Monday, 8 October 2012

Hidden in Plain Sight: Occultism

It is impossible to get too far in to the matter of modern psychogeography without dealing with what we might call the occult, or the esoteric. More or less directly, many psychogeographers (particularly the London school) have tapped in to a variety of concepts common to various traditions of western mysticism; hermeticism, alchemy and gnosticism, via modern occultism. Particularly important (as they are, framed differently, in much modern art practice) are ideas of symbolism and correspondence. Alchemists believe that an object can be manipulated through its reflection or image; hermeticists believe in the direct correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm ('as above, so below') and gnostics believe that the reality we perceive is simply a deceptive projection, a curtain pulled across our eyes. In occult psychogeographic writing, the landscape and the individual become reflections of each other; the landscape becomes the medium through which wider social forces shape the individual, and vice versa. It also becomes the point of interaction between the real past, the past-as-myth and various conceptions of the present. Place here is not simply the banal reality of physical geography, but an imaginative (and imagined) space. The very use of occult language (as opposed to what can often be equivalent artistic jargon) is employed deliberately, to create an air of mysticism. The landscape, whether urban or rural, is a place of secrets and a battleground for interpretations. The occult psychogeographers employ their mystical methods in order to reinforce their own interpretation, without necessarily seeking to make any claims towards truth.

 Something that it is very important to realize about the occult is that many people who employ it, particularly creative people, have little or no concrete belief in the supernatural, certainly not as a phenomena that can be objectively measured. 'Magic(k)' is a concept of the same order as 'art'. Indeed, magick can be seen as an artistic form. The best practical example I've ever seen of how this can be conceptualised within a rationalistic framework is contained within one of the appendices to Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's 'Illuminatus! Trilogy'. I have leant my copy to a friend, so I'll paraphrase as best as I remember it. Consider a blind taste test being conducted by an advertising company. They get a group to drink two sorts of cola, Cola A and Cola B. After this test, 70% of the group says they prefer Cola B. Next, the test is repeated, except Cola A is now labelled 'Coca Cola' whilst Cola B carries a generic label. This time, 80% of the group prefer Cola A. In short, the addition of a special symbol (the coca cola logo) has apparently changed the taste of a liquid. We cannot, really, be accused of any intellectual crime more serious than whimsy if we decide to call this process magick. What we are talking about, essentially, is systems of psychological manipulation that affect people's actions, perceptions and opinions. To a large degree, this psychological manipulation is a consensual process. Occultists attempt to use these processes (with varying degrees of success) to manipulate their own mental states more often than they attempt to use it to manipulate those of others.

The use of the occult in psychogeography can be understood in this way; as a meditative, even psychedelic technique. The standard mode of psychogeography is, after all, very introspective. As important as the landscape is the individual within it, the individual which moves within, across and through the landscape; acts upon it and is acted upon by it; and ultimately creates the psychogeographical artwork from it. The artist as flâneur becomes, almost by default, a romantic figure, like one of the people in a Caspar David Freidrich painting, the person as a mirror. 

One much more particular occult concept which features heavily in modern psychogeography, and will be touched on in Vectis, is the concept of the ley line. This deserves its own post, not least so we can dip in to the curious story of how an obscure concept about neolithic transport routes by an amateur archaeologist turned in to a cornerstone of (particularly British) new-age mysticism, and particularly how the methodological flaws underlying Alfred Watkin's theory make it a perfect basis for a more imaginative artistic practice.

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