“The Forge and the Crucible” & “The Basilian Aphorisms”

The demiurgic dreams of metallurgists and alchemists.

This past week I read two interesting texts centred around alchemy; the first was The Forge and The Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy (1956) by Romania historian, philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade. I thoroughly enjoyed his take on the origins of human interaction with metal and it’s sacred significance around the world.

He examines alchemical operations from various cultures who worked with metal; European, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian, as well as touching upon the practices of metal-workers in Africa and other parts of Asia. There is a significant undercurrent of mystical reverence for metals and those who forge them, whether it be admiration or fear. The cultures he investigates also all display elements of the belief that the alchemical process is a gestational procedure. He wanders through time to explore the relationship humans have had to various metals as well as their shamanic and ritual significance. The alchemist appears to have forebears in both the metallurgic and spiritual practitioners of many cultures.

Eliade speaks of the belief that the earth itself is a womb wherein elements are ‘gestated’ and then ‘born’ through rivers, caves and mines. The deciding factor for this transformational process – whereby one element can become another – is time. Those that work with metals – the metallurgists and smiths – can take these embryonic gifts from the womb of the earth and accelerate the process of change through elemental application, namely fire. So, with this view of the gestational earth, it stands to reason that the alchemist can also force these metamorphoses through a variety of judiciously applied operations.

Throughout the book Eliade seeks to understand whether the ancient alchemists were interested in mere transmutation of base substances into gold or whether the material operations were a coded language for another kind of immaterial process.

“We have seen that ores and metals were regarded as living organisms: one spoke of their gestation growth, birth and even marriage. The alchemists adopted and gave new significance to these primitive beliefs… Herein lies the novelty of the alchemical perspective: the life of Matter is no longer designated in terms of ‘vital’ hierophanies as it was in the outlook of primitive man; it has acquired a spiritual dimension; in other words, by taking on the initiatory significance of drama and suffering, matter also takes on the destiny of the spirit. The ‘initiation tests’ which, on the spiritual plane, culminate in freedom, illumination and immortality, culminate on the material plane, in transmutation, in the Philosopher’s Stone.”
P152 Eliade, M. (1956) The Forge and the Crucible, The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, University of Chicago Press

“Alchemy, as we shall see, takes it’s place in the same spiritual category: the alchemist takes up and perfects the work of Nature, while at the same time working to ‘make’ himself.” p47

I particularly enjoyed when Eliade considers the nature of the Philosophers Stone. It’s fascinating because it’s such a contradictory concept; is it a physical thing? An idea? A journey? A way of being? An incorporeal energy? My friend artist and writer Justine Giles wrote a piece to accompany my work (2016) where she postulated that the search for the stone IS the stone – personally, I love that idea.

On the nature and ubiquity of the materia prima English alchemist George Ripley (c.1415-90) writes: “The philosophers say that the birds and fishes bring the Stone to us, each man possess it, it is everywhere, in you, in me, in all things, in time and in space. It presents itself in base guise (vili figura). And from it springs our aqua permanens.” (divine water, eternal water – translation mine).

Zosimos of Panopolis (c.3rd-4th century AD) describes “this stone which is not a stone, a precious thing which has no value, a thing of many shapes which has no shapes, this unknown which is known of all.”

Instruction from Gerhard Dorn (c.1530-1584) on transforming oneself INTO the Stone:
“Transform yourself from dead stones into living philosophic stones.”
‘Transmutemini de lapidibus mortuis in vivos lapides philosophicos.”
Quoted by Jung P367 Psychologie and Alchemie.

I have read another work by Eliade – The Sacred and the Profane (1959) – where he observes the divide between the experiences of secularity and sacredness in contemporary society. It’s a fascinating read and I continued to pick up a similar thread as in this book of the author seeming slightly regretful that humanity has lost it’s awe and wonder in the wake of scientific discovery. There is a passage where he expresses this in a most bittersweet way – when speaking of the sacred experience of nature by the primitive human:
“It would be vain to wish to reconstitute his experiences; too much time has elapsed since the cosmos has been desanctified as a result of the triumph of the experimental sciences. Modern man is incapable of experiencing the sacred in his dealings with matter; at most he can achieve an aesthetic experience…
…it is clear that a thinking dominated by cosmological symbolism created a world vastly different from that accessible to modern man.”
p143

While there is great beauty in the unveiling of scientific discovery, I can understand his feeling around the loss of sanctity in modern life. My counter to this would be that there are things science can show us that, for me at least, evoke the same level of awe and wonder. It’s postulated that humans have an inbuilt propensity for religiosity and, despite being atheistic, I know that I have this inside of me. My fascination with esoterica and mysticism are born out of this sense of wonder and searching, but so is my interest in astrophysics, which seems to fulfil the same desire.

In contrast to Eliade’s discussion of the history of alchemy and metallurgy, Basilian Aphorisms is a translation of a collection of old hermetic canons that first appeared around 1608. Drs Mirco A. Mannucci and Aaron Cheak have done a lovely job of presenting the history and provenance of this work along with very interesting commentary on each canon. This is the sort of book you return to because it’s hard the canons are fairly inscrutable at first but are likely to reveals themselves over time.

After reading Eliades work immediately prior, there was a canon that jumped out to me:

“Canon 15
Thus the Hermetic Bird once locked inside the Cave, which is the Oven, is to be roused gradually by the continuous heat of our vaporous fire, til it opens up and heals everything with it’s birth.”

This recalls the ideas that Eliade put forward around the gestational nature of alchemy. The Avis Hermetis is locked inside the womb of the earth where heat is applied as in a furnace (or forge). This speeds up time, transforming the bird into it’s new form. The bird then hatches, born anew.

The very interesting Basilian Aphorisms can be obtained from Rubedo Press.

New Dark Age – James Bridle

Although my work hasn’t focussed on modern socio-political currents in any obvious way, these topics are something I read and think about a great deal on a day to day basis. I suppose in some way my rejection of the ‘everyday’ in my practice might be a reaction to the amount of time I spend thinking about contemporary issues. When I saw James Bridle’s “New Dark Age” pop up in a review on Brainpickings I immediately ordered it.

It’s hard to give a precis of what this book covers because it sprawls across a large and fascinating territory. I’ve described the book to a few people who I thought might appreciate it as an overview of the vast effect big data and computation is having on our culture.

“Over the last century, technological acceleration has transformed our planet, our societies, and ourselves, but it has failed to transform our understanding of these things… we ourselves are utterly enmeshed in technological systems, which shape in turn how we act and how we think. We cannot stand outside them; we cannot think without them.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P2 (emphasis mine)

I’ve pondered extensively the changes brought about by the vast oceans of unmediated information available on the internet over the last few years. It’s impossible to ignore the gravitation in contemporary society toward extreme black and white thinking with no subtlety or ambiguity, to a distrust in academia and intellectualism, and to a distinct inability to engage in critical thinking. Talking to a number of secondary and tertiary teachers about the effects on education confirmed what I have suspected; knowledge is now wide but very, very shallow. There is also an inability to retain information due to the fact that its is constantly available at ones fingertips. This creates an environment where ideas and information cannot be readily contrasted and compared in the mind of the student because nothing is held there for long! There is also a propensity for students to use the first source they find without digging any deeper or questioning whether the source is reputable, resulting in conspiracy and debunked information being presented as fact.

While we may look at the internet as an amazing source of information which makes available knowledge we might not have been able to access in the age of the written word, it has no ‘filter’ on worthy or useless information, which leaves it up to us to learn to analyse what’s available. Unfortunately the easy access to information makes us lazy too and less likely to engage in critical thinking, preferring to just take what’s easily on offer and run with it.

Bridle talks extensively about the way that mining society for big data creates a culture that is, in turn, moulded by that very data; a self-referential feedback loop with little chance for escape.

“The danger of this emphasis on coproduction of physical and cultural space by computation is that it in turn occludes the vast inequalities of power that it both relies upon and reproduces. Computation does not merely augment, frame and shape culture; by operating beneath our everyday, casual awareness of it, it actually becomes culture. That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google set out to index all human knowledge: it became what people actually think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people… and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P39 (emphasis mine)

We are interconnected, but also enmeshed. Enabled by the wealth of information, but also overwhelmed. The scope and volume of available data creates a society in which it’s unnecessary to think and we can sit back and let the machines do the processing for us. We are spoon fed by computational outcomes, made complacent and encouraged not to indulge in critical thinking or exploration by the very fact that information is so readily available. Unfortunately we are also blinded to what is occurring on a macro-scale by the small conveniences and joys of what we experience in our local systems. It might be nice to have access to social networking and online shopping, but what is happening at a grander scale and why can’t we see it?

Philosopher Timothy Morton uses the word ‘hyperobject’ to describe things like climate change, evolution and the internet that completely surround and envelop us, but that are too big for us to see. We can only perceive hyperobjects by their effect on other, more immediate things on a local level. Modelling a hyperobject so that we can perceive it requires vast amounts of computational power, and that vast data processing is a hyperobject in itself.  A phenomena like climate change acts in a physical way that can be compared to the actions of big data computation on our cultural landscape. Weather is perceived by us as a local phenomena but is no such thing as ‘local’ in a networked world, it is part of the greater global system known as climate. It is often hard for us to grasp that what might be seen as ‘good’ or ‘nice’ in our locals system is often indicative of something that is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in the larger system – this is because we only can only perceive our small local system. Artist Roni Horn points out that “Weather is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong. The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring system-wide.” p50

As a very concrete material example of this; we think we are ‘doing the right thing’ environmentally by trying to go paperless, but we are creating more and more data online that needs to be processed and stored. The virtual and perceivably unlimited nature of the storage facilities results in vastly unedited amounts of data. As of 2015 the worlds data centres consumed approx 3% of the worlds electricity (more than the entire UK) and accounts for 2% of the worlds global emissions (roughly the same carbon footprint as the global airline industry). This is in data storage alone.

Along with mass data processing comes mass surveillance; how else is the data to be gathered? Another example of a hyperobject, mass surveillance has become too big and too overwhelming for us to comprehend:
“Thinking about climate change spoils the weather, rendering it an existential threat even when it’s nice. Thinking about mass surveillance spoils phone calls, emails, cameras, and pillow talk… it’s easier to add it to the long list of things we agree not to think.” p179

“The operation of surveillance, and our complicity in it, is one of the most fundamental characteristics of the new dark age, because it insists on a kind of blind vision: everything is illuminated, but nothing is seen. We have become convinced that throwing light upon a subject is the same as thinking it, and thus having agency over it.” p185

This quote reminds me of the fashion for ‘raising awareness’ of a cause on social media. So what if we’ve shined a light on a problem? It’s illuminated, what now? Are we actually seeing it or just showing those watching us that we are pretending to care and putting a little flag in the ground to promptly forget.

Bridle appears to be very interested in hidden systems, and thats something that captures me as well. His work tracking the movement of unregistered aircraft and drones in the skies of England is both fascinating and disturbing. I chose the header image for this essay from his 2014 work Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone. It is a fine example of situationist philosopher Guy Debord ideas of ‘psychogeography’ or deliberate engagement with the hidden systems in our landscape. Perhaps this is a way to start to become aware of the larger processes at work by searching for how they interact with us on a local level?

“Debord was concerned with the increased spectacularisation of everyday life, and the ways in which our lives are increasingly shaped by commodification and mediation. The things we encounter in everyday life in spectacular societies are almost always a proxy for some deeper reality of which we are unaware, and our alienation from that deeper reality reduces our agency and quality of life. Psychogeography’s critical engagement with the urban landscape was one way of countering this alienation…” p103

On the other hand looking for hidden systems can result in conspiracy-thinking where criticality is abandoned through the very act of looking too hard. Bridle likens conspiracists to the haruspices of old; digging through the entrails of events looking for meaning and omens while potentially becoming sidelined and tricked by false truths and inconsequential avenues of thought. He comes to the conclusion many times that we are in a culture where even though we are looking at the same things we are getting very different outcomes and that we have built a system that reinforces this.

“Self-confirmed groups, from Targeted Individuals to Morgellons sufferers, and 9/11 truthers to Tea Partiers, seem to be a hallmark of the new dark age. What they reveal is what the chemtrailers show directly: that our ability to describe the world is a product of the tools at our disposal. We’re all looking at the same world and seeing radically different things. And we have built ourselves a system that reinforces that effect, an automated populism that gives people what they want, all of the time.” p211

There is so much to find of interest in this book – my copy is currently bristling with post-it notes. In this blog post I haven’t even begun to touch on the interesting chapters about manipulation by algorithm or the influence of Friedrich Hayek, father of neo-liberalism, on AI technology! I’ll leave with a quote from towards the end of the book where Bridle compares the insidious pollution of oil leaks to the pervasive power of a society driven by data:

“In the present, the extraction, refinement, and use of data/oil pollutes the ground and air. It spills. It leaches into everything. It gets into the ground water of our social relationships and it poisons them. It enforces computational thinking upon us, driving the deep divisions in society caused by misbegotten classification, fundamentalism and populism, and accelerating inequality. It sustains and nourishes uneven power relationships: in most of our interactions with power, data is not something that is freely given but forcibly extracted…”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P247

Featured image: Bridle, J (2014) Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone

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