26.5.17

Myth, Magic, Mysticism and Modernity

Derek Wilson. Superstition and Science, 1450-1750: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans. Robinson (25 May 2017)

Between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Europe changed out of all recognition and particularly transformative were the ardent quest for knowledge and the astounding discoveries and inventions which resulted from it. The movement of blood round the body; the movement of the earth round the sun; the velocity of falling objects (and, indeed, why objects fall) - these and numerous other mysteries had been solved by scholars in earnest pursuit of scientia. By the mid-seventeenth century 'science mania' had set in; the quest for knowledge had become a pursuit of cultured gentlemen. 

In 1663 The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge received its charter. Three years later the French Academy of Sciences was founded. Most other European capitals were not slow to follow suit. In 1725 we encounter the first use of the word 'science' meaning 'a branch of study concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified'. Yet, it was only nine years since the last witch had been executed in Britain - a reminder that, although the relationship of people to their environment was changing profoundly, deep-rooted fears and attitudes remained strong.

Jason A. Josephson-Storm. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. University of Chicago Press (23 May 2017)

A great many theorists have argued that the defining feature of modernity is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Jason A. Josephson-Storm argues that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong, as attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Even the human sciences have been more enchanted than is commonly supposed. But that raises the question: How did a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe ever convince itself that it was disenchanted? Josephson-Storm traces the history of the myth of disenchantment in the births of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, folklore, psychoanalysis, and religious studies. 

Ironically, the myth of mythless modernity formed at the very time that Britain, France, and Germany were in the midst of occult and spiritualist revivals. Indeed, Josephson-Storm argues, these disciplines founding figures were not only aware of, but profoundly enmeshed in, the occult milieu; and it was specifically in response to this burgeoning culture of spirits and magic that they produced notions of a disenchanted world. By providing a novel history of the human sciences and their connection to esotericism, The Myth of Disenchantment dispatches with most widely held accounts of modernity and its break from the pre-modern past."

23.5.17

The New New Ufology?

Robbie Graham (Ed.) UFOs: Reframing the Debate. White Crow Books. May 2017.

The UFO field has produced thousands of dedicated researchers over the years, and reams of literature; but to what end? What can we claim to know conclusively today about the underlying nature of UFO phenomena that we didn’t know in the late-1940s? UFO study has always suffered from major organizational and methodological problems. It has also become dangerously self-referential. If ever we are to further our understanding of the UFO enigma, we must fundamentally reframe our debate. We must wipe the board clean and fill it with new ideas, new theories, even new language. We must be willing to start from scratch when the field stagnates. We must be critical, sober, and free of dogma—ready to rinse away the residue of our own beliefs. 

UFOs: Reframing the Debate is a collection of original essays exploring alternative perspectives on UFOs and how we might more usefully study the phenomenon in the 21st Century. The book brings together some of the most progressive and iconoclastic thinkers in the field for an incisive deconstruction of current popular ideas. Critical but constructive, this challenging volume represents a range of differing (even conflicting) alternative viewpoints on UFOs and related phenomena. UFOs: Reframing the Debate is a cold, hard, slap in the face for ‘UFOlogy,’ a call to break away from established ideas, approaches, and practices, and to boldly tread a new path in quest of understanding what may very well be the greatest mystery of all.

21.5.17

Womens' Voices

Claudie Massicotte. Trance Speakers: Femininity and Authorship in Spiritual Seances, 1850-1930. McGill-Queen's University Press (1 May 2017)

Few people know that Susanna Moodie participated in spiritual seances with her husband, Dunbar, and her sister, Catharine Parr Traill. Moodie, like many other women, found in her communications with the departed an important space to question her commitment to authorship and her understanding of femininity. Retracing the history of possession and mediumship among women following the emergence of spiritualism in mid-nineteenth-century Canada and unearthing a vast collection of archival documents and photographs from seances Claudie Massicotte pinpoints spiritualism as a site of conflict and gender struggle and redefines modern understandings of female agency.

Trance Speakers offers a new feminist and psychoanalytical approach to the religious and creative practice of trance, arguing that by providing women with a voice for their conscious and unconscious desires, this phenomenon helped them resolve their inner struggles in a society that sought to confine their lives. Drawing attention to the fascinating history of spiritualism and its persistent appeal to women, Massicotte makes a strong case for moving this practice out of the margins of the past. A compelling new reading of spiritual possession as a response to conflicting interpretations of authorship, agency, and gender, Trance Speakers shines a much-needed light on women s religious practices and on the history of spiritualist traditions and travels across North America and Europe."

15.5.17

The Old New Age

Nicholas Campion. The New Age in the Modern West. Bloomsbury Academic. (18 May 2017)

New Age culture is generally regarded as a modern manifestation of Western millenarianism - a concept built around the expectation of an imminent historical crisis followed by the inauguration of a golden age which occupies a key place in the history of Western ideas. The New Age in the Modern West argues that New Age culture is part of a family of ideas, including utopianism, which construct alternative futures and drive revolutionary change. Nicholas Campion traces New Age ideas back to ancient cosmology, and questions the concepts of the Enlightenment and the theory of progress. 

He considers the contributions of the key figures of the 18th century, the legacy of the astronomer Isaac Newton and the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, as well as the theosophist, H.P. Blavatsky, the psychologist, C.G. Jung, and the writer and artist, Jose Arguelles. He also pays particular attention to the beat writers of the 1950s, the counterculture of the 1960s, concepts of the Aquarian Age and prophecies of the end of the Maya Calendar in 2012. Lastly he examines neoconservatism as both a reaction against the 1960s and as a utopian phenomenon. The New Age in the Modern West is an important book for anyone interested in countercultural and revolutionary ideas in the modern West.

14.5.17

Rising Above It All

Peter Adey. Levitation: The Science, Myth and Magic of Suspension. reaktion books. (May 2017)

Levitation tells the peculiar story of those who have dreamed, believed or practised levitation, whether they were successful or not. Levitation could be thought of best as a pre- and parallel history of aviation, but it is not really about flights of the aeronautical kind. Instead, the book tracks the long-standing belief that we could float relatively unaided. Early modern scientists believed in the force of levity as an opposing force to gravity. Traditional societies have held deep-rooted shamanic traditions of spirit- and dream-flight through storytelling. 

Ancient religious movements have long believed in the power of ascetic saints to hover in sublime ecstasy. Magicians and mesmerists have employed the tricks of stage, cinema and the enigma of Eastern traditions to convince audiences of their power to lift through thought alone. And science-fiction novelists and urban planners have speculated on floating cities hovering high above the earth. Many artists have experimented with levitation too, from the Surrealists to Yves Klein. In this book Peter Adey explores the idea of levitation within our cultural, scientific and spiritual lives. From science to illustration, poetry, philosophy, law, technology and a wider popular, spiritual and visual imagination, Levitation casts the levitator as a far more vulnerable figure than we may have thought.

8.5.17

Magic, Ancient and Modern

Edward Bever. Magic in the Modern World: Strategies of Repression and Legitimization. Penn State Press (9 May)

From the publisher's website: This collection of essays considers the place of magic in the modern world first by exploring the ways in which modernity has been defined in explicit opposition to magic and superstition, and then by illuminating how modern proponents of magic have worked to legitimise their practices through an overt embrace of evolving forms such as esotericism and supernaturalism. Taking a two-track approach, this book explores the complex dynamics concerning the construction of the modern self and its relation to the modern preoccupation with magic. 

Essays examine how modern rational consciousness is generated and maintained and the ways in which proponents of both magical and scientific traditions rationalise evidence to fit with accepted orthodoxy. This book also explores how people unsatisfied with the norms of modern subjectivity embrace various forms of magic, and the methods these modern practitioners use to legitimate magic in the modern world. Magic in the Modern World provides a compelling assessment of magic from the early modern period to today and shows how, despite the dominant culture's emphatic denial of its validity, older forms of magic persist and develop while new forms of magic continue to emerge.

Richard Kieckhefer. Hazards of the Dark Arts: Advice for Medieval Princes on Witchcraft and Magic Penn State Press (15 May 2017)

This volume comprises English translations of two fundamentally important texts on magic and witchcraft in the fifteenth century: Johannes Hartlieb's Book of All Forbidden Arts and Ulrich Molitoris's On Witches and Pythonesses. Written by laymen and aimed at secular authorities, these works advocated that town leaders and royalty alike should vigorously uproot and prosecute practitioners of witchcraft and magic. Though inquisitors and theologians promulgated the witch trials of late medieval times, lay rulers saw the prosecutions through. But local officials, princes, and kings could be unreliable; some were sceptical about the reality and danger of witchcraft, while others dabbled in the occult themselves. 

Borrowing from theological and secular sources, Hartlieb and Molitoris agitated against this order in favour of zealously persecuting occultists. Organised as a survey of the seven occult arts, Hartlieb s text is a systematic treatise on the dangers of superstition and magic. Molitoris's text presents a dialogue on the activities of witches, including vengeful sorcery, the transformation of humans into animals, and fornication with the devil. Taken together, these tracts show that laymen exerted significant influence on ridding society of their imagined threat.

3.5.17

Ritual Slaughter

David G McAfee. No Sacred Cows: Investigating Myths, Cults and the Supernatural. Pitchstone Publishing (1 May 2017)

While belief in religious supernatural claims is waning throughout the West, evidence suggests belief in nonreligious supernatural claims is on the rise. What explains this contradiction? How can a society with a falling belief in God have a rising belief in ghosts, psychic powers, ancient astronauts, and other supernatural or pseudo-scientific phenomena? Taking the same anthropological approach he employed in his notable studies of religion, atheist author and activist David G. McAfee turns his attention to nonreligious faith-based claims. Whether going undercover as a medium, getting tested at Scientology headquarters in Los Angeles, or interviewing celebrity paranormalists and famous skeptics, he leaves no stone unturned in his investigation. As in the case of religion, he finds an unwillingness among "believers" to critically examine their most closely held convictions. Only once individuals honestly assess their own sacred cows will they be able to ensure that their beliefs conform to the known facts and that our decisions as a society are based on the best available evidence."