Music: Future Sound of London: Lifeforms (1994)
In general, if you publish scholarship, someone will likely critique your work. Getting used to getting critiqued takes some time (the review process helps a great deal, I must confess). I remember the first time someone came after me in print I was still a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. When the editor told me she was going to publish an attack of my work (and something of an ad hominem, since the punning of my name was involved) I got really upset, teared-up, and felt like I was going to puke. Ed Schiappa, who shall remain the best Director of Graduate Studies Ever, sat me down and had a heart-to-heart talk in which, with much patience, he explained that getting attacked in print was a good thing. It means, he said, someone is taking your work seriously.
Not long after that talk I was sitting on a porch with Barry Brummett sipping bourbon (now my chair, but then “only” a friend and mentor), who said I should get excited about getting attacked. “Respond back!” he said. “Rick Cherwitz and I gave each other tenure by arguing with each other in print!”
So, you know, I’ve come around to this way of thinking, and now understand the value of agonism: not only do ideas get hashed out, but just what is at stake in a disagreement gets framed. Moreover, if you have your response to being attack peer-reviewed, it really can help jump-start a publishing program. Now, I’m not saying you should pick a fight (although sometimes that is totally warranted), I’m just saying disagreeing in print is ok. In fact, I’ve become friends with the three folks who have critiqued my work (even co-authors with Chris).
All of this is to preface that my current project is a response to someone who critiques my book, Modern Occult Rhetoric. Instead of seeing this as an good chance to have a conversation, to promote my work, and so forth, however, I’m just annoyed. I’m annoyed I feel compelled to respond, not because I think this person furthers our thinking about magic and rhetoric, but rather because he plays dirty. Basically, this fella lumps my work with Daddy Burke, Bill Covino, Brian Vickers, says we are all of a mind, and then says we have it all wrong. Now, aside from the fact that my take (Derridian) is very different from Burke’s (anti-magic), Covino’s (pro-magic) and Vickers’ (historical), he says we all impose this rigid binary on magic in order to be dismissive of it. Dude: that’s so not what my argument is, and it’s so not what Bill’s is either. Hell if anyone truly knows what Burkes’ view is. And if Vickers’ historical work is sloppy, then I’m having a baby. Tomorrow.
What angers me about the critique is that my critic sets-up a straw person. I’ve been reading the stuff he critiques of my colleagues, and he de-contextualizes like crazy. It was this kind of dirty arguing that led me to leave policy debate: cards are stripped of context, and so you don’t really know what the argument is, you just have to work at the level of claims.
David Blakesley’s hopped on board with me to help defend Burke. Vickers’ begged off, but I’ll try to get him to hop on board if I can once the thing is drafted. Covino said he may join in at a later stage of writing. And I met an awesome graduate student at Purdue who knows Agrippa well and is thinking about joining in the response. Here’s something of a teaser below. Do tell me if it’s too, um, too nasty in its own right:
When I was thirteen years of age we all went on a party of pleasure to the bath near Thonon; the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the Inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm.
Musing on the origins of his interest in science, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s famed novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus identified the occult philosophy of the fifteenth century magician Henry Cornelius Agrippa as his earliest inspiration. When the young Frankenstein shared his enthusiasm for magic with his father, however, the elder responded “My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.” Eventually, confesses junior, his interest in the modern sciences would eclipse his passion for occultism, thereby better enabling him to penetrate the “secrets of nature” and become something of a secular god. Of course, we know how that story ends.
After reading Chris Miles’ recent essay, “Occult Retraction: Cornelius Agrippa and the Paradox of Magical Language,” we couldn’t help but recall Frankenstein senior’s advice to his son. More importantly, however, Shelley’s spiel also helps us to summarize by analogy Miles’ critique of recent work in rhetorical studies on magic and the occult: according to Miles, Kenneth Burke, William Covino, Michel Foucault, Joshua Gunn, and Brian Vickers represent contemporary Frankensteins, forsaking the true understanding of magical rhetoric in favor of secularist monstrosities. In a spirit homologous to the hegemony of science and atrophy of faith in Frankenstein, Miles argues these scholars have misapplied a contemporary understanding of language to pre-modern magical texts. The consequence of this anachronism, he concludes, is a gross misreading of the rhetoric of the Western magical tradition. In this rejoinder we argue that had Miles taken the time to read the work he dismisses as closely as he purports to read Agrippa, perhaps he would find himself in a conversation and not an opportunity.
Reduced to its most basic structure, Miles’ argument is as follows: (1) The shared linguistic assumptions of Burke, Covino, Gunn, and Vickers (with Foucault) fail to account for Agrippa’s contradictory and paradoxical rhetorical strategies; (2) Agrippa was the most influential and widely read Renaissance magus; therefore, (3) Burke, Covino, Gunn, and Vickers’ work on magic and rhetoric is fundamentally flawed. We address each claim in turn.
According to Miles, the dominant understanding of occult rhetoric relies on a flawed distinction between “fluid” and “fixed” views of language. Because Burke, Covino, Gunn, and Vickers address occultism as representing a “fixed” discourse, magical language has become a “stereotyped caricature.” A close reading of Agrippa’s work, however, reveals a “slyly occulted theory of language” that can account for “a great deal of paradoxical and ambiguous play” in Agrippa’s prose: human language cannot impart ultimate (spiritual) truths. Miles argues that Agrippa’s occult rhetoric “is instructional in the sense that it marks language itself as untrustworthy and unreliable” by its own example. Because Agrippa’s discourse cannot be characterized as harboring a correspondent theory of magical language, Miles concludes contemporary scholarship on occult rhetoric is “simple” and “misleading” and based on “illusory assumptions.”
We have no quibble with Miles’ reading of Agrippa’s work, nor with the suggestion that Agrippa’s rhetoric is instructive and intentionally paradoxical. Indeed, in a book-length treatment of magic and rhetoric that was unfortunately overlooked, Covino anticipates a number of Miles’ observations about Agrippa’s contradictory prose.7 “Repeatedly,” writes Covino, Agrippa “insists that because human language is susceptible to multiple interpretations, it becomes matter for strategic contentions instead of truth . . . .” For Covino, Agrippa’s “contradictions inform the magician’s truth, a truth located in the motion of the imagination . . . .” Convino and Miles’ reading is further supported by Gunn’s argument that the Western magical tradition is fundamentally Platonic in character because it stresses the inability of human language to communicate spiritual truth. Insofar as Agrippa was a Neo-Platonist, it makes sense that his rhetoric of paradox and contradiction formally resembles the function of Platonic dialectic, as both are designed to catapult the spiritual aspirant into “perfect transparency by supra-linguistic communication with God” by using language against itself.
Where Miles missteps, however, is by uncharitably decontextualizing the work he critiques. His straw-person construction of the distinction between “fixed” and “fluid” views of language is particularly underhanded. Throughout his attack Miles assumes that the fixed view of language is a theory of correspondence (or in Vicker’s terms, “identity”), which is only one of many forms that it might take. Perhaps a better way to frame differing views on the relationship between language, truth, and the world is by recourse to a television show that trucked in the occult, The X-Files. The motto of this cult favorite, “the truth is out there,” is a succinct summation of the fixed view: something external to the human mind-some presence-guarantees meaning and truth (e.g., the “transcendental signified,” God, creation, and so forth). To say that a magician adheres to a fixed view of language is simply shorthand for saying that he or she believes there is a kind of “anchor” external to language that stabilizes meaning, that is productive of spiritual insight or truth, and so on. Such a belief could lead one to assume magical words vibrate at the same frequency of the material object they denote. Such a belief could also set one in pursuit of correspondent vocabulary or “pure language” that better communicates the “truth” than extant vocabularies, the kind of “alphabet of nature” pursued by Giovanni Pico, the Kabbalalists, and the Theosophists just to name a few. Conviction in a spiritual anchor, however, might also lead one to believe that it is inaccessible to human language, as was the case with Plato and Agrippa. Unfortunately-and despite book length treatments that cover a range approaches by Covino and Gunn-Miles reduces the fixed view of language to a correspondent or “identity” theory for the convenience of generalization and summary dismissal.
Even if we grant that our understanding of magical rhetoric was reducible to the pursuit of a pure language, does this mean our work is fundamentally flawed? Miles reasons:
Agrippa is the most influential of all Renaissance magicians, and yet his understanding of magic and its relationship to language (and rhetorical practice) cannot be characterized [as fixed] . . . . And if Agrippa’s understanding cannot be characterized in such a way, why should the understanding of those who follow him or build on him?
Presumably, “those who follow him or build on him” concern every magician in the Western occult tradition subsequent to Agrippa! In light of numerous counterexamples before and after the Renaissance magus made his mark (e.g., alchemists, Kabbalists, some famous modern Wiccans), however, Miles advances a classic exception fallacy: a class is said to share the same qualities of an individual member. Insofar as Agrippa believes in God, we’re not convinced his rhetoric is particularly exceptional. And in light of Covino’s work on Agrippa over a decade ago—not to mention I. Lehrich’s close reading of Three Books—we’re not sure Miles’ reading is exceptionally novel, either.
 Mary Shelley, Chapter Two, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), para. 6. The Literature Network. Available http://www.online-literature.com/shelley_mary/frankenstein/2/ accessed 21 December 2008.
 Shelley, Frankenstein, para. 6.
 Chris Miles, “Occult Retraction: Cornelius Agrippa and the Paradox of Magical Language.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38 (2008): 433-456.
 Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 435.
 Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 439; 438.
 Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 438.
 William A. Covino, Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 46-60.
 Covino 55.
 Joshua Gunn, Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 56.
 I. Lehrich, The Language of Demons and Angels: Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (Boston: E.J. Brill, 2003), 208.
11 It is instructive to underscore how Vickers opens the essay that Miles argues outlines the “assumptions” Burke, Covino, and Gunn apparently also share: “It is my contention that the occult and the experimental scientific traditions can be differentiated in several ways: in terms of goals, methods, and assumptions. I do not maintain that they were exclusive opposites or that a Renaissance scientist’s allegiance can be settled on an either/or, or yes/no, basis. Rather, in many instances, especially the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a spectrum of beliefs and attitudes can be distinguished, a continuum from, say, absolutely magical to absolutely mechanistic poles, along which thinkers place themselves at various points . . . .” Such remarks are hardly an index of a “binary opposition” which Miles argues is common to all the authors he critiques. Brian Vickers, “Analogy Versus Identity: The Rejection of Occult Symbolism, 1580-1680.” Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, ed. Brian Vickers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 95. Owing to the fact that each author critiques different eras of the occult tradition toward very different ends, it also seems to us rather irresponsible to assert Vickers’ “assumptions” are shared by all. Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 449.
 Covino, Magic, 51; Gunn, Modern, 70-76.
 Miles, “Occult Retraction,” 453-454.
 Miles treatment is particularly unfair to Gunn, who argues in Modern Occult Rhetoric that the rhetorical dynamics of occultism change dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries as a consequence of mass media technologies. Although understanding Agrippa’s “slyly occulted theory of language” from the fifteenth century does little to explain the particular rhetorical challenges faced by the modern magus, this doesn’t prevent Miles from complaining his favorite magical fellow has been fatally ignored. Apparently failing to address the rhetorical theory of one, influential Renaissance magus is to misapprehend magic in modernity entirely! See Chris Miles, Rev. of Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century by Joshua Gunn. The Pomegranate 9 (2007): 193-194.
 Miles misapplied conclusion first appears in Lehrich’s study in the context of a discussion of Derrida’s philosophy: ” . . . it is not intrinsically odd that the sixteenth century philosophical movement which was almost entirely destroyed by modern philosophy and science—I refer of course to magic-still haunts the margins of philosophical memory. . . . it is worth considering the periodic surfacing of magical thought in philosophy after Descartes . . ., which might provoke us to wonder whether magic has always played the role of modernism’s ghostly other.” Lehrich, Lanugage, 222.