Sunday, January 11, 2009
Dee the Modern & Academic Magic?
I just finished reading a short article by Richard Dunn, "John Dee and Astrology in Elizabethan England" which appears in John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought (Springer 2006). Dunn discusses Dee's "new" astrology as propounded in his Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558, 1568), the Monas Hieroglyphica (1564), and The Mathematicall Praeface (1570) and the actuality of his practice, which used standard traditional methods.
What I found somewhat amusing about it was that "modern" attitudes can be found even in the 16th & 17th centuries. In his Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558, 1568) Dee provides a variation on Al-Kindi's rays as a mechanism for astrology and elaborates his own, new system of astrology based on this more mechanistic explanation. We can already see the pull of what the 18th century would term the "mechanistic philosophy" and Dee's own desire to invent his own system based upon it. All very modern!
Yet as Dunn notes when looking at Dee's actual astrological predictions, Dee's real astrological work was resolutely traditional. When Dee really needed to predict he used traditional methodology! His fancy, idiosyncratic new system just couldn't do the job.
This leads me to also make some comments on academic writing and secondary sources in general. We can start out by saying that taken in their best light that academic writing seeks to learn about things "objectively". This is to say, again in the best light, that one stands outside the subject and does not become personally involved with it. This perspective is held by academics to be the best methodology for learning about a subject.
I would respond that "objectivity" in the sense of standing outside a subject, is simply one useful method for learning about it. Subjectivity, in the sense of entering into and actively engaging in a subject is also a useful method to learn about it.
To my mind, one really needs to combine both standing apart and entering into subjects, if one wishes to learn about them. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages and the fullest knowledge arises both using both.
This is, however, being much too charitable with regard to how academic writing and research is carried on with regard to astrology and magic. In academia in general "objectivity" is fetishized into the only possible methodology, those that actual participate are "subjective" ie bad, and have "gone native" very, very bad. These attitudes reach a peak with the academic study of astrology and magic. Much energy and ink has gone into studying how it is that otherwise "rational" ie conforming to atheistic/materialist thinking, people could actually take magic and astrology seriously. Academics studying astrology and magic are therefore in the odd position of paying a great deal of attention to something that they must officially disparage as irrational and impossible. The fact that individual academics may, in their private lives, hold different opinions, is irrelevant because they will not be permitted, as academics, to publish or teach that astrology or magic exist.
John Gager, in Curse Tablets and Binding Spells, says of the question, "did magic work?" "Until recently, the very idea of asking a question would have seemed absurd. Of course the stuff doesn't work! Indeed, from the time of Sir James Frazier to the present the ruling assumption has been that spells, charms and amulets cannot work - by definition." Curse Tablets and Binding Spells, at 23. Gager then attempts to construct an alternative explanation for the effectiveness of curse magic stating that it works, insofar as it "...relieved the injured party's feelings, at least something had been done. " Curse Tablets and Binding Spells, at 23. As Gager says , "of course, we need not assume that they worked in the same way that the participants believed", thus staying within the atheistic/materialistic mindset despite being somewhat more sympathetic. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells, at 23. Ultimately, magic and astrology do not "work" ie there is no spiritual causality and this from a sympathetic academic source.
Therefore, when we as practitioners read an academic source on astrology or magic we are not only getting at best the "objective" that is to say outside view, without the corresponding view from actual practitioners, but we are getting information from a source that is required to be officially hostile even to the existence of magic and astrology, let alone hostile to their practice.
Thus academic sources need to be used very, very carefully by the magical or astrological practitioner. My recommendation is that they be used only for the initial orientation within an area and for historical background. Despite the high prestige of academic writing and the subsequent attraction for us, they are the equivalent of trying to learn to perform the Lakota Sun Dance by reading only the writings of 19th century journalists and anthropologists, while refusing to speak to or read anything by a Native American on the subject. Perish the thought, where is your objectivity!
Now, I know that this is a somewhat unpopular view, but again, if readers disagree, merely stating your personal opinion without further support doesn't get us anywhere. I have cited from a Ph.D professor of religion at Princeton Unversity, published by the Oxford University Press, about as academically credentialed as one can get. If one wishes to argue that academia is accepting of the reality and practice of magic, one will need to cite similarly to a peer reviewed academic journal or a credentialed academic publishing in a university press. Mere, unsupported personal opinion isn't going to make it!