Text from Paolo Plot about magic and our workshop at Goldsmiths

It’s the week before the big demonstration of the 26th of March 2011, a week of strikes at Goldsmiths and everywhere else in London. Some students have occupied the New Cross Town Hall, the building where the Warden’s and the management’s offices are. Susan invites Camila Mello e Fabiane Borges to present their practices as part of the Micropolitics Research Group series. After Bifo, Suely Rolnik, Brian Holmes, Colectivo Situaciones, Chto Delat, it is the first time the Micropolitics Group invites people who are not really “celebrities” in some way. There are not many people attending this presentation, we are in a room in the basement of the occupied Town Hall. Fabi starts by telling how she met Camila: “We actually got to know each other in London, we met the first time a few months ago. Actually, we sort of knew each other in Brazil already, we worked with the same artists, and then we were together in a party in Sao Paolo, but I was so drunk that I didn’t realize it was Camila…” I like this already, not quite a proper way to start an academic presentation.


Camila and Fabi present two series of projects they were involved with in Brazil, and also works of other Brazilian artists. I knew Camila because she had a presentation as part of the Collective Futures symposium we organised a few weeks before.[1] I’ve heard of Fabi before, I know she is doing a PhD with Peter Pal Pelbart. They show us amazing images and videos: artists join people squatting huge blocks of flats and make all sorts of projects with them, helping them in a long fight against the police who tried to evict them; artists getting together and turning upside down entire neighbourhoods; artists getting people involved in street performances and other activities. There must be something extraordinary about art and artists in Brazil, they seem to work in a very different way from European artists. I think about Summer Drafts: I need to work for months, for years to get people engaged, to prepare a ground for the artists who come to Bolzano. In Brazil it seems so easy to stir up people’s excitement. Actually it is more than easy, it looks wild. It is as if those artists would spread viruses that make entire neighbourhood euphorically contagious. What I think at first is “Of course, this is Brazil, it’s so far away from Europe and the UK, in every sense.” But there must be something else than a national cultural predisposition to explain this difference.


Fabi shows us also videos of people who are not artists, for example the Sem Terra (MST): she points at the way they dress, the symbols they use, she reads their marches as sort of performances, or better, as rituals. Fabi seems to read art and magic together, in many of her examples, and in places where they are not necessarily apparent. Art and magic become something that could possibly take place every day. There might be some “magic” even in this room, in the way Fabi and Camila talk, the way we discuss together after the presentation.


Susan starts the discussion with a beautiful question, relating the whole presentation to the here and now of London, after months of struggle, in a period of university strikes, when in some way or another we all prepare to the next demonstration. “I wonder what is it that makes things happen in such a way in Brazil, how is this contagion possible, how can enthusiasm spread in such a way? Because we are all exhausted here, the students occupying upstairs are exhausted, we have been protesting for months, amongst the indifference of so many people, and nothing seems to happen, nothing seems to change!” As an answer Fabi explains how she and her Brazilian friends usually get people in the streets involved in collective activities. They start with something like a street party: she describes it like a sort of witchcraft, an enchantment, an alchemy where what gets transformed is subjectivity. The artists are like witches that stir magic substances getting people mixed up. You start with a moment like this and you take it from there.


It sounds like a Brazilian dream… but what about us? Why it doesn’t work like this here? We start a discussion about art and professionalization: Manuela says that what happens to us is that we internalize, we assimilate into our bodies “professionalization”, discipline and control, to such an extent that we end up stiff, incapable of letting go and opening to the unforeseeable. Activism becomes the latest unpaid job that ends up sucking us up. I think about myself and about the meetings I have been going, recently and for the first time, with such a reticence, with such a sense of heaviness, because I don’t feel sharp enough to be part of that group of people, where you have to contribute actively, talk eloquently, think fast and be smart. I feel a double pressure for me to be up to a certain level, the level of this group. It’s difficult to tell how much this pressure comes from myself, from a parameter of suitability that I create in my head, and how much it comes from the homogeneity of the group, from its “horizontality”, that is, from its inability to deal with the different, the disagreeable, with that which does not follow a set of general inclinations, the direction of the strongest forces.[2] And anyway, is not activism supposed to be about being strong? Being stronger than what we fight against? Being stronger than those who are not an activist?


This pressure of being up to a standard comes, before myself and the group, from… everywhere, from a culture of pervasive competitive work, of hierarchical dynamics masked by informality  and “structurelessness”, of a neoliberal conformism disguised by slogans proclaiming the beauty of “difference”. It could be said that a certain culture of work permeates our life, our social life, our struggling life. We protest, we resist, we struggle, but how can we do it otherwise, how can we activate a different modality from that of a life at work? How can we disrupt the mechanisms of a culture of work and professionalization that are impregnating our bodies and the relations between our bodies?


The discussion about the professionalization of ourselves carries on, and at some point I speak and say “I think what is missing to us is magic. Magic as something that could have to do with our everyday life. I have always been completely uninterested in magic because I thought that it was a practice used to gain a private benefit through an exchange of money. But today’s presentation is showing that there is another kind of magic, something that, as all magic, has to do with transformation. The difference is that transformation here is not foreseeable, it is not taking place as an (object of) result for whom magic means are applied, and it is not something directed to the benefit of an individual or the damage of another. This is a magic that has to do with people, not a group of initiates, but whoever people, and it is a magic that can take place every day, a magic that is almost indistinguishable from daily banalities, it doesn’t even need to be named as such…”


Magic is art an artifice, you learn how to do it, it is manipulation, that is, literally, what makes graspable the ungraspable. Magic is an art, and this “magic every day” is political: it is alchemy as a transformation that invests subjectivity together with ungraspable cosmic forces. Magic is political inasmuch it has to do with affects, intensities, desires, and what is difficult to sense and perceive.


Everyday magic is not marginal, it is not relegated beyond the borders of the rational, in non visible places, as a residual practice protecting itself from embarrassment. Nor it is, on the other side, “new age”, that is, magic as reduced to one of the many incarnations of neoliberalism. We could possibly learn a bit more how to “use” magic.[3] And to use this magic is always undergoing it, exposing ourselves to forces that are not reducible to our own. But, this is the novelty, these forces are not transcendental, not anymore, as Starhawk explains in her writings.[4] This means, again, that they are not separated from us and from our world, they are part of it. They are part of what Deleuze, after Foucault, after Blanchot, calls the “outside”, as an outside that is not transcendental.


Bataille figures in Foucault’s essay on the “outside”, amongst other thinkers of the outside (Nietzsche, Artaud, Klossowski, Blanchot…), as exercising “the discourse of the limit, of ruptured subjectivity, transgression”.[5] As Kojeve (“ironically”) says, Bataille is like a magician that would persuade himself of the existence of magic by surrendering to the enchantment of his own tricks. “Limit, ruptured subjectivity and transgression” are not performed only through discourse, as Foucault suggests, but also through a practice as “apprentice sorcerer”, in a world where the transcendence of the outside has collapsed onto earth, onto our bodies: Bataille is an “alchemist of the revolution”. There is nothing transcendental in Bataille’s alchemy, in his magic, this “outside” is never outside our selves and our (political) implications, it always implies ourselves in its rousing of forces. Bataille the apprentice, experimenting with magic, it’s a becoming-sorcerer offered to us. It is perceiving ourselves and the cosmos as forces, intensities, speeds, desires, which, to some extent, we can affect, whilst being affected. It is also, in Bataille (and Starhawk as well underlines the “danger”), playing dangerously with these forces, putting ourselves at risk. But what if (and this is Bataille more than Starhawk) we practice magic for no reason, improperly and every day, in different situations, perhaps imperceptibly?


Magic is an activity of B series, who believes in it today? Certainly not philosophers, or the professionals of the arts, not in Europe at least. For Bataille magic is deathly, hence “negative”, since it is still practiced, but placed at the margins, rejected by the claim to rationality of a bourgeois culture. Today magic is co-opted by capitalism in the form of a business, of an individualized practice one has to pay for, casting evil eyes at my enemies and invoking all the good for myself. Let’s reclaim (Bataille’s) magic for ourselves, let’s reclaim magic as a way to collectively manipulate forces and make them circulate, through our bodies and the cosmos.

[1] See the next chapter for an introduction to Collective Futures.

[2] For a critique of horizontality in (activist) groups see Jo Freeman “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (1970) in Untying the Knot. Feminism, Anarchism and Organisation, Dark Star / Rebel Press, 1984.

[3] David Vercauteren as a “sorcerer”: see chapter 3 and David Vercauteren +++, Micropolitica de los grupos, Traficantes de Suenos, 2010.

[4] “Feeling good is not the measure by which we should judge our spiritual work. Ritual is more than self-soothing activity. Spirituality is also about challenge and disturbance, about pushing our edges and giving us the support we need to take great risks. The Goddess is not just a light, happy maiden or a nurturing mother. She is death as well as birth, dark as well as light, rage as well as compassion — and if we shy away from her fiercer embrace we undercut both her own power and our own growth. There are times when it is inappropriate to feel wholly good. Now is one of them. As the saying goes, “If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.” This doesn’t mean that we need to be in a constant state of rage or irritability or guilt. It means we need to use our magical tools to face the stark and overwhelming realities that confront us, acknowledge our feelings, and transmute them into the energy we need for change.” Starhawk, “Towards an Activist Spirituality”, 2003 http://www.starhawk.org/pagan/activist_spirituality.html

[5] Foucault, “The Thought of the Outisde” in Foucault, Essential Works. Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, +++ p 151.



One thought on “Text from Paolo Plot about magic and our workshop at Goldsmiths

  1. uhu! we do need so much texts like this paolo. freedom to feel, to say, to contaminate. thats magic also. xx just let me know from where you are quoting bataille!!!! grazie


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