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Western Esotericism Unit

Call for Proposals

This year we invite proposals for the following topics:

  • Esotericism and Class: Critical Investigations
  • Esotericism and Catastrophe
  • Mysticism, Esotericism, and Queer Theory (Co-sponsorship with the Mysticism Unit)

Details below. In addition, we will consider proposals for pre-arranged panels on a specific topic (please note that the composition of panels should consider diversity issues, which can include gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and academic rank).


Esotericism and Class: Critical Investigations

The gendering of esotericism has been studied for decades, and aspects of race have recently picked up speed; meanwhile, the role of class in and for esotericism has not been given sufficient critical scrutiny. We call for contributions that interrogate relationships between class and esotericism. Possible topics include the socio-economic conditions for the production and distribution of Renaissance esotericism (e.g. patronage, economic and class aspects of early print culture); esotericism, courts, and feudalism; esotericism and “cunning folk”; occupational aspects of esoteric practices (e.g. as sources of income/sustenance); esotericism and the rise of the bourgeoisie; esotericism, the working class, and labor movements; esotericism and access to education; esotericism, cultural capital, and conspicuous consumption; esotericism and consumerism; etc. Contributions are encouraged to reflect on how their class perspective relates to theoretical discussions about esotericism as “rejected” and “marginalized” knowledge, on the “learned” vs. “folk” magic distinction, the elitist dimension of esotericism, the assumed "educated middle-class" nature of modern alternative spiritualities, etc. Intersectional approaches treating class in relation to race and gender are particularly welcome.


Esotericism and Catastrophe

In consideration of the 2022 AAR Presidential Theme, “Religion and Catastrophe,” we invite proposals that consider the ways that esoteric religions have responded to catastrophe and crisis, whether natural, human-made, socio-political, and/or supernatural. We welcome considerations of how esotericisms may seek to avert catastrophe as well as considerations of how esotericisms may contribute to or worsen crises. Possible topics could include esotericism and apocalypticism; esotericism, natural disasters, and/or climate change; esotericism, plagues, and pandemics; esotericism and war.


Mysticism, Esotericism, and Queer Theory (Co-sponsored with the Mysticism Unit)

What is queer about mysticism? What is mystical about queerness? Engaging this question requires the acknowledgment of the complexity of both these categories. Queer theory is a capacious category, becoming ever more so. For example, how does mysticism exceed and defy the categories articulated by its early scholars such as James, Stace, Zaehner, and Katz? Do these early definitions accommodate its many forms? And how does queerness help us to understand mysticism as practiced in the past and present? Does it refer to action, affect, social taxonomy, or on the most basic level, can it be used to understand and describe modes of experience? Does it include the “weird,” as that which refuses rigid categorization and reductive explanation? In short, how do these two types of theoretical models inform each other? And what can they tell us about how mysticism happens?

Statement of Purpose

The purpose of this Unit is to promote, expand, and constructively critique the academic study of (“Western”) esotericism. Esotericism is understood pragmatically as an umbrella term covering a range of historical currents that have been conceived of as “alternative” to the established religious institutions of Europe and its related colonial and post-colonial societies. Our unit supports new work on all aspects of such currents, from Gnosticism, Hermetism, and theurgy in Antiquity, through the occult sciences and ritual magical traditions of the Middle Ages, the Islamic science of letters and Jewish and Christian kabbalah, early modern currents such as Paracelsianism and Rosicrucianism, modern currents such as spiritualism, occultism, and perennialism/traditionalism, and contemporary phenomena such as alternative spiritualities, neopaganism, conspirituality, and popular occulture. We are especially committed to critiquing existing conceptions of “esotericism”, opening up and expanding the field through an engagement with other disciplines and theoretical perspectives.


Steering Committee Members



Review Process

Proposer names are visible to chairs but anonymous to steering committee members