Report on the ESSWE7 Conference in Amsterdam, July 2–4, 2019 (Part II)
A week ago our project team reunited in Amsterdam to attend, for the very first time, a conference as a group. The 7th Biannual Conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), for which we had announced a double panel on transformations of consciousness in Russian New Age, took place in a mazy building of the University of Amsterdam. We were excited to experience three days of intense learning and new encounters and particularly to establish and celebrate a new-born Russian branch of ESSWE. We thank our hosts for the warm reception and truly enjoyable academic experience. Here we share some impressions and reflections of our team members.
Invisible Partners: Channeling in Soviet and Post-Soviet New Age
The conference was really great, and I have learnt a lot about visions, voices, and psychonauts. What I missed in some presentations was a broader anthropological context like contemporary possession studies in particular. On the other hand, it seems to be very important that ESSWE provides a space for discussions among researchers working within the rather different domains of religious studies, cultural history, and anthropology of religion. Our project on Russian New Age proceeds from the idea of an interdisciplinary approach, so it fits well into the methodological agenda of the conference. It seems to me that we did our best to make Soviet and post-Soviet New Age culture more visible to scholars of Western Esotericism.
Cultic milieus and ASCs in Late Soviet and Post-Soviet New Age
My expectations of this ESSWE7 conference were that the panels and presentations would be as broad as possible in scope, that new material would be presented, that the academic level would be high. I anticipated that other areas besides the WESTERN Esotericism would be presented in a way which would challenge the limitation of the attribute “Western,” which I have been trying to do for years. I was curious about the keynote speakers, since on all previous conferences which I attended I have learnt most from these hours-long talks.
Have my expectations been met? Well, mostly but not always.
I was most inspired by Yulia Ustinova’s and Karl Baier’s keynote speeches, the panels on Sufism, and the panel on psychedelics, since I received new material and insights from them outside of my own field of research. The site of the conference was well-chosen this time, and I was curious to finally get to see the Ritman library with the nice title “Embassy of the Free Mind” in its anniversary year, and I loved the excellent Kabbalah exhibition in the Jewish museum.
However, in some panels I missed controversial discussions (here I include myself as a participant, for instance, after Jafe Arnold’s talk on Yuzhinskii pereulok). In the concluding discussion, I missed a result, i. e. I had hoped that the “Western” would be removed from the title of ESSWE, but the discussion has just begun.
Our project can benefit from this conference by gaining comparative perspectives and thus broadening our horizon in terms of methodological approaches and different academic cultures. The main contribution of our panels I see in challenging the world of perception of our colleagues in the field of Western Esotericism. I think it was a great achievement that we presented collectively in two panels and it was great that the TV crew chose to record our last panel. Attending this conference together, I think, was a great success. It also brought us closer together personally as well as and into a closer dialogue about our approaches, topics, and modes of presentation.
The Ritual Feast and Transpersonal Experience: Ossetian Religious Traditionalists in
Search of Legitimization of Their Revivalist Projects
The ESSWE7 conference really impressed me. It was perfectly organized, one could listen to many excellent presentations. What I liked most was that everyone was showing a great and sincere interest to the colleagues’ work. The conference rooms were full of people, all panel discussions on every paper were bright and lively. Those guys know pretty well how to enjoy academic events. Good for them (and, I hope, for us).
Post-Soviet Visionaries and Astrology: Specialist Types and Prognostication Models
This year I attended an ESSWE conference for the second time. My first acquaintance with it dates back to ESSWE4 in 2013, in Gothenburg, Sweden which had the title Western Esotericism and Health. There I presented a paper on dietic practices of the Avestan astrologers in Russia. Hence, through my studies in comparative religions and due to the previous conference, I already had a clear idea of the foundation team of scholars of Western Esotericism who are still working in this field (Antoine Faivre, Wouter Hanegraaff, Arthur Versluis, et al.). I am also familiar with their most influential works. Especially, Wouter Hanegraaff’s and Olav Hammer’s encompassing works on Western New Age have been important references in my projects for years.
In this Amsterdam conference most papers had a strong emphasis on the history of ideas and there were interdisciplinary approaches as well. I wished I could have heard more about socio-political parameters of contemporary esoteric and new religious practices but I believe our project will soon contribute to that.
At the conference, I attended panels with presentations on anthroposophy, the Gurdjieff’s movement, the esoteric/philosophical terms of consciousness by select Arabic authors in the past, tulpamancy, alter-human identities on the Internet, chiromancy, magic/magick, Kabbalah, and so on. I also appreciated the keynote lectures on the Greek ecstatic tradition by Yulia Ustinova and on the German psychonauts by Karl Baier. It was exiting to learn that Rudolf Gelpke (1928–1972), whose selected books I have taken for my seminar on modern Persian literature in Heidelberg and whom I knew as a scholar of Islamic Studies, was one of them.
I believe the conference has succeeded both in facilitating communication and personal exchange among the project members and in getting new insights from the international scholarly community. Apart from scholars doing research in Russia, I also met some practicing astrologers whose insider knowledge I would certainly like to benefit from.
The only activity besides the conference program (perhaps, it was a complement for the hosts?) was a spontaneous visit to the MOCO museum of modern art. Together with Julia, her little Mark, and Romina I enjoyed a few small, yet impressive exhibitions by Banksy, Yayoi Kusama, and Daniel Arsham.
Energy, Information, and Spiritual Messages in Russian Intentional Communities
It was nice to meet so many people from different countries interested in esotericism and alternative religiosity. I think our project expands the geographic frames of Western esotericism. For me it was fruitful to compare the phenomena and see some parallels with Western European traditions. It was surprising to know that the books which have caused one of the Russian New Age movements are well-known in the Netherlands as well.
Mystical Anarchism and Transformations of Consciousness in 20th-Century Russia
Since ESSWE7 was my first international conference, I was not sure what to expect of it. In retrospect, I am still impressed by the internationality and interdisciplinarity of the participating scholars, the wide range of academic topics related to esotericism as well as by the conference’s intellectual but also open-minded atmosphere. What I liked most was that a lot of participants took a genuine interest in our work, shared relevant information, and gave helpful comments.
VseyaSvetnaya Gramota: Post-Soviet Exercise in Russian Kabbalah
I appreciate the opportunity to attend an international conference organized by ESSWE. I must admit that I was intrigued in advance by its peculiar intellectual style, both highbrow and open-minded. Although in the project we work in a field of research somewhat related to ESSWE, I was curious how we would eventually fit into this.
As anthropologists we appeared to be welcome, and Russian material seemed to be consistently incorporated as part of the European tradition of esoteric knowledge. I guess we can regard it as our common success!