A pre-conference for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religions in Chicago, on Friday November 16, 2012, presented by Phoenix Rising Academy and DePaul University.
In his classic essay, “Walking in the City,” ethnologist and historian Michel de Certeau distinguished between the “exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive” that comes from viewing the city from a high vantage point and the quotidian negotiations of the walker at street level, who creates his or her own map, takes shortcuts and resists the strategies of typical urban planning.
One perspective is totalizing and distancing, constructing an illusory, unified view of the metropolis, while the other seeks out hidden avenues of knowledge and intersections of stories, myths, and happenings. The occultist tends to shift between both views, sometimes spinning grand narratives of the city as a New Atlantis, a utopian civilization of knowledge and wonder, other times imagining a secret world of dark mysteries, unknown to most passersby, that lay just beyond the twilight of the streetlamps.
Many esotericists, conspiracy theorists, and urban fantasy authors have speculated on the occult meaning of symbols, monuments, and architecture in major cities, from Cleopatra’s Needle in London to the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. Or they see powerful sigils in the neon signs, building facades and billboards. Some speak of urban ley lines and “energy centers” that bubble with occult power ready to be tapped into by those with the right sense and ability. These energy centers are focused on geometric street patterns or the lines created by the placement of sacred sites in the city, such as churches, temples, and cemeteries. Others speak of haunted places, charged with story and legend, often full of the sense of violence, trauma and the urgency of events that occurred there.
Historically, cities have been home to countless esoteric groups who have met, planned, and conducted ritual within the towering buildings that glitter the metropolitan skyline.
For instance, Chicago, the location of this year’s AAR conference, was once the home of the 32 floor Masonic Building, owned by the Illinois Freemasons, and the tallest building in the world in 1892. Prominent figures in the esoteric world have spoken, performed and offered their wisdom to the masses through the many salons, lectures, performances, congregations, conferences, and world’s fairs that have been either publicly advertised or available only to those with the right password and invitation.
Cities are where the ideas of Western esotericism spread to the masses through these public events and the many urban publishing houses. Cities are also home to public events and happenings that connect the esoteric, the theatrical and the political world through protest and public actions and happenings, such as the W.I.T.C.H. protests at Chicago’s Federal Building on Halloween 1969.
Finally, cities are centers of diversity and diaspora and often become hothouses for the development of hybrid traditions based on immigrant cultures, such as Santeria and Vodun. For scholars of magick and esotericism, cities like Chicago can offer up rich resources for tracking group activities and events through library archives and public records.
Understanding occult life in the city, in both its historical and contemporary contexts, is crucial in mapping the proliferation of ideas and connections between practitioners and traditions. Popular practical texts have addressed how the practice of magick changes in an urban setting, especially when the magician or witch must adapt a nature-centered practice to a city-based practice.
nvestigating esoteric actions in the city can reveal the ways in which the practitioner is caught up and complicit with strategic structures of power while also offering possibilities for the occultist to resist those structures through the kind of tactical, magical moves described by de Certeau. As the Occupy movement and other political protests proliferate, especially in America’s election year, what are the possibilities for harnessing and directing the energy of the occult city?
Phoenix Rising Academy would like to explore these intersections of the esoteric and the urban, focusing on the city as a locus for power and knowledge, both hidden and revealed. Are cities oppressive entities that stifle creative and esoteric drives or do they hold in their structures the potential for powerful action? To this end, we invite scholars and practitioners to submit proposals for papers, presentations, rituals and performances that address these questions pertaining to the occult city.
Though our focus is primarily on American cities, particularly Chicago, we welcome explorations in other prominent global metropolitan centers. For this pre-conference, we plan on creating 2-3 panels of papers, presentations, performances, rituals, workshops, roundtables, or discussion groups.
Possible topics may include (but are not limited to)
• The activities of certain groups, traditions, and communities, both historical and contemporary, in particular cities.
• The city life of prominent esoteric figures and how that city life shaped their ideas and practices. · Particular events, meetings, lectures, performances, happenings, protests whose urban setting featured prominently in their execution and influence.
• The mythology of the occult city, based on legend, occult symbolism, and esoteric symbolism of architecture and urban planning.
• A practical approach to working magick and ritual in the city, perhaps based on Urban Shamanism or Chaos Magick.
• Interpretations of the city and its occult power by urban fantasy authors.
• The intersections of the occult and the political through the use of ritualized protest actions, focusing on setting and urban scene.
• Though not focusing on hauntings per se, an investigation of spiritualism, mysticism and psychic practices prominent in urban settings.
• A study of how hereditary or hybridized indigenous practices survive, evolve and adapt in an urban setting.
With your submission, please include the following: Presenter information (name, mailing and email addresses, phone number) Type of presentation (paper, non-paper presentation, workshop, performance, roundtable).
Note: if you are proposing a roundtable discussion, please submit info for all participants. Title and affiliation (institution, organization, independent scholar, or practitioner). Proposal or abstract (not to exceed 250 words). Should include title of presentation and a clear description of the presentation’s intent, plus any audio/visual needs. Biographical data (not to exceed 200 words).
Please email all submissions by August 20th to Dr. Jason L. Winslade, DePaul University, email@example.com. Please include “PRA Pre-Conference” in the subject line. All submissions will be reviewed and you will be notified of a decision one week after the deadline