Like the multitude of beliefs and practices it refers to, the occult is a very indeterminate term. Broadly it encompasses activities “involving or relating to mystical, supernatural, or magical powers, practices, or phenomena”, but it also means to hide from view, as an eclipse hides the sun. In medicine, an occult illness is one without any visible symptoms, a mysterious illness that eludes prognosis. The occult is a catch-all for forces not seen, activities unsanctioned, powers not formally recognised. Folk practices, ritual magick, radical acts of otherness.
As a term, the occult feels somewhat archaic. In as far as it evokes dark covens and rituals, it brings to mind the imagery of premodern, preindustrial beliefs. Certainly, it is no longer threatening, it no longer conveys strength or supernatural power. It is hard to imagine a fear of the occult driving a continent-wide international policy of arrests, trials and executions – that is now the purview of the endless war on terror. Instead, the occult is child’s play – the stuff of fairy-tales and superhero villains.
Looking back to the medieval fear of the occult does however shed light on the social structure of that time. Studying what made the occult groups so intimidating can show us what alternative communities opposing hegemonic power look like. By studying how the occult gave up the ghost, we can see how the mechanisms of power have shifted under modern capitalism.
Eugene Thacker’s In The Dust of this Planet takes a trip down into six circles of horror fiction, exploring different intensities of the same very human obsession with threats from the unknown, fears of the dark, and otherness. But what starts as a circle, the magic circle, melts into a primordial oily ooze. Fear of the unconsecrated and heretical is here boiled down to a deep, pressing fear of the supernatural powers of nature, that the earth will open up and swallow us whole.
Out of this study, a set of dichotomies emerge that frame and contextualise these fears: church/heretic, science/supernatural, self/other, inside/out, hidden/revealed. Each tension reflects cosmologies that are at the base of the set of world-views and hegemonic ideologies that conscripted the social fabric of European culture for the last millennium.
In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici charts these same cosmologies as they coalesce at the genesis of capitalism. Federici views the birth of capitalism as a failure to thoroughly address the inequalities of feudalism. Land rights, labour rights, and women’s rights form a triumvirate in this history, forcing the groundswell of civil unrest that oppressive systems inevitably produce:
From the vantage point of this struggle, we can also see that capitalism was not the product of an evolutionary development bringing forth economic forces that were maturing in the womb of the old order. Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict, that in the end, shook their power, and truly gave "all the world a big jolt.” Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle - possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment thathas marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism "evolved" from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.
The rigid power structure of feudal Europe produced opposition between those on top and those below – the church and nobility against tenant peasants, artisans & day-labourers, and women. Women’s access to land, work and freedom during this period were all but non-existent, so communities of women living together in urban centres rose in response. As Federici points out, it is no accident that witches are typically portrayed as women, that 80% of those murdered by the brutal witch-hunts of the inquisition were women. The witch-hunts were an attempt to neutralise the political threat from unmarried women doing their own thing and living alone beyond the need from the church or gentry. That covens of women living outside the church community form the prototypical definition of the occult is very telling. That the occult was and is linked to feminine power speaks to its radical importance.
Its association with the supernatural and heretical grew out of the power dynamics of medieval Europe dominated by the extrajudicial superstate of the Catholic church. Threatened by the Protestant Reformation, heretical beliefs were at any given time whatever the church deemed outside the canon. During the Christianisation of northern Europe and after, this meant any number of age-old religious pagan rites alongside transient folk rituals. Delineating these rituals as heretical, the church forced them underground and into hiding; forbidden, clandestine, performed amongst the trees and at night.
Curiously, now that capitalism has grown to swallow the whole world, a strange inversion seems to have taken place. The optics of power relations have changed: those in power have stepped back from view behind complex systems surveillance and legal apparatus that renders those below are more visible than ever. Capitalism as a power structure manages to put a lot more water between the ruling classes and those at the bottom, muddying that water wherever possible. The vastness of global supply chains, the legalese of state bureaucracy, the automation of global finance; all have the effect of obfuscating power and subverting accountability. The seat of power now is no place. So where can anyone go to protest and rebel?
Thacker poses the question:
What happens to the concept of politics once one confronts the possibility that the world only reveals its hiddenness, in spite of the attempts to render it as a world-for-us, either via theology (sovereign God, sovereign king) or via science (the organismic analogy of the state)?
I have recently moved to Vilnius to do a residency at Rupert. Here I hope to explore how new folk practices and rituals could form in opposition to the increasingly covert power structures: the automation of bureaucracy, financialisation technology, and big data surveillance. Through the lens of the occult, I’m hoping to see how communal acts of ritual togetherness could empower new dissidence.
To quote Donna Haraway:
The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.