Last update: 8:48 AM 1/20/2012
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Contemporary adepts should be able to explain themselves and their methods and ideas without charlatanry or mystification. Magic does not work by magic, if you see what I mean; it requires hard work and dedication and a lot of practise. I believe that releasing effective magical ideas will actually lead to less of the sort of satanic nonsense that leads some idiots to try sacrificing the neighbour’s cat. // Peter J. Carroll, interview in Abracademia
To Know. To Dare. To Will. To
Keep Silent Make Open-Source.
This is something I have been thinking about for several years now: applying the philosophy and techniques of open-source software and similarly common resources, to occult works. That may seem like an oxymoron, and it may yet prove to be one to some degree, but there has been a growing tendency in magic since the end of the last century, to prefer results over superstition, and originality and adaptation over dogma and tradition. I suspect that tendency can be amplified by the intentional application of open source.
Open source (OS) simply means to make the source materials and processes that produce a product, available to the users of that product. In software, it means publishing the source code of an application and allowing anyone to modify it. A related (but not same) notion is the commons, where resources are released with permission for others to distribute or modify them (e.g. Creative Commons). For magic, OS could mean:
- publish our magical materials and methods
- publish our results (with the following caveats)
- permit others to make derivative works
Of course, people have been publishing books about magic for many years, and Llewellyn, Weiser, and several other publishers are largely to thank for the cultural transmission of magical knowledge — both the good and bad. But I believe the intentional application of OS principles and practices might change the game a bit.
I am not the first person to have considered OS magic. The Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn is an OS implementation of a so-called secret society (the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), built on the realization that the society’s methods had already been published. Since the 1990s, people have been applying OS to everything, including religion.
Note that I am not necessarily advocating to make magic free — cf. differences between the free software movement and open source movement. I appreciate that occultists need to make a living, too, but why not make an honest one, and one that reciprocates good fortune by releasing effective ideas into the greater circulation?
Herewith are my thoughts on some obvious concerns about applying OS to magic.
Sleight of Hand (and Mind)
I recognize that while doing magic, it can be necessary not to talk about the magic we are doing or what we are doing it for. Magic is an occult art, and in that regard it seems contradistinct to the transparency of OS. Although the kind of magic I am talking about is not stage magic, we can draw some comparisons.
Legerdemain works precisely because we do not know how the magician is causing apparently impossible things to happen. Once the mechanism is revealed, we can be astonished at its clever design or the magician’s skillfulness at performing it, but this is a different domain of astonishment than what we feel while witnessing the trick being performed in the absence of knowing how. There are plenty of how-to books on this kind of magic, which plainly explain the tricks so that those who wish to reproduce or modify them can do so. These resources do not keep us from enjoying illusion, however they may prevent our supposing that magicians truly possess supernatural powers, which may prevent magicians from wielding undue authority over us (cf. governments of superstition).
Within the context of a magic ritual, we may earnestly believe (in) things we cannot readily demonstrate to others, or we may intentionally conceal (even from ourselves) the true purpose of our ritual. Chaos magicians call the latter sleight of mind, supposing that real magic also works by misdirection, by concentrating the magician’s conscious attention on a symbolic representation of her desire that suggests the desire to her unconscious mind while allowing her conscious mind to forget about it. Altered states of consciousness change how the magician interacts with the world, and so (seem to) change how the world responds to the magician’s intentions. No one has yet made plain exactly how this works (in such a way that can be rigorously tested and verified), yet as with stage magic, there are plenty of how-to books about real magic, which explain the processes involved so that others can reproduce or modify the processes and experience magic for themselves.
Applying OS to magic might accelerate this sharing of information, and encourage more people to do so. As with stage magic, the work would still need to be done, people will still need to log many hours to master something, and innovation will still emerge from those who dare to do things differently than before them. But as with the sharing of any knowledge, we have an opportunity to facilitate a culture of amateur magicians instead of immature magicians. Here I use the word amateur like Lawrence Lessig to mean people who do (magic or anything) “for the love of what they are doing, and not for the money.” Magicians who dabble and experiment for what magic actually provides, not for the fantasies of popular culture which has largely oppressed, dismissed, or misrepresented magic over the last several hundred years, nor the lies of unscrupulous cult leaders.
Privacy vs. Secrecy
Occasionally, magicians do disclose the results of their magic, and that helps to make (at least the appearance of) the efficacy of magic known, but many of the things people use magic for are private for a variety of reasons. I respect that, and do not wish to expose those affairs which should remain private. However, I would like to see authority give way to transparency as much as possible while conserving what must remain hidden. If someone announces publicly that they are a mighty wizard, then they should explain the methods and results of their might wizardry. How could we not collectively benefit from that? We potentially increase the number of mighty wizards in the world by making the techniques of mighty wizardry available to all who would dare practice them, and we reduce the number of charlatans who would exploit others through deceit or shallow charisma.
Secret societies can continue meeting in secret, but I hope that within these organizations the pretense of divine providence or jealously guarded secrets would submit to plain demonstration of skill or talent, and I hope they find ways to share their knowledge publicly.
I know what some of you are thinking: “But, Joshua, these are powerful forces that should not be played with by the inexperienced or foolish!” Really? Why do you suppose that is? Is it because someone told you so, or because you have personally experienced negative consequences of magic? If the former, see what I said about transparency, above; if the latter, tell people about it. I am not saying that magic is not dangerous; indeed, I believe good magic should make you feel at least a little uneasy. I am saying let us be forthright with ourselves and each other about what its dangers are. I have personally not experienced much monkey’s-paw-type stuff, but I did, e.g., once put an early end to a series of astral projection exercises because I started feeling unwell after each exercise, like I was out of phase with my environment. I am not saying I was out of phase, but that is what I felt like, and I can describe the symptoms without conflating them with New Age fantasies.
When the 70’s occultist says “there’s no point in using a silver censer when a coffee tin serves just as well”, the OTTO initiate replies “there’s no point in using a coffee tin when a 800 year old human skull looted from the ruins of a Mexican temple serves just as well.” // Lionel Snell, “Paroxysms of Magic”
In many ways, magic proceeds by being bat-wing weird, and that need not be threatened by making magic OS. We are free to select whatever materials and processes we like, for whatever reasons we do. Let us just make the facts and contents of our practices available, even if our reasons for selecting or creating certain contents are aesthetic or arbitrary.
We can continue to publish our methods and results in finely handcrafted leather-bound volumes of gilded parchment inscribed with dove’s blood ink. The value of rare quality is not reduced by OS. Cf. the history of the printing press.
The Personal and Ineffable
There are initiatory and intuitive experiences of magic that may be diluted or defeated by attempts to analyze them or communicate them too plainly (i.e. outside of esoteric contexts). At various places, magic has and will continue to intersect with mysticism (Arthur Versluis’ book, Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esoteric Traditions, includes a Venn diagram). It is all right to admit of experiences we cannot explain rationally or better describe without poetry or strange markings. Let us make plain what we can of magic, and take care to treat the rest without appealing unnecessarily to exaggeration, superstition, authority, etc. And, again, let us permit others to use our poems and strange markings in their own works so that our ideas are remixed and recycled.
So how do we proceed with making magic open-source? We can begin by changing our attitude about magic, to embrace OS principles. We can look to various places within the OS movement and ask, how could that be applied to magic? Perhaps we can draft an OS definition for magic, like the ones for software and hardware (I would like to see the latter applied to radionic devices). Or some standard licenses that magicians may include with their works to designate them as OS.