Saturday, 24 August 2013

An Interview with Jimmy Elwing and Aren Roukema

Today here at Albion Calling I am interviewing two young scholars of Western esotericism, Jimmy Elwing and Aren Roukema, who are the masterminds behind the new open access peer-reviewed journal, Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism. We discuss their academic backgrounds and their role in the development of the journal, alongside their thoughts on what open access academia has to offer.

Both of you are currently engrossed in your rMA postgraduate studies at the University of Amsterdam's Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, one of the world's few academic departments devoted to the study of western esotericism. What made the two of you decide to move to the Netherlands and study there; was the decision influenced by your personal backgrounds or undergraduate research?

Jimmy: When I conducted my undergraduate studies at the University of Gothenburg, I had the opportunity of having Henrik Bogdan as lecturer and supervisor, and it was largely he who made me aware of the academic study of Western esotericism. Having taken an introductory course in Western esotericism, as well as a tutorial on Renaissance esotericism, I decided to dedicate my BA thesis to the subject—and I really enjoyed doing so. When conducting my undergraduate research I realised that there is so much left to be done in the field, and when I discussed this with Henrik he recommended me to increase my knowledge of the field by applying for the MA programme at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents. I applied, got accepted, and moved to Amsterdam—and the rest is history.

Aren: For me the decision to study at the University of Amsterdam was personal. I am a Dutch citizen, but I grew up in Canada and had always wanted to live in the Netherlands. I knew about the Center but I hadn’t really planned to focus on Western esotericism, since my knowledge of the field was comprised of whatever I had gleaned from reading Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. However, I was interested in learning more so I took a course with Wouter Hanegraaff. His ideas on the importance of esoteric currents to Western history and culture were very convincing so I decided to further immerse myself.

Jimmy Elwing (left) and Aren Roukema (right)
You're both involved in the wider study of western esotericism, but my readers might be interested in learning precisely what areas of this fascinating topic you are focusing in on ? What research projects are you working on at the moment, and will any of it see publication any time soon ?

Jimmy: I have a wide array of interests within the field. In the past I have been doing research on sexuality and esotericism, more specifically on Ida Craddock and nineteenth century spiritualism, looking at issues of gender, sexuality and feminism in the study of Western esotericism. My current research is on contemporary forms of witchcraft, more specifically on what is commonly referred to—at least by some practitioners—as “traditional” or “modern traditional witchcraft.” My research into contemporary witchcraft is largely based on questions of how practitioners construct the history of their witch-cult and what strategies—political, rhetorical, polemical, etcetera—are used for legitimising ones own religious or “magical” identity and tradition. This also ties in to other, broader questions concerning theoretical discussions in the study of Western esotericism.

Aren: I am actually a Literature scholar at heart, so everything I’m working on involves the exploration of esoteric contexts in literature, usually in its English and either Victorian or early twentieth century forms. Right now I’m finishing up M.A. research on Charles Williams, and I’m also interested in Yeats and Bulwer-Lytton. Following my MA I’ll be doing PhD research on the roots of Science Fiction in modern occultism.

Considering the fact that you were undoubtedly very busy with your postgraduate research – having to ensure that essays and presentations were produced to deadline, and that all essential readings were done – what made you decide to add to your already extensive workload and create Correspondences ? How did it all begin ?

When we met in the MA programme at the University of Amsterdam, we realised that we not only shared an interest in researching Western esotericism, but that we also had common ideas and opinions on academic knowledge culture and open access publishing. Since we both have been involved with a few student magazines in the past, we also felt a need for a platform in which scholars of all levels (non-affiliated, BA, MA, PhD, Dr.) can publish their peer-reviewed research and have it read not only within academia but also by the broader public. And that’s how it all began.


For the journal you managed to assemble an impressive selection of international scholars to fill the ranks of your editorial board, among them Henrik Bogdan, Amy Hale, and Boaz Huss. Were they all on board from the very beginning, or was it a long, difficult process to get them all to sign up?

We are very happy to have such excellent scholars on our editorial board. Most of them joined up at the beginning as there was a real enthusiasm for an open access journal in the field. Peter Forshaw and Egil Asprem deserve special credit for their levels of enthusiasm and encouragement about the idea and were very helpful in getting everything set up.

Why did you choose the title of Correspondences ? Was it a clear choice or were you also keen on any other potential titles ?

We came up with a few ideas but Correspondences was always the pretty clear favourite. It definitely won out over Stuff my Prof Says and We’re Doing This Cause the Aliens Told Us To. We just liked the double entendre—the name captures our focus on creating an open forum for discussion surrounding issues related to the field of Western esotericism, and of course the doctrine of correspondences between above and below is an important aspect of many “esoteric” philosophies.

Correspondences is part of a wider trend toward the creation of free-to-read, online peer reviewed journals not under the control of big profit-making publishing houses. As part of this, the contributors get to keep the copyright to their own work, rather than sacrifice it to the publishing company, who can then sell it for whatever price they choose. I for one think that this is a really great step for the diversification of academia, threatening established publishing hegemonies and putting some of the power back into the hands of hard-working academics. Were you both supporters of this wider movement prior to Correspondences, and what effect do you think it could have in the academic world ?

We have both been supporters of the potential of web-based communication for addressing limitations created by particular power structures in, for example, the music industry or the journalism industry. However, these are examples of areas of society where attempts to rejig existing power structures to allow more control by artists or news providers, and greater, more diverse access for consumers, seem to be running a little ragged. We hope that in academia the situation will be somewhat different, but with the ever growing sway of the neo-liberal university it isn’t hard to see a lot of challenges ahead. Open access publishing successfully circumvents the limitations placed on both the speed of publication and the personal control of research, but like other “industries” that have gone before it, the knowledge economy has a lot of other power structures within that will continue to prefer older publishing models, and that have little to do with who is actually behind the publication of journals. Journal ranking systems, for example, are very important to scholars of all levels who need to advance in their careers. It takes a brave scholar indeed to ignore the opportunity to publish in a high ranking journal (most of which are still produced by publishing companies) and publish in a lower ranked open access journal instead.

Shortly after the first issue of Correspondences went public, the two of you headed up to Gothenburg, Sweden for the Fourth European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) conference. What was the reception to Correspondences that you encountered both at ESSWE like, and does it differ from the reception that you have received more generally ? Are you pleased with that response, and is there anything you intend to change as a result ?

The reception has been excellent. We wouldn’t say there has been any difference between the enthusiastic response we’ve received generally and what we heard at the conference. It was great to have the opportunity to make it to Gothenburg and join in such a large forum of discussion on a wide variety of topics and issues related to Western Esotericism. Many of the authors featured in the first issue and almost all of the Editorial Board members were there as well, so we got to swap a lot of ideas for future issues.

What is in store for the future of Correspondences ? Have you already begun thinking about issue 1(2) ? Do you see it as something that you will continue editing indefinitely, or do you think that it will have a more limited lifespan, like the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic that the late Dave Evans and Alison Butler ran from 2002 to 2010 ?

We have a lot of plans for the future, but we do not want to say too much before they are finalised. Currently we are working on the next issue of Correspondences and we have received some really interesting articles that we hope will make it to the winter issue. As for our future as editors—that rumour about our divinatory powers turned out to be unsubstantiated. However, in our “best laid plans” we both plan to work with it for a long time and are also currently looking into the possibility of hiring a Review Editor.

I'm an outsider to the field, but it seems to me that the academic study of Western esotericism seems to be blossoming at the moment. Not only do you have peer-reviewed outlets like Aries and Correspondences up and running, but big, established companies like Oxford University Press are beginning to release increasing numbers of texts on occult topics like Satanism and Aleister Crowley, and both the University of Amsterdam and University of Exeter have departments that actually offer postgraduate courses on the subject. This being the case, I'd be interested to hear where you thought that the field was headed over the coming decades ? Do you see it as constantly growing in size and influence, or do you think it has just about peaked at its maximum capacity ? Considering the recent austerity spending cuts that have hit western universities, do you think it possible that the field might even decline as social science and humanities funding is directed to the hard sciences ? 

It’s hard to predict, of course. If we had to guess, we’d say that even if the field of Western esotericism doesn’t continue to grow, the amount of research being done in other fields will. We believe that the research that has been done in the last few decades will promote renewed interest in esoteric ideas, movements, and figures in fields such as literature, history, religious studies, history of science, etcetera. The theoretical work which has attempted to highlight the importance to Western history and culture of figures, movements, and ideas that have previously been rejected as esoteric will be, and has already been, particularly influential, as this gives scholars a better framework with which to approach esoteric material. Look at the field of Literature for example. Scholars have been attempting to tackle the relationship of writers such as Blake and Yeats to esotericism for decades—centuries in Blake’s case. However, with some of the new models that have been developed in order to identify what esotericism is and how it should be approached in academic research, Literature scholars can look at these two figures in a clearer light.

Jimmy and Aren, thank you for talking with Albion Calling! I look forward to the next issue of Correspondences!

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