Originally published in The Occult Edition
The Occult Edition? Surely there’s not much to go on, not in our modern world of cold, cutting logic and rationality. I mean, we’re hardly overflowing with superstition and paranormal belief. If you exclude a select group of nutcases (like Yvette Fielding) that traipse about the country in the hope of witnessing spectral visitations, we’re a nation that has thankfully surpassed its once crippling commitment to the supernatural. Surely the point of the Enlightenment was to rid ourselves of those irrational beliefs in order to embrace the empirically true. As such, we are lucky to live in a society in which the entailments of myth and folklore have long since been discarded and usurped by a sterile secularisation that looks back at our past beliefs with a smug sense of superiority.
But are we right to view ourselves as too developed to fall foul of irrational beliefs? Can we really be hubristic enough to think that we’re any less susceptible to the lure of occult practices than our less ‘enlightened’ predecessors?
It seems to me that instances of occult behaviour are just as endemic in our modern society as they have ever been. Take our obsession with body image, for example. Gyms have never been more strained in accommodating our relentless urge to sculpt the perfect bod. Hour upon hour is sweated away in its construction, and it’s not just time that’s sacrificed in this aesthetic crusade, but also our psychological welfare. Weighed down by the pressure to achieve the correct reading on the bathroom scales, more and more of us fall into a neurotic relationship with food. What may start out for someone as a harmless diet can escalate into a fully blown eating disorder. And should they trespass beyond the realms of cabbage soup into something that resembles actual nutrition, the guilt with which they do this is crippling, and can only be offset by yet more servitude to the treadmill. Clearly then, on the basis that it can propagate damaging attitudes to ourselves, hyper-commitment to cultivating a desired body image is hugely irrational.
So, what’s occult about that? We may hold irrational and harmful beliefs, but surely there’s nothing mystical or hidden about doing so? We’re not exactly practicing the dark arts during our morning bicep curls, so far as I can tell. Surely the choice about whether to squat or not is as clear as day; the degree of our commitment to perfecting our bodies is brought about through beliefs that are intrinsic to our identity.
But does this obsession with our image really come about through processes of internal reflection? Are we really predisposed to the pursuit of protein shakes and the endless monotony of the treadmill? Or are we merely abiding by the requirements of a constructed set of social rules that we have almost no jurisdiction in determining? What could be more occult than actively subscribing ourselves to the whims and wants of societal demands for conformity?
Furthermore, I don’t think that our obsession with body image is the only example of occult behaviour in contemporary society. Is our worship and imitation of exhibitionistic celebrities any different from the religious idolatry practiced by our ‘primitive’ predecessors? Even the lingering ramifications of racist, classist and homophobic discrimination further exemplify a widespread attachment to irrational beliefs.
I posit that many of our common practices, some emblematic to the identity of the modern world, are no more comprised through individual reflection than they are determined through an intangible presence of pervasive group-thought.
Why we do what we do is often not in our control.