This is Rocco Gangle’s response to Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze. - APS
Thinking this morning of Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze and its call for practices of divinatory and esoteric experimentation along Deleuzian lines in contemporary philosophy, I opened at random my copy of the fat, wonderful and anonymous Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism and fell appropriately into Letter III concerning the Empress. The Empress, following upon the High Priestess and preceding the Emperor in the order of the tarot’s arcana, is a female archetype of sacred magic associated with three personal objects: a shield, a scepter and a crown. As the anonymous author glosses the image of the Empress from the Marseille tarot: “if the shield signifies the ‘what?’ and the scepter the ‘how?’ of magic, the crown represents here the ‘by what right?’” (trans. R. Powell, p. 55). This is the passage, then, immediately following, that divinatory chance provided me:
“Although magic has disappeared from the criminal codes of our time, the question of its legitimacy still persists as a moral, theological and also medical question. One asks oneself today, just as in the past, if it is morally legitimate to aspire – without talking of exercising – to an exceptional power conferring us with dominion over our fellow beings; one asks oneself if such an aspiration is not due, in the last analysis, to vaingloriousness, and if it is compatible with the role that all sincere and believing Christians reserve for divine grace, be it immediate or be it acting through the intermediary of guardian Angels and the saints of God? One asks oneself, lastly, if such an aspiration is not unwholesome and contrary to human nature, religion and metaphysics, given the limits to which one can go with impunity towards the Invisible.
All these doubts and objections are well-founded. It is therefore a matter not of refuting them, but of knowing whether there exists a magic which is free from these doubts and objections or, in other words, whether there exists a legitimate magic from a moral, religious and medical point of view” (ibid.).
To the list here of morality, religion and medicine, let us add philosophy and especially political philosophy in the broadest sense. Is there a philosophically legitimate practice of political magic? In modernity and even after modernity, it would seem the answer is no. If the modern distinction of science from magic (a distinction often traced back to Bacon, although in fact Bacon distinguished two kinds of magic in his context) has in many ways broken down, this has served for the most part as a critical instrument for postmodern philosophy against science: “Science? Why that’s just more magic, really! It’s only blind power, you see, unlike philosophy – weak but knowing.” In this manner, for contemporary philosophy there would still be a generic distinction between magic and philosophy in play, even if science perhaps has no comfortable place in this matrix to lay its head. But what about Deleuze? Deleuze the Spinozist, the Nietzschean, the Foucauldian? Philosophy for Deleuze is a complex and finely-tuned instrument for distributing, inhibiting and intensifying powers of all kinds. In a Spinozist vein we might then ask, what can The Hermetic Deleuze do? Well, that depends on what we are already doing, we philosophers. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, it turns out that we are actually somewhere, doing definite things.
This facticity, this contingency – the condition it marks has been one of the main questions for our line of philosophy at least since Nietzsche and Heidegger. It marks Deleuze as well, of course, and Ramey draws precisely this element of Deleuze’s thinking into relation with esoteric and hermetic traditions. Ramey is in this way effectively reading Deleuze in light of the problem, clearly of central importance for current speculative thinking, of the relation or non-relation of contingency and the absolute. (Here I can only nod in appreciative acknowledgement in the direction of Dan Barber’s very incisive earlier post).
In this respect the Ramey-Deleuze project may be distinguished from two superficially similar projects which equally engage an esoteric or withdrawn dimension in and through philosophy. On the one hand, we have the broad problematic of contingency as instantiated within semiotics as the internal structure of the conventional sign. For this way of thinking, the conventional sign has been mapped onto contingency understood as arbitrariness; it thus becomes a specification or a case of the more traditional problem of the libero arbitrio. This way of thinking has its definite effects, particularly in academic philosophy. For some time now in continental circles the rhetorical tactic of summoning an effect of the uncanny via contingency, especially as manifest in linguistic signs, has been prevalent. The way certain Derridean-style word-play is delivered, for instance in oral presentations at academic conferences, can be quite telling in this regard. Frequently haloed with a slightly paranoiac evocation of spookiness, such syntax is clearly intended to be registered as slightly, oh so tastefully slightly, subversive or transgressive. And there is undoubtedly an important tool or microtactic at work in these symptomatic punnings. Yet often it seems nothing could be more tiresome in its flatness, more of a symptom of academic docility and submission. What exactly is at stake here? In such moves, the pathos and affect of contingency is summoned, but only in a general and in the last instance representational way. As far as contingency goes, there is only here the name-checked Other, its spooky halo indexed in a well-fortified zone of self-same sterility.
On the other hand, we can contrast what Ramey is doing with the very non-Derridean approach of contemporary ontology in the object-oriented line of philosophers such as Harman and Bryant. There is no cheap auratic evocation in these thinkers, and that is certainly to their credit. But there is perhaps an even more insidious equivocation. This would be caught up in the very essence of their claim to be doing ontology in a rigorous and univocal mode precisely when they speak of objects. The claim to analyze or explain “objects” in general directly rather than modulating in a transcendental register to Kantian subjectivity or Heideggerean lichtung no doubt gives the objective appearance of a flat or democratic ontology. But the key objection should be precisely to the term “object”. The formal character of these ontologies requires that we quantify over some domain. The attractive character of this mode of thinking is that it seems to just take “familiar stuff in the world” as (one – obvious – part of) that domain. Of course, this is only to then adjoin the surprising “withdrawn” dimension of objects which would correspond in their idiom to Ramey’s invocation of esoteric practices vis-à-vis philosophy. But if that withdrawn dimension is truly withdrawn in the radical fashion that is required, then there is no good reason to ascribe it to ordinary objects in any way that can be tracked. Harman and Bryant are not unaware of this problem, of course, but I don’t believe either has provided an adequate solution. They seem to admit that their approach only goes as far as the clear posing of it as a real problem. For this reason, however, those who wish to go in the formal direction of OOO would seem to be better served by going the route of Badiou and cutting out the world of ordinary objects entirely. A thoroughly mathematical ontology is the only consistent object of this path. (Here the Harman-Meillassoux connection needs to be thought through).
With respect to both philosophies of the capitalized Other and the interesting, still-developing modes of speculative ontology with their problematic essentialization and necessitation of contingency, Ramey offers a real alternative. He is, first of all, not rejecting radical contingency by any means. He makes no recourse to the absolute in the sense of well-drubbed onto-theology. So what exactly is the sense of the “esoteric” and its spiritual dimensions in his work at this level? There is a double contingency in play. On the one hand, Ramey with Deleuze insists upon the ultimately ungrounded upsurge of Event/events. This would be a basically formal contingency of possibility as opposed to necessity (a la Meillassoux). But Ramey – here reconstructing Deleuze or drawing out a dimension that Deleuze tends to flatten onto mere indications and textual hints – points to the contingent actual as distinct but not opposed to the contingent possible. The actual is contingent in this respect in the sense that the tools with which we think are products or deposits of semiotic relays that cannot by their very nature possess any intrinsic necessity. It is not that they could be otherwise, but that as they are, they are otherwise than necessary. This presents a purely positive characterization of contingency that does not depend upon either the negation of necessity nor the possibility of negation in general and is on the other hand not reducible to the arbitrary. Signs that are contingent in this sense possess a dimension of objective indeterminacy that is a function of the power of their semiotic character. There is perfect agreement here between Deleuze and Peirce, a unified front for contemporary philosophy that has been deeply underthought. Ramey makes significant headway in exposing this potentially powerful alliance by drawing Deleuze back into Bruno’s Renaissance.
It’s a bit like when the intellectually super-charged prisoners/experimentees in Thomas Disch’s fine science-fiction novel Camp Concentration turn to alchemical pursuits, and it appears from the standpoint of their captors that they have merely reverted to a fanciful, premodern expression of their desire to escape fate – in this case, the accelerated Flowers-for-Algernon-like decline and death that comes with steroidal intelligence. In fact, however, the prisoners are making use of the language and instruments of alchemy in order to pursue their own subversive project – I won’t give it away – under the watchful eyes of their powerful captors. (Tony Stark does something similar when designing the Iron Man armor under the custodial gaze of the Ten Rings in the first Iron Man movie).
What matters here is not only the employment of an arbitrary sign-system for certain ends. It is the differential between the synoptic approaches of the two parties to the given sign-system at issue. Importantly, this differential is itself mandated by the contingent facticity of the sign-system itself. Alchemical science as a relatively autonomous system is already situated in a more or less definite place in the overall archival cultural terrain. It has – from the outside, as it were – a particular aura and flavor determined contingently by the prejudicial ignorance that characterizes every such matter of intellectual taste.
Ramey shows us that our collective ignorance in general, as philosophers, of the spiritual traditions in which we are nonetheless thoroughly plunged is a particular symptom of our philosophical moment and especially its political ineffectiveness. This is a Heideggerean “withdrawal” that has real, concrete content and does not reduce to a formal consideration of withdrawal-as-such. It is not a general claim about forgotten sources of wisdom. It is a definite claim about THESE forgotten sources (i.e. various pertinent techniques of visualization, mnemonics, divination, ecstatic music and dance, sacred geometry, gematria combinatorics, etc.) and the impoverishment of our philosophical practices that neglect these as irrelevant for philosophy. We are not at liberty to choose the set of instruments available to us that function in the way they do precisely by operating on the cogito, ordinary language and awareness, and the general image of thought by means of exterior irritation and enforced opaqueness. At any rate, black holes of subjectivity are not side-stepped by fiat.
A large part of what is at stake is the long-standing distinction between natural and conventional signs. On Ramey’s reading, Bruno conjugates two basic philosophical positions: (1) a rejection of Aristotelian substances and hylomorphism in favor of an immanently formative materialism, and (2) a theory of signs that puts conventionality within nature as an immanent intensification rather than a discontinuity or transcendence, perhaps the first truly creative – and not merely repetitive – system of materialist mnemonics in the Western tradition.
If Ramey is correct in his analysis, then with Bruno we basically have the answer to the realism/nominalism debate – and it’s not the triumphal retreat into baddish Platonism that has unfortunately wrecked certain otherwise intriguing contemporary theological enterprises. Instead, we push nominalism over the edge – back into the flux of a materialism that cannot be captured by Epicurus or Democritus (contra the moderns, following Lucretius) but must go all the way to Heraclitus and a real flux prior to any real distinction of logos and physis. On this ground, in this surging continuum, the use of signs is not a transcendent exercise but a Baroque or Mannerist immanent folding of the curtain of the real.
The upshot of Ramey’s analysis is therefore, as I take it, a practical one. What we do when we do philosophy under contemporary conditions is to immerse ourselves in signifying and a-signifying practices that are – objectively – already co-constituted by contingent spiritual traditions to which as it happens most of our bosses remain oblivious if not antipathetic. In particular, then, we are doing in one form or another (when we are not mere careerists) what Iamblichus would have called theurgy and Pico would have called magic, and we are doing so, like them, under conditions of tremendous social and historical stress. And we need to do better.
In any case, who would deny that we are apprentices and teachers of philosophy? That means among other things that we are engaged in material practices that summon powerful, immaterial forces and deploy them in the physical world via the propagation of movements and signs. One important dimension of Ramey’s reading of Deleuze – setting aside all its fascinating and thought-worthy aspects as a major contribution to the literature on Deleuze’s thought – is that the argument it marshals entails a transformation of how we study, write and above all teach philosophy.
Teaching is neither reading nor writing. It is, objectively, a convocation and summoning of living and dead spirits within a material nexus of objects and forces. Professor, students, internet connections, bad lighting, Kant, smartphones, chairs. If Ramey is right, then to be true to our vocation as teachers of philosophy we must necessarily incorporate practices of objective indeterminacy and even explicit esotericism into our classroom teaching in order to make room for genuine thought to take place between ourselves and our students as well as among our students themselves. Philosophy itself is an introduction of indeterminacy into the complex sensible, perceptual and cognitive semiotics of life for a variety of purposes, from the sheer joy of experimentation to personal sanity and healing to political resistance and social transformation. In light of this, the classroom must for certain ends become an objectively indeterminate zone of risk and attunement to powers that are and cannot by nature be vested in professorial or institutional authority. It could be as simple a matter as reading the I Ching at the beginning of class in order to determine the day’s topic of discussion. Or it could be a matter of fostering cross-institutional relationships between students at our colleges and universities and students of philosophy in politically vital and plastique regions such as Egypt and Tibet.
I’ll conclude then with what might seem a rather strange proposal. Ramey’s analysis of Deleuze, to the extent that it challenges the means we employ in the teaching and social reproduction of philosophy, may be read as an esoteric commentary and creative contribution to the modern natural law/right tradition as applied to philosophy itself. I think it would be fair to say Deleuze is not usually thought of as standing anywhere particularly near the line of political philosophy stretching from Grotius, Pufendorf and Hobbes through Locke and Hegel to Rawls and contemporary liberalism. But of course the exception here is the key figure of Spinoza, whose radical alternative to both Locke and Hobbes simply equates, without equivocation or exception, natural right and natural power. With what right do we philosophize? According to Spinoza (and by extension Deleuze) our right to philosophize is strictly equivalent to our natural power to do so.
In my view Ramey, through Deleuze, stands finally in deep accord with this truly (perhaps uniquely) philosophical vision of power and politics. Yet in his reading of Deleuze via the guiding thread of a concept of the esoteric organized through Bruno’s vitalist, non-Aristotelian, non-Platonist understanding of matter and form, Ramey enlarges the circle of the natural – breaking its natural conception through circularity – and subtracts from its standard notion every logical determination via negativity and negation. He shows us in particular then that natural powers are capable of infinite and unthinkable communications, inhibitions, amplifications, creations and therapies. With Bruno and Deleuze we see how this transpires especially in the human sphere once powers are conferred upon emblematic signs in ritual ways that withdraw various dimensions of those signs’ own visibility and comprehensibility from everyday human access. Such conferral is at once conventional and natural. And the power it conserves supports our right as teachers of philosophy and religion to the creative transformation of how philosophy and religion are propagated and studied in the academy today. Something esoteric or hermetic may indeed be the true source of our legitimate authority to speak and teach effectively in the name of philosophy. To quote Ramey quoting Deleuze, “To what are we dedicated if not to those problems which demand the very transformation of our body and our language?” (Difference and Repetition, 192 in The Hermetic Deleuze, 18).