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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Post-Modernity is a Magickal Acid Trip

The frozen moment of modernity. Charles Sheeler 'Classical Landscape'  1931

When measuring a circle, you can begin anywhere. Useful advice from Charles Fort. So this beginning could be anywhere. Over the past nine years on this blog I have, amongst other things, explored the relationship between anarcho-goth-punk and the continuing UK counterculture. Mostly I have focused on the anarcho side because it can be connected to radical politics as part of a continuing culture of resistance to neo-liberalism.

Then last year I was asked if I would be interested in contributing to a research project on the ’Debatable Lands of Modernity’, based at Glasgow University Dumfries. To which I answered ‘Yes’. I then went off and began researching the industrial revolution in Scotland. In particular the ferocious growth of the iron industry in Scotland between 1830 and 1850. The areas where the iron industry took off -Lanarkshire and Ayrshire-had been just as rural as Galloway until then, but had coal and iron ore under their fields. It was and is fascinating. Thanks to events which happened hundreds of millions of years ago, I was brought up in a small rural town but if the tectonic plates had shifted differently, it could have been a much larger industrial town.

Then came a question. “Alistair, can you come up with a definition of ’modernity’ for the project?”

It was an ’oh fuck’ moment. Modernity is one of those words, like punk, which can mean pretty much what ever you want. The Jam sang ‘This is the Modern World’ in 1977, but 1977 is now history so hardly ’modern’ any more. The first thing I did was dig out a book I got when  I was a trainee draughtsman at the London Rubber Company in 1979 and studying ‘design’ as part of a day-release engineering course at Waltham Forest College in London. The book was/is ’Pioneers of Modern Design’ by Nikolaus Pevsner. What fascinated me then was that the book includes illustrations of  pre-World War One designs for building and cities which seemed futuristic then but became  everyday after World War Two. It even references the Futurists - cue Adam and the Ants song…

The first version of Pevsner’s book was published in 1936, then a fuller version in 1960, so to get a more modern take on Modernity I dug out ‘The Condition of Post-Modernity’ by David Harvey published in 1990. Harvey is a Marxist geographer who has become well known since the (still ongoing) financial crisis of 2008 as critic of neo-liberalism and an updater of Marx for the post-post modern era. In chapter 2’ Modernity and Modernism’ of Harvey’s book I found references to and quotations from ‘The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity’ (1985) by Jurgen Habermas, including a mention of Georg Hegel as a pioneer of modernity.

Ever since discovering that Hegel’s views on political economy (later developed by Karl Marx) had been influenced by James Steuart and Adam Smith, who were part of the Scottish Enlightenment, I have been wrestling with Hegel. [So far he is winning.] So I got a copy of the Habermas book and started reading. The chapters on Hegel and Nietzsche were challenging, likewise Horkheimer and Adorno but then came Heidegger and Derrida. The language became opaque. Ontic, for example. Which means ‘of, relating to, or having real being’. Struggling to find a straw to grasp, I thought of Kenneth Grant.

For those unfamiliar with Kenneth Grant, as a young man he met Aleister Crowley in the 1940s. Inspired by Crowley, Grant developed his own tradition of magic through the 1950s and 60s which Grant expounded through his nine part Typhonian Trilogy of books over the next 30 years. Here is a randomly selected  paragraph from ‘The Nightside of Eden’, the second volume of the Typhonian Triology, originally published in 1977.

The name given by qabalists to this Gate of the Gulf is Daãth, and in occult tradition it is the place at which the eight-headed dragon of the deep disappeared behind the Tree when it scaled it in an unsuccessful attempt to strike at the very heart of god-head (i.e. Kether). The word Daäth instantly suggests the name of that other gateway which opens upon the void of personal extinction, i.e. Death. These terms, Daãth and Death, do indeed have a mystical affinity and it is no refutation of this fact that the words are in different languages, for the salient elements of both words D A Th are qabalistically equivalent to the number 4744 One of the meanings of Daãth is Knowledge’. It is called ‘the sephira that is not a sephira’, in one aspect it is the child of Chokmah and Binah; in another, it is the Eighth Head of the Stooping Dragon, raised up when the Tree of Life was shattered and Macroprosopus set a flaming sword against Microprosopus. By permutation Doth (Daäth) equates with OThD, another Hebrew word, meaning a ‘ram’ or an ‘he-goat’; it is also the number of the Greek word duo, meaning ‘two’.  The double is the eidolon, doll, or shadow, glyphed by the ancient Egyptians by the Tat which is equivalent to Doth. Daäth is also the Home of Choronzon, the Guardian of the Gate of the Abyss. Gathering together these various meanings we see that the Knowledge of Daäth, or Death, is of the nature of the secret of Duality represented by the shadow or magical double whereby man overcomes death and enters in at the gate of Daäth to explore the Abode of Choronzon, the Desert of Set.

Back to Habermas. After stating that ‘Derrida’s deconstructions faithfully follow the movement of Heidegger’s thought’[ p.181], he then suggests that Derrida differs from Heidegger.

Derrida stands closer to the anarchist wish to explode the continuum of history than to the authoritarian admonition to bend before destiny. This contrasting stance may have something to do with the fact that, Derrida, all denials notwithstanding, remains closer to Jewish mysticism…[The Cabalists] conferred a high rank on the commentaries with which each generation appropriates the revelation anew. For the truth has not been fixed…now even the written Torah is considered a problematic translation of the divine word into the language of human beings- as a mere, that is disputable, interpretation.. Everything is oral Torah, no syllable is authentic, transmitted as it were in archewriting. The Torah of the Tree of Knowledge [Grant’s Tree of Life] is a concealed Torah from the beginning. It keeps changing its clothes permanently, and these clothes are the tradition. [p.182]

Habermas then quotes from Gershom Scholem quoting a Jewish mystical/ kabbalistic source in support of  a mystical interpretation of  Derrida. [As an aside, Glen Magee ‘Hegel’s Philosophy of History and Kabbalistic Eschatology’ in ‘Hegel and History’, edited by Will Dudley, New York 2009  develops a similar theme.]

I put the book down and said ‘Wow’. Now comes the hard bit… Back in 2007, I reviewed Dave Evans book ‘The History of British Magick After Crowley’ and in the context of Dave’s discussion of the importance of Kenneth Grant that

My only criticism here is that Dave could have come over all French intellectual and post-modern in this section and argued the case for Grant as out flanking them all - to challenge Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Kristeva, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari to ‘deconstruct this’…. but then Dave appears far too sensible to play such games.

Since then the abyss has been partially bridged by, for example , Graham Harman with ‘Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy’ (Zero Books, 2012) and ‘In the Dust of This Planet’ by Eugene Thacker (Zero Books, 2011).  What both these books do is attempt to insert H. P. Lovecraft into themes drawn from (post) modern continental philosophy. Unfortunately both books are now somewhere in my daughter’s rooms I can’t quote  directly from them. The best I can do is quote from their cover descriptions.

As Hölderlin was to Martin Heidegger and Mallarmé to Jacques Derrida, so is H.P. Lovecraft to the Speculative Realist philosophers. Lovecraft was one of the brightest stars of the horror and science fiction magazines, but died in poverty and relative obscurity in the 1930s. In 2005 he was finally elevated from pulp status to the classical literary canon with the release of a Library of America volume dedicated to his work. The impact of Lovecraft on philosophy has been building for more than a decade. Initially championed by shadowy guru Nick Land at Warwick during the 1990s, he was later discovered to be an object of private fascination for all four original members of the twenty-first century Speculative Realist movement. In ‘Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy’, Graham Harman extracts the basic philosophical concepts underlying Lovecraft's work, yielding a 'weird realism' capable of freeing continental philosophy from its current soul-crushing impasse. Abandoning Heidegger's pious references to Hölderlin and the Greeks, Harman develops a new philosophical mythology centered in such Lovecraftian figures as Cthulhu, Wilbur Whately, and the rat-like monstrosity Brown Jenkin. The Miskatonic River replaces the Rhine and the Ister, while Hölderlin's Caucasus gives way to Lovecraft's Antarctic mountains of madness.
The world is increasingly unthinkable, a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, and the looming threat of extinction. In ‘In the Dust of This Planet’ Eugene Thacker suggests that we look to the genre of horror as offering a way of thinking about the unthinkable world. To confront this idea is to confront the limit of our ability to understand the world in which we live - a central motif of the horror genre. In the Dust of This Planet explores these relationships between philosophy and horror. In Thacker's hands, philosophy is not academic logic-chopping; instead, it is the thought of the limit of all thought, especially as it dovetails into occultism, demonology, and mysticism.  

My significant point is that H. P. Lovecraft also features heavily in the works of Kenneth Grant. In Grant’s magical universe, Lovecraft’s fictions become straightforward descriptions of an actually existing reality of which the everyday world is but a fleeting reflection. The following quotation is of particular interest when Grant’s texts are read against texts emanating from (post) modern continental philosophy.

It is not my purpose to try to prove anything; my aim is to construct a magical mirror capable of reflecting some of the less elusive images seen as shadows of a future aeon…In order to achieve this aim a new manner of communication has to be evolved; language itself has to be reborn, revivified, and given a new direction and a new momentum. The truly creative image is born of creative imaging, and this is- ultimately- an irrational process that transcends the grasp of human logic.
   It is well known that scientists and mathematicians have evolved a cryptic language, a language so elusive, so fugitive and so essentially cosmic that it forms an almost quabalistic mode of communication, often misinterpreted by its own initiates!…a magician devises his ceremony in harmony with the forces he will to invoke, so an author must pay considerable attention to the creation of an atmosphere that is suitable for his operations. Words are his magical instruments, and their vibrations must not produce merely an arbitrary noise but an elaborate symphony of tonal reverberations that trigger a series of increasingly profound echoes in the consciousness of his readers. One cannot over-emphasize or over-estimate the importance of this subtle form of alchemy, for it is in the nuances and not necessarily in the rational meanings of the words and numbers employed that the magic resides. Furthermore, it is very often in the suggestion of certain words not used, yet indicated or implied by other words having no direct relation to them, that produce the most precise definitions. The edifice of a reality-construct may sometimes be reared only by an architecture of absence, where by the real building is at one and the same time revealed an concealed by an alien structure haunted by probabilities. These are legion, and it is the creative faculty of the reader- awake and active- that can people the house with souls. So then, this book may mean many things to many readers and different things to all, but to none can it mean nothing at all, for the hosue is constructed in such a manner that no echo can be lost. [Introduction to ‘Outside the Circles of Time’ London 1980 pp12-3]

|Now here is Derrida speaking ‘Of Grammatology‘ [1974, from Chapter 2]…

The “unmotivatedness” of the sign requires a synthesis in which the completely other is announced as such without any simplicity, any identity, any resemblance or continuity — within what is not it. Is announced as such: there we have all history, from what metaphysics has defined as “non-living” up to “consciousness,” passing through all levels of animal organisation. The trace, where the relationship with the other is marked, articulates its possibility, in the entire field of the entity [étant], which metaphysics has defined as the being-present starting from the occulted movement of the trace. The trace must be thought before the entity. But the movement of the trace is necessarily occulted, it produces itself as self-occultation. When the other announces itself as such, it presents itself in the dissimulation of itself. This formulation is not theological, as one might believe somewhat hastily. The “theological” is a determined moment in the total movement of the trace. The field of the entity, before being determined as the field of presence, is structured according to the diverse possibilities-genetic and structural — of the trace. The presentation of the other as such, that is to say the dissimulation of its “as such,” has always already begun and no structure of the entity escapes it.

I guess the critical point I am circling around is illustrated by another quote from Grant./ Outside the Circles of Time 1980 p.15.

Certain fugitive elements appear occasionally in the works of poets, painters, mystics and occultists which may be regarded as genuine magical manifestations in that they demonstrate the power and ability of the artists to evoke elements of an ultra- dimensional and alien universe that may be captured only by the most sensitive and delicately adjusted antennae of human consciousness... [This] would seem to require that total and systematic derangement of the senses which Rimbaud declared to be the key to self knowledge ...’ The soul must be made monstrous ... The poet makes himself into a seer by a long, tremendous and reasoned derangement of his senses... This he attains the unknown; and when, at the point of madness, he finishes by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has beheld them!’ This formula of derangement was for Rimbaud, as for some of the greatest artists and magicians, the supreme key to inspiration and the reception of vivid images such as those which flash and tremble upon the luminous canvases of a Dali or an Ernest.

Is it possible to argue that Derrida in the text above and others practicing in the tradition of (post) modern continental philosophy and criticism  have created a language so dense and thick with multiple meanings and possibilities that it becomes a form of  poetic rather than academic discourse?  That the very attempt to grasp such elusive texts creates a derangement of the senses, opening up an altered/ occult/ mystical/ psychedelic state of consciousness?

Perhaps. A slightly more boring explanation (partially supported by Habermas’ book) is that although the Enlightenment displaced god as the ultimate source of reality/ everyday life, replacing god with Reason makes it difficult not to conclude that human existence has no ‘meaning’. That Reason cannot provide a reason for existence. Hegel attempted  to overcome this problem and in so doing gave birth to (post) modern continental philosophy. But, as I think Habemas is arguing,  the various attempts to get beyond or before this problem end up as forms of mystical theology rather than rational philosophy. Which is why I can see in them structural similarities with Kenneth Grant’s magical mystery tour.

To throw in a plot complication at this point, my historical research on the late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century transition in Scotland from a mainly agricultural to a mainly industrial economy  points to an important physical change. This change occurred when coal rather than human, animal and water power became the main energy source. This was not anticipated by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, even though Adam Smith, for example, is seen as an advocate of industrial capitalism. The political economists who followed Adam Smith anticipated that economic development would reach a plateau -the stationary state- after which there would be minimal economic (and population) growth.

But through the use of coal and later oil as energy sources, the later nineteenth and then twentieth centuries saw a period of apparently unlimited growth.. The use of fossil fuels as energy sources also allowed the capitalist economies to buy off the working and middle classes by allowing them to become consumers. However, this whole process was fundamentally irrational as the basis for a stable world order. Firstly, as  the most easily accessible sources of coal and oil (and iron and other vital resources) were used up, the cost of energy and other resources would have to rise. Which has happened and is the probable cause of the economic crisis which began in 2008. Secondly, as most of us now know, the result of burning billions of tons of coal and oil has been to release enough carbon dioxide to raise average global temperatures. Which in turn is leading to climate change which will collapse this complex global industrial civilisation back to a subsistence level of development.

Contemplating the reality of climate change has led me to re-evaluate the Enlightenment. I now see it as the product of an advanced sustainable (that is based on renewable sources of energy) economy and society , poised on the brink of a stationary or steady state of development. Without having to cope with explosive growth, a rational culture and society could have been slowly developed along the lines suggested by Hegel. Hegel died in 1831, before Germany became an industrial/ capitalist region so I regard him belonging to an advanced sustainable society rather than a climate changing society.

Then the cool rationality of the Enlightenment became stressed beyond recovery by the heat of the industrial revolution. The era of seemingly unlimited growth was one of chaos and confusion, the age when blast furnaces melted everything solid into air. The inability, the failure, of post-Enlightenment philosophers and theorists to resolve the contradictions of modernity - which is the underlying theme of Habermas’ book-  is therefore to be expected. Their task was impossible. As impossible as our task - to halt further emissions of carbon dioxide- seems to be.

Here I will point out that what became the Green movement had its origins in the 1970s counterculture. What was called radical / alternative technology then advocated  generating electricity from wind and water as part of a transition to a more cooperative and sustainable society and economy. This would have been a very different type of post-modernism. In ‘Albion Dreaming A popular history of LSD in Britain’ [Second edition, 2012, p. 159] Andy Roberts notes that another part of the Green countercultural movement- the advocacy of ‘whole foods’ rather than processed foods - was inspired by the shift on consciousness brought about by LSD.

Unfortunately, although it is a fascinating read, Andy’s book  does not discuss the possibility that the ‘Magical Revival’ (the title of Kenneth Grant’s first book in 1972) of the late 60s and early 70s was also inspired by LSD. I have found that Kenneth Grant had two articles published in the underground newspaper International Times in 1968 and 1969, so a link exists.

Kenneth Grant article in International Times 1968

Following the acid connection through, I found this by  John Storey in ‘Culture and Power in Cultural Studies: The Politics of Signification’ (Edinburgh, 2010, p. 61)  which equates the postmodernism condition with tripping and which also echoes Guy Debord and the Situationists conception of society as a spectacle…

Culture is no longer ideological, disguising the economic activities of capitalism, it is itself an economic activity, perhaps the most important economic activity of them all. Frederick Jameson  (1985) also claims that postmodernism is a ‘schizophrenic’ culture. To call it schizophrenic is to suggest that, like the individual sufferer, society as a whole no longer experiences time as a continuum (past- present- future), but as a perpetual present, which is only occasionally marked by the intrusion of the past, or the possibility of a future. The ‘reward’ for the loss of this conventional temporality (the sense of always being located within a temporal continuum) is an intensified sense of the present - what Dick Hebdige (2009) calls ‘acid perspectivism’ (suggesting that the experience Jameson describes is similar to ‘tripping’ — being under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug LSD) in other words, to call postmodern culture schizophrenic is to claim that it has lost its sense of history (and its sense of a future different from the present). It is a culture suffering from ‘historical amnesia’, locked into the discontinuous flow of perceptual presents. The temporal culture of modernism has given way to the spatial culture of postmodernism.

Whew. This is starting to feel like an exercise in plate spinning, so I will try and finish up before they all start dropping off and smashing into thousands of pieces.

To recap/ respin…my historical  and geographical starting point is a diremption [a tearing apart] which occurred in the Scottish Lowlands between 1830 and 1850. South of a geological fault- the Southern Uplands Fault- Galloway, where I live, remained rural and agricultural but north of the fault line  Lanarkshire and Ayrshire became urban and industrial. Until 1830, all of the Scottish Lowlands had been equally ‘improved’ by landowners inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment.

From this I have concluded that ‘modernity’ is not equal to ‘the enlightenment’. Looking for other origins for modernity I found a chapter on ‘Modernity’ in Marxist geographer David Harvey’s ‘The Condition of Post-Modernity’[1990] where I found that Jurgen Habermas had proposed Georg Hegel as the first ’modernist’.  Harvey got his quotes from  Habrmas’ ’The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity’ [1985, translation 1987].

I then had to trudge through Habermas on Heidegger and Derrida, expounded in chunks of text which for their opacity reminded me of the works of occultist Kenneth Grant. Just as I was about to give up, Habermas threw in a link to Jewish mysticism and the kabbala, which gave an immediate connection to Grant’s work.

Meanwhile, for light relief, I was reading ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, the Shindig Guide to Space Rock (2014). Here I found an article on Richard Pinhas who made  a space rock record in 1972 which featured postmodern philosopher Gilles Deleuze reading experts from Nietzsche and learnt that ‘Richard was politicised by the student riots of Paris May 68, which he experienced at first hand. He studied under sociologist Jean Baudrillard at the university of Nanterre where he met philosopher Gilles Deleuze..’.

Which inspired me to look for psychedelic/ acid countercultural connections to postmodernism. Which I found in the John Storey quote above. Which brings me at last to a conclusion.


Modernity is the product of the explosive global expansion of industrial technology and a capitalist economy which followed from the replacement of ‘renewable’ (human and animal labour, wind and water) sources of energy with energy from coal and oil. This explosion also had the effect of shattering the cool rationality of an Enlightenment created by philosophers in a pre-industrial era. During the Enlightenment, political economists had imaged the future as a ‘stationary state’, a future in which economic growth would plateau after the effects of rational improvement had worked their way through society. In this stable new society, superstition (religious belief and mysticism) would wither away gradually to be replaced by  reason and rationality.

The industrial explosion blew this possibility away and instead of the stationary state, the global economy entered an era of seemingly unlimited and perpetual growth. [For the transition see Maxine Berg ‘The machinery question and the making of political economy 1815-1848’ Cambridge 1980] This era, which is now drawing to an end, was effectively an irrational divergence from  the Enlightenment. The challenge of trying to make sense of  modernity began at the beginning of the nineteenth century and has yet to be resolved as the twenty first century enters its second decade. [Post-modernity is the continuation of modernity by other means.]

The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering. [Hegel, Preface to ‘The Philosophy of Right’ 1821] If modernity began in the furnaces of the industrial revolution, climate change will be its most enduring legacy. If the future casts its shadow on the present (Shelley), then as we approach 4 degrees of global warming, it will be difficult to see the age of modernity as anything other than an age of madness. In 1866, Stanley Jevons [’The Coal Question’] wondered if Britain would ever run out of coal. He concluded that it would. He then argued, from an Imperial British point of view, against the sensible idea of conserving Britain’s coal reserves to make them last as long as possible.

The alternatives before us are simple. Our empire and race already comprise one-fifth of the world‘s population; and by our plantation of new States, by our guardianship of the seas, by our penetrating commerce, by our just laws and firm constitution, and above all by the dissemination of our new arts, we stimulate the progress of mankind in a degree not to be measured. If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity.

The British Empire may be gone, but globally ours is ‘a culture suffering from ‘historical amnesia’, locked into the discontinuous flow of perceptual presents.’  It is as if we have lived through an age of mystical materialism, magically hypnotised by the ceaseless flow of fetishised commodities as the Age of Reason  gave way to a barbaric religious revival that some call capitalism. [The Pop Group- ’Capitalism is the most barbaric of all religions’, from ’We are all Prostitutes’ 1979]

At the core of modernity was the irrational belief that through the use of fossil fuels, there could be unlimited growth within a finite reality. It is hardly surprising then that philosophical reflections upon modernity tended towards incoherence and mysticism. At the same time, and here I am thinking of Kenneth Grant,  those working  to expand the boundaries of traditional occultism and mysticism arrived at positions difficult to distinguish from (post) modern continental philosophy. This overlap in turn leads to an experience of (post) modernity which is indistinguishable from tripping on acid/ LSD…or put another way, when you are tripping on acid, you are directly experiencing the reality of the modern world.

A few years ago I would have been happy to end there, with a nicely outrageous/ provocative conclusion. Now it is just noise, a distraction from the real task of trying to thread the fragile strands of a greener/ carbon neutral future through the eye of a needle which is the present. The problem is we took the wrong step years ago.


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