Jail-breaking Machiavelli 3: Every Person a Star

Every man and every woman is a star.

The Book of the Law


Something happened on the day he died

Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried

(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

—David Bowie, “Blackstar”

Sovereignty has been a topic I’ve seen mentioned quite often in magical and pagan circles over the last several years. Beyond the sovereign citizen movement, the topic of sovereignty has been moving in the background of Western culture, I think, for a while.[1] I mean, as a Shakespeare nerd, I wound up reading Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, and Ernst Kanterowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, so political theology and sovereignty were always there for me, but I’m not alone. But I can’t tell you how much I’ve heard about “sovereignty goddesses” and individual sovereignty in the last several years.

I’m not complaining, per se.

The defining of political theology that Peter Grey addresses in Lucifer: Princeps is a definition of sovereignty. As I noted in part 1:

But what comes across in [Lucifer: Princeps] is how sacred kingship entails arraying a microcosm about the king that seeks to mirror the broader universe—a royal microcosm seeking to bridge to the divine macrocosm. And while kings frame this bridging as a priori, as some pre-existing, essential state and connection, Grey points to how kingship is enchantment, a recreation of the cosmos as surrounding the king. The king and his court weave an enchantment that frames the palace as a reflection of the heavens, with the king on both an earthly and celestial throne. In its benefic mode, this model of sacred kingship enchants Land & people for prosperity & good fortune, etc. But it gets into demiurgical territory when kings forget that it’s enchantment, or they move from benefic shaman-kings and become magician-kings who seek to project their enchantment over as much as they can.

Grey also notes how this model of sacred kingship entails, it seems, building kingdoms in the Otherworlds, building afterlives that link the worlds, as ancestors work to mediate the super-natural to the mortal world.

But it occurs to me, as I read Grey, that the magician’s perspective is how this process of orienting the cosmos around oneself is something that, well, magicians do all the time. One of the things about sacred space—both in Lucifer: Princeps and in most any magical tradition—is how you can recenter the axis mundi to whatever local landmark and genius loci would function as such for your community. The king’s palace seeks to create sacred (magical) space about the king, with the king at its center: so too do magicians and witches seek to create their own magical spaces.

Okay, let me ground the magical, witchy side of all this in terms I get, ultimately in biopolitical and Machiavellian and theatrical terms—because those are also terms that are ultimately magical and theological.

What is biopolitics (or sometimes biopower)? Broadly speaking, biopolitics addresses how political power often focuses around controlling the disposition of bodies, and thus how political power focuses on who has power over the bodies of persons within a political system. Foucault really inaugurates the theoretical field of biopolitics, but within that field, one’s political potential emerges in relation to the force—legal and otherwise—that states exert upon bodies. Agamben termed this potentiality, in that persons have to confront their potential to be or not to be agents—their potential to act or not to act of their own accord through their bodily agency.[2]

Persons who embrace their potentiality for bodily agency can become “sovereign subjects” by resisting that biopower exerted against their lives, so people can begin asserting agency over their bodies and their embodied private and public lives. Sergei Prozorov locates freedom as emerging through the “subject of resistance,” coming into being in “the act of resistance” against exterior control over one’s life. We are not born free, so potential embodied subjects only achieve freedom and political agency when they resist the state with intention and attention.[3] How can you do so? Prozorov points to practices involving the rejection of how consensus and official reality would task you to define “selfhood” or “citizenship” in its terms. This liberation entails not only bodily liberty but also spiritual and aesthetic liberty.

The pursuit of freedom includes not only physical liberty but also mental and aesthetic liberty. It entails being able to think and imagine beyond the strictures imposed by an official discourse. How do you imagine yourself in relation to the political authority of your culture? Biopolitical authority wants you to imagine yourself as subject to the sovereign—whether a king or other executive power.

Machiavels & Projectors

Falstaff doing everything a Falstaff can. Also, Herne. As Falstaff does. Falstaff at Herne’s Oak (1832) by James Stephanoff

So, I come back around to Machiavelli.

The Prince arguably exposes how political theology works—that it’s an enchantment in which princes and clerics represent themselves as seeming divinely ordained, as seeming religious and virtuous:

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

From a magical perspective, the topological rearrangements that Grey describes in Lucifer: Princeps are the glamours, the enchantments, intended to both seem divinely ordained and sanctioned—as being the cynosure who links the kingdom to the Otherworldly source of political authority—while also seeking to actualize that power, to make that power manifest. It’s easy to lose sight with Machiavelli and all the talk about seeming versus being that princes use seeming—they use theatricality and imagery and performance (ritual)—to create power and authority. After all, it’s no good if you don’t wind up being the prince.

Fake it until you make it.

I mentioned previously how Machiavelli popularizes the theatricality of political power. Put another way, Machiavelli popularizes the magical techne involved in creating sovereignty—that sovereignty begins as a glamour, as enchantment. And I think it’s that reason why early modern Europe’s elites demonized Machiavelli and The Prince: he’d assembled a grimoire of political theology and put it out there in Italian—not even Latin.[4] As I’ve also argued previously, Shakespeare and the theater companies recognized this enchantment, and it’s a critical commonplace that theater intersects with early modern ideas about magic. After all, Elizabeth I’s procession through London leading to her coronation—on a day determined astrologically by John Dee[5]–is a series of pageants as she and the City of London perform her sanctioned biography, her ancestral rights to the crown, and her political theology as it relates to England and Britain and its pagan and Christian past.

I’ve also previously pointed to how the creation of magical or sacred space by witches and magicians replicates the actions of kings that Grey describes in Lucifer: Princeps, and working with the Four Kings[6] in that regard becomes a way of relating the magician/witch to other royalty.

Witchcraft and magic are ways of asserting one’s own sovereignty within the world. The Romantic poets—or at least, for me, Blake, Keats, even Shelley—seem to recognize the aesthetic, mythopoeic basis for this imaginary action as they write about and imagine republican revolutions that would relocate sovereignty from elite individuals to any who can actively (and imaginatively) participate in the life of nations or communities. After all, Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities point to how the citizens in a state collectively imagine (or enchant) the modern republic or democracy.

But so does Machiavelli and those who draw on him. I’ve noted the Stage Machiavel—a stock character who relies upon hypocrisy, theatricality, and, well, lying (acting) to accomplish their often nefarious ends. Shakespeare often uses Machiavels and Machiavellian princes in his plays, as I noted in the previous post. However, let me point to Thomas Heywood now, and where he takes the Machiavellian current.

Every One a Mountebank Magician

The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch (1496-1516)

Heywood imagines a figure he calls “the projector” in Machiavel, as He Lately Appeared to His Deare Sons, the Moderne Proiectors. Heywood was originally a playwright himself, though perhaps more a hack, and later in life, he seems to have joined the anti-theatricalist current, a rather Puritan current in early modern England.[7] In this satire, Heywood targets projectors as public storytellers. They are commoners, and in linking them with Machiavelli, Heywood renders them as nominally demonic, un-princely figures.

Theater was a commercial enterprise, and so was the performativity of these projectors commercial in its scope. Heywood likens them to actors whose “scene was the whole Kingdome,” and the way in which he describes these projectors seems suggestive of Shakespearean characters like Falstaff, Iago, or even Rosalind. Projectors rely on an “Education” that starts with poetry that “infect[s] [him] with straunge raptures…and whimsies.”[8] This tendency towards the phantastical reminds me of the focus on the phantasmic that Ioan Couliano locates in Renaissance culture in his Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, that uses Giordano Bruno as a locus around which to situate this persistent strain of Renaissance imagination. The capacity for fictiveness—a trait associated with actors but also con men—is what informs Heywood’s projector. Projectors are actors and storytellers—liars to the anti-theatricalists—who had no respect for their supposed social betters, even if the projectors’ actions might find favor with popular audiences.

Theater and magic—Stephen Gosson attacked theaters for encouraging audiences to serve as “assemblie[s]” of mere subjects to “[judge the] faultes” of their betters.[9] Meanwhile, persons like the authors of Th’overthrow of Stage-Playes (1599) argued that theater showed how nominally Machiavellian activities of characters familiarized actors with those vices. Theater could lead audiences and actors to learn how to reproduce  Machiavellian qualities (that is, how to act like the aristocracy), though they framed their concerns moralistically.[10] That said, Nigel Wheale points to how the Tudor subject John Taylor cultivated his own biography in a manner that calls the projectors to mind and the idea of weaving one’s life through art-as-magic: Taylor authored works like Laugh, and be Fat (1612) and offered praise for drinks like sack in his Drink and Welcome (1637), a life that may have informed the inception of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Taylor “used publication to create and promote himself as a celebrity” in a way that recalls how projectors used fiction to manipulate their own biographies in the search of social agency and opportunity.[11]

Indeed, projectors are shapechangers who use theatricality for their own ends. Heywood describes projectors as learning how to act as lawyers, manipulating discourse for their own benefit. And although they may seem “honest…and politicke” at first glance, projectors work as con artists who rely on “Aiery hopes” and “[their] mouths” for financial liberty, not actual (honest) work. They adopt whatever role they wish—or can pull off—assuming any number of personae: “a decayed Merchant, a broken Citizen, a silent Minister,” and so on. They rely on “more wit than honestie.”[12]

The narrative dexterity that projectors have in Heywood’s satire recalls the Renaissance humanist “New Men” who shape discourse to manipulate who they are and what kind of persons they pass as so that they can best find optionality to advance socially.[13] Projectors develop the skill to perform—to seem—who they need to be. For them, performing authority requires understanding the narrative logic that undergirds whatever authority they do perform. And in that sense, they’re not that different from Machiavellian princes. Projectors fashion themselves—they enchant their lives—to persuasively inhabit roles of authority that allows them to operate in ways that their births would not ordinarily allow. They use art—magic—to be other than who they are.

I would argue that this performance isn’t that distinct from the political theology Grey identifies in Lucifer: Princeps, and it’s not that far from what Shakespeare’s actors are doing in his plays when they perform Iago and Richard III and Bolingbroke and Claudius—and it isn’t that far from what Elizabeth does in her procession.

This is why I’m writing about jailbreaking Machiavelli. The Prince isn’t just a grimoire for the early modern elite—or later elite—to craft the narratives of their legitimacy. It’s a way for all people to recognize how authority has fashioned itself, and Machiavelli exposes the artfulness and artifice of political theology, how it can work—and if you popularize and publicize that process, then anyone can do so.

It’s like publicizing the Golden Dawn’s rituals, only for the early modern elite.

And what’s a witch or magician than someone who installs themselves as authorities, as sovereigns over their lives and their realities? Of course, they seem like charlatans and mountebanks from authorities’ perspectives: authority has reserved its theatricality of power to itself. But through that imaginal power, anyone can conceivably seize or create authority. As Marlowe says, through the spectacular Tamburlaine:

The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caus’d the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair,
And place himself in the empyreal heaven,
Mov’d me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that fram’d us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Everyone can imagine sovereignty. And the Archons have modeled the path. The question is whether we merely topple one Archon to replace them with another, or if we seek to find our own places within the world–to find whatever “sovereign subjectivity” we can and define ourselves in our own terms. And therein is a powerful kind of magic all witches and magicians strive to master without calling down the demons on our heads.

Featured Image: Le Bateleur (The Magician) from the Tarot de Marseilles

[1] No, I have no particular care for the sovereign citizen movement, mostly because I recognize the validity of a social contract and living in a community.

[2] Giogio Agamben, Homo Sacer, 46.

[3] Sergei Prozorov, Foucault, Freedom and Sovereignty (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 35.

[4] Ahem, cf. Peter Levenda’s work on identifying the American political grimoire.

[5] Gyorgy E. Szonyi, John Dee’s Occultism: Magical Exaltation through Powerful Signs (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004), 315n2.

[6] That is, the directional rulers, however you define them in your tradition or system.

[7] Anti-theatricalists argued that the theater was a bad influence on people, teaching them vice and iniquity. The idea that media corrupt the populace is by no means a new notion.

[8] Thomas Heywood, Machiavel, as He Lately Appeared to His Deare Sons, the Moderne Proiectors (London, 1641), D2r, B3v.

[9] Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, ed. Arthur Freeman (New York: Garland, 1972), D1r-v.

[10] John Rainoldes, William Gager, and Alberico Gentili, Th’overthrow of Stage-Playes, facsimile ed. (New York: Garland, 1974), 111-3.

[11] Nigel Wheale, Writing and Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain, 1590-1660 (New York: Routledge, 1999), 89-90.

[12] Heywood, B3v-4v.

[13] Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 74-5.


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