Becoming Is the Alchemical Ontology, Jamming, 05/07/2018

The other day, I was revisiting a short book by my colleague Elizabeth Sandifer. Recursive Occlusion is a little book about the mysticism of Kabbalah and Tarot, in a framework of exploring the Doctor Who story Logopolis.

Her work has always been a bit strange, which is one of the reasons I like her work.

Anyway, it reminded me of one of the original thematic images of her ongoing epic work of commentary, TARDIS Eruditorum – the solution to alchemy as material social progress.

The vision of progress we’re talking about here is fundamentally rooted in freedom – overcoming the bullying authoritarian attitude of social, political, and moral conservatism. Fundamentally, it’s the freedom to transform – to live differently than others, experiment with different kinds of relationships and identities. A constructively queer identity – opposed to nothing but the refusal to accept difference.

Against the Day is a beautiful book. It
depicts, a tad fancifully, a time in human
history that amounted to a technological
and ethical crossroads. The years between
the 1889 World's Fair and the outbreak of
the First World War was a moment where,
but for a few contingencies, we could
have ended up living in a very different
world. Would it have been better? I
have no idea, and I don't think Pynchon
does either. But given where we've
ended up, any possibility is worth
trying. Or at least imagining.
To jump from this to ontological thinking seems utterly barmy, but it can be done. Jussi Parikka gives it a very good shot when he weaves his concepts for a geological philosophy using, among other tools, artistic criticism and commentary.

Alchemical thinking is an attitude of awe, fascination, and love for the powers of substances to transform into one another.

Parikka illustrates this with images from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which is one of my favourite novels. He chooses images that show a transition in society that’s ethical at its core, but also political, moral, economic, and ecological. It’s the transformation of alchemy as our attitude to the world, into chemistry.

He interprets these images to mourn how contemporary attitudes that embrace industrial technology refuse the need for magic. The transformation of one substance into another now requires no mysticism, no ethical consideration at all. You routinize it, regularize it, and industrialize it.

The shorthand that’s often used for this is the transition to full capitalism. But that’s not quite accurate. Parikka describes a transition that I think has already changed by now.

Alchemy was a research discipline that included mysticism and ontological philosophy alongside its empirical studies of how to transform substances. Chemistry – and the capitalist economics that fuelled the institutions of industrial chemistry – stripped the divine and philosophical from its research discipline, replacing it with a techno-industrial framework of understanding and practice.

Parikka gives us a quick description that offers a shade of Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt. As work became labour, alchemy became chemistry, and a practice of mysticism becomes an assembly line.

Yet care wasn’t entirely stripped from chemistry. You could argue that ethics was transformed, but that the ethical still emerged from the practice. We were offered “Better living through chemistry,” after all. The goal of industrial chemistry was to build a better life for people, to build some kind of material social progress.

There are different capitalist economics in place now. Ask the folks who used to work at Dupont Labs, until a few years ago. We might need other concepts.