Change is our permanent state. The cycles of life ensure that. Our bodies are constantly dying and being renewed as old cells fall away and new ones come into being. We live on a planet where life is locked into the rising and falling of the Sun and the wax and wane of the Moon. Every day is different from the last, and so every day are we.
Human culture and psychology is adept at creating illusions of permanence in the face of this relentless transience. Homes to live in on land we return to; memory with which to store notions of ourselves and narrate stable identity in the present. Often we want change, but what we mean is change of a particular kind. Change is always happening, and is generally out of our control.
As a bulwark against this relentless change, humans have always told – and practiced – stories. The greatest of these become ‘religions’; life and death stories and the rituals that perform them which communities retell over generations. However, some stories ossify. While the cycles of life continue, they freeze human imagination, turning fiery agency into cold, hard stone.
Some stories also oppress. Told by the powerful they legitimise the strength of the already-strong and justify the marginalisation of alternatives. Our life and death stories become a struggle: who lives, who dies, and who decides?
These stories and that struggle are the stuff of Alchemy. This essay aims to explain why.
A brief history of Alchemy
Alchemy has always sought to produce gold. In the ancient imagination, gold is a sacred metal because it does not decay; it is the symbol of eternal life. That is why the quest for gold is also the quest for immortality. That story of Alchemy, told – as it has often been – from the perspective of Western history, has become known as a story of hubris. Of arrogant men, rejecting death and stumbling around in proto-chemistry for the elusive elixir to cheat it. The alchemists, and their failed quests, are a joke.
But Alchemy has a different, forgotten history. One that can enervate our ossified stories and re-imagine our relationship to the cycles of change. A story not of hubris, but of humility. And one that might just open a pathway back to life on a planet in which human existence is careering towards death.
The history of Alchemy is truly international. Beginning (probably) in the priestly cult of Egypt, the name itself is Arabic, and its major developments are in Daoist China, the Hindu South Asian subcontinent, Buddhist Tibet, and Greek – later Christian – Europe. Forged through trading routes across what would later become known as the Silk Road, it could well be claimed that Alchemy is the world’s first truly global religion.
Reading alchemical texts is a distinctly ‘foreign’ experience, at least for anyone educated in a Modern European tradition. Hieratic arts, sacred writing, astrology, metallurgy and cosmogony pepper alchemical accounts with a heady mix of deliberate confusion and other-worldly hocus-pocus. In our post-Enlightenment times it can be difficult to take any of it seriously. But there are some common themes in the alchemical traditions which demand contemporary attention.
The most important of these is the elemental cycle of life and death. If Western philosophy since Plato has sought stability in knowledge as a key to understanding, Alchemy has situated philosophy within a fundamental cycle of perpetual change. The most common symbol of the alchemists is the ouroboros, the snake (Western) or dragon (Eastern) that eats its own tail. The perpetual dying and rebirth that constitutes life is taken as the only proper context for knowledge and sacred practice. This epistemology of flux has reasserted itself within the movement of European philosophy through the insights of poststructuralism. But it has ancient roots in the philosophies of Alchemy.
As a ritual practice to participate in these cycles, pretty much all Alchemy is concerned with the quest for gold, or an elixir, as a symbol of immortality. There are tales – from Egypt to China to Europe – of powerful princes who lost their lives in a desperate hunt for alchemical gold and eternal glory. But these are the stories that parody the practice. These princes, like our contemporary capitalist obsessions, valued ‘ends’ over ‘means’, the goal over the process. Their quest for gold was about gaining greater power and permanence. But Alchemy is not about ‘ends’; it is a philosophy of the perpetual, the ’never-ending’. The quest for gold is about the ‘means’, the quest itself. The meaning is in the life that endures. The gold is not for another life after the death at the end of this one. It is for the life that emerges from this death that we are in.
That is why the other great symbol of the alchemists is the phoenix and why the practices of Alchemy invariably involve fire. Just as gold is for the life that emerges from this death, so the fire is for the death that must take place in this life. Death and life are locked in a cycle, the yin and yang of the Dao, the sun and its rebirth in Egypt. There is no life without death, and no death without life. And fire is their universal mediator.
The common story of Alchemy has it killed off by the Scientific Revolution, at least in Europe. That narrative normally claims the irrefutable advances in chemistry as the cause of Alchemy’s extinction. But that is to miss the point. Alchemy was abandoned because of a worldview change that separated out the material from the spiritual, the natural from the social. To understand that move – and our way back/forward – we must turn to Bruno Latour.
We Have Never Been Modern
In his essay, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour – a leading French philosopher of Science – deconstructs Modern epistemology. In order to produce our knowledge, he asserts, humans have attended to two practices. The first is a work of translation, by which hybrids are both created and described. Latour takes pretty much everything into view in his account of the production of a hybrid. Knowledge surrounding missile guidance systems, for example, takes in aerodynamics, ballistics, ethics, politics, newscasting (and secrecy), geography and history. No credible account of the phenomenon could ignore any one of those fields of knowledge. Knowledge must attend to its own hybrid nature, achieved through a work of translation between these inevitably networked fields of study. However, in order to speed up and clarify aspects of this production of complex knowledge, we also attend to a work of purification. In this way we produce and consider discreet fields of knowledge, before then engaging in the work of translation by which hybrid knowledge is produced.
The fantasy of the Modern is in the valorisation of a ‘purification’ that takes place between two particular meta-categories of knowledge, ‘Nature’ and ‘Society’, and in the separation of that purification from – via a disavowal of – hybrid knowledge. Missile guidance must therefore become either Science OR Politics. It must have a singular category. If it is Science then knowledge exists in a factual domain beyond Politics; if it is Politics, why then we have politicised Science! While the production of complex hybrids continues anyway, the Modern imagination pretends it’s not happening and pushes Nature and Society further and further apart.
Historically speaking, the emergence of Enlightenment Modernism slowly drowned religion in a sea of empirical knowledge, lost in the wake of its relentless advance. As Latour says,
‘Freed from religious bondage, the moderns could criticize the obscurantism of the old powers by revealing the material causality that those powers dissimulated… The Laws of Nature allowed the first Enlightenment thinkers to demolish the ill-founded pretensions of human prejudice. Applying this new critical tool, they no longer saw anything in the hybrids of old but illegitimate mixtures that they had to purify by separating natural mechanisms from human passions, interests or ignorance.’ (35)
Without the political infrastructure to secure a life in Modernity, European Alchemy slid into the shadows of the disavowed hybrid. As the dominant religion of Europe, Christianity was robbed of its claims for divine causality, but persisted as a popular practice in which theological claims were tolerated on account of the social bonds they guaranteed. When a distinctly anti-modern form of Christianity began to dominate, Modernity set itself against such superstition, but in doing so reinforced the Modern conceit (since both anti-Modern and Modern produced an epistemology on the same lines, just on different sides of the divide). Alchemy, however, as a religion that consciously attends to the perpetual production of hybrids, could not survive.
This all matters. The Modern conceit unmasked by Latour is responsible for our alienation from the Earth. The obsession with ends over means which defines capitalist profiteering and permits rampant extractivism, derives from the break between Nature and Society and the disavowal of their mediation. Only when a purification occurs sufficient to imagine Nature as ‘something else’ can human society consume the Earth’s resources so relentlessly. As climate change washes away entire communities while leaving others starving for lack of rain, as vast slums suffer economic exploitation in poorly paid factory jobs that feed foreign consumer markets, as migrant children drown fleeing the wars that feed industrial profits, our values are exposed. We don’t need to count this cost; we only count the bottom line. Who cares about the means, the processes by which all these hybrid disasters come to pass? We are monstrously Modern.
However, the way forward from here, according to Latour, is firstly to acknowledge that we have never actually been Modern, since we have been working with hybrids all along, even though we pretended we weren’t. We are always working with objects, woven from naturally occurring elements, pressed into service by human ingenuity. The idea that our existing political systems could survive without jet engines, or microchips, or oxygen or trees or cattle is denying the non-human participants in our complex social existence. We continue to speak on behalf of Nature – through the disciplines of the sciences – even as it persists in its transcendent power. There is no objective ‘fact’ that is not produced through human language and agency and no societies without ‘the objects that have been serving as their ballast since time immemorial’ (144.). We are always and continually hybridising like experimental non-Modern mixers.
Put another way, we have always been alchemists. We just didn’t know it.
Except, not quite. In acknowledging that we have never been Modern, we must – argues Latour – renounce our practice of enforcing epochal breaks in time. The fantasy of the Modern was only possible by narrating a story in which the Scientific Revolution was a fundamental disjuncture in history. Only by imagining that we had irrevocably broken with a past to which we could never return were we able to develop an epistemology of such radical distinction from all previous eras of human knowledge. The Modern theory of change is a theory of radical separation. The non-Modern requires the presence of the past. Not the re-presentation of the past, but the actual encounter with the past which still lives. As Latour says, ‘it is a long way from a provocative quotation extracted out of a truly finished past to a reprise, repetition or revisiting of a past that has never disappeared.’ (74.)
What Latour suggests throughout, but doesn’t properly develop, is an account of time as non-linear. He ends his essay with a non-Modern manifesto for the unmasking of the continual processes of hybridisation, warning that ‘Every new call to revolution, any epistemological break … will be deemed dangerous’ (Latour 141). However, it is precisely the revolution, in the sense of turning, inherent in a cyclical conception of time that offers a genuine encounter with a still-living past, and the possibility of epistemological continuity. Rather than outlawing revolutions we must re-plot them.
To do this, I contend, requires an alchemical philosophy of change.
Alchemy as trans-it
The cycle of life and death central to Alchemy, symbolised by the ouroboros, the phoenix, and the quest for gold, is embodied in the idea of transmutation. Practiced in the art of metallurgy, the production of gold from lead is a transmutational process that speaks to individual and social transformation. From the perspective of Latour’s analysis, however, this transmutation is also a translation. It is a mediated change, that doesn’t just move from A to B, but attends to the complex lines that draw the meanings of lead through to gold, meanings that are neither wholly ’natural’ or ’social’, ’scientific’ or ‘political’, but all of these at-once.
The Continental tradition of European philosophy, in particular the work of Jacques Derrida, has articulated the problem of Western knowledge as a fixation on the logos. This way of conceiving the world prioritises the stability of objects; the more stable something is the more it can be said to exist. As translation theorist, Michael Cronin, has expressed, ‘The difficulty is what to do with or how to think about transitional states.’ (Eco-translation, 30)
The difficulty of theorising movement is surprisingly great. This is demonstrated simply by attending to the meanings of the idea of ‘transition’. A career change, a relocation, a physical body coded differently according to societal gender norms; the multiplicity of meanings for movement are varied, yet they all suggest a destination. To be ‘in transition’ is to be moving, but it takes some intentional thought to imagine that movement as a perpetual journey, rather than a finite shift. Even the idea of ’transitive’, which suggests the experience of movement, is linked via its role in grammar to fixed objects (a ‘transitive’ verb is one that refers to an object). We simply don’t have adequate language with which to describe cycles of time and perpetual change.
This challenge has been part of European philosophy since Heidegger, who attempted to conceive of Being not as noun – an object – but as Event, a happening. Being, in Heidegger’s imagination, is a verb. Derrida developed this idea in his post-structuralist philosophy by introducing diachrony to structures. It’s perfectly possible to describe a structure synchronically, by abstracting the relationship between its constituent parts. But that doesn’t account for the diachronic change introduced by the passage of time. Therefore in Derrida’s philosophy, deconstruction is not just something one produces, it is also something one uncovers; it is already always happening to structures. In similar vein to Latour, deconstruction is the unmasking of a fantasy. We have never been Modern, there are no stable structures for objects in language; transition, translation, transmutation, these are the ongoing movements masked by the fantastical construction of stability. Within Alchemy, as a philosophy of perpetual change, the default is transformation. Everything else is a story.
We can theorise an ontology of Alchemy, therefore, as one of ‘trans-it’. Whatever exists is subject to ongoing change, to movement, to both death and life. In the metallurgical practice of Alchemy, lead does not just turn into gold via a magic spell. The rarer metal must be produced from within the shell of the base metal. The essence of silver is within lead, but must be produced from it; likewise, the essence of gold is then found within that silver. The status of an object in Alchemy is radically unstable – not ‘de-stabilised’, for that would perpetuate the fantasy of an original stability; it is inherently, originally, unstable – and from that instability the alchemist produces eternal life.
The politics of entropy
Cronin continues, in Eco-translation, to explore the myth of entropy in relation to meaning. He draws the concept from Thomas Richards’ work, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, which traces the vast accumulation of knowledge that occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries among European – especially British – imperial powers. Richards points out that entropy was a concept of information-loss applied to a theory of heat; it was therefore inevitably a theory of meaning, as much as a thermodynamic law of energy distribution. As a scientific law it served as a binding metaphor for the knowledge management of the imperial system – a closed system which would always, inevitably, experience loss.
Cronin applies this idea to translation studies, where movement from one language to another is generally understood to involve a fundamental loss. Since the meaning of the original can never be translated in its entirety, there is always entropy at the heart of translation. However, says Cronin, this denies the negentropic, in which energy is introduced into the translation via the production of new meaning. (Negentropy is a demonstrable biological process, by which organisms draw from the available energy of their environment to maintain their form in the face of entropic dissolution.) This can be a controversial idea since faithfulness to the original has been a longstanding hallmark of translation. Yet, as with alchemical metallurgy, any concept of a stable original is a fantasy. Meaning is not fixed; it involves movement between text and reader, and in that movement is a fundamental instability. And as with alchemical metals, the instability of the original contains the possibility of producing something new. Translation, then, becomes negentropic, an alchemical transmutation.
Again, this is not just interesting theory: it matters. Cronin relates grand narratives of entropy to the slow extinction of minority languages (126-132). The sense of inevitability – ‘[the transfer of] agency from human beings to physical principles’ (Richards, Archive, 103) – makes the task of saving them seem fruitless. This is the logic of empire everywhere, not just in relation to languages, but to cultures, even entire people groups. Why preserve what is already almost dead? The virility of imperial power will implant new life in its place. Negentropy becomes, then, an act of creative resistance. To fight entropy is to fight for life. To fight for survival.
In this light then, the quest for gold at the heart of Alchemy is reframed. The journey to produce the substance that doesn’t decay is political. In certain hands, to create gold from the lowest form of lead is a symbol of defiance. Yet in other hands it leads to hubris and destruction. The political question thus becomes a spiritual quest. The metallurgical mythology of alchemy is designed to present us with a most fundamental question: is it time for us to live or time for us to die?
What does it mean to say that the past is still present, or that revolutions in time turn us through cycles of life and death? Surely there is a past which is past, an experience that has gone and can never come back? Isn’t the Resurrection Stone as much a folly as the Philosopher’s Stone? Isn’t the very construction of time as a way of describing our experience of the world a response to the impossibility of repeating a particular moment of existence?
These are questions about the most basic ways human cultures imagine existence. And like all constructions, they involve a certain contingency. In one sense, of course yesterday is past, and tomorrow is future, and one can never be the other. But this is all a point of view. From the perspective of the Earth, the great rocks of giant mountains might not get time to blink before humankind has come and gone from the planet. Our past and future are another’s present. The atoms that form the world are the same as when they were formed in the furnace of dying stars. And yet they are also radically changed, gaining and losing energy and the sub-atomic particles that comprise them. Time might stretch back and forward, or up and down. Yet the billion-year journeys of our body’s constituent parts means less to us than the relationships we make with other people in this tiny sliver of history, all of whom are constantly shedding and adding atoms with vast universal histories about which we know practically nothing. It is in the stories we share about our lives where we find and make most meaning.
In that sense then, time is in fact story-time. While complexity theory reigns in the scientific disciplines, we make and sustain stability through the stories we tell. But in doing so we must repeat the past. It is only through telling and re-telling that stories provide meaning. What is death, other than the dispersal of a certain configuration of atoms which briefly held biological relationship to one another? Why is death meaningful? It is because death forms the end of a story whose chapters must close. And we feel that ending very deeply. Why is birth meaningful when life is simply cells reproducing according to a pattern? It is because we perceive a fundamental newness in the world, a new story, and a new character in a wider drama. Time is story-time, because that is why we care about life.
So when we say that time repeats, that it revolves, we are talking about the way we tell our stories. The epochal break at the heart of the Modern imagination, critiqued by Latour, is a story of time. It is a story about a rupture, a burial of the dead past in forgotten graves outside the new Enlightenment city. But the past persists in ghosts that walk its streets, quietly haunting the living. This is the cycle of time that demands to be repeated. It is easier to say we don’t believe in ghosts than to face them.
But the repetition of time does not mean the exact representation of the past. For this to be possible, there would have to be an original to re-present. Yet we have already described the instability at the heart of existence, that understands Being as trans-it, in which there is no original, only objects-in-motion. The repetition of time is precisely the retelling of a story, in which there is always slippage and difference. And so while the Moderns faked a break in time, the alchemist retells the stories of the past, because in doing so there is inevitable newness. This is why the entropic loss in meaning, is also, at the same time, negentropic creation. The retelling of a story is both loss and gain, it is both past and future, both translation and transmutation, both death and life.
Life and death stories
In an ends-obsessed, anthropocentric, capitalist, militarized technologiculture, Alchemy serves as a philosophy of perpetual change to disabuse us of our many destructive fantasies: that we can imagine our species separate from the Earth, and all the complex life it sustains; that we can make any sense of our experience apart from the eternal cycles of life and death; that we can exist with stable identities and are not always both lost and re-made in perpetual translation. To understand alchemical metallurgy is to understand the quest. Alchemy understands, deeply, the primacy of means – of mediation, of translation – over ends. Ends are fantasies; there is no end! This all doesn’t stop. Means, how we live our lives, are everything. That journey is literally all we have. Alchemy bids us attend to it.
We have said that life is set within a struggle: to determine who lives, who dies, and who decides. In response, Alchemy asks us a question: is it time for us to live or time for us to die? Then in the re-framing of time as a cycle of life and death, Alchemy invites us into our stories, to reconnect with our past that still lives through their retelling. And in doing so provides the pathway to our death and rebirth. In this way, Alchemy increases our agency. To become a storyteller is to become a translator, who can take an unstable non-original and re-create it in the present in a work of transmutation. This is the work of mediation in the production of hybrids, and it involves all the agency one expects of a mediator. There is no formula for translation, any more than there is a formula to turn lead into gold. There is only the secret art of Alchemy, by which we take what must die and see new life take flight from the flames of its funeral pyre.
Mediators of a World
It is one thing to invoke Alchemy as a metaphor, however; it is another to reinvigorate it as a practice. There have been significant changes in our understanding of metals which do not allow metallurgy to mean in the same way it once did; indeed the whole realm of scientific knowledge has produced a world unrecognisable to the ancient alchemists. And yet, in the art of storytelling, by which we become literate in the meanings of the world, there is the possibility of a transmutation beyond the laboratory.
This is a subject I will take up in a subsequent essay. However, let me briefly say…
This is an alchemic practice which attends to the meaning of means, the material of stories – including the stories of materials – that create and protect pathways within the world. And produce change in the political, which Latour reminds us is never just the so-called ‘social’, but consists in the ‘Parliament of Things’.
‘In its confines, the continuity of the collective is reconfigured. There are no more naked truths, but there are no more naked citizens either. The mediators have the whole space to themselves.’ (144).
What Latour calls us to is the realisation that mediation is no longer – has never been – an activity reserved for the human species. Every object is a translating agent – whether human or not, organic or not – because every object is itself a process, a motion, a transmutation. Every object conspires in the mediation of the past to the future. Every object is a story-maker.
This is the real potential of Alchemy for which I have reached into the ancient past. In which the fascination with metals is far more than a proto-chemical performance, but is instead the material trace of an unstable politics in which our being-in-the-world is a tentative storytelling – a process by which the world itself may pass away and be reborn. In which we acknowledge that the quest to transmute the physical contours of our life on planet Earth is a quest for political change, and when done through alchemical storytelling – as a careful translation to recycle time – it can become, literally, the re-plotting of a revolution.