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nettime: The Alchemical Net
Declan McCullagh on Thu, 10 Oct 96 21:35 MET


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nettime: The Alchemical Net


This is an essay that draws parallels between the architecture of
the Net and the architecture of depth psychology, with particular
emphasis on alchemical symbols. Repressing the Net represses
ourselves. McCullagh studies at the Jung Institute in Philadelphia.

An excerpt from the essay:

"The Net and Web symbols and icons, the mythological names,
the weird links and mirrors, the uncensored slop, the stench
of digital sulfur, the secrecy, the fuss about encryption,
the inside language, the personal signatures, the home pages
and so on,  are the stuff of alchemy.  The world governments
efforts to control this secretive language is no different
than the Church trying to censor medieval alchemists or
religious mystics. The powers always take such actions in
the name of god-fearing decency and the protection of
innocents. The government wants to regulate Net behavior
because it doesnt understand it. They can certainly fake
it, as Dole tried to do in the first debate with Clinton.
T.S. Eliot wrote about the twentieth century citizen as
having the experience but missing the meaning. That is a
description of the 800-pound gorilla government presence in
the Net-terrain. They dont get it. But, in a way, they do.
Even unreflective government ministers realize this Netthing
is bubbling up from somewhere and like Hermes/Mercury, is
forever changing its shape, spots, color, and demeanor.
Suppress a web site in Burma and an alchemical mirror
captures the message in Timbuktu."

-Declan

****************

The Alchemical Net
By Chuck McCullagh <76543.1777 {AT} CompuServe.COM>
October 10, 1996

I got interested in the Net about the same time I developed an
interest in alchemy.  Since that time Ive been musing about what
these two protocols, one distinctly medieval, one post-modern, might
have in common.  Both, to borrow the words of writer Flannery
OConnor, draw large and starting figures. Both are agents and
expressions of cultural, psychological, and perhaps even spiritual
transformations.  Both protocols are ostensibly about technology and
process; but ultimately the two protocols are about changes in
technology that can change the inner man.

The protocols can be easily misunderstood.  And they can readily serve
the charlatan seeking the quick buck. Alchemy was originally the
effort to change base metals into gold.  This arcane science predated
chemistry and metallurgy and medieval literature shows how serious
practitioners were about this activity.  For them, alchemy was a
sacred art.  To truly transform base metals into gold, an internal
transformation must also take place, though the process might be
unconscious.  The genuine alchemical artists would understand the poet
Auden's phrase:new styles of architecture, a change of heart. There
had to be the right chemistry between the metallurgical process and
the alchemist.

Alchemy went the way of the dung heap, sent there in part by all the
charlatans who promised get rich schemes.  Today they would be stock
brokers. Chemistry replaced this earthy science.  Three hundred years
later C.G. Jung, the Swiss psychologist, stumbled onto alchemy. After
hearing thousands of his patients' dreams Jung was struck by the
similarity of symbolism in the various dreams. He found arelatedness
among the dream imagery and eventually found similar imagery in
alchemy. He considered dream symbolism a kind of empirical evidence
that man possesses a collective unconscious which houses archetypes
common to mankind.

Jung also discovered that alchemists were interested in personal, as
well as metallurgical, transformation.  Though there were technicians
and charlatans in the business, the real alchemists were
philosophers who were using the witches brew of sulfur, metals, and
whatnot, as a mediation axis for their internal transformation.  They
were actually in search of soul.

But why the charade?  Why engage in ironwork when the true interest is
in soul work? The psychological answer is that the Catholic Church, in
the driver's seat for centuries, has successfully managed to
suppressive the personal and collective unconscious and emphasize
spirit rather than soul.  The Church essentially denied the interior
man and his/her proclivity for symbol-making. Augustine, Aquinas and
the other Church fathers denied the dark side of life. Satan, once the
brother of Christ, was now dethroned.  Evil was merely the absence of
good.  Neat as this might be from a theological perspective, it
absolutely devastated psychological man.  Jung writes that when the
unconscious is suppressed, it erupts as fate.  Our inability to
believe that an evil as great as Hitler could be real, led to the
slaughter of millions.  That the Catholic Church and the Reformers,
who promised much more attention to psychology but failed,  denied
modern man his or her psychology,  sent the activity underground.

The philosopher/alchemists, made wary by Church Inquisitions and
witch burning, went underground and developed a delicious
pre-industrial protocol to disguise a psychological activity.  As Jung
has noted, the changing of base metals into gold is really a metaphor
for the individuation process, during which a person becomes fully
integrated and whole. The alchemists were an industrial offshoot of
the mystical tradition, perhaps best represented by Meister Eckhart of
Germany, that believed, as the Greeks did, he who knows himself,
knows God. Such a position was anathema to the Church which held the
keys to the kingdom. No wonder alchemists went underground.

Alchemy was finally done in by the powerful worlds of rationalism
and empiricism that denied the unconscious.  If you couldnt measure
something, it wasnt real.  Our world today is a product of these
movements.  Most of our cultural ailments, whether consumerism,
materialism, nihilism, fundamentalism, or extremism of any kind,  have
their origins in the psychology of rational and empirical Americans.
The spiritual despair so many people feel today is due to the denial
of the soul and the failure of the old religious symbols to speak to
us at the end of the 20th century.  As the rap song goes,  Denial,
Anns just a river in Egypt.

It is a principle of depth psychology that what a culture represses,
comes back as fate.  Our collective inability to accept the very real
presence of evil in the world (and in ourselves and in our icon gods)
has given us a brutal century which will likely close the way it
began--in bloodshed.   The pathetic, simple-minded political discourse
in this country only underscores our lack of reflection.  American and
world institutions are scared shuttles of the NET, not because they
cant control it but because, from a psychological point-of-view, it
is the animals emerging out of the collective unconscious.

In terms of digital exchange, the NET was probably inevitable.  Im
less interested in the Net as a overlay of technical protocols than
the Net as a projection of depth psychology replete with its own
cultural icons and alchemical  processes.  The alchemical language
was archaic, symbolic, suggestive, designed that way so the
authorities could not easily decipher.  It was a game of sulfur
handshakes and smoky mirrors. The factory floor was smelled of Yeats
foul rag and bone shop of the heart. The alchemists knew the stench
of excrement.  They were that too.

The Net and Web symbols and icons,  the mythological names, the weird
links and mirrors, the uncensored slop, the stench of digital sulfur,
the secrecy, the fuss about encryption, the inside language, the
personal signatures, the home pages and so on,  are the stuff of
alchemy.  The world governments efforts to control this secretive
language is no different than the Church trying to censor medieval
alchemists or religious mystics.  The powers always take such actions
in the name of god-fearing decency and the protection of innocents.
The government wants to regulate Net behavior because it doesnt
understand it. They can certainly fake it, as Dole tried to do in the
first debate with Clinton.  T.S. Eliot wrote about the twentieth
century citizen as having the experience but missing the meaning. That
is a description of the 800-pound gorilla government presence in the
Net-terrain. They dont get it. But, in a way, they do.  Even
unreflective government ministers realize this Netthing is bubbling up
from somewhere and like Hermes/Mercury, is forever changing its shape,
spots, color, and demeanor.  Suppress a web site in Burma and an
alchemical mirror captures the message in Timbuktu.

Whatever the Net is technologically, it also represents a
psychological space where transactions of the soul and spirit take
place. Yes, its messy, god knows its messy. But so were the
alchemists attempts to turn base metals into gold. So is the
psychological process of individuation which is a life journey for us
all.  Psychologist James Hillman, updating Jung writes, In my
symptoms is my soul.  Life is a mess and that is reflected on the
Net.  Neither religion nor the state encourages psychological
development.  Instead both encourage wars to fight for anthropomorphic
god we have projected into the heavens.

The symbols that are passed on to us by tradition (Christ, Virgin
Mary,  the saints) are made clean by tradition and  are rid of the
shadows of the unconscious.  Our presidents, saints, and cultural
icons are elevated and become etherized on the table of history.  The
conscious mind wants order. impeccable grammar, and Jefferson without
his black mistress.  The unconscious mind serves up dreams in
alchemical dress that scare the hell out of us.  That is, if we are
awake.  That  this is a manifestation of depth psychology with its
lions, tigers, and dream corridors worries  the guardians of the
conscious state.  So they propose their own protocols, wrapped in the
white flag of decency.  The authorities want to repress the Net
because it is a projection of their own unconscious. They dont want
to enter that terrain.  They will certainly stand tall against
pedophiles but will refuse to see the Net as a journey they must to
take.

Alchemists had rigorous protocols of mixing elements to get the right
elixir. But their work was not programmatic,  for that approach would
satisfy the conscious mind.  Rather alchemists relied more on
intuition and magical clues, finding hints and links during the soul
journey.  The objective was always transformation; taking the
unprocessed substances and combining them in such a way as to bring
about the desired end which, in psychological terms, was the
development of the Self, the whole person.  A basic principle of
alchemy was that the basic materials had to be combined and processed
the  same way Jungians believe raw dream material has to be subjected
to a critical analysis.

A technical need gave birth to the Net.  However, the Net also
answered a psychological need.  Again, what the conscious mind
represses, returns as fate or culture.  Modern man is both liberated
and enslaved. The institutions that purport to serve him has denied
him access to the unconscious, the royal road to the soul.  Alchemists
knew intuitively what analytical psychologists know empirically; that
is, the unconscious is more responsive to the spontaneous attitudes
associated with the young.  This is what has perplexed and scared so
many in authorities. The young are vigorously responding to this
invitation from the unconscious to develop the mysterious tools and
protocols that will, as the fantasy goes, transform the world and
perhaps themselves.  For some the Net is really about ontology, the
nature of being itself.  It is a mirror that invites a very different
view of man.  He or she is no only digital, world at the fingertip;
this emerging tech-head  renders obsolete most institutions associated
with paternalism. Free speech is really free.  A literate,
enfranchised, ennobled citizen can be a reality.  More profoundly, the
collective psychology is changing. The boundaries that define and
confine are less important. On the Net nationalism takes on a very
petty glow. Netizens have the potential of living their lives
symbolically  in that they are always linked to the other.

Of course, the Net is also a junk yard filled with tons of stuff that
must be subjected to the right touch of alchemy. The process is about
process and realizing one must interact with the untutored material.
The Net is certainly a solipsistic zone of personal chatter. But this
chatter has an alchemical role in that  it allows the base material to
show forth to be transformed. The impulse to censor the Net argues
against the Nets psychological benefits.

Alchemy described a technological process that was also about personal
transformation.  The psychological aim was wholeness and integration
of the Self.  The Net is  a technical protocol that permits the
transfer of unlimited amounts of  digital date. But the Net
architecture is also a manifestation of depth psychology that has the
potential of ordering the world in a much more soulful way.

###


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