Transformed as if in a Dream: Alchemical Transmutation and Our Sacred Earth. Interview with Michelle Ramona Silva, PhD.


“…a never ending fruitless quest for a constantly receding end point.” * * * * * * *

What do you see when you speak about the “residual effects of digital alchemy” as a ghost?

Residual effect is really a metaphysical term because it is meant to describe how a material thing leaves a residue or remainder that is both material and spiritual (for lack of a better word). I stressed in the dissertation that we really don’t have a language to describe this process. All attempts to artificially re-create life or create a ‘thing’ leave a residue that cannot be recycled back into the earth. This is how alchemy is analogous to the production of artifacts today. In visual texts the residual effect is an ‘aura’ or a temporal signature. In material things, residual effect is a trash heap of plastic that cannot be recycled back into the earth. This will be the basis of the book I’m working on.

So the whole body of work that I’m looking at is the relationship between the real and the artificial. This investigation was spawned by criticisms that I had as a graduate student with the field of cultural studies’ overemphasis on how society produces artifacts and relatively ignoring the artifacts themselves. The ideology of this scholarship is that everything is socially determined and that is why one has to focus on cultural forces. There is a long intellectual or philosophical history to this position that I can’t do justice to here. As an essentially Marxist theorist I largely agree with this position. I just thought we should switch our attention to the objects in and of themselves. In fact, even to say such a thing was to commit a kind of disciplinary blasphemy. I quickly realized how difficult it was to talk about things on their own terms without referring back to the social context that produced them. I needed a new language to look at artifacts that deserve far more analytical attention because of their political implications. The practice and language of alchemy helped me to do this.

Would you expect my neighbors at Pixar to be routinely discussing alchemy at the white board?

I’ve noticed that interface designers, digital designers and engineers frequently go to the well of the mystical, ancient and mythological in naming their creations. For example: Rosetta Stone, Maya and there is company called Philosopher’s Stone Software out there. I did come across a few papers for SIGGRAPH conferences that referenced alchemy but as I explain in the dissertation, most references to alchemy are merely meant as useful metaphors to some process of transformation. So, in short I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your neighbors at Pixar might use alchemy in this way. I’m not sure that they actually think themselves alchemists, although my research shows they can be a delightfully wacky bunch so it would not surprise me. I’m impressed by the levels of interdisciplinary that occur among talented people in the real world that completely bypasses the comprehension of academics.

How is this ancient process communicated today?

Alchemy is preserved today as metaphor, rather than as a practice. I expand upon its usefulness as an explanatory set of terms and symbols later in the interview.

Please define transmutation in a computer design context.

According to my research of many SIGGRAPH papers and articles, the quest for realism (defined as the ability to ‘trick the eye’) was a strong, almost monomaniacal driving force in the industry. The “philosopher’s stone” or “golden mean” would be if a designer could create a digital human that seemed real to the audience. I argue that as with the alchemists in the past, this goal is always just out of reach. Like the quest for the Holy Grail, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in that the closer you think you get the further it slips away onto the horizon.

That designers were never really able to fool the audience into thinking they were looking at real actors was exemplified in the first watershed (for digital design the Holy Grail was the ability to create a human) triumph of the feature length and completely digitized film Final Fantasy. It was not only panned by reviewers but it really riled some folks up to a frenzied pitch. It seemed as if something sacred was being tampered with and they felt somehow cheated. This reaction also fits uncannily well with the history of alchemical practice since alchemists were frequently reviled has charlatans and tricksters—magicians of a kind.

The reason that audiences can identify a ‘fake’ is because it is an artificial attempt to recreate life (i.e. something that is ostensibly within the realm of god or nature) that leaves a residue or temporal signature (working this out fully is the focus of my current research). Audiences quickly get hip to more sophisticated levels of digital special effects. I think the ‘realism’ goal is subsiding now. Digital design in film has become a great tool for transforming material reality, although this is an extension of a long history of special effects in film and not necessarily revolutionary in its own right. For instance, the film Inception, plunders advancements in digital special effects to create sequences in which inert substances are moved and transformed as if in a dream. This is very interesting in that it connects up well with Jung’s seminal work on dreams and alchemical symbolism.

Not sure what you mean by “animation of inert substances.” Can you give us a digital example?

By this I mean the process of endowing movement or life to substances that are not alive. In a published interview with George Lucas, he explains that they scraped together tape, popsicle sticks, airplane models and all kinds of objects to create their award winning contribution to the history of special effects. He describes how the creation of Star Wars: A New Hope frustrated him because it was so low budget. His imaginative vision far exceeded the resources available to realize it. But through the alchemy of transformation, they made a film that did, in fact, fool the eye (largely through camera stunts).

Everyone of my generation remembers the breathtaking opening scene of the gigantic imperial ship chasing the smaller one. . . it just kept going, and going and going. As far as a digital example goes, well we can look at what happened when Lucas integrated digital beings awkwardly and to the profound chagrin of his older fans. Technology can be used in a way that profanes the sacred (as the alchemists were well aware). The example extends to other areas of design such as artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and the like.

Is alchemy more than a metaphor today? Who are the main practitioners and thought leaders that we should call on for knowledge?

From studying the works of alchemists such as Paracelsus, I learned that the actual practice of refining a base metal has to be repeated over and over again in different ways using different instruments and catalysts. What was curious is that there always seemed to be a remainder or some type of residue that again, had to be submitted again to further distillations. This connects well to the mythological, symbolic and metaphorical aspects of alchemy as a type of search for the Holy Grail, The Fountain of Youth; a never ending fruitless quest for a constantly receding end point. In today’s world, this translates materially into garbage—our version of alchemical residue. The alchemists failed to copy nature because nature can recycle and we cannot. We don’t know what to do with the profane material we created since it cannot be subsumed by the earth.

This translates into the symbolic and cultural in the sense that one of the greatest achievements of human beings; the creation of stuff that makes our lives better has also hopelessly inured us in piles of junk. We have no idea how long it will take all that plastic to break down. I would be hopeful that knowledge of alchemy and its particular status as a scientific dead-end ought to teach us to stop cluttering the earth, and outer space for that matter, with our garbage. We need change the way we live as apologetically driven by the laws of consumption to collect more and more stuff. The late George Carlin’s joke about life being defined by finding a place for our “stuff” comes to mind here. I do think alchemy is alive today but not obviously in the manner in which it was practiced by the ancients. But alchemical transformation may be more of a warning than a boon. Alchemical transmutation didn’t simply disappear, but folks found a way to transmute substances successfully and house it under the appropriate and respectable realms of science, technology, capitalism, and progress.

The way we look at the world by comparing other countries’ levels of development to our own is largely driven by who has more stuff. This measure of success and quality of life absolutely has to change if we are to survive as a human race. The fact that the material goal of alchemy essentially failed is a pertinent point even though the history of alchemy is rich and highly misunderstood. Writers and producers of science fiction (filmic and print form) are excellent “thought leaders” of alchemical concepts because they dare to imagine and exaggerate (as is necessary in all storytelling) the possible future consequences of artificial transformation. There is a well developed debate among scholars that has been going on for decades now about the relative triumphs and disasters wrought by technological development that I really can’t do justice to here. But the field of technology, engineering and industry and those that practice and write about it are most certainly at the heart of this issue.

You stated: “Alchemy’s explanatory strength lies in its capacity to toggle between the seemingly incongruous realms of practice and metaphor.” Can sustainable practices be improved with alchemy?

Unfortunately, I do not see alchemy as sustainable practice—or at least I haven’t thought about it in that way. Alchemy is still inextricably linked to the idea that you can change base metal into gold. The spiritual side to this is that the alchemist becomes a golden man, thus capable of transcending the material plane. This sounds great to me! But people have a hard time thinking of the metaphysical outside of the structure of religious practice—and I don’t want to get into all the problems caused by religion and the ways in which it is holding us back as a race. That would entail a very long discussion indeed. Later in this interview I state the possible positive influence of alchemy for society.

Can you discuss how symbols in the sustainability movement are charged with global meaning through digital alchemy? [“In Paracelsian alchemy, metaphors and symbols refer to concrete practices, and concrete practices refer to psychological realities.”]

One of the reasons that alchemy is often spurned by academics, theorists, or researchers is due to the fact that it claims access to a universal language. The idea that there is such a thing is a big “no no” in vogue in the academy. These symbols include the Sun which represents the male principle and gold, while the moon represents silver and the female principles. There are many more symbols and some are quite complex. Alchemical language offers us a font of useful symbols with which to think through environmental issues.

We shouldn’t make stuff that we can’t recycle. We probably shouldn’t be ceaselessly raping the earth either as learned in the recent oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The alchemists adopted a much more ancient and pagan understanding of the sacred and the profane. It is a mistake to think that it was necessarily a Christian worldview that motivated alchemical practice. Nature is the only truly successful alchemist because she creates life that is constantly being recycled—life re-lived and reincarnated. The alchemists always had to deal with the residue or left-overs that remained in the vessel after repeated phases of distillation. So I the final word is that there may be a right way and a wrong way to go about manipulating our environment.

“The promise of instant metamorphosis pervades the material alchemy of yesterday and the spiritual alchemy of today.” Please expand on the idea of spiritual alchemy.

“The spiritual alchemy” of today is my blanket term for the fact that alchemy is alive and well and used mainly metaphorically within many disparate disciplines from business to occult studies. Simply put, I don’t think many people are actually trying to turn base metal into gold anymore. The point is that the term has great explanatory power in many contexts and usually refers to a transformation or transcendence of some kind.

“If the alchemist wants to copy nature, then he must observe the proper times and seasons for carrying out the ‘Great Work.’” What is this Great Work?

The “Great Work” is the moment of simultaneous transformation; base matter becomes gold and the alchemist becomes a transcendent being or “golden man.”

Can alchemy work on a global scale?

The way I’m developing the idea now it is tending more toward an environmental model that could certainly have implications globally but this is still in an undeveloped stage in my research.

Can multiple alchemists join forces to create transformation? You speak of manipulating matter.”

Transformations are occurring among teams of people across a wide variety of disciplines which are largely scientific or technological in nature. Again, I doubt that they would identify themselves as “alchemists” per se. The most promising example I came across in my research and which I wrote an article about is within the field of bioengineering. Within the field practitioners try to copy the workings of nature rather than plunder it.

Is alchemy an evolutionary catalyst for humans, plants and animals and the Earth?

Alchemy seems to have developed into a cautionary tale in my work since we have mainly used our alchemical powers to make stuff and destroy the planet with them. Part of me wants to say that forces have been set in motion and it is simply too late. On the other hand, we need (academics included) to start looking at the consequences of the objects or cultural artifacts that we create rather than overemphasizing the social contexts or conditions that brought them about. Once we start the analysis with the end product then we may be able to develop a strategy to stop our obsession with amassing things. In other words, cultural artifacts are not a trivial or marginally important outcome of social processes but rather, in many cases, extremely powerful and frightening consequence of capitalism that deserve attention in there own right.

Is EarthDay an example of alchemy?

I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of organized social action motivated by alchemical metaphors and/or historical lessons.

Is vision alchemic?

No, not by itself. There is a large body of work devoted to visual studies and in part, as with the example of ever increasingly savvy audiences the role of vision does have some play in alchemical studies of digital design. But visual studies also get subsumed under the “everything is socially constructed” theory. The pleasure of seeing is often linked to the pleasure of consuming goods. Many have argued that vision is not just a physiological process but also a sense that changes as society changes. I think I tend to skirt this issue or footnote it in my work because it has been over-studied and historically overemphasized as our most important sense.

****

“Alchemical transmutation didn’t simply disappear, but folks found a way to transmute substances successfully and house it under the appropriate and respectable realms of science, technology, capitalism, and progress.” * * * * * * *

Selected Excepts from Dr. Silva’s Dissertation:

DIGITAL ALCHEMY: MATTER AND METAMORPHOSIS IN CONTEMPORARY
DIGITAL ANIMATION AND INTERFACE DESIGN

(Click here to download a pdf of the dissertation)

Specifically, digital animators and interface designers make use of the ancient science, art, and technological craft of alchemy.

I argue that the residual effects of digital alchemy, the attempt to copy nature accurately which inevitably results in an imperfect copy, produces a ghost of this primary form and is therefore, the source of much speculation concerning the role of technology in producing a sense of the uncanny, of death and decay.

To understand the cultural consequences of these contemporary practices we need not turn to the dawn of storage media in the nineteenth century, but to the ancient practice of alchemy—particularly to the work of Paracelsus.

The great virtue of Paracelsian alchemy is that it spells out the metaphysics of deferral brought about through the practice of transmutation.

Alchemy serves as an example of early thinking about virtual reality and artificial simulation.

Like alchemy, digital design is a process of endless separation, abstraction, and convergence.

I begin with an analysis of alchemy’s artificiality; its concerns with temporal acceleration, processes for catalyzing change, and the animation of inert substances.

Within the context of alchemy, the goal is to refine the relationship between essence and waste or soul and body. Therefore, the alchemist does not transcend the body, the alchemist transforms the body.

Both serious scholars and casual observers of alchemy, both past and present, treat it as a metaphor. For many communication scholars, this metaphor serves as a stylistic flourish that refers, vaguely, to a process of ideological or psychological transformation.

In short, many have found that alchemy provides a useful set of terms to describe virtually any physical, psychological, and spiritual process that involves the transformation of one thing or state into another thing or state.

Alchemical metaphors are likewise used with remarkable consistency in new media technology literature. The difference for these writers, however, is that within the context of media technology, alchemy’s emphasis on embodied, practical application finds renewed expression and applicability. In short, alchemical metaphors are used today to describe a process that catalyzes chemical decomposition, recombination, and the ‘magical’ transformation of material properties. However, despite the pervasiveness and conceptual efficacy of alchemical metaphors, alchemy is still often denigrated as a fossil science.

Alchemy is very successful as a system of representation meant to symbolize the inner workings of the human psyche.

Alchemy’s explanatory strength lies in its capacity to toggle between the seemingly incongruous realms of practice and metaphor.

The elaborate symbols and terminology used in alchemy did, in fact, refer to actual procedures at one time, despite the fact that the richly allegorical and mythical nature of this symbolism is regularly plundered for its convenient and compact explication of psychological transformations.

Alchemy is something of a puzzle to our modern minds because it ‘means’ the same thing for the mind and for the matter at the same time. The alchemical procedure of separating and elevating the pure part of matter through sublimation, helped to explain the simultaneously embodied and disembodied event of transcendence. A state of transcendence is catalyzed by the mind’s co-extensive relationship with the sublime object observed. Thus, the Romantic definition of the sublime retains some of its alchemical flavor.

Paracelsus reminds us that alchemy is firmly grounded in concrete practices and not comprised solely of a labyrinth of turgid symbolism that meanders through a desert of obscurity. Yet this is an interesting claim given the fact that Paracelsus does, in fact, exploit alchemy’s rich plethora of allegorical terms and symbols. Therefore, some explanation of the role of symbolic representation is warranted.

In Paracelsian alchemy, metaphors and symbols refer to concrete practices, and concrete practices refer to psychological realities. These conceptual registers occur simultaneously, yet neither one is reducible to the other. In other words, the worldview that informs alchemical practice ensures that metaphors cannot be viewed as pure linguistic abstractions nor are concrete practices reducible to psychological or spiritual states. For instance, terms like “the pelican” (the vessels), “the red lion” (sulpher based catalyst), and “the hermaphrodite” (the culminating unification of sulpher and mercury) are used to name actual practices, procedures, and objects. Conversely, relatively simple terms like gold and silver (Sol and Luna respectively) contained multiple meanings. For instance, gold would have referred to the tincture, the elixir of immortality, the male principle, the ultimate goal of the “Great Work” (alchemical success), a metal, a planet (the sun), and to the unifying world spirit or essence—all simultaneously.

The promise of instant metamorphosis pervades the material alchemy of yesterday and the spiritual alchemy of today.

The symbolic and metaphorical expression of experimentation was important to the alchemists.

In Paracelsian alchemy, nature is not a passive object of scientific scrutiny, but an extremely wise and potentially dangerous agent of transformation. The spirit of nature might support or destroy the alchemist’s work.

The goal of alchemy is to copy process and not product.

If the alchemist wants to copy nature, then he must observe the proper times and seasons for carrying out the ‘Great Work.’

Likewise, the sacred secrets of alchemy are protected through an elaborate symbolic system that only those who have been properly initiated can ‘read.’

Alchemy teaches that transformation is always an embodied event. It is never purely transcendent, i.e., the spirit never leaves the body because the essence must always find expression in material form.

Dissolution, decay, and regeneration are pivotal concepts to both alchemical and digital transmutation.
As with alchemy, the profanity of new forms of technological representation hinges on the magical manipulation of materials that violate the laws of the physical world and invite direct engagement in fantasy. The increasingly sophisticated means of accomplishing that illusion are hidden from the user.

At the level of practice, digital animation and alchemical conjunction are oddly similar. Both realms are interested in abstracting an essence from the body, purifying this essence, and then rejoining the body and the essence in an improved, yet transformed state. The paradox that is frequently observed in technological manipulation is that digital code seems to abstract completely from the physical realm, losing any recognizable correspondence to its referent. Yet it is nonetheless, much more “mercurial” as a medium, since it is fluid, it obediently takes the forms it is asked to take, it is more efficient and malleable.

There are some general characteristics that alchemy and digital representation share. First, a set of complex and highly abstract terms bar the way for the uninitiated, ensuring that the ‘craft’ is one that builds incrementally upon the innovations of its forebears. Although it is true that interface design for animation programs is motivated by the goal of making the software easier to use, it currently remains a difficult process. A program like Maya, for instance, is replete with icons, symbols, menus, and all manner of functions that must be learned.

In other words, alchemists were interdisciplinary in their approach to manipulating matter.

In both animation and alchemy, the conjunction, which is supposed to be the end, usually has to be repeated.

Both alchemy and digital animation are strongly characterized by a blurry distinction between surface and essence that guides and places restrictions on the process of material transformation.

* * * * * * *

Michelle Ramona Silva, PhD. Bio –

Michelle Ramona Silva earned her Ph.D. in Communication at the University of Pittsburgh in 2005 where she was awarded a Provost Pre-Doctoral Fellowship for Women and Minorities studying in the fields of Science and Technology from 2004-2005. She is originally from Massachusetts where she attended Bridgewater State College and earned her B.A. in English and then the University of Massachusetts where she earned her M.A. in English. She currently lives in Michigan with her husband Dr. Marcus Paroske and teaches at the University of Michigan—Flint. Since 1998 Dr. Silva and has taught courses from freshman level to the graduate level in mass communication, visual criticism, history of technology, theories of communication and public speaking.

Dr. Silva has published several articles including “The Aerodynamics of Insects: The Role of Models and Matter in Scientific Experimentation” in Social Epistemology and “Alchemy: The Subjugated Science” in Bad Subjects http://www.badsubjects.org. She is currently working on adapting her dissertation into book form. She is also the author of many papers presented at the National Communication Association, the Eastern Communication Association and the American Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology annual conferences. She was honored with a top paper award by the Eastern Communication Association in 2007 for “Temporal Signatures: Toward a Theory of Digital Representation.”

Connections –

Michelle Ramona Silva
misilva at umflint.edu

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