While working on the Alexander Wilder letters to Thomas Johnson, I was struck by a common trait the two men shared in the 1880s which reminds me of the New Age scene of the 1980s. In each case, deterritorialization beginning in the 70s accelerated in the 80s but was countered by reterritorialization trends in the 90s. Wilder and Johnson were both exemplars of deterritorialization who found themselves sidelined by the reterritorialization trends that inevitably ensued.
In A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume I, Patrick D. Bowen draws on the twin concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization as developed in the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who “conceptualize the modern era as being fundamentally characterized by its relative lack of traditional boundaries or `territories’– be they physical, political, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and psychological. Deterritorialization does not imply, of course, that boundaries no longer exist; indeed, Deleuze and Guattari propose that the modern world is constantly undergoing both deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Nevertheless, reterritorialization is itself shaped by the same globalizing historical processes–such as the emergence of both modern commercial and print technology–that are responsible for deterritorialization.”
After citing Unitarian Transcendentalism as the most potent factor in mid-19th century deterritorialization of religion, Patrick comments about Spiritualism as another standard bearer of the same process: “The radically deterritorialized approach to religion of spiritualism, while immensely important for liberalizing US religious sentiment and allowing Americans to briefly take on non-Christian identities, because it was so strongly committed to the notion that religious truth can be observed in all religions and throughout the world, was necessarily going to preclude conversion to a single non-Christian religion.” Applying these concepts to Islamic conversion in the U.S., Bowen analyzes factors that also shed light on Alexander Wilder’s and Thomas Johnson’s embrace of Platonism in the 1880s, a decade when “the American occult revival diversified in various ways, but it was through Johnson’s efforts that one of the most important diversifying currents was able to flourish”– the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.
Volume I of Letters to the Sage reveals the border between the American Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor as open and undefended until TS leaders, alarmed about subversion, treated all HBofL leaders as persona non grata by 1886. Wilder, never associated with the HBofL, maintained more Theosophical ties than Johnson but was ever more marginalized thereafter. In Boston I found comparable evidence of an open border between Christian Science and Unitarianism in the late 1870s and early 1880s, followed by increasing exclusivism within Christian Science and a more critical attitude by Unitarians. More surprising in the Johnson letters were the revelations of intertwined roots and open borders among Rosicrucianism, Sufism, Hermeticism, and Baha’i, with people wandering freely across vaguely defined boundaries in the 19th century that by the early 20thc were hardening into institutional enclaves. Spiritualism was perhaps the most amorphous of all such groups in the 19th century, but during the 20th became a distinct small sect without much cultural interchange compared to its origins.
Continued musings about the Wilder-Johnson correspondence…still in flux