Green Lion Comes – Robert Cheatham

Robert Cheatham  Almost every definition of alchemy will read it as an unscientific precursor to chemistry. Its main efforts were to turn base metals into gold, to find a formula for eternal life, and of course the search for the Philosopher’s Stone as a sort of universal elixir/morphing agent of everything, from its most generalized dissolved state (prima materia) into its most perfectible and pure state. The exoteric mechanism was through the mixing of materials and moving though a series of transformations; the accompanying and necessary esoteric part involved mysterious internal transformations of its sorceric participants. Unlike old-style nineteenth century positivist scientific enquiry, the mind, its subtending regions and powers, was thought to be a necessary part of the process of transformation. Until recently the inclusion of what is now called “The Observer Effect” (from quantum theory) was heresy to the standard model of scientific investigation. After Kant, the subject and the object were thought to make a clean break and conditions of contamination of subject/ivity with the object of enquiry were to be avoided at all cost. Much contemporary thinking now questions the possibility of the purity of such states: the object and its range are now thought to be more mysterious (perhaps verging on ‘mindful’) than a positivist scientific account would contend; the subject could also have a more objective aspect (under the duress of AI studies and the other neurosciences). It might not be too awkward to say that future sciences will have a touch of ‘magic’ about them (since magic has always been about– whether in folklore, hoaxes, or ‘reality’– those fluid boundary regions where the external and the internal, the single and the multiple, the finite and the infinite meet and transmute each into the other.) And of course alchemical processes are accompanied by cryptic symbols and visuals thought to facilitate the efficacy of those transforming processes . (In that respect alchemy shares a certain relation to the image world as do other occultist studies such as Voudon with its cryptic veves which are thought to designate and facilitate the inward rush of spirit entities; also the ufological concept of ‘alien image/text/self-activating software wherein ‘supernatural-like’ alien machinery reads and manifests itself).

Karen Pinkus contends that to start a discourse on the theory or practice of alchemy “is already to be caught up in a form of ideology that structures both alchemy and writing. Alchemy cannot be said to exist as a method or practice standing outside of or beyond writing. Like writing, or inasmuch as alchemy is writing, it is an admixture of opposites, dominated by the couple inside and outside, ‘the matrix of all possible opposition.’ The question of what is ‘outside’ of alchemy is fundamental.” [1]

The ambivalence of the question of inside or outside is to be caught in a position of oscillation which can lead away from the alchemical master narrative in which matter and human (and animality [2] ) are finally redeemed and stabilized and/or in which the unfortunate opposite can happen: degeneration, unbinding, collapse – in other words, reverse transmutation. Only an employment of rhetorical or logical strategies can deny or disavow such a fall. Pinker quotes Derrida on the figure of the pharmakon, a substance simultaneously poison and remedy:

This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be—alternately or simultaneously— beneficent or maleficent. The pharmakon would be a substance—with all that that word can connote in terms of matter with occult virtues, cryptic depths refusing to submit their ambivalence to analysis, already paving the way for alchemy—if we didn’t have eventually to come to recognize it as anti-substance itself: that which resists any philosopheme.

The most audacious of this pharmakonological haunting and conjuring by images is photography, the technically facilitated image and its accelerated cognates: the moving image, computer graphics, and artificial intelligence, all of which confuse reference and source, or, also embracing the generic, if you believe some theorists, do away with reference all together. Roland Barthes proposes in Camera Lucida “a theory of photographic becoming in which the photograph is a force of transformation: in which models become images, images become subjects, and subjects become photographs. And these images move and have their existence inside us” [3] so that, as Bill Viola writes: “…images live within us. At this moment we each have an extensive visual world inside of us…We are living databases of images – collections of images – and these images do not stop transforming and growing once they get inside of us.” Or, as W.J.T. Mitchell [icon theorist] phrases it, “What do pictures want?” Alchemy is about nothing if not putting into agency the symbolic and the pictorial, activating the porous solidus between the lingual and the visual. (That sutured slant is also called, appropriately enough, a gold coin, the very metal that the alchemists most adored … and which is still the case as the alchemical aspect has entered into the occult world of financial wizardry [4] and banksters, as well as the world wide simultaneous image culture.)

[To continue this line of thought using this piece from Cadava and Cortes-Rocca]:

Within this logic of transformation and metamorphosis, it is impossible to sustain the abstraction we call ‘reference.’ The relation between the reference and image, does not presuppose an object whose being and existence precede, or remain outside, the process through which it becomes an image. On the contrary, Barthes suggests that photographic representation stages—makes absolutely ‘literal’—what is at the heart of modern representation and this is precisely the putting into crisis of a temporal order in which first there is an object and then later its representation…. [5]

So, moving quickly now, what if alchemy weren’t a contorted version of some sorcerer’s wet dream, and what if it didn’t just disappear due to its ‘wrongness,’ and in fact didn’t disappear at all? What if it has worked only too well in its emphasis on (cryptic and dark) transmutation (a motif which one can only observe to be as old as humanity itself or even, though the evolutionary imperative, the same as humanity’s ascent), alchemy always being the dark mechanical side of transmutation, even reflected in the constitution of its name: the al prefix from Arabic the root perhaps coming from Greek Khem or Khamé, meaning dark or black and then linking up with the foundation of the dark arts in Egypt, finally making its way into the European traditions through its importation from Arabic. Pinkus makes the point that “chemistry itself is a purely Arabic word, from chama or hama (meaning ‘he hid or covered up’) stressing the fact that the knowledge of chemistry/transformative processes is passed down in secret; or from kimya or kimyao (burning, furnace) to which was added the prefix al ).” She goes on to say that Paracelsus, the great Renaissance alchemist-doctor, claims to have been taught the art by a “Muslim in Turkey who also gave him the universal dissolvent or azoth – death, or that which purifies; or the alkahest, the spirit, or sophic fire, which is key to ‘al-chemistry,’ a science named from the Arabic chom, and Hebrew cham, meaning heat. Perhaps the word derives from the proper name Cham or Ham, son of Noah.”

Enough of the dark etymology. The point is that the cryptic side of the phenomena known as alchemy is by its nature and nomenclature a dark pursuit. What if an alchemical imperative has escaped (or always has been) a worldwide culture—and has gone wrong?

This is somewhat the thesis of Scott de Hart and Joseph P. Farrell in Transhumanism: a Grimoire of Alchemical Agendas. In the introduction they state:

[….]superintending all the alchemical images and their implied agendas that we survey here, there is one standing out above them all, that both compels the agendas, and simultaneously reveals some of them as forms of false alchemy; the image is that of primordial simplicity, androgeny, or ‘Nothingness,’ or physical medium, or aether, or ‘ocean of quantum flux,’ or Grand Architect of the Universe. The image goes by many names, depending on the fashion of the age, and the particular agenda emphasized, but it is, nevertheless, the same image.

This means that modern man is in a predicament, for he is about to be sacrificed either upon an apocalyptic altar of alchemical science, or, if one is to believe the ‘Three Great Yahwehisms; – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – slaughtered by a righteous God come back to restore justice to the world by an unparalleled bloodletting, prior to mankind’s final transformation – if one is to believe a certain strand of Christian fundamentalist eschatology – into the very same sorts of alchemical creations as the transhumanist science they excoriate. Either way, the transhumanist gospels of Science or the revelations, prophets, and ministers of Yahwism are saying the same thing: the New Age is here; prepare to die as part of your process of alchemical transformation.

To read the world now is to convert it into world – actually universe spanning images – images which have an intimate and secret life, relations which glide into affinities and analogies, creating chimeras along the way. The World Wide Net is an alembic which seems to possess processes which appear distinctly alchemical (when not sublimed into a different reference structure). Individual desiring-engines collect, foreign bodies roam the web finding, ghost-like, native bodies (and we are all simultaneously, ‘natives’, and nomads, from that view point—which is everywhere and nowhere, the heimlich (homed) and unheimlich (uncanny, unhomed). We no longer can tell, foresee, or predict even what sedimentation will form. Fiction and its other forms, mashups creating shadow events which often supercede the true event, i.e., the new saying “False information can create true events”: information, or rather the information which survives the cauldron of theatricality/performativity, becomes a form of fictive presence brought into manifestation and presence. We thought that modernism was all about evaporation/dissolution, disappearance, transparency, absence, abandonment, forgetting of presence. But as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht says, these aspects of modernity may wane since “some of the ‘special effects’ produced today by the advanced communication technologies may turn out to be instrumental in awakening a desire for presence.” Indeed. A second world is being manifested in front of our eyes. The world is coming alive again, re-enchanted through the aegis of an alchemical instrumentality, not through a cabal of wizened sorcerers, but though our instrumentation itself, digitalization working toward even greater triumphs of manifestation and transmutation, “both a spiritualization of matter and a materialization of light” (Giorgio Agamben).

However, one doesn’t need to postulate secret cabals of aliens, or pointy hat alchemists/sorcerers since our world wide technology is beginning to activate itself in some fashion, perhaps even the return of the bicameral reality that never really went away but updates through the aegis of the new hypertechnical/military/entertainment complex to facilitate new emergences, new forms, hybrid plasticity, flesh with apparition. As Colin Bennett so aptly puts it:

The prototypal form is a unique combination of glamour, entertainment, and technology combined with all the mock-cerebral elements of science, and engineering.

If information is a new form of intelligent life, the prototype as a meme of information has, over the past 30 years, developed branches of new life for itself. We have seen its ability to mount implicit eroticism and glamour constructs, but over the past thirty years, it has developed two new areas of mass-suggestion both in terms of popular belief and national military industrial involvements.

In yet another attempt to change its image, the information complex that is the prototypal form has vanished its image altogether. This “new invisibility” contrasts with the glaring visibility of Nazis and aliens in myth and folklore, films and SF novels. I refer to the vanishing of the prototype, or rather its journey into technological legend, a journey very different to the clatter-and-bang of its Nazi manifestations. This disappearance is a process that has steadily developed over the past forty years.

By way of contrast, there was a time when the prototypal aerial form was a vital part of a nation’s ego, technological muscle, its hopes and dreams. It was anything but invisible.

As always the fantasists are the key to opening our own life-saving sense of wonder. They create the outlines of fantastic new options which we absorb despite ourselves. We may despise and ridicule them, we secretly admire their courage and their nerve, which never fails them. Like the anomalies, the adventurers we are about to meet are always on the night- side of town, where the real action is. Their mad devices are an essential part of our secret lives, seeding ourselves into the future quite beyond our three score years and ten.[6]

Perhaps it is the case that “alchemical” processes begun millennia ago, at the very start of hominid speciation, are just now beginning to reach their fruition or at least visibility (or failure). If so, X marks the spot of the chiasmatic crossing between the human and its hybrid chimeric others, plastic DNA unfolding, molded at ever greater rates and combined with the machine.

[1] Karen Pinkus, Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence.

[2] One is inevitably reminded of Giorgio Agamben’s opening to The Open: Man and Animal and the entire theriomorphic eschatological explorations of animal headed gods. The whole book is germane as a propadeutic to the question of open horizons and a closed horizon of any purported anthroposcene :

It is not impossible, therefore, that in attributing an animal head to the remnant of Israel, the artist of the manuscript in the Ambrosian Library intended to suggest that on the last day, the relations between animals and men will take on a new form, and that man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature.

It might indeed be the case that monstrosity will be the order of the (end of) days, in the sense of a final blow to a purely human-centered universe. All of the alchemical transformations will act to usher the human off the stage, as Foucault imagines on the last page of The Order of Things.:

As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.
If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.

[3] Bill Viola from his exhibition catalog, quoted by Agamben in Nymphs

[4] See e-flux online journal #62 article by Philip Grant which looks at the mysteries of hyperfinance, gold, and the alchemical/occult:

[5] from Eduardo Cadava and Paola Cortés-Rocca, “Notes on Love and Photogaphy,” in Photography Degree Zero, Ed. Geoffrey Batchen

[6] Colin Bennett, The Dream Life of Prototypes. (Taken from his now-defunct website, Combat Diaries, closed after his recent death.)

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