Pathways in Modern Western Magic (Review)

Pathways in Modern Western MagicAs I mentioned in a previous post, Pathways in Modern Western Magic is Concrescent Press’s answer to the conditions of contemporary academic publishing—an activity that, especially for scholars of area studies, is at best difficult and at worst, financially untenable. The book is the first release under the Concrescent Scholars imprint, “dedicated to peer-reviewed works of scholarship in the fields of Esotericism, Pagan religion and culture, Magic, and the Occult from within, and without, the Academy.” In other words, this collection contains contributions from scholars, some of whom are practitioners, and practitioners who though not involved in the academy, are serious about the scholarly study of magic. Each article has been “peer-reviewed,” meaning that it was reviewed and deemed fit for publication by scholars with PhDs in relevant fields.

Unlike traditional academic publishers, however, Concrescent is set up to be fast and nimble. Headed by Pagan priest and PhD candidate Sam Webster, the press prides itself on bringing manuscripts through the publication process in a timely fashion—much more quickly than the 2-3 year process that is typical for most academic publishers. I see this publishing model as being very promising for scholars of area studies, especially independent scholars who are more concerned with being read than with the dog-eat-dog realities of tenure reviews. The editor of the collection, Nevill Drury, may be a perfect example of this new kind of scholar: having completed a PhD at the University of Newcastle, Australia in 2008, Drury now brings together formal academic training in the humanities with decades of experience in editing and publishing. His recent publications include several books on occultism and art.

So why might you, dear reader, want to read Pathways in Modern Western Magic?

First of all, although the anthology is scholarly, it is far from dry. The articles are accessible and engagingly written. For a reader who wants an introduction to the academic study of magic or an overview of major areas of magical practice in the West, this book delivers. Pathways includes articles on Wicca and witchcraft, neo-shamanism in the United States and Europe, Heathen seiđr, Thelemic sex magick, the Golden Dawn system, Satanism, Tantra, and more. In addition to these established topics of study, the collection also offers essays on lesser-known traditions and figures: Dragon Rouge; the Temple of Set; chaos magic; artist/occultists Ithell Colquhoun, Austin Osman Spare, and Rosaleen Norton; and technoshamanism.  Especially for readers new to the field of Western esotericism studies, the book provides an overview of modern Western magic while also opening up tantalizing new areas for exploration and research.

As a religious studies scholar, however, I’m always interested in what a book has to offer to the larger field. What would someone with an interest in religion and how it is (or can be) studied get out of this book? Some of the book’s articles don’t have much to offer the reader who isn’t already interested in magic: they are descriptive or historical pieces that provide essential context for the topic, but don’t necessarily make an argument for why a reader from outside the field should care. Some, however, do make broader arguments that I still find myself chewing over weeks after finishing the collection.

Nevill Drury’s introduction makes a case for the idea that emic (basically, insider) approaches to the study of religion are just as valuable as etic (outsider, “objective”) approaches. Although his article seems to have been prepared before the publication of Markus Altena Davidsen’s essay “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies?”, Drury addresses a number of Davidsen’s criticisms. Davidsen is impatient with emic, insider, and “religionist” approaches, believing that they lead to a lack of skepticism—in other words, scholars with insider approaches risk uncritically agreeing with their subjects and taking their assumptions for granted. As support, Davidsen gives examples of Pagan scholars making arguments that seem to be contradicted by their data, perhaps out of loyalty to their subjects.

On the other hand, Davidsen praises etic “outsider” scholars who, as Drury points out, have made equally clumsy errors. Drury criticizes anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for example, for her lack of grounding in the historical study of magic. Rather than approaching British Wicca using a definition of magic derived from Western esotericism (from which Wicca is partially, but directly, derived), Luhrmann uses a theory of magic developed from the practices of pre-literate Oceanic cultures. In other words, her contextualizing theory is wildly inappropriate for the subject matter.

Davidsen makes an important point that insider perspectives can lack skepticism. But, as Drury argues, an insider can bring a far greater depth and integration of knowledge to a subject and so avoid such gross errors of context. (In her essay, Lynne Hume makes a similar argument, suggesting that too great a degree of skepticism or investment in outside theory prevents researchers from genuinely participating in the religious traditions they study and so threatens to distort their perceptions.)

Nikki Bado’s essay uses the Wiccan Triple Goddess as a jumping-off point for issues that are broadly relevant to religious studies: contemporary challenges to biological determinism that undergird sexism; literalism and the way it prevents access to other modes of truth (including the rational, allegorical, mythic, and faith stances); and most importantly, the nigh impossibility of operating outside of the paradigms of one’s own culture. Bado is an advocate of “reflexive” rather than “objective” scholarship; she believes that it is more helpful for scholars to identify and reflect on their biases within their work than it is to attempt to free themselves from them. As a low-level example, Bado focuses on the number three in both myth and scholarship. Tripartite models and triple aspects are pervasive in Western culture, conditioning us to look for and find triples even when there are other possibilities. She writes, “The problem with paradigms is that once they are created—some would say discovered—it is nearly impossible to escape their influence. Once identified, they appear everywhere, dominating and even determining how and what we see. If something doesn’t fit the model, we manipulate it until it does” (80). Bado ends with a call, not to abandon paradigms and categories, but for greater openness to their subjectivity—in other words, for a better understanding that our models are maps, not the territory.

I also particularly enjoyed James R. Lewis’ essay on the role of Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible in modern Satanism. Lewis brings his own original ethnographic research on Satanists into the essay to argue that, despite Satanists’ explicit rejection of traditional religious values, many use LaVey’s book in an extremely traditional fashion—as an authoritative textual source. This continues to be the case even as the level of education among Satanists has risen and more and more information about LaVey’s fabricated biography has come to light. Even more interestingly, contemporary Satanists’ strategy of textual legitimization is completely different from LaVey’s strategy in the Satanic Bible itself. Rather than appealing to a particular authority or text, LaVey’s philosophy was based in scientific thinking: secular humanism and a particular understanding of human nature based on Darwinian evolution. Lewis concludes, “It appears that being raised in a religious tradition that locates the source of authority in religious figures and sacred texts creates an unconscious predisposition that can be carried over to other kinds of persons and books—even in the unlikely context of contemporary Satanism” (278). The issue of how converts’ former religious affiliations influence their experiences of the religions they choose as adults has wide-ranging implications for religious studies, and Lewis’ article is a fascinating contribution to that conversation.

Overall, Pathways has the most to offer to a reader who is just beginning a formal academic study of Western magic. When it broaches less-treated topics of study and connects its subject matter to broader discussions in religious studies, however, it is also potentially valuable for established scholars of esotericism or contemporary Paganism. I am pleased to add it to my personal library.

[Drury, Nevill, editor. Pathways in Modern Western Magic. Richmond, CA: Concrescent Scholars, 2012. 484 pp.  $39.95 (softcover).]

 

Pagans and Academic Publishing

Some of you may remember that I’m publishing a book of Pagan erotic theology entitled Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake with an academic publisher next year. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover image I commissioned from artist Valerie Herron. Gorgeous, no?

Deciding what kind of press to approach with this book was a difficult process because both the publishing industry and academia are in crisis right now. This makes it a particularly difficult time for those of us in Pagan Studies and other minor area studies to get our work out to our intended audiences. Let me tell you a little about why.

A big part of it is that many academic publishing houses are still using the publishing strategies that worked in the past, even as the internet and electronic publishing steadily deconstruct the industry. The old academic publishing strategy looked like this:

  1. Put out a sturdy, expensive hardback library edition specifically to sell to university libraries. In the past, some well-endowed university libraries bought nearly everything that certain academic publishers offered, so each publication was guaranteed to make the press a certain amount of money. These books would then be in circulation at those universities and for interlibrary loan at other institutions, making the book relatively easy to get as long as you were willing to wait.
  2. Send out review copies to journals and scholars in the field and market the book through conferences and catalogs sent to members of professional organizations. If the book was well-received and all the library copies sold out, it might be released in a cheaper paperback edition for a wider audience.

Under this old academic model of publishing, the advances and royalties given to authors for academic books were small. This wasn’t considered important, however, because most academics had full-time teaching or research jobs. They needed publications in order to get tenure or get promoted, but they didn’t need to get money directly for their writing.

Fast-forward to the present, where university tenure is disappearing and most universities make regular use of armies of underpaid, overworked adjuncts. Funding for many libraries has been cut, meaning that the automatic library purchases that sustained academic publishers in the past are no longer guaranteed. The old models of publishing are no longer working very well—but they haven’t quite completely collapsed, meaning that well-established presses continue to cling to them.

I’m an independent scholar teaching occasionally for Cherry Hill Seminary. Publishing won’t get me tenure or a promotion, but because of the way academic publishing is set up, it won’t get me much money either. Due to economic conditions, publishers also have a much reduced capacity to market books to libraries and scholars. So why publish with an academic press at all?

I seriously considered self-publishing the book. There are ample resources available for becoming your own print-on-demand publisher: format your own manuscript, do your own cover design, and put out a professional-quality book (or if you need help, hire contractors). In the Pagan world, I can particularly recommend Asphodel Press as a print-on-demand writers’ collective that puts out books at least as professional in quality as Llewellyn or Weiser.

In the end, however, I felt that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a theologian, I needed the credibility of an academic press, which comes with the guarantee of peer review (in other words, other scholars have reviewed the text, made suggestions, and told the publisher the book is worth publishing). I also engage a lot with existing queer theology in the book, and I knew I’d need an academic publisher if I wanted any of the theologians I admired to ever hear of it. Self-publishing would have required an enormous amount of marketing, and the reality is that without the imprint of an academic press, some scholars simply would never have looked at the book at all.

The end result, however, is that my book will initially appear as a library edition with a Very Large Price Tag (and, happily, also as an electronic edition, but academic electronic editions sometimes cost considerably more than the average trade paperback!). If the book sells enough copies in hardback, it will be released in paperback, but there’s no guarantee of that. I had to sacrifice accessibility for credibility, and it wasn’t an easy choice.

I want to emphasize that my editor and everyone else at my publisher has been very professional and helpful. The ground is shifting under the publishing industry’s feet, and everyone is fumbling around to try to find new publishing strategies that are sustainable. But even as I go through this publication process, I find myself thinking about the publishing alternatives that may arise in the future, especially for academic books.

One dream of mine is that academic publishing might reorganize itself in the form of profit-sharing scholarly writers’ collectives. The main strength of academic publishing now is peer review: scholars read and comment on others’ work, usually as volunteers. This process can be time-consuming, and since the reviewers do not derive any direct benefit from it, the reviews are not always thorough or of good quality. Since print-on-demand makes it easy to start one’s own small press now, though, I have been imagining peer review collectives in which scholars who wish to be published work collaboratively to peer review, edit, copyedit, and proofread each other’s work. Rather than being volunteers, they would be helping to create the opportunity for their own work to be published (hopefully on less than the two-year timeline that most academic publishing involves). Although a professional-level editor would still be needed to oversee production, still, more of the sales profits could be directed back to the writer. It would take time for such presses to grow large enough to send representatives to professional conferences, but in the short term, they could provide opportunities for quality academic publishing that do not currently exist.

Print-on-demand services have also made it much easier to start small, more or less traditionally-modeled presses for niche topics (and indeed, Pagan studies is a niche topic, and Pagan theology a niche within a niche). One such attempt is Concrescent Press, which recently put out an academic, peer-reviewed collection on esotericism entitled Pathways in Modern Western Magic. The volume features prominent scholars in esotericism as well as scholarly practitioners. I’m working through the book now, and hope to write up a more thorough review here in the future.

This book’s existence, however, gives me hope that academic publishing could reinvent itself to become more streamlined (fewer people involved with each project, shorter timeline), to create opportunities for scholars with unusual interests to be published, to direct more of the profits back to the writers, and to produce books at a price point that is accessible to non-academics. If we were to stop thinking of the typical scholar as a tenure-track professor and instead face the reality that many up-and-coming researchers are now adjunct instructors and entrepreneurs, the result could be a more accessible, egalitarian, and innovative academic publishing industry.