The Value of Subtle Communication: Toward a Secular Materialist Model of Chaos Magick

John Ohno on 2017-01-18

Where occult traditions typically anchor themselves firmly to the metaphysical, chaos magick has historically been open to more materialist interpretations, although inconsistently so. I do not claim that metaphysical understandings of magic are necessarily wholly invalid, but I would like to suggest that most if not all of the major practices associated with chaos magick do not require or benefit from appeals to ideas outside the scientific mainstream. In other words, the practices of ritual (particularly sacrifice) and sigilcraft (including hypersigils, etc) are fully compatible with a conventional scientific, secular, materialist worldview.

The cornerstone of my argument is the idea of subtle communication with oneself and others as a means of influence.

By subtle communication, I mean: communication that bypasses conscious, verbal modes of understanding. This is not to say that such forms of communication have no verbal component; only that the most important aspects of these communications are not, to the target, immediately understood in terms of the most obvious and direct interpretation. Subtle communication in the domain of writing includes subtext, wordplay, irony, symbolism, oblique reference, the literal content of metaphor, and emphasis; in speech, we can also consider changes in meaning and emphasis created by timing and modulation; when speaking to someone in person, facial expressions and body language constitutes high-bandwidth subtle communication mostly hidden from us but transferred by unconscious mirroring behavior. Regular speech can become subtle communication if the target is unable to distance themselves enough to objectively analyse it, either because it becomes internalized before it is fully understood (as with song lyrics), or because something is interfering with verbal processing (as with the repetition of creeds or mantras — jamming the verbal processing facilities — or when the target is tired or under the influence of various drugs). Subtle communication has lower bandwidth and a greater error rate than overt communication, and it is often missed or dropped, but it also bypasses many of the mechanisms that might work against some goal, which makes it an ideal way to circumvent forces that would work against a more direct attempt.

Seen in this way, sigils (when directed at the self) operate a bit like affirmations. A sigil is a reminder of an intent, but one that is oblique enough that it avoids triggering self-defeating behaviors. When sigils are directed at others, they retain less of their meaning, but some subtle communication is still achieved (with the amount depending upon the quantity of shared understanding and assumptions between the creator and the target). We can expect only a small effect from showing our sigils to others, at best, unless we give them enough context that it is comparable to their having made the sigil themselves; if we share enough culture with the others, however, subtle communication from them can reinforce our own goal-seeking behavior, like a smaller-scale version of publicizing one’s to-do list or new year’s resolutions. When such pressure is small and subtle, it doesn’t overwhelm.

Rituals abstract our goal in much the same way that sigil creation does. The pressure is higher because of sunk cost: rituals are costly signals to the self about the importance of achieving some goal. The time and effort turned over to a ritual is itself a sacrifice (and one that is properly set in our minds, as opposed to a pathological case like gambling wherein sacrifices are disguised as investments or amusements), and an actual sacrifice increases the cost. Group rituals bind the group together to a common goal: they all made the same sacrifice, and would like to avoid the cognitive dissonance of having wasted it, so they must achieve their goal in order to justify their sacrifice.

Books like Mind Performance Hacks produce rationalist-friendly “life hack” versions of these practices, with the occult terminology stripped out. Rather than sigils, print out a sheet with affirmations or themed words in order to encourage particular primed responses! Rather than rituals, make a betting pool with your friends about the success of some project, or vow to donate to a charity you hate if you fail! By embracing the verbal mind, these practices open up the door to endless second-guessing, and thus to self-sabotage. I would recommend the chaos magick versions of these practices instead. Self-sabotage seems likely, particularly if you don’t respond well to direct pressure.

With hypersigils, the mechanism of action is even easier. People model their worldview mostly on art: experiences provided by art are easier to find and consume than experiences provided by life, and are also safer. A hypersigil takes a naturalistic view of the world and adds elements to it that encourage emotional investment, and then slowly modifies it in ways that correspond to some intent. The result is that the creator and audience both have their world view modified by the creator’s intent. When the audience has adjusted expectations, it becomes more likely that they will manipulate the world to fit those expectations, as well as communicating their expectations to secondary audiences.