Event Review: Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities Symposium

The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium, held at the Royal College of Art, was a day brimming with rich discourse on what the focussed study of personal and organised belief systems can provide to the expanding understanding of the literary, arts and social movements of modernity.

Despite the seemingly niche nature of the symposium’s guiding theme, the research presented was notably broad, inclusive and varied in content, with subjects ranging from modern yoga practices and retreat movements to esoteric Christianity and chemical enlightenment. 

Appropriately set in London’s illustrious borough of Kensington, where institutions such as the Natural History Museum house some of the most important scientific collections in the world, the Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium presented a strikingly consistent consideration for the place of empiricism in varying spiritual practices. Jules Evans (Queen Mary, University of London) initiated this exploration on the first panel of the morning, presenting on ‘Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and the rise of “empirical spirituality.”’ This paper explored the way that developments in the field of psychology were utilised to bridge the gap between science and mysticism. Integrating such theories as Gerald Heard’s five stages of humanity, which predicts the movement from our current humanic individualist state to a more expansive collective consciousness through an advanced form of spirituality and the practice of meditation, as well as Myers psychical psychology of the ‘subliminal self.’ These concepts were used in conjunction with Aldous Huxley’s work on perennial philosophy, all of which hoped to hold experience of a spiritual nature empirically accountable. 

Directly following Evans and corroborating this exploration was Alana Harris (King’s College, London), who presented research on Letitia Fairfield and ‘Rational Religion’, a study of a female experience of the physical – metaphysical interface particularly through interest in politics and public health. Harris provided further examples of a modernist intent on complicating the divide between materialist science and religious or personal spirituality. 

A third paper in this trend of investigation of the interaction between modernist scientific movements and spiritual studies was from Leigh Wilson (University of Westminster) on C. K. Ogden’s co-authored pragmatist approach to linguistics The Meaning of Meaning and the way in which he comes to collaborate with James Joyce despite their differing considerations of ‘word magic.’ Leigh contributed a semantic study of the balance and tensions between theories of purely referential meaning and the magic potential of linguistic devices, further unravelling the moments in modernity where occultism comes up against methods of material science. 

Other examples of research of this specific nature revealed themselves throughout the day from a variety of subjects across the four panels. Aren Roukema (Birkbeck) spoke on the relationship between Christianity and occultism and the nature of heresy in modernism. Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton) presented on enchanted ancient and modern objects through the pacifist social group, Kibbo Kift, who assimilated new works in biology to support their beliefs in material and cosmic energies. Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths) spoke on what modern studies of and on psychedelic substances can elucidate about the expansion of consciousness that mystic thought so often necessitates and the way these studies can provide further insight into the relationship between empiricism and mysticism, culture and counterculture.   

Even those whose research was farther removed from empirical consideration, particularly those papers which shifted the focus from Western-centric modernists to Eastern modern spiritual activity, for example Suzanne Newcombe’s (Open University) presentation of yoga in the early 20th century and Jamie Callison’s (Nord University) paper on modern retreat movements, still maintained concerns of an empiricist nature in their periphery. Newcombe touched on the role that yoga played in movements of mental and physical health culture while Callison proposed spiritual retreat as an embrace, rather than an escape, of modernity through the modernist tendency of ‘self-critique.’ One might get the impression that new work in modernist studies is embracing the often seemingly contradictory nature of modernity, both in ways that emphasise these contradictions and attempt to reconcile them. 

That the intersection between the empiricist component of modernism and alternative systems of belief emerged as a central theme of the day might be indicative of one of the defining tensions of modernism: Eastern and Western aesthetic, social and spiritual practice and the ambition to justify such practices in locations of prevailing scientism. 

The increasing useful quotation of Tim Armstrong was referenced at this symposium, where he asserts that modernism is ‘both a rejection of the past and a fetishisation of certain earlier periods; both a primitivism and a defence of civilisation against the barbarians; both enthusiasm for the technological and fear of it; both a celebration of impersonal making and a stress on subjectivity.’ The Modernism and Alternate Spiritualities symposium facilitated what felt like an important discourse, one that continues the exploration of intellectual and ideological tensions within modernist studies. 

by Aoiffe Walsh


Tim Armstrong, Modernism: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 5.