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Challenges in the Study of Gender and Contemporary Occultism

Having been unable to attend the 2018 EASR conference at Bern and catch up with friends and colleagues, I was delighted to be offered this opportunity to listen to Manon Hedenborg White and Sammy Bishop talk about gender issues in contemporary occultism – a subject I’m most interested in.

Both Manon and I are part of a young cohort of scholars exploring new avenues of research in Twentieth Century and contemporary Western Esotericism. Specifically, we are both interested in highlighting gender as an aspect of occult discourse and practice. Manon’s recent and current work analyzes constructions of femininity and feminine sexuality in modern occultism, with a specific focus on Thelema and its development in the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries, while my own contributions have centered on attitudes towards gender among British Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess feminists between the late 1940s and early 1990s.

I chose to comment and elaborate on a few of the issues highlighted by Manon during the interview. First, she observes that men slightly outnumber women in contemporary Thelemic organizations such as the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and she feels that the intersection with feminism, as seen in Wiccan-derived contemporary Paganism, hasn’t been as strong in Thelemic groups, for various reasons. This, in fact, makes her postdoctoral project, which centers on Female Authority and Agency in Thelema, all the more important. As noted recently by Jay Johnston, “the assumption that magicians are only men and witches are only women is [still] disappointingly common” in contemporary Western esotericism (416). Yet not all contemporary Pagan denominations feature a higher proportion of female adherents. In most groups that practice Heathenry, which focuses on the veneration of Germanic and Scandinavian deities, male adherents outnumber their female counterparts. According to Stefanie von Schnurbein, most groups are composed of 60 to 70 percent men (216). In the American context, as noted by Johnston, the relatively-high proportion of army veterans in Asatru “has engendered very active masculine roles” that harken back to an imagined Viking past of “warrior men and hearth-tending women” (416-417).

A further point I would like to highlight here is that – as Manon rightly observes – “there really is a lack in solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall“. One of the first attempts to do so, coincidently, was by a practitioner – Chris Bray, the proprietor of a Leeds-based occult bookshop known as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In 1989 Bray undertook ‘The Occult Census’ in an attempt to compile “the first real analysis of the sociological importance of Occultism in the history of the world.”  Some of the data he collected was also utilized by Michael York in his sociological study of the British New Age, Pagan, and occult scene during the late 1980s and early 1990s, published in 1995 as The Emerging Network (133-135, 142-144, 182-197, 210-211). One point I would like to add to this is that it seems that Contemporary Paganism as a whole is certainly receiving greater attention in terms of quantitative research than that received by Thelemite and OTO groups, for instance. Helen Berger’s The Pagan Census (PC) and The Pagan Census Revisited (PCR) are representative in this regard. Berger’s work, which centered on Pagans in North America, has, in fact, inspired comparative surveys that utilize its template to varying degrees in order explore different Pagan localities and compare the data with the PCR. The 2016 EASR conference in Helsinki included a session titled ‘Differences and Similarities in Contemporary Paganisms across Diverse Locales: Interpreting Census and Survey Data’, in which two of the presentations utilized Berger’s survey template in order to compare between Paganism in North America, Israel, and the Czech Republic.   

Finally, a word on the secretive aspect of occult groups and our position as scholars of contemporary Western Esotericism. Manon, for instance, in her PhD dissertation and subsequent publications, chose not to discuss OTO rituals that are secretive and open to initiates only, and alludes to past researchers of contemporary occult groups who have undergone initiation into groups and then described the rituals themselves. Manon felt this could be “ethically quite troublesome” and was interested in other aspects of the Thelemic traditions to begin with. She also describes having to separate between conversations and rituals you are invited into as a scholar and those the scholar is invited into rather as a friend or as “someone who is perceived as a kindred spirit.”

In my study of the Israeli Pagan community, I had to deal with similar dilemmas, coupled with the fact that a few vocal members of the local Pagan community objected to my wish to publish the fruits of my research, fearing it will cause this miniature and reclusive spiritual community to ‘pop-up’ on the government’s radar and incur violence from Ultra-Orthodox groups anxious to safeguard Israel’s existence as a (Orthodox) Jewish state. Most members of the local Pagan community were supportive of my publications, which were written almost entirely in the form of English-language peer-review – and paywall-protected – journals that are virtually unread by the non-academic Israeli public. Israeli Pagans’ fear of publicity has – and still is – a fact I felt compelled to factor in as I repeatedly refused to speak about them when prodded occasionally to do so by both sensationalist and established local television shows and newspapers.

Researching initiatory-based groups as an outsider has sometimes hindered my research into British Wiccans’ reaction to second-wave feminism as well. Most of my oral history interviewees were happy to cooperate once I was able to provide assurances that I was ‘a proper person’, and Pagan libraries and archives in Glastonbury and Boscastle were opened to me in their entirety, while custodians of the papers of a deceased Wiccan luminary felt compelled to ‘protect the mysteries’ and withhold my access to the collection. It did not matter, of course, that I was hardly interested in obtaining information regarding the secret names of Wiccan deities but actually prized potential correspondences between said Wiccan and figures such as Starhawk or Mary Daly. In fact, issues of secrecy were not restricted to Western Esotericism as I searched for research materials in feminist archives during the course of my PhD. As a male scholar, was I allowed to read through copies of ‘women-only’ newsletters complied during the 1970s and 1980s? Were these publications already part of history or not? What to do when a certain publication was designated as ‘available to women scholars only’ in one feminist archive but was unrestricted in another? The answers to these questions are not necessarily set in stone, and as a historian who has been trained to study the writing of individuals who are ‘safely gone’ but chose instead to make the 1970s-1980s era his ‘bread & butter’, I’ll continue to have my hand full in dealing with such dilemmas, for sure.     

References

Johnston, Jay, “A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism,” in Contemporary Eesotericism, eds. Egil Asprem and Kenneth Granholm (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013), 410-425.

Bray, Chris, The Occult Census: 1989 – Statistical Analysis & Results (Leeds: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Press).

von Schnurbein, Stefanie. Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism (Leiden: Brill, 2016).   

York, Michael, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).

Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Sammy Bishop speaks to Manon Hedenborg White about the development of Western esotericism, charting the influence of the infamous Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. They explore Crowley’s somewhat ambiguous view of gender, before bringing the research into the present day, on how gender roles in contemporary Thelema can be contested and negotiated. Finally, Hedenborg White delves into the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of contemporary Occultism.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

Podcast with Manon Hedenborg White (10 December 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hedenborg_White-_Negotiating_Gender_in_Contemporary_Occultism_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR 2018 Conference in Bern. It’s a very sunny day today. And I am joined by Manon Hedenborg White, from Sǒdetǒrn University, a post-doctoral researcher. So, thank you very much for joining us!

Manon Hedenborg White (MHW): Thank you. It’s great to be here.

SB: Have you enjoyed the conference, so far?

MHW: I have, very much. It’s been a little bit of a short visit for me. But I’ve seen some really interesting papers, on a lot of different topics – none of which have really been in my main area of research. So that’s always a fun thing.

SB: So your main area of research is in occultism, and sex magic as well. So, for the Listeners who aren’t too familiar with the field, could you give us a brief outline of what is occultism and sex magic?

MHW: Yes. Definitely. So, occultism: usually the way I explain this is as a particular branch of the broader field that we usually call Western esotericism. So Western esotericism is a very broad umbrella term that’s usually used to encompass a number of different religious and philosophical phenomena, with their earliest roots in late antiquity, which have blossomed in Europe primarily during the renaissance, and which are still in existence today. And which encompass things such as Hermeticism, The Tarot, Astrology, Ceremonial Magic, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonary – or specific branches of Freemasonry – and so on. So occultism, generally, is characterised as specific forms of modern western esotericism. For instance one of the leading experts in this field, Wouter Hanegraaff, characterises occultism as attempts by esotericists to come terms with a “secularised and disenchanted world”. So it’s . . . esotericism, in the meeting with Social Darwinism, modern science, increased religious pluralism, partly as a result of the loss of hegemony on the part of the major churches . . . . So esotericism in the modern world would often be characterised also by attempts to bring in science-like language and science-like methodologies to the study of supernatural realities.

SB: Very eloquently put, as well! So when did this start becoming more popular in the UK or the US, more generally?

MHW: Yes. There have been various waves of it. But definitely a lot happens from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when we often talk about something called an occult revival. Now, that terms a little bit problematic, because that sort-of implies that occultism or esotericism was somehow not really around before that, which it definitely was. But, certainly, in the second half of the 19th century there was a very strong wave of interest in various forms of religiosity and spiritual systems of meaning outside of the major religious institutions. So that’s when we have phenomena such as spiritualism gaining loads and loads of interest during this time, becoming a very popularised sort-of esoteric or occult movement. We also have the interest in practical magic pioneered by movements such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and we also of course have the genre of literature on sexual magic, as well. These various occultists writing about how they believe that sexual energy or sexual fluid, sexual techniques could be harnessed for magical purposes.

SB: So one of the most popular – well, poplar’s not really the way to put it! One of the most well-known figures within that field was Aleister Crowley. So, could you tell us a bit about it?

SB: Yes. Definitely. So Aleister Crowley is fundamentally one of the most influential occultists of the modern period, basically. He was born in 1875. His parents were members of a conservative Christian Movement – a dispensationalist movement – known as the Plymouth Brethren. And Crowley rebelled against his upbringing at quite a young age. He identified himself very famously as the Great Beast, 666, which is of course a character from the Book of Revelation. And he also brought in, from the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon. Which he reinterpreted as the goddess Babalon representing, among other things, liberated sexuality. So he was really sort of invested in this kind of renegotiation of symbols that within a Christian context were seen as evil or sinister, basically. And this was based on a very sort-of strong critique on Crowley’s part of what he perceived as Victorian and Edwardian and Christian sexual morals. That was one of his strong, strong sort-of . . . . Something that he really focussed on quite a lot was revising Western sexual morals, essentially. So Crowley was drawn into this whole occult trend that was ongoing in England at this time. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it a few years after that. (5:00) And, in 1904, what happened was Crowley was on honeymoon with his first wife Rose Kelly, in Cairo in Egypt. And he was visited by what Crowley describes as a “discarnate entity”, which he called Aiwass, who dictated to him what would become a sacred text – which was later known as the Book of the Law, or Liber AL vel Legis. This proclaims a new aeon in the spiritual history of humanity, with Crowley as its main prophet and leader, essentially. And the Book of the Law proclaims the very famous maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” And also the word “thelema”, which is Greek for will. So there’s this idea of will as a very important characteristic of this new aeon, which Crowley would later develop into an idea – not so much of doing whatever you want to do in any given moment, but instead something which he called a concept of the True Will. This is the inner hidden unique purpose in each individual life, which is up to each individual man or woman to find and sort-of develop. So that was his main idea and is also the core idea of the religion that Crowley founded, which is known as Thelema.

SB: Thank you. So I understand that a lot of your interests lie in gender aspects, as well. So could you say a bit about how Crowley kind-of explored that, and played with it, and kind-of up-ended it?

MHW: Yes. That’s a really interesting question, and one that I have looked into a lot. And it’s very complex. Crowley is often accused of sexism and misogyny and he does write some things, in some texts, that are quite clearly in that direction, from a contemporary perspective. On the other hand, he was also progressive in some texts. So he often contradicts himself, for instance, in women’s roles. In some texts he writes that women are spiritually sort-of different from men, and have different possibilities for developing, and are generally sort-of spiritually and morally inferior to men. And in other texts he writes more or less the complete opposite. One of his texts from the 1920s . . . . For instance, one of the comments to the Book of the Law is very progressive, actually, even sort-of from a contemporary perspective. He talks about women’s sexual freedom, for instance, and writes that the best women have always been sexually free, and that this is something that is really important. And that was actually quite radical, from the point of view of Crowley’s time. So there’s these massive internal contradictions that you can see as well. Also the sort-of core cosmology, or theology, of Crowley’s religion of Thelema is very strongly gendered. And it’s got all of these gendered symbols that on some levels kind of contradict each other, as well. For instance, within the Book of the Law, there’s a tripartheid cosmology based on the Goddess Nuit, the God Hadit and their divine offspring Ra Hoor Khuit. So there you have the idea of a polarity between masculine and feminine. That’s an interaction with the masculine playing a more active role and the feminine playing a more passive, or receptive, role. Then, on the other hand, you have other deities within the system of Thelema, as well. For instance I was talking earlier about the symbolism of the Beast 666 and the goddess Babalon. The goddess Babalon is seen as one of the most important embodiments of divine femininity within Thelema. And that’s a symbol that is both active and receptive on different levels, you could say. So there’s quite a lot of complexity in that.

SB: So, taking it up to the present day: could you describe who might be involved with contemporary Thelema and how prevalent it is, or where it is, as well?

MHW: Yes. There really is a lack of solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall. So these figures that I’m going to be giving you, are a little bit ball-park. The largest Thelemic organisation in existence today is an organisation known as the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, which Crowley led for several years during his lifetime, and which has approximately 4000 members across the globe. About a quarter – slightly more than a quarter of that are in the US. But there are also a couple of hundred members in other countries as well, such as: the UK, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, large portions of Western and Eastern Europe, some scattered local bodies in Asia, and in Latin America as well. People who tend to be involved are not very different from how people are in general. The research that has been done, and the observations that I have done over the course of my research, say that people within the Thelemic milieu today are: generally a little bit more highly educated than the average population (10:00); maybe slightly more men than women – although that’s difficult to estimate without doing more research in this area; average age somewhere from around maybe 25 up to 50 – but you’ve got all different kinds of ages; and a really big diversity of different religious backgrounds. So, people coming from an atheist or agnostic background, a Christian background, a Jewish background, a Muslim background. Quite a few who come into Thelema from Buddhism, for example, or find ways of combining the two. So really, lots of different types of people. And professionally-speaking, many areas as well. Many people who are involved in the Arts in different ways, or in mental health, psychology – things like that. But also academics, IT professionals, teachers, educators. So, lots of different types of people.

SB: So you mentioned that there were perhaps a few more men in Thelema. Whereas groups that might be comparable, like Wicca and other forms of Paganism, tend to be much more strongly female. So do you have any opinions on why that might be?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. With groups such as Wicca what is important to remember is that, when Wicca emerged, the gender balance that we’re seeing today with a lot of women wasn’t really . . . that was different. Because when Wicca emerged, it came out of these ceremonial magical orders of the early 20th century, which were male-dominated to some extent. So what has happened in Wicca, in Neo-paganism, is this very strong integration with feminism, with second-wave feminism and radical feminism that we’re seeing in the 1970s. That intersection hasn’t been quite as strong, I think, within Thelema, although we definitely see the influence of it there as well. Thelema, and organisations such as the OTO, have stayed a little closer to this sort of ceremonial magical background that they’re coming out of, for different reasons. And there’s a lot of different reasons why that development hasn’t really happened in the same way there. But that’s a very fascinating disparity, I think, as well.

SB: So, in contemporary Thelema, to what extent do they base their practices on Crowley’s writings? And to what extent do they try and be a bit creative or reinterpret things? I mean, as he was obviously a very creative thinker, do they try and emulate that attitude as well?

MHW: Yes. Very much so. Both those things. Crowley is a huge source of authority for contemporary Thelemites, many of whom practise daily some of the rituals and spiritual practices that he advocated. For instance, Crowley advocated daily meditation, or the use of a magical journal – that is something that many, many Thelemites do on a kind-of daily basis. He also advocated the use of simple banishing rituals such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, or the Star Ruby which is a sort of Thelemic banishing ritual that Crowley devised himself. And those are very popular as well. Also, a lot of Thelemites today participate in group rituals that Crowley wrote. One that is immensely important for a lot of people is the ritual called the Gnostic Mass – which Crowley wrote in 1913 – which is celebrated on a weekly basis somewhere across the globe within the contemporary OTO. And which has a lot of significance for many Thelemites today. But, of course, people are also immensely creative and also bring in practices, and symbols, and patterns of belief from other religious traditions as well. Like I mentioned, quite a few Thelemites are inspired by Buddhism, for example. And perhaps especially Tantric Buddhism and bringing in symbolism and practices for that, to different extents. Another thing that’s been developing in recent years is an interest in African Diaspora religions. So that’s particularly something that you can see in the US, with an increasing number of American occultists and American Thelemites bringing in practices and deities from things like Vodou, Santaría , Quimbanda, Palo Mayombe and things like that. So that’s a very interesting syncretism. So people are, of course, immensely creative as well. And that’s something that’s sort-of there in this religious system. Originally, Crowley was very sort-of firm on the idea that you should do what works for you. And you should be meticulous about documenting your magical practices and you should practice what works, instead of blindly following some sort of belief-centric system, essentially.

SB: And how about the gender politics in contemporary Thelema, as well? How much are they aiming to replicate the original? (15:00) To what extent are they changing, as well?

MHW: There has been quite an active debate that’s been ongoing at least since the mid-1990s with people, and especially women, I think, who have addressed things like perceived sexism and misogyny in Crowley’s writings. And also the gender disparity that we were talking about earlier: why aren’t there more women in Thelema? And what can we do to sort-of ameliorate that imbalance – to the extent that there is an imbalance? And one thing that’s of course new, is that today there’s a whole different language for talking about different varieties of gendered experience, and different forms of sexual orientations and practices as well, than there was during Crowley’s time. I mean Crowley himself was a very sort-of interesting figure, when it comes to gender. For instance, in some texts he suggests that he is sort of hermaphroditic, or androgynous, on a sort-of spiritual level. And in his diaries and his autobiography he writes about this as well. And he writes that he has combined the masculine and feminine virtues within himself, and that that is also reflected in his physique. So today we have labels such as gender fluidity, gender queerness, non-binarity and things like that, that weren’t really present in Crowley’s day. And that is something that’s very visible in this debate today, as well, and how that’s sort-of used. For instance in the OTO – the Ordo Templi Orientis – there is a system of referring to members as brother or sister. And there’s also been introduced a gender-neutral variety of that, so “sibling”: non-binary or gender queer members of the OTO can choose to be referred to as sibling, for instance. So that’s a very clear example of how that is actualised in the contemporary debate. Another example of that is with the Gnostic Mass, which in its original policy stipulates that the mass is performed by a priest and a priestess among other officers. And, originally, the policy for the United States Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis states that the priestess should be a woman and the priest should be a man in Gnostic Mass celebrations that are open to the general public – which many of them are. Today, that policy has been . . . or this happened quite a few years ago, but that policy has been amended to say that the person performing the role of priestess should be someone who identifies as female and the person performing the role of priest would identify as male. So that, of course, includes that trans-gender women can perform the role of priestess and transgender men can perform the role of priests, regardless of where one is in the process of one’s transition. So that’s also a very good example of that, I think.

SB: And when it comes to people trying to maybe legitimate their arguments, or finding sources of authority for kind-of changing the – let’s say – traditional structures: what kind of narratives might they come up with?

MHW: Well, something that is really strong is sort-of appealing to Crowley’s own queerness, if you want to call it that. That is something that a lot of people who are arguing for revising these policies, and for bringing in what you could call the more sort-of inclusive way of looking at gender, they say: “Well, look at Crowley and look at who he was.” For his time, he was openly bisexual. He had a female alter-ego that he called Alice, who he sometimes took on the role of in rituals and in various social situations. So people point to that. There’s also quite a lot in original Thelemic doctrine that suggests that gender isn’t really . . . doesn’t really determine anyone’s value: that every man and every woman is a star. That’s a passage from the Book of the Law, and that’s something that a lot of people quote as well. However, there’s also quite a strong critique of Crowley in contemporary Thelemic debate. So a lot of people are also aware that some of the things that he wrote are problematic from a contemporary perspective. And they sort-of say: “Well, Crowley says this . . . but we don’t necessarily have to take everything Crowley says at face value. We can also acknowledge that he was a man of his time and that we’ve maybe come further in some of these issues today.”

SB: Ok. So how about the historical roles of women in Thelema? Could you tell me a little bit about that?

MHW: Sure. That is something that I’m actually starting my current research project that’s just starting now. It’s a three-year post-doctoral research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council that will be exploring that specific issue. I’m going to be looking at lives of three women in the 20th century Thelema, and their different roles in building this emerging religion. (20:00) So something that was really fundamental to many of the occult orders that emerged during the early 20th century is that women were able to take on leadership roles – in a way that they weren’t in the major religious institutions, during this time – and ascend to positions of really quite significant religious and spiritual authority. And that was also the case in the Golden Dawn, for instance, which Crowley was briefly a member of. And it was also the case in the early Thelemic movement. Several of Crowley’s female disciples and lovers held really important positions within the Thelemic movement. So one of them that springs to mind immediately, and is also one of the women that I’m going to be looking into in my post-doctoral research, is a woman named Leah Hirsig who was a Swiss American schoolteacher, and who co-founded with Crowley the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalù, on  Sicily, in 1920. And she was basically his right hand for a few years, there. He dictated important texts to her, and she wrote – in all likelihood – commented and edited and contributed to that as well. And she was also really instrumental in sort-of steering the Thelemic community which was scattered across the globe around this time. She was also Crowley’s Scarlet Woman, which is a title that he assigned to some of his most important female disciples and lovers. So, to that extent, she was seen as the sort of semi-deified counterpart of him as the Beast, 666. And she also, at the Abbey of Thelema, took on a very, very important ritual role as the Scarlet Woman. She eventually claimed herself to be the goddess Babalon incarnate. And she also presided over Crowley’s initiation to the highest degree in his magical system which is called the Ipsissimus degree. So she played a really important role in that. Another woman who was very important, whose life I will also be looking into, is named Jane Wolfe – who was an American silent film actress, who was also with Crowley at the Abbey of Thelema, and studied under his tutelage, and then went back to America and was really fundamental in establishing the Thelemic milieu in the US. And something which is often overlooked about these women is how really important they were, and how fundamental they were. For instance, right now there’s this TV series that’s being . . . I can’t remember what station it is, or what channel, but on the life of Jack Parsons, who was one of Crowley’s more colourful, American disciples in the US. And Parsons gets a lot of publicity for various reasons. He led a very interesting life. But someone like Jane Wolfe, who was very sort-of organisationally important – and over a much longer period than someone like Parsons, for instance – gets a lot less press, and a lot less sort-of attention, because she plays a quieter role. But she was really formative. And that’s, a lot of the time, what happens with women in religious communities. They don’t get the spotlight. But they’re there managing everything and making sure that the day-to-day operation actually works. So that is something that is, sadly, quite often overlooked.

SB: Do you think that attitudes towards women in Thelema have generally reflected wider society’s attitudes?

MHW: Yes. Definitely – to an extent, of course. In society at large, of course, there are issues with women as leaders in a lot of different fields, where women aren’t really allowed, or not accepted, as leaders to the same extent as men. Or women who take on leadership roles are also often perceived in a more negative light than men. And I think those issues are reflected in the Thelemic community as well, to some extent. Or at least they have been, definitely, historically. And also this sort-of expectation that women are supposed to take on more emotional labour, and more sort-of chores – like preparing, and cooking, and cleaning, and doing those types of things – while the men get to sit around and have interesting conversations. I mean, that’s a little bit of a stereotype, but sometimes you see that happening definitely in occult history, as well.

SB: OK. So, changing tack slightly: when it comes to occultism and esotericism, they are famously kind-of secretive. So how did that effect your research and the methods that you used to research this?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. And it is, of course, a challenge to study these movements. Some of the rituals, for instance, that are performed by the OTO today – such as the initiation rituals – those are secret, and they’re not open to initiates. I handled that by not writing about those parts of the tradition, whatsoever. Some researchers within this field have dealt with that by conducting sort-of open participation observation: seeking initiation in occult orders, and then describing the rituals. And I chose not to do that because I felt it would be ethically quite troublesome. And also it wasn’t really the aspect of the traditions that I was interested in for the particular research that I did for my PhD, anyway (25:00). But it is something that you definitely come across, to a certain extent. And there’s always a lot of sensitivity that’s required as a researcher, I think, in sort-of determining what you’re actually being invited into as a scholar, and what you’re being invited into as a friend – or someone who’s perceived as a kindred spirit. And that’s something I’ve had to deal with a lot, with conversations of a more delicate nature, during my fieldwork. And when I’ve published from my research, there are things that are being left out for that reason. But that’s the case with anyone who does any type of ethnographic research, I think.

SB: Well, Manon – thank you so much for joining us. I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.

MHW: Thank you so much.

SB: And thank you for joining the RSP.

MHW: You’re welcome.


Citation Info: Hedenborg White, Manon and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/negotiating-gender-in-contemporary-occultism/

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From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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Podcasts

Challenges in the Study of Gender and Contemporary Occultism

Having been unable to attend the 2018 EASR conference at Bern and catch up with friends and colleagues, I was delighted to be offered this opportunity to listen to Manon Hedenborg White and Sammy Bishop talk about gender issues in contemporary occultism – a subject I’m most interested in.

Both Manon and I are part of a young cohort of scholars exploring new avenues of research in Twentieth Century and contemporary Western Esotericism. Specifically, we are both interested in highlighting gender as an aspect of occult discourse and practice. Manon’s recent and current work analyzes constructions of femininity and feminine sexuality in modern occultism, with a specific focus on Thelema and its development in the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries, while my own contributions have centered on attitudes towards gender among British Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess feminists between the late 1940s and early 1990s.

I chose to comment and elaborate on a few of the issues highlighted by Manon during the interview. First, she observes that men slightly outnumber women in contemporary Thelemic organizations such as the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and she feels that the intersection with feminism, as seen in Wiccan-derived contemporary Paganism, hasn’t been as strong in Thelemic groups, for various reasons. This, in fact, makes her postdoctoral project, which centers on Female Authority and Agency in Thelema, all the more important. As noted recently by Jay Johnston, “the assumption that magicians are only men and witches are only women is [still] disappointingly common” in contemporary Western esotericism (416). Yet not all contemporary Pagan denominations feature a higher proportion of female adherents. In most groups that practice Heathenry, which focuses on the veneration of Germanic and Scandinavian deities, male adherents outnumber their female counterparts. According to Stefanie von Schnurbein, most groups are composed of 60 to 70 percent men (216). In the American context, as noted by Johnston, the relatively-high proportion of army veterans in Asatru “has engendered very active masculine roles” that harken back to an imagined Viking past of “warrior men and hearth-tending women” (416-417).

A further point I would like to highlight here is that – as Manon rightly observes – “there really is a lack in solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall“. One of the first attempts to do so, coincidently, was by a practitioner – Chris Bray, the proprietor of a Leeds-based occult bookshop known as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In 1989 Bray undertook ‘The Occult Census’ in an attempt to compile “the first real analysis of the sociological importance of Occultism in the history of the world.”  Some of the data he collected was also utilized by Michael York in his sociological study of the British New Age, Pagan, and occult scene during the late 1980s and early 1990s, published in 1995 as The Emerging Network (133-135, 142-144, 182-197, 210-211). One point I would like to add to this is that it seems that Contemporary Paganism as a whole is certainly receiving greater attention in terms of quantitative research than that received by Thelemite and OTO groups, for instance. Helen Berger’s The Pagan Census (PC) and The Pagan Census Revisited (PCR) are representative in this regard. Berger’s work, which centered on Pagans in North America, has, in fact, inspired comparative surveys that utilize its template to varying degrees in order explore different Pagan localities and compare the data with the PCR. The 2016 EASR conference in Helsinki included a session titled ‘Differences and Similarities in Contemporary Paganisms across Diverse Locales: Interpreting Census and Survey Data’, in which two of the presentations utilized Berger’s survey template in order to compare between Paganism in North America, Israel, and the Czech Republic.   

Finally, a word on the secretive aspect of occult groups and our position as scholars of contemporary Western Esotericism. Manon, for instance, in her PhD dissertation and subsequent publications, chose not to discuss OTO rituals that are secretive and open to initiates only, and alludes to past researchers of contemporary occult groups who have undergone initiation into groups and then described the rituals themselves. Manon felt this could be “ethically quite troublesome” and was interested in other aspects of the Thelemic traditions to begin with. She also describes having to separate between conversations and rituals you are invited into as a scholar and those the scholar is invited into rather as a friend or as “someone who is perceived as a kindred spirit.”

In my study of the Israeli Pagan community, I had to deal with similar dilemmas, coupled with the fact that a few vocal members of the local Pagan community objected to my wish to publish the fruits of my research, fearing it will cause this miniature and reclusive spiritual community to ‘pop-up’ on the government’s radar and incur violence from Ultra-Orthodox groups anxious to safeguard Israel’s existence as a (Orthodox) Jewish state. Most members of the local Pagan community were supportive of my publications, which were written almost entirely in the form of English-language peer-review – and paywall-protected – journals that are virtually unread by the non-academic Israeli public. Israeli Pagans’ fear of publicity has – and still is – a fact I felt compelled to factor in as I repeatedly refused to speak about them when prodded occasionally to do so by both sensationalist and established local television shows and newspapers.

Researching initiatory-based groups as an outsider has sometimes hindered my research into British Wiccans’ reaction to second-wave feminism as well. Most of my oral history interviewees were happy to cooperate once I was able to provide assurances that I was ‘a proper person’, and Pagan libraries and archives in Glastonbury and Boscastle were opened to me in their entirety, while custodians of the papers of a deceased Wiccan luminary felt compelled to ‘protect the mysteries’ and withhold my access to the collection. It did not matter, of course, that I was hardly interested in obtaining information regarding the secret names of Wiccan deities but actually prized potential correspondences between said Wiccan and figures such as Starhawk or Mary Daly. In fact, issues of secrecy were not restricted to Western Esotericism as I searched for research materials in feminist archives during the course of my PhD. As a male scholar, was I allowed to read through copies of ‘women-only’ newsletters complied during the 1970s and 1980s? Were these publications already part of history or not? What to do when a certain publication was designated as ‘available to women scholars only’ in one feminist archive but was unrestricted in another? The answers to these questions are not necessarily set in stone, and as a historian who has been trained to study the writing of individuals who are ‘safely gone’ but chose instead to make the 1970s-1980s era his ‘bread & butter’, I’ll continue to have my hand full in dealing with such dilemmas, for sure.     

References

Johnston, Jay, “A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism,” in Contemporary Eesotericism, eds. Egil Asprem and Kenneth Granholm (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013), 410-425.

Bray, Chris, The Occult Census: 1989 – Statistical Analysis & Results (Leeds: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Press).

von Schnurbein, Stefanie. Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism (Leiden: Brill, 2016).   

York, Michael, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).

Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Sammy Bishop speaks to Manon Hedenborg White about the development of Western esotericism, charting the influence of the infamous Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. They explore Crowley’s somewhat ambiguous view of gender, before bringing the research into the present day, on how gender roles in contemporary Thelema can be contested and negotiated. Finally, Hedenborg White delves into the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of contemporary Occultism.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

Podcast with Manon Hedenborg White (10 December 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hedenborg_White-_Negotiating_Gender_in_Contemporary_Occultism_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR 2018 Conference in Bern. It’s a very sunny day today. And I am joined by Manon Hedenborg White, from Sǒdetǒrn University, a post-doctoral researcher. So, thank you very much for joining us!

Manon Hedenborg White (MHW): Thank you. It’s great to be here.

SB: Have you enjoyed the conference, so far?

MHW: I have, very much. It’s been a little bit of a short visit for me. But I’ve seen some really interesting papers, on a lot of different topics – none of which have really been in my main area of research. So that’s always a fun thing.

SB: So your main area of research is in occultism, and sex magic as well. So, for the Listeners who aren’t too familiar with the field, could you give us a brief outline of what is occultism and sex magic?

MHW: Yes. Definitely. So, occultism: usually the way I explain this is as a particular branch of the broader field that we usually call Western esotericism. So Western esotericism is a very broad umbrella term that’s usually used to encompass a number of different religious and philosophical phenomena, with their earliest roots in late antiquity, which have blossomed in Europe primarily during the renaissance, and which are still in existence today. And which encompass things such as Hermeticism, The Tarot, Astrology, Ceremonial Magic, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonary – or specific branches of Freemasonry – and so on. So occultism, generally, is characterised as specific forms of modern western esotericism. For instance one of the leading experts in this field, Wouter Hanegraaff, characterises occultism as attempts by esotericists to come terms with a “secularised and disenchanted world”. So it’s . . . esotericism, in the meeting with Social Darwinism, modern science, increased religious pluralism, partly as a result of the loss of hegemony on the part of the major churches . . . . So esotericism in the modern world would often be characterised also by attempts to bring in science-like language and science-like methodologies to the study of supernatural realities.

SB: Very eloquently put, as well! So when did this start becoming more popular in the UK or the US, more generally?

MHW: Yes. There have been various waves of it. But definitely a lot happens from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when we often talk about something called an occult revival. Now, that terms a little bit problematic, because that sort-of implies that occultism or esotericism was somehow not really around before that, which it definitely was. But, certainly, in the second half of the 19th century there was a very strong wave of interest in various forms of religiosity and spiritual systems of meaning outside of the major religious institutions. So that’s when we have phenomena such as spiritualism gaining loads and loads of interest during this time, becoming a very popularised sort-of esoteric or occult movement. We also have the interest in practical magic pioneered by movements such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and we also of course have the genre of literature on sexual magic, as well. These various occultists writing about how they believe that sexual energy or sexual fluid, sexual techniques could be harnessed for magical purposes.

SB: So one of the most popular – well, poplar’s not really the way to put it! One of the most well-known figures within that field was Aleister Crowley. So, could you tell us a bit about it?

SB: Yes. Definitely. So Aleister Crowley is fundamentally one of the most influential occultists of the modern period, basically. He was born in 1875. His parents were members of a conservative Christian Movement – a dispensationalist movement – known as the Plymouth Brethren. And Crowley rebelled against his upbringing at quite a young age. He identified himself very famously as the Great Beast, 666, which is of course a character from the Book of Revelation. And he also brought in, from the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon. Which he reinterpreted as the goddess Babalon representing, among other things, liberated sexuality. So he was really sort of invested in this kind of renegotiation of symbols that within a Christian context were seen as evil or sinister, basically. And this was based on a very sort-of strong critique on Crowley’s part of what he perceived as Victorian and Edwardian and Christian sexual morals. That was one of his strong, strong sort-of . . . . Something that he really focussed on quite a lot was revising Western sexual morals, essentially. So Crowley was drawn into this whole occult trend that was ongoing in England at this time. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it a few years after that. (5:00) And, in 1904, what happened was Crowley was on honeymoon with his first wife Rose Kelly, in Cairo in Egypt. And he was visited by what Crowley describes as a “discarnate entity”, which he called Aiwass, who dictated to him what would become a sacred text – which was later known as the Book of the Law, or Liber AL vel Legis. This proclaims a new aeon in the spiritual history of humanity, with Crowley as its main prophet and leader, essentially. And the Book of the Law proclaims the very famous maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” And also the word “thelema”, which is Greek for will. So there’s this idea of will as a very important characteristic of this new aeon, which Crowley would later develop into an idea – not so much of doing whatever you want to do in any given moment, but instead something which he called a concept of the True Will. This is the inner hidden unique purpose in each individual life, which is up to each individual man or woman to find and sort-of develop. So that was his main idea and is also the core idea of the religion that Crowley founded, which is known as Thelema.

SB: Thank you. So I understand that a lot of your interests lie in gender aspects, as well. So could you say a bit about how Crowley kind-of explored that, and played with it, and kind-of up-ended it?

MHW: Yes. That’s a really interesting question, and one that I have looked into a lot. And it’s very complex. Crowley is often accused of sexism and misogyny and he does write some things, in some texts, that are quite clearly in that direction, from a contemporary perspective. On the other hand, he was also progressive in some texts. So he often contradicts himself, for instance, in women’s roles. In some texts he writes that women are spiritually sort-of different from men, and have different possibilities for developing, and are generally sort-of spiritually and morally inferior to men. And in other texts he writes more or less the complete opposite. One of his texts from the 1920s . . . . For instance, one of the comments to the Book of the Law is very progressive, actually, even sort-of from a contemporary perspective. He talks about women’s sexual freedom, for instance, and writes that the best women have always been sexually free, and that this is something that is really important. And that was actually quite radical, from the point of view of Crowley’s time. So there’s these massive internal contradictions that you can see as well. Also the sort-of core cosmology, or theology, of Crowley’s religion of Thelema is very strongly gendered. And it’s got all of these gendered symbols that on some levels kind of contradict each other, as well. For instance, within the Book of the Law, there’s a tripartheid cosmology based on the Goddess Nuit, the God Hadit and their divine offspring Ra Hoor Khuit. So there you have the idea of a polarity between masculine and feminine. That’s an interaction with the masculine playing a more active role and the feminine playing a more passive, or receptive, role. Then, on the other hand, you have other deities within the system of Thelema, as well. For instance I was talking earlier about the symbolism of the Beast 666 and the goddess Babalon. The goddess Babalon is seen as one of the most important embodiments of divine femininity within Thelema. And that’s a symbol that is both active and receptive on different levels, you could say. So there’s quite a lot of complexity in that.

SB: So, taking it up to the present day: could you describe who might be involved with contemporary Thelema and how prevalent it is, or where it is, as well?

MHW: Yes. There really is a lack of solid quantitative research on contemporary esotericism overall. So these figures that I’m going to be giving you, are a little bit ball-park. The largest Thelemic organisation in existence today is an organisation known as the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO, which Crowley led for several years during his lifetime, and which has approximately 4000 members across the globe. About a quarter – slightly more than a quarter of that are in the US. But there are also a couple of hundred members in other countries as well, such as: the UK, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, large portions of Western and Eastern Europe, some scattered local bodies in Asia, and in Latin America as well. People who tend to be involved are not very different from how people are in general. The research that has been done, and the observations that I have done over the course of my research, say that people within the Thelemic milieu today are: generally a little bit more highly educated than the average population (10:00); maybe slightly more men than women – although that’s difficult to estimate without doing more research in this area; average age somewhere from around maybe 25 up to 50 – but you’ve got all different kinds of ages; and a really big diversity of different religious backgrounds. So, people coming from an atheist or agnostic background, a Christian background, a Jewish background, a Muslim background. Quite a few who come into Thelema from Buddhism, for example, or find ways of combining the two. So really, lots of different types of people. And professionally-speaking, many areas as well. Many people who are involved in the Arts in different ways, or in mental health, psychology – things like that. But also academics, IT professionals, teachers, educators. So, lots of different types of people.

SB: So you mentioned that there were perhaps a few more men in Thelema. Whereas groups that might be comparable, like Wicca and other forms of Paganism, tend to be much more strongly female. So do you have any opinions on why that might be?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. With groups such as Wicca what is important to remember is that, when Wicca emerged, the gender balance that we’re seeing today with a lot of women wasn’t really . . . that was different. Because when Wicca emerged, it came out of these ceremonial magical orders of the early 20th century, which were male-dominated to some extent. So what has happened in Wicca, in Neo-paganism, is this very strong integration with feminism, with second-wave feminism and radical feminism that we’re seeing in the 1970s. That intersection hasn’t been quite as strong, I think, within Thelema, although we definitely see the influence of it there as well. Thelema, and organisations such as the OTO, have stayed a little closer to this sort of ceremonial magical background that they’re coming out of, for different reasons. And there’s a lot of different reasons why that development hasn’t really happened in the same way there. But that’s a very fascinating disparity, I think, as well.

SB: So, in contemporary Thelema, to what extent do they base their practices on Crowley’s writings? And to what extent do they try and be a bit creative or reinterpret things? I mean, as he was obviously a very creative thinker, do they try and emulate that attitude as well?

MHW: Yes. Very much so. Both those things. Crowley is a huge source of authority for contemporary Thelemites, many of whom practise daily some of the rituals and spiritual practices that he advocated. For instance, Crowley advocated daily meditation, or the use of a magical journal – that is something that many, many Thelemites do on a kind-of daily basis. He also advocated the use of simple banishing rituals such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, or the Star Ruby which is a sort of Thelemic banishing ritual that Crowley devised himself. And those are very popular as well. Also, a lot of Thelemites today participate in group rituals that Crowley wrote. One that is immensely important for a lot of people is the ritual called the Gnostic Mass – which Crowley wrote in 1913 – which is celebrated on a weekly basis somewhere across the globe within the contemporary OTO. And which has a lot of significance for many Thelemites today. But, of course, people are also immensely creative and also bring in practices, and symbols, and patterns of belief from other religious traditions as well. Like I mentioned, quite a few Thelemites are inspired by Buddhism, for example. And perhaps especially Tantric Buddhism and bringing in symbolism and practices for that, to different extents. Another thing that’s been developing in recent years is an interest in African Diaspora religions. So that’s particularly something that you can see in the US, with an increasing number of American occultists and American Thelemites bringing in practices and deities from things like Vodou, Santaría , Quimbanda, Palo Mayombe and things like that. So that’s a very interesting syncretism. So people are, of course, immensely creative as well. And that’s something that’s sort-of there in this religious system. Originally, Crowley was very sort-of firm on the idea that you should do what works for you. And you should be meticulous about documenting your magical practices and you should practice what works, instead of blindly following some sort of belief-centric system, essentially.

SB: And how about the gender politics in contemporary Thelema, as well? How much are they aiming to replicate the original? (15:00) To what extent are they changing, as well?

MHW: There has been quite an active debate that’s been ongoing at least since the mid-1990s with people, and especially women, I think, who have addressed things like perceived sexism and misogyny in Crowley’s writings. And also the gender disparity that we were talking about earlier: why aren’t there more women in Thelema? And what can we do to sort-of ameliorate that imbalance – to the extent that there is an imbalance? And one thing that’s of course new, is that today there’s a whole different language for talking about different varieties of gendered experience, and different forms of sexual orientations and practices as well, than there was during Crowley’s time. I mean Crowley himself was a very sort-of interesting figure, when it comes to gender. For instance, in some texts he suggests that he is sort of hermaphroditic, or androgynous, on a sort-of spiritual level. And in his diaries and his autobiography he writes about this as well. And he writes that he has combined the masculine and feminine virtues within himself, and that that is also reflected in his physique. So today we have labels such as gender fluidity, gender queerness, non-binarity and things like that, that weren’t really present in Crowley’s day. And that is something that’s very visible in this debate today, as well, and how that’s sort-of used. For instance in the OTO – the Ordo Templi Orientis – there is a system of referring to members as brother or sister. And there’s also been introduced a gender-neutral variety of that, so “sibling”: non-binary or gender queer members of the OTO can choose to be referred to as sibling, for instance. So that’s a very clear example of how that is actualised in the contemporary debate. Another example of that is with the Gnostic Mass, which in its original policy stipulates that the mass is performed by a priest and a priestess among other officers. And, originally, the policy for the United States Grand Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis states that the priestess should be a woman and the priest should be a man in Gnostic Mass celebrations that are open to the general public – which many of them are. Today, that policy has been . . . or this happened quite a few years ago, but that policy has been amended to say that the person performing the role of priestess should be someone who identifies as female and the person performing the role of priest would identify as male. So that, of course, includes that trans-gender women can perform the role of priestess and transgender men can perform the role of priests, regardless of where one is in the process of one’s transition. So that’s also a very good example of that, I think.

SB: And when it comes to people trying to maybe legitimate their arguments, or finding sources of authority for kind-of changing the – let’s say – traditional structures: what kind of narratives might they come up with?

MHW: Well, something that is really strong is sort-of appealing to Crowley’s own queerness, if you want to call it that. That is something that a lot of people who are arguing for revising these policies, and for bringing in what you could call the more sort-of inclusive way of looking at gender, they say: “Well, look at Crowley and look at who he was.” For his time, he was openly bisexual. He had a female alter-ego that he called Alice, who he sometimes took on the role of in rituals and in various social situations. So people point to that. There’s also quite a lot in original Thelemic doctrine that suggests that gender isn’t really . . . doesn’t really determine anyone’s value: that every man and every woman is a star. That’s a passage from the Book of the Law, and that’s something that a lot of people quote as well. However, there’s also quite a strong critique of Crowley in contemporary Thelemic debate. So a lot of people are also aware that some of the things that he wrote are problematic from a contemporary perspective. And they sort-of say: “Well, Crowley says this . . . but we don’t necessarily have to take everything Crowley says at face value. We can also acknowledge that he was a man of his time and that we’ve maybe come further in some of these issues today.”

SB: Ok. So how about the historical roles of women in Thelema? Could you tell me a little bit about that?

MHW: Sure. That is something that I’m actually starting my current research project that’s just starting now. It’s a three-year post-doctoral research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council that will be exploring that specific issue. I’m going to be looking at lives of three women in the 20th century Thelema, and their different roles in building this emerging religion. (20:00) So something that was really fundamental to many of the occult orders that emerged during the early 20th century is that women were able to take on leadership roles – in a way that they weren’t in the major religious institutions, during this time – and ascend to positions of really quite significant religious and spiritual authority. And that was also the case in the Golden Dawn, for instance, which Crowley was briefly a member of. And it was also the case in the early Thelemic movement. Several of Crowley’s female disciples and lovers held really important positions within the Thelemic movement. So one of them that springs to mind immediately, and is also one of the women that I’m going to be looking into in my post-doctoral research, is a woman named Leah Hirsig who was a Swiss American schoolteacher, and who co-founded with Crowley the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalù, on  Sicily, in 1920. And she was basically his right hand for a few years, there. He dictated important texts to her, and she wrote – in all likelihood – commented and edited and contributed to that as well. And she was also really instrumental in sort-of steering the Thelemic community which was scattered across the globe around this time. She was also Crowley’s Scarlet Woman, which is a title that he assigned to some of his most important female disciples and lovers. So, to that extent, she was seen as the sort of semi-deified counterpart of him as the Beast, 666. And she also, at the Abbey of Thelema, took on a very, very important ritual role as the Scarlet Woman. She eventually claimed herself to be the goddess Babalon incarnate. And she also presided over Crowley’s initiation to the highest degree in his magical system which is called the Ipsissimus degree. So she played a really important role in that. Another woman who was very important, whose life I will also be looking into, is named Jane Wolfe – who was an American silent film actress, who was also with Crowley at the Abbey of Thelema, and studied under his tutelage, and then went back to America and was really fundamental in establishing the Thelemic milieu in the US. And something which is often overlooked about these women is how really important they were, and how fundamental they were. For instance, right now there’s this TV series that’s being . . . I can’t remember what station it is, or what channel, but on the life of Jack Parsons, who was one of Crowley’s more colourful, American disciples in the US. And Parsons gets a lot of publicity for various reasons. He led a very interesting life. But someone like Jane Wolfe, who was very sort-of organisationally important – and over a much longer period than someone like Parsons, for instance – gets a lot less press, and a lot less sort-of attention, because she plays a quieter role. But she was really formative. And that’s, a lot of the time, what happens with women in religious communities. They don’t get the spotlight. But they’re there managing everything and making sure that the day-to-day operation actually works. So that is something that is, sadly, quite often overlooked.

SB: Do you think that attitudes towards women in Thelema have generally reflected wider society’s attitudes?

MHW: Yes. Definitely – to an extent, of course. In society at large, of course, there are issues with women as leaders in a lot of different fields, where women aren’t really allowed, or not accepted, as leaders to the same extent as men. Or women who take on leadership roles are also often perceived in a more negative light than men. And I think those issues are reflected in the Thelemic community as well, to some extent. Or at least they have been, definitely, historically. And also this sort-of expectation that women are supposed to take on more emotional labour, and more sort-of chores – like preparing, and cooking, and cleaning, and doing those types of things – while the men get to sit around and have interesting conversations. I mean, that’s a little bit of a stereotype, but sometimes you see that happening definitely in occult history, as well.

SB: OK. So, changing tack slightly: when it comes to occultism and esotericism, they are famously kind-of secretive. So how did that effect your research and the methods that you used to research this?

MHW: Yes. That’s a good question. And it is, of course, a challenge to study these movements. Some of the rituals, for instance, that are performed by the OTO today – such as the initiation rituals – those are secret, and they’re not open to initiates. I handled that by not writing about those parts of the tradition, whatsoever. Some researchers within this field have dealt with that by conducting sort-of open participation observation: seeking initiation in occult orders, and then describing the rituals. And I chose not to do that because I felt it would be ethically quite troublesome. And also it wasn’t really the aspect of the traditions that I was interested in for the particular research that I did for my PhD, anyway (25:00). But it is something that you definitely come across, to a certain extent. And there’s always a lot of sensitivity that’s required as a researcher, I think, in sort-of determining what you’re actually being invited into as a scholar, and what you’re being invited into as a friend – or someone who’s perceived as a kindred spirit. And that’s something I’ve had to deal with a lot, with conversations of a more delicate nature, during my fieldwork. And when I’ve published from my research, there are things that are being left out for that reason. But that’s the case with anyone who does any type of ethnographic research, I think.

SB: Well, Manon – thank you so much for joining us. I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.

MHW: Thank you so much.

SB: And thank you for joining the RSP.

MHW: You’re welcome.


Citation Info: Hedenborg White, Manon and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/negotiating-gender-in-contemporary-occultism/

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From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sleeveless t-shirts, chest expanders, and more.

A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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