Review – Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair

For regular readers of this blog, it will hardly be surprising that I approached Dr Vanessa Sinclair’s new book with both excitement and high expectations. In my own writing (especially The Heretic’s Journey), I have been keen to explore how the methods of artistic creativity can be used by the magician as a means for mining the depths of the self.

Over the past decade or so, it has felt that many occultists have rejected psychological models of magic in favour of more traditionalist cosmologies that promise both historic roots and thorough methodology. In response to the postmodern, disposable approach of Chaos Magic such seekers are forthright in their critique of the “pop”, lightweight nature of the insights offered and question their ability to leverage lasting change.

In marked contrast to the surface level reflections that the psychological model can be prone to, Vanessa Sinclair’s work provides a necessary and significant counterweight. This work gives us a vital and re-energised perspective on how the insights of psychoanalytic thinking, language and artistic expression can have true transformative power and be:

 “…a generative way of working with and through unconscious material and processes; cutting through ingrained systems of belief and oppression in order to attain new insights, ways of being and modes of becoming in the world.”

As I approached this book my expectations were already high, I was aware of Vanessa’s role as a visual artist, a practicing Psychoanalyst and co-convener of many excellent conferences focused on art, the occult and psychoanalysis. The breadth of her work and vision is nicely encapsulated here

In this book, Sinclair makes skilled use of Jacques Lacan’s expanded re-visioning of scansion as not merely a marker of poetic meter and emphasis, but rather scansion is a study in the disruptive and punctuating power of creativity. Sinclair invites us to a panoramic overview of modern art and culture; the vastness of her view can at times feel dizzying in its breadth but it is masterful in the vision that it captures. Scansion is a bold invitation to “new ways of seeing ourselves, one another and society…in a state of perpetual destruction and creation.” (p27)

We are treated to a pacey but theoretically engaging whistle stop tour through the history of modern art that sees a potent synchronicity between the advent of the Kodak’s hand-held camera the “Brownie” and the birth of Psychoanalysis at the dawn of the 20th century. Our ability as individuals to perceive, capture and display images reflects a new autonomy that mirrors the powerful tools espoused by Freud for accessing the mysteries of the self.

The captured image offers us a “slice” of reality that often holds dimensions of the unconscious that shed new light on our realities. Vanessa’s analysis of this rich timeline demonstrates the disruptive power that sparks of inspiration can having in cutting through centralized control and orthodoxy. The stabbing brush strokes of Van Gough, the stark cut-out images of Matisse and the surreal “readymade” objects of Marcel Duchamp all challenge any attempt to create a boundary between the art that we create and the intuitive way of viewing the whole of our lives. 

The symbiotic relationship between art and the birth of psychoanalysis comes to full fruit in the work of the surrealists. The creative genius of artists such as Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington made overt use of their dream lives, the unconscious and techniques of automatic writing and free association to bypass the psychic censor and plumb the depths of being. Things then come full circle as Lacan seeks to incorporate the methods of the surrealists within his clinical practice much to the distress of his more staid contemporaries. Sinclair provides helpful insight in noting the way in which the potency of the unconscious disrupts any attempts to control or create new orthodoxies. When conformity and normalization begin, the energy of the cut will not be far behind!

Marcel Duchamp with a Readymade

The surrealist use of mirrors and dream-states in their work often reflected a deep fascination with the Double. This doppelganger-double as a reflection of the self often disrupts the encrusted certainties of our ego so that new realms can be explored. Sinclair introduces us to the gender fluid work of Pierre Molinier whose photomontage evoked the complex, overlapping and multiple nature of the self. Such work significantly inspired Breyer P-Orridge and we can see the way in which such “existential playfulness” not only informed their pandrogeny work but also the jarring sonic cut-ups found in the early Industrial noisescapes of Throbbing Gristle and Psychick TV.

Vanessa provides us with an insightful perspective on the heady mash-up between culture and occulture. The spirit of the cut-up and surrealism was manifested potently within the creative hot-house of the Beat Generation (especially Gysin and Burroughs) who in turn famously helped shape David Bowie’s approach to song writing. This is not a “how to” book of occult techniques, rather it is a deeply magical work in reflecting on how seismic change works within the internal world so as to send shock waves through an often stagnant culture.

Throbbing Gristle, not ones for stagnation

The magic of the cut is a magic that is profoundly embodied. Sinclair highlights Freud’s view that it is the ego-body through which we first experience the world. The magic of art and analysis invites us to deconstruct and cut-through the constraints of normalization and conditioning in order to recover the whole body sensual liberty of an earlier polymorphous perversity. This decidedly queer territory. The gender focused works of Val Denham, the post-human performance art of Stelarc and wider trends in modern primitivism all point to a more fluid and engaged relationship with our flesh and the impact that our transformative experiments can have on the psyche. 

Sinclair’s book skillfully demonstrates the importance of the cut, in its various forms, as a potent approach to transformation for the magician to explore:

“The cut is another royal road to the unconscious. It allows us to dislocate and derail the narrative, so that we may understand ourselves and our past in a different light and rewrite our future in a new way; a way in which we desire to be, rather than the way we are predestined to be based on our histories, families and societies.”  

Highly recommended.

Steve Dee

Buy Scansion in Psychoanalysis and Art: the Cut in Creation by Vanessa Sinclair (Routledge 2020)


Coming up next

Julian is teaching online magic with Treadwell’s Books and has also released a new course on the Deep Magic teaching site: First Steps in Magic.

In this course you’ll encounter the magic of the elemental powers of Air, Fire, Water and Earth through practice, ritual, journal work and guided meditations. You’ll learn how to cultivate the corresponding Four Powers of the Magician; To Know, To Will, To Dare and To Keep Silent. In addition to providing you with a comprehensive training program First Steps in Magic invites you to do things your own way and to develop your unique magical creativity. This course is available at a discounted price for a limited time. Click here for details.

On Sunday 25th April Nikki will be co-presenting an online workshop with Dave Lee on The Structure of Psychedelic Ceremony, click here for details.

Psychedelic Learning

For many years I’ve been interesting in teaching and learning, how these processes happen, and what makes them more or less effective. My university studies were in the field of pedagogy, and my undergraduate dissertation explored the value of a playful approach to learning in hypertext environments. That was in the very early days of the World Wide Web. These days we just call this process ‘online learning’, a process which, like any educational experience has a variety of benefits and limitations.

The Russian pedagogue Lev Vygotsky described learning as a process that takes place in the zone of proximal development (ZPD); this is the conceptual space between what the learner knows, and what they can come to know in the presence of a teacher (a ‘more knowledgeable other’). This concept and the metaphor of a ‘learning space’ reminds me of a definition of magic given by Phil Hine in his seminal work Condensed Chaos:

‘Magic is a set of techniques and approaches which can be used to extend the limits of Achievable Reality. Our sense of Achievable Reality is the limitations which we believe bind us into a narrow range of actions and successes—what we believe to be possible for us at any one given time. In this context, the purpose of magic is to simultaneously explore the boundaries and attempt to push them back—to widen the “sphere” of possible action.’

I’ve written before about the importance of strategies to break out of behavioural patterns, which entails learning something new. Sometimes this new knowing, the wisdom attained in the ZPD, is of such magnitude that the self that arises in it may be profoundly transformed. To make change of this magnitude we need a technology (an approach or method—as in Phil’s definition of Magic) and/or a great teacher.

When it comes to learning, one great teacher that increasing numbers of people are seeking out, is the category of psychedelic medicines. These substances, whether cultivated, wild-harvested, or conjured into visible appearance in the alchemist’s laboratory, can provide a range of new perspectives. They can provide healing by providing us with new ways to understand trauma. They can give us creative insights and help cultivate a new sense of connection between us and other beings (from our family and friends through to the biosphere as a whole). The idea that the psychedelic state can be usefully thought of as a teacher is one that educationalist Lindsay Jordon and I have both spoken about. Like any wise teacher, psychedelic medicines often give us the lessons we need, not necessarily the ones we think we need. The psychedelic state, with it’s ability to generate novel neuronal connections helps us come to realizations ourselves, and it also encourages us to ask more questions.

As an educationalist I was delighted to be contacted by the Fungi Academy and invited to collaborate with them in the creation of a Psychedelic Journeywork Course. The Fungi Academy already provide courses, both online and at their center in Guatemala, on mushroom cultivation. With this new course I had the opportunity to translate the accessible approach of Getting Higher; The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony into a complete program for people wanting to learn how to work with sacred mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe. I hope you’ll have the time to check the course out; it contains some beautiful videography and music, as well as written information to help students connect with the world-wide mycelial network of psychedelic practice. Follow this link to view the course. You can get 25% off the course price with the promo code/coupon ‘Julian’.

The growth of online classes and events that the pandemic has occasioned means more and more people are increasingly confident navigating online spaces. In terms of my own esoteric work I’m part of a group that has been experimenting with online ritual for decades and, while of course there are limitations to this way of working, there are benefits too. I’ve stood in the virtual circle with practitioners from many time-zones, allowing us to collapse chronology and distance, coming together to work our magic and build community across the globe.

As we begin to reconnect with each other in physical space I hope that we can continue to develop our intelligent use of the online space. That we can learn how opinions form, how they can be successfully challenged, and that we can increase our ability to sift useful information from the less useful. I hope too that those international meetings, now so commonplace in Zoomland, can help us grok that we are in fact one global community, however much nationalism and other ideologies claim otherwise.

While we should remain mindful of the echo-chamber effect, and of bad actors, there’s much more collaboration and community around these days than we may immediately appreciate. Much more solidarity and cooperation than the news portrays. The creation and development of these virtual communities can be a great blessing, may it serve us well.

Julian Vayne


Coming up next

Nikki Wyrd and Julian Vayne are hosting two online events:
A Spring Equinox ritual with The Psychedelic Society, 21st March
two-day intensive session on Psychedelic Magick organized through Occulture, 27-28th March
Nikki and Julian will also be speaking at the Mt.Tam Psychedelic Integration Jamboree April 16th-18th

Julian is taking part in a panel on Morning Rituals with The Psychedelic Society, 6th April
Julian is also teaching online with Treadwell’s Books, check their events page for details
Nikki is holding an online workshop, The Structure of Psychedelic Ceremony, 25th April; details to follow