Jun 12 2012

Chaos Magick as Cultural Imperialism: Some Thoughts

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A little piece wondering about whether Chaos Magick is a form of “cultural imperialism” came to my attention today.

This got me thinking, as this was something I’d begun to wonder myself a little ways back. The twist to this, however, is that I also question whether “cultural imperialism” exists, or if it exists to the extent that some of us on the “left” fear.

I used to identify with the Chaos Magick movement. I never wrote about it extensively, but I used to post about such things occasionally at the beginning of my journal. Phil Hine calls Chaos Magick “postmodern”, in that it treats all systems as equal, and one can develop one’s “tool kit” by borrowing bits and pieces of these systems, and modifying them, or “extracting their essences” so that they can become useful to you.

I don’t entirely agree with the author of the piece above, but I don’t entirely disagree. either. Especially that the rituals borrowed are inherently parodied. I’ve never seen that happen, truthfully. Most of the time, the borrowing has been done with a certain amount of respect.

Most of the time.

One of the reasons that I’ve stopped writing (or even talking about) “magick” lately, is I wonder if it isn’t yet another form of distraction. I’m going to use a Sufi example here, but there are similar warnings in other systems (perhaps the cultural imperialist Chaos Mage in me isn’t as dead as I think). As one progresses along the path, one begins to notice certain “changes”. One might develop slightly precognitive abilities. One might develop telepathic abilities. One might develop who knows what. There is a word for these, which is Barakat, or “blessings”. The thing is, these are side-effects. They’re really cool side-effects, yes. But they’re not the goal. Believe me, as a consciousness researcher, I’ve seen some pretty way-out stuff. If these side-effects are real (and I’ve had my own moderate success with “magick” in the past), then I think they should certainly be studied, and looked into. I have no idea whether it’s “magick”, “Will”, “Zero-Point Energy”, “Quantum Physics”, “coincidence”, or what. I’ve done a pilot study on this stuff, and may one day do something much bigger. It’s no longer a top-level priority for me, however, in terms of research subject-matter.

As with anything, though, I found the Chaos Magick community to (on the whole) be rather immature and boring.

I don’t claim to be some wise old sage, but as much as I loved The Invisibles (and I still re-read it once a year, and each time find something new in it), I have little patience for the kids who run around trying to be The Invisibles. I was a member of the Z-List for a while. It was interesting, and I learned some neat stuff. But they lost me when members started cheering wildly about “taking down the system” when the World Trade Center was hit.

This was about as endearing to me as the inevitable exchange I’d find on a number of Thelemic mailing lists I used to be on.

“You’re an asshole!”

“Oh yeah? Maybe it’s my WILL to be an asshole!”

Please.

Is Magick distraction?

Yes. I believe it is. Or, at least, it can be.

It’s okay to spend time playing with the Barakat. In fact, I think it’s healthy to explore them. But by making them the end goal, is one truly “learning” anything? One learns, perhaps peripherally, that there might be more to consciousness/existence than what we’ve been led to believe. One might feel a certain amount of self-confidence, either from when it works (and it does work, occasionally), or from “being in on The Secret”. Besides, isn’t it more glamorous to assume that you’re under attack from psychic vampires than to just break down and admit that you’re tired? Only the “mundanes” get tired.

I want to be perfectly clear, that I am not attacking anyone’s “path”. I honestly don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re a Chaote, a Setian, a Wiccan, a Satanist, a Pagan, a Thelemite, or whatever, any more than I give a rat’s ass if you’re Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, or Muslim (and I’m pretty sure that covers it for my friends list). If you’re getting something out of it, I’m happy for you. If you’re a Taoist, though, you’re a fucking wanker. Just kidding. I love Taoists too. :)

I hope I’m being clear in that.

What I’m more concerned about are those who see the ability to do “magick” as the end goal itself. Most of these paths (with the possible exception of Chaos Magick) are just that. “Paths”, which eventually have a destination in mind. Things may happen on those paths. You might get some cool gifts. But I’m also pretty comfortable in saying that from what I know of each of those paths, the gifts aren’t the end goal. When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha, and all that.

Which brings me to “cultural imperialism”.

There is a whole fuckload of hand-wringing about “cultural imperialism” among those of us who identify as being somewhat on the “left” end of the spectrum. I’ve seen this defined a number of ways, but it usually seems to include one or more of the following:

1) Forcing a belief system onto another group of people

2) “Appropriating” the belief system of another group of people

3) Being some combination of white, male, heterosexual, “old”, and American, and daring to have an interest in something outside of what you were raised with.

#3 is probably the most blatantly antagonistic assertion I’m making, I realize, but I’ll get to it.

1) Forcing a belief system onto another group of people.
Yes. This is something that I do find “culturally imperialistic”. Missionaries have caused untold amount of pain, strife, and unpleasantness throughout history than I need to repeat. I don’t mean just “religious” missionaries, but secular ones as well. Secular missionaries can be those who feel the need to turn a nation’s economy upside down in order to “modernize” it, overthrow a government to “democratize” it, or any number of things. Surely there’s no such thing as “liberal” cultural imperialism of this sort, is there? Well, there is. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is nothing inherently wrong with wearing head scarves. Yet, too often, I hear about how “oppressive” this is to women in Middle-Eastern countries, and how we need to go in and “liberate” them somehow. That said, I do think burqahs are extreme, and the incident involving the girls fleeing from the burning school who were forced back into the building because they weren’t properly attired is wrong. I do find it entertaining, however, that definitions of “liberated” will vary from culture to culture. Here we might think that headscarves are oppressive. In many Muslim countries, scantily clad photos of Pamela Anderson, just about anything to do with Madonna, Britney, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, etc. are viewed as the West’s inherent oppression and degradation of women. Leave the fucking head scarf alone. Go after the people who beat women, and who force them into burning buildings. That’s the shit that should be criticized. Head scarves are much bigger than this, and a distraction from the real fight. Hell, even the Virgin Mary has one. If we’re so fucking upset about them, maybe it’s time for her to go through an image makeover, like Aunt Jemima went through a few years ago. Personally, I’d applaud to find the BVM has an Afro under there. I could go on to other examples of the “left” being just as guilty as the “right” in this manner, but this post is getting insanely long as it is.

2) “Appropriating” the belief system of another group of people.
Tricky. If we’re to accept this as “cultural imperialism”, then Chaos Magick is certainly guilty. So is Crowley. So is Wicca. So is Christianity. So is Judaism. So is Buddhism. So is every belief system out there. Why? Because what this definition of “cultural imperialism” seems to ignore is the idea of “communication”. Ideas are exchanged any time two people talk. People will then either adopt these ideas, or reject them. But even in rejecting them, they are influenced by these new ideas. To use this as a definition of cultural imperialism is to oversimplify. That said, “appropriation of belief systems of another group of people” does happen. One need only go to the Mall, and purchase a dreamcatcher, or buy some of Madonna’s Kabbalah Energy Drink, or the like. But is this cultural imperialism? Maybe if we stick to our definition of #1, it is, in a form.

How so?

Well, this gets back to the trickiness involving “communication.” What is the difference between “forcing my belief system on another group of people”, and “appropriating the belief system of another group of people”? What if we’re not appropriating? What if that belief system is finding a way to infect our consciousness, as a viral meme? We wring our hands (we’re good at that) about accidentally influencing some indigenous tribe somewhere with our Western ways. Yet, rather than “appropriating” things from them, what if they’re in turn accidentally influencing us? On a memetic level, maybe none of it is accidental in either direction. Maybe this is again, part of the process of communication. We often talk about how great it would be for everyone to get along. What if this is part of it? You can’t have a “web of life” and tribalism at the same time. There is going to have to be communication. This will inherently involve an exchange of ideas, that will influence both participants in the communication. Ideas, beliefs, cultural customs will continue to evolve. Again, there are abuses under all of this too. But I don’t believe that the appearance of “alien” beliefs, practices, ideas, thoughts, etc. among people who may not have been brought up in groups who hold these is necessarily a sign of “cultural imperialism.”

3) Being some combination of white, male, heterosexual, “old”, and American, and daring to have an interest in something outside of what you were raised with.
I’m really fucking sick of this. A prime example of this is when someone I once knew accused Huston Smith of being a “cultural imperialist”, because he was a “beatifically smiling white man” who dared to write a chapter about Judaism in his book The World’s Religions. Never mind that Smith is one of the most respected theologians in the country. His whiteness, and his masculinity made him inherently incapable of understanding Judaism. The person who told me this, however, saw no contradiction in her being of Jewish descent, and pursuing a path of Tibetan Buddhism. I guess it’s okay for “everyone else” to be “multicultural”. Put another way, I was involved with a girl from Ethiopia in college for a little while. I was informed by a professor on campus that I wasn’t actually being “blind” in my love, but rather, as a white male, I was enacting some sort of genetic predisposition towards “trophy hunting” and was therefore being “culturally imperialistic” in my dating a woman with differently colored skin than my own. Good thing I had someone there to show me the error of my ways. I’m not saying white men haven’t fucked a lot of shit up, historically. We have. But blanket statements about us, and assumptions about our motivations based on how we look, and our genitalia, is no less discriminatory than the shit a large number of us have pulled throughout history. Let me throw something else out there. This is a difficult question. Is Lynndie England guilty? Some might say “yes”. Others might say “she was a victim of the patriarchal institution that caused her to behave that way.” Personally, I think she is guilty. As much as torture is being sanctioned by our government, she still had the ability to refuse to go along with it. If one puts her as “victim”, it’s not only disingenuous, but also offensive (at the least!) to the crawling naked man she was leading around on a leash. If someone is inherently good or bad based on their genitalia, it doesn’t say a whole lot about the “power” of her genitalia, if that “goodness” was so easily overpowered by the “patriarchal system” in question. Or, was this something the man “deserved”, since he was a man, and had, as such, been inherently oppressive? But wait! He’s not white! Therefore he could be a victim, too! But wait! He’s Muslim! So, therefore, he’s just as bad, if not worse! See? This shit never ends. Round and round and round it goes. Meanwhile, what’s being ignored is that the situation shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Enough of that. I don’t have answers.

So, then. Is chaos magick inherently cultural imperialism?

I can’t (obviously) define “cultural imperialism”, so I don’t know. Even in the best intentions of “holistic studies”, or “integral theory”, I do see signs of some of what is claimed to be “cultural imperialism”.

Is all of this just a more complicated version of “communication”?

Again, I don’t know. I certainly recognize that there are abuses in the world. Please don’t think I’m denying that. I just don’t know that things can be intrinsically abusive, any more than they can be intrinsically “good”.

Maybe I’m turning into a relativist?

Maybe I just see too many exceptions to too many rules.

The popularization of the occult over the last several years, and the industry it has spawned has had both positive and negative effects, just like anything else. I’m still interested in it. It is provoking dialogue. It is getting information out there that is certainly useful to have out there. Hell, it makes a good chunk of my research much easier than it would have been even 15 years ago. Are the books “dumbing down” systems? A good number of them are, yes. I think, though, that’s part of a larger trend in our society. Is this a bad thing? Like so many other things, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being idealistic here, but for every 20 kids I see eagerly reading the latest book about being a “Teen Witch”, I hope that there’s a percentage of them that will become hungry for something more. Hungry to begin the real work, which isn’t marketed to them at the Mall.

The Hindus recognized this, to some extent, in the four yogas. Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Raja Yoga. Do some work. Look them up. I’m not going to go into them here (be your own cultural imperialist! why do I have to do all the hard work?) .

Some might say there are many ways up the mountain. There are. For those who wish to go all the way up.

The nice thing is, though, that if you decide to stay at the gift shop halfway up, too, you’ll still find plenty of things to keep you busy. You’ll have a great time, and you’ll still (I hope), have had a meaningful experience.

And that’s okay, too.

Enjoy the view.

Addendum: I should also note, that I firmly believe that “serenity” is equally a distraction, and not the end goal, either.

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