To Define is to..?

Posted on April 25, 2008
Filed Under Magic | 1 Comment

Recently, I’ve also been following with great interest several posts on the definitions of magic on Plutonica .net. Go here, here, and here, to read the posts on plutonica.net. I find this discussion interesting, partially because I devoted two chapters of Multi-Media Magic to definitions of magic. One chapter focused on what I considered inaccurate or poor definitions of magic, while the second chapter focused on what I considered to be good definitions of magic.

One author whose definition I did not include, was Aleister Crowley’s definition which goes, “Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. Anyone who has read my books knows that I, on principle, do not include quotes or cite Crowley’s work, for the simple fact that I feel that many other occult works are not nearly as recognized, because when people think of magic, they think of Mr. Crowley. I’d rather devote the majority of my writing to recognizing the works of other people and what they say about magic, because I believe a lot of people miss on some truly intriguing concepts when they focus only on Crowley’s words and wit when it comes to magic.

All that said, I’ve never been impressed with Crowley’s definition. I recognize that many occultists hold it up as the standard definition. In fact, if you go to Psyche’s other site spiralnature, specifically to the magick index page, you’ll note that the majority of definitions are derived from Crowley’s definition. It would seem that Crowley nailed definition of magic down, so one might wonder, why Taylor, aren’t you impressed by his definition.

Pretty simple really. It’s vague. It uses abstract concepts and doesn’t really define those concepts. What is Art? What is Science? What is Change? What is Will? These are abstract concepts used to define another abstract concept. He never fully explains what these concepts are, trusting instead in the reader’s ability to divine the meaning of these concepts and put the puzzle together. This is a method, which Crowley is famous for (as are many, many academics and magicians the world over) of cunningly using words words to test how much a person really knows. In other words, the definition offered is written in a way that is left deliberately vague. Even the illustration he offers afterwards as an example of magic, of writing and publishing a book is not a magical act perse, as people who don’t even practice magic and think of it as superstition write and get published everyday. The illustration is a way of interpreting how that writing and publishing occurred, but it doesn’t prove that he has done magic to make it happen. Overly semantic or pedantic? Perhaps, but as I point out in Multi-Media Magic, definitions are often inaccurately treated as “is” or “Essence” statements, when, in fact what the definition really represents is the agenda or agency of the writer and what s/he beliefs something ought to be defined as.

To be fair to Crowley, in the theorem section of Magick in Theory and Practice, he provides a better explanation or definition of magic, by explaining the process of how magic works via theorems and illustrations. I don’t agree with all of his theorems or his illustrations as definitions or examples of magic, but what he offers in that section is a better explanation of how magic could work as opposed to the more commonly used definition of his I referred to above. I still think his definitions are sloppy, because it ultimately boils down to the concept that everything we do is magic, as long as we set our intent to do it. That could be the case, but I tend to find that while magic is an integral part of my life, that doesn’t mean that everything I set out to do is a magical act. In fact my main bone of contention with Crowley’s definition and any definition derived from Crowley’s work can be summed up in the following quote:

“Naming and describing are acts of entitlement. Through such linguistic practices, we give our experiences meaning and make sense of reality. By entitling a given phenomenon, we locate that phenomenon in a set of beliefs about the world that includes beliefs about existence-status (what things are real or not) and essence-status (what qualities we may reliably predicate about the phenomenon). Because the range of possible entitlements is theoretically infinite, any given act of entitling should be seen as a persuasive act that encourage language users to understand that which is entitled in particular ways rather than others” (Schiappa 2003, p. 116)

In other words, Crowley’s definition describes magic in a particular way, while also reinforcing the values and meanings that Crowley associates with it. And if you wonder why I don’t quote Crowley, it’s because there are other perspectives, other views on magic that are equally as valid, but all too often ignored because Crowley’s definition is not questioned nearly enough, but is accepted nearly a century later as holy writ.

Where Crowley’s definition might be useful is to consider it as a paradigm shift, as a way of viewing reality through a very specific lens or perspective, while using discourse and language to embody that perspective. Treat everything as a magical act to play with your perspective. However you can take this trick and apply to it any discipline. You could view your actions through a semiotic or memetic lens (the popular choice of late among magicians in the know!). You could view your actions through a neuroscience perspective. Take Crowley’s definition and swap a few words and you change discipline and paradigm for perceiving the world. That’s really what Crowley’s definition is…a paradigm, a way of viewing the world. It can be useful, though it can also be equally limiting.

There’s a book I would urge any magician to read, which I think of as an essential book for both the practice of magic and also the use of definitions. It’s called Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning by Edward Schiappa. It’s a book on rhetoric, but it’s very applicable to magic, because it examines how we use definitions to define and shape reality, as can be seen in this quote, “Definitions always serve interests and advance values, and they always require the exercise of power to be efficacious” (Schiappa 2003, p. 177). You know, put in the right context, that could be a definition of magic as well.

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  1. […] as anything (Actually his essay is part of what started the initial post she wrote). As I noted in this post, Crowley’s definition is not a good definition of magic, because he is sloppy in his attempts […]