What’s at Stake in Hermetic Reterritorialization?

This is a guest post by Jacob Sherman who is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the California Institute of Integral Studies. – APS

Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal is such a rich, provocative, and deliciously inconclusive book that I have had trouble deciding upon the shape of a response. The details of the book – the excavation of Deleuze’s hope for an eschatological community of immanence, the reading of the Deleuzean (and Peircean) sign as a kind of arcanum, the rigorous thematization of the shamanic in Deleuze’s process philosophical wagers, etc. – all demand careful, further engagement. Ramey’s work has the potential, alongside Kerslake’s, to change how many of us read Deleuze – not because the Deleuze he shows us is entirely foreign or monstrous, but because he seems to be a Deleuze we suspected of being there all along but could never quite catch sight of. I am left with the strangely giddy feeling that I won’t really have finished Ramey’s book until I’ve gone back and reread an entirely nonidentical Deleuze all over again.

Until then, however, I can venture an initial response to the book as a whole. The title and subtitle announce two different projects. On the one hand, as a piece of Deleuze scholarship, it is an intervention in the legacy and interpretation of Deleuze, one that radically unsettles a still fairly widespread reading of Deleuze by placing him not only in proximity but in continuity with esoteric traditions and spiritual sciences. It is easy to imagine a more timid version of Ramey’s work content only to show how Deleuze may be thought alongside hermetic or esoteric currents, but Ramey makes a stronger claim. He gives us not ‘A Hermetic Deleuze’ or ‘Deleuze and Western Esotericism,’ but The Hermetic Deleuze. On the other hand, the subtitle announces another concern of Ramey’s – not an exegetical, historiographical ambition, but an intervention into the contemporary understanding of philosophy, its practice and its possibilities. Occasionally surfacing throughout Ramey’s text is a re-envisioning of philosophy itself as radically, even necessarily, open not just to any nonphilosophical other but to magic, transformation and spiritual ordeal.

How deeply are the two different projects announced by the title and subtitle related? How important is Ramey’s resituating of Deleuze as a hermetic philosopher, in particular, for Ramey’s broader metaphilosophical (and metapragmatic) interests? Others, including others close to Deleuze, have been deeply interested in retrieving a vision of philosophy as ineluctably tied to transformative practice. The well-known work of Pierre Hadot, for example, is relevant here. Drawing not least on a reading of the Stoics, Hadot presents a vision of ancient philosophy as ineluctably bound up with the formation of philosopher’s souls through a series of existential commitments and non- or extra-rational philosophical exercises. Indeed, like Ramey, Hadot insists on calling the latter ‘spiritual’ exercises since they involve the philosopher’s entire psychism (affect, passion, imagination, sensibility) and not just his or her rationality alone. According to Hadot, such practices were held to issue in a linked metamorphosis of the philosopher’s personality and a transformed vision of the world (Philosophy as a Way of Life 82).

In a similar way but still closer to Deleuze, Michel Foucault, in his 1981 lectures at the College de France (published as The Hermeneutics of the Subject), treated the relationship of philosophy and spirituality. For Foucault, philosophy is the form of thought that attempts to determine the conditions, limits, and possibilities of the subject’s access to the truth. Spirituality, by contrast, is “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth.” Foucault provides a stipulative definition of spirituality that recalls Ramey’s ‘spiritual ordeals’: “[‘Spirituality’ is] the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth…. It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself.”

Many of us are probably familiar with these texts. I recall them here only to note how thoroughly they resonate with the paradigm of philosophy as spiritual ordeal and how ready to hand they seem to be for an interpretation of Deleuze. But Ramey makes no appeal to them – Hadot appears not at all and Foucault appears mostly for his ‘archeological’ reading of the Renaissance theory of correspondences. Instead, Ramey takes us on extraordinary journey into Deleuze’s engagement with the much more exotic, but also theoretically expensive world of hermeticism.  Why risk this? Why risk Deleuze’s reputation (I am being serious here) and the future possibilities of philosophy as spiritual and transformative practice by tying them to something so spooky, so regularly reviled, so politically ambiguous as hermeticism?

It cannot be simply a matter of rectifying a historical oversight in our interpretation of Deleuze. For, in the first place, Ramey insists that Deleuze’s relationship to the hermetic tradition is oblique. Hermeticists appear only as the dark precursors of immanent thought – Malfatti notwithstanding, there is no hermetic Spinoza or Bergson operating in Deleuze’s work. Indeed, the differences between Deleuze and the hermetic traditions that preceded him might seem insurmountable. For instance, hermetism and hermeticism, as much as any Abrahamic tradition, are bound up with the motif of supramundane revelation. To be sure, this revelation presents a vision of the world as pervaded by an encosmic divinity, but for classical hermeticisms, God’s truth and essence are neither captured nor explained by the world – thus, the need for revelation. Hermetic revelation, of course, differs from the sorts of revelation known in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in a number of ways, not least because of the centrality hermeticism places upon secrecy. Hermetic revelations present themselves cryptically as arcana and in hieroglyph; their meaning is disclosed only to the initiate who understands the revelations not as representations but as direct presentations of ideas and forces themselves. Still, this is indeed a revelation, one that breaks in, as it were, from outside or before (the mystique of antediluvian wisdom runs throughout classical hermeticism, which is one of the reasons why the tradition fell into such disrepute after Isaac Casabon’s 1614 exposure of Hermes Trismegistus’s pseudopigraphy).

Ramey knows as much.  His Deleuze is formally a hermeticist, but substantively immanentist (see, for example, pp. 205-206).  In other words, the shape of hermetic practice is retained while the substance of hermetic doctrine is either elided or transposed: the hypercosmic divine of classical hermeticism disappears, for example, and the encosmic divinity becomes an ‘intensive naturalism’ (16). So we are given a picture of Deleuze practicing a kind of deracinated, even deterritorialized, hermeticism. This, however, may be the most beguiling aspect of Ramey’s book, for in the very moment of deterritorializing hermeticism, according to Ramey, Deleuze reterritorializes himself and immanent thought (i.e., philosophy) within the hermetic tradition. On this point, Ramey is emphatic: “[T]he hermetic tradition is the final, if still ambiguous, reterritoriality of immanent thought itself. That, at any rate, is the working hypothesis of this book” (30).

I suspect that Ramey seeks to divine a new shape for philosophy in the hermetic tradition rather than, say, in Hadot’s ancient philosophical schools, because of the degree of creativity that hermeticism not only thematizes but also unleashes. Goethe’s Faust is at his most hermetic when he translates the opening verse of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the deed.” The logos  of the hermeticist is not mimetic, but active and creative. As Tomberg puts it in the first letter of his Meditations on the Tarot, “Hermeticism is – and is only –  a stimulant, a ‘ferment’ or an ‘enzyme’ in the organism of the spiritual life of humanity.” By refusing the paradigm of representation, hermeticism also refuses to draw a distinction in kind between epistemology and ontology. This, in turn, opens the way for an account of how our multidimensional acts of knowing might be treated as real, objective, artisanal interactions (and ordeals) with the world and with that which hermeticists have variously held to exist in and of itself beyond (but not however in opposition to) the publically observable order of physical objects. Where Foucault’s spirituality and Hadot’s spiritual exercises recognize the way in which the world makes us capable of its truth, the hermetic philosopher also recognizes the way in which she stands in a directionally-creator relationship to the world. Truth emerges in the midst of this reciprocal exchange.

But precisely because it is a question of such intense and radical forms of co-creativity, it is all the more urgent that philosophers be situated within philosophical communities of fidelity and responsibility, for in the absence of a chasm between epistemology and ontology, the stakes involved in knowledge are more vital, moral and political than ever. This seems to be part of the reason for Ramey’s insistence – more particularly, it seems to me, than Kerslake – upon locating Deleuze within the hermetic tradition, rather just figuring him as a kind of ersatz hermeticist or esoteric pastiche. If I read him rightly, something similar to this was at issue in Daniel Whistler’s reply to Ramey, as well, particularly about the need for “the elucidation of more robust criteria for distinguishing good from bad experiments in the expression of life” (Whistler, ‘The Hermetic Critique of Deleuze’).

I’m sympathetic to this reading of Deleuze, but I am also not sure how finally to reconcile this with the Deleuze that I have been trying to read for years. Can Deleuze be located within an historical philosophico-spiritual tradition capable of providing criteria for discernment, without forcing him into the kind of rule-governed, homogeneous or analogical spaces that he and Guattari dismiss as reactionary, even fascist? Does it matter whether Ramey’s Deleuze is ‘historical’ or whether he is a kind of hermetic-monster produced by a reading filled with “all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations and hidden emissions”?

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5 Responses to “What’s at Stake in Hermetic Reterritorialization?”

  1. Hermetic Reterritorialization « (((Knowledge Ecology))) Says:

    [...] Jacob Sherman offers a thoughtful response to Josh Ramey’s work The Hermetic Deleuze over at AUFS here. [...]

  2. DanWhistler Says:

    That is to read me rightly! Great post.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “Can Deleuze be located within an historical philosophico-spiritual tradition capable of providing criteria for discernment, without forcing him into the kind of rule-governed, homogeneous or analogical spaces that he and Guattari dismiss as reactionary, even fascist?”

    It depends on the sense of tradition. If tradition ends up being a kind of orthodoxy, a stratified form, then no, of course not. But if tradition merely names a milieu, a line one can connect up to other lines without concern for that tradition as such, then why not? Clearly Deleuze and Guattari are concerned with evaluation and the need to discern (I see no reason to reject this word despite it’s evangelical baggage in the US) in A Thousand Plateaus and as early as Deleuze’s work on Spinoza he’s aware of the need for caution. I think comparing Deleuze and Spinoza on the figure of the drunk is actually perhaps helpful here. For Spinoza, at least if I am remembering Zourabichivili’s reading correctly, the drunk is linked in some way to the concept of metamorphosis. There becomes a kind of tension in Spinoza trying to reconcile his critique of the drunk and a certain affirmation of metamorphosis there. An affirmation he can, in my view, never completely make. Deleuze seems to notice this problem and tries in some ways to affirm the drunk, but to metamorphisize the efficient cause of this transformation (getting drunk on water). The possibility of an open tradition, one less rule-bound from the start, is perhaps more manifest in the tradition of drunkenness than in tradition’s which confuse themselves for the Real itself.


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