The Socialist Roots of Occultism

Marx satan

Caution: This illustration is highly misleading. (Image by Ross Wolfe, The Charnel-House blog)

We’ve grown accustomed to exciting titles that announce “the occult roots” of anything from Nazism to electronic music. While there’s certainly a lot of attention-grabbing hyperbole in such claims, it is true that much of the vaguely deviant, oppositional, and radical segments of Western culture has a touch of the occult – for reasons we are starting to understand quite well (tag: cultic milieu, occulture, rejected/stigmatized knowledge).

But what about the roots of modern occultism itself? In the (educated) popular imagination, occultism is generally considered an atavistic phenomenon, an anomalous and anachronistic flowering of irrationalism belonging to a bygone age. Some scholarship has continued in this vein, whether we think of the brand of intellectual historians that get embarrassed by its rational and scientific deficiency, or left-leaning, progressive academics who, like Adorno, see only a reactionary tendency that must eventually lead to a mysticized political irrationalism of the kind erupting in Germany in the 1930s.

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Errata, and a lesson of caution for “culturomics”

In the previous post I shared my enthusiasm about possible applications for digital, quantitative tools for studying historical data. Focusing on how Google’s N-gram Viewer may lead to interesting findings in the field of esotericism, both in order to gauge trends in popularity or spread of a certain term (such as “esotericism” itself) in various languages, and in order to research philological matters. In the latter case, one of the preliminary results seemed much more like a breakthrough at first sight than it really appears to have been. In fact, now instead we have an illustration of a serious difficulty with this kind of research, which emphasises the necessity of the critically-minded, suspicious human scholar in the middle of all digital tools.

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Quantitative heterodoxology

Last week Science published an article introducing the term “culturomics” – the quantitative study of cultural trends. By constructing a database out of the by now 15 million books that Google have digitized over the past years, a Harvard based research team led by Jean-Baptiste Michel have created a powerful searchable tool which makes it possible to create quantitative date for analysing cultural trends. As they state in the abstract:

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of ‘culturomics,’ focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. Culturomics extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.

In short, this is a tool which has the potential to revolutionise research methods in a vast number of fields. The best part: Google Labs have made the tool (the Ngram viewer) publicly available. Before even starting reading the article I found myself  thinking about a number of applications for my own research and field. Below follow some  rough examples, and preliminary results which already seem to challenge established knowledge in the history of esotericism.

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