Saturday, July 25, 2015

Cannibals & Capitalists

Image result for alchemy

"The occult is what is hidden. But not to everyone. Wherever there is something hidden, there is necessarily someone who knows."

- This time is going to be wild.
- I can't wait. What are we going to talk about?
- Talking things.
- Robots, computers.
- No. Things, like a philosopher's stone which when put next to copper turns it to gold.
- By talking to it?
- Yes. God created the world by talking. Some things have this divine power of speech and can talk other things into being things more like themselves.
- Which things?
- All things that already resemble each other. In astrology, the stars move us, in alchemy, the philosopher's stone changes copper to gold.
- That's just talk.
- God created the world by talking.
- You said. How do the stars talk us to our destinies and how does the philosopher's stone change copper to gold?
- By being like human beings who as Pico della Mirandola said are the creatures that, made by god after all other natures and places in the world were taken, were given what was left, no particular place and a nature unlike any other that remakes itself.
- So a science that could place the right thing in relation to other things would be as it were reconstituting what god did, creating man with no fixed place but with the ability to remake himself?
- Yes. An alchemist places things together in the world as if he was god making man.
- And releases in things the power of self-change man has from god? Wild is right. Is there more?
- A lot more. Ready?
- Why not? It's all fantasy anyway.
- Don't be too sure. The philosopher's stone put next to something like itself makes it more like it. The power of resemblance is the power of speech, since speaking is a kind of doing something that changes how you see the world. Giving something a name says what kind of thing it is, and that guides you to seeing other things of those kinds easily related to that kind. How you talk about the world changes how you see it. We see the world we've named. A name is a habit of seeing. A habit is part of us, is our character, our second nature. Something we have a name for is part of us, is in us as habit. In that sense the world we see is already "us", composed of our words, resembles us.
- And when we continue speaking using those words we make the world resemble us even more. Our words are philosopher's stones to the world we see with their aid. By the end of the sentence those words have made the world even more like ourselves. God made us philosopher's stones to the world, transforming the world we've named and so already part of us more and more in our image. The alchemist plays god by arranging for a thing to become self-making by putting it in contact with resembling things. Alchemists teach things to talk. What next?
- Say we are not alchemists but anthropologists and studying one of the last uncontacted tribes in the jungles of Brazil. We are very enlightened and civilized. The tribes people have magical rituals and superstitions. They pretend they are gods. They believe that twisting a model of their enemy will twist their enemy. They do no experiments, are not scientific. But we don't judge. Our models of the world also change how we see the world. We test a few of our models, not close to all, and almost never do we test our social models. We do not test our idea that society is a marketplace of things exchanged between enemies. We don't challenge the assumption that violence is more fundamental that sympathy. These life-models are our rituals, stories we tell ourselves over and over, and return to after disappointments.
- Are you saying that we are all stupid uncontacted tribes people and American market speculators, therefore we should simply leave each other alone? We're all good folks, all us cannibals and capitalists. All of us are following god's precedent in creating man. We're all ordinary god-like things that speak each other and the world around us into being more like ourselves and so perfect ourselves.
- No, and no again to that!
- What are you saying then?
- Wild enough for you so far?
- Come on.
- Alchemy is a science of experiment that puts one thing next to another, choosing which to put next to which on the assumption that the right resemblance will release self-making speech as resemblance draws forth more resemblance. The science of experiment we practice is different, though it too puts one thing next to another and waits to see what happens. But we aren't trying to be gods making self-making men. We measure the change in each of the things put next to each other from one time to the next. We look for laws of change.
- The things don't talk to each other. We do the talking.
- Yes. Now the Renaissance philosophers experimented not like us but with their god-like power of creating talking things. They were searching for the best way of doing this. If things could talk themselves into existence, why could not our knowledge of things itself talk more knowledge into existence?
- How does knowledge talk?
- In the same way naming speech does. One kind of knowledge recreates itself finding other knowledge that resembles it already. One philosopher-alchemist, John Dee, thought he had found the knowledge equivalent of the philosopher's stone.
- And what was that?
- A symbol that he claimed combined all the most significant other symbols. Each symbol set in train a self-creating of similarities in the world, and locked all together, this performed simultaneously, would give us the original god-like power of naming and creating the whole world that Adam had before the fall.
- This experiment, thought experiment really, put knowledge cues next to each other, and waited for one to work upon the other, in the alchemist's way of experimenting, not ours. How could we experiment on self-making in our way?
- The alchemists were following the formula of ritual: set up the situation that is repeatable to get the result you want: security or power. The alchemist serves us a world that suits people with the knowledge they already have. Our kind of experiment would give us different worlds to respond to with different languages. We'd look at how self-making itself fared with those languages and conditions. We'd come to know something about how self-making worked. We'd learn the laws of self-making. What was good for it and what not. Whether the particular self-making language we have is worse or better than others. Like setting a ball in motion on an inclined plane, we'd drop one kind of self-making in the world and see where it got to, what happened to its powers of self making; and then, changing the plane's angle of incline, try it in another situation.
- The cannibals in Brazil have the alchemist's science. A rudimentary science of self-making with the aid of magical objects and social relations established and recognized by gifts of things, things that they've talked into being part of themselves. Still, it is a science. And what about us? We have our experimental science serving technology, true, but no science at all of self-making. Or we do, negatively, for isn't capitalism in fact science of self-destroying? Where is the kind of technology you're talking about, a technology of good?* Or do you think you're an alchemist yourself and are talking it into existence?
- No comment.

Further Reading:
Bad History
The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science, Frances Yates
* The Technology Of Good