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The Literacy of Magic Pt 1
Recently Ivo Dominguez Jr published a thought provoking article where he discussed the lack of the literacy in magic in today's Pagans. While I found myself nodding in agreement with a lot of what he had to say (I've observed in the past that there is an increasing amount of emphasis on removing magic from Paganism because it makes Paganism less acceptable to the mainstream*), I also found his use of the word literacy problematic, and by extension it caused me to re-examine his article and some of my agreement with the article in a different light. As a result, I think it worthwhile to examine the concept of the literacy of magic, both in relationship to the word literacy and its variety of meanings, and also in context to the practice of magic vs the "literacy" of magic, which I'll argue are not one and the same (in part 2 of this series). In fact, part of the issue I have with the use of the word literacy is that conjures up the armchair magician, a person has read a lot of books on magic, but has done little, if anything, with that magical knowledge. I would locate the armchair magician on the opposite end of the illiterate Pagan (at least as that illiteracy applies to magic). However, as we'll see, it's simplistic to categorize anyone as literate or illiterate, because literacy itself is a loaded term.
In his article, Ivo uses the definition of literacy that many people use, which is that literacy is the ability to read and write. He also touches on numeracy, which is the ability to do math. Traditionally literacy has been focused on understanding how people acquire the ability to read and write, while also demonstrating how people actually read and write, and it also focuses on how people should think about reading and writing. The problem with this definition of literacy is that it doesn't actually describe what literacy is, but rather describes what literacy is supposed to enable someone to do, as well as defining how literacy should be understood by people engaged in it.
In new literacy studies, the focus on literacy isn't so much about the ability to read, write, or do math, but moreso about understanding and critiquing how institutional standards are applied to determine if someone is "literate" i.e. if someone has the requisite types of skills that enable that person be judged as being literate. Literate activities occur within specific social institutions, and for us to really understand literacy (of any type) we necessarily need to understand the social context that informs the application of literacy. We also need to ask who gets to decide what literacy is, as well as which literacies count and which ones don't count. Finally we need to consider the agenda of the people defining literacy. How does that agenda favor the person doing the defining?
In the excellent book Defining Reality by Edward Schiappa (which overtly has nothing to do with magic, but in my humble opinion should be required reading for any magician), the author explores in depth how definitions are created and points out that definitions aren't "is" statements (i.e. statements that describe the essence of something) but rather are "ought to be" statement, which advocate for specific functional relationships between words and people. In other words, a definition describes how people ought to understand the application of the word to people and the actions people take that fit the definition of the word. Schiappa goes onto explain that definitions are always based in institutions and used as a way to enforce the agenda of the institutions. This is important to recognize because when we use a given word such as literacy what we're really using is a loaded word, which carries with it institutional agendas which may not serve our own interests or the interests of other people. The problem with any social institution is that it inevitably excludes certain people in favor of other people, and in that process categorizes those people and their ability or lack as it applies to the definition of the term. We see this in Ivo's article when he argues the following:
"Although I can say that ease of access to ideas through the internet, bookstores, and Pagan and Magickal events has increased awareness of many social issues, ideologies, religious and theological perspectives, and the vast amount of minutia related Pagan culture and fads, there is an increasing percentage of the Pagan community that is magickally illiterate and innumerate. I’m not saying that people are less serious, less devoted, or less committed to their path. Nor am I saying that the level of discourse has dropped, in fact in many ways it is much more sophisticated in exploring the development of Pagan culture. What I have noticed is that the technical end of things, magick theory, sacred sciences, and the like, are less well known. I've also noticed a trend towards focusing more exclusively on the lore and mythology of a specific people or a specific time at the expense of a generalized understanding of how magickal paths manifest in a variety of cultures and communities."
What Ivo does here is define whether someone is magically literate or not, by what they do or don't know about magic, as well as by what they do or don't know about other related topics, such as a focus on a specific culture, lore, or mythology. He goes on to define what he believes magical literacy (and numeracy) ought to be:
"magickal literacy and numeracy involves an understanding of symbols (the equivalent of letters, numbers, etc.) and of grammar and rules of operation for the manipulation and measurement of subtle forces. Magickal literacy and numeracy also means that a person has a way to read, to reason, to understand, and to make comparisons between magickal concepts, practices, and experiences. Integral to this is the capacity to analyze and to quantify what works, what doesn’t work, and why in rituals, operative magic, divination, and other similar practices. Magickal literacy and numeracy are hard to separate from each other, but this last description leans more heavily into the idea of magickal numeracy."
Ivo raises some distinctive arguments, but the problem here is that these arguments are really privileging certain types of magical literacy over other types of magical literacy. And in that process of doing so, we perhaps miss out on the fact that a person could be exploring a literacy of magic, which while not general, still nonetheless speaks to the spiritual practices and experiences that s/he has. When a person chooses to focus on a particular culture, its mythology, and lore, who is to say the person isn't magically literate? S/he may not have the same type of magical literacy that Ivo has, but to assume that the person is magically illiterate is to create an institutional standard that excludes the person from being considered a magician.
Now it can be argued that there is a need to define the literacy of magic, to provide institutional standards, in order to safeguard what magic seems to be, and to ensure that people do have a more general understanding of what magic ought to be, but I'd argue that the problem with such institutional standards again comes right down to who decides what those standards are, as well as who decides what actually is considered magic and what isn't. Ivo acknowledges the difficulty involved in creating an agreeable curriculum:
"This kind of core capability would probably arise from a basic working knowledge of magick theory (laws of magick), metaphysics (philosophy of being and reality), trusted systems (Qabala, Astrology, Alchemy, etc.), and other related frameworks. This may be a good starting point from my perspective, but the next obstacle is in creating an agreeable curriculum. There are so many different approaches, schools, and systems that it becomes almost impossible for any one individual to have time to truly become conversant in more than a small sector of what is available. Moreover, the choices to be made and what is valuable to be included or excluded in such a curriculum would be determined by the sensibilities of the person’s starting point. There is also the predicament of finding adequate teachers for each of the topics that are included in such a curriculum."
I'll admit that the core capability that Ivo describes is one that I wouldn't entirely agree with because I'm not entirely convinced for example that Astrology is absolutely essential to developing a core understanding of magic. And therein lies the issue with defining a literacy of magic, because if I were to give you my own idea of what a literacy of magic should be constituted of, it would differ in some significant ways from what Ivo suggests, even at the core level. And as Ivo acknowledges it gets more complicated because there so many different schools, systems, and approaches, that it is hard for a given person to fully learn all of the material already in existence (as well as new material being developed).
It may seem odd when I say that I actually agree with Ivo about the need for a general understanding of magic, but I actually do think its essential to have a broad foundational knowledge of magic in order to really understand it. The reason I've made my argument in this post boils down to this: when we try to typify what magic is and what a "literate" magician is we run the risk of alienating the very people who could benefit from that general knowledge, because we get involved in an institutional exclusion of them based on trying to define what constitutes a literacy of magic that may, as a result, deny the actually literacy of magic those people have already accessed. As a person who's been told a number of times that what I do isn't magic, I can tell you that it is highly discouraging when people pass judgement on what you are doing as a spiritual practice because it doesn't fit within their own definition of magic. That kind of discouragement does not lead a person to want to learn more about magic, but rather can end up driving him/her from the very community s/he had wanted to be part of. Certainly, in my case, I purposely spent several years away from the occult/pagan community because of how certain narrow minded people had acted when they tried to discourage my exploration of pop culture and magic. Fortunately, I didn't stop studying magic, but I took a break from the community because I realized that what I really needed was to continue my experimentation and exploration of what magic could be without having to deal with people who thought they knew better than I what magic ought to be. And when I eventually came back, I had a better understanding of magic and I was still doing the practices that other people said weren't magic, but which I knew were magic. Those magical practices include work focused on pop culture magic, space/time magic and other subjects I've written on, which while not necessarily traditional, nonetheless have been found to be legitimate forms of magical practice by not just myself but also by others.
Defining the literacy of magic necessarily becomes an issue of social institutions defining what magic ought to be and who is or isn't practicing magic, but for us to really understand magic, we need to carefully consider that when we define magic as a literacy we limit our understanding of it as well, in a way that can blind us to the evolution of magic, as well as the understanding of magic as a practice as opposed to a literacy.
In my next article in this series, I'm going to share my own explorations of the definition and literacy of magic, because this has been a pet interest of mine for the last 10 years and this topic is, I think, extremely relevant to the evolution of magic and its relevance in our modern society and culture as well as whether magic can continue to be relevant to the Pagan community. We'll also explore in further depth the difference between a literacy of magic and a practice of magic, which I think is essential in understanding how problematic it can be to apply the concept of literacy to magic.
*I recognize that for some spiritual paths such as Heathen or polytheistic practices, magic is consider to be optional, and as such not every person will feel a need to practice magic or see it as essential for their spiritual experience.