Hello humans (and otherwise). Haven’t written here for ages so this is cheating a bit but I’m very excited about attending the Trans-States conference in just over a week. This year I am presenting a paper on the presentation of magic and anarchism in the works of Alan moore and Grant Morrison. You know, the usual stuff. All going well I’ll get that written up as ana rticle soon and it will form a part of the next book (should it ever be finished) which explores occultism and ‘politics’ (small ‘p’ intended) through the lens of Deleuze and guattari’s concept of the war-machine. More on that to come as I’m hoping to start posting more on here again. In the meantime some of the Moore and Morrison stuff I’ve covered elsewhere in my Comics are Magic series.
Here, however, I want to present a write-up of the previous Trans-States conference back in 2016. It should become pretty clear why I’m so excited about returning again this year (seriously, check out the line-up at the link above). This write-up originally appeared in the British Association for the Study of Religions Bulletin, which is well worth the time for readers of this blog I suspect. If the summary below stirs your curiousity then be sure to check out the Trans-States Youtube channel which features audio and video recordings from the 2016 conference.
Trans-States: The Art of Crossing Over, 9-10 th September, University of Northampton
This year’s (hopefully inaugural) Trans-States conference was billed as a “transdisciplinary conference exploring representations in contemporary visual culture of boundary crossing, liminality and queerification with specific reference to occultism, mysticism, shamanism and other esoteric and spiritual practices”, and it more than delivered on the potent promises of that description. Indeed, even the conference’s programme booklet managed to be a thing of mysterious beauty and
fascination (available online here).
While historically the relationship between religion and the occult has been problematic, to say the least, this conference served to demonstrate that at least in academic terms there is a robust and healthy interest in the esoteric side of the religious coin. In fact, exoteric religion was something of an absent presence at the conference. Pax Fexneld’s paper, Bleed for the Devil: Self-injury as Transgressive Practice in Contemporary Satanism, and the Re-enchantment of Late Modernity, briefly touched upon the distinction between theistic and atheistic Satanism, but this was about as
close as it got. The lines between “religion” and magical practices can be difficult to draw. Non-Western traditions such as Voodoo made an appearance in Georgia van Raalte talk on The Ghetto Tarot (a photographic deck whose imagery utilises real Haitians using makeshift props to recreate the deck’s arcana), while elsewhere Vanessa Sinclair’s Third Mind work and Pandrogeny, which explored Genesis P-Orridge’s late work (P-Orridge being the founder of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth during the 1980s, though he has since abandoned that project to its own momentum). Alisteir Crowley, and his religion of Thelema, was a notable presence, with Crowley biographer Richard Kaczynski delivering the first keynote speech which detailed the creation of Crowley’s Thoth Tarot
deck, the result of an intensely creative collaboration with the painter Lady Freida Harris (not coincidentally, that deck’s depiction of The Hanged Man served as the poster for the conference).
Art, and its relationship to esotericism was a recurring theme. As well as small exhibitions showing the art of Carlos Ruiz Brussain, Sara Hannant and Sasha Chaitow there were performance art rituals from Orryelle Defenestrate, Appril Schaile and Stefanie Elrick, as well as filmed pieces such as a screening of Roy Wallace’s documentary Modern Angels, which explored body modification and the psychotropic music video for Kyrie Eleison by Denigrata (directed by the conferences own organiser
Cavan McLaughlin). Painting and illustration was also present in the talks about the art J. F. C. Fuller and Austin Osman Spare (whose influence merited a panel dedicated to his life, work and ideas). The literature of Victorian writer and occultist Edward Bulwer-Lytton was discussed by Jonah Locksley (curator of the highly recommended thethinkersgarden.com), while H. P. Lovecraft appeared by way of Kenneth Grant in Alistair Coombs presentation of Grant’s ideas, concerning Lovecraft as unwittingly channelling a great and terrible truth in his Cthulhu mythos. Cinema made its presence
felt in Rebekah Sheldon’s Queer Sex Magic, Transindividual Affect, and Nonrepresentational Criticism by way of the films of Kenneth Anger, as well as Kristoffer Noheden’s Cinematic Possession which focused on the use of trance in the films of Maya Deren, Jean Rouch, and Andrzej Żuławski. Surprisingly absent were comic books, though this was countered by the presence of the final keynote speaker, Alan Moore, arguably the world’s best known comics writer, and very active and open about his magical practices. Moore’s speech echoed the recurring themes of the conference, in particular the relationship between art and magic (if indeed they can be said to exist separately at all), and the capacity of art, in all its forms, to alter our perception of reality.
Intriguingly, Kaczynki’s fascinating discussion of the Thoth Tarot deck also included the revelation that Harris had originally based The Fool card on Harpo Marx, a design Crowley rejected on the grounds of it being vulgar popular culture. Incidentally, Harpo makes an appearance in Alan Moore’s superhero comic-come-magical grimoire, Promethea, representing The Aeon/Judgement. Such hidden connections could be encountered throughout the conference, its transdisciplinary focus resulting in an underground root system of invisible threads linking across panels. For my part, these
themes dovetailed nicely in the Black Mirror: Journal & Research Network discussion panel. As well as a healthy debate as to how best define ‘esoteric art’ (art using occult symbols? Art created while in a magical state? Art designed to create a magical state in the viewer? All three?), the discussion also pondered the question of “re-enchantment”.
One argument for the recurring interest in the occult has been, to take a phrase from the sociologist Max Weber, to counter the “disenchantment’” of rational modernity by re-enchanting the world through occult practices. However, this narrative is hardly clear-cut. The occult is deeply intertwined with modernity. The Western occult tradition especially draws upon the mystical as well as the scientific. This was a theme developed in my own paper on Tantric Transhumanism: An Esoteric History of Human Enhancement, and touched upon in Geoff Greentree’s talk on the sweat lodge as an ‘ancient technology’. Unfortunately I was unable to catch Ana Belén González-Pérez’s Epistemology of Magic: A Transdisciplinary Approach to the Quest for Results in Ars Magica which appeared to investigate related themes of reconfugring magical
practices through the lens of scientific thinking, and vice versa. Whether it be the evolutionary mysticism of Blavatsky’s Theosophical society, or Frieda Harris’s use
of then-modern scientific concepts and findings such as the Mobius strip, lunar tides and Martian canals into the Thoth deck designs, magical thought has assimilated, rather than been defeated, by scientific ideas. Indeed, as Marco Pasi from the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam said during that panel, “One wonders when the world was disenchanted”.
It might be suggested that anyone lucky to have attended this two-day conference would leave asking exactly the same question.
asking exactly the same question.