The conference was organized by Wouter Hannegraff, professor History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam, and Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, and hosted some of the finest scholars from around the world working in the field of esoteric studies.
Until scholars like Francis Yates and A. J. Festugiere began to look deeper into the history of science and Western thought, the academy had largely ignored the insurmountable evidence of alternative paradigms at the root of our culture. In the late 1990’s a number of colleges and universities around the world began to offer courses in the history of esoteric movements and philosophies.
The conference marked a further development of this renewed interest. Jeffrey Kripal’s remarkable history of the Esalen Institute, and his work on the history of heterodox religious movements in the 20th century, shows that an undercurrent of mystical thought has moved throughout the major cultural changes of the last century. With this in mind he has organized a ground breaking series of conferences at the Esalen Institute that bring together scholars, writers, public intellectuals, artists and academics to discuss this often ignored area of study.
With the global economic instability formal support for these initiatives has become less forgiving, but communications technology and digital media is making these efforts even more accessible to the global community.
Jeffrey Kripal is currently working on a documentary called Authors of the Impossible which focuses on what he sees as phenomenon that exist in the liminal ground of the convergence of the subjective and the objective, of narrative and science. Along with the documentary itself he also hosts a series of podcasts that go deeper into the individual scholars and scientists featured in the documentary.
For Kripal the problem with the hardline skeptics is that they fail to appreciate the subjective power of the mystery narrative. He thinks there are better tools for investigating human potential that allow for both subjective and objective techniques to aid each other in the investigation.
Other initiatives have sprung up with the support and foresight of Esalen conference attendees. Arthur Versluis, Michigan State University and Editor of Esoterica: The Journal of Esoteric Studies, was at the commemoration of the Phoenix Rising Academy of Esoteric Sciences and Creative Arts, a digital school that is seeking to fill the gap left by the closing of many humanities departments. They are using communication technology to facilitate scholarship and discussion across the field.
Erik Davis and Mitch Horowitz, both authors and scholars who explore the esoteric influences behind pop culture, will be hosting a workshop at the Esalen Institute on the weekend of March 25-27, 2011, called The Occult in America: An Adventure in Arcane History. Both Erik and Mitch attended one of the conferences in the Esoteric Renaissance series, bringing a contemporary perspective to the role of esoterica in the cultural narrative.
Erik has just released his latest study on the intersection of culture and anomoly titled Nomad Codes. It features essays published in the Village Voice, Wired, Salon, and Slate over the last decade exploring a wide range of mythically resonant topics from the pulp horror auteur H.P. Lovecraft to Burmese transsexual nightlife.
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation is Mitch Horowitz’, editor at Tarcher/Penguin, latest book dealing with history on the fringes and the intersection of mysticism and politics in the United States. This is not a conspiracy tome, but a serious work of popular scholarship which investigates some of the more baroque aspects of American history.
With the continued development of online networks and digital connectivity it will be interesting to see how these efforts grow and influence the emergent field of esoteric studies. Through new insights from scholars like Jeffrey Kripal, Woulter Hounegraff, Arthur Versluis, Erik Davis, Mitch Horowitz and the innovative teaching techniques of the Esalen Institute and the Phoenix Rising Academy, we are seeing a return of the academy to public discourse and a renewal of investigations that have lain dormant for quite some time.
*Resources and references are linked in the text.