Feminism, ‘Weird’ Essentialism and 156
This is the second article in a series which gives a précis of material relating to Babalon that has been presented at public lectures in recent years and ongoing research that will form the basis of future publications. It’s felt timely to discuss aspects of her magic that seem to have resisted in-depth investigation and discussion so far, such as clarifying and reforming the ontological position of women within the current, how the path of the Babalon devotee can be developed within a lifelong practice, re-examining the nature of relationship of Babalon with Thelema and investigation into the nature of radical new forms of magical sexuality that may emerge from ‘156’ and this series of articles will expand or diverge from material published elsewhere. Many thanks to Gyrus for pointing me to the Timothy Morton material featured in this piece and am dedicating it albeit belatedly to the recent international women’s day
Feminism, ‘Weird’ Essentialism and 156
‘Bodies have all the explanatory power of minds’. Elizabeth Grosz
Arguably, the most definitive aspect of Babalon as a Thelemic goddess has been her representation as an avatar of sexual freedom. However, the potential of the 156 current as a vehicle of revolutionary sexuality has been limited by the predominantly binary, patriarchal, models of gender and sexuality inherent within the Western Magical Tradition. Thus, I’d like to emphasize that the working definition of Babalon herein is that she is regarded as an entity that represents and embodies a wholly inclusive magical sexuality, completely open to all individuals on the gender spectrum and inclusive of every sexual orientation. As such, I feel that a concern of contemporary practitioners within the 156 current should be an ongoing discourse on how magical models of sexuality and gender relate to wider social expressions and evolution. The 156 current is regarded by many magical practitioners as a transgressive and challenging force and it’s important to identify where the current is behind or ahead of the curve to keep it evolving. Thankfully, in recent history, much of the taboo surrounding sexuality has been challenged and there is an increasing acknowledgment of the inherent fluidity of gender and erotic expression. At the same time, an increasing articulacy with the ‘virtuality’ of sexuality as a dynamic, psychic, dimension of consciousness is commonplace in contemporary discourse on art, psychology, transhumanism and studies on gender and sexuality. However, there is a darker aspect to this virtual sexuality, which in its valorisation of an abstract, disembodied Eros has the potential to negate the sacred immanence of the lived body. More specifically, it can undermine the position of women as can often be seen in the reductive sexualisation and representation of women and the prevalence of misogyny within in our increasingly ‘disembodied’ culture. This brings us to another core element of 156 that is crucial to this discourse, in that I believe magical embodiment practices are essential to her formulas. Perhaps this position may seem dated or at odds with the zeitgeist to those who believe we may already be reaching a stage where the virtual is superseding the physical in terms of human evolution and this has mixed implications for the development of magical forms of sexuality.
Whilst the virtuality of anti-essentialism and its arguments against sexual specificity may challenge prejudice and is useful in breaking down the limitations of gender roles. The negation of corporeality within the seemingly inevitable evolution of virtual consciousness is potentially disastrous, sabotaging the germinal sparks of new forms of sexual intelligence that have arisen since the occult revival and rise of feminism, to which women are making important contributions. If women are not given the opportunity to develop these hitherto latent magical qualities in the physical dimension, I believe it will have a devastating effect on humanity as a whole. Therefore, arguably, the ‘156’ as representing an embodied magical sexuality that reforms the magical position of women, is not behind but ahead of the theoretical and cultural curve, because it represents a movement that has not yet existed on the planet. Therefore, although the battle for everyone’s rights to sexual immanence can be properly placed under her auspices, from here I must by necessity focus largely upon questioning the nature of women’s subjectivity and agency within the current.
Any enquiry into contemporary, magical sexuality is incomplete without consideration of feminist theory and I’m very much in agreement with Pollock’s stance expanded later in this piece, that feminism is the ‘greatest revolution in thought of the (20th) century’ and as such my position and body of work must inevitably be a Post-Thelemic/Post-Feminist one and it’s through this lens that orientation of the search for an authentic practice has been undertaken, although as we will see this is not without its problems and contradictions. I believe that the Babalon current will progress through the development of increasingly sophisticated embodiment practices. However, this is a term that is rather loaded in terms of gender theory and sexual politics and so this post will start to explore how the female body exists within 156 and how Babalon’s magic represents new forms of sexuality that incorporate embodiment practices within a wider metasexual or pansexual framework. The terms signifying a sexuality that has unlimited potential for expression that creates erotic border spaces between all forms of sentience and the planetary and stellar macrocosm. The intersections between sexuality and ecology are being explored within post-humanist, artistic and theoretical spheres such as Sprinkle’s ‘Ecosexuality’ and Morton’s ‘Queer Ecology’. But what I would particularly like to focus on is how the agency and being of women involved in sex magical praxis may be supported or undermined by such ideas and how the 156 represents a movement that venerates a combination of both somatic gnosis and psychic consciousness within a magical practice that can be negated by some post-human and anti-essentialist theories.
Despite the fact that there has been such a short period of relative freedom in the West for women to consider what the person-hood of ‘woman’ actually means; it often seems that as well as the general gender inequalities that still exist at a cultural/ political level, further investigation into women’s sacred sexuality is in danger of being derailed by a schism between so-called essentialist and anti-essentialist movements in feminism. These are movements that have more than a marginal influence on contemporary thinking about sex, gender and magical practice and conflicts in these ideas inevitably highlight core issues that I feel should be explored within the 156 community. Irigaray’s statement that ‘the question of sexual difference is the question of our epoch’ has largely been ignored in favour of anti-essentialist paradigms that valorise the fluid, psychic spaces of gender and sexuality over the realities of the sexed body.
Magical systems and related schema tend to use either male anatomy or non-gender specific frameworks as the template for practices, yet this still leaves the intransigent question of the female lived body hanging outside of any inclusive, rigorous magical theorization. An epistemic void which negates sexual difference and how the bio-erotic and phenomenological characteristics of female magical consciousness may be fully developed. Theories and Practices that have that do include female biological processes and schema often have many problematical areas that one must negotiate. Sexual magic requires the most sophisticated interaction between soma and psyche and the fractures that exist between these because of cultural and historical influences, sabotage the harmonious development of their integration both within the individual and in interaction with others.
Inevitably in attempting to create an authentic magical practice as a woman, many conflicts arise. Over the last decades, I have encountered many problematical intersections between my personal Post-Crowleyan interpretation of the Babalon current, more orthodox consensus on Babalon and Sex magic, feminist critical theory and contemporary, multidisciplinary discourse on sexuality, phenomenology, consciousness studies and ecology. Historical esoteric texts are a minefield of distortion and partiality due to the absence of women and contemporary discourse on sexuality including feminism often seems to perpetuate this negation of women by erasing the realities of the ‘lived body’ to avoid perceived limitations caused by ‘biological determinism’. Thus, one may find oneself somehow doubly marginalized and it often feels very out of step to insist on going deeper into the flesh within embodiment practices rather than retreating from it into virtuality and abstracting/negating its essence. Yet this is exactly what I believe the 156 current represents in its focus on deep somatic engagement within magical consciousness, which must inevitably be influenced by one’s biological reality. I want to quote this statement made by Griselda Pollock in 2007 in full here as I feel it is still relevant and incredibly important in driving the conversation further…
‘We need to seek the poetic, creative, transformative model that will not imperialistically or phallically replace its other(s), but shift and supplement, allowing the generative play of masculine and feminine as principles of structural, sexual differences, not mirrors of each other in some dumb and ultimately asymmetrical equality. The feminine has been so censored that even feminists are afraid to think about it; insisting on only the social gender, women stand by and allow feminism, the greatest revolution in thought of the century to be put in the waste bin of past -their- sell-by-date fashions’
Arguably, not much progress has been made since Elizabeth Grosz published ‘Volatile Bodies’ in 1994, in which she challenges assumptions about the body shared both by European mainstream philosophy and feminist theory. In terms of mainstream theorists, she considers how although many have contributed ‘crucial ingredients for an understanding of sexual difference …it is significant that none of them has specifically devoted himself to developing a theory of the body’. Grosz further questions how theories on corporeality produced by Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari have little of help in understanding corporeal, sexual difference and indeed that ‘none seem aware that the specificities of the female body remain unexplained’. This lack of acknowledgment of the specificity of women’s bodies and experience continues to the present. In terms of magical systems, Grosz’s statement that ‘Only when the relation between body and mind is adequately re-theorized can we understand the contribution of the body to the production of knowledge systems…’ is crucial. If women are to develop autonomous modes of self-understanding and positions from which to challenge existing knowledge systems and paradigms, the specific nature and integration (or lack of it) of the female body and female subjectivity and its similarities to and differences from men’s bodies needs to be articulated. Logically all pieces of the territory must be equally understood before any authentic interchange is possible between us all within the erotic cartography of sexual magic.
Pollock looks to Bracha Ettingers ‘Matrixial Sphere’ as a concept which has much promise as a potential opening for a specific feminine sacred and generating knowledge systems in which one may encounter the feminine as both an inclusive and specific quality. ‘A transcendence of the subject–object interval which is not a fusion, since it is based on a-priori shareability in difference’. I would argue that the magic of Babalon shares this potential and contrary to Pollock’s dismissal of the feminist longing for the goddess as a nostalgic escapism and ‘manufactured archaicisms’. I would argue that the goddess can represent much more than this, as a multidimensional matrix that enables retrieval of a profound feminine psychic and somatic subjectivity in which one may explore magical dimensions of both alterity and symbiosis. It is within 156 that we may find some distinctive magical dimension of an active ‘feminine sacred’ that is only implicit within Ettinger’s model which is used predominantly in social, psychoanalytical and art theorization.
The magic of Babalon can I believe make a huge contribution to producing much-needed knowledge systems that bring the experiences of female sexuality and corporeality into complex somatic/metaphysical spaces. Yet an emphasis on exploring and expressing the magical and sexual specificity of female lived body is not at all in conflict with utopian impulses towards wider evolutionary shifts which will produce new expressions of human sexuality. Indeed, the remit of the 156 is to encompass all aspects of sexuality as a dynamic, protean movement that elevates and integrates all elements of Eros both mundane and cosmic. Such discourse is inextricably enmeshed with a discussion of gender, essentialism/anti-essentialism, equality and even ecology. Therefore next I’d like to go further into the sexual territory of 156 and introduce what I perceive to be interesting additions to a discussion on sexual specificity and anti-essentialism/essentialism debate and the implications for theorization on the new sexuality presented by the work of Timothy Morton.
‘To contemplate ecology’s unfathomable intimacies is to imagine pleasures that are not heteronormative, not genital, not geared to ideologies about where the body stops and starts. Perhaps this is why mysticisms contain reserves of unthought zones of materiality.’ Timothy Morton.
It’s often argued in gender theory that specificity cannot be established ‘without violence’ i.e. without limiting the agency of individuals and compromising the multiplicity and inherent fluidity of gender and sexual orientation. This has been a core argument within the anti-essentialist movement but it has also had the effect as already highlighted of erasing the female lived body. One could counter that by deconstructing and destabilizing the physical/psychic integrity of an individual/organism by assuming that it is limited by its biology and psycho-physical ecology, thus inhibiting its participation and agency within a wider cultural-ecological system is also a form of violence?
So, how is it possible then to develop a sex-magical practice that both acknowledges the fluidity of the psychic spaces of gender and sexuality within all individuals without losing the inherent ‘isness’ of the fleshly gnosis of one’s biological reality? To achieve this one has to zoom out into what can be described as the cosmic sexuality of the 156 current. Exemplified by the image of Babalon gathering the ALL into her cup, vividly illustrated by ATU.XI. in Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Deck. A mysterium which points to a practice in which one experiences an unparalleled fluidity, interrelationship and ecstatic engagement with all aspects of sentience. This represents a vastly expanded paradigm of sexuality that is grounded in the visceral, sexual irruption of the magico-erotic responses of the lived body, which creates a new erotic-corporeal language, a heightened and magical interaction between human and non-human life.
In such a practice one is simultaneously rooted in the prima materia of one’s being and a liminal, fluidic space of intercommunion in which one’s structural integrity is open to transformation. One is in the words of Irigaray, ‘Neither one nor two’. The simultaneity of these states is the basis of the sex-magical processes that are at the core of 156. As the conscious transformation of being using sexual energy, that works through the psyche and soma in syzygy, the one cannot be transformed without the other. The formulas of 156 express practices that are grounded in the ‘lived body’ and a fluid psychic omnisexual space which can be accessed by all. However,because the practices do inevitably include the experiences of the lived body, it is here that aspects of specificity are inescapable. Arguably, it is how we value these biological signifiers that is the problem rather than the insistence of the flesh itself and unfortunately, the laudable goals of anti-essentialism seem to have had the effect of deconstructing and devaluing the lived body, abstracting its reality and influence upon consciousness.
One’s destiny is by no means ‘fixed’ by one’s biological reality but from a magical/alchemical perspective it does provides the prima materia, the cornucopia of a sublime, transformational substance and apparatus from which we all orient our passage through life. The narrative of anti-essentialism seems to be that any impact of biology on the lives of women is limiting as it reinforces limiting archetypes and hinders participation in some notion of the wider world? But there is something profound missing here, in that the world itself is simply not balanced and accommodating to women and alternative forms of society that might arise from accommodating the realities of women’s lives in a more inclusive way. Morton suggests that movements such as Eco-feminism in some ways overcompensated for this imbalance by promoting a form of exclusivity that equated women with ‘nature’. However, it’s undeniable that possibilities for a more female friendly society have been subsumed within technological advances and the vast inequalities that still exist remain largely unchallenged. In terms of sex magical paradigms, if one extends the exploration of 156 beyond polarity/ heterosexual practices that have defined it thus far, one approaches ideas about essentialism/anti-essentialism that go beyond orthodox ‘gender theory’ and extend boundaries regarding sexual difference and into a much wider, post-human arena.
Some of the philosophical ground which challenges some of the current dichotomies created by the essentialist/anti-essentialist positions can be found in Timothy Morton’s ‘Weird Essentialism’ and ‘Queer Ecology’. Morton explores Irigaray’s notion of women as ‘unthought’ beings i.e. entities that exist outside of Patriarchal and what he terms ‘agrilogistic’ conventions and applies this as a device for thinking about sentience and Ecological systems. For Irigaray an irreducible subjectivity is attributed to each sex, a mystery and ‘radical difference’ which is engaged in a third space of intersubjectivity, an ambiguous in-between state of oscillation between I and ‘not I’ that preserves both an individual state and symbioses with an ‘other’. Morton promulgates what he calls a ‘Weird Essentialism’, extending Irigaray’s concepts regarding intersubjectivity into his construct of a ‘Queer Ecology’. Morton’s notion of the ‘weird’ or ‘queer’ aspects of the biosphere toys with philosophical rationalism and also acknowledges the “reserves of unthought zones of materiality in mysticism” and examines the paradox of being that confronts the laws of non-contradiction.
Morton proposes that the ideas of Irigaray can be used to conceptualise not only a wide variety of sexualities and gender identities but can also inspire one to reject what he calls the ‘philosophy of presence’, the predominant agrilogistic/phallocentric models of reality that has driven human thinking for millennia for the more inclusive loops of ‘weird essentialism’. Morton emphasizes the importance of recognizing how many parts of a system cohere to create forms of sentience that like women have been part of a rejected or ‘unthought’ category of life, thus defining states that are both fluid and yet also possess essential qualities as ‘life forms’. Applying this paradoxical theory to ecology and sexuality/gender is both innovative and useful and intersects with the magical theory of 156 most succinctly.
The sexuality of 156 has the potential to generate many such radical new, unthought realms of erotic exploration. To support this, the dynamic, magical matrices of creative interpenetration must allow a means of orientation, agency and production to all participating subjects, necessitating a strategic magical essentialism. The denial of difference also erases the essential mystery that an ‘other’ contains and by extension could be argued erases the joyousness within the sexual impulse. However, it is perhaps much more valuable to see the essentialist/anti-essentialist positions not as antithetical but rather part of a challenge to negotiate much more complex forms of sexual interrelationship that value equally the contribution each embodied form makes to the prima material of the work. Acknowledging the unique qualities and ever changing ‘assemblage’ of psychic and physical properties that each individual possesses and the exponential complexities that their commingling produces. Thus, in terms of the female sacred one can say that women are both real, that is to say, have an essential quality and still retain an essential ‘isness’ as a specific life form as Morton has it but also that ‘woman’ is also simultaneously a fluid, and inclusive psychic space and form of perception with infinite meaning. Within the practices of 156, the multiplicity of life forms are perceived as being in a multidimensional copulation with each other, a tapestry of omnisexual engagement that has both physical and psychic dimensions.
Morton’s ‘Queer Ecology’ deconstructs the concept of nature as being an artificial perceptual construct that inevitably creates an artificial relationship with the planetary biosphere. In tandem with anti-essentialist feminist theory, he dissolves the gender barrier and hierarchical privilege given to binary relationships of male/female and heterosexuality and takes this further by considering the many forms of sexuality that are displayed in the natural world. Morton affirms the symbiotic nature of all life forms both organic and non-organic, affirming that ‘At the DNA level, the biosphere is permeable and boundary-less:’ and further that ‘life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving,’
Morton successfully navigates and unites many aspects of the essentialist/anti-essentialist schism within his paradoxical loop of ‘weird essentialism’, also affirming that the boundaryless ‘mesh’ would also have no dynamic structure without the individual integrity of the life forms that hold it together, but what is the nature of this integrity? Do we as individual life forms reduce down to nothing? Here we arrive back to the inherent contradiction of being, do we exist or not? Open-ended mesh that we are, we are not simultaneously life forms with an individual psycho-physical integrity that develops over time? So, even if we remain suspended in the paradoxical loop of ‘queer essentialism’. I must here also invoke Morton’s speculation on mysticism’s ‘reserves of unthought zones of materiality’ and suggest that magical sexuality provides mechanisms for such unthought zones to manifest and break down barriers between human and non-human sentience and that by limiting the potential any given physical life form by denying its unique bio-essence and individuality within the boundaryless mesh the whole biosphere is diminished. This applies to women but also equally to all humans and non-human entities.
HIEROS GAMOS 156
A reformed vision of Babalon’s magic/156 current is a thus movement that actively seeks to unite many divisions created by essentialism/anti-essentialism through a strategic magical essentialism. In practice through reformed rites of ‘Hieros Gamos. There is not the space to explore what such practices would encompass here, but the key is found in the Ophidan lifeforce/Teth and the bridge to omnisexual union that may be found in DNA. The ‘new sexuality’ of the 156 is distinctive from other magical approaches to sexuality through its addition of feminine initiatory, alchemical practices to the wider magical corpus. It offers a means to resolve many of the conflicts generated within the spectrum of essentialist/anti-essentialist theories of Pollock, Grosz, Irigaray, Ettinger and Morton. Babalon’s magic as an embodiment practice adds a somatic layer to Irigaray’s ‘langue feminine’ which is conveyed inclusively through psychic spaces and also by expressing the nuances of a voice sculpted by women’s magical experiences in the lived body. Each life form has an essential or definitive aspect of its substance at a given moment in time, a unique combination of DNA and life experience that intersects with a fluid layer of mutability and evolutionary growth. The binary nature of existence then is not defined by 156 and queer ecology as male/female but a biphasic ‘loop’ or borderland of bio-physical/psychic essence and fluidity and the embodied ground from which one interacts with all sentience and the biosphere, extending sexuality beyond the human gender spectrum and in keeping with this the new sexuality may combine the alchemical quintessence of the All.
Perhaps such ideas that advocate a deep immersion in the soma, a retreat into flesh will be dismissed as regressive in the current post-human momentum that is pushing our evolution, i.e. that version of post- humanism as associated with virtuality and technological advancement rather than Morton’s vision of a post-human, mutual interdependence of planetary life forms that blurs the distinction between man and ‘nature’, life and non-life. However, I believe we are in dire need of systems and practices, that widen perceptions of sexuality as experienced in meta or pansexual spaces as well as within hitherto unformulated explorations of embodiment practices. To return to the opening quote by Grosz, above all, it seems important to try and rescue the wisdom of soma from the abstraction and biases of gender politics and posthumanism and prevent the misrepresentation and erasure of the female body. The 156 current represents a vehicle that would nurture greater understanding and balance between the All, a fundamental equilibrating erotic force that supports new practices that encourages the development of feminine magical languages and erotic, phenomenological spaces that are both specific, distinctive and shared.
‘THE SACRED AND THE FEMININE Imagination and Sexual Difference’
Edited by Griselda Pollock and Victoria Turvey Sauron.
‘VOLATILE BODIES – Towards a corporeal feminism’
Elizabeth Grosz. India University Press.
‘ENGAGING WITH IRIGARAY’
Edited By Burke, Schor and Whitford.
Columbia University Press.
‘THE MARKS OF TETH.
Amodali. Three Hands Press. Forthcoming Publication.
‘THE MATRIXIAL BORDERSPACE’
‘THIS BIOSPHERE WHICH IS NOT ONE: Towards Weird Essentialism’
Timothy Morton. The Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 2015
‘QUEER ECOLOGY’ – Timothy Morton