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.

Magical Words and Images

I hope you’re having a wonderful May! Having not long got back from running the very first retreat at St.Nectan’s Glen I’ve now got the opportunity to share some really excellent books that I’ve recently added to my library.

Heart Vision
Tarot’s Inner Path
Michael Orlando Yaccarino

Book ended with a foreword by tarot guru Rachel Pollack, and afterword by novelist and Egyptologist Normandi Ellis, Heart Vision comes with an impressive pedigree. Michael Orlando Yaccarino is perhaps best known for his engaging and exhaustive biographical works on the life of Luisa Casati (written in collaboration with Scot D.Ryersson, who also created illustrations for Heart Vision)). As per his books on The Marchesa, in Heart Vision Michael draws our attention to the work of another, sometimes overlooked, female creative. In this case it is Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist responsible for producing the compelling designs of the so-called Rider-Waite tarot deck. It is through the imagery of this quintessential deck that Yaccarino explores each of the arcana.

As Heart Vision unfolds Michael skillfully guides us through the deck, deftly bringing our attention to the hidden, the background imagery and the ‘veiled aspects’ of each card. But it’s not all about the iconography: A comprehensive range of spreads are given, with some very interesting variations. There are also examples of readings that demonstrate how the interpretative process unfolds.

Little gems of wisdom are scattered through the pages, culled from Yaccarino’s clearly extensive reading and conversations with contemporary practitioners. This is an excellent introduction to the tarot, and an enjoyable and illuminating text for the seasoned reader too. Available from Mandrake of Oxford.

HeartVisionFrontcover (1)

They Shimmer Within
Cognitive-Evolutionary Perspectives on Visionary Beings
Bruce Rimell

This is a very cogent, well cited exploration of why it is that we humans see things; things like ghosts and pixies, spirits and aliens, gods and, of course, entities when we are high (especially when we are high on Salvia, NN DMT and ayahuasca).

This book is grounded in both personal experience with visionary psychedelics and contemporary scientific models of neurological evolution. They Shimmer Within builds up the case that the beings we see (whether we are high on drugs or anxiously wandering round a haunted house) arise because our minds are primed for the detection of intelligent agents.

As well as exploring the wider lore of disembodied entities this volume also engages with topics such as those invasive alien surgeons summoned by DMT (frequently encountered when the psychonaut is injected by Dr Strassman in a hospital setting, weird eh?) and the nice summary of those ‘are the machine elves real?’ discussions as articulated by David Luke. The deep phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience (Shanon) and the modular nature of the mind (Mithen) also have a role to play in this masterful exploration of this curious and contested territory. My own copy is now full of marginalia (some of Bruce’s ideas are very similar to those I’ve written about previously) I’ve certainly been informed and inspired by this excellent text. Available via Amazon.

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3 Essays on Virtual Reality
Overlords, Civilization and Escape
Eliott Edge

It is true that in every age people have used technology to frame their thoughts about how things work. The human mind for example has been variously imagined as a loom, a hydraulic engine, a radio antenna, and of course, a computer. Elliott Edge’s book stands within that tradition, here virtual reality (VR) is the cutting edge metaphor of choice through which we may (virtually) peer at ‘the wiring under the board’ of the universe.

Discussions about whether we are living in a (computer) simulation have existed in occulture for a number of years (notably in the work of Lionel Snell aka Ramsey Dukes) and years later exploded into mainstream society in the movie The Matrix. What Edge does in his work is move the conversation on, with a range of nice thought experiments and observations delivered in an engagingly rigorous yet conversational style.

For each generation there are those who who remind us that ‘the map is not the territory’. Using the language of VR Edge analyses the world-views or reality tunnels we inhabit and reminds of this perennial (multiple) truth. 3 Essays on Virtual Reality does not fall prey to solipsism but instead addresses the very real consequences of simulated reality theory. Edge points us to paranormal studies, shamanism and magic (as well as psychedelic drugs) as agents that may allow us to examine the architecture of the reality studio, and perhaps even reconfigure the inevitable VRs in which we live. Download these essays into your VR helmet here.

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The Devon & Cornwall Pagan Federation Conference

A delightful conference that has been going for 20 years was held again in March of this year. I was invited to make the first presentation of the day on the theme of Paganism past, present and future. I had to pack my talk into less time that I initially thought available but still managed to get a few gags in.

The key point of my  presentation was that while there may be a slow down in the number of people who identify as ‘Pagan’ (at least in UK census data) there are many, many more people who do pagan things – paganing as a verb as it were.

The great increase in the numbers of people creating autonomous spiritualities, of those involved in entheogenics and many others paths, perhaps means that the practices of Paganism have gone beyond the limits of identities such as ‘witch’, ‘heathen’ and all the rest.

Next year this conference will be back, but this time as part of the Pagan Phoenix South West. More details as these unfold but for now, enjoy!

(With thanks to the wonderful Damh the Bard for his contributions to this talk and to our own Steve Dee for the metaphor of the ‘Monsters of Rock’.)

If you want to check out details of forthcoming events please have a look at this page.

Hail the Queen of the May!

Julian Vayne

PS Don’t worry if you can’t access the article Keeping the Doors of Perception Open, all will be revealed soon…;)