Guest Post: Reassessing Chaos

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Today at The Wild Hunt I’m featuring a guest-post from Amy Hale.

Amy Hale is a writer and anthropologist who specializes in Cornwall and modern esoteric culture and history. She is a recent contributor to Women’s Voices in Magic (Megalithica 2009) and Ten Years After Triumph of the Moon (Hidden Publishing 2009) and is currently working on a manuscript on the artist and esotericist Ithell Colquhoun (Francis Boutle 2011).

Reassessing Chaos

When Chaos Magick sprung forth in Britain in the 1980s, it styled itself as the naughty child of magickal movements. Inspired by a combination of punk and DIY culture, the work of Austin Osman Spare, Thelema , Robert Anton Wilson, and popular culture, Chaotes like Ray Sherwin and Peter Carroll proposed a rejection of “orders” and “traditions” and “lineages” and advocated a emphasis on the perfection of magickal technique for the purposes of getting results by concentrating on the universals of magickal technology. It was a movement that commented on the confines and limitations of magickal orders , promoted experimentation and technical excellence. Part of the ethos of Chaos Magick was that the practitioner needed to be able to genuinely adopt a variety of perspectives, even radically opposing ones, in order to experience the truth in everything, to cultivate mental flexibility and above all to not become consumed by the artifice of religious dogma. But in recent years there seems to have been a growing dissatisfaction with the fruits of Chaos Magick. Chaotes are frequently seen as dabblers, people with more style than substance, and sadly, as having a lack of dedication to genuine, sustained practice. What happened to this potentially revolutionary movement?

I love Phil Hine. I really do. He played an instrumental role many years ago, in helping me coalesce my ideas about Chaos Magick and in shaping my decision to go down that path and identify as a Chaote. I liked his work over that of Peter Carroll because Carroll, to me, could never escape what he was critiquing, regressing into obtuse writing and IOT shenanigans. Hine, however, is clear, concise, funny and effective. In Condensed Chaos (1995) he articulated a nice set of principles concerning some basic skills of doing magick, and discussed the universality of the tech involved. This provided a much needed critique of the very problematic role of tradition as a yardstick in assessing the effectiveness of magick, and also took a slice at the very messy issues of cultural context surrounding a lot of contemporary magickal practice. With the focus on the tech instead of the trivia, grades and ego production, the idea is that Chaos Magick can be an excellent training ground for genuine magickal proficiency.

With that in mind, I’ve been reading Phil Hine’s new (2009) introduction to Prime Chaos (first edition 1993) in which he presents some important critiques of the ways in which Chaos Magick as a culture developed and some of the problems that arose from the extreme and necessary relativism of the 1980 and 1990s in which Chaos Magick emerged. One point he makes, with which I am in hearty agreement, is that the notion that everything is equally “true”, or that all systems are equally valid, needs to be reassessed. One of the more unfortunate aspects of fallout from postmodern relativism is that we now have some Creationists arguing that Jesus rode dinosaurs because their “relativist” arguments concerning the authority of “standard” knowledge production took a deuce on the scientific method. I do think the pendulum needs to swing back, but as magickians I think our duty is to do this with nuance. Some facts really are more true than others, and we need to be able to assert this vigorously, and support our statements with evidence. But we still need to cultivate the intellectual and critical rigor that will not blindly accept the validity or “truth” of a magickal tradition or path. At the end of the day, some magickal and spiritual approaches will work better for some than others, and it is the initial discernment and investigation that will tell you this, along with a willingness to experiment and find what works for you and know how to explain why.

Another very important critique that Hine makes is that cultural context matters, and yes, it does. I’m an anthropologist, so of course I think this! Groups develop cultural responses as a form of adaptation to a variety of circumstances, and we need to respect the unique conditions under which magickal and religious systems and practices emerge. I can see a danger in reducing practices to just “tech” in that we then may not have an appreciation of how they function for various peoples and how they are valued . Not only do we not do them a service in that reduction, but we may not gain the fullest understanding of how that tech works anyway. I believe that this perspective arose out of a genuine concern about appropriating the ecstatic techniques of other cultures. Hey, if it’s ONLY tech, we can do this sweat lodge or throw those cowries without guilt, right? The point Hine is making is that there is a tendency among Chaotes to simplify, reduce and not take the advantage of committing to and living with a set of practices and beliefs because of the assertion that we can just perfect the tools and be done with it. I think he is right, as long as we don’t reify the system itself and give it power uncritically, because then we are back to square one. I still think this is a genuine problem in magickal culture, and I fear I don’t see an end to it anytime soon. In fact, it may be getting worse.

I firmly believe that Chaos Magick can still provide the critique it was designed to deliver. Part of the problem, however, is in the wider magickal culture in which it is situated. We are quite good at attracting rebels and misfits, but once inside the culture, the need for individual legitimacy, approval and a measure of accomplishment (underscored by the problems with poor self esteem that frequently plague people with an interest in magick) supports the conditions for over inflated ego development in teachers and systems which are entered into uncritically and unchallenged. This is why so many “Chaotes” are far better suited for a round of Magickal Jeopardy then they are to face the tests and trials of real life. Knowing cool shit gets you biscuits (cultural capital) and these people have to get feedback from *something*. The result is that the critiques that Chaos Magick should deliver, in many cases, were badly underdeveloped within the actual culture because I don’t think many people had the background to implement them well. Yes, we still need to focus on tech, we still need to challenge dogma, and we also need to have the courage to enter deeply into practice and understand the great value in doing so. I still believe that eclecticism should be respected as the mark of the adept, not a superficial indulgence of the dilettante, but to achieve this we need to focus on nurturing genuine critical skills (not Internet flame wars) and lay the groundwork for the real exploration of divine self.