Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 1

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto[This blog post is a little milestone: it is the first official review of a book sent to me by the publisher for being reviewed directly at Heterodoxology. (Yes, publishers, I am open to suggestions like that!) Since the book was of great interest to me, and touches on issues that occupy me at the moment – and since the blog format allows me to say whatever I want and as much of it as I’d like – it has ended up more like a review article than a book review. Hence I will publish it here in three parts. The full pdf version (only slightly modified) is available from my Academia page. For convenience and ease of sharing. So on we go!]

Review: Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg (eds.) Defining Magic: A Reader. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2013. 281 pages.

[Part 1 of 3]

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Forbidden Histories – a blog worth following

Last autumn, Andreas Sommer defended his PhD at UCL, moved on to Cambridge  and started a blog. His PhD thesis was on the relationship between psychical research and the origins of modern psychology, a topic on which Sommer has published some very interesting articles over the last few years (recommended). The blog Forbidden Histories continues and expands these interests: if you haven’t seen it yet, it is a highly recommended history of science blog focusing on, well: “Everything you always wanted to know about science and ‘the miraculous’ (but were afraid to ask)”.

Here is how it’s introduced:

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Looking through the Occult – talks available as podcasts

Voices through the ether

Voices through the ether

Last November I took part in an interesting interdisciplinary conference at the Humboldt in Berlin, on “Looking through the Occult: Instrumentation, Esotericism, and Epistemology“. It moved in the landscape of media studies, history of science and technology, religious studies, art history, and esotericism, and was organized by a scholarly network interested in what they call “nonhegemonic knowledge”:

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Satan in the academy (again)

I ended 2013 with a retrospective on some personal favourites from the wealth of publications on esotericism last year. Of course there were many omissions, some of which I’ve payed tribute to on Twitter. Julian Strube’s (German) book on Vril is notable, and has attracted some attention in the German press lately. Also from Germany, Monika Neugebauer-Wölk’s massive collected volume on Aufklärung und Esoterik: Wege in die Moderne is a milestone that will take time to digest and assess (I admit that I forgot about this one because the prohibitive price has made it inaccessible to me until now). Then in the antiquities section, there’s the English edition of Roelof van den Broek’s book on Gnosticism, Gnostic Religion in Antiquity. And still there’s much more that could’ve been mentioned (such as this milestone of a source work: Andrew Weeks’ new translation of Böhme’s Aurora).

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New Antiquities (extended deadline for CfP)

Akhenaten futuristicBack in September the call for papers for a very interesting workshop was released at the Ancient Esotericism blog (and elsewhere). “New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond”, put together by Almut-Barbara Renger (Freie Universität Berlin) and my good colleague Dylan Burns (Universität Leipzig), calls attention to the myriad uses and imaginings of antiquity in contemporary religious discourses.  A fascinating field that has received quite some attention from religious studies scholars interested in such things as the construction of tradition or mnemohistory. What’s particularly interesting about this workshop is that it aims to mobilize the antiquity specialists as well, who, a bit too often perhaps, have tended to avoid dealing with questions related to such modern “reception history”. It’s also an excellent platform for bridging the studies of ancient and contemporary esotericism.

The deadline for submitting paper proposals has now been extended to January 31. Below follows the description of the workshop, pasted from the extension notice:

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Looking through the Occult: Conference on Instrumentation, Esotericism and Epistemology in the 19th Century (Humboldt U, Berlin)

Humboldt

Humboldt University at Unter den Linden 6, Berlin.

I’m excited to participate in a wonderful conference at Berlin’s Humboldt University on November 14-15: “Looking through the Occult: Instrumentation, Esotericism and Epistemology in the 19th Century”. The conference is free and open to the public, so if you are in Berlin and have an above average interest in topics such as spiritualism and mediums, ether physics, spirit photography, early radio technology and x-rays, this should be a good treat. Check out the nice website for more information on the programme, how to get there, and what to read up on in advance.

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Enchanted Modernities in Amsterdam

Enchanted Modernities

Enchanted Modernities: A conference in Amsterdam

An exciting three-day conference opened its doors in Amsterdam this morning (September 25, 2013). Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy and the Arts in the Modern World is the first conference of a new research network coordinated from the University of York and sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust. The conference in Amsterdam is hosted by the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, with the collaboration of the Ritman Library and the Theosophical Library – both places hosting exhibitions as part of the programme.

The focus of the conference is on Theosophy and art – not an unfamiliar topic, of course, but one which is now starting to see more systematic and interdisciplinary attention. From the conference website:

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Relocation

Welcome to the Greenhouse

The Greenhouse at night.

This weekend I have relocated to my old home town, Trondheim. In the coming few months I’m going to fill an associate professor position, temporarily, due to a set of complicated circumstances that I’ll not go into here. Having left the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents in Amsterdam behind, I’ll now be found at the newly restructured Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). My office and all teaching happens at campus Dragvoll, which looks pretty much like a giant greenhouse, in a rural and woodlands area on the outskirts of town. Certainly a change of scenery from Amsterdam’s overcrowded streets!

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Up for review: Discernment of Spirits, Soviet New Age, and Magic

I’ve received three books for review over the last few weeks, making for a hectic book review phase (I’m not gonna mention the ones I’m already late with). They are three fascinating collections, dealing with very diverse material. Here’s a quick preview.

Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012)

Angels of Light? (2012)

Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen’s Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012) is a collection of essays dealing with that delicious problem of Christian theology and practice: how to discern real sanctity from demonic trickery? If an angel appears in all its splendour – whether in a dream, a vision, or in front of  your bare eyes – how do you know that it is not the devil masquerading to lure the devout to the dark side? This, in a nutshell, is the problem of discernment. It has had consequences not only on the abstract level of theological philosophizing, but also on the social level. Above all during the tumultuous reformation era, when new reformers led to the emergence of new sects with new creeds, new leaders, and new lines of authority. The devout had to fear not only false angels, but false prophets as well. From the blurb:

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The (all too) secret history of Vril

Julian Strube's first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

Julian Strube’s first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

It is astonishing how much of modern occultism is dependent on works of fiction. The machinations of secret societies, the malicious rituals of satanic cults, and the magicians’ adventures on the astral plane have all been portrayed in great detail in works of fiction, which have in turn directly influenced the creation of real organisations and inspired new ritual practices among self-styled occultists. The entire current of Rosicrucian initiatory societies even had its main impetus in a text considered by its authors to be a playful ludibrium – although no doubt one that expressed deep convictions. This dynamic of fiction turning to fact is itself perhaps nowhere better explored than in Umberto Eco’s work of fiction, Foucault’s Pendulum. In recent years there has been quite some interest in such dynamics among contemporary scholars of religion as well – focusing on what they call “invented”, “hyperreal”, or “fiction-based” religions. While these scholars tend to focus on relatively recent cases – Jediism, Tolkien-spirituality and the sort – we have every reason to believe that this is a much older process. Particularly, it would seem, in the Western esoteric context.

A case in point is the concept of “vril” – an occult fluid or force that can be manipulated, controlled and directed by spiritually advanced initiates. It was invented by the the author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) in his novel, The Coming Race (1871).

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