Questions for a Gathering

Dear Muses, friends, and fellow members of the hive, I ask this kindly of thee:

Wherein lies the difference, if any, between an algorithm and a spell?

[…] “Both consist of textual operations, written procedures to be followed,” texts a friend.

“Yes, yes, y’all,” we reply: “In the beginning was the word.”

[…] “Correct me if I’m wrong, but what is a code if not a kind of spell?” adds another. “The command line works as does a wand.”

Let us begin there. Let our partner in this beginning be Freud’s Unconscious, or what French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call “the body without organs” and its many “desiring-machines.”

Having established these initial similarities between codes and spells, let us attend as well to ways in which they differ.

“Spells enliven,” we venture; “whereas programming produces robots and drones.”

Twenty years ago, I and others assembled and performed under the name i,apparatus. Our approach involved spontaneous group play akin to Kerouac’s “Spontaneous Prose” and (tho perhaps without fully knowing so at the time) Mekas’s “Spontaneous Cinema”: egos seeking fusion on the fly through low-tech, sonic squall.

“Might we gather today, or in the days ahead?” asks wonderingly one who types, longing again for union with others. “Under what name, or by way of what method, and for what purpose?”

“For purposes of spontaneity in the realization of desire!” sings a chorus in reply. Spontaneity is the crux of the matter, even as we allow ourselves room to correct.

Monday December 21, 2020

What happens to those initiated into a world of magic, made to embark upon a path or journey by way of psychedelics? More specifically, what happens when this process begins in absence of teachers and institutional containers — when shamans and rituals, in other words, are not part of the initiate’s lifeworld, the initiate stripped of these on account of having rejected the religion of his ancestors in his youth? The search for a new framework becomes part of the initiate’s quest, does it not? One doesn’t even know at first that the process has begun. Advice arrives, though, as one asks around. One learns from fellow heads. Elders pass along teachings by book, by song, by word of mouth. Writings appear on walls, counseling one to pray and meditate. Days fill with makeshift, self-invented rituals — practices adapted to local conditions in the course of one’s travels. We become weird ones — lonely experimentalists sitting Indian-style in the dark. Are our adaptations legitimate ones, or are they products, as René Guénon warns, “of a merely individual caprice” (Perspectives on Initiation, p. 4)? Guénon would call those about whom I speak “mystics” rather than “initiates.” “In the case of mysticism,” he writes, “one never knows just where one is headed” (8). For Guénon, “the mystical path differs from the initiatic path in all its essential characteristics, which difference is such as to render the two truly incompatible” (9). Given subsequent right-wing uses of Guénon’s philosophy by monsters like Steve Bannon, however, we must take care not to place too much stock in this distinction.

Tuesday December 8, 2020

Esoteric speech, says Federico Campagna, is speech among friends. Campagna is a brilliant Sicilian anarchist philosopher. He’s the author of Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality. Campagna’s thought explores world-making. We make worlds voluntarily with others, he says. These are anarchist cells. Campagna’s thought draws upon Platonism and Neoplatonism, Heidegger, anarchists like Max Stirner and Colin Ward, mystics like Simone Weil and Henry Corbin, Iranian Islamic philosophers of the 12th century. And somehow Campagna is now himself a Catholic, as he declared on a recent podcast. His next book, slated for publication early next year, is called Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Adolescents. By speaking esoterically, we admit other dimensions of reality — parts that can’t be spoken given the language we speak. Descriptive language alone is not enough. Make of speech instead an event, a happening, like multidimensional correspondence chess. Build a device — equal parts database, memex, and volvelle, inspired by Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass and Ted Nelson’s Xanadu.

Saturday November 28, 2020

I used to think that others I met were wise witches and wizards welcoming me and guiding me, everyone and everything a potential teacher. I was a gnostic initiate on the threshold of a newly re-enchanted cosmos. At some point prior, an event had occurred that changed me, my sense of time and space altered. Pot restored some prior magical conception of reality that I’d been made to hide or repress — even as it also opened me to new modes of experience. I had become fearful in certain ways during my schooling. I’d developed emotional and psychological armor, shutting myself off from awe, desire, love, pain, hope — so as to just endure amid fear of bullying. It happened early in my childhood. A neighbor down the street used to push me. I was bullied and betrayed. This kid was my “best friend” at the time. Yet he pushed me around. He hurt me. That pattern of bullying and abuse continued, repeating itself in middle school and high school and beyond. These events turned me inward. I became like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. Pot got me out of that pattern. It helped me peek my head out of the Cave, like the dude who escapes in Plato’s allegory. I started to think of myself in terms of that character: the freed prisoner, the one whose head pierces the veil. At the end of the high (which can also be an ascent, a flight north), the hero returns again to the cave to free the others. The myth is restaged countless times; it can be transhistorical, like Christ’s harrowing of Hell, or historically specific, like Harriet Tubman’s many journeys to the South. The myth can be told as part of one’s past or one’s future. Millions of people relate to this tale in one or another of its many retellings. What about today? Is this still the narrative with which I fashion myself? I’ve become more discerning than that, have I not? In my encounters with witches and wizards, I study statements and practices. I listen for clues. If it seems like a person or group is trying to trick me or manipulate me, I bounce.

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Tasks arise, so I attend to them. One sees to the things one has to do. Grooming, cleaning, parenting. “So be it! See to it!” as Octavia E. Butler would say. The phrase was Butler’s mantra, one she wrote to herself in her journal years ago, before she was a published author. The words on that page of her journal are a spell. She decides what she wants and she proclaims it. Forget the excuses, she tells herself. “See to it!” Spells of this sort combine imperatives and future tense declarations of what will be. What were Butler’s thoughts on magic and the occult? What would she have called this if not magic? Psy-ops? An experiment in self-programming? Either way, it’s a power related to journaling. One becomes one’s own storyteller, writing dialogically day by day. Lauren’s journal functions this way. (Lauren is the main character in Butler’s Parable novels.) Lauren’s spells are the sections of the Parable novels written in verse. And here I am journaling about Butler‘s journals. Texts arrive bearing word about the process of initiation, like Butler’s 1988 novel Adulthood Rites, the second book in her Xenogenesis trilogy. (The three works in this trilogy — Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago — have also been gathered under the title Lilith’s Brood.) Initiation requires a teacher, though, does it not? Perhaps I can just learn from my friends.

Friday October 23, 2020

Books can present themselves as sacred works: “received word.” They can also serve as ceremonial objects containing the teachings of ancestors. Authors share mythoi and logoi. Exchanges occur cross-culturally. Histories are understood to unfold within and share the form of religious myths. History is the latter’s translation and dissemination across space-time. These myths and histories can be mixed and sampled, played with a difference by the storyteller, as they are by Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo. Stories can be intercut with myths as the two rhyme across time. Stories become circles within circles, as in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.

Tuesday October 13, 2020

Is it Faustian to wish joy and happiness? Are Utopians Faustian? What about those of us who wish alleviation of suffering through escape from capitalism? Or through religion, education, spirituality, cultivation of land and consciousness — all of which are at least Promethean, if not Faustian, in their defiant aims and ambitions. Projects waged against fate. The Faust character is distinct from the others, though, as he practices magic. Faust visits a crossroads. He makes a deal, sells his soul. The Devil features as a character in the Faust narrative, as does a demon named Mephistopheles. The latter name appears in the late-16th-century Faust chapbooks, stories concerning the life of the historical figure on which the Faust character is based, an ambitious scholar named Johann Georg Faust. The author of these chapbooks remains anonymous. The proper response to Faust, I suppose, is the one offered by Fatima Bhutto: “nothing on earth can be gifted to compensate for injustice.”

Thursday October 8, 2020

Ishmael Reed begins his novel Mumbo Jumbo with a dictionary definition of the title phrase. He does so to demonstrate that White Americans have appropriated this phrase. They use it ignorantly, disrespectfully, forgetful of its origins. The term derives from the Mandingo ma-ma-gyo-mbo, meaning “a magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away” (7). Mandingo or Mandinko is a language spoken in West Africa (Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and Senegal). Reed tells us with his title that his book is the work of such a magician. How would that work? Who are these “ancestors”? Are they black? Are they white? Why are they “troubled”? Where is “away”? I flip through old journals reading trance-scripts from the dawn of the Trump era (just after the election but prior to the inauguration). How was I able to write like that? Is it because consciousness is able to be in two or more places at once? Or is it on account of them loas? Nina Simone recorded three tracks based on originals by Bahamian artist Exuma: “Obeah Woman,” “Dambala,” and “22nd Century.”

I wrote about the latter song four years ago. Exuma called himself “the Obeah man.” The cover of his first album bore the message, “the future is freedom, the past a chain / the present, anybody’s game.” PaPa LaBas is described as an “obeah-man” (45) in Mumbo Jumbo.

Saturday August 29, 2020

Due to health problems, Ada Lovelace started using opium “systematically,” as her biographer notes, from 1841 onward. Her mentor and collaborator Charles Babbage is an interesting figure, too, the author of both “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” as well as the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a work on natural theology. The fourth chapter of the latter work is titled “On the Account of the Creation in the First Chapter of Genesis.” Scanning the chapter’s opening pages, one discovers references to geology. Most mysterious of all, though: Ada’s letters to Babbage contain references to a “lady-fairy” and “Fairy-Guidance.” Babbage’s nickname for Ada was “Enchantress of Number.” Her hope, apparently, was to “bequeath to the generations a Calculus of the Nervous System.” As her health declined in the 1850s to the point where opium no longer controlled her pain, she began to experiment with cannabis. Ada was largely forgotten after her death until her rediscovery by figures like Alan Turing nearly 100 years later in the 1940s and 1950s. The key to all of this magic, I think, is what Ada called “cycles” and “cycles of cycles,” or loops and nested loops.

Monday August 10, 2020

Magic is a narrative device deserving of reinvention. Realism may be capitalism’s reigning mode — but it, too, is no more than a genre, and like all genres, emerges embedded in a particular historical narrative. Realism, in other words, is not reality; it can be supplanted through reemergence of magic. This reemergence hinges upon invention of the future by way of remembrance of a forgotten past among oppressed and colonized peoples. But the potentials available in forms of magic other than technology frighten Westerners into disbelief. Is there a way for disbelievers to be healed of this disbelief?