The Next Generation

Recently I have been making the argument (see here, and cf. my article Textbooks and Introductions to Western Esotericism, Religion 43:2 [2013]) that the academic study of Western esotericism was upgraded around 1992 from its somewhat primitive starting phase (“Western esotericism 1.0”) to a much more professional program (“Western esotericism 2.0”), and that after twenty years it’s now time for a serious new upgrade to “Western esotericism 3.0”. The original program from the 1970s and 80s was inspired by an often implicit and sometimes explicit critique of the “modern world” that reflected a profound nostalgia for pre-Enlightenment worldviews. Hence esotericism tended to be perceived, in highly positive terms, as an enchanted holistic “form of thought” that was dominated, in the influential terms of Antoine Faivre, by correspondences (rather than instrumental causality), living nature (rather than dead mechanicism), imagination and mediations (rather than abstract reason and materialism), and the potential for spiritual transmutation or interior rebirth (rather than the sober assumption that we are just what we are). Among the important advances of Western esotericism 2.0 was that it broke with this anti-modern background agenda by recognizing a wide variety of post-Enlightenment esotericisms as equally important and worthy of investigation as their pre-Enlightenment ancestors. While Faivre’s definition has remained influential through the 1990s and into the next century, there was henceforth plenty of room for the study of “modernized” or (in my own terms of the mid-1990s) “secularized” forms of esotericism. Nevertheless, this process of bringing the study of esotericism “up to the present” still isn’t entirely complete: as argued by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm in their important new volume Contemporary Esotericism (2013) there is still a tendency among scholars towards ignoring or marginalizing the popular contemporary scene, along with a tendency of focusing exclusively on historical methods at the expense of the social sciences. They are right that this bias needs to be corrected: after all, if we agree that esotericism as a field of research extends from late antiquity to our own time, then stopping just short of the contemporary scene is simply arbitrary.
Consisting of twenty chapters subdivided into four parts, this 470-page volume covers a wide variety of subjects: from influential and/or controversial currents or topics such as chaos magick, satanism, scientology, deep ecology, entheogenic shamanism, indigo children, Paulo Coelho’s bestsellers, alternative healing, and the new age, to highly relevant but still partly underestimated dimensions of the field such as race, gender, secrecy, politics, the internet, and popular culture. And even that is just a partial sample: it is easy to imagine a sequel covering many additional angles or dimensions, for instance the presence of esotericism or the occult in rock, metal, or avant-garde music, in comics, in role playing or video gaming, in movies, in art, in novels (from high literature to pulp fiction) or poetry, or in popular psychology. The potential seems even more overwhelming if one considers how many new religious movements are grounded in esoteric worldviews, or thinks of additional disciplinary perspectives such as media studies, ritual studies, black studies, cognitive psychology, etcetera. In short, it seems to me that Asprem and Granholm have hit upon a goldmine: the scope of “contemporary esotericism” is almost unlimited.
In terms of my software analogy, the timing of the volume could not have been more perfect: I would argue that it shows how the shift towards “Western Esotericism 3.0” is in fact already taking place, carried by a “next generation” of young scholars with fresh new ideas and unburdened by some of their predecessors’ preoccupations or blind spots (I estimate that most of the contributors to Contemporary Esotericism are in their twenties or thirties). There is a new tone and a new attitude here, and I would agree with Granholm’s suggestion that it reflects what he calls a “post-secular” mindset: ‘the study of Western esotericism itself, and in particular the growing acceptance of it as a legitimate field of inquiry, could be regarded as an expression of post-secular trends. This is the case if the post-secular implies a broadening of academic sentiments regarding what is worthwhile to study in the world of religion, and indeed what can even be accepted under that very label (pp. 323-324).In close connection to this, Granholm points out that ‘Popular culture is an arena in which requirements for the “seriousness of belief” and notions of religion as dealing with “ultimate concerns” must be abandoned’ (p. 324) This is a point that can hardly be emphasized enough. Not only do we need to question the crypto-Protestant bias according to which religion or esotericism must ultimately be about “faith” or “beliefs”, so that dimensions such as practice or experience have to be secondary at best; but with respect to esotericism in popular culture more specifically, we also need to think about the possible relevance of such things as play and humor, irreverence and irony, iconoclasm and blasphemy, sentimentality and provocation, or kitch and commercialism, to mention just a few. Will this still leave room for all those extremely serious elements that have traditionally been highlighted as crucial to “esotericism”, such as the pursuit of gnosis or higher knowledge, secrecy and concealment, worldviews of divine enchantment, or initiatory trajectories? I have no answer to these questions (at least, not yet), but perhaps the next generation does.


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