(RNS) — Most of us traditionally think magic as supernatural: a potion or incantation that transforms concrete reality — at its most Monty Pythonesque, changing a person into a newt.
But in a modern world in which we decreasingly agree on a single set of facts and internet reality often doesn’t seem so concrete, magic is more likely to be practiced as a psychic upending. Witches don’t warp what we think we see. To cast a spell, they only need to cultivate an ideology or a value system that is at odds with the oppressive “real” world and impose it on others.
That, at any rate, is the view of writer and witch Sarah Lyons, who new book, “Revolutionary Witchcraft: A Guide to Magical Activism,” out later this month, casts witchcraft as the spiritual arm of a wider subversion of the powers that be, ready to be harnessed to resist the forces of tyranny, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.
Lyons isn’t the only occultist to have drawn parallels between freewheeling internet culture and the power of the unconscious to manifest reality. “Revolutionary Witchcraft” is only the latest in a long line of Trump-era books that envision witchcraft as an integral part of political and spiritual opposition to Trumpism.
But Lyons goes further that most in exploring the degree to which contemporary, late-capitalist, Internet-culture America runs on a panoply of energies, each of which might once have been thought of as their own kind of magic: The hidden hand of the free marketplace, the propagandistic effect of “fake news,” the inflated values of dot-com bubbles, the arbitrary nature of national borders, and the disembodied memetic power of the Internet.
For Lyons, we need to recognize these systems not so much as concrete reality but a product of collective symbolic consensus — and turn them to our own purposes. As Lyons puts it: “Lying to yourself and believing it makes you delusional, while lying to others and them believing it form trickery — but doing both simultaneously is magic.”
How you do this often sounds like political organizing as much as it does hexing: she recommends “power mapping,” which demands that readers “list resources,” “identify active and passive allies” and “identify active and passive enemies,” thinking through the consequences of each action. She mandates the cultivation of spirit allies, or the invocation of the like-minded dead — the late gay and transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Ray Rivera, and Leslie Feinberg all get a name-check.
Indeed, Lyons admits that political witchery is not so occult. “We do magic all the time without realizing it,” Lyons writes. “That’s what make it s cool!”
It’s also an idea whose time seems to have come. By treating magic as a shift in perspective with the power to change the wider “reality” of the world, Lyons captures the heart of what has made contemporary occultism — from astrology to Tarot to sage cleansing to eclectic New Age-tinged wellness spiritualism — so attractive to today’s millennial and Generation-Z religiously unaffiliated.
The idea that reality itself is so unfixed and unstable that differing perspectives, underscored not by empirical reality but by bona fide emotional commitment, lends itself to a postmodern vision of magical possibility.
If all realities are equally plausible — be they the words of President Trump or the reality of hexing — then there is no reason that magic should be less plausible, indeed less powerful, than any other form of reality-creation. Magic is possible precisely because everything else seems to be.
This vision of magic-as-perspective is not confined to the progressive left. Since 2016, advocates of “meme magic” on the right have credited mysterious occult forces — helped by an army of web trolls — for helping to elect Donald Trump.
In this, at least, the progressive witch-left and the atavistic right are in agreement: insofar as the world we live in is an utterly absurd one, magic has no more — or less — right to credibility than money, or politics, or information.
Whether we consciously choose to be or not, we’re all meme magicians now.