Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Trouble with Binary Thinking

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report discussed the magical implications of getting out from under the influence of the mass media and popular culture, and thus from the dumbing-down effects these things exert on the mind. That’s a crucial step, but it’s only a first step, because as soon as you extract all that thaumaturgy from your mind, something is going to fill the resulting void.

Entire industries exist to see to it that what fills the void is simply another version of what you tried to get rid of. The sorry fate of the so-called Voluntary Simplicity movement of a few years back makes a good case study of the way these industries work. It was a bad move right at the beginning, to be sure, that the founders of the movement watered down Thoreau’s original and far more powerful phrase “voluntary poverty” so that it didn’t frighten their middle-class target audience. As soon as the idea began to attract attention, that first mistake became the opening wedge that admitted a series of marketing campaigns that pitched supposedly “simpler” consumer products to a mostly privileged audience at steep prices.

Before long a glossy concept magazine packed with ads surfaced on the newsstands, and the whole mvoement devolved into one more mildly exotic lifestyle choice for bored yuppies who were tired of the older options for conspicuous consumption and wanted to try a new one. Not simplicity, but a set of abstract cultural representations of simplicity that were heavily marketed to sell products, became the hallmark of the movement, as torrents of overpriced goodies manufactured in Third World sweatshops and marketed through lavish catalogs and websites came to define what had started out as a not unreasonable attempt to raise questions about the contemporary cult of clutter. What Thoreau would have thought of all this, while stepping out of his shack at Walden Pond with an ax in his hand to split firewood in the chill October air, does not bear imagining.

My more perceptive readers may have grasped from this example one of the reasons why I persist in using the old-fashioned and hopelessly unpopular word “magic” for the inner disciplines and traditional philosophies I’ve been discussing in the current series of posts. “Magic,” like “voluntary poverty,” is an unappealing focus for mass marketing in the context of today’s popular culture. Repackage it under some more comfortable label, and it’s a safe bet that within a few years at most your new label will have been hijacked by the thaumaturgists of marketing and advertising departments, turned into yet another cheap sales pitch, and used to pimp attitudes and ideas, as well as products, that are antithetical in every way to what your label was originally intended to mean.

That’s exactly what happened to the New Age movement, which started out as an intriguing attempt to find common ground between cutting edge sciences, traditional wisdom, and the experiences of contemporary visionaries, before it got mugged by the marketers in the dark alleys of the early 1980s. For heaven’s sake, Gregory Bateson used to count as a New Age thinker. What he would have thought of today’s New Age scene—well, let’s just say that if he suddenly stepped out of a shack at Esalen this evening with an ax in his hand, I’m not sure how confident I would be that he had firewood in mind.

Still, the machinations of marketers are not the only difficulty that has to be faced here. Certain inborn habits of the human mind, even in the absence of modern mass media or the equivalent, tend to leave a nasty trap in the way of the aspiring mage, or for that matter anybody else who recognizes that there’s something wrong with the worldview of a dysfunctional culture. Enough of my readers may have one or another part of their anatomy caught in the jaws of this particular trap that it’s probably wisest to follow the approach standard in magical instruction—that is, to present the model as an abstraction first, and only then move into the potentially controversial territory of actual examples.

A bit of jargon will unfortunately be necessary. Human beings, according to the teaching you’re about to receive, normally think in binaries—that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and automatic enough that it’s most likely hardwired into our brains, and there’s good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on. The drawbacks to this handy set of internal categories don’t seem to bother any of our primate relatives, and probably became an issue—like so much that’s part of magic—only when the rickety structure of the reasoning mind took shape over the top of the standard-issue social primate brain.

The difficulty, like so many of the difficulties that beset humanity, is one of overgeneralizing a good idea. There’s no significant middle ground between food and nonfood, say, or between predator and nonpredator, and so the reactive response we’re discussing excludes the possibility of middle ground; it’s either edible (or considering you as edible), or it’s not. The more complex classifications that the reasoning mind can use, though, admit of a great deal of middle ground, and so do the equally complex relationships that develop in societies once the reasoning mind gets to work on relationships between social primates. When we have the opportunity to consider such things carefully, it’s not hard to see this, but the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire (food rather than nonfood) or fear (predator rather than nonpredator). Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

In the tradition of Druidry I mostly teach and practice, there’s a neat mental trick for sidestepping the binary-producing mechanism when it’s not useful. It consists, first, of learning to recognize binaries at sight, and second, when a binary is encountered, looking for a third option that will turn the binary into a ternary, a threefold relationship. Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.

This useful little exercise has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume. Take any political debate you care to name; inevitably, there are possible choices more extreme than either of the two sides, as well as choices in the space in between, and still other choices that aren’t in the same continuum at all. Ternary thinking helps you pop out of the binary mode long enough to see this.

What makes the process of ternary thinking fascinating is that its effects are not necessarily limited to the person who practices it. Fairly often, when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

At this point, as my readers have doubtless guessed, we’ve strayed into the realm of magical combat. You’ll notice that lightning bolts from wands and incantations in bad Latin are not involved; those belong to cheap fantasy fiction, not to actual magic. Instead, the combat is a struggle of narratives or, if you will, of ways of structuring experience. Among the tools that practitioners of mass thaumaturgy use to weave their spells are emotionally charged images and ideas that trigger the hardwired binary reaction in our brains. Among the effective options for doing battle with them, in turn, is ternary logic, which defuses the binary reaction so that whatever issue is up for discussion can be put back into its actual context, and is no longer seen exclusively through the filter of food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and the like.

This can only be done, though, if you’ve already learned how to deactivate the binary automatism in yourself. In magic, as in so many of the things we’ve discussed in this blog, the starting point is always your own life, and of course that’s unpopular; trom Al Gore’s carbon footprints to all those gay-bashing preachers who end up being caught with their boyfriends, America these days is awash in people trying to demand changes from other people that they haven’t been able or willing to carry out themselves. That’s ineffective magic in any context, and especially so when it comes to ternary thinking. If you try to work with ternaries when you’ve still got a great deal of emotion and personal identity invested in binary thought patterns, for example, you’re probably going to fall into a binary between the abstract concepts of binary and ternary thinking, see ternary thinking as “food” and “nonpredator” and binary thinking as “nonfood” and “predator,” and pile on the binary reactions while convincing yourself that you’ve transcended them.

I wish this were merely a theoretical possibility. Those who think it is might be well advised to pick up a copy of Matthew Fox’s book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ and read what Fox has to say about dualism—that’s his term for binary thinking in a religous context. He denounces it in harsh terms, but he then goes on to say that there are basically two kinds of religion, dualist and nondualist, and dualist religion is bad while nondualist religion is good! At one point—it’s on pages 134 and 135 of my copy—he sets out a convenient list of the differences between the two, and it’s all a matter of hard oppositions between contending extremes. All in all, it’s hard to think of anything more dualist this side of 3rd century Johannite Gnosticism, and yet Fox, at least when he wrote the book in question, was apparently convinced that he wasn’t a dualist.

The problem with binary thinking—or, if you will, with dualism—is not that it’s bad. It’s simply that it’s very often overused, and even more often used inappropriately. If you’re at risk of starvation, or being stalked by a predator, the hardwired binary reaction with all its emotional force is more likely to keep you alive than a philosophical attitude toward eating or being eaten. There are other times and contexts, furthermore, in which a nonreactive, thoughtful dualism, like the Taoist conception of yin and yang, is a very flexible and useful tool. The point of learning to think in ternaries, in turn, is not that ternaries are good and binaries are bad; it’s that learning the trick of ternary thinking widens your range of options. The same traditions that taught (and teach) ternary thinking go on to explain that every number denotes a way of conceptually dividing up the world, and teach more advanced students how to use a range of whole numbers—anything from the first seven to the first twenty of them, depending on the tradition in question—as abstract models for thinking, each in its own proper place and each with its own distinct effects.

The details of how this is done belong to the technicalities of magical practice and so, like some of the other points raised earlier, don’t belong in these essays. The crucial point I want to get across is simply that any binary division that comes to mind, unless it has to do with food, predators, or a handful of other very basic biological drives, should be regarded with a significant amount of wariness. This is especially true, by the way, in American politics. The two main parties have spent the last century or so cashing in mightily on the binary reaction; their rhetoric always treats the choice between them as though it’s as absolute as the choice between yes and no, or at least the one between A and Z. In reality, of course, it’s more like the choice between N and Q; even in the alphabet of contemporary political thought, there are plenty of other options, and there’s also the very real possibility of bringing in, say, Σ or Ж from another alphabet entirely—but of course any such variation is exactly what the two major parties fear most, and they put a great deal of effort into trying to forestall it.

The same logic applies to plenty of other binaries in circulation these days. Think of the number of times you’ve heard people insist that doing without some specific technology we use these days is equivalent to doing without all technology, and going back to living in caves. Think of the broader discourse from which this derives, in which any alternative to continued progress along the lines that (supposed) progress is (allegedly) progressing is equated to catastrophe. Think of the people who insist that their political movement, or religious movement, or activist movement or, really, any kind of movement you care to imagine—barring the one obvious and scatological exception—is the only alternative to whatever the horrible future du jour happens to be.

Some of these are innocent enough, but a great many more are the result of deliberate thaumaturgy, and if you trace back the rhetoric to its source, it’s not hard to see the thaumaturgy at work. If the source is a book, look for the couple of chapters right up front that describe the horrible future we’re going to get, barring a miracle, and notice further on that the plan of action offered by the writer doesn’t actually promise the miracle; the resulting doublebind heightens the stress on the readers and thus makes the binary reaction harder to shake off. If it’s visual media, watch for the same things, heightened by sharp juxtapositions between images that have radically different emotional charges—the famous ad run by the Johnson presidential campaign in 1964, alternating images of a hydrogen bomb going off and a little girl plucking daisy petals, is a classic of the type.

Other media have their own distinctive strategies of thaumaturgy. There’s a certain amount of entertainment value to be had in making such analyses, but to be quite frank, it’s more useful in practical terms to minimize your exposure to the phenomenon. The work of noticing the overfamiliar effects of thaumaturgy, analyzing the intended manimpulation, and using ternary logic or any of the other practical methods of the operative mage to pluck out one barbed emotional hook after another—well, let’s just say that it gets old very quickly, and once the lesson is well learnt there’s rarely much of a point in repeating it.

Certainly it’s possible to have a significant impact on the collective conversation of our time without exposing yourself to the thaumaturgic media. Though most mass media in every age are designed to force the recipient into a passive relationship to the incoming stream of information, disinformation, and thaumaturgy, there are always a few options that give the individual a voice or allow a conversation to take place, or both. The blogosphere is the current example of the species; a lively world of noncommercial monthly and weekly journals did the same thing through most of the twentieth century, and will no doubt do the same thing again through the second half or so of the twenty-first. There are other modes of shaping collective consciousness as well, of course, with the influence of personal example standing out in many ways as the most potent of the lot.

Still, there’s another dimension to binary thinking that has to be discussed in this context, one that reaches right down to the roots of what this blog and the peak oil blogosphere generally are trying to do. We’ll talk about that next week.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Lesson in Practical Magic

Up to this point in our discussion of the intersection between peak oil and magic, we’ve mostly talked about what doesn’t work. That couldn’t be avoided, since the misunderstandings of magic that run barefoot through contemporary culture have to be dealt with before it’s possible to make sense of anything more substantive.

Still, I hope that by this time my readers have grasped that magic is not a substitute for technology, a way of making an end run around environmental limits and the laws of physics, or for that matter a means of forcing society as a whole to deal constructively with the rising spiral of crises that dominates the emergent history of our time. It’s an old and subtle craft that deals with the interface between consciousness and the universe of our experience, using the buttons and levers of the nonrational mind; it has remarkable potentials for good and ill; and some of those potentials have quite a bit to offer in the face of peak oil. Now that the misconceptions have been more or less cleared away, we can get down to the details of practical magic.

There’s a significant parallel between the material we’re about to cover and the “green wizardry” of the Seventies appropriate-tech movement that we discussed at such length a little while back. The key to green wizardry is that it starts with the individual; instead of pursuing vast top-down changes, the organic gardeners and renewable-energy wonks of the Seventies put gardens in their own backyards, solar water heaters on their own roofs, and insulation in their own attics. In the same way, the effective practice of magic begins with the individual student of the art, and works outward from there.

How to begin, and how to work outward from there, varies from one system of magic to another, and very often from one teacher to another. Since the purpose of this blog is to discuss peak oil and topics related to it, rather than to offer a course in magical training for beginners, I’m going to skip most of the technical details here; those who are interested can find them in the standard textbooks of the art. It’s more useful for the present purpose to give the context in which those details find their place and have their meaning, and that might best be done by introducing you, dear reader, to one of the more colorful figures in the entire history of magic.

If I say that Joséphin Péladan was a French conservative of the 19th century, nearly every person who reads that phrase will misunderstand it; the English-speaking world has never had anything like continental European conservatism, and even in Europe the conservatism of Péladan’s time is all but extinct. If I go on to say that he was one of the leading lights of the Decadent movement in French literature, the author of lushly erotic and wildly popular novels, as well as a dandy and an esthete who out-Gothed today’s Goths a hundred and twenty years in advance, my readers may have some difficulty squaring that with my first comment; and when I go on to explain that he was at one and the same time a devout if eccentric Roman Catholic and a significant figure in the Paris occult scene of his time, I trust I will be forgiven for listening for the distant popping sound of readers’ heads exploding.

Péladan was all of that, and quite a bit more. He’s the man Oscar Wilde was imitating when Wilde went strolling through London in velvet clothes with a drooping lily in his hand. Péladan claimed descent from the ancient Chaldean sages, sponsored a series of Rosicrucian gallery shows that came within an ace of changing the history of Western art, and ran an occult order that had no less a figure than Erik Satie as its official composer. (Fans of Satie’s early music will recall his Sonneries de la Rose+Croix; those were written for the meetings of Péladan’s order.) “Do you know what is meant by the expression ‘That man is a character’? Well, a mage is that above all,” Peladan wrote, and he certainly was.

All the colorful details, though, were in the service of an utterly serious purpose. Péladan belonged to that minority of late 19th century thinkers who recognized that the European societies of their day were headed for disaster. More clearly than any of his contemporaries, he understood that what was facing collapse was not simply political or economic, but the entire cultural heritage—aristocratic, Christian, Latinate—that linked the Europe of his time with its historic roots in the ancient world. What set him apart from the sentimental conservatives of his time and ours, though, is that he recognized that this heritage was already past saving. “We do not believe in progress or in salvation,” his Manifesto of the Rose+Cross announced to a mostly bemused Paris in 1891. “For the Latin race, which goes to its death, we prepare a final splendor, to dazzle and make gentle the barbarians who are to come.”

His work as an operative mage and a cultural figure focused on that theme with the frantic intensity of a man who knows he’s going to lose. His core work of magical theory and practice, Comment on devient mage (How To Become A Mage, 1892), contains not a single magical ritual. Its theme, to borrow a typically ornate term from his writing, was ethopoeia—the making (poesis) of an ethos, one that would enable individuals to stand apart from the collective consciousness of their time in order to think their own thoughts and make their own choices. “Society,” Péladan wrote, “is an anonymous enterprise for living a life of secondhand emotions”—and the particular emotions on offer, as he discussed in some detail, are not picked at random. Ioan Culianu’s description of modern industrial societies as “magician states” that rule by manufacturing a managed consensus by the manipulation of nonrational lures would have been music to Péladan’s ears.

His unwavering focus made How To Become A Mage the most detailed text of its time on the fine art of freeing the individual will, sensibility, and understanding from bondage to unthinking social reactions. It was very much a book of its era, full of references to current events, and it also uses the utterly Péladanesque strategy of infuriating the reader by poking as many of those social reactions as possible. Liberal, conservative, radical or reactionary, every reader of Péladan’s treatise could count on finding a good reason to throw it at the nearest wall, and the effect would be even stronger today, since the cultural differences between Péladan’s time and ours would step on a whole new layer of sore toes. In spare moments, I’ve gotten about halfway through making an English translation of How To Become A Mage, but it’s purely a private hobby; it’s hard to imagine a more unpublishable book.

Still, the same theme appears throughout the literature of the 19th century occult revival. Partly that’s because everybody in the occult scene read Péladan, but it was also because the 19th century saw the emergence of the first generation of effective mass media and the foreshadowings of the mass movements and political thaumaturgy of the century to come. An extraordinary range of magical literature at the time, and right up through the Second World War, assumed as a matter of course that contemporary European civilization was, as we now like to say, circling the drain.

Whether “the barbarians who are to come” would be domestic or imported was a matter of some discussion—Péladan himself thought that Europe would eventually be conquered by the Chinese, a theory that seems rather less far-fetched today than it did in his time—but very few people in the occult scene doubted that they worked their magic in the twilight years of a dying civilization. Of course they were quite correct; the old cultures of Europe, in every sense Péladan would have recognized, died in the trenches of the First World War; the forty years from Sarajevo in 1914 to Dien Bien Phu in 1954 saw Europe’s nations flattened to the ground by two catastrophic wars, overwhelmed by cultural change, and reduced from the status of masters of the planet to pawns in a game of bare-knuckle politics played with gusto by the United States and the Soviet Union.

All this made Péladan’s lessons more than usually relevant, because the catastrophe he foresaw had a clear magical dimension. Read contemporary accounts of the way that Europe stumbled into war in 1914 and it’s hard to miss the weirdly trancelike state of mind in the warring nations, as vast crowds cheered the coming of hostilities that would cost millions of them their lives, and left-wing parties that had pledged themselves to nonviolent resistance in the event of war forgot all about their pledges and swung into step behind the patriotic drumbeats. The collective consciousness of the age was primed for an explosion, partly by the thaumaturgy of any number of competing political and economic interests, and partly by the rising pressures of intolerable inner conflicts that, in magician states ruled by a managed consensus, was prevented from finding a less catastrophic form of expression.

It took an extraordinary degree of mental independence to stay clear of the trance state and its appalling consequences, but that was one of the things the magical training available in those days was intended to do. Péladan was inevitably the most outspoken of the period’s occult writers on this subject, as on so many others, and filled a good many of the 22 chapters of How To Becone A Mage with advice on how to open up an insulating space between the individual mind and the pressures that surround it. Many of the same points, though, are made in quieter ways by other writers of the time, and in the instructional papers of magical lodges of the same period. All this advice is aimed at the social habits of another time and has not necessarily aged well, but the basic principles still stand.

The first of those principles is to limit and control the channels by which the mainstream media and their wholly owned subsidiary, public opinion, get access to your nervous system. Now of course that raises the hackles of quite a few people nowadays. When I suggested two months back that those who wanted to reclaim some sense of meaning from today’s manufactured pseudoculture might consider pulling the plug on popular culture as a good first step, I fielded the inevitable responses insisting that popular culture was creative, interesting, etc., so why did I have such a grudge against it?

It was a neat evasion of my point, which is that contemporary mass-produced popular culture exists solely for the purpose of emptying your wallet and your brain, not necessarily in that order. In terms of the classification I’ve suggested in recent posts, popular culture is a vehicle for mass thaumaturgy; it works, as mass thaumaturgy always works, by inducing you to think less and react more. Thus, in the strictest sense of the word, it makes you more stupid. I don’t think any of us can afford that right now.

One point Péladan made that remains valid today is that spending time among a crowd of people whose minds and conversation are utterly conditioned by popular culture is not noticeably different from getting your popular culture firsthand. If anything, it’s even more of an issue these days than it was in his; I suspect most of us have had the experience of hearing a conversation between two people in which every single word spoken was a sound bite from some media source or other. There’s no need to become a hermit, but it’s a good idea to choose your crowds with some care.

Steps such as these will cut down on the influence that the mass thaumaturgy of our time has over your thoughts, feelings, and decisions. Still, the empty space has to be filled with something better, or there won’t be much of an improvement; this is the second of the principles I mentioned earlier. That’s the perennial mistake of Romanticism, the notion that all you have to do is fling aside the fetters of social expectations and do what comes naturally. The problem here is of course that “what comes naturally” to every one of us is the product of a lifetime spent absorbing social cues from the people around us and the media directed at us, all of which triggers a set of unthinking and unconscious reactions we share with our nonhuman relatives: social primate see, social primate do.

Being who he was, and living when he did, Péladan phrased that dimension of the work in terms of art, music and literature, and that’s certainly one of the available options. If you happen to be a dandy and an esthete, and live in a city with good art galleries, concert venues, and the like, you could do worse than to follow his recommendations—he was particularly partial to Renaissance paintings, German classical and romantic music from Bach through to Wagner, and Shakespeare’s plays—but I don’t recommend copying him and Oscar Wilde and strolling down the streets with a lily in your hand. Their wives clearly had to put up with a lot. (You didn’t know that Wilde was married, did you? Her name was Constance; she was an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most influential magical order in late 19th century Britain; and yes, she did have to put up with a lot.)

Still, that’s only one option, and the last thing you should do in this sort of practice is rely on someone else’s notions of what ought to feed your mind. “’Fear the example of another, think for yourself,’” wrote Péladan; “this precept of Pythagoras contains all of magic, which is nothing other than the power of selfhood.” As I suggested in the earlier post mentioned a few paragraphs back, the important thing is simply to choose things to read, watch, hear, and do that you consider worthwhile, instead of passively taking in whatever the thaumaturgists-for-hire of the media and marketing industries push at you. What falls in the former category will vary from person to person, as it should.

All this seems relatively straightforward, and indeed it’s quite possible to get to the same decision by plain reasoning starting, say, from the shoddy vulgarity of mass-produced entertainments, and going from there to the realization that there’s much more interesting mind food to feast upon. That making such choices also makes it easier to think clearly would in that case be merely a pleasant side effect of good taste. The operative mage in training does the same thing deliberately, not just to think clearly but to feel and will clearly as well. As the training proceeds, however, those effects begin to reveal another side, which is their effect on other people.

Péladan hinted at this effect in How To Become A Mage, though custom in the occult scene back in his time didn’t favor spelling out the details. “Do not look for another measure of magical power than that the power within you, nor for another way to judge a being than by the light that he sheds To perfect yourself by becoming luminous, and like the sun, to excite the ideal life latent around you—there you behold all the mysteries of the highest initiation.” What he did not quite say is that “the ideal life latent around you” is in other human beings, and that—especially in times of cultural crisis—stepping outside the lowest common denominator of the mass mind has an effect rather like induction in electrical circuits; put another way, it can be as catchy as a lively new tune.

You can catch that tune, so to speak, from a person; you can catch it from a book, which is why Péladan wrote his 22 novels, each of them exploring some aspect of the relation between the initiate and a corrupt society; you can catch it from other sources, the way Rainier Maria Rilke did from a statue of Apollo; you can also catch it all by yourself, by climbing out of collective consciousness for some other reason and discovering that you like the view. Now of course far more often than not, those who step out of the collective consciousness of their society promptly jump back into the collective consciousness of a congenial subculture, which from a magical perspective is no better—thinking the same thoughts as all your radical friends is just as much secondhand living as is thinking the same thoughts as the vacuous faces on the evening news—but there’s always the chance of getting beyond that, and some subcultures make it easier to get beyond that than others.

Does this seem vague and impractical? If so, dear reader, I would encourage you to glance back over the history of the peak oil movement. Fifteen years ago, next to nobody anywhere was talking about the hard fact that global oil production was approaching hard planetary limits. Ten years ago, there were people talking about it, but they were voices in the wilderness dismissed by all right-thinking people. Five years ago, the idea that an archdruid would take an active part in a national and international conversation on the future of industrial society might have made a great idea for a comedy skit. This year—or, more precisely,a few weeks from now—the archdruid in question will be speaking at ASPO-USA’s annual conference in Washington DC, practically in the shadow of the Capitol. Five, ten, and fifteen years from now? We’ll see.

Many factors contributed to the remarkably fast rise of the peak oil movement, to be sure. Still, from the perspective of an operative mage, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the induction effect Péladan didn’t quite mention—the magical equivalent, to be precise, of personal example—had at least some role in it. As for the deeper implications and applications of that effect—well, here again, that’s a subject for next week’s post.


On a note that Péladan would have appreciated, I’m delighted to announce that Rise & Fall, a modern dance piece choreographed by Valerie Green and performed by DanceEntropy, will have its premiere at the Baruch Center in New York City on January 20-22, 2012. Regular readers will remember that Rise & Fall is partly inspired by my book The Long Descent. Further information about Rise & Fall and its companion piece, Inexplicable Space, can be found here. I’d encourage any of my readers who will be in the NYC area then, and enjoy modern dance, to take it in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pluto's Republic

Last week’s Archdruid Report post ended with what might, without too much exaggeration, be called a cliffhanger. Talk about magic, as we’ve been doing for the last few weeks, and point out that using magic to help people think more clearly has to be done one at a time with the active cooperation of the person in question, and it’s a sabfe bet that very quickly someone’s going to ask, if people en masse can’t be made to understand, might it be possible at least to make them behave?

That’s the question I posed last week. It’s a common notion, and unlike most common notions about magic these days, it has some relation to the actual possibilities of magic. To answer the question, though, it’s going to be necessary to start with a corpse in a bathroom.

The bathroom in question was on the University of Chicago campus, on an otherwise pleasant spring day in 1991. The corpse belonged to Ioan Culianu, a Romanian emigré who had a stellar reputation in academic circles as a brilliant historian of religions, and a quieter but no less impressive reputation in certain other circles as a modern practitioner of Renaissance magic. Culianu had been shot once in the back of the head by an unknown assailant. It’s been suggested that his murder had a good deal to do with his involvement in Romanian politics, as one of the most vocal opponents of the regime that succeeded the Communists in that country, but the case remains unsolved to this day.

Back in 1984, Culianu defined himself as one of the rising stars of the academic firmament with a book titled Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. The academic study of Renaissance magic had been a hot field since the Sixties, when Frances Yates finally blew the lid off a generations-old habit of scholarly disdain for occultism, but even by the standards of the Eighties Culianu’s book was startling. It took magic seriously as a system of psychological manipulation that used the cravings and desires of its target—the “eros” of the title—to shape human behavior. It suggested on that basis that modern advertising, which does exactly this, is simply the current form of magic, and that contemporary Western nations are “magician states” governed by the magical manipulation of public consensus.

None of these ideas were new. Culianu got most of them from the same place he got much of his magical training, the writings of the renegade Dominican sorcerer Giordano Bruno, who ended a colorful career by being burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600. Bruno’s writings on magic describe magic in much the same way Culianu did, as a system of manipulation that casts out lures for nonrational desires. It’s a common way of thinking about magic, the kind of magic I’ve labeled thaumaturgy in earlier posts. The interesting thing here is that Culianu also discussed the very different figure of Marsilio Ficino, who was an even more important figure in the history of magic than Bruno, but who practiced the other kind of magic, the kind I’ve called theurgy.

Ficino was a Neoplatonist theurgist of the kind I’ve described earlier, practicing magic as a preparation for philosophy. He was also a physician, and much of his magic focused on what he called melancholy and we call clinical depression, the occupational disease of Renaissance intellectuals. Instead of manipulating other people by means of nonrational lures, he taught students to direct the nonrational aspects of their own minds, so that they could think more clearly and avoid the distortions of thought and feeling that clinical depression brings with it. While Ficino has a place in Culianu’s book, though, the theurgic dimension of his work gets very little exposure there.

The fault line between these approaches runs straight back to the origins of Western occult philosophy, and we need to follow it to make sense of the whole pattern. For all practical purposes, we can start with an ancient Greek thinker named Aristocles, whose very broad shoulders got him the nickname Plato. One of the most influential minds in human history—Alfred North Whitehead, himself no intellectual slouch, characterized all of Western philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato”—he played a central role in redirecting philosophy away from arbitrary speculations about the nature of existence, and toward close attention to how human beings know what exists and what doesn’t. Even if you’ve never read a word Plato wrote, you use concepts he invented practically every time you think.

Still, it’s not exactly rare for those who define the cutting edge to make a fair number of mistakes along with their insights, and then leave the resulting mess for later generations to work out. Plato did that, in spades. Much of the history of classical philosophy consists of attempts by later thinkers to sort through his legacy, build on his achievements, and quietly chuck his less useful notions into the trash. In the process, they had to deal with his political opinions. So does everyone who confronts Plato; they remain a live issue right up to this day.

Plato was born into a wealthy and politically well-connected family, and grew up in an Athens that was torn by decades of savage political struggles following its catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War. There were two parties—this may sound familiar—one of which was dominated by the rich, while the other was nominally democratic but mostly just consisted of everyone on the outs with the other party. Plato had family connections to what we might as well call the Republican party, but distanced himself from it because its rule over Athens was blatantly corrupt and unjust. When the Democrats staged a coup, though, things didn’t get noticeably better, and Plato’s teacher Socrates was executed on trumped-up charges in the reaction that followed.

Plato responded to all this the way quite a few people are responding to the failures of political systems today, by trying to imagine a system that would somehow evade the pervasive human habit of making really bad political decisions. None of his attempts worked, and it’s important to understand why they didn’t work, because the same flaws pervade today’s notions about getting people to do the right thing when they pretty clearly don’t want to do so.

The most famous of all Plato’s dialogues, The Republic, focuses on this issue, and takes the form of an inquiry into justice. It covers an extraordinary landscape of ideas, and raises points that are well worth study today, but at its core is the imaginary construction of the world’s first utopia—yes, that’s one of the concepts that Plato invented. His utopia, like most of the ones invented since then, is ruled by the minority of the population who have the brains and the education to do the job right. They’re supported by a larger minority of the population that’s motivated by concepts of honor and social expectations, who provide the muscle for war and crowd control; and these two classes rule the rest of the population, who are motivated by their appetites.

Underneath this, as my regular readers will have guessed already, is the same way of thinking about the individual that gave rise to Plato’s chariot metaphor: the differentiation of the whole self into reasoning, social, and biological parts. Each caste fills one of the three roles—the leaders are the reasoners, the guardians are social, and the workers are biological—so that the Republic becomes an exact analogue of the individual. Plato, being Plato, works the metaphor in all sorts of directions, and later generations of Platonists took those and ran with them in quite a few useful ways, but there’s a little problem with the Republic: Plato’s conclusions clash disastrously with core insights of the rest of his work.

In the dialogue Meno, to note only one example, Plato has Socrates demonstrate a point about the deep structure of the human mind by walking an illiterate servant boy through a geometrical proof. The boy doesn’t know a thing about geometry, but he is able to follow Socrates’ logic, and by the end of the process has understood what at that time was cutting-edge mathematics. Socrates’ point is that anyone, anywhere, could be taught the same thing—and that’s a point for which Plato’s Republic has no room at all. In the Republic, reason is for the few; honor and social commitments are for another minority, separate from the first; the majority has nothing but appetite. It’s therefore fair to say that in the Republic, nobody is allowed to be more than one-third of a complete human being.

That’s always the problem with utopian schemes; the inhabitants are never allowed to be fully human, though the restrictions are rarely handled with the geometric precision Plato displayed. When a utopian scheme is put into practice, in turn, what inevitably happens is that whatever dimension of the human is supposedly abolished happens anyway, and defines the fault line along which the scheme breaks down. Marxism is a great example; in theory, people in Marxist societies are motivated solely by noble ideals; in practice, getting people to go through the motions of being motivated solely by noble ideals required an ever-expanding system of apparatchiks, secret police and prison camps, and even that ultimately failed to do the job. One way or another, trying to create heaven on earth reliably yields the opposite; whatever resembles Plato’s Republic on paper turns into Pluto’s Republic in practice.

The would-be political thaumaturge, the person who wants to use magical manipulation to make people do what he thinks is the right thing, is subject to the same rule. He’s trying to do the same thing Plato wanted to do in his imaginary Republic by different means. As thaumaturgy is subtler than jackboots, the political thaumaturge gets his disastrous results in a subtler way.

When you’re practicing thaumaturgy for yourself or another person who wants to work with you, it’s possible to aim symbolic and ritual stimuli very carefully at specific details of the nonrational mind, and the effects are observed and managed by the rational mind; this sort of thaumaturgy very often spills over into theurgy if the person receiving the work is open to that. When a client comes to a practitioner of old-fashioned Southern conjure magic, for example, most of what happens on the first visit is meant to give the root doctor a clear idea of exactly what the client’s real issues are. Many practitioners have a canned divination rap—the term for this in the trade is “cold reading”—that covers all the usual bases; it sounds very impressive, which is good for building the client’s confidence, but the skilled root doctor watches the client carefully while giving the cold reading, looking for the signs that show what’s really going on, so the magic can be aimed precisely where it’s needed.

You can’t do that with political thaumaturgy. If you want to influence the thinking of a nation, or even a community, you have to paint with a very broad brush. That means, first, you have to aim at one of a few powerful nonrational drives that affect most people in much the same way; second, you have to pile as much pressure as possible onto whatever drive you have in mind, so that you can overwhelm whatever the psyche of the individual might throw at you; and third, you have to weaken the reasoning mind, because that’s the part of the self that most often trips up efforts to work magic off basic drives, especially when those efforts aim at goals that most of the targets think are against their best interests.

Two awkward consequences follow from these considerations. The first is that there are things that political thaumaturgy can’t do at all, because they contradict the requirements of the method. Getting people to think clearly by encouraging them not to think clearly is not a promising strategy, and it’s not much better to try to use basic drives to convince people not to give in to their basic drives. The old delusion that techniques are value-free is as misleading here as elsewhere; any technique is better for some ends than others, and thus privileges the values that favor those ends above others. (It’s probably worth pointing out that a sane response to peak oil, which requires clear reasoning and the ability to look beyond those basic biological drives, is among the things political thaumaturgy is almost uniquely unsuited to accomplish.)

The second awkward consequence is that the political thaumaturge is always affected by his or her own magic. The old-fashioned Southern root doctor just mentioned is in no danger of being caught in the work he does for his client; he aims his magic at the client’s psychological buttons rather than his own, and the root doctor isn’t even present for most of the work—the cleansing baths that remove unwanted emotional states, the daily rite of putting a drop of Van Van oil on a mojo bag that directs consciousness toward certain things and away from others, and a good deal more, are done by the client in private. Political thaumaturgy can’t be precisely aimed, though, and can’t usually rely on talking people into practicing complex rituals in their spare time; instead, it relies on mass media, and relies on repetition and compelling verbal or visual patterns that sidestep the critical faculties of the reasoning mind.

Just as you can’t spread raspberry jam on toast without getting it on your fingers, though, you can’t spend your time creating words and images that appeal to the nonrational mind without your own nonrational mind being influenced by them, and the more compelling your thaumaturgy is, the more surely you will be caught by your own spell. Since political thaumaturgy requires you to weaken the reasoning mind and overwhelm the defenses of the self by pounding on simple, powerful nonrational drives, the impact of this work on the mind of the political thaumaturge is far from helpful, and it helps explain why practitioners of political thaumaturgy so often end up messily dead.

Whether or not this is what happened to Culianu is still an open question; his biographer Ted Anton notes that a good part of Culianu’s last months went into writing blistering propaganda pieces assailing the Romanian government, a process that might best be compared to poking a grizzly bear with a stick, but speculation about the role this played in his murder remains exactly that. Still, it’s par for the course for political thaumaturges to end up as true believers in their own propaganda, and in the hardball politics of post-Communist eastern Europe, this could well have been a fatal mistake.

It’s a common enough mistake, too. In a post last year, I discussed Adolf Hitler, whose career is among the best documented examples both of the power and of the pitfalls of political thaumaturgy. Hitler’s meteoric rise to power and the extraordinary control he achieved over the imagination of the German people are a remarkable example of thaumaturgy at work, and readers interested in figuring out how political thaumaturgy functions could do worse than study the Nazi regime’s systematic transformation of an entire nation into ritual theater hammering on a handful of primal biological drives. The result of that effort is just as telling; the process of convincing Germany that he was invincible convinced Hitler of the same thing, and he proceeded to destroy himself and his regime in a crescendo of blunders that all followed from his inability to imagine that he could be mistaken.

For an example much closer to home, consider the way that the privileged classes in contemporary America by and large support policies that, in exchange for absurdly huge short term gains, are sawing away at the basis of their wealth and privilege, and may ultimately leave many members of those classes dangling from lampposts. Awarding multibillion-dollar bonuses to bank executives when their banks are losing money and most Americans are going broke is, shall we say, not a strategy with a long shelf life. It may be possible for a while to insist that all that money is going to trickle down and create jobs, but when the jobs don’t appear—and they won’t, because diverting money from the productive economy of nonfiscal goods and services to the unproductive economy of high finance is an effective way to cause jobs to be lost rather than gained—that claim isn’t going to hold up well.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s comparison of the American political class to the French aristocracy on the eve of the Revolution thus may yet turn out to be even more prescient than Galbraith thought. That America’s privileged classes don’t see this coming is another example of the way thaumaturgy recoils on its practitioners: decades of public relations meant to justify the parasitic habits of the finance sector have produced generations of financiers who believe implicitly in their own propaganda. Thus they’ve been repeatedly blindsided by the failure of the economy to conform to their beliefs, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll do any better when the stakes in the game change from money to blood.

In any other context, to be sure, comparing Ioan Culianu to the faceless apparatchiks who run Goldman Sachs and its equivalents, to say nothing of Adolf Hitler, would merely insult the memory of a brilliant scholar. The sole thing these disparate figures have in common is their use of political thaumaturgy. This in itself makes the point that, to my mind, most needs making here, which is that it doesn’t matter why you attempt political thaumaturgy. You can try to use it to overthrow a repressive government, to line your pockets with unearned wealth, to impose a murderously twisted ideology on a vulnerable nation—it really doesn’t matter; it’s not going to get you the results you want.

What might produce the results that are wanted, and needed, as the industrial world begins to skid down the far side of Hubbert’s peak is another matter, and one that I’ll begin to trace out next week.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Peak Oil Initiation

I sometimes wonder what historians of the far future will think as they pore over what’s left of the records of our own time. It’s unlikely that they’ll have a great deal more to go on than, say, Renaissance scholars had when they started to piece together the story of Rome’s decline and fall; our civilization produces a much greater volume of records than Rome did, to be sure, but most of them are in much more transitory forms; parchment lasts for many centuries if it’s kept dry and not handled much, while a few decades at most—and in the case of the internet, a few seconds of power loss—is enough to silence most of our current information media forever.

It’s all too easy to imagine a historian of the Ecotechnic Renaissance in something like the twenty-ninth century in our calendar as she pores over the surviving records of ancient America, trying to figure out what brought about the decline and fall of that long-vanished civilization. Our historian has collected an admirable collection of sources, not only handprinted volumes from the scholarly presses of her time but manuscripts, some of them centuries old, laboriously copied by hand from ancient originals. By the pale light of a single electric lamp, she opens one of the big leatherbound volumes, and begins to read.

We’ll assume that her time is more fortunate than it may well be, and the texts available to her aren’t limited to tabloid-style biographies, press releases by ancient American politicians, and those wretched ghostwritten volumes that ancient American politicians get their flacks to churn out to boost their chances of a presidential nomination. Our historian, let’s say, has a few books that sketch out the crisis of industrial civilization. Here’s a rare manuscript copy of The Limits to Growth, courtesy of a long line of scribes in an ecostery in Vermont; here’s the scholarly find of the last half-century, an almost-complete text of Overshoot by the ancient sage William Catton, which lay forgotten in an abandoned library in the Nebraska desert until shepherds discovered the building half buried in the sands; here’s a volume of texts written by another ancient sage named Sharon Astyk, whose works are all lost but were quoted at length by half a dozen writers of a later century whose writings do survive.

Our historian has these and a few more like them, let’s assume, and she also has enough in the way of chronicles and histories to trace the curve of decline that brought industrial civilization to its knees—the political crises and economic implosions, the depletion of concentrated energy sources and the abandonment of energy-intensive lifestyles and technologies that followed, the wars and epidemics and famines, and the shifts in climate and sea level as the earth’s biosphere responded in its own good time to three centuries of frankly brainless human tinkering with the natural processes that keep us all alive. So there she sits at her desk, the pool of light cast by her single light bulb setting the leather bindings of her books aglow, with the wop-wop-wop of the wind turbine that powers the lamp faintly audible through the ceiling as the night winds sweep past. What is she thinking as she surveys our fate?

I may be wrong, but I’ve long thought that one question above all would haunt my imagined historian of our future: why did we do it? Given that our entire civilization had plenty of warning, and that ten minutes of unprejudiced thought ought to have been enough to demonstrate to anybody the absurdity of expecting to get away with infinite economic growth on a finite planet, why didn’t we do what must, to the eyes of the future, look like the obviously right decision, and downshift to a less energy- and resource-intensive steady state economy while we had the chance? Why, instead, did we keep on lurching blindly forward on a one-way street headed straight to history’s compost bin, all the while angrily shouting down the few that tried to warn us of where we were going?

It’s a question that a lot of people in the peak oil community ask themselves right now, and for good reason. To those who’ve grasped the hard physical realities that undergird peak oil—the geological and thermodynamic limits to our planet’s fossil fuel supplies, the net energy issues and energy subsidies that make replacement of fossil fuels so challenging, and the rest of it—the arguments generally marshalled against the reality of peak oil look like bizarre exercises in paralogic. Weirdly, too, when those paralogical arguments fail—when the insistence by economists that the supply of oil will always increase with rising prices, for example, collides with the reality that the price of oil has increased drastically since 2004 without any corresponding increase in supply—nobody stops and asks the questions that seem obvious to those of us who are already on the peak oil bus.

One of the better recent examples of this last odd habit can be traced in the media response to Daniel Yergin’s latest broadside against the concept of peak oil, framed in his new book The Quest. I don’t propose to argue with Yergin’s claims here, as that’s already been done elsewhere in the peak oil blogosphere. What’s interesting to me is that Yergin has made a series of highly public predictions about future oil production rates and prices over the last decade or so, and to the best of my knowledge every single one of them has been wrong—not slightly wrong, but wrong on the grand scale. His 2004 prediction that the price of oil would shortly stabilize at a plateau of $38 a barrel was so widely publicized, and so decisively refuted by events, that some peak oil writers took to calling this amount of money “one Yergin” and noting how many Yergins a barrel of oil was bringing on any given day.

As a forecaster, then, Yergin’s not even as reliable as a broken clock, and yet the media continue to take his predictions at face value. As far as I know, not one of the reporters in the mainstream media who breathlessly repeated Yergin’s claims about the impossibility of peak oil took so much as a sentence to refer to any of his past predictions, much less how they turned out. It’s weirdly reminiscent of the acquired amnesia that enables believers in apocalyptic prophecies to forget the last half dozen times they talked themselves into believing that the Rapture or the arrival of the Space Brothers or whatever was imminent, and treat the latest prediction with the same earnest enthusiasm.

There’s a certain amusement value in this, but other manifestations of the same gap in comprehension between those who recognize the reality of peak oil and those that don’t are far from funny. Marriages have broken down and friendships have ended because of it. Many other relationships exist in a state of armed truce, in which nobody brings up peak oil because it’s already become clear that conversation on the subject leads nowhere useful. The division is not a matter of intelligence—some extremely smart people insist that there must be limitless energy somewhere—or politics—those who reject peak oil, like those who understand it, can be found from one end of the political spectrum straight across to the other. When it comes down to it, the most that can be said is that some people get peak oil, and others simply don’t.

My sense—and it’s here that we circle back around to the theme of the last two posts, the interface between magic and peak oil—is that the difference between the minority that get peak oil and the majority that doesn’t is not rational in nature. I’ve spoken at quite a bit of length in past posts about the ways that the modern belief in progress functions as a religion, a mythology, a narrative on which most people in the industrial world found their sense of meaning and their hopes for the future. Still, there’s another way to talk about it, and to do that we need to turn back to Plato’s metaphor of the horses and the charioteer, which I mentioned in last week’s post.

That metaphor fielded some lively responses over the past week, and what I found interesting is that most of them missed a central aspect of it. A number of my readers interpreted it along lines that have been standard in the Western world for some centuries now, and seen the horses as the body and its instinct, and the charioteer as the mind and its reasoning powers. That’s the traditional schism dividing Classicism, which exalts reason, from Romanticism, which exalts instinct; from the end of the Renaissance right up to the present, that split has been a standard trope in our culture, and so it’s not surprising that people assumed that this is what Plato was talking about.

But this was not what Plato was talking about, not by a long shot. In his metaphor there were two horses, not one, and they corresponded to two very different forces in the nonrational side of the self. One horse represents the biological self, guided by what Romantics call the instincts and Platonists have generally called the appetites. The other horse, though, represents what the ancient Greeks called thumos, the spirited or irascible part of the self, the part that responds nonrationally to praise or blame, that responds to insults with unreasoning anger and to the promptings of pack-loyalty with the kind of blind courage that shrugs at the thought of death. To use a phrase Plato didn’t, where the first horse is the biological self, the second horse is the social self.

This second horse embodies the lessons we all learn from our parents, our peers, and our community in the childhood years before the ability to reason clearly emerges. It’s as potent a force as the biological appetites, and tangles up with them in complicated ways—the intricacies of the sex drive, for example, have a good deal more to do with the social self and influences absorbed in childhood than they do with the relatively simple biological drive to mate. In evolutionary terms, the social self—or more precisely, the capacity to develop a social self—is a good deal older than the rational mind; we share it with the whole range of mammals that live in groups, and more especially with social primates such as chimps and baboons; it’s nonrational and nonverbal, and once a pattern is established in the social self, it’s no easier to change it by rational thought than it is to turn the sex drive on and off the same way.

The social self is also one of the main vehicles of magic. I wrote two weeks ago about the extent to which human social interactions are mediated by nonverbal and nonrational communication—body language, gesture, vocal tone, facial expression, and all the other communicative methods we have in common with our mammal relatives. These are the channels of communication through which people fall in love, make friends and enemies, establish their place in social hierarchies, claim a larger or smaller share of whatever resources are to hand: all the things that baboons and beavers and the rest of our nonhuman kin do with comparable signals sent through comparable channels. Baby baboons and beavers pick up facility in this language in their early years, and no doubt absorb all kinds of lessons about their social and physical environment through the same means; so do we.

What makes this natural process a fertile source of problems is that we apply these nonrational cues to words that also denote rational concepts, and then confuse the two. Watch the way people talk about a political concept central to their society’s self-image: for example, the concept of democracy here in America. The social self, that unruly horse, insists that democracy—"real democracy"—ought to live up to standards that no real political system can achieve. What ought to be called "real democracy" is the cumbersome, corrupt, flawed, but functional system that emerges when real human beings have the right to elect officials and vote on issues. Still, that’s not how the horse sees it; to the horse, democracy is an emotionally charged symbol rich with warm feelings, and "real democracy" means that symbol in some impossibly perfect manifestation on the plane of everyday life.

I’d like to suggest that this is what underlies the paralogic that makes peak oil incomprehensible to most people in the industrial world just now. The concept of progress is, if anything, more heavily loaded with positive emotional energy among us than the concept of democracy, and around it gathers a flurry of other concepts equally freighted with warm emotions. Challenge it—and the concept of peak oil, if it’s taken seriously, challenges it to the core—and the social self takes fright and shies away, dragging the chariot and the charioteer with it, and quite possibly spooking the other horse and sending the whole kit and caboodle careening down the nearest blind alley. (Murmuring "drill, baby, drill" to the social horse seems to calm it, which probably explains the popularity of that ritual chant just now. )

This is not a new thing, of course, and it’s something that operative mages—people who practice magic—have had to deal with in themselves and their students for a very long time. Operative magic requires the mage to be able to think about the world in ways that aren’t supported or encouraged by his or her society, and getting the social self and the reasoning mind untangled from each other is an important part of that process. The standard approach to making this happen in traditional Western magic is summed up by the term "initiation."

There’s been plenty of nonsense written about initiation down through the years, but the basic concept is easy enough to grasp. The symbolic and ritual tools of magical practice can be used to set off the same set of reactions that allow a child, or for that matter a baby baboon, to stock its social self with the nonverbal and emotionally charged patterns of its social group. This is done in a careful and controlled way, with patterns that further the process of magical training, and the candidate—the person going through the initiation—is taught nonverbal signals that allow him or her to activate the new patterns when it’s time to use them, and deactivate them when it’s time to deal with the nonmagical world. In the short term, this makes it possible to practice magic without too much psychological strain; in the long term, the experience of shifting from one set of arbitrary social patterns and emotional charges to another teaches the reasoning mind to detach itself from the social self altogether, and think its own thoughts rather than those of its society.

Those of my readers who haven’t been through a magical initiation, or one of the lodge initiations (for example, those of Freemasonry) that use similar methods for the purpose of self-improvement and ethical development, may well think they have no idea what I’m talking about. Still, if you’re reading this blog and consider peak oil a real possibility, you’ve already passed through an initiation. It didn’t happen in a lodge of the Ancient Hubbertian Order of Peak Oil, granted, but there’s another kind of initiation, and that’s self-initiation.

In a regular lodge initiation, the candidate goes through a dramatic ceremony, and is then given a set of meditative and ritual exercises to practice; these are meant to reinforce the pattern communicated in the initiation ritual. The practitioner of self-initiation skips the ceremony, or does an abbreviated form of it on his or her own, and then plunges straight into the meditative and ritual exercises to get the same effect. Some magical schools prefer to use self-initiation, since it quickly weeds out those who aren’t willing to do the hard work that magic requires. Other schools avoid it, but it’s a widely used method, and a great many of you have been through it whether you’re aware of that fact or not.

Think back, dear reader, to the time when you first became aware of peak oil. Odds are that when you first encountered the concept, you found it disquieting or even repellent, but at a certain point—maybe in that first encounter, maybe later on—something suddenly shifted. A moment later you were living in a different world, one in which earlier priorities and beliefs had to make room for the immense and terrifying fact that your civilization was in deep trouble and next to nobody was willing to see that, much less do anything about it. That was your initiation into peak oil, and the feverish reading and thinking that most of you probably did over the weeks and months that followed were the equivalent of the magical student’s daily meditations and rituals, which stabilize the new pattern and begin the hard work of teaching the initiate how to make constructive use of what the initiation has provided.

All this, in turn, provides one answer to the question I posed at the end of last week’s post—whether it’s possible to shake our society out of its collective trance and get it to pay attention to the reality of the crisis looming up before us. Initiation is very much subject to readiness factors; the competent teacher of magic knows that at any given time, some students are ready for a given grade of initiation and others simply aren’t. Fraternal lodges such as Freemasonry cast their net more widely, but every Mason knows that a certain number of candidates for membership, however enthusiastic they think they are, will pass through the rituals unmoved and untouched, and drift out of involvement in the lodge within a few weeks or months.

The wider issue here, to borrow a term from last week’s post, is that theurgy can’t be done for, to, or by anyone else. It’s up to the individual. A good teacher, or a lodge initiation, can provide a certain amount of help in that process, but the important part of the work still has to be done by the individual student or candidate, or it doesn’t get done. All these things are equally true of the initiation of peak oil: if you’re not ready for it, or you aren’t willing to put in the study and hard thinking required, you’re probably going to drift back into the standard patterns in the social self that tell you that progress is inevitable and the universe owes us as much energy as we want to waste.

All this presumes that the magic we’re discussing is theurgy, the kind of magic the Neoplatonists practiced as a preparation for the philosophic life and that modern operative mages practice for their own not dissimilar ends. There is also thaumaturgy, the manipulation of the nonrational that doesn’t attempt to free the reasoning mind from entanglement in the social and biological selves, but simply seeks power over the self and others by way of that entanglement. There’s a long history of operative mages and others who realize that theurgy is only an option for the individual, and attempt to perform thaumaturgy on their society as a whole instead. We’ll discuss that next week.