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Academia and the OTO: A Review of the AOTO Conference

Academia and the OTO: A Review of the AOTO Conference

by Sister Georgia

The academic study of esotericism has had a difficult history, and it only exists in its current form due to the tireless efforts of Dr Wouter Haanegraff. Part of the process by which it became an acceptable part of the academy was by drawing a clear line between the academic study of esotericism, and the practice of esotericism in its various forms. However, now this line has been established, the contemporary field, particularly in the UK, is moving towards reconciling the academic study and the practitioner milieu (a movement being enacted coextensively with the dropping of the term ‘western’ from the study of western esotericism). Examples of this movement can be found in the journal Correspondences recent statement on removing the word western from its title, and their upcoming issue on autoethnography; as well as in recent conferences such as Trans-States and Conjuring Creativity which sought to bring together practitioners and academics to speak on occult topics

Still, within the academic study of esotericism it remains the norm to keep one’s practice or personal experience out of the picture. This is a juncture at which I differ dramatically from the norm. I studied theology for my undergraduate degree, where 80% of my classmates were training for the ministry, and 90% of my teachers were ordained ministers in their various Christian denominations. In this context theology, biblical studies, church history and religious studies (each of these subjects being considered equally academic, and requiring research and referencing to highest academic standard) were done side by side, to the mutual benefit of all. I believe that a number of approaches are needed for a healthy, flourishing academic milieu around any given religious tradition.

The desire for the academic study of esotericism to be one that takes place from a position of supposed objectivity is a view is propounded most clearly by Wouter, particularly in his recent blog post. He argues that he does not consider a religionist perspective less than religious studies, but different—however he does state that he feels “the study of religion as a secular discipline incompatible with doctrinal theology of any kind.” I find this dismissal of theology puzzling (and admit I may be misunderstanding how he defines doctrinal theology); Wouter seems to suggest that theology is not properly academic in the same way religious studies is, but considering he accepted my BA in Christian Theology as appropriate grounding for his MA in Religious Studies, I do not quite understand how this can be the case. I have the greatest respect for Wouter, and I know that I would not be able to do the research I am engaged in now without the work he did before me. However I believe the religious studies and theological approaches must operate side by side (it is important to note in the context of Wouter’s article that I do not conflate the theological approach with the religionist one, the grand narratives of which are diametrically opposed to the theological school of ontology of which I consider myself a part).

Now, although it is rare to label this form of work theology, I am hardly alone in this tendency and desire to bring the insights of contemporary practice and the contemporary milieu into the world of academia. The key locus of this has so far been art—because, I believe, it offers an objective object which represents an experience—a sensory representation of a numinous concept. However, this focus on art has enabled the tendency to jump over that awkward epistemological gap of what this stuff actually is, and what it does. Since its inception a strange agnosticism and ambivalence towards esoteric practices has been propagated by the academic field. Since esoteric practices are already (indeed, according to George Hansen, necessarily) liminal, this acts as yet another way to deny the validity of contemporary esoteric practice as a meaningful religious/spiritual experience/commitment. It is almost as though one is ‘allowed’ to talk about occultism in the context of art and media, because that means we don’t have to face up to what exactly the epistemological status of this stuff is—since magicians themselves cannot agree if it is religion or science or experience or what, it is hardly surprising the academy flees from this juncture. But to me, speaking about art and literature can offer ways into speaking about the experiential aspects of esotericism in an academic way. I believe and hope that, as the focus on occult art makes way for a focus on occult literature, this will become increasingly clear.

It was for these reasons, among others, that I ultimately chose to do my PhD in literature, rather than in Religious Studies. This was an area which is deeply neglected; it would give me a venue to combine emic and etic perspective without explicitly positioning my work as problematising the contemporary field of esoteric religious studies. As a literature scholar, I find myself with more freedom to utilise insight from my personal practice, gnosis and insight in my exploration of the writing, use and effects of occult literature. Without this, I would have found it near-impossible to accurately conceptualise initiation. Without emic reflection, speaking of the effects of an initiatory text is impossible, and it is for this reason, I believe, that the textual, initiatory esoteric tradition has been neglected within the academy for so long (and when it is spoken about, so quickly falls prey to religionism, as in Versluis’ Restoring Paradise).

All this is to serve as an overly-long introduction to the fact that I had very high hopes for June’s AOTO conference. I was excited to see how these various academics would present their work in a practitioner-heavy context, and in what ways the non-academic presenters would contribute. Thus, however, we come to my first criticism. For, despite calling itself the Academia OTO conference, and despite the fact that I was told one must be an affiliated academic in order to be a member of this, almost half of the speakers were not academics. This is not a problem in itself—both Trans-States and Conjuring Creativity  had a roughly 50/50 split of academics and practitioners/artists. Further, the conference was not affiliated with an academic institution. What I did find uncomfortable, however, was that the non-academic speakers (with one exception) did not talk about personal spiritual, practical or artistic insight, but gave faux-academic presentations, offering personal opinions without academic research.

I got the overwhelming sense that myself and the other bona fide academics there had been used to give academic credence to those who did not have it themselves. I found this deeply problematic in itself, but more importantly I believe that this actively hurts the work that I and others in the field of esotericism are trying to do. Because of the difficulties in claiming academic legitimacy for our field, papers in esotericism tend to be extremely strong academically (more so than those I have seen in the fields of literature, philosophy, and other areas of religious studies), and our field has a reputation for academic rigour because of this. I found myself feeling that this conference piggy-backed on the credibility of our field, while dragging this credibility down.

One academic said that he felt one of the non-academics could be considered an honorary academic because of his work with the OTO archives. Now, there are a number of independent scholars who can properly be considered academics, because they have engaged in publishing thoroughly researched and peer-reviewed publications. This individual has not—access to archives does not make one an academic, and I find it insulting to the work of myself and my colleagues that such a title can be ‘bought’ so easily. I would have been more than happy to hear talks of personal insight, if this was explicitly presented as such, or if it was used to strengthen academics arguments—but I felt that the modus operandi of this conference presents a deep problem for a field attempting to reorient itself, and it worries me that the organisers, all respected academics, did not seem to recognise this.

In addition, there was another aspect of the conference which I found deeply problematic, though for a different reason… Though I cannot help but think this aspect would not have been so prevalent if the conference had been under the auspices of a University. This was the instances of sexism occasioned at this conference.

When the conference poster was released, I was very surprised. The ratio of women to men was 3:10. In UK academia, at least, this ratio is understood to be unacceptable. I know many prestigious female academics who will refuse to attend conferences where there is not a reasonably equal proportion of female and male academics. It is true that the keynote of this conference was a woman, but that does not change the overall figures. The fact that the organisers had proudly blazoned the names of the speakers thus disproportionately represented on the poster surprised me. I posted on a public forum that I found this problematic, and my post was replied to by one of the organisers, who stated that as only two women from the AOTO had applied, there was not much he could do. He was even mildly accusative, blaming the problem on the fact that there were not enough women in the field—which is simply untrue, for I could list a number of women working in this area off the top of my head. Further, I knew at least one of the other speakers was not a member of the AOTO, being neither an academic nor an Order member. I was thus surprised at this answer, but did not wish to argue in that venue, and decided to hold out judgement until after the conference. Imagine my surprise to find that several of the male speakers were either not academics, or not order members. These people must have been invited to speak and the conference. I could not understand, therefore, why they had not invited any non-OTO women academics to speak—or indeed, non-academic female order members.

In the panel of which I was a part, I was told, publicly, at the beginning of my presentation that, as we were running late, it was extremely important to keep to time. Which I did, even rushing so as not to go over by one minute. The final speaker on the panel continued for 5 minutes after his allotted time. He then stopped, acknowledged that he was doing this, then continued to speak for ten more minutes. The chair made little attempt to stop him. I found this deeply unprofessional, but also inherently sexist. I have yet to see a female speaker ever act like this, but unfortunately it is far from the first time I have seen a male speaker act thus.

When I had a private word with said speaker after the panel was over, he told me that what he had done did not matter, because he was not a professional. This was hardly the only aspect of unprofessional conduct during this conference, and as someone who finds professionalism extremely important, particularly given the intricacies of the subject matter we study, I found his hugely problematic. This kind of behaviour further problematises the emic/etic divide—for if non-academic speakers will not even attempt to act professionally, then how can we possibly move towards including them in academic conferences, without diminishing what it means to be an academic in esotericism?

The final sexist incident was, again, the very public actions of one of the non-academic male speakers who, during the keynote lecture, publicly laughed at and mocked the younger, female translator who was doing an extremely impressive job of translating written Spanish, with spoken interjections, into to spoken English, but who did not know the pronunciation of some specialist occult words. He continued to do this, even when the translator showed signs of being deeply uncomfortable. Never mind the sexism that allowed the person to do this per se—that he thought it was appropriate to do this explicitly and publicly in an academic conference absolutely horrified me, and proved that this conference could neither be properly seen as academic, nor as professional.

These are the aspects of everyday sexism that are rarely reported—it often seems petty and unprofessional to mention them, no young female scholar (except masochistic old me) wants to upset their established male colleagues, and thus such behaviour continues unchecked.

Considering the current controversies going on within the OTO, I believed that a particular effort may be made by members to show that they were not sexist; instead, multiple participants acted publicly in a sexist way, confirming not only that they are sexist, but that they have no problem acting in a sexist way in public. When everyday sexism is propagated by people at the very top of the order, it is hardly surprising that they have no will to act against the widespread systematic instances of this.

I also feel the need to mention the utter discourtesy I was treated with by a number of colleagues. As far as I was concerned I was engaging in an emic debate—since the academic study excludes this, I believed it would be treated as irrelevant to my appearance at the conference in an academic capacity. I realise now this was very naïve—the strictures work in one direction only—and that is, anyway that is beneficial to those already well-established. The impetus for Wouter’s recent blog post was the thorough lack of professional courtesy with which he had been treated by a colleague. My experience at the AOTO conference echoed this; supposedly professional people who were unable to separate the personal and the professional. I was aware of a number of reasons why academics of esotericism were opposed to engaging theologically; I naively had not considered the extent to which personal politics would come into play. I have been so used to Christian theologians, who can have great, decades-long doctrinal disputes and still be good friends, that I did not expect professional courtesy to disappear the minute I expressed a problematic opinion. At least I now understand the state of play rather better. The emic/etic divide is presented as a methodological problem, when it is in fact a political one.

Finally, I would like to speak from the other side of this divide, as a practitioner in a practitioner-milieu. We’re in a difficult situation with esotericism, for esotericism is in itself a deeply intellectual tradition. And because of the issues of gnosis and experience and subjectivity occultists are often dismissive of academics—and it is true, I believe, that academics need to re-centralise the importance of subjectivity and experience in esotericism. However, the emic world needs to understand, in turn, that its tendency to conflate historical fact and experience, however necessary, is also problematic, and is one of the key reasons the tradition has remained such a liminal form of knowledge. Whether you care that the message reaches more people, or whether you care that so many must still keep their practice secret—or even if you don’t care at all—academia means something specific, and it has specific uses within the knowledge economy; it has specific benefits we are unable to claim while we insists that academia is just privilege in action. Yes, academia is privileged and partial; but the answer to academia being overly privileged is not to reject it, for its power, and its ability to speak for the practitioner milieu, will continue.  Knowledge has power, and in the contemporary knowledge economy the Academy is important. If we do not engage, then the conversation will continue without us.

Without the Academy, the best thinkers in other disciplines will not explore esotericism—links will not be made between esoteric religions and practices, and more mainstream forms of spirituality.  We will remain isolated and liminal—and I increasingly wonder whether this is what many occultists really want. But these people should learn their history better. Once again, we are called back to the 1930s, to the likes of Yeats and Pound and Lawrence taking up occultism to support ideas of natural nobility, to enforce a dying class elitism—and this is still going on today. It is doomed to fail, because it was already the dying gasp of a dying group. We find ourselves in a post-postmodern world, trying in vain to do high modernism—and, just like in the 1930s, it just makes us look like fools. Natural nobility, if such a thing exists, does not lie in obfuscating language, but in the development of the knowledge economy.

Other articles by Sister Georgia:

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6 thoughts on “Academia and the OTO: A Review of the AOTO Conference

  1. Georgia, I quite enjoyed your presentation – and happily so as I had missed it at Treadwells. I had hoped to speak with you afterwards, and mention another data point you might have found of interest for inclusion in your topic, but unfortunately didn’t see you when i had a moment. Maybe next time. WP

  2. Hello Georgia, thank you for an thought-provoking review. In section 11 and 12, you comment on the panel you were a part of. You write that “The speaker after me continued for 5 minutes after his allotted time. He then stopped, acknowledged that he was doing this, then continued to speak for ten more minutes. The chair made little attempt to stop him. I found this deeply unprofessional, but also inherently sexist.” You also write that “When I had a private word with said speaker after the panel was over, he told me that what he had done did not matter, because he was not a professional.”

    I was the speaker after you – you are talking about the *final* speaker at the panel, not me. If people compare your review with the publicly accessible program, the might get the wrong idea about me, my opinions and my actions. Can you please correct this to reflect what actually happened?

    Jesper Aa. Petersen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

    1. I’ve relayed this concern to the author who allowed the edit — it should be changed in the article. Thanks for taking the time to write a comment!

  3. 93 – Hi Sister Georgia! I’m curious about how you’re combining esoteric studies with your PhD. I’m beginning a Master’s in English literature and have had the same thought myself, though I’m not sure specifically what I’d like to research. How did you come to your research?

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