Return of the Irrational

The Ritual, the Esoteric, the Irrational are concepts pushed to the recesses of the modern, actuarial, techno-managed mind. Nevertheless, even as we are told (and shown) exemplary scenarios of interplanetary conquest and techno-scientific solutions to just about everything, looming just beyond the edge of tomorrow (if only we could get our identities sorted out in the meantime), there remains a lingering doubt in the collective unconscious that these are but mirages intended to mask forces, dynamics, and designs beyond our limited, infinitesimally aware, barely important, Earth-bound ability to comprehend. Among recent “awakenings” of scholars belonging to certain strands of the humanities tradition (excluding, naturally, the Marxist pragmatists), and with the addition of a few mystic scientists, there is once again a rising interest in Ritual, Esotericism, and the Irrational. Even then, this remains for now only a tentative gesture, at graduate levels of scholarship, lest the experimental and illogical nature of the occult should reduce the cultural value of the academic product.

To illustrate, here are a couple of CFPs that describe the current relationship between academia and the metaphysical sciences:

Most recently, Queens University’s humanities scholars have (re-)appropriated the Witch as their political banner for an upcoming conference in August 2021:

In the last few years, the witch has re-emerged as a powerful political symbol. Across cinemas and television, in books and podcasts, and via hashtag activism, the proliferation of the witch in media signals a critique of the existing world order and its reliance on the subjugation of marginalized peoples. In order to better understand the meaning and impact of current media representations of the witch, we will hold an expanded conversation between activists, artists, filmmakers, curators, historians, scholars, witches, feminists, healers, and more.

The Witch Institute is a collaborative meeting space for those who are interested in responding to contemporary imaginings of the witch in popular and visual culture. It is a place to share diverse understandings of witches and witchcraft, and to complicate, reframe, and remediate media representations that often continue to perpetuate colonial, misogynistic, and Eurocentric stereotypes of the archetypal figure.

From the University of Toronto, “The Secret Arts and the Art of Secrets” is a symposium exploring the relationship between Art and Esotericism (Friday March 10,2017):

Justly or not, esotericism has been universally excised from modernist perceptions of the world: the practice of astrology has been distanced from astronomy; alchemy has been distilled from chemistry; and magic has been calculated out of the equations of physics. The modern antipathy to Esotericism, however, has been tempered by exciting research over the past thirty years with increasingly more papers, periodicals, conferences, and academic programs that seek to rehabilitate, reveal, and interrogate the formative role that Esoteric traditions have had and continue to have on contemporary culture. This symposium aims to participate in this movement by investigating Esotericism in the context of visual culture from antiquity to the present. It seeks to provide a forum for scholars from a wide variety of fields who are keen about this engaging topic, but who may be finding it difficult to connect with other researchers on a subject that has only recently gained momentum within established academic curricula. We invite participation from students and scholars, new to the field or not, who may be deploying systems of visual and material culture in their research as a basis for illustration or argumentation.

Similarly, the 4th symposium of the Arts and Medias at the University of Montreal proposed this year the theme “Inside the Ritual: Approaches, Practices and Representations in the Arts” (24 et 25 novembre):

In its simplest formulation, ritual consists of repeated and codified gestures that are collectively or individually experienced. However, ritual is far more complex than this. It further invites reflection on how practices intersect, particularly with regard to the transformation and dissemination across time and culture. In this perspective, conferences will be given by professionals, professors, researchers, and graduate students in art history, film studies and other related fields of study that will address various topics, among others Christian rituals, coercive policies, performances, physical and identity transformations and the artistic practice as ritual.

The origins of the idea elaborated by Céline Guilleux (source:

Aby Warburg was hospitalized at a clinic Kreuzlingen, Switzerland in 1921 due to psychotic disorders. Two years later, he was invited to give a lecture in order to prove his sanity. That lecture, known as the Serpent Ritual, which Warburg did not attend, has served to feed the mythography that surrounds the atypical researcher. Apart from the legend and confusion related to the event, however, the study of ritual as practice and representation in Warburg’s work participates in a movement of true interpretive renewal, a welding of art and life. With this legend in mind, the fourth edition of the Arts and Medias Symposium of the University of Montreal intends to contribute to the study of ritual by inviting participants to think about the many implications that ritual can reveal in art history and film studies.

In its simplest formulation, ritual consists of repeated and codified gestures that are collectively or individually experienced. Ritual is far more complex than this, however, as is demonstrated by the diversity of approaches in anthropology. Moreover, it is better to understand and conceive of ritual as a fluctuating, open concept in order to explore its full potential. Ritual convenes historical and contemporary perspectives, both sacred and profane. It further invites reflection on how practices intersect, particularly with regard to the transformation and dissemination across time and culture.

Art history has examined countless examples of ritual. Consider, for example, representations of funeral, sacrificial, Eucharistic rituals or rites of worship, as well as repeated gesture or the body in action. Nowadays, the question of the representation of ritual has an added ethical dimension related to the gaze of the “other”. What is implied by, what is brought to light through representations of ritual in art history? How have some filmmakers – notably Jean Rouch and Pierre Perrault – depicted ritual? What media, artistic and poetic means are used to represent ritual? What discourses underlie the figures of ritual? Who represents ritual, and to what end?

Art furthermore participates in ritual, and ritual involves art, through the endorsement of an expressive function, either symbolic or performative. Thinkers like David Freedberg or Hans Belting have shown that the worship and efficacy of the image are interrelated; the Imago Pietatis and the votive image are good examples of this. Ritual stages the body in acts of dancing, singing, imitating, praying, or absorbed by the accomplishment of daily tasks. Contemporary art has also made effective use of ritual, particularly in the realm of performance, where some artists are reclaiming original myths. In this sense, studio practices themselves can be considered as performative ritual; the body of the artist channels identity, political and autotelic issues. Alternatively, ritual may put into perspective the notion of performativity, which J.L. Austin’s work (1970) inscribes in a strict codification. What ritualistic practices intervene in

the history of art and cinema? What artistic practices serve to reclaim ritual? What actors, what roles are involved in ritual and who are the performers: religious leaders and artists; or amateurs and spectators? Can we identify specific places, certain periods in which the ritual is practiced? Does the resurgence of the ritual have certain ideological implications?

The critical horizon of Walter Benjamin’s text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility (1935), defines the value of cult in opposition to the value of exhibition. According to this criticism, technique would mean a loss of the ritual in the regime of art. Ritual, however, ranges from the practices of the museum visitor, as studied by Carol Duncan (1995), to ritual of going to the movie theatre, studied by Andréanne Pâquet (2003). Moreover, ritual is renewed throughout the digital era – it does not die, but adapts. We can speak only of a plurality of rituals, be they negative or positive. Ritual may, for example, seek to stage a transformation, to regulate daily life, or to ensure social cohesion and even trivialize the act of thinking. Consequently, the functions of ritual call for various theoretical frameworks.

Considering the many possible avenues of consideration on this theme, the conference seeks to engage discussions around the following two axes:

Representations of rituals: artistic or filmic representations (e.g. ethnographic films, documentary or fictionalized representations of ritual); artistic reappropriation; mediums of representation; methodological aspects solicited by ritual; the anthropology of images.

Ritual practices: objects involved in rituals/ceremonies; places of ritual; artistic creation as ritual; the ritual of the spectator; the poietic dimension; ritual in the face of new media; performance; dance; the intentionality of ritual through amateur practices, for example.

Another (24 et 25 novembre 2016):

In the conference « Science, Magic and Philosophy », Eric Weil, refusing to relegate magic to the past, argues that « not only magic has not disappeared from our world; on the contrary it plays in it the part of a determinant force ». This is also true of all the times when magic and philosophy coexisted on the stages of thought. In appearance, the case seems settled: philosophy, since the Greek logos, never stopped to denounce, by the government of reason, magical practices as archaic and nebulous. If, as Henri Bergson notes at the other extremity of the history of philosophy (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion), magic is inseparable from the human condition, it is never a kind of knowledge, but only the rebellion of man against the drying up of his desire ritualizing violent emotions by tolerated practices. We wish here to follow the opposite path: the one not only of a rationality of magical practices but also of an inter-paradigmatic node between philosophy and magic – magics (for they are plural) –, the first borrowing some of its heuristic and methodological procedures from the episteme of the second, with the idea that the reverse phenomenon, a sort of feedback effect, from philosophy towards magic, is thus quite likely. Middle Ages and Renaissance constitute privileged territories. But a symbiotic interaction between philosophy and magic – and also science and magic, art and magic – does not affect just a more or less distant past and actualities of magic for the thought must too be questioned.