For some time now, a debate has been rolling about the status of “pagan studies” as a field of academic research. It’s not that there’s been any doubt about the importance of studying contemporary paganisms; on the contrary, academic as well as mainstream interest in reconstructionist pagan groups as well as magical groups along the lines of Wicca and Thelema, still appears (anecdotally) on the increase. The problem has rather been with the aims and goals of pagan studies as a prospective discipline, as well as the approaches advocated for studying it. In an article just published in The Pomegranate – the foremost (or, rather, the only) peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to this field – the up-and-coming (and highly productive) scholar, Ethan Doyle White (known from the Albion Calling blog), argues that the time has come for reform.
This summer, ESSWE organizes its fourth biannual Thesis Workshop – a one-day event where MA and PhD candidates get together with established scholars to discuss papers on a given topic as well as research strategies and career advice. (For a basic idea, check out what I’ve said about the 2010, 2012, and 2014 workshops) This year’s topic is “Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book”. Unlike earlier years, when this event took place in Amsterdam, this year’s workshop will be hosted by the Warburg Institute in London, on July 7.
As in previous years, the day has two main sessions: an “oratory” (lectures by specialists), and a “laboratory” (group-based discussions of MA/PhD research related issues, divided by period and/or thematic focus based on what people are working on). In addition, this year there will be a round table discussion following the oratory, and an “early career advice” session (which will be lead by Liana Saif and myself).
The oratory will feature papers by Siam Bhayro, Liana Saif, and Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov, with a keynote by Jean-Patrice Boudet. These scholars will be available to participants in the laboratory session, as will the chairs Yuri Stoyanov, Charles Burnett, organizer Sophie Page, and most of the board members of ESSWE.
Check out all the details in the programme. And, please note that this is a free event with a limited number of places. Questions and reservations should be addressed to the organizer Sophie Page (see the programme).
It has been more than a decade since the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2005) was released, the flagship volume of what was then a fledgling field with few reliable introductions and reference works. At the time this was a milestone achievement, pulled off by a dedicated editorial team, 147 authors, and taking the better half of a decade to complete.
That is not to say that the result was perfect. Although the Dictionary was selected a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2006, a number of criticisms of selection policy, range, and terminology were put forward and discussed in the academic community from the beginning.
There’s an exciting, experimental conference coming up this September at the University of Northampton, England. Featuring the legendary graphic novel author Alan Moore, the Crowley-biographer Richard Kaczynski, and the specialist of modern occultism and art Marco Pasi as keynote speakers, Trans-States is looking to be a very interesting trans-disciplinary event.
The call for papers is open until March 20. But beware: it is not just another academic conference, so the powerpoint with paper that is too long to read in 20 minutes is not the only possible medium:
Some months back, when I was still in California, Knut Melvær interviewed me for the Norwegian podcast Udannet. The episode is up now. In the unlikely case you have any interest in hearing me stutter on in Norwegian for an hour about my research, the academic study of esotericism, the difficulties of interdisciplinary work, CSR, and related trivia, go check it out. (Bonus feature: bizarre nervous giggling at the 9’50 mark, in response to the question: “But what do esotericism scholars really find out?” – I did have an answer in the end though, phew).
I’ve recently been reading up on medieval theories of cognition. The background is a paper I’m writing on esotericism and “kataphatic practices” – contemplative techniques where the practitioner uses mental imagery, sensory stimuli, and emotions to try and achieve some religious goal: Prayer, piety, divine knowledge, salvation, etc. Kataphatic practices may be distinguished from “apophatic” ones, which, although they may be pursuing the same goals, use very different techniques to achieve them: withdrawing from sensory input and attempting to empty the mind of any content, whether affective, linguistic, or imagery-related (note that the kataphatic-apophatic distinction is more commonly used as synonymous with positive vs. negative theology – that’s a related but separate issue to the one I talk about here). My argument is that esoteric practices are typically oriented toward kataphatic rather than apophatic techniques. The cultivation of mental imagery is usually key – which means that the notion of “imagination” needs to be investigated more thoroughly.