“The art of alchemy was a very ingenious investigation of the natural philosophers, and of no minor importance: for by means of this art, many wonderful inventions have been obtained, which have been crucial for the improvement of the world and of considerable benefit to craftsmen. For it was from this art that the art of glassblowing arose, which is in truth the most beautiful of all the world’s arts, and indispensable for the comforts of life and for all peoples. From this most ingenious art there also arose the art of painted enamels, the subliminates, cinnabar, arsenic, purple, and many other beautiful inventions held in the highest esteem, not to mention the numerous types of medicinal oils and liquids; so that not only is it a benefit, but a great ornament for medicine and surgery. Later the method of producing brass was discovered, from which all kinds of objects were made that were almost the equal of gold. They also discovered by means of this art the method by which objects may be plated with the purest gold and an infinite number of other beautiful, useful and pleasant things.”
Leonardo Fioravanti, Dello specchio di scientia universale (“On the Mirror of Universal Knowledge”)
By favoring the manipulation of the most various substances thanks to an important ad hoc equipment (alembics, athanors, etc.), the quest for the Great Work allowed the alchemists to “invent” numerous products that were useful for humanity. This notion, that was a cliché of the positivist thought of the late 19th century, was already a commonplace in the Renaissance. It was the object of a consensus, whether or not one believed in the possibility of transmutation. Thus, the text quoted immediately above, extracted from a work published in 1564, was written by a doctor of the “empirical” school, who in addition to boasting of having obtained the philosopher’s stone, marketed a supposedly sovereign remedy for the plague. Even Leonardo da Vinci had claimed, at the end of the previous century, that “the works of the old alchemists deserve infinite praise, due to the usefulness of the things that they discovered for the use of men”. This did not, however, prevent him from being convinced that the project of artificially creating, “not the least noble of nature’s products, but the most excellent, that is, pure gold,” was doomed to failure; for he believed that man is incapable of equaling nature, “neither by chance nor by deliberate experiments”.
The authors who perceived alchemy as an “ingenious investigation of the natural philosophers” rather than as a “divine and sacred art” usually attributed to the alchemists certain discoveries for which they were not responsible, among others that of glassblowing, which had already existed in the Roman world (this attribution can be explained by the presence, in various medieval texts, of digressions devoted to glass, which is considered as the example of a successful transmutation—the artificial transmutation of opaque and hard sand into a fragile and transparent, and therefore qualitatively distinct, substance—which might point out the way to the transmutation of metals). The question is not to know who was right and who was wrong but to show that the legitimization of alchemy as an experimental art, regardless of whether or not one supported its theoretical formulations or its practical goals, constituted a means for overcoming the simple opposition between “success” and “failure” in order to enter a domain susceptible to more nuanced considerations.
Furthermore, the very name of “alchemy”1 referred to a theoretical-practical set of assumptions that was quite diverse, one that included metallurgy, natural philosophy, medicine, pharmacology, magic and counterfeiting, and was all the more difficult to define with precision as the alchemists defined themselves as “philosophers” after having long been considered as “mechanicals”, that is, simple artisans without the least degree of social or intellectual prestige. Examined from the perspective of its historical development and the multiplicity of its fields of application, alchemy is much more complex than the more or less inspired a posteriori reconstructions of esoterism, psychoanalysis or surrealism would lead us to believe.2
If the alchemists, by vainly attempting something that was impossible, finally ended up discovering other things that were as real as they were useful, we can discern in their efforts a concrete manifestation of what Hegel called the “ruse of reason”; just as, expecting to arrive in Asia, Christopher Columbus discovered an unknown continent in his path. But the “ruse of reason” can only be seen in action retrospectively, and its vagaries are unpredictable. Thus, the medieval alchemists were incapable of imagining that their investigations concerning matter would one day serve to elaborate a theory of “archetypes” of the human soul, or to translate into metaphors an ideal revolution. And who would have thought in the decade of the 1870s that an unknown named Ducasse would exercise on posterity a much greater influence than so many glorious names of the time, whose posthumous survival seemed obvious but who no longer mean anything to anyone?
What now appears to be the main weakness of the situationist texts—especially those of Vaneigem—was hardly discernable thirty years ago; moreover, it was precisely this weakness that in its time seemed to be one of its greatest strengths: the ability (of an exclusively rhetorical order) to enable one to see and almost to grasp in one’s hands certain ineffable goals and to dazzle by way of a magical solution of contradictions in an unprecedented “supersession” of the objective conditions. This power of seduction was translated in 1968 by the surge of slogans taken directly from The Revolution of Everyday Life. Such enthusiasm, which is so hard to share today, was not due only to the qualities inherent in Vaneigem’s text, but also to the fact that it was inscribed in a moment of history in which the “young generations” at which the book was explicitly directed were animated by a passionate desire to “change life”; The Revolution of Everyday Life had the precise objective of transforming this vague aspiration into a conscious revolutionary will. Nothing seemed to be impossible in the eyes of those young people, all the more so since they thought that the problem that had obsessed all previous societies, that of material survival, was finally on the verge of being solved thanks to progress in technology and industrial organization. While it is true that there were still workers in the factories and exploited persons all over the world, sooner or late machines would replace men in order to perform the most distasteful tasks and “liberate” individual and collective time. Thus, this vanguard of the future world known as the “young generation” could devote its main efforts to exploring the possibilities of human life that had been repressed up until that time, experimenting with all the possible forms of “liberation”: personal, sexual, psychological (it was assumed that drugs would open up the “doors of perception”) or artistic (rock n’ roll and its derivatives, made possible by electricity, represented a true aural “revolution” and symbolized a way of life that recapitulated all the other “liberations”). Far from refuting this spirit of the time, The Revolution of Everyday Life endorsed it by radicalizing it.
In such a context, the program of “total revolution” formulated by Vaneigem did not seem to be so impossible, and the social upheavals then underway appeared to confirm its relevance at the time. The illusions cherished by the situationists—the greatest of which was that of the final advent of an era of abundance that would be the material basis for the future society—were all the less likely to be perceived as such the more they were accompanied by the demolition, which was for a long time the monopoly of the SI, of diverse contemporary illusions, among which the Chinese “cultural revolution” was one of the most famous. The situationists were convinced that they possessed the central point around which everything revolved, and this correspondence of partial analyses, often very good and well-documented, with the totality of a global critique, conferred a particular power upon their writings and radically distinguished them from the diversely ingenuous fantasies that flourished at the time.
It is fair to point out that if the situationists had demonstrated more consistency and lucidity in every domain, including the question of material abundance and automation, they would have forfeited a large part of their power of attraction, while the perspective of “supersession”, which was not a mere defensive attitude but implicitly contained the promise of a better future, would have lacked the power of seduction. Mere lucidity has never caused a sensation; that is why no one ever pays any attention to logical Cassandras. As Theodore Kaczynski was capable of perceiving in Industrial Society and Its Future, “an ideology, in order to gain enthusiastic support, must have a positive ideal as well as a negative one; it must be FOR something as well as AGAINST something”. Thus, the innumerable reports, articles and books published since the end of the fifties that announced—not only as something possible or probable but as something that was absolutely certain—the coming ecological catastrophe and the suicide of industrial society did not lead to any kind of generalized accession to consciousness, nor to any shock with a real effect. They engendered, to the contrary, a diffuse anxiety, more or less serious; and in reality, it was not these discourses or their arguments that by themselves produced this result, but their subsequent confirmation by reality. This anxiety leads to impotence and passivity, due to the very nature of the proposed remedy: if the road that humanity has followed with industrialization is truly catastrophic, then deindustrialization, for its part, will restore the question of material survival to its previous status as the most important question, especially in all those regions of the world and for all those social classes for whom abundance had been transformed into a reality precisely by virtue of industrial society. Faced with this perspective, those who find themselves in those regions and belong to those classes will always prefer to preserve, even if only for one more day, their advantages, rather than willingly renounce them. And when the catastrophe finally affects them personally, they are scandalized by the fact that no measures were taken (by whom?) to prevent it.
Thus, the deaf ears turned towards lucid predictions and rational analyses are not at all surprising. This is not—at least not always or necessarily—a sign of stupidity, but derives rather from what Giacomo Leopardi called “necessary illusions”. No one, he wrote in his Zibaldone, can renounce these illusions: “life and the total absence of illusion, and therefore of hope, are mutually contradictory”. Although the illusion of progress upon which industrial society has been nourished is slowly killing us, it still preserves at least a small part of its power of seduction or consolation (in this respect it is similar to religion), in the face of the depressing absence of promises apparently entailed by the very idea of deindustrialization. Again according to Leopardi, “the greatest misfortune is exacerbated and ends up being a veritable hell when we are deprived of that shadow of illusion that nature always tends to grant us”. We may therefore have good reason to fear that the catastrophes that are taking place will not lead to any salutary higher level of awareness:
“Illusions, even when they are undermined and unmasked by reason, nonetheless still exist in the world, and form the essential part of our life. And it is not enough to understand them into order to rid ourselves of them, even if we understand their vanity. Once lost, however, a strong rootstock always remains and, as we go on living in this way, they sprout despite the experience and understanding that we have acquired…. The same thing happens to all those philosophers who write about and examine the miserable truths of our nature and who, however free of illusions they may be, never cease to create others with their works and take advantage of the illusory benefits of life.”
When the objective conditions worsen, the attraction of illusion is not diminished; quite the contrary. We have thus seen most of the myths of the sixties, almost in the same form, emerge in today’s “cyberculture”, a vast swindle that has no other function than to add the charms of contestation to the elixir of youth of an allegedly “dematerialized” capitalism. It is not just a coincidence that the adepts of this culture should profess a kind of worship for Timothy Leary, the apostle of LSD, nor that one of the pioneers of “cyberspace”, John Perry Barlow, was also a member of the Grateful Dead, the famous psychedelic rock band from San Francisco. For all those people, mostly young people, who support the values of “cyberculture”, we are living in marvelous times.3 We might find some of them in the “alter-globalization” movement, which proclaims that, “another world is possible”. They, too, are immersed in an ideology, the most nebulous ideology possible, of course, but one that precisely for that reason allows them to be optimistic. Against the inextinguishable power of the desire for illusion, we may affirm with Leopardi that, “to fight against illusions in general is the most obvious sign of a very imperfect and insufficient knowledge, and of an obvious illusion”.
If illusions are not only inevitable, but also necessary, and survive every attack, even their “assassination”, then a goal that is based on mere reason, such as the objective (which is furthermore quite vague) of deindustrialization, has little chance of attracting the support of a numerically significant part of our society. And a “re-enchantment of the world” that would grant this program a new seductive power, by way of the creation of new myths, will run up against the difficulty that was already encountered by the surrealists in their day, to which Vaneigem called attention in A Cavalier History of Surrealism: one cannot artificially force the birth, in an era when hardly the least vestige of pre-industrial societies remains, of
“the great myth of the unitary society of old, where the individual trajectory of even the humblest of men was inextricably bound up with the cosmic in a mass of fictional realities and real fictions, an atmosphere in which every event was a sign and every word or gesture magically sparked off mysterious currents of mental electricity.”
But we must not concede too much weight to illusion and its power of seduction. Thus, the revolutionary illusions of the period after May ’68 collapsed under their own weight after a few years, because they could not find any kind of basis in reality (regardless of what the miserable “radicals” may think, who are still fingering the beads of their revolutionary rosary). Maybe illusion is necessary, but it is not necessarily effective. If an anti-industrial consciousness should nonetheless take shape, it will not assume—of this at least we may be sure—the form of the situationist revolutionary theory. There is therefore no need to desire its rehabilitation, and we can allow the alchemists to rest in peace in their tombs.
It is by no means certain, however, that the absence of illusions will be totally deprived of its power of seduction, even if only because such an absence of illusions is itself, according to Leopardi, an illusion. So all hope is not lost. And as Baudelaire, with whom this history commenced and with whom it is therefore fitting that it also come to a close, said: “The curtain has risen, and I am still waiting.”
Translated in February 2014 from the Spanish translation.
Source: Jean-Marc Mandosio, En el caldero de lo negativo, tr. Javier Rodríguez Hidalgo, Pepitas de Calabaza, La Rioja, 2006.
Original French-language edition published by Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances in 2003 under the title, Dans le chaudron du négatif.
- 1 This word is merely the Arabized form, with the addition of the prefix, al-, of the Greek word of Egyptian origin, chemeia. Chemistry [chimie] in the modern sense of the word began to really be separated from alchemy [alchimie] during the 18th century.
- 2 Not to mention the attempts at a “radical” analysis of alchemy. For example, on the Internet web page of Nemesis one can read, in a text entitled “The Rise and Fall of Alchemy” (1997), published under the name of Urbain Bizot, that alchemy, “a popular heretical hope”, whose origins go back to “the iron age”, was “a strange unconscious synthesis of the most obsolete archaisms, which had arisen from the collective mysticism of the misty beginnings of time, and the individualist adaptation to rising bourgeois society, or even its anticipation”, and that it above all aspired to obtain “the Peace of the subject”…. The author could very well have been inspired by meditating, before writing this piece, on the warning that John Dee included at the beginning of his Monas Hieroglyphica (1564): “He who does not understand, should either remain silent or learn.”
- 3 See Après l’effondrement: notes sur l’utopie néotechnologique, pp. 139-141.