Since last entry mentioned chaos magic, and it increasingly looks like I’m likely to meet some folks of that tradition during my upcoming holiday in BC here, it feels worth taking the opportunity to reflect upon what exactly that particular occult “tradition” actually means to me. I’ll do this in three sections: 1) history of applying the label in my case, 2) the appeal and 3) reservations I have at this point.
My earliest relevant influence for chaos magick is probably Church of the Subgenius when I was in my late teens. Subsequent reading included Discordia, Philip Hines, Peter Carroll, Ramsey Dukes, Lon Milo Duquette, etc. Probably my biggest influences overall though were Grant Morrison’s graphic novel series “The Invisibles” and Kenneth Grant’s book “Nightside of Eden.”
Interestingly, I’ve come to realize in retrospect that the short period of my life during which I was up-playing the chaos magic quite a bit and somewhat downplaying the Satanism largely overlaps the time when I was in the UK doing my MA. I figure a big part of the reason for this is that I experienced North America and Britain quite differently from one another re: when you hear about “chaos magic,” what does that actually mean:
- In North America, most chaos magic people I met seemed to be significantly influenced by the aesthetic of Discordia, Subgenius and/or what most readers would understand to be the “good” guys in The Invisibles, i.e. “chaos as fun and freedom.” In that context, chaos magic seemed to be 50/50 between pure technique (see the “appeal” section below) and “joke religion.”
- In the UK, I got the impression that in the circles I was moving, all the men said they were Heathens and all the women said they were Hedgewitches, but really they were all chaos magicians who didn’t like using the term because it had been previously ruined by people who thought chaos magic meant slavish dedication to the system of A.O. Spare in combination with being weird, dark and kind of an asshole.
Thus, in one setting, chaos magic seemed to entail both a specific ethos and a technique, whereas in the other, it mainly designated a technique compatible with a variety of ethos. Naturally then, if you can have Heathen-chaos-magicians and Hedgewitch-chaos-magicians, you can have Satanist-chaos-magicians, and there I was. ;)
It’s also probably worth noting that among the North Americans I knew, references to Cthulhu were always “part of the joke,” vs. in the UK, I’d say there were some contexts in which Lovecraft was taken light-heartededly and some contexts in which the notion of genuine “dark” encounters with entities of that nature did rear its head. For me personally, chaos magic always had more of the “dark” than the “light” in it, so for this reason too, I gravitated toward it much more in the British context vs. the more time has passed since my MA, the more overtly I have drifted back toward explicitly Satanist territory.
The key appeal of chaos magic for me was the notion that all aspects of the human condition can be utilized toward the purposes of magic, i.e. discernment of unseen spiritual realities and manipulation of these in order to bring about change in accord with will – more specifically, that contemporary culture, technology and “the new” are not somehow inherently “unmagical” in comparison to traditional culture, nature and “the old.”
I have long been self-aware about how, as a near-sighted asthmatic (and now, for that matter, celiac) with a very non-outdoorsy upbringing, I did not feel any kind of “closeness” with “nature.” And as I have gotten older, I have also increasingly felt at odds with anything that resembles “tradition” because it so often entails assumptions about gender roles that don’t speak to my own experience and/or expectations about “looking to your roots” that are somewhat awkward for a biracial person. This then left me in a position where there were certain things I liked about Wicca and Neopaganism, but I never really felt it was “for me” as far as being able to identify with those religions.
On the other hand, if one is both of an urban bent that appreciates technology, and hybrid in terms of one’s identities, the great thing about chaos magic is that you can just go explore and invent and figure out what works for you personally – i.e. you can elevate fictional entities to godhood if that’s what speaks to you; you can observe how divination’s most requisite feature is an element of randomization and posit that you ought then to be able to interpret your iPod shuffle results the way some people interpret runes and tarot (obviously in the context of ritual and intention); you can borrow from different cultures and construct something that reflects your own complexities instead of being stuck feeling “left outside” of everything (here’s that appropriation can-of-worms again); etc.
In other words, it’s fun and fulfilling inasmuch as it lets you proceed on your own instincts. Additionally, I think there is a strong affinity of mentality between the effective chaos magician and the effective Satanist, inasmuch as both have the attitude of “this is all up to me, without any external authority, therefore I have to be ruthlessly honest with myself about my progress as well as disciplined in my practice if I want to actually improve.” Yes, that attitude is to some extent present among all individual “spiritual” practitioners, but in my view, less strongly so in others than in these specific two cases, inasmuch as others fall back upon appeals to spirit guidance, ancient ways, supposed-universality of principles, and other elements beyond just one’s own experiences & results.
Probably the biggest reservation I have about chaos magic pertains to the famous saying that “nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
It is my impression that, for many people who put forward this saying, the underlying reality of the world (chaos) is conceptualized as a blank slate that different worldviews draw different things on; the chaos magician, realizing this, is then potentially empowered to draw whatever they like on there.
I do not myself conceive of chaos in this way. To me, chaos is less like a blank slate than a really blurry out-of-focus picture (you may notice I did mention above being nearsighted ;)) that no one has the perfect lens to bring into full focus (because Lovecraftian madness would result) vs. everyone uses different lenses and thus sees different things in better/worse focus. Unlike the blank slate though, here there is something there, and if you persist in using lenses that do not register certain key characteristics that it has, you are missing things that may bite you in the ass.
Notice then that, according to the “typical” chaos magic view, you cannot really compare worldviews beyond just their being different/equal. Vs. according to my view, yes there is an element of relativism re: no one is one-hundred percent “right,” but I do think some worldviews fare better than others at dealing honestly with a larger percentage of “reality, and “better/worse” here can be determined via empirical investigation, whether that means consulting science (regarding material matters) or consulting the experience of the individual (regarding matters of meaningfulness) or etc. This then is plainly not “nothing is true, everything is permitted” – the Satanist reserves the right to be able to put forward critical claims that in some respects, society is deluded, people lie to themselves, etc.
I have other reservations about chaos magic, but I think fundamentally they all go back to this one and also tie in to what I said in my previous entry about Satanism about dark spiritual realities. You might say on that front that I am not much of a “chaos as Eris” chaos magician vs. much more of a “chaos as Azathoth” chaos magician – i.e. no less of a chaos magician for that, but of the view that at least for me, a darker, more monstrous image of chaos better “fits reality” than certain cutesy, flippant-sounding characterizations I’ve occasionally encountered within the chaos magic context.