Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology

I have been thinking about the Weird Studies podcast episode on Marshall McLuhan, apropos of my usual ideas about technology, magic, and media; and especially about virtual reality as a medium for ritual magic, which is something I have written a bit about at the old Hyperritual blog and also touched on in Technomancy 101.

A common problem of ritual magic in virtual reality is the tendency to simulate familiar forms of ritual magic when VR offers much more radical — and more affective if not more effective — ways of interacting with content. More specifically, VR allows us to enact fantastical magic as actual magic, interacting with imaginal content as (virtually) physical reality — which is itself a kind of magic (fantasy → phantasy → phantasm → phantasma → φάντασμα → φαντάζω, “I make visible”) . Let me give an example: in the “real” world you might construct an effigy or inscribe a sigil on some object; put yourself in a sinister mood, perhaps invoking some martial or saturnal spirit; and then furiously yell or scream at the object while breaking it, burning it, or whatever to signify the destruction of the thing the object represents. (If I recall correctly, Carroll prescribed something like this in Liber Null.)

In VR, the sigil might be inscribed on an enormous menhir — representing a heavy or looming obstacle — and when you shout your Artaudian word of power at it, your sound waves become visible and terminate in the objects’ spectacular obliteration (think of the Thu’um or the Voice in Skyrim). The effect might be enhanced by developing an actual Witch’s Voice through breath and voice control exercises; by performing an actual invocation (also augmented by virtual content, possibly) prior to expelling your devastating fury; &c.

The key point here is that VR allows us to perform real magic in the mode of fantasy: the way magic is portrayed in stories, in books, films, and video games — as in dreams. In VR, your vocal utterance can have an actual effect like the Weirding Module of Dune (and with physical computing you can do this in physical or blended space as well as in the virtual, but I digress). What is interesting about this from the perspective of considering McLuhan is the idea that (modern) technology at some point in time replaced magic, and now that same technology could facilitate not just magic, and not just real magic, but in some sense specifically atavistic forms of magic, “ye legendarie magicke of olde.”

There is a myth perpetuated in modern Western magic that “in ancient days” humans had truly marvelous powers inherited from gods or space-angels or what have you, that have since atrophied — often in proportion to the waxing of science and technology, or increasing civilization — and which are dangled like a carrot ever just out of reach, as something to be re-attained, or at least aspired to, by the serious student of occult arts. Aspects or varieties of this myth find expression in archaisms and claims to lineage, and often they are related to the equally dubious assumption that so-called primitive peoples are more magical because they are closer to Nature. Contra that is the modern and often urban magician, perhaps exemplified by the chaos (or postmodern) magician, who frames magic as a primarily psychological phenomenon that may be performed as well with a coffee tin as with a silver censer — as Carroll said, “altered states of consciousness are the key to unlocking one’s magical abilities; and […] these abilities can be developed without any symbolic system except reality itself” (Liber Null).

But virtual reality is our egress out of ‘reality itself’, and potentially our ingress into something that is both more like the legendary magic of folklore and fantasy, and also more exaggerated in the sense of Lionel Snell’s “Manifesto of the OTTO [Over-the-Top Occultism],” which is itself a kind of atavism: «What happened to the occult loonies, the hairy mega-thelemites of the late sixties? […] When was the last time you attended a festival thronging with bordello witches, warlocks with long beards and flowing cloaks, all heavy with ankhs, pentagrams, and the trappings of kitschcraft? […] When occultism dissociated itself from the worst excesses of Dennis Wheatley, it castrated itself; for the worst excesses of Dennis Wheatley are where it’s at.» Or as Snell later phrased it in “Paroxysms of Magick”: «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.”»

I maintain there is a dimension to that 800-year-old skull that VR cannot reach, but within what VR can reach is a vast array of fantastic effects that I believe are in many ways superior to just reconstructing a digital copy of your local lodge so you can meet with your fraters, sorors, and sators in cyberspace to act out lower-res forms of familiar ritual. In VR, wizards can shoot lightning from their fingertips, or fireballs from their staves; or draw sparking ward-runes in mid-air with their daggers or their voices; witches can fly to the Sabbat; &c. All manner of sorcery and transmogrification are possible, and virtual content may be combined with verbal, somatic, and material components (yes, I went there) to make for some very play-full serious magic.