Why Chaos Magic?

I am a chaos magician, and without chaos magic — and especially the support of a particular group of chaos magicians with whom I work, largely in private — the “technomancy” stuff I do would likely never have developed beyond some abstract ideas in my head. So I figured I would write a few articles about chaos magic as I see it, for this blog, including addressing some of the common criticisms of chaos magic I have encountered here and there, some of which I suppose are valid.

All magic is about transformation or change, and the power or ability to cause it (magic < magique < magicus < magica < μαγικός < μάγος < megʰ- “to be able, to have power”). Crowley famously defined magic as, “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” (“Magick in Theory and Practice”). Sørensen defined it as, “changing the state or essence of persons, objects, acts and events through certain special and non-trivial kinds of actions with opaque causal mediation” (A Cognitive Theory of Magic). The ability to transmute a problem into a solution is the hallmark of a successful sorcerer. And this is all very cybernetic stuff: requisite variety and knowledge, compensation of perturbations, appropriate selection, &c. — hence my continual coniunctio of cybernetics and sorcery. We cast spells in order to amplify variety in our favor, and we divine in order to select appropriate responses to probable futures, or to attenuate the variety of unknown variables. That is my understanding; your magic may vary.

I believe what chaos magic offers that makes it unique is the possibility of transforming magic itself. Creating novel forms and expressions of magic. Designing new — sometimes radically new, sometimes dangerous, sometimes humorous, but new — magical experiences. All magic offers us the idea — that wonderful, beautiful, hopeful, and terrifying idea — that things may be other than how (or who, what, when, where, why) they appear to be, or have always been. (“The subtext of all magic is, things might not be how they appear. And that means there is hope.”) Chaos magic applies this same idea to magic itself. Indeed, chaos magic need not look like magic at all.

As someone who has studied many different kinds of magic, and practiced several of them; is often contemplating the technology of magic and magic of technology; and who blends magic, technology, and art to innovate experiments in theoretical and applied sorcery, chaos magic feels more like “home” to me than any other kind of magic does. Some people have said that chaos magic is more of an attitude or meta-belief about magic than a kind of magic in itself, but that has not been my experience. Whatever it is that my friends and I do when we gather is extremely diverse across space and time, but also collectively recognizable, identifiable, and distinct from other magical activities I have witnessed or taken part in (including, notably, other things that call themselves “chaos magic”), even if it is difficult to define or describe to people who have not experienced it for themselves. The first time I did it I felt I had “found the others,” and I still feel that way today.

To use a theatre analogy: you can learn classical or traditional performing arts and later go on to do more experimental stuff that bends or breaks some of the rules you learned, or you can begin in experimental theatre. Some will argue the latter is more difficult; others have never known otherwise. You can learn formally or haphazardly, or you can begin performing without ever having taken a lesson. Many people who have practiced eclectic magic and never felt quite at home with any particular category of magic, upon encountering chaos magic they observe, “Hey, I think I’ve been doing chaos magic all along!”

I believe chaos magic is best practiced as the avant-garde of magical arts, or the Jeet Kune Do of magical arts. I believe these sufficiently distinguish chaos magic from experimental or eclectic magic more generally, and while none of these things is as shocking today as when they first appeared on their respective scenes, the radical ideas at their hearts still have value. Bruce’s idea that no martial system can be fit for every circumstance (another example of requisite variety), and that the true art of the martial artist is to express themself freely, detached from the pre(cepts/conceptions/scriptions/&c.) of this or that style — this philosophy is no less valid because mixed martial arts (MMA) became more commercially viable than JKD. And it obstructs no one from pursuing mastery of a traditional martial art, which has its own value. It is just a different thing; one that is valued more highly by some people than others. So it is with chaos magic.

Admittedly, the pursuit of variety and novelty for their own sake can be problematic, possibly preventing maturation or producing dilettantes. I propose two solutions, both of which Bruce had enlightening things to say about. One is the Path of Mastery. Bruce said, “I do not fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Antonin Artaud advocated radically new forms of theatre, but his actors still had to work tirelessly at their craft. Likewise, whatever skills one employs in their magical art, they can strive to master them; this is no less true for chaos magic than any other. The Path of Mastery also indicates mastery of oneself (or selves): “True mastery transcends any particular art. It stems from mastery of oneself —” (The Silent Flute).

The other solution is the Via Negativa — as Jerzy Grotowski said, “not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks” (Towards a Poor Theatre):

The education of an actor in our theatre is not a matter of teaching him something; we attempt to eliminate his organism's resistance to this psychic process. The result is freedom from the time-lapse between inner impulse and outer reaction in such a way that the impulse is already an outer reaction. Impulse and action are concurrent: the body vanishes, burns, and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses.

Or as Bruce put it (“My View on Gung Fu”):

Art is the expression of the self. The more complicated and restrictive a method is, the less opportunity there will be for the expression of one's original sense of freedom! The techniques, though they play an important role in the early stage, should not be too restrictive, complex, or mechanical. If we cling to them we will become bound by their limitations. Remember, you are "expressing" the technique and not "doing" the technique. When someone attacks you it is not technique number one (or is it technique number two, stance two, section four?) that you are doing, but the moment you are "aware" of his attack you simply move in like sound and echo without deliberation. It is as though when I call you, you answer me, or when I throw something to you, you catch it. That's all.

There have been many explanations of what the chaos in chaos magic denotes (including some from the guys who started it, and for the record I very much like the take that the chaos in chaos magic is contradistinct to/from the cosmos in cosmology), and I have no quarrel with most of them; I am content with a multiplicity of meanings. But for me it chiefly indicates the Prima Materia or First Matter of alchemy. Chaos magic does tend to deconstruct, disassemble, and distill things into their basic elements in order that these may be re/combined in novel ways — solve et coagula. Of course, something is always lost or destroyed in that process, and I will address that problem and a few others in future articles in this series.