Tag Archives: magic

Review: Spirits of Place

I’ve just finished reading Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion, the Daily Grail-published collection of writings on place, narrative, history and spirit. I was not disappointed.

Reppion opened by – among other things – describing an event of the same name he organized earlier in 2016 hosted on the same site as a degraded Neolithic tomb. The event itself raised sacred space in spectacular fashion and is, perhaps, a lesson and charge for the coming year without the participants having known just how stark it feels. As Reppion states, “To create a space that is emphatically ‘anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist’ on the grounds of so malevolent an enterprise and to fill it with events for young people does seem redemptive. Yet to perform in such a space can never be lighthearted.”

There’s a bit too much to unpack in a proper review – the collection is part essay grouping, part philosophical studies journal, part occult newsletter – but the essays in each case stand proudly for themselves with each raising their own space. Whether it’s Gazelle Amber Valentine talking idenity, Warren Ellis writing on radio signal as bomb blast radius, Maria J. Perez Cuervo illustrating the process of secret, dangerous and necessary libraries growing seemingly of their own magnetism or Vajra Chandrasekera on fascism, nationalism and grief, the contents are topical and fascinating and juggle between dreamily speculative and heartbreakingly eloquent. Chandrasekera’s contribution in particular felt crucial and grounding, setting the tone almost as clearly as Reppion’s introduction:

In our periodic riots, Sinhala mobs in search of Tamil or Muslim people to assault but still unable to identify them on sight (because we all pretty much look the same) would demand that potential targets perform their Sinhala-ness or Buddhist-ness with shibboleths: pronouncing particular words to test for accents, or reciting Buddhist prayers that people of other religions were unlikely to know. For example, the ඉතිපිසෝ, which in a great irony is a recitation of the virtues of the Buddha, probably including suitably incongruous things like kindness and compassion. I say probably even though I know it by heart (I suspect my not-particularly-pious parents insisted on me learning these prayers by memory in anticipation of future riots) because the prayer is in Pali, not Sinhala, and I’ve long since forgotten what the words mean: to me, it’s just a string of sounds that represent thuggish fanaticism.

With my breath fully taken away by lines like:

Grief is a nation, like the dead are a nation. These are the nationalisms I can get behind.

I name only a few here not to suggest they held themselves over the rest, but precisely because I could go on and on about the other writers included and so bore you to death and draw my review out to outlandish and unhelpful proportions.

I do want to single out the piece by Damien Patrick Williams, one of the primary reasons I picked up this book (along with the topic itself and work by luminaries like Ellis and Alan Moore). In addition to being a friend, Williams has been quoted in WIRED magazine and interviewed on the Flashforward and Mindful Cyborg podcasts on the intersection between magic and technology, one of my primary interests. His contribution to this book excelled my expectations as it seamlessly covered biographical explanation, philosophical exploration, virtual space and place, mythology and psychology. He covers two more of my favorite topics, ravens and synchronicities, and pulls apart the phenomenons of my experience masterfully:

But the concept structure of ritual space can be applied to any time or place which, for reasons of mentality and mood, must be set apart. In sociological and trauma studies, we discuss this idea in terms of “safe spaces”; in martial arts, we have the dojo; in magic, the drawing of the circle. In all of these instances, we use words, or a knife, or chalk, or a song, and we carve out something sacred from within the profane, and the 1990s Internet was pretty much a perfect expression of this. The complex protocols to log-in, the aforementioned terminology and conceptual framing, all of it conjured an intentional Otherness of place and mind.

The ever-magical Alan Moore closes out the collection with a fantastic and thoroughly electrifying piece that serves, as Reppion laments not doing with the actual event in April, as a closing ritual for the book. And as many of the other pieces do, spiraling ever outward from Reppion’s convocation, Moore’s entry exists in a sort of trifold space; it covers the past, it applies to the present, and reaches out to the future with a mystical, speculative beckoning:

Everywhere the grind and rumble of epochal gears, the flat stones of Satanic mills as they commence to turn. A creaking at the limits, at the edge of our condition, a raw frontier of our lust and fear and capability.

The topics truly covered across the book are legion; if your interests cover anything around philosophy, place, folklore, magic, immediate urban experience, history and future of politics, this book will absolutely have something for you. My suggestion: seek the book out, raise your own space, read it and proceed from there. It’s easily one of my favorite books of 2016.

Aleister & Adolf: Great, Thoughtful, Quick

A few days ago I picked up the new graphic novel from Douglas Rushkoff and Michael Avon Oeming, “Aleister & Adolf.” I’m more familiar with Rushkoff through his reporting and expansion of ideas through nonfiction – first the excellent Program or be Programmed, and now as I read through the interesting Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. Rushkoff has a tendency to explore the immediate and farther-reaching implications of not just technology but the way we utilize and integrate it. I had no idea, and was frankly quite excited, to see him work through an interest in sigil magic. Grant Morrison’s introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book – especially given his own sigil work – and it proceeds accordingly.

Aleister & Adolf’s premise is this (more or less): amidst World War II, a skeptical American soldier is sent to England to meet the great occultist Aleister Crowley. Crowley fancies himself locked in direct magical combat with Adolf Hitler (a not-outlandish premise as anyone who watches the “History” channel surely knows by this point). From there it gets deep into the practice and practicalities of sigil magic in the race to save Europe.

The protagonist is straight-laced but not without a history of his own. You’d expect him to be militantly opposed and disbelieving but as the book continues he follows a different path. It’s in both repeating the blueprints of our parents and trying to transcend their results that we often find ourselves – and so does Roberts.

Rushkoff’s treatment of Crowley is interesting to me – a stern man of ideas, perhaps a bit more disciplined than the man himself but not without reason. Crowley feels like a condensation of the real man for the sake of moving the story along swiftly, as does Daphne, the female support character. The pacing feels off. The book feels rushed. But it still manages to lay out some decent philosophical groundwork that comes close to rivaling, say, Grant Morisson’s Nameless.

Aleister & Adolf does have its satisfying moments. It’s an interesting and curious reframing of Crowley, World War II and some more modern elements. It doesn’t sew itself up neatly but surely does leave me wanting to know more about what happens after. I want to know more of Hugh and how he continues to manifest his change. How it and the knowledge affect him and change his approach to a life he already seems thoroughly displeased with. Maybe even a deeper treatment of corporations and occultism as well as Hugh’s client in particular.

While it felt a bit condensed Aleister & Adolf was a great and quick story that kept me entertained and left me hoping it continues in some deeper fashion. Job well done, I’d say.

Competing Magics and Fiction Conditions

Leaving my mid-Manhattan hotel to write at the Starbucks across the street: almost a smart idea.

Almost because: it is blasting Christmas music on November 29th. An impossibly young-sounding baby wails from the lower level trying to make its discomfort heard over the louder wail of festive saxophones.

I hear you, kid. I hear you.

Headphones are an option for me of course. One I’ve chosen. But there’s a problem: I’m primed to attend to underlying patterns and background stimuli. With that priming background music pops out from behind whatever I have playing.

I attend to the background. It’s a defense mechanism since that’s where my comfort lies. Conversations filter through even as I try to meld into the wall. Festive saxophones switch out for playful trumpets and well-meaning crooners intruding on my playlist.

Every time Christmas comes around I end up thoughtful about the period when Christianity overtook Paganism, especially through Briton eyes. The pagans saw it as a landscape of competing magics, according to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe among others. That war all but ended as Saint Patrick defied tradition to light the signal fire on the Hill of Slane first – rather than that on the Hill of Tara, as an insult to the primacy of the pagan nobility of Tara.

Magics never stop competing. They change and morph and adapt – or they’re not magics. More than fifteen hundred years after Patrick’s king-of-the-hill game I am surrounded by the recent trappings of his faith – now manifested in a jolly piano tune about travel, snow, something about a fire. The front window of this Starbucks is pasted with holly and mistletoe decals. Someone somewhere is upset that my coffee cup is red and lacks overt deference to the upcoming holiday.

Most people don’t give a shit.

Magics never stop competing, especially in New York City, I’ve found. This is my second trip here in three months – and the twenty years before that. The personal enterprise and entrepreneurship on display still hasn’t ceased to amaze me. Every corner in Manhattan someone else trying to make it work, but even more than that, trying to make it look like it’s working. The appearance, the display, the forward-looking optimism that whatever magic they’re weaving is working. That the mere portrayal that it’s working adds to its arcane power and future momentum.

British writer Warren Ellis recently charged an audience to act like they live in the Science Fiction Condition – “like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky. Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted.” Britons have excelled at that kind of projection for ages. They used to toss all manner of weapons, coinage and other riches into various lakes not just as religious tribute but as a forward-looking projection of how they wanted deceased to appear in the afterlife. Not to indicate current status – but to display their own sort of Fiction Condition even to the gods.

And as magics go, so this went – the conquering Romans later sold interests in British lakes to entrepreneurs looking to recover their riches. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords may be no basis for a system of government, but it seemed to work fine as a basis for speculative investment. It can’t be any sillier than the securitization of mortgage clearing-house fraud that exploded in 2008, anyway.

Paradigms change – entire worldviews – and we’re all still looking to show the future how great we are there, even if we’re not quite there yet.

Someone a few tables over is talking about an app they’re building. The speakers are promising good times to come through happy, sentimental jazz. I’m maintaining my own Fiction Condition for the moment.

And still wondering what lake to drain for my treasure.

Microsoft’s Nadella Picking Up the Magical Thread?

In a recent company-wide email, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella used the word “magical” twice, perhaps trying to pick up the “magic” narrative I believe worked well for Steve Jobs:


I believe that we can do magical things when we come together with a shared mission, clear strategy, and a culture that brings out the best in us individually and collectively.

and closing with:

I really do believe that we can achieve magical things when we come together as one team and focus. I’m looking forward to what we can achieve together in FY16.


Worth noting the difference here: Nadella thinks Microsoft can do magical things together, whereas Jobs gave us things that can do magic. Microsoft may be trying to pick up that thread but their focus is off. They’re not quite there yet.

A Different Kind of Techno-Fetishim

I’ve said, again and again, that Steve Jobs’ constant reiteration that the iPad was “magical” was deliberate and done with specific intent. And we listened. We knew it was good technology because it had the language of magic in it. We made it do things by pointing at it. The screen was full of sigils. It was a 21st Century spellbook, and, brilliantly, we didn’t have to charge it up by murdering a chicken or wanking on it. – Warren Ellis

Thinking about CUNNING PLANS again. Specifically the points at which Ellis affirms the magical nature of our devices, usually along with references to Steve Jobs’ iPad fetish.

Fetish in the old sense, mind you. Not Jobs having a bit too keen an eye for flashy hardware but the old post-colonial anthropology term for a craft created by the natives and believed by them to have supernatural powers. Sticks bound by sinew, supposed crude representations of ever-present entities or embodiments of power.

August Comte, French philosopher and one of the founders of sociology, portrayed fetishism as the most primitive of religions wherein religions “naturally” evolved from there to polytheism and then monotheism. Hegel proposed fetishes as a reification of abstract thought that Africans were “largely incapable of” (what utter bullshit). Predictably, fetishes were lost penises to Freud. Even more predictably no one stopped to actually ask the people making them much at all.

Jobs, Ellis and some others stumbled upon and picked up the thread we’ve lost or ignored or suppressed for centuries. Far from primitivism physical fetishes represent an advanced relationship with nature, a more involved role in existence. What ethnobotanist and madman Terence McKenna called “partnering with deity in the co-creation of reality.”

In adopting mobile devices as fetishes we’ve begun to evolve back into that co-creating mindset. What better replacement for a local embodiment of a global presence than a platform that instantly connects me with friends in Japan or news from Russia? (Also thinking about the lightning-fast adoption of mobile finance in Africa as well as Michael Saylor’s Mobile Wave). The device is transcended by its own platform and yet I interact with it, talk to it and through it in order to try and shape life in the way I’d like. I draw sigils with my finger in invisible electromagnetic ink thanks to electroconductivity.

Comte condemned ‘fetishism’ as primitive thanks to, of course, unbridled racism but also a complete disconnection from interaction. We had lost the idea of helping make the Real and were relegated to observation and limited social negotiation.

A world without magic and ghosts is a world where we believe we can put the last ten thousand years in a box and consider it a done deal, just as scientists a hundred and twenty years ago considered science a completed enterprise aside from the nagging mystery of the luminiferous aether. – Warren Ellis

My phone brings me messages from Brazil. Shows me minutes-old solar flares and new planets in the ether. Encourages me to reply, engage, make and remake on scales that to Comte would’ve been deific (a bold statement considering Comte felt he had discovered the science to end all sciences).

The whole point was underscored this week when I went to change the passcodes on my mobile devices (which I do regularly). Creating new passcodes for my near-fetishes always carries a special quality to it. I feel as if I’m reinscribing the magic runes on my spellwear. Renewing the arcane protection of crucial ritual gear that allows me to participate in the co-creation of the now.

Which isn’t to say it’s all wonderfully holy – invariably I terrify myself by momentarily forgetting new passcodes. For a moment I’m cut off from that role and thanks to auto-deletion schemes also close to wiping my tools, reducing them to crude shiny bricks. Every time. Which only serves to reiterate the magic nature of all this stuff. The magic nature of us.

Embrace it. In pursuit of replicating the condition of magic, we are attempting to create our own new spirit world. We build magic doors that open upon the speaking of magic words, and we want our mystic artifacts to whisper to each other across the aether, and we use magic mirrors to enact remote viewing across the limb of the planet, and we arrange for Plato’s daemons to mutter at our shoulders. – Warren Ellis

Morning Readings for October 30, 2013

Quotes in quotation marks, commentary by me in italics.

USA Today: Wheeler confirmed as head of FCCWireless and cable industry lobbyist. I’m sure he’s got the public’s best interest in mind.

Disinfo: Ancient Magician’s Curse Tablet Discovered In Jerusalem – “The text is written in Greek and, in it a woman named Kyrilla invokes the names of six gods to cast a curse on a man named Iennys, apparently over a legal case.” – I wonder if this would work on Congress.

Volokh: Conviction of Iranian-American Muslim Reversed Because of Prosecutor’s Reference to Sharia – “The prosecutor contrasted for the potential jurors a scenario that he asserted “was out of either Iran or Saudi Arabia” where an alleged rape victim was required to produce five male witnesses to prove the rape….”

Ars Technica: Not even two weeks after shutdown, BitTorrent search site isoHunt is backIf this is not a honeypot (site erected for the purpose of luring torrenters in order to track them) I will EAT MY SHIRT.

TYWKIWDBI: Eels inside the cardiac chambers of a sharkFascinating image and explanation but not for the squeamish.