Magic to Not Be Who I Am: Grant Morrison, Chaos Magic, and Western Mystery Traditions

Curator's Note

This is how Grant Morrison uses his magic: to be a character, to force the immaterial through his flesh and Macbook and make it hard, to spread some kind of wacky contagion wherein we—the consumers of superhero-themed media-stuff—might be able to wake up. Not just once, as in Enlightenment, which is dull and too easy, but as in syncing to intermittent wakenings, little enlightenments, being able to become new people and then different people. Morrison, as this clip from the 2010 documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods shows, practices chaos magic, a branch of the Western Mystery Tradition for an age of global capital. Its mantra—different from Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt"—is "Make it work." It has no doctrine, only methods. It believes in everything. Morrison conjures not only Solomonic demons, but loa, John Lennon, and Superman. He uses it to conjure himself from raw pop.

This clip details the magic that went into Morrison's 1990s comic The Invisibles, a heterotopian punk conspiracy Bildungsroman. The goal was simple: incite psychedelic self-discovery and sci-fi self-exploration. Morrison makes the comic—and its bald, leather-clad lead King Mob—into a hypersigil. Working a sigil involves putting into language a desire, denaturalizing the words of it into a meaningless symbol, then stare at it in an extreme moment, a limit experience (for example orgasm or bungee jumping). Then your desire becomes an impersonal force that brings what you wanted about. What Morrison wanted, apparently, was to become a superhero. Or at least someone different. And so he disorganized a world in his image.

In another Western Mystery Tradition—let's call it "theory" or "poststructuralism"—the status of the Subject is important. All the important French guys have something to say about it, and we can use their terms—assujettissement or deterritorialization and reterritorialization—to describe what Morrison does to himself, what's done to him, but he calls it magic. His model is to inscribe the self as mythos, to make the self magical, ever-changeable, to tear it down, to repeat, strangely. To be a character, to yank new gods into existence, to forget who you are, or, at least, to get through the week, to make it work.


Thank you for sharing this, Christopher. It is the first of this week's posts to focus on a broader, cultural definition of magic that does not require the presence of sleight-of-hand. What is our earliest written record of sigil use? I wonder which specific cultural and historical moment that earliest record might highlight for us. How has this kind of magic, as a form of taking control of one's own subjecthood (of how one is defined by nation, capital, and society) changed in response to different economic orders?

Thanks for your comment, Joe. I could be wrong, but I think our earliest written records were often sigils. Runes and ruinic magic for instance. Where we get the most "theory" sigil working is in the European medieval period, specifically in the Ars Goetia, part of the Lesser Key of Solomon, which indexes "seals" to bind demons. I confess I don't know much about runes, but it seems that the shift in sigil theory from goetic forms of magic to chaos magic sigil-working is that in the medieval grimoires, the images were used to summon or ward against supernatural forces where as chaos magic intends to make the person working the sigil into a supernatural force. In the sense Morrison is using, we can trace it to Austin Osman Spare (an early- mid-twentieth century artist) and, of course Aleister Crowley. If we take this to be the context, it falls right in line with High Modernism, the subjectivation of selves through the rise of medical psychology, normalization, the traumas of war and colonialism, and capital. Chaos magic's origins and contexts are more or less the same as poststructuralism (European 1960s–80s), and as I've tried to show here, concerns itself with many of the same tropes: a breakdown of the self-same self, emphasis on limit experiences and states of subjectivity (I probably could have done this whole thing just on Lacan's lectures on mystical experience and jouissance and chaos magic, or Foucault's idea of limit experiences), and syncretic textuality. And it does not necessarily radically break from the older system of sigils: one still summons, one still binds.

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