Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique Series)

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2006 | Go to article overview

Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique Series)


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique Series) Joshua Gunn, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

How many taboos can a scholar violate before being permanently assigned to publishing limbo? Judging from this book, quite a few! Joshua Gunn, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas-Austin, treats the seldom analyzed (because disreputable) territory of the occult, typically understood to include phenomena such as fortune telling, astrology, black magic, Satanism, and channeling dead spirits. He wishes to show how "individuals use language ... secrets, creating groups of insiders and outsiders" (xv). Gunn reveals that his investigation was launched by a "smugly" framed insult tossed at him in a graduate seminar; another student publicly chastised him for his ignorance of "Lacan on desire" (235). Perhaps reflecting the emotional sting of that classroom humiliation, he risks offense to many respectable colleagues in a first chapter that begins with a babbling satire of the French postmodern stars, Deleuze and Guattari.

Such a ruse momentarily suggests his sympathy with Alan Sokal, who hoaxed the journal Social Texts a decade ago with famously "fashionable nonsense." But after this deliberate linking of occultism's obscurity with that of postmodern critical discourse, he goes on to offer a qualified apologia for both. While he does not defend the truth claims of either, he argues instead for the legitimacy of their shared purpose-to disclose previously unknown truths conveyed through language that is by necessity exploratory. As he works out parallels between the popular and the scholarly occult, Gunn develops a subtle, original analysis that helps us understand "the poetics of obscurity" and how it functions to create appreciative audiences.

In addition to this philosophical strand focused on meaning, the argument of the book is framed historically, encompassing ancient origins of the occult tradition, its suppression by the early Christian church, its revival during the Renaissance, and its period of greatest vitality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the church's social authority to forbid what it called "magic" declined.

For the American aspect of Gunn's analysis, principal figures covered are H. P. Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and Anton LaVey. And just as the spiritual authority of the church diminished, Gunn sees a downward path from a period of earnest seeking after secrets to a period of occult commodification dominated by scary images rather than esoteric language.

Blavatsky was a world traveler from Ukraine who, in 1875, formed the Theosophical Society in New York; she circulated as a spiritualist celebrity who commanded special insights and powers based upon her study of assorted world religions. The Society still exists today and her works such as his Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), although denounced by some of her contemporaries as "rubbish," are still in print today, remaining important to the theosophical strand of New Age religions. Her rhetorical style, which was repetitive, list-laden with citations, and filled with imported terms (especially from Sanskrit), helped Blavatsky cultivate the aura of authority among her devoted, though often bemuddled followers. …

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