Academic Writing: Or, How to Avoid Being Sick Over Your Laptop

My writing process is thus:

1: Vomit words on a page.
2: Leave it for two weeks.
3: Re-write everything.

Or, as my friend Erik Östling puts it, the old “puke and revise” method.

Much of academic writing is taking two separate ideas and merging them together. A basic formula could be: here’s this one dudette’s theory on something religion-related, and here’s this religious group behaving in ways I find interesting, so my job is to see what is gained or lost by applying this theory to the practice. Does it fit well? Why or why not? What insights can we glean from the group’s practice? How could the theory be revised? Etc.

It’s simple enough. Good scholarship does this kind of thing seamlessly.

The problem, is that academics are rarely marrying just two ideas (that’s for undergrads [P.S.: I love teaching undergrads.]), but are instead trying to present a seamless disscussing on one topic by weaving in multiple theories, discourses, and ideas in a way that does not leave the reader confused, angry, and unwilling to fund, publish, and work with you.

I am obsessive. Before beginning to write I collect mass amounts of data before I get a clear idea of what it is I am actually trying to do, overwhelming the issue and confusing myself for days, before I finally streamline my thoughts. The eventual clarity is a glorious euphoria: Oh this is what my paper’s about!!!

The current problem under review: how do you write a thesis proposal on the Church of Satan, which incorporates two separate fields of study, western esotericism, and media/material culture studies? That is, how do I look at the material culture of these Satanists in a way that corresponds to similar studies on magical groups, without the study reading as disjointed?

For those unfamiliar, it is somewhat rare to study contemporary ritual/magical groups in terms of material culture. First, because modern magicians simply are not as studied, and second, because when they are, they are usually studied under the rubric of western esotericism (not material culture).

There is always overlap between fields. The issue, is that when you go cross-disciplinary, your methodology requires refining to adapt to the tug-and-pull of different disciplines, in a way that benefits the particular study best. The proposal I put together at the beginning of my doctorate is no longer completely relevant, as I’ve refined my approach. It’s now time to put it all together.

That’s where I’m at. I’m not yet certain how to do this. And I have a thesis proposal (over)due.

Lucky for me I can vomit on my blog.

Magic: A Brief (Ongoing) Discussion of the Term

Magic is a Western word, born out of the western context. You can read its semantic use in popular discourse from the Oxford Dictionary Online. Note its common applications: as manipulation of events, as adjective, as verb, etc.

Its use within the larger western discourse of religious studies, though has nuanced definitions. It begins with the Greek encounter with Zoroastrian priests and their perceived esoteric skills, wherein magi comes to mean the foreign, mysterious, and occult. It retains this notion of specialized arcane knowledge to the current day, but has also developed other threads along its journey.

Most relevant to me, is the history of how scholars have studied magic. It begins with a Protestant discourse that retroactively applied the term to all things not Christian. Though the word itself predates the early anthropologists, we, in the academy, are most influenced by the first scholars to study “magic” with a social scientific (not theological) methodology. Magic could be:

    1. “Primitives” in foreign areas. Early anthropologist traveling to exotic places and labelling all indigenous practices as magical. Max Warwick presents an excellent discussion on his cross comparison on how the term is applied in studies in Oceania and Africa. For example, some chroniclers use it to denote malevolent practices, while for other cultures it is considered good. In yet others, magic is neutral, but the intent of the skilled person depends on how it is viewed. As these European writers use western language and discourse to describe the foreign ideas, terms like “magic,” “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” “spells,” and “curses” have a wide-range of meanings and applications, with little to no discussion of nuance, and no systematic standard between and among the European writers. Marwick advocates for scholars to define their terms for each study (For group A “magic” is considered evil; for group B is it not, etc.).
    2. Peasants, and their superstitions, sometimes based on older pagan ideas, or simply viewed as more common, a low culture as opposed to high culture. Much of what was considered not part of the practice of civilized elites was denounced as “magic.”
    3. Rival Christianities: your form of Christianity is clearly inferior to mine, and therefore magical, if not satanic. To which the response is an equally emphatic: No, your form of Christiniaty is clearly “magic,” and thus false.
    4. As early European anthropologists viewed civilization as the pinnacle of an upward trajectory model, they also retroactively applied the term magic to previous monotheistic religions, not solely pagan practices. Under this rubric Judaism (with its “archaic” ritual sacrifice) is magical, as are those funny types of Christians [Catholics]. Echoes of this remain within academic discourse, wherein the assumption that anything “ritualistic” is more base, carnal, and not in keeping with the Protestant ideal of internal, direct communion with god. The implication is that anything done with the body, the material, and the carnal is corrupt and inferior.

That is, for much of contemporary history, “magic” is informed by what Christianity claims it is not. Even as what-it-is-not is ephemeral, contested, and constantly in flux according to the socio-politico-religious influnces. What is considered “Christian” in one time/place/context could be considered heretical in another. No discussion of magic can ignore the history of Christianity and how it self-defines: the two are intertwined.

In the modern context, we have yet another use of the term, with the emphasis on technologies used to create magical illusions that tie into the discourse on science versus religion, with magic taking on this hybrid type of non-status. Magic as illusion by the exceptionally scientific. It is entertainment and wonder for a general population, performed by skilled scientists. To be a stage magician is still to manipulate the natural world, yet with the audience suspending disbelief in order to engage with the wonder and awe of the event.

Still, in the case of stage magic, there is an amphasis that it is not religion, not miracle. To believe that stage magic is miracle puts one in the camp of the delusional, unscientific, and guillible (much like the current anti-religious discourse in the western world). Complicating things further, is that many of the earliest scientists engaged in ideas that modern scientists consider pseudo-science or occult magic (see John Dee). Some of theses sciences were fully endorsed and funded by the Church. Some scientists also fuelled the idea that they held supernatural powers (Nichola Tesla was known to encourage rumours of his magical abilities).

Contemporary self-identified magicians (of which there are many types) also contribute to blurring the categories, by claiming that the effectiveness of magic is a science not yet explained by current methods (echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”). Magic, within these groups and individuals, can be anything from harnessing biological and psychological techniques, to manipulation of spirits and/or demons via ritual to do your bidding, to an understading that magic is performative and cathartic in and of itself, without requiring deeper supernatural explanations.

In the convoluted ven diagram of Religion versus Magic versus Science, there was and continues to be much overlap.

How do I, then, propose to study and write a dissertation on magic, a thing that has no clear definition?

Well… stay tuned.

Media Studies: Centralizing the Material in the Magical

For my proposed dissertation (an ethnographic study of members of the Church of Satan), I am increasingly interested in media studies, often studied under its umbrella discipline of communications. Media studies can be viewed as the study of material culture, but it is much more. It is the study of objects, technologies, music, and any other sensorial aspect of human experience that informs how humans behave and act. Materical culture has certainly been studied before under various disciplines, but when we merge them with religious studies, we begin to see a methodological divide between the material (historically denounced as lesser, base, and carnal) and the spiritual (the high culture, the philosophical, the superior). We therefore have an implied dichotomy, a fracture in our approach that places the spiritual above the material. I want to usurp that ostensible divide.

Jeremy Stolow, in his article, “Religion and/as Media,” claims that media has been credited with, “a key role in the world-historical disembedding of religion from public life, and its relocation within the private walls of bourgeois domesticity, or deeper still, the interior, silent universe of individual readers and their infinitely replicable activities of decoding texts” (2005, 122). Stolow is addressing the notion that “religion” is often considered a private, interior phenomenon, and that anything that happens externally from one’s thoughts is somehow lesser, not quite as genuine.

This type of scheme is a holdover from Protestant denouncements of Catholic rituals, now embedded in academia, which is itself an idea as old as Plato’s dualism. The same mind/body, spirit/material, divine/human (and its gendered equivalent: male/female) fracture gets played out over and over again in various forms, where the first is considered the ultimate, perfect, and pure, while the latter is considered flawed, imperfect, and corrupt. This ostensible dichotomy has only relatively recently been challenged in academia.

Stolow suggests that, while media and religion as an emerging discipline is naturally cross-disciplinary, that the most fruitful approach is to begin with the premise: “religion as media” (125). That is, that:

Throughout history, in myriad forms, communication with and about ‘the sacred’ has always been enacted through written texts, ritual gestures, images and icons, architecture, music, incense, special garments, saintly relics and other objects of veneration, markings upon flesh, wagging tongues and other body parts.

The premise, then, of media studies, is to center the technologies involved in mediating religious phenomena. Place them in the foreground, not relegated to (an implied lesser) afterthought. Much of the history of religious studies has emphasized philosophy, theology, interiority, and sincerity, and has then claimed that mediation has “compromised, diluted, or eviscerated religious belief” (Morgan 2008, 1). [1]

Stolow is instead claiming that religious studies have always been studies of media. Religion is, by nature, mediated. Given this, perhaps media studies is best understood as a methodological approach that places the communication through various media as the foundational starting point.

My next project/article is on media (the objects) used in Satanic magical rituals that have cross purposes: The Satanic Bible not only as ritual script, but as a talisman, an object of importance with aesthetic properties; writing out one’s own script is not solely for liturgical guidance, but has artistic value as the letters scrawled in cursive, written with nice pens, become word-images; music played during ritual is more than an aural experience, as your presence in the chamber alters the resonance and sound and promotes a physiological reaction. Books are smelled. Letters are touched. Sound is felt.

In Satanic ritual magic, heightened sensorial experiences are designed to stimulate a transformative and effective magical rite. The media, then, is the magic.

This next project on Satanic magic is cross-disciplinary, using studies in material culture alongside studies in magic and esotericism, approached with the intent of centralizing the material aspect. David Morgan’s introduction to religion and media studies lists the multiple and varied fields and scholars engaged with media studies, addressing similar questions in the field, stemming from different disciplines. It is fitting to end this blog post with his open-ended commentary that: “To date, participants have felt no urgency to limit the discourse or dominate it by discipline, field, or methodology. For many of us, this is a sign of robust intellectual health” (2008, 13).

[1] As an important parallel: challenging the very term “belief” as a defining factor of religion is an ongoing discourse in religious studies. I can state anecdotally that it is a hurdle introducing the concept that religion takes many (unrecognizable) forms to new students, many of which have little or nothing to do with “belief.”