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The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
Arcane Knowledge
by Jason Mills
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Nearly three centuries ago, in his introduction to 'The Principles of Human Knowledge', the Irish philosopher George Berkeley wrote of "the illiterate bulk of mankind that walk the high road of plain common sense and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed". While this might seem a little harsh on mankind, we can at least acknowledge that it is often easy to fall into a state of lassitude as we attend to the minutae of daily existence, a dusty veil of familiarity and routine settling on the world around us. We must constantly jolt ourselves out of this auto-pilot apathy and remind ourselves that yes, we are in fact wandering through an intricate maze where seemingly mundane objects and activities hold their own inward essence and constitution.
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This brings us to consider the word, 'arcane', the etymological origins of which can be traced back to the Latin 'arcanus' meaning 'shut' or 'closed' from 'arca' (chest or box). This gives a sense of arcane knowledge as a form of understanding which penetrates beneath the surface of things, unlocking their substance or meaning. It could be something that has been gleaned through years of experience or research, or has been embellished only upon an initiated few, such as the high proportion of Belfast taxi drivers who seem to know everything about everything.
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One example is staring you in the face at this very instant and you are staring right back at it. Language, the tool which is currently binding you and I together across various spatial and temporal barriers, is something we use every day but know virtually nothing about. Martin Kramer, originally from Germany, now reclines in a vault of linguistic wisdom at the University of Ulster from where he probes the mysterious deep structures which determine the surface features of our modes of communication. He learnt English and French at school, started studying linguistics around 1991 "just to study something", then moved on to phonology (sound systems in language) in which he now specialises. His daily work involves co-ordinating the linguistics department at the university and giving lectures which, amongst other things, explore the grammatical constraints under which the human mind must operate. He also writes impenetrable research papers which contain all manner of baffling formulae and tables, not to mention phrases like 'If the final consonants are syllabified in the onset of the following word when a vowel or sonorant-initial word follows, they are prosodified within another prosodic domain than the rest of the morpheme they belong to lexically'.
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Martin tells me that the key to understanding within his field of work is "to learn to listen to the structure of sounds within speech rather than the contents of what the person is saying". "If a person's conversation is boring me at all I just automatically begin to study their sounds and speech patterns".
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He is also keen to point out where the abstractions of such a refined branch of knowledge become useful in their meeting of our more everyday, concrete world.
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"A major practical benefit lies in the development of diagnostics and therapy techniques for people with speech difficulties or language disorders. Another area is the interaction of men and machines. Certain car companies are currently developing navigation systems based on speech recognition using satellites and map databases. Basically this will mean that you will be able to ask your car where you are and how to get to, say the Shore Road, and it will be able to direct you there using synthesised speech."
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Flying somewhat in the face of such surges of technological advancement, other forms of specialist knowledge can be traced deep into history to the erudite developments of ancient generations. Occultism, a practising Belfast student tells me, is an area which is systematically misunderstood by conventional society. The fact that his name is Damien may also appeal to the sensibilities of the more chimerical amongst you.
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"I was fortunate as an individual in Northern Ireland coming from a mixed background" he tells me "so I wasn't brought up within certain institutions which dictate that this is the way you are supposed to think and behave. In science classes at school I was constantly asking questions like 'But why do things work out this way?' and as I grew up this led me to draw upon some of the concealed forces in nature and the cosmos that can't be measured or recognised by the instruments of modern science."
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According to the Oxford Dictionary the word 'occult' was first used in 1545 meaning "that which is not apprehended by the mind; beyond the range of understanding or of ordinary knowledge". Later it came to incorporate ancient and medieval practises such as magic, alchemy, astrology and theosophy and was distilled within texts which disclosed a very coherent and profound world of meaning. One such text, which is revered by occultists worldwide, was reputedly dictated to Aleister Crowley by a praeterhuman intelligence over three days in 1904. The Book of The Law became regarded amongst followers as a charter for the next 2000 years, heralding in an age of individual empowerment and taking the word 'Thelema' (from the Greek word meaning 'will') as its cornerstone. "Crowley was our movements biggest blessing, and also its biggest enemy because of his own personality and the stigma attached to him" Damien tells me "But at the end of the day it doesn't matter if Einstein fucked goats - what's important is the work he did and its use in modern society.
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There are actually two types of arcane knowledge working in the occult. Mysticism, which is inwardly directed energy such as yoga or meditation, and magic which is energy directed at outer world change.
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Obviously, ideas of individual empowerment and free will mightn't go down terribly well with those who are working hard behind the scenes within their own specialist fields in order to try and sell you a talking car. Although, perhaps within the next century someone somewhere will develop a talking car with an encyclopaedic electronic brain which will be able to divulge all manner of esoteric knowledge upon its happy owner. Scientists are probably working this very second on a formula for a new drug to keep Magnus 'Mastermind' Magnusson alive that long, so that he can quiz it before it goes on the market.
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Arcane Knowledge
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