Evolution Aesthetic

This article helped to congeal for me what has been a growing problem in the magical community, at least the bit I keep an eye on, namely a tendency toward fatalism and despair. It is perhaps nowhere more clearly articulated than in Peter Gray’s talk of ‘apocalyptic’ witchcraft, but it appears elsewhere, in the pseudo-medicalization of magic, which turns it into a first aid kit for the imagined post-apocalyptic world, and in the profound cynicism toward institutionalized forms of knowledge.

But, extinction is not the likely outcome in the coming century. It could happen for a host of reasons, but it is not likely to be the result of our current economic and ecological crises.

The idea of the apocalypse looms large in our imagination these days, and we really need to confront that. We need to confront, most especially, that this apocalypse is imaginary. There are real, dramatic, global changes going in the material world right now, but the apocalypse isn’t one of them. The apocalypse is a mystery, a potency, flowering in the subtle world, and if we conflate it with the changes going on in the material world, we will be living out (and living out of) a fantasy.

It isn’t just the magical community. As Warren Ellis has noted, there seems to be an extinction aesthetic all over the creative scene. Whether we look to literature, movies, roleplaying games both digital and analog, and other media, we find extinction and apocalypse again and again. That is because the subtle world is real and we all border on it, so major changes in it ripple well beyond the world of those of us who direct our attention directly to it. If we don’t confront it directly, it will take hold of us and we’ll play out the dance of death for it.

We don’t have to conquer it, overcome it, transform it into sweet liquor with which we can drink ourselves into oblivion. We can welcome it, embrace it, and seek within it where it makes contact with the deeper structures of the divine. We can seek within it an order and a lesson. The aesthetic is rising up out of the subtle world because it has a message for us in this one, this material world wracked with distress.

Behind the mask of extinction, there is the body of evolution. I am not talking about the pop-culture, Pokemon-infused notion of evolution which is nothing but the ideology of the upgrade dressed in flashy organic drag. I am talking about the body of creation which is constantly changing as the result of a perpetual dialogue with itself.

If these spirits of evolution manifest to us with the masks of extinction, it is only because we have become so fixated with the upgrade, with the myth of perpetual improvement. We have lost sight of the fact that evolution is about the totality of the material system, that it includes the stars, the void, the comets, this fantastic stew of a planet, and that whatever we do is always just one small piece of that great dialogue, not the whole of it.

I recently watched Slavoj Zizek in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology and he makes the point in a narrower and thereby perhaps more compelling frame. Looking at our cinematic apocalypse, he wonders if we have become so fixated to the system of capital that we can only imagine annihilation, apocalypse, to be the alternative to it. John Michael Greer spent most of 2012 making a similar point on his blog.

This is not the end, just the end of a particular system in which we are more or less comfortably ensnared.

Even among those who have taken this sort of idea more or less to heart, though, mass extinction and apocalypse still seems to be very compelling. The witches fantasizing about the gruesome destruction of nature, subjecting themselves to it with a masochistic despair are an obvious expression of this. But lately, I have to admit that I have noticed signs of it even among the more practical-minded folks.

In some regards, I worry more about this turn among the practical-minded. it is often directed toward the concrete social world more directly and at the very institutional structures which we must affirm and work with, regardless of their problematic nature. Among these practical souls, the apocalypse manifests as an eager nay-saying and mockery. It manifests as a sort of sadism.

When Greer turns to talk about things like the decline of the internet or the academy, it is with an almost perverse glee, a sense that these corrupt forms he never much liked in the first place are finally going to fall. His fantasy of going backward toward a social world he imagines himself to prefer without having had to live in it seems as utopian as any other he has criticized. Yet just as we will not have the chance to remake our power grid before the decline, neither will we have the chance to remake our intellectual one, either. Society can’t go backward because infrastructure can’t go backward, time can’t go backward.

The academy and the internet, for all their problems, will be absolutely essential in dealing with the present. We can ignore them, ignore their possibilities and pitfalls, only if we don’t feel any ethical commitment to the generations that will follow us. Even if they don’t get to have them as we have them (or have them at all), it will only be through them and with them that they will have anything but shreds of our intellectual, scientific, and cultural legacy.

I feel keenly how frustrating this is, especially since most of us have very little influence over the internet or the academy. We have to be very careful about abandoning them or disengaging from them, though. As the situation changes, we may be able to exert more influence upon it, at key moments, perhaps. Even if we ourselves remain largely outside it, there is much potential benefit to be had for some people who decide to engage with it, much benefit for them and for their children. Again, this is ethical.

For example, as more people from traditionally marginalized communities make their voice heard on the internet, we encounter a renaissance of democratic virtues, in all their messy and uncomfortable glory. Where they have entered the academy, they have served as channels between their communities and the center that still animates the academy, exerting yet another democratizing force. This has forced changes in perspective, yes, but at its most practical and pointed, this has meant things like there being more doctors and more nurses who are well-positioned to help people who have been traditionally ill-treated (or outright excluded by) by the medical system.

It is messy as all get out and there are enormous problems with the academy and the internet at present, but I don’t think that justifies an abandonment or dismissal of either. Be aware of the dangers and challenges of engaging with them, be careful, be strategic. Strategic, right? That means knowing that sometimes you do have to withdraw even while remaining aware of what the withdrawal costs.

Until the new world begins to make its way into firm existence, this one has a firm hold on us. While I can appreciate people wanting to escape, in most cases escape can be little more than a rhetorical posture taken within the snares of the present.

There is value in that rhetorical posture. Right now, most of what we can do is stake out a disposition within this still-present phase of our history and a posture of escape helps with that. However, like Dogen’s boat, there comes a point when it has served its purpose and continuing to use it turns counter-productive. Once the idea of escape has dislodged you from the comfortable illusion of a stable world without crisis, holding to it becomes another way to remain in-between.

For me, at least, that has meant coming back to the apocalypse rather than banishing it. Behind the image of the apocalypse and the fantasies of extinction is the post-apocalyptic fantasy of a world cobbled together out of this one. At its most mediocre, I will confess that it seems like another mode of escapism as any other.

However, it isn’t always mediocre. There is something else going on here. In the midst of the apocalypse and post-apocalypse, there is the possibility of pointing ourselves at the present and laying hold of it in an as-if post-apocalyptic mindset. Yes, everything may be coming apart at the seams, but rather than curse the world in its undoing, we can attempt to reorient whatever little bit of it we can toward something new.

We can modulate ourselves so that as changes in the material world forcibly break up the present world, there will be portions of it primed for genuine evolution. We aren’t going to be any future that we can imagine, only the one that we can realize within the broken down stuff of this present. Part of our good fortune is that this broken down present is broken down only in reference to the narrow circle of fantasy that structures it. In the open movement of the cosmos? All of this is just one moment, neither like nor unlike another.

The present social world in which we live is not total. It not total in its practical reach nor is it total in its valuative reach. We can live differently within it differently, both in terms of our actions and values. We can, in short, live according to a different ethos. In fact, there are already different forms of ethos at play within this heavily capitalized world. We don’t have to make clear break to look to the future;  we can turn into a parasite or a weed instead.

I get that this is kind of an unpleasant metaphor, but it is an important one. As a weed or parasite, we are still deeply caught up in the ecosystem of capital in which we survive. If we are going to thrive in an ecosystem that develops afterward, we’ll need to address realistically our dependencies on this one.

We’ve made right mess and that is going to come home to roost in every corner of the world. But there is an afterward beyond, one that no one can see clearly. What comes next isn’t determined. Claims to the contrary are built on fantasy.

There are hard constraints, but there have always been hard constraints, even if some of us in the modern world have been able to conceal that from ourselves for a bit. There have also been hard freedoms and by taking hold of those we can set out to make a next world. if there is one thing that we must do away with to pass from an apocalypse-extinction aesthetic to an evolutionary one, it is the notion that some set of facts about this social world will determine what the next one must be. They limit it, only, leaving us with the responsibility to affirm our values.

What comes next will be necessarily ecstatic, a going beyond in one form or another. However, we need to appreciate that even ecstasy is embodied. It projects itself outward, but it does not transcend the world. It throws itself out and receives a new body from the world, from the dialogue of creation. Look to vital religious movements animated by possession and face what is there. The spirits that speak do so dressed in the drag of their medium’s cultural psyche. In post-colonial movements, they often appear in the colonizer’s clothes even as they provide their community with the tools to survive and outwit the colonizer.

Instead of total revolution or conservative recreation, there is only evolution, the steady transformation rooted in the shifting terrain of creation and all of the created things within it. There will always be some bit of the old, even if it is just the raw substance of the past, but recontextualized it acquires new life and new meaning.

We don’t need death cults, we need life cults. We need an evolution aesthetic, not an extinction aesthetic. Change and transformation are hard and dark but it is not nihilistic. Evolution gropes and stumbles, falters and surges, as it seeks to follow out a logic that does not yet exist and which it is a contributing author.

It is not ‘dark’ in the sense of grim, but dark in the sense of being difficult to see through or in. I suspect more than a little of the dark and spooky ™ derives from a failed confrontation with this actual darkness. For those unable to loosen the hold of their ego upon their will, what emerges from this darkness is inimical to it, and the only way they can recuperate agency is to surrender and identify themselves with their own incapacity.

This requires us to confront our present with sober eyes. That is one of the strange things about ecstasy, it demands sobriety. Magic is never going to be a cornucopia for the future. You can’t make a healthy forest with only oak trees, or only with trees, and you can’t make a healthy society with only magic.

Wizards will not rise from the ashes as the new doctor-priests of the future. The world we seek to live through will need real doctors, real nurses, not hedge herbalists.  The world we seek to live through will need real chemists, real biologists, real scientists of all stripes, not rank generalists with delusions of expertise and spirits at their ear. The only way it will have those, at present, is through the academy.

The current discussion going around the importance of materia in magic is necessary, but I see it going down some dangerous dead-end roads as it turns toward revivifying medical models rooted in older magical systems.

I am not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your experiments with tinctures or figure out how to set up a working lab. I am not saying it is a bad thing to learn as much as you can about herbs. Those things have clear magical application and, potentially, prepare individuals to take on ancillary roles in a future with more distributed systems of care.

But let us underline that the sort of knowledge you will acquire doing this magically is not enough to provide reasonable medical support. They become can become a form of practical medical support, only if they are organized and supported by people with expertise in practical medical support.

It will be helpful to be able to make medicine, yes, but only if you have a nurse or a doctor or a pharmacist or a chemist or a paramedic (preferably, all of the above) who can guide and direct that experimentation and production process. We may need to go back to less than industrial methods, but we ought to be able to preserve more than pre-Industrial knowledge and practice.

The last thing we need is a new era of knowledge-tyranny under the auspices of half-baked wizardry. Or, what is more likely, a few generations with a sharp uptick in preventable deaths caused by people turning to the charismatic magicians in their midst rather than to the nurses and doctors triaging their practices into the future. There are many, many doctors and nurses, and they will be forced to adjust their practices. They won’t just go away because this or that bit of industrial medicine becomes impractical.

The future will also require magicians and witches and priests, because that, too, is part of what humanity needs. If we are going to find our way toward these futures that might be in the offing, we can’t turn away from modern society en toto, we need to lay hold of what is good in it, of who is good in it, and plunge into the storm together. Bury your dreams of a glorious past reborn and look, instead, to the mess of the future we might yet have and make better.

Don’t cut yourself off from the present; remake it as best you can. If things really do get bad, think about how you can turn to whoever is beside you, some of whom will most definitely be people with proper medical training, and help rather than try to usurp their authority. Oh, yes, let us not forget the importance of social work in all of this.

If you are those people with proper medical training, think about how you can organize other people to helping you help. How do you turn their skills to good end? How do you help those of them who want to be supportive of their friends and neighbors better tools to do just that? How do you rethink your medical expertise for a more decentralized world?

These sorts of questions are exemplary, but they hold for almost all the domains of knowledge we possess. Learning to keep a garden won’t be much more helpful than herbalism in the starker downturns possible, but joined to a system managed by agricultural experts? It might just help save some lives. I can see very little hope for those who think they can be personally prepared for a sharp and sudden decline. If that decline comes, hope will lie with the increasing hybridization of the distributed and the centralized.

How do we get ready to evolve together into a new world? We aren’t there yet, but how do help tilt the future more positively? Those aren’t rhetorical questions and I don’t have the answers.

The hardest part is that at this point in time I suspect we can only ask these questions, not answer them. The more pointedly and sharply we ask them, though, the better disposed we become to seeing and greeting the time when the answers do become possible.

We need to cultivate a fierce patience and attentiveness and, within the limits of our mortal frame, struggle against the fantasies, apocalyptic or otherwise, that would draw us away from the present moment. It may be very soon that the answers become possible, or it may be years yet, but by asking them, we may begin to see more clearly the world around us, including the other people who we will need to survive.

This is so hard, I know. It doesn’t change the fact that we need this awareness now more than ever.

13 thoughts on “Evolution Aesthetic

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