Nobody wins unless everybody wins: A Socratic Response to Egil Asprem and Julian Strube
In a blogpost three years ago, I responded to a public attack on my work and my scholarly agendas that showed how easy it is for theoretical and methodological debate to degenerate into negative polemics and personal invectives. At that time, my advocacy of empirical-historical methodologies was seen as proof of an “externalist fallacy,” and I was puzzled to see my work misinterpreted as an anti-religionist, heresiophobic, and even inquisitorial attempt to exclude the true meaning of esotericism along with the study of consciousness. I did my best not to take it all too personally, because these accusations were clearly based not on malicious intent but on a series of simple (although quite serious) misunderstandings. Today, unfortunately, I am forced to engage in a similar defense. In this case the pattern of misinterpretation and distortion is even more serious, but it comes from an entirely different direction. We are dealing with an interview with Egil Asprem and Julian Strube in the most recent newsletter of the ESSWE, which is disseminated among all our society’s members. It constitutes nothing less than a frontal attack on my work, my scholarly agendas, my personal motivations, and my very credibility. I have no choice but to set the record straight, because these accusations are set to inflict serious damage on my reputation, and it is all done with a display of aggression that I have frankly never experienced before. The tone is hard, impatient and authoritarian throughout. It is not easy to respond without getting carried away by emotion, but I will do my best.
|Eris (goddess of strife and discord)|
At that previous occasion three years ago, I wrote a “Platonic response” to a colleague whose love for Platonism I shared; but I finished by evoking Socrates as my model for healthy and constructive academic debate. So this time I will try to write a “Socratic response,” by which I mean an open invitation to dialogue. As in the previous case, my intention is not to make matters worse by engaging in counter-attacks but, on the contrary, to see whether anything can still be done to find a positive way out of a discourse that has clearly turned extremely sour and negative. I would like to begin by quoting a passage from that previous blogpost, because it is very much my personal credo not only as an academic but as a human being, and catches the essence of what I believe is going on here.
I am very well aware of how far the modern Academy has drifted away from its original Socratic model, but this is still what I think it should be: not an arena for power play and ego gratification, not a school where professors tell their students what they should do or believe, but a community of the ignorant devoted to the search for knowledge. In such a context, the practice of criticism has nothing to do with one person attacking another, for it is not a game with winners and losers, but a method for learning in which everybody wins.
Not by any coincidence, this is almost literally the concluding sentence of an article I published in 2019 and that plays a somewhat important role in the present debate, as will be seen: Nobody wins unless everybody wins. If we wage our discussions on the assumption that someone else will have to “lose” in order for ourselves to “win,” then the final result is that everybody loses. This is not what I want to see happening in our community of esotericism scholars. Therefore what follows is not an attempt to win any battles or score any points, but to do what I can from my side to restore the peace.
How Did We Get Here?
As in the previous case, a bit of background is needed. Egil Asprem was my student in the Western esotericism program at the university of Amsterdam and finished his Ph.D. dissertation under my supervision in 2013. He is now a professor of religion at the university of Stockholm. As for Julian Strube, I was the respondent to his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Heidelberg in 2015, and I later invited him to spend a year teaching as a replacement professor at our program in Amsterdam (2016-2017). He has subsequently been working at the universities of Heidelberg, Münster, and now Vienna. Egil and Julian are both excellent scholars with an impressive publication record, representative of the “new generation” of esotericism researchers that has emerged over the past decade. We have been collaborating constructively in various contexts over the years, and I have always warmly endorsed their work (as can be seen for instance here and here). I give this information to make clear that far from being distant strangers to one another, we have been working together for years as colleagues and friends. This is what makes the current breakdown of basic trust so painful.
As Egil and Julian indicate in this interview, the trajectory that has brought us to our present impasse can be traced back to 2015 and the ESSWE5 conference that was organized in Riga that year. It is not generally known, but relevant for what follows, that the conference theme “Western Esotericism and the East” was actually suggested by me. Why did I propose it? Partly this had to do with the conference location. I had learned from colleagues like Birgit Menzel and Kateryna Zorya that to call Russia part of “Western culture” was by no means obvious and brought up important questions about how we think of “the West.” I had also been reading several recent publications that problematized the “Western” adjective in relation to esotericism: notably two articles by Marco Pasi (2009 and 2010), one by Kennet Granholm (2013; in a pioneering volume on Occultism in a Global Perspective edited by Henrik Bogdan and Goran Djurdjevic), and then there was a brandnew one by Egil Asprem (2014). In view of the present debate, it is worth mentioning that none of these articles – including Egil’s – paid any sustained attention to perspectives such as postcolonial theory or global history of religions. Since I had come up with the idea of discussing “Western Esotericism and the East,” the conference organizers must have assumed that I had some ideas of my own about the topic, and so they invited me to give a keynote. This I did, and it got published in Correspondences the same year, as “The Globalization of Esotericism.” Among other things, I discussed the question of whether the adjective “Western” should perhaps better be dropped in favour of simply “Esotericism,” as had been suggested by Granholm and Asprem. Having made clear that there are good arguments for either of the two positions, I finally came out (although cautiously and with qualifications) in favour of keeping the “Western,” not for theoretical but methodological reasons.
Four years later, our Centre for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents organized the ESSWE7 conference in Amsterdam. Two events at this occasion must be mentioned in the present context. The first is that we brought out a volume to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of our Center, titled Hermes Explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism, edited by Peter Forshaw, Marco Pasi, and myself. As the title suggests, it contains thirty contributions in which scholars respond to popular misconceptions about what the study of esotericism is all about. The second event was a closing panel session titled “Should we drop the ‘Western’ from Western Esotericism?” chaired by Karl Baier. Three panelists (Henrik Bogdan, Marco Pasi, and myself) spoke out in favour of keeping the “Western,” although with different arguments and various qualifications. The three panelists who proposed to drop the ‘Western” were Liana Saif, Egil Asprem, and Julian Strube. It became clear during the discussion that this entire issue was highly sensitive for many participants. With hindsight it may not have been a wise choice to place this panel discussion at the very end of a long and exhausting conference. Everybody was tired and the atmosphere was not positive, so that what should have been a friendly discussion felt rather like a confrontation between entrenched positions. As you can perhaps tell from the look on my face on the photo, as this realization began to sink in, I found myself looking around wondering “what is going on here?” Clearly something was clashing, but I think it’s fair to say that most participants were puzzled and confused about the reasons why. I certainly was.
As it turns out, in the wake of the panel, Egil and Julian took the initiative for editing a collective volume that recently got published by Brill and is available in open access: New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism. As this blogpost is not a book review, I will discuss the academic merits of this volume separately, but let me just say that with respect to almost all its chapters, I find the quality excellent and see it as a significant contribution to the theoretical and methodological debate. It puts a whole series of issues on the table that deserve to be discussed seriously, both on a general level pertaining to the study of esotericism as a whole and with respect to various specific topics. It is at the occasion of this book that the editors were interviewed for the ESSWE newletter.
The claims that they make about me and my work may be summarized roughly as follows. They say that since 2015 and up to the present, I have been launching a series of unprovoked polemical attacks on “postmodern,” “poststructuralism,” and “critical theory”; a more minor accusation is that I am also responsible for “throwing out” sociological research from the study of esotericism; I am suspected of pushing a “political” agenda with the intention of influencing current cultural/political discourse in the interest of “what Western culture should be truly about”; I am blamed for an “escalating” Eurocentric/diffusionist “reaction” against postcolonial and global history perspectives; I allegedly took advantage of the 2019 anniversary volume to promote these agendas; I am accused of “painting opponents as enemies” instead of engaging in dialogue with them; I am blamed for refusing to follow the current mainstream discursive and de/constructionist paradigm; supposedly I keep lapsing into “cultural essentialism,” attempts at canonization of “Western esotericism,” and strange as it may seem, even “religionism”; my empical-historical approach is alluded to as methodologically naïve and ignorant of the relevant theoretical literature; and my “Globalization” article of 2015 is merely “self-referential” and full of “obvious” self-contradictions and inconsistencies. What to make of all this?
The Postmodern Thing
While some of these allegations are more serious than others, the first one seems to be at the bottom of most of them. Readers of the interview who are not familiar with my work will get a picture planted in their head of Wouter Hanegraaff as a fanatical culture warrior who relies not on serious discussion but on polemical “boo-words” or “fighting words” like “postmodernism” in his relentless attacks on what is in fact a caricature of the fields in question. In this war of “identity politics” directed at a “strawman of ‘radicals’,” I allegedly have been doing everything in my power to discredit, “alienate” and “downright exclude” important fields such as global history, postcolonial studies, gender studies, and critical theory.
The first question to be asked about any attack like this is obvious: “where is your evidence?” And this is where the story begins to fall apart immediately. My list of publications is available online, and so are all my articles and book chapters published over the past five or six years. With the exception of two short and strictly academic discussions in my 2012 monograph (pp. 312-313, 361-367) and my personal contribution to the anniversary volume (to which I will return), readers will find no sustained discussions of “postmodern” or allied perspectives, and they will find no “attacks” at all on any of the academic trends and perspectives that I allegedly hate so much. The same goes for all the public lectures I have been giving in this period: readers are invited to check them out, or watch the online lectures collected on my website. Could it be this personal blog then? Readers are welcome to browse. When it comes to politically sensitive issues, they will find that I have been writing critically and with deep concern about such issues as the horrors of Islamic State, Neoliberalism, Trumpism, the European New Right, and the poisons of racism and antisemitism. But they will find no attacks on “postmodernism,” “poststructuralism,” “deconstruction,” or allied perspectives such a gender studies, race studies, postcolonial studies, or global history.
The reason for all this is simple. I have not been waging any such culture war; and even assuming that I had the power to do so, it would never occur to me to attempt “excluding” such new approaches from the study of esotericism. To give a few random examples (all concerning younger scholars with whom I am on excellent terms and who thankfully play no part in this present attack), in 2015 in Riga I sat down with Manon Hedenborg-White and Per Faxneld to talk about their plans for a volume about gender and esotericism. I gave them my best advice because I fully support this project and the scholars involved in it, and Manon is now organizing a workshop on Gender and Esotericism at our Center in Amsterdam. In 2013, Justine Bakker’s excellent Research Master thesis about the Nation of Islam opened my eyes about the neglect of Black esotericism in the study of esotericism (including my own work, as I realized with some embarrassment); so I was happy to respond to her request for feedback on an article she published about race and esotericism and invited her to write a contribution specifically on that topic for our 2019 anniversary volume. As a final example, I was very happy with the opportunity to appoint Mriganka Mukhopadhyay as a Ph.D candidate in Amsterdam, precisely because his project on Theosophy in Bengal would make it possible to move away from the dominant Eurocentric perspectives on Theosophy and explore what it meant from the perspective of Indian members. I realized that as a Bengali native speaker with excellent backgrounds in postcolonial theory, Mriganka would be able to contribute to a global history approach in the study of esotericism.
If all this is the case (more examples could be added), then where did Egil and Julian get their ideas about my war against “postmodernism” and against these specialized fields of research? I’m afraid it must have something to do with Facebook. Over the past years, roughly coinciding with the rise of Trumpism, I have felt deep concern about the phenomenon of vicious radicalization towards the outer extremes of the political spectrum. This is certainly reflected in my Facebook posts, which basically document my ongoing attempts as a private person to gain some clarity about what is going on in the world around me. FB is not a scholarly forum on which I operate as a professor or push any academic agendas; it is a friends-only online platform on which I express myself as a concerned citizen, sharing information with my FB friends and engaging in dialogue about current events or debates and what to make of them. What are my chief concerns here? On the one hand, I worry deeply about the alarming rise of rightwing populism, racism, xenophobia, and hatred against groups and individuals because of their gender or sexual orientation. Having been raised in a country that used to pride itself on its traditions of diversity and tolerance (alas, those days are gone), the daily deluge of online hate and intolerance disturbs me and offends my deepest moral values. On the other hand, I have been shocked to see how many people who are on the left like myself, and of whom I had assumed (naïvely) that they would hold themselves to a higher standard, keep lapsing into very similar patterns of vicious hatred and intolerance online and offline. I would like to understand why this happens. I am not just a professor, I am a citizen and a private person as well. I hope that Egil and Julian will allow me to express my feelings about pressing social issues and disturbing trends in the general culture, or participate in discussions about their possible intellectual backgrounds. I worry about escalating attempts at policing free expression and open debate, and about self-righteous attitudes of intimidating or “punishing” those who do not toe some line of political correctness or simply have a different point of view. I know far too much about the history of heresy persecutions and witch-hunt dynamics to have even the slightest sympathy for dogmatic mentalities and the authoritarian impulse to suppress dissenting voices.
None of that has to do with “postmodernism” per se. It is all about intolerance and hate, and this is the exact point that Egil and Julian miss entirely. In an article that seems to have annoyed them (see below), I distinguished between an intolerant and authoritarian type of Enlightenment ideology (“Enlightenment 1”) and a non-authoritarian type on liberal-humanist foundations to which I warmly subscribe (“Enlightenment 2”). I define it in terms of “respect for empirical evidence no matter where it may lead, rejection of ideological prejudice of any kind, unrestricted freedom of inquiry, openness to all perspectives, and confidence in the emancipatory power of critical discussion and argumentation.” If I am being attacked for defending these values and ideals, then all I can say is “I rest my case.”
I think of myself to a large extent as an intellectual historian, and I’m acutely aware of the power of ideas to influence people’s minds and imaginations. In this particular case, I want to understand the intellectual roots and foundations of the current rise of hateful intolerance and polarization towards the extreme left and right. It goes without saying that this is an issue of extreme complexity, and there can be no question of discussing it in any detail here. Let me just say that I’m interested in something similar to what the original founders of critical theory were doing: to analyze the pathologies of popular and political culture in terms of deeper intellectual dynamics that are not immediately visible but that actually lend them their legitimacy and their power to persuade. My primary focus here is on the humanities, because that is the professional world in which I work. That currently dominant discourse in this specific academic context owes much to a complicated set of “radical theories” often referred to as “French Theory” is not a matter of conjecture but of intellectual history. To analyze these traditions critically and historically has nothing to do with “culture war polemics” and the like, but is a legitimate intellectual enterprise that should not be censured and discredited by anyone who is serious about freedom of inquiry as a fundamental academic value. As for myself, I can only hope I have earned sufficient scholarly credit to at least be taken seriously and given the benefit of the doubt, rather than getting caricatured as some kind of crazy cultural war fanatic with sinister agendas. I assure Egil and Julian that by the time I decide to write about these issues in a properly academic format, I will have done my homework.
As indicated by the very label “critical theories,” the academic schools in question are themselves polemical in the extreme, and so their exponents should have no cause to complain if they receive their share of criticism in return. I have no problem with these highly sophisticated theories in and for themselves, as they are often fascinating and thought-provoking, but only with what happens when they get translated into popular mentalities with considerable political impact. In this regard, I find plenty of support from central proponents of these academic cultures themselves. To give just a few examples, Bruno Latour notoriously expressed his second thoughts and feelings of alarm (in 2003, long before the age of Trump) about how his own work seemed to have contributed to “post-truth” culture and dangerous anti-science sentiments on the political right. The pioneering scholar of Queer Studies Eve Kossofsky Sedgwick has been disarmingly honest in diagnosing her own academic discourse (including much of her earlier work) as grounded in deep patterns of paranoia. And the literary scholar Rita Felski analyzes the intellectual milieu of Critique as grounded in a hermeneutics of suspicion that she defines (among other things, see for yourself) as negative and intolerant, not for contingent reasons but structurally and intentionally: one of its five defining features, she finds, is that “Critique does not tolerate rivals.” Coming from a prominent player in the field of Critique, that should give us some pause. These analyses do not come from hostile outsiders but from deep insiders who have spent their entire careers working with these theories.
The Western Thing
The second point of central importance concerns my approach to “Western culture.” The first clarification I have to make here is that, contrary to what some people think, I have no particularly strong objections against dropping the “Western” from “Western esotericism.” I made that point already during the 2019 panel discussion in Amsterdam. I broadly agree with Egil’s argument that “esotericism” without the adjective may function in our field just fine, and in fact I have often used that convention myself. Just look at the titles of my books: New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (1996) and Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (2012). In both cases, the adjective “Western” is connected to “Culture,” not “Esotericism.” As anybody knows who has read my work with some attention, my concern is not with some essentialized notion of “Western esotericism” – such quasi-phenomenological approaches I have rejected in all my publications from the mid-1990s until the present – but with esotericism as an important dimension of “Western culture.” In other words, I’m fine with dropping the “Western” from “Western esotericism” as long as we keep the “Western” in “Western culture.”
The confusion about this issue is demonstrated by Julian’s remarks, in the ESSWE newsletter interview, about my alleged “cultural essentialism” and Eurocentric “diffusionism.” Apparently he is under the impression that when I speak of “Western esotericism,” I think of some kind of immutable cultural essence that may spread beyond the West but (as Egil puts it) “will always remain Western.” This completely misrepresents my argument. At countless occasions for two and a half decades now, I have insisted on the status of “Western esotericism” as strictly no more than a scholarly construct that we use in order to organize our historical materials. I have stressed this so often that there is really no excuse anymore for missing it. Also, I hardly need to be reminded about another fact that I have kept emphasizing at more occasions than I can count: that the terminology gained prominence only as recently as the later nineteenth century, while “esotericism” as a noun goes back no further than the eighteenth. At our present state of theoretical reflection about these issues, after several decades of discussion, it should no longer be necessary to point out the obvious: that whatever may spread or get diffused beyond the West (however defined) cannot possibly be “Western esotericism,” but only specific cultural materials or ideas that happen to have a historical origin in Western contexts and happen to be categorized as pertaining to “esotericism” according to current academic conventions. At least, that is my position, as anybody will see who checks my publications on the matter.
Instead of shooting at straw men, we should better confront the actual issues, which are serious and important enough. At the end of my “Globalization” article, I once again re-asserted my standard opinion of “Western esotericism” as no more than “a convenient label for the various beliefs, practices, and traditions of knowledge that the Enlightenment has rejected in its own backyard, so to speak.” Anybody who perceives a cultural or phenomenological “essence” in such formulations is welcome to point it out… I continued by calling attention to what I see as the actual problem in using “esotericism” as a generic concept in global comparative research:
Why would people in Africa, Japan, India, Latin America, or Antarctica, feel any need to import this specifically Western category of “esotericism” to speak about their own traditional beliefs and practices – as if Western Europe were still the prototype to which everything else must be compared? In my opinion, it would be yet another form of terminological imperialism if we now tried to project this terminology on to the rest of the world.
While framing me as an enemy of global history or postcolonial approaches, Egil and Julian conveniently ignore this key passage. In making my point here, I did not mean to suggest that the comparative enterprise as such is necessarily imperialist or eurocentric (although such arguments have indeed be made for the similar case of “religion” as a concept in cultural comparison); but I do suggest that the project of studying esotericism as a global phenomenon will at least have a bit more explaining to do with respect to its own credentials and implications. A major concern in this context is that the heavy dominance of English terminology in international academic research has the effect of marginalizing if not erasing the linguistic worlds of non-English vernacular languages. As I criticized the effects of globalization as a form of Western imperialism already as early as 1999, when the phenomenon was gathering steam, I’m actually excited by the ideal of a truly non-ethnocentric approach to global history; but I do not see how it can possibly succeed unless we confront the enormous problem of intercultural translation. How many non-Western languages even have an equivalent for “esotericism” suitable for scholarly research? If they don’t, then how do we avoid imposing a straightjacket of Western terminologies on non-Western scholars and cultures? At the invitation of Correspondences journal, Mriganka Mukhophadhyay and I have recently taken the initiative for a collaborative project focused precisely on this issue. You will be hearing from us in due time.
As indicated above, my focus is not on “Western esotericism” but on esotericism as a dimension of “Western culture”; and that the latter would have some immutable “essence” that will “always remain Western” runs counter to all my work. The most seriously complicating factor in this regard has nothing to do with eurocentric agendas but with the basic theoretical paradigms that one accepts as normative. As Julian confirms in the interview, his perspective is closely modeled on that of Michael Bergunder, whose most detailed recent discussion appeared last year in a ninety-page article in German, “Umkämpfte Historisierung” (Embattled Historicization). The argument is far too complex to summarize here, but I plan to discuss it in some detail in a separate review article, together with the New Perspectives volume. All I can say at this point is that Bergunder’s discussion of my work shows the same pattern of structural misinterpretation to which Julian gives voice in the interview, but the article also makes clear where the problem really lies. Bergunder and Strube work within a theoretical paradigm that is grounded in poststructuralist discourse theory and deconstructionism. These intellectual frameworks have a specific internal logic of their own that does actually conflict in some crucial respects with the theoretical assumptions and methodologies on which my own work is based. I am perfectly aware of that fact, and addressed some part of it already in my discussion of Kocku von Stuckrad’s discursive approach in 2012 (361-367 here).
The essential point is that what Egil and Julian frame as a politically-inspired “polemics” against a “postmodern enemy” is actually nothing more than a basic scholarly disagreement about crucial theoretical issues and their methodological implications. This is of course a perfectly normal phenomenon in academic discussion. There is plenty of room in the humanities for very different perspectives and methodologies, and it should be possible to discuss them critically but respectfully. Unfortunately that does not happen here. In Bergunder’s article as in the interview with Egil and Julian (and in the latter’s article for the New Approaches volume) the tone is aggressive to the point of hostility. The authors’ theoretical commitments are presented as though theirs is, or should be, the only game in town. Most disturbingly, their argumentative strategies send a message of moral superiority. Failure to agree with the “obvious” truth of the authors’ commitments becomes a cause for suspicion about the critic's hidden political agendas instead of an occasion for constructive dialogue and critical discussion about different ways of doing scholarly work. I will play no part in that kind of game. My argument about “Western culture” rests on theoretical assumptions about history and scholarship that are in fact different, in some crucial respects, from the discursive-deconstructionist logic of poststructuralist theory. I fully respect and endorse Bergunders’s and Strube’s right to promote their own type of research, but expect the same from them. I welcome any serious dialogue about these theoretical frameworks and their implications (see below), and there might of course come a point where we just have to agree to disagree. But there can be no question of imposing one’s own theories as morally superior while insinuating that those who do not share them are therefore uninformed, inconsistent, or politically suspect.
The Gatekeeper Thing
I am aware that Egil and Julian do not use this term, but it may be appropriate for capturing an assumption which runs through the interview: that I am somehow using my academic position or my influence to impose my own agendas on our community of esotericism scholars, while denigrating and trying to “exclude” or “throw out” approaches that I do not like, to the detriment especially of the younger generation of scholars. I will say honestly that no other suggestion in the interview is more hurtful to me than this one.
For the record, all my work since the 1990s has been motivated by one central concern: to open doors for the study of esotericism in the academy, not to close any doors to anyone. This is not about me and my ego or my personal interests, but about the field as a whole, and most of all about the many scholars for whom there was simply no place in the academy that would allow them to devote their lives and careers to this type of research. It is natural for younger scholars to take the fact for granted that it is, of course!, possible nowadays to study or publish about esotericism in various academic venues and be taken perfectly seriously as a scholar in this field (if you can manage to get a job or a research grant, terribly hard as that may be these days). But I’d like to remind my readers that this was not the situation thirty years ago. When Antoine Faivre and I wanted to organize our (now historical) first sessions on esotericism at the 1995 IAHR world congress in Mexico City, we needed to get special letters of recommendation from senior scholars just to convince the organization that we were legitimate scholars and not some bunch of new agers who might embarrass them; and still, we would probably not have succeeded if Antoine had not been able to use the full weight of his unique position as a professor at the Sorbonne. Most academics looked at us with suspicion at first, and not entirely without good reasons either, for it is true that far too many “scholars of esotericism” at that time hardly seemed to see the point of differentiating between scholarly work and advocacy for esoteric beliefs. This is why we needed to work hard on establishing standards of scholarly quality and insist on central questions of method and theory. The very basics still had to be established, more or less from scratch; and even so, it is only thanks to the incredible break of a new chair/department in Amsterdam financed by a private maecenas, Rosalie Basten, that it became possible to establish a foothold for esotericism in the academy at all. If she had not opened that crucial door for all of us, the ESSWE would not have been established in 2005 (at her residence) either, and countless young scholars who are now able to study esotericism (including most contributors to the New Approaches volume) would not be doing what they are doing today.
Our field owes its very existence to a dedicated collaborative effort. Its successes are due to the tireless work and devotion of countless colleagues who have been labouring towards a common goal in a spirit of friendship and shared enthusiasm. This has been an exciting and thoroughly positive development, thankfully dominated not by negative polemics or power-games but by attitudes of open-mindedness and generosity. For me personally, too, the project of establishing the study of esotericism has never been about anything else than opening doors that were closed and creating structures and opportunities that simply did not exist. The suggestion that I try to use my position now to exclude instead of include, to push just my own preferences while refusing to recognize or make room for new approaches, is deeply unfair and painful. I obviously have my own preferences in terms of theories, methods, definitions, themes, or areas of research. I obviously argue in their favour because I am convinced of their merits. I do express criticism of positions with which I do not agree, and I do so not ad hominem but by presenting arguments that may or may not convince my readers. Am I any different in these regards from any other scholars? Yet Egil and Julian seem to be suggesting not just that I would try to prevent new and different perspectives to be given room in our community, but even seem to think that I wield some kind of magical dictatorial power to suppress what I don’t like.
These are total fantasies. Egil seems to suggest that my influence since “thirty years ago” has prevented a dialogue with sociological approaches and has caused the entire relevant body of literature to be “thrown out” so that he and others are now forced to “re-invent the wheel.” How should I have accomplished such a thing? And why would I? The truth is, of course, that I shared this emphasis on historical approaches with a whole series of colleagues who have been working on esotericism since the 1990s. In any case, did I ever try to prevent Egil or anyone else from exploring these avenues? And when or how did I ever try to “alienate” or “outright exclude” younger scholars for focusing on topics such as global history, postcolonial studies, gender studies, or critical theories? I gave a few counter-examples above, and could give many others. All of this rests on the baseless assumption that if I express my own theoretical and methodological preferences in my work, this means I am trying to dictate what others scholars can or should do, or that I demand from them that they share my critical perspectives - or else!! Such behaviour runs counter to my character and my basic ethics. The truth is that I am happy to see others do very different things from what I am doing myself, because all of that contributes to the richness and diversity of our field, and allows all of us (myself included) to learn new things that might otherwise remain beyond our horizons.
The Anniversary Volume Thing
A particularly problematic fantasy concerns the 2019 anniversary volume. Having accused me of engaging in identity politics against “an unspecified opponent” (whoever that may be), Julian claims that I placed my polemical agendas “at the center of key academic publications,” and notably used them “to unilaterally frame the entire anniversary volume,” with the result that each contribution “was thus associated with Wouter’s political statements.” These allegations made my head spin. First of all, the anniversary volume was obviously not edited by me alone but together with Peter Forshaw and Marco Pasi, and likewise the Introduction is signed by all three of us. This means that there are two possibilities: either Marco and Peter must have been accomplices in my sinister manipulations (“the severity of which,” we are told in dramatic tones, “can hardly be overstated”) or otherwise I must have been wielding such dictatorial powers that they can just be dismissed as nonentities that do not even come into account. Either of these two alternatives is frankly insulting to my colleagues. Secondly, as anybody is welcome to check, the Introduction contains no “political statements” of any kind, let alone any attempt to “frame” the volume in any way. Just read it and you will see for yourself.
If so, where on earth does this accusation come from? Could it possibly have something to do with our playful reference to the “red pill” that was made famous by The Matrix, an oft-quoted neo-gnostic metaphor for “having one’s eyes opened” to new knowledge? This is of course what we had in mind and how we presented it explicitly, as the text of our Introduction makes perfectly clear. However, after the book had already come out in print, it was pointed out to us that some readers thought of the “red pill” as a misogynic dogwhistle because some “manosphere” circles of rightwingers had apparently been adopting it for their own hateful purposes. Do I seriously have to assure our readers that such associations never occurred to us? It would require a deeply paranoid hermeneutics of suspicion, with extremely troublesome implications, to think that there was some hidden message here. Therefore I cannot reasonably suspect Egil and Julian of actually making such assumptions. But by the same token, since this cannot be what they have in mind, the idea of this Introduction as an attempt at “framing” the volume for unspecified political ends is utterly groundless.
What else then? From some scattered remarks in the New Approaches volume, I suspect that it must rather have been my own personal contribution to Hermes Explains that triggered their ideas. First of all, mine is obviously just one out of thirty individual contributions, and by no stretch of the imagination can it be seen as “at the center” of the volume or as “framing” the whole of it. What makes Egil and Julian think that my mere presence in a volume with thirty authors would somehow dominate that entire volume? In any case, what is so offensive about this short piece? It is not directed against anyone in particular, least of all Egil or Julian or any other of my colleagues, nor is it a critique of “postmodernism” and related approaches. What is my actual argument in a nutshell? First of all, I suggest that if the study of esotericism has succeeded in establishing itself as a respected field of modern academic research, this is largely by distancing itself from perspectives that rely on identity politics. I obviously use that term in a broad and inclusive sense, referring for instance to how the Enlightenment created its own identity by construing a counter-identity of “esotericism” as rejected knowledge. That's the basic argument of Esotericism and the Academy. I then discuss Eranos as an example of pro-esoteric identity politics in academia, and the Frankfurt School as a prominent anti-esoteric counterpart.
Having laid those foundations, I continue by arguing that although the study of esotericism has profited from the new “postmodern” incredulity toward metanarratives (not a “boo-word” but a simple reference to Lyotard's La condition post-moderne) as it began developing during the 1990s, we might ask ourselves why it is that our field has not really been taken up as a focus of study by the new wave of poststructuralist scholarship that focuses so much of its attention on suppressed or neglected voices in Western culture. For all I can see, or intended, this is not an argument for excluding poststructuralist and related approaches but an open invitation to include more of them! How can Egil and Julian have gotten that so wrong? To quote a sentence that seems to have particularly triggered them, I then argue that esotericism seems to be “the blind spot par excellence among those radical theorists who are so eager to deconstruct ‘Western culture’.” One reason for this oversight, I further suggest, may be a strong tendency in cultural studies to start top-down with “Theory” rather than bottom-up with historical sources. This then leads me to the sketch of an “Enlightenment 2” perspective as already discussed above, in which my advice is to take primary sources as our point of departure and approach them with a minimum of theoretical baggage to begin with. When I describe the “prime objective” in such research as “listening to what the sources have to tell us,” I really hope that nobody will be so silly as to think I remain stuck in nineteenth-century positivism and have never heard of the hermeneutical circle. In any case, I end the article with a very strong emphasis on openness to the voices and perspectives of Others, curiosity about the unknown, communication across boundaries of history and culture, listening and dialogue instead of negative polemics. The message is one of total inclusivity and a refusal to accept “narrow hegemonic agendas of power and domination.” Readers are of course welcome to disagree with any part of this argument, but I honestly do not see what is so objectionable about it. Still, it is of course always possible that I touched some sensitive spot somewhere without being aware of it. If so, I would like to hear what it is.
Back to Reality
Early on in the interview, Egil makes some interesting remarks that I suspect might perhaps be at the bottom of this conflict. He objects to the agendas of Matt Melvin-Kouskhi (a fantastic specialist of the occult sciences in the early modern Islamic world) and myself of “writing better narratives” of the West. Melvin-Koushki conceptualizes the West in terms of what he calls the “abrahamic-hellenic synthesis.” Along very similar lines, I argue that we should not allow our views of the West to be dominated forever by nineteenth-century Orientalist and colonialist frameworks, but should try to (re)conceptualize it in terms of general cultural history over a period of circa two and a half thousand years. I briefly sketched this approach in an interview in a previous ESSWE newsletter that for some reason seems to have offended Egil and Julian as well. Readers are invited to check out the complete argument there and make up their own minds. Let me just quote the conclusion:
Such a new narrative will include and integrate not only all the different forms of esotericism in Western Christianity, but also such enormous areas as Jewish, Islamic, or Byzantine culture, including of course their “esoteric” dimensions. Morover, it will have to include and fully integrate the stories of traditionally marginalized groups such as women, non-dominant sexualities, or different races and ethnicities. This is obviously an enormous project, but I am convinced that it’s important to move beyond the negative enterprise of deconstructing “the West.” I hope we will start building a positive new narrative of what “Western culture” is really all about, demonstrating its factual and intellectual superiority over the narrow Christianity- / Protestantism- / Enlightenment-centered and colonialist narraties that we know are no longer credible.
How much more inclusive do Egil and Julian want me to get? For the record: “really” obviously doesn’t imply some essentialist notion of Western culture’s “real essence,” but refers to the need for historically more adequate depictions (for instance, Western culture is really something different and far more complex than you would conclude from old-fashioned histories that marginalise its esoteric dimensions and distort what those are all about). Anyway, Egil responds that, contrary to Melvin-Koushki and myself, he and Julian are “not interested in influencing broader socio-political discourses of what the West is or ought to be, but rather to take the historical actors who’ve constructed and negotiated the term as part of our source material.” He concludes that we are dealing here with “clearly two very separate lines of reasoning.”
Which is quite correct. As the interview suggests that Egil’s perspective here is basically similar to Julian’s, their approach clearly rests on the nowadays standard type of discursive study of religion associated with such great names as Michel Foucault or Edward Said and presently continued and of course further developed by Michael Bergunder. While I take on board much that I find valuable in that paradigm and its associated bodies of scholarship (including the practice of “taking the historical actors who've constructed and negotiated terms as part of our source material,” something I have practiced consistently in my own work and would apply to Asprem, Strube, and Bergunder as historical actors as well), I do not consider it sacrosanct, and my own perspective does indeed rest on different intellectual foundations. It should go without saying that I fully respect my colleagues’ right to pursue their own interests and follow different lines of reasoning than Melvin-Koushki and myself. But I do hope that we may expect the same respect from them, rather than being told that these topics may only be discussed within the framework of their own paradigms or political agendas. As for the theoretical substance of the debate itself, this requires a somewhat detailed analysis of Bergunder’s theoretical framework and its implications, as compared to my own. As indicated above, I plan to provide one in a separate publication in a properly academic venue.
What puzzles me a bit about Egil’s remark is his profession of disinterest in “influencing socio-political discourses of what the West is or ought to be.” I very much doubt whether such an abdication is realistic, as the agendas that he and Julian defend carry very clear political implications in that regard (as for Bergunder, he is perfectly explicit about the fact that history of religions for him is part of a “comprehensive ‘criticism of ideologies’,” umfassende ‘Ideologiekritik’). In an academic climate that keeps pressing the need for constant “valorization” and requires scholars in the humanities to show their relevance to society, do we seriously want to respond “no thank you, we do happen to know an awful lot about religion and culture, but we do not wish for our scholarship to have any influence on socio-political discourses”?? I find it hard to believe that this is what they mean. Or is it just that they do not like my particular agenda, or rather what they think it is, and would prefer me to keep silent? I’m afraid I can’t help them with that. As for me, I do not hesitate to confirm that if I see any chance to bring my insights as a scholar to bear on important debates of broader societal relevance, I will certainly try not to miss it.
For it is certainly true that I believe the time has come for reconstruction, and for positive new ideas in academia and the larger culture. Theoretical reflection is an ongoing thing, and I see no reason why scholars should be discouraged from moving beyond poststructuralist-deconstructionist paradigms or from contributing to wider discussions of general societal relevance. Things are not going so well in the world right now, and I increasingly get worrying signals of desillusionment and deep cynicism about the state of academia. These come from colleagues and especially from students who are raised on a steady diet of essentially negative and depressing theories of what the humanities are all about. The theoretical literature may be extremely subtle and complex on a strictly intellectual level, but the cumulative effect it has on students and the wider public is perhaps a bit more basic. At the risk of simplification, I'd say that the minimum they get from Foucault is that the academy is not about knowledge but about power. Not a great message when you aspire to become an academic. I’m afraid the minimum they get from deconstruction is that truth is a metaphysical notion that you should better avoid if you don’t want to look stupid. And from a wide range of brilliant and influential theorists, what they get is that everything “Western” (including academia itself) is infected to the core with such poisons as phallogocentrism, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and patriarchal suppression.
To which I respond: “by all means, I see those dimensions very clearly; but even so, could anything just a bit more positive perhaps be said about the West as well, or about academia for that matter?” Do I personally think that these critical perspectives on “the West” are without merit or should be rejected, as Egil and Julian seem to think? On the contrary. I think there are solid arguments for many of them; poststructuralist and allied lines of theory or critique call attention to very important dimensions that used to be neglected, and scholarship will only profit from taking them on board; therefore I would consider it silly for any modern academic to not want to consider them very seriously. But I also want to move on towards the future, beyond these lines of critical argument and these paths that are by now very well-trodden, to explore new and hopefully a bit more positive or inspirational directions of inquiry too. I have devoted my entire life as a scholar to studying the history and dynamics of “Western culture,” and while its many shadow sides are perfectly obvious to me, I want to call attention to its many positive dimensions in equal measure. I certainly do so in teaching my students, because I feel that especially in a grim neoliberal environment that is all about competition (who wins? who loses?), they need to be told things that will inspire their enthusiasm and assure them that there are countless topics worth studying because they have value in and for themselves. It's not all about critique for me, because human culture for me is not all about power. It's also about intrinsic meaning and content, and about appreciation for whatever is positive and wonderful in the things we study.
Again, Egil and Julian are of course under no obligation to share any such agendas and interests, or to agree with any of my analyses, agendas, or concerns. It would just be nice if they could at least respect them. They are welcome to challenge any of these views, or any other ones, as long as it is done in a professional and friendly manner. If they do not share my concerns, by all means they are free to focus on different agendas and pursue projects of their own. But what I cannot let them do is spread caricatures of my ideas, make false accusations, or tell me which theories I should embrace or which opinions I am allowed to express. Contrary to what they suggest (as they keep referring vaguely to multiple “debates” or “polemics” that, to the best of my knowledge, never took place), in fact this is more or less the first time I express myself so clearly on a general platform about these broader concerns. So I might as well use the opportunity to extend an open invitation to all members of the ESSWE. If anything I write here resonates with you (or, for that matter, if you think I got it all wrong), then let’s sit down and talk about these things! Let’s put an end to negativity and find ways of dialogue and constructive exchange. Let’s discuss how we see the present state of the humanities, the place of esotericism within that context, and the directions into which we would like to move. I’m open to any points of view, no matter how much they might differ from my own. This is not about winning battles but about listening and learning from one another.
It is funny to see that after about twenty-five years of publishing internationally in the field of Western esotericism, I have by now been suspected of almost everything and its opposite. I have been described as a reductionist guilty of the “externalist fallacy” but as a “religionist” as well; I have been branded as a fanatical enemy of “postmodernism,” while other colleagues seem to see me as a “postmodernist” of sorts whose work is deeply indebted to discursive and poststructuralist elements. The truth is that I do not belong to any theoretical school. I read widely in all these bodies of literature and then try to make up my own mind as well as I can. While there’s a “historical-empirical” core that has remained constant over the years, I keep expanding my theoretical and methodological toolbox and keep exploring new avenues. The freedom to do so, to express one’s opinions without fear of negative polemics or ad hominem attacks, is essential to what I believe the humanities should be all about. If we disagree, then we need to talk – hence my emphasis on Socratic dialogue. At this point, I cannot do more than try to explain what I actually mean, and correct the systemic pattern of misinterpretations and accusations in the ESSWE newsletter interview. To get out of this mess, what we need to do is put a stop to the hermeneutics of suspicion and begin cultivating a hermeneutics of basic trust. And by the way, a bit of humour would be welcome too.
Which leads me back to the ESSWE and our own community, which has always been a shining example of such positive attitudes. In the previous newsletter, next to the interview with me there was one with Keith Cantú, a Ph.D student at the UC Santa Barbara and one of the contributors to the New Approaches volume. In response to the standard question of what he saw as the best thing about having this speciality, this is what he wrote:
Honestly, I find that the people in this field are so incredibly amazing and supportive, and the general quirkiness is charming. In contrast to the personal tensions that I have seen arise in a field like, say, Yoga studies (although it fortunately seems to be getting better these days), I have found that the people deeply involved in Western esotericism have largely been able to transcend personal difference and academic affiliation in order to make meaningful, professional, and prolific (!) contributions to scholarship that continues to drive research forward. I have further been honored to share meals and drinks late into the night with some brilliant theorists and historians, and the set and setting of many of the conferences in European towns that still reverberate with echoes of medieval life simply cannot be beat.
What a wonderful statement. That’s my ESSWE too. I know and recognize that atmosphere, that camaraderie, from many experiences and memories ever since our foundation in 2005. I don't want to see it destroyed. Let us find our way back to that positive spirit.
[POSTSCRIPT: I am happy to report that a "post-publication statement" signed by Egil Asprem, Julian Strube and myself has been added above the interview in the ESSWE newsletter, p. 4]
|Eirene (goddess of peace)|