"I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter" — James Baldwin
"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it." — Roald Dahl

Magic in metamodern times

June 17, 2024

As of September 2024, the first MA degree in Magic and the Occult will be offered by Exeter University. Alas, there are no charms or potions classes; instead, the schedule reflects a rising interest in folklore and traditional sources of knowledge. Some of the offered courses include: Magic in Ancient Greece and Rome, folklore, and the history of science and medicine. The selection of courses reflects a larger societal shift towards epistemologies permeated by ideas some would name traditional knowledge, and others, new age mysticism. But why are we so bewitched by magic in the 21st century? Perhaps this program in Magic and the Occult is being fueled by an increasingly volatile world, a search for a better connection to nature's rhythms, and a wish for increased self-sufficiency. In this context we flick the wand of magical thinking to restore our feelings of agency.

Why now? The drop of the domino 

The collective experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated and problematized the general disconnectedness between humans and nature. When forced to live the reality of isolation stemming from a primarily digital life, the importance of embodied community, resilience and genuine human connection became all the more poignant. In the Global North, this feeling added to an ongoing tendency of decreased organized religion memberships and a growing concern for the environment, leading ultimately to a search for spiritual belief systems that provide a sense of connection to nature. 

Furthermore, many 'witchy' pursuits align with prominent contemporary frameworks such as post-humanism, postcolonialism and feminism. All of these lines of thought invite the exploration and incorporation of alternative ways of thinking and being; which embrace relational ontologies and highlight the interconnectedness of all forms of life. This is a welcome sight when living the contradiction of, on one hand, having the promises of technocracy and personal autonomy, and on the other, the alienating and lonely reality of a life actually guided by these principles. We're living in the information age and the result is a presumption that everything is knowable. However, in times of crisis, life can seem nonsensical and the idea of knowing everything starts sounding arrogant, and even a little boring. 

Brewing in the shadows

In a time of mass extinction, one could believe that witches are an endangered species. However, in the margins of society, witchcraft has never vanished, but silently crept from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, the practice has long been threatened — the fear of inquisition trials might be in the past, but the fear of ridicule isn't. Anyone claiming to practice magic is vulnerable to general mockery and perhaps even the status of social pariah. Nevertheless, that somehow doesn't keep us from knocking on wood, making wishes when blowing out birthday candles or even checking our horoscopes from time to time. In the book The Myth of Disenchantment, Jason Josephson-Storm challenges the modern notion that science has replaced magic and instead investigates how it came to be that humanity, especially the Western portion of it, came to believe in the myth of being 'post-mystical'. 

What now?

It's official, rationality is passé — the cool kids are now endorsing a postrationalist turn, which aims to reintroduce to our priority lists the less quantifiable elements of what it means to live a good life. The times call for something new, something outside of the box, something exciting — and that's a call magic is all too happy to answer. The approach to 'magical thinking' we see on the rise is utilitarian at its core, focusing on what one could gain from it, rather than any underlying belief systems and its claim to truth. It appears that in times of 'post-truth' whether people actually believe in the colorful concepts of the occult is not acutely relevant. But after all: What could one gain from associating with the supernatural? Firstly, interest, the 'je ne sais quois' factor — people seem more interesting if they are out of the ordinary. Secondly, we have the 'nothing to lose factor' — without the fear of godly rath or devilish temptation associated with magic the worst possible outcome of the pursuit of 'witchcraft' or adjacent practices is superfluity. 

Fundamentally, humans crave the supernatural, be it fairies or aliens. The common phrase 'reality beats fiction' rings particularly true as discussions get progressively weirder on Reddit, cryptozoology (the search for Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot for example) goes viral on TikTok and NASA tries to rebrand UFOs (they are called UAP now, unidentified anomalous phenomena). If this movement seems all over the place, it's because it is, as are all things online. The phenomenon is amorphous and ever-moving, creeping along backchannel networks of private group chats, slithering through Discord servers and lurking in Zoom rooms. The inhabitants of these liminal spaces?– the metatribe. Who exactly comprises the metatribe is hard to say, what they do have in common is their concern with bridging the gap between mental and embodied life.

Why should I care?

The discussions and conversations flourishing in the liminal web are relevant insofar as these narratives have power to shape our worldview, and consequently the world itself. After all, rationalists and postrationalists alike agree on the generative powers humans, and in particular the narratives we create, have on the world around us. For instance, one of the functions of legend in society is to capture and cope with culture-wide fears and anxieties. Folklore is a defining characteristic of humanity and mutates along with it; nowadays originating and disseminating through the internet, leading to creatures such as Slenderman becoming pop culture staples. One of the big sources of appeal of folklore (the lore of the folk) is the shared sense of community created through the act of sharing stories around the fire, literally or metaphorically — a ritual as ancient and powerful as magic itself. 

In the effort to visualize our connections and consequent co-created reality, the artistic collective UVA created the installation Synchronicity, which explores through the ways in which we are all intertwined, including the ways in which we are connected through digital life. One piece illustrates beautifully the process of folklore creation: it shows the most common word combinations on search engines, linking collective online activity to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, the psychic space inhabited by humanity's shared experiences, memories and symbols. Could AI actually be a manifestation of the collective unconscious, as it reflects the imaginary of humanity? Or, is it rather a type of collective consciousness comprising an 'average' opinion informed by a data basis of knowledge? 

The moral of the story

One more of Jung's concepts is trending at the moment — 'shadow work' — a quest towards making oneself whole by embracing the shadow as well as the light; the irrational as well as the rational. Perhaps the rising interest in magic and the occult is a reflection of humanity engaging in its 'shadow work' and going ahead on its road toward self-improvement. After all, as a society, we are obsessed with the idea of manifesting our best selves. Plus, it feels good to be powerful.  

Series 'AI Metaphors'

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1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Victória Ferreira interned at FreedomLab while completing her Master's in Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In her research and writing, Victoria nurtures her expertise in the field she loves most: culture. She investigates how objects and art tell stories and write history, especially when it comes to fashion and heritage.

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