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We Talk Shop

This weekend, I attended a talk by Judika Illes, author of, among other things, The Element Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells. The thing that sticks in my mind about it was not the core topic – the history of African Diasporic spiritual and magical practice – but something that was almost a side point.

When practitioners of different magical systems hang out together, we talk shop.

When I was working on the Soup research, one thing kept coming up over and over again, making things interesting and complicated to chart: a lot of major figures, powerful figures in pagan movement history? They trained in multiple things. Even if they didn’t train in multiple things, they hung out with other people.

They talked shop.

Sometimes they cross-fertilized and created new traditions or ways of thinking. Sometimes they just traded techniques, hung out with each other’s gods a little, or did other things like that. But they talked shop.

I’ve always been complexly sad that I was born too late to be a part of that era. My introduction to paganism was through the 80s-90s book waves, where some of the people who were doing that thing talked about what they individually were doing, and we, the people reading them, largely didn’t realize that they were all doing different things. (I have a theory, partially sourced from the thoughts of a friend, that a lot of the weirdness in modern USonian paganism at least comes about because people read Cunningham, Buckland, Starhawk, et al, didn’t realize there were different traditions and approaches involved, couldn’t figure out how to reconcile praxis-based and experiential traditions with each other, and failed back into belief-orientation because hey, that’s what we’d been taught religion is.) The wealth of multiple streams of interrelated story, flowing into and through each other, sometimes birthing whole new ways of being? That’s amazing for me to imagine. Mythologically so.

I imagine I might at some point have found some sort of pagan community, but I can’t imagine how I’d get there; that book wave (I have often described it as “pop pagan books before the books all sucked”) was such a Trousers of Time thing. But there’s that transition from the pop pagan books based on the individual traditions of practitioners, put forward to broaden that experience of talking shop, and the books that are based on, well, the results of having all those previous books boiled down into inedible goo like bad cooks treat their vegetables. Instead of things being grounded in a particular worldview and/or praxis, there was stuff grounded in whatever was left after the worldview/unique praxis was soaked out of it all.

And then after that, you had a right mess. People trying to scorch the resulting slop into something with enough substance to be satisfying – people taking that unpalatable mess and trying to make Rules about How The Craft Really Works, generally. Either more books, or people latching on to things and trying to get it all to stick together. People who had or wanted particular traditions, separating themselves from All That Stuff in a mad backward scramble like a startled cat. Out of the formless mess came movements for Rigidity And Rules, and related and similar movements for Purity Of Practice.

One can’t talk shop from inside the goo, because there’s nothing to talk about. There are no meaningful practice differences, there is no recognition of worldview, there’s no sense of variation when everything is cooked down into an undifferentiated mess. One can’t talk shop from the factions, because doing it differently is violating the Rules, it is Contaminating the tradition, and everyone should either be doing it the Same or having little walled gardens where, like the old joke about heaven goes, “They think they’re the only ones here.”

But I go back to history and people talk shop.

I look at my life, the people I hang out with, and we talk shop.

I look at my own practices, my own studies, and how I want to cross the streams and blow up the world sometime. It seems so overwhelming, so exhausting, to do it one thing at a time, with the tiny community of people who are willing and able to talk shop, and yet I keep doing it, almost compulsively, collecting the threads of things that I want to make dance. It all turns into one skein of yarn in my hands, and this is beautiful and precious to me. What could we weave, with all these threads?

But they have to be threads, not a mass of unspun wool. Picking it all apart into a blob of undifferentiated fiber was part of the process that brought me here, but I look at that and go, “That… was a mistake. Or if it wasn’t a mistake, the process that emerged from it went wrong in ways which are, in retrospect, probably pretty predictable.”

There are new books, which try to be more specific about grounding themselves in an individual worldview and praxis, which say what they are more clearly so that they are not conflated with the things they are not so very easily. Perhaps in the future we’ll be ready to talk shop again, as a broader community, like we do in niche corners with people who have thread to ply into yarn.

2 comments to We Talk Shop

  • Crowess

    This is where, probably, talking shop should lead to a kind of comparative mode of looking at the threads. “Oh, you’ve got THIS motif going on, and I hadn’t considered that motif, but I can see a version of it over here. They’re not the same, *and that’s fine*, but the fact that the motif, even if it’s not the same expression of that motif, is very interesting! I think I’ll, ahem, pull on those threads in what I’m doing and see what comes from it.”

  • Ooh, I miss choir training. A completely different context but the same kind of talking shop with people versed in different but parallel traditions. Learning from each other, perhaps more than from the instructors.