so I decided to continue and observe.

As well as the garden, there were two deep pools of water with a large cairn rising from the center of the pools. However, the left most pool had been drained. Before the pool on the right sat an older man dressed like a conservative Rabbi. He held a long brass rod with a small cup attached to the end of it. With this device he scooped up a cup full of water and poured it upon the stone, praying.

One of the women, a motherly looking lady, approaches the man and gestures angrily at the empty pool. He mutters something, upset that she interrupted her, and says that the women responsible for setting up the pool was sick this morning. She snaps something back at him and he shrugs her off. Furious, she turns on her heel and storms into the building. Several young men in the older man’s retinue rush off after her.

I step forward from the sidewalk to examine the pool, and a young man in an ill-fitting suit stops me from coming any closer with an expression strangely of sympathy and confusion. Taking my accidental distraction as her cue, a young woman rushes forward to the pool, pushing past a few young men. The older man shrieks at her. She has a small cup in her hand. The young men turn to grab her, but are suddenly caught up in the arms of the other women.

She cannot touch the water, the water is holy. The water is holy and the stone atop the cairn is holy, and she must venerate the stone, as the stone which has been privileged to her sex was not prepared this morning. It seemed this was an ongoing struggle. She, however, must not touch the water. She kneels down and leans carefully, as her companions scuffle with the young men behind her. She canot quite reach the water. One of the women slip free and holds her so that she can lean further out.

She gets a small cup full of water. The old man in shrieking his prayers. She casts the water out and it splashes upon the stone. Her friend hauls her back upright and she spins and dances and the stone flashing upon which she stands gives way and she plunges into the pool.

No one moves. The young men are paralyzed, the old man has collapsed onto his knees. “God save her!” I shriek and leap into the pool. The women follow me.

There is a ledge within the pool. The pool is much deeper than it appears. There is a large cubic block upon which stands the cairn. She has fallen down, another twenty or thirty feet, between the side of the cube and the wall of the pool. The broken ledge lies on top of her. “God save her!” I cry again.

The women swarm down to the bottom of the pool. I am standing atop the cube, my head and shoulder above water. I yell at one of the young men to fetch an ambulance. He shakes out of his paralysis, nods and runs off. Over and over I am screaming “God save her, God save her, God save her.” The women are struggling to remove the broken ledge. A young women is returns to the surface, but she has no strength to lift herself to the surface, as she comes up to the edge of cube, I grab her and haul her up. Twice more I do this. I look down, “God save her, God save her, God save her,” where there were two women there are twenty, five young men are lifting away the ledge, and she is brought up to the edge of the cube, and I haul her and the last two women atop the cube and she is a dolphin.

A young man rushes to the edge of the pool. The ambulance is here, but he is silent, because he sees that she is a dolphin. We lift her from the pool, and as her head and shoulders break the surface, she is a woman, bruised and breathing raggedly. “God save her.”

And I awake.

Now, those who know me will know that I am the last person to cry God save anything. Honestly, upon waking, that was what disturbed me the most. I have never been a man of faith. Which isn’t to say that I don’t believe, that I don’t feel strongly, just that I don’t, well, have faith. Or at least, certainly not the kind of faith that would drive me to turn to God, any God, for help. I have never been the kind of man who thought that a God would care, could be moved, to reach out to us. I look at the world and I do not see love pervading. I see love, of course, in little places, in small rooms, between two hands, in eyes and glances and the tenderness of shoulders. I don’t see love, though, as a force in the world. So, I think, perhaps, then, I have never seen a God, and maybe I am looking in the wrong place, and maybe I don’t know what I am looking for. I was raised, as well, in a religion which for the longest time destroyed all hope for me. Only over the last four or five years have I been able to regain my spirituality.

The oddest thing, though, was the waking realization that the God I was calling to, the God who I was filled with faith for, was Dionysus. Of course, Dionysus would save her, and of course he would save her by turning her into a dolphin. And then, doubly odd, was the realization that what my faith had done, was not only save a woman’s life, but demonstrate to these other people of faith, that there was more than one God, and that it was not their God which saved the life of one of their people.

It was a very strange dream, and there was a good deal that I do not understand. I live in a neighborhood with a large conservative Jewish population, so it makes sense that my mind would turn to their aesthetic to depict a devout religious group. The gender binary was also important, and so, again, the attachment of the Jewish aesthetic was fitting. I have always had a great deal of respect for the strength of women, and so it makes sense to me that they would be the protagonists in my dreamworld. Women too often must fight for what is theirs by right. So, of course, I am given the struggle for faith in terms of women demanding their birthright.

I am left wondering: do I have faith, now? Do I have that thing which has baffled me, that Neo-Pagan buzzword, a Patron Deity? I don’t know. I know that I have a great deal of work left to do. I know that I am still deeply affected by a very short, very strange dream.

I really would appreciate any insights or comments that any of you have to offer. The thing that I am mostly deeply looking for is a community, is conversation and mutual understanding and growth. Please, let’s talk.

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