Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (April 2006)
Applied Magic(k): Donut Power
by the Center for Tactical Magic
Although people often associate the word “occult” with secret magical orders, demon-worshipers and ancient alchemical scrawlings, its root definition is simply “secret, concealed, or hidden.” But strangely enough, “occult” is rarely associated with those who are perhaps most invested in secrets and concealments: that is, government, military, corporations and even performing magicians. Perhaps this popular tendency to view “occultism” through an anachronistic mist is ultimately a concealment of its own accord.
If we regard an occult force as “that which is hidden,” it should come as no surprise to realize that we are constantly surrounded by the occult. Everywhere we look we don’t see it…at least not at first. Otherwise it wouldn’t be occult; it would be obvious and apparent. Unseen forces are indeed at play all around us. We often fail to recognize their presence for any number of reasons: the forces may seem insignificant to the situation, we are distracted by other factors, etc. Whether one favors ritual magick or performing magic, the first challenge is to recognize which forces are present, hidden or otherwise.
Fortunately, occult forces sometimes have a funny way of revealing themselves. In 2001, members of the Center for Tactical Magic were enjoying a leisurely tromp through downtown San Francisco with a few thousand other people protesting the 21st Century’s first major display of government occultism: George W. Bush’s inauguration. At the end of the trolley line at Powell and Market, the march lost momentum and gradually slowed to a jiggle. Some protesters scurried into cafes to get their latte fixes while others started break-dancing to boom boxes in the streets. Meanwhile, riot police began to huddle in the doorways of the GAP. There were other big department stores and icons of global capitalism nearby, but for reasons unknown the GAP seemed to be getting the bulk of police attention. (Perhaps it was one of those rare instances where Power reveals itself, as if the cops were hinting, “You’re already gathered to fight injustice, you might as well protest conformist fashion produced by sweatshop labor, too.”) At first, no one seemed to care, except possibly the few shoppers who hurried away at the first signs (namely, armored cops) that something might be amiss. Gradually though, activists seemed to take to the idea, and soon a small group settled down at the feet of the police line to sip their lattes and eat their lunches.
Please see exhibit A, the photo we’ve provided for your entertainment…
To most observers the scene appears obvious: two opposing forces have squared off against one another; protesters staging a sit-in were blockading the entrances to the GAP, and riot police had formed a security perimeter to protect GAP’s assets from looters and vandals. While this is true to some degree, those who understand magic(k) know better. Appearances are often deceiving. The nature of a good illusion is to cloak information by providing a specific perceptual framework. And the tendency to filter information leads to a hasty, oversimplified conclusion.
Upon closer inspection, one quickly realizes that the scene in the photo evidences no opposing forces whatsoever. In fact, the cops and the protesters are rather harmoniously accomplishing the same task. Both groups are blocking the doorway. Both groups are preventing patrons from entering. Both groups are preventing the GAP from doing any business whatsoever.
If you missed this dynamic at first glance, don’t worry. You’re not alone. The cops and the protesters lived it, and they didn’t get it. In fact, whenever this photo is shown in talks, lectures, and workshops, the audience response is almost always the same. People are so keyed in to a perceptual framework dominated by dichotomies and binary analysis (protester vs cop, good vs evil, black magick vs. white magick, etc) that it’s easy to miss what’s happening right before our very eyes.
Indeed, it has long since become a cliché of consciousness studies to say that at every instance our senses are bombarded by more information than our minds can process. In order to navigate the world around us, we learn how to filter information that we regard as unimportant. However, the act of filtering is not only influenced by matters of survival (predators, food, attraction, etc) but also by social cues and priorities (herd behavior, notions of productivity vs. leisure, conspicuous consumption, etc). Since the filtering process begins at such an early age and occurs at much the same time as socialization, it is often difficult to step outside of one’s perceptions and recognize exactly what is being filtered when and/or why. At best, we can occasionally inhibit our filtering processes (either through drugs, meditation, dancing, sensory deprivation, or other “unproductive” activities) or we can make concerted efforts to focus our attentions in areas less considered. Even the harbingers of progress have to admit that the latter option yields positive results. After all, modern medicine owes a great debt to those who were willing to peer through microscopes at bits, mites, motes, and droplets that are regularly ignored by the naked eye.
So where does this keen analysis get us? For starters, we become less inclined to take things at face value. While some would say this is a skeptical or even cynical approach to the world, we prefer to think of it as riddled with opportunity. The refusal of a static worldview opens one’s eyes to the dynamic occult forces swirling around us. The next trick is to figure out how to work with these forces.
After a few more hours of chanting, “Whose streets?…Our Streets!”, the miracle of the unified GAP blockade persisted, but the rest of the protest began to march down a reliable path. Buses pulled up and more riot cops in even more armor poured out. Tensions on both sides escalated, and the enjoyable expression of first amendment rights wavered under the immanent threat of the inevitable activist/authoritarian clash. For anyone who has ever been to a protest, this is familiar territory. This is the part where ugliness happens. Out come the batons, pepper spray, and plastic handcuffs. And anyone who gets beaten up also usually gets arrested and charged with assaulting an officer in order to justify any police misconduct.
Some would declare that this is merely a timeless confrontation between opposing forces. Perhaps. But we at the Center for Tactical Magic feel that occult forces were also present, active and largely unaccounted for. (No, we’re not referring to cops dressed as protesters… we’ll save that for our column on “disguise and infiltration”). Protesters and cops both fell victim to the same forces: they steadily grew tired, cold, hungry, and even a little bored. The activists want to leave, but of course can’t, because, well, they’re our streets. If we leave, then they’ll be their streets again. We can’t exactly let a hard day’s work go to waste now, can we? And the cops want desperately to make it home in time for Fox Sports, but they can’t exactly leave, because, well… how would it look if they let a bunch of anarchists run around an empty financial district thinking that they own the streets? Besides, double (or even triple) overtime pay is hard to say “no” to. For the cops, growling stomachs, Fox Sports and a can of Bud ultimately win out over a fatter paycheck. Out come the batons.
It was precisely at this moment that we decided to conduct a little experiment. Please note Exhibit B: the second photo provided for your entertainment.
Foregoing any ceremony, we quickly acquired a few boxes of donuts from a nearby Walgreen’s and began passing them out to protesters and cops alike. The action performed was the same for both groups; however, the responses were predictably dissimilar. Protesters responded with eager gratitude; happily stuffing their faces with the meager nourishment after a long day outdoors. The cops on the other hand were not so happy. They wanted the donuts. You could see it in their jaws-gone-slack and their craven eyes bursting out from behind mirrored glasses. But despite their hunger, they couldn’t take them. Pride and professionalism prevented them from doing so.
Obviously, cops are sensitive about donuts. It’s an old, played-out joke, and had we passed out cupcakes, maybe things would have been different. But isn’t that one of the crucial points of magic(k)? To work with what’s around you in such a way as to produce a desired outcome or effect? Within just a few moments, a single gesture shifted the dynamic between opposing sides. As activists giggled and jeered, the police officers shifted uneasily in their boots. Eager aggression and pumped-up adrenalin ebbed in the wake of sheepishness, annoyance, and humility. It was like watching a bully rip the seat of his pants in front of everyone.
In an effort to grab control of the situation, the commanding officer approached one of our agents (see photo) and threatened, “If you pass out one more donut, I’m taking you to jail!” To which our agent responded, “For what? Handing out food for free?” The officer then replied, “Not for handing it out. For distributing it!” Clearly, reality and rationality had shifted in mysterious ways. Please don’t misunderstand. We at the Center for Tactical Magic love a riot as much as anyone, and we’re not claiming that this one act of impromptu hijinks saved the day or anything. But shortly thereafter the cops stood down. The police lines withdrew. And many of the activists left feeling like they preferred their kitchens and their bars to their streets.
Throughout the long histories of magic(k) and religions, food has often played a transformational role. Whether consuming “the body and blood of the Lord” or making bowls of rice appear from thin air, food has a power that reaches beyond the symbolic. And the roots of its power are concealed by its relationship to such hidden forces as hunger, nutrition, comfort, repulsion, and social relations to name a few. Like so many other hidden forces, these have the ability to shift perceptions, priorities and outcomes. But to do so we must recognize their presence and figure out how to work with them. The following exercises are designed to encourage further exploration of hidden forces. You can treat them as magical experiments, interventions, or alternative forms of entertainment. Have fun and good luck, and please let us know how it was for you by emailing to: goodluck at tacticalmagic dot org
1. Go to the grocery store without the intention of buying anything. Bring a pad of post-it notes and a pen. Respond to the products you see by writing a note and sticking it to the product. You might consider the following: the packaging/marketing strategy used to encourage your purchase; the way the product makes you feel when you see it, use it, or eat it; a message or a question to another potential consumer or store employee; a critique of the product or the company; a creative suggestion for alternate uses of the product.
* This is an exercise that shifts perception by changing the activity performed in an otherwise familiar environment. Like graffiti responding to a billboard, it also encourages a dialogue in an otherwise one-way relationship and breaks the illusion of a “neutral” exchange.
2. Once a week for at least a month, prepare a meal that uses ingredients for their symbolic value. Start by considering a desired outcome (a different wish, goal, etc for each meal). Next, consider the events that have to unfold in order to accomplish your goal. Associate one ingredient for each event. Your associations may be literal or abstract. Perhaps you’re not even sure why the ingredient reminds you of the event. The ingredients don’t all need to be cooked in the same pot, and it’s ok to use spices for flavor. Eat as much as fills you up.
* This is an exercise which relies on a natural survival behavior to process and manifest a desire through mental and physical consumption, digestion, and excretion. It works best if you find a way to make strange foods tastefully coexist on the same plate.
Most magic illusions are based on visual deceptions; however, the Oxford Companion to the Mind insists, “All the senses can suffer illusions…” Everyone knows the old trick that involves tasting an apple and a potato while holding pinching the nose closed. What other illusions rely on deceiving the sense of smell? If you come up with any answers, please let us know.
The Center for Tactical Magic is a moderate international think tank dedicated to the research, development and deployment of all types of magic in the service of positive social transformation. To find out more, check out tacticalmagic.org