“Bring a small, empty tin-can and a pencil to beat it with,” read the flyer. “It will make an ominous and interesting sound. During the demonstration we will attempt to raise (by Magyck) the Rampart Police Station several feet above the ground and hopefully cause it to disappear for two hours.” It’s March of 1970, in Los Angeles; the recent police killings of three queer people are fresh in the minds of Gay Liberation Front activists. “If the GLF is successful in this effort,” the flyer continues, “we will alleviate a major source of homosexual oppression for at least those two hours.”
Some witnesses claim the station rose six feet. When asked about the realness of it all
in a Q&A at Brown last month, Reina Gossett, a trans rights activist and prison abolitionist, deferred to the existence of “multiple truths.” But it’s almost irrelevant, anyway; the GLF action was part of a legacy of occult insurrection. Just three years earlier, in ’67, anti-war protesters had negotiated permission from the US government to levitate the Pentagon a maximum of ten feet in the air (down from an original request of 300 feet). Several hundred people, led by Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman, gathered around the Pentagon, chanted ancient Aramaic exorcism rites, and attempted collective telekinesis.
These two instances of occult action are different—anti-war participants of the ’67 levitation are not necessarily comparable to GLF participants of the ’70 levitation as subjects of state violence. But both illuminate the ways in which magic has and can be used as a tool of protest for which the state has no viable response. Even if the levitations did not work in the literal sense, the action could act as a metaphor for the state’s disregard for the desires of its citizens. Either way, protesters are making a statement about the existence of an arena of agency—magic, desire, collective willpower—over which the state has no control. Gossett writes that the GLF action was “outside the normalized organizing tactics preferred by the Non-Profit Industrial Complex”; it was “filled with accountability to the living, dead and unknown forces that are all fully involved in our struggle for liberation.”
The state scrambles to respond to occult actions. When confronted with radical magic, the government can negotiate—in ’67, negotiation put them in the absurd position of issuing a permit for the levitation of the Pentagon. They can respond with violence—but Gossett argues that queer, criminalized people of color are always, constantly subject to state violence. Or the state can fail to respond at all—which makes space for a collective action to occur outside the purview and sanctions of the police.
The state can, however, direct the way in which histories of occult insurrections are taught and told. Take the Haitian Revolution, a slave-led revolt that gave rise to the first-ever black republic. In her book The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below, Carolyn E. Fick writes, “Despite rigid prohibitions [by French colonists], voodoo was indeed one of the few areas of totally autonomous activity for the African slaves. As a religion and
a vital spiritual force, it was a source of psychological liberation in that it enabled them to express and reaffirm that self-existence they objectively recognized through their own labor.” Racist Western rhetoric around Haitian voodoo as barbaric or primitive, however, has denied Haitian revolutionaries their role in mainstream histories as radical visionaries; if the Haitian Revolution is talked about in American classrooms, it is not talked about as a politically modern movement akin to the roughly simultaneous French Revolution. If ritual magic allowed Haitian revolutionaries channels of action to which the state had no response, it has since served as a justification for their political and intellectual sequestration.
Occult actions continue, though, despite the stories told about them. Just this week in Madrid, a group called Hologramas por la Libertad projected a stream of hologrammatic protesters in front the Spanish parliament in response to and as a workaround of the passage of the Citizen Security Act, which criminalizes public protest. It might not constitute magic, but watching the streams of translucent protesters pass by in online footage of the action brings to mind the ghosts of those who have been disappeared, killed or erased by the state. Gossett is hopeful about the presence of ghosts amid protest: “I wonder what a resurgence of actions connected & accountable to grief, the dead, the unborn, unknown and alive would do to our collective resiliency,” she writes. “I imagine a shift in connection and accountability would create more space in our movements to hold more people, more levity, more magic, less isolation and less shame.” –MK
If you were following the independent documentary scene in 2004, you may have seen a film called What the Bleep Do We Know!? (stylized as What thē #$*! Do we (k)πow!? (remember: 2004)), a low-budget documentary which examines the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness. In particular, it’s interested in the possibility that we might be able to control reality with our minds, an idea the filmmakers and the physicists/philosophers they interview extrapolate from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and especially the notion in quantum physics of the “observer effect.” In other words, the movie uses quantum theo-
ries to explain what is essentially magic. The mysterious force of consciousness’s operation through quantum physics manifests in the film as an abundance of cheesy/trippy early-2000s digitally animated visuals, along with a narrative that runs alongside the interviews, depicting a wedding photographer whose life begins to exhibit signs of—well—magic. A pick-up basketball game turns into a lesson on alternate universes when a shot is simultaneously missed and scored; a visit to the movie theatre becomes an opportunity for the photographer to duplicate herself, unwilling to miss any opportunity.
Most theoretical physicists wrote off the film, and the theories it propagated, as “pseudoscience.” One philosopher of physics interviewed in the film, David Albert, criticized the filmmakers for selectively editing his interview, when in fact he is opposed the linking of quantum physics and consciousness. As it turns out, however, What the Bleep Do We Know!? does not stand alone in its combination of quantum mechanics and powers generally considered superhuman. In fact, “Quantum Mysticism” has a large enough body of work surrounding it to merit its own Wikipedia page, and the desire to connect consciousness to quantum mechanics has existed since the invention of the theories themselves. In an article written for The European Journal of Physics, historian Juan Miguel Marin outlines the conflict between Heisenberg and Schrodinger’s interest in mysticism and Einstein’s strict realism, a debate
that seemingly disappeared following WWII. It reemerged, however, in Berkeley during the 1970’s, in the form of New Age philosophies. Fritjof Capra, an Austrian physicist studying at U.C. Berkeley at the time, became a member of the Fundamental Fysics Group, a collection of physicists interested in the connections between various forms of ‘Eastern mysticism’ and quantum mechanics. He published the best-selling book The Tao of Physics in 1975, amid a storm of criticism and praise. Many similar books followed; indeed, the directors of What the Bleep Do We Know!? are members of a New Age spiritual sect themselves: Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment.
A well-known joke about theoretical physicists goes like this: an experimental physicist shows a theoretical physicist the field-changing results of his latest experiment; the theoretical physicist responds, “That’s all fine in practice, but what about in theory?” The joke evidences a degree of similarity between mainstream theoretical physicists and their new-age counterparts: not only are they both the butt of jokes, but they also share a deep respect for the powers of the mind. There is disagreement, obviously, on what exact role it should play; whether the mind can directly affect physical reality, or whether its centrality is only in explaining physical reality. In any case, it seems to be a porous boundary. It’s telling that some of Einstein’s most important work takes the form of thought experiments: using one’s mind to manipulate reality in a productive way, and also that scientists like Einstein are held up on irrefutable pedestals, almost as if they were the center of a New Age spiritual sect.
I do not mean to suggest that the argument between quantum mechanics and quantum mysticism is meaningless, but rather that both sides might consider a broader definition of magic, as an umbrella term for the connections, causal or not, between what happens inside and outside the mind. At the opposite of end of physicists who dabble in mysticism lies certain practitioners of “Chaos Magick” who dabble in physics. Their philosophy is useful; in his article “Magick and Physics,” writer Dave Lee states, “As research progresses in this area, we shall see how well the model continues to fit. But...Chaos Magick has always had at its core a profound respect for technical excellence in sorcery, and a profound impatience with metaphysics...What matters is not how consistent the belief is with the rest of one’s beliefs, but whether one can believe it long enough to do the sorcery.” Lee exposes something juvenile in the insistence of both the New Age thinkers, and those who decry them, on arguing. Can’t we all just focus on doing the sorcery? –SS
In Lancashire, England in 1612, nine women and two men accused of witchcraft were hanged. In the following 85 years in Salem, Massachusetts, 20 witches were executed. But public violence against witches didn’t end in the seventeenth century and in fact has faced resurgence in the past decade. Four hundred years after the Lancashire trials, two women—one in Colombia and one in Nepal—were set on fire after family members accused them of using witchcraft to make neighbors sick. A 2009 report by the UN Refugee Agency estimated that 200 witches were accused and/or tortured in a single Papua New Guinean province in 2007.
In the past decade, violence against witches has become endemic in many develop-
ing countries. Papua New Guinea’s Constitutional and Law Reform Commission estimates that there are approximately 150 witchcraft-related homicides annually, and hundreds more women are accused and tortured. The details of these murders are brutal. In February 2013, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Kepari Leniata was bound, doused in gasoline, and thrown on a pile of burning tires. As she burned alive spectators tossed more flaming rubber on top of her. She was 20 years old and the mother of two children.
Amnesty International notes that women are six times more likely to be accused of witchcraft than men. According to the UN Refugee Agency, approximately 90 percent of accused witches across history have been women, and as a result of either perceived or actual practice of magic, become the objects of ritualized violence. Modern witch-hunts occur far more often in developing countries where medical care is limited and education about the causes and treatments of illnesses is scarce. In Papua New Guinea the leading causes of death are malaria, tuberculosis, and pneumonia, all of which are preventable. When someone
dies in small villages, it’s not uncommon for the funeral to double as the organization of a witch-hunt. Women accused of witchcraft may not in fact be practicing any kind of magic; they may be refusing to submit silently to gender-based subjugation, which is then conflated with witchcraft. So-called “glass men” are hired to identify the witch who caused the death in visions or dreams, and then the village rapidly turns against her. In a book entitled Imagining Evil, Gerrie ter Haar says “to be labelled a witch...is tantamount to being declared liable to be killed with impunity.”
Richard Eves, an anthropologist at the Australian National University says that in New Guinean culture, “there is a view that nobody dies a natural death unless it is old age.” From that perspective, there is a need to identify the cause of all of the “unnatural” deaths that occur, and that cause is often linked to sorcery. However, the gendered nature of accusations of witchcraft cannot be ignored. Jack Urame of the Melanesian Institute argues that “gender antagonism is embedded in the cultural, social, and ideological belief system and the abuse
of power in Papua New Guinea.” Frequently the violence against witches is state-sanctioned. From 1971 to 2013, the Sorcery Act in Papua New Guinea held black magic as an acceptable defense of murder, and the murderer could walk free.
Accusations of witchcraft tend to be indications that a woman is stepping outside of her socially mandated role. Whether or not she is actually engaging in practices of magic
or spell-casting is irrelevant; she is perceived as possessing powers that make her dangerous or subversive. Urame claims that a “cultural assumption that women are dangerous to men influences male hostility towards women when dealing with sorcery and witchcraft issues.” She is controlling what she has no right to control; meddling in what she ought not to (typically the health of members of her community). She begins to inhabit a space outside the well-established and traditional patriarchy. The practice of witchcraft becomes a channel of subversion for oppressed women, but paradoxically its visibility inevitably results in violence. In places like Papua New Guinea the immediate response by men in power is to violently remove her from the system entirely. Kepari Leniata, and dozens of others across the globe go up in flames, sending a message that is impossible to misconstrue: to be a woman is to
be subjugated, and any attempt to transcend the structure that subjugates her engenders violence. –AF