diana@mrf.hu on Mon, 1 Dec 1997 01:07:51 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Hakim Bey : The Obelisk 1/2


by Hakim Bey

1. Dans la merde

No systematic ideation seems able to measure the universe a one-to-one
map even of the subjective world can probably only be achieved in
non-ideational states. Nothing can be posited "nevertheless, it
moves." Something comes into cognition, and consciousness attempts to
structure it. This structure is then taken for the bedrock of reality,
and applied as a mappa mundi first as language, then as ideology
inherent in language. These language/ideology complexes tend to become
orthodoxies. For example, since the Enlightenment it has been
considered indisputable that only one mode of consciousness is fully
real; we might call it the consciousness that "falsifies" i.e., that
verifies science as true. Before the Enlightenment other orthodoxies
held sway and valued other forms of consciousness or cognition. We
could sum up these earlier orthodoxies under the rubrics of God and
Nature, and perhaps associate them with the Neolithic and Paleolithic,
respectively. Although these worldviews retain some adherents they
have been archaeologically submerged, so to speak, by "Universal
Reason". The Enlightenment coincides with the first determined
breakthrough into scientific instrumentality and the "conquest of
Nature"; God survives the onslaught for another century but finally
(after a deathbed scene of positively operatic length) succumbs around
1899. Nature is silent; God is dead. Ideology is rational and
scientific; the dark ages are over. If we can say that the 18th
century brought us the betrayal of Nature, and the 19th century the
betrayal of God, then the 20th century has certainly produced the
betrayal of (and by) ideology. Enlightenment Rationalism and its
offshoot/rival Dialectical Materialism have expired and gone to heaven
and left us "dans la merde" (as the dying Gurdjieff told his
disciples), stuck in the mire of a material world reduced to the cruel
abstraction of exchange and dedicated only to its own self-defacement
and disappearance.

The fact is that any map will fit any territory...given sufficient
violence. Every ideology is complicit with every other ideology given
enough time (and rope). These complexes are nothing but unreal estate,
properties to be stripped of assets, vampirized for imagery, propped
up to keep the marks in line, manipulated for profit but not taken
seriously by grown-ups. For the adult of the species there remains
nothing but the atomized sell of exchange, and the unlikely
consolations of greed and power.

2. Hermes Revividus

But there appear to exist other consciousnesses, and perhaps even
kinds of cognition that remain uninvolved in consciousness in any
ordinary sense. Aside from all scientific or religious definitions of
these other forms, they persist in appearing, and are therefore
potentially interesting. Without ideologizing these forms, can we
still say anything useful about them? Language is still traditionally
deemed ineffective in this regard. But theoria, originally in the
sense of "vision" or insight, possesses a sudden and drifting nature,
akin to poetry. In such terms could we speak of a kind of hermetic
criticism (on the model of Dali's "paranoia criticism") capable of
dealing with these other forms, however obliquely and glancingly?

It is Hermes who bridges the gap between the metalinguistic and the
sublinguistic in the form of the message, language itself, the medium;
he is the trickster who leads in misleading, the tremendum that echoes
through the broken word. Hermes is therefore political, or rather
ambassadorial patron of intelligence and cryptography as well as an
alchemy that seeks only the embodiment of the real. Hermes is between
text and image, master of the hieroglyphs that are simultaneously
both Hermes is their significance, their translatability. As one who
goes "up and down" between spirits and humans, Hermes Psychopomp is
the shamanic consciousness, the medium of direct experience, and the
interface between these other forms and the political. "Hermetic" can
also mean "unseen".

The late Ioan Couliano pointed out that Renaissance Hermeticism
offered, as one definition of magic, the influence of text/image
complexes "at a distance" on the conscious and unconscious cognition
of subjects. In a positive sense these techniques were meant for the
"divinizing" of the magus and of material creation itself; thus
alchemy is seen as a freeing of consciousness (as well as matter) from
the heavier and more negative forms and its realization as
self-illumination. But as Blake himself a great hermeticist pointed
out, everything has its "form and spectre," its positive and negative
appearance. If we look at the positive "form" of hermeticism we see it
as liberation and therefore as politically radical (as with Blake, for
instance); if we regard its "spectre", however, we see that the
Renaissance magi were the first modern spies and the direct ancestors
of all spin-doctors, PR men, advertisers and brainwashers. "Hermetic
criticism" as I see it would involve an attempt to "separate out"
various formal and spectral aspects of communication theory and its
modern applications; but this realm is choked with undergrowth and
clear separations can rarely be defended. Let's just say we're looking
for patches of sunlight.

3. Critique of the Image

The critique of the Image is at the same time a defense of the

If the spectral hermeticism of the totality consists of the totality
of its imagery, then clearly something can be said in defense of
iconoclasm, and for resistance to the screen (the media interface).
The perfection of exchange is presented as a universal imaginaire, as
a complex of images (and text/image complexes) arranged through
reproduction, education, work, leisure, advertising, news, medicine,
death, etc., into an apparent consensus or "totality". The unmediated
is the unimagined even though it is life itself we're discussing, we
have failed to imagine it, or to evaluate it. That which is present
but remains unrepresented also remains virtually unreal for us,
inasmuch as we have capitulated to the consensus. And since
consciousness actually plays a rather miniscule role here, we all
capitulate at least most of the time, either because we can't stand
too much reality, or because we've decided to think about it later, or
because we're afraid we're insane, and so on.

Byzantine Iconoclasm and (later) Islam attempted to cut through the
hermetic dilemma by "prohibiting" the Image. To a certain extent the
latter succeeded, so that even its representational art deliberately
refused perspective and dimensional illusion; moreover, in a way that
Benjamin might have noticed, the painting never stands alone but is
"alienated" by text that enters it and flattens it yet more. The
"highest" arts are architecture as arrangement of organic space and
calligraphy as arrangement of organic time; moreover the word is
ideological for Islam it not only represents logos but presents it as
linearity, as a linked series of moments of meaning. Islam is
"text-based" but it refuses the Image not simply to exalt the text.
There are two "Korans" in Islam, and the other one is generally
interpreted as integral with Nature itself as a kind of non-verbal
semiotics, "waymarks on the horizon." Hence the geomorphism of the
architecture, and its interaction with water, greenery, landscape and
horizon and also its ideal interpenetration by calligraphic text.

Now admittedly this ideational or religious complex can assume its own
intense rigidity and heaviness. Its truly luminous organicity can
perhaps best be appreciated in old anonymous unofficial forms like the
domed caravansaries of Central Asia or the African mud mosques rather
than in the grand imperial Masterpieces  or the catastrophic modern
capital cities of Islamdom. But wherever the Image has been lost and
forgotten (or at least supplanted to some extent by other
possibilities) it is possible to feel a certain lightness or relief
from the burden of the image, and a certain lightness in the sense of
luminousness as well. Even in modern Libya, which has banned all
commercial advertising (and allows signs only in Arabic), one can
experience at least a moment of the utopia of the absence of the
image, the public image, the hieroglyphics of exchange, the iconolatry
of representation. One can reject the authoritarianism of the ban on
imagery without necessarily rejecting its intentionality. We could
interpret it in a sufiistic manner that a voluntary self-restraint
vis-a-vis imagery and representation (a sublimation of the image) can
result in a flow of power to the autonomous ("divinized") imagination.
This could also be envisioned as a suppression-and-realization in the
dialectical sense. The purpose of such an exercise, from a sufi
perspective, would be to channelize the "creative imagination" toward
the realization of spiritual insight for example, revealed or inspired
texts are not merely read but re-created within the imaginal
consciousness. Clearly this direct experience aspect of imaginal work
may raise the question of one's relation with orthodoxy and mediated
spiritual authority. In some cases values are not merely re-created,
but created. Values arc imagined. The possibility appears that
orthodoxy may deconstruct itself, that ideology may be overcome from
within. Hence the ambiguous relation between Islamic authorities and
Islamic mystics.

Thc sufi critique of the Image can certainly be '"secularized" to the
extent of adding to our own concept of hermetic criticism. (Some sufis
were themselves hermeticists and even accepted the existence of Hermes
Trismegestus as a "prophet".) In other words, we do not oppose the
Image as theological iconoclasts but because we require the liberation
of the imagination itself our imagination, not the mediated imaginaire
of the market.

Of course this critique of the image could just as well be applied to
the word to the book to language itself. And of course it should be so
applied. To question a medium is not necessarily to destroy it, in the
name of either orthodoxy or heresy. The Renaissance magi were not
interested merely in reading the hieroglyphs but in writing them.
Hieroglyphics was seen as a kind of projective semiotics or textual
imaginal performance produced to effect change in the world. The point
is that we imagine ourselves rather than allow ourselves to be
imagined; we must ourselves write ourselves or else be written.

4. The Unseen Obelisk

If oppression emanates from the power of that which is seen, then
logic might compel us to investigate the possibility that resistance
could ally itself with the power of that which is unseen. The unseen
is not necessarily the invisible or the disappeared. It can be seen
and might be seen. It is not yet seen or it is deliberately hidden. It
reserves the right to re-appear, or to escape from representation.
This hermetic ambiguity shapes its tactical movement; to use a
military metaphor, it practices guerrilla techniques of "primitive
war" against those of "classical war", refusing confrontation on
unequal terms, melting into the generalized resistance of the
excluded, occupying cracks in the strategic monolith of control,
refusing the monopoly of violence to power, etc. ("Violence" here also
signifies imagistic or conceptual violence.) In effect it opposes
strategy (ideology) with tactics that cannot be strategically bound or
ideologically fixed. It might be said that consciousness "alone" does
not play as vital a role in this as certain other factors ("Freedom is
a psycho-kinetic skill").

For example, there is an aspect of the unseen that involves no effort,
but consists simply in the experience of places that remain unknown,
times that are not marked. The Japanese aesthetic term wabi refers to
the power of such places or objects it means "poor". It is used to
refer, for example, to certain teacups that appear badly-made
(irregular, unevenly fired, etc.), but upon a more sensitive appraisal
are seen to possess great expressiveness of "suchness" an elegance
that approaches conceptual silence something of the melancholy of
transitoriness, anonymity, a point at which poverty cannot be
distinguished from the most refined aesthetic, a quintessence of the
Taoist yin, the "mysterious power" of flowing water or empty space.
Some of these teacups sell for millions. Most of them are made by Zen
artisans who have achieved the state of wabi, but it might be said
that the most prized of all would be made unselfconsciously (or even
"unconsciously") by genuinely poor craftsmen. This mania for the
natural and spontaneous also finds its expression in the Taoist
fondness for bizarre rocks that stimulate the imagination with
convolutions and extrusions and strange imbalances. Zen gardeners
prefer rocks that suggest distant mountains or islands, erasing all
other images, or better yet rocks suggestive of nothing at
all non-ideational form perfect poorness.

As soon as something is represented it becomes an image of itself,
semiotically richer but existentially impoverished, alienated, drawn
out of itself and extenuated a potential commodity. The wabi of the
teacups is seriously compromised by the high prices they command. To
be effective (to produce "satori") the object must be experienced
directly and not mediated in exchange. Perhaps the really valuable
cups are not yet seen because they are overlooked. No one can even
perceive them, much less their value. The sole and spontaneous
exception to this general inattentiveness is...ourselves! we have
imagined the value of wabi for these objects times or places for
ourselves. These are perhaps among the "small pleasures" that
Nietzsche says are more important than the great ones. In some cases
the melancholy aspect of these things is exacerbated by the
realization that time itself has overcome ugliness and turned it into
an unnoticed beauty. Certain streets in North Dublin capture this
quality perfectly, as do some abandoned New Jersey industrial sites
where the organic (rust, water, weeds) has sculpted old machinery into
spontaneous pure form and landscape. This melancholia (which was held
to be a trait or sign of creativity by the old hermeticists)
approaches another aesthetic term, the Persian word dard which
literally means "pain", but is applied in more subtle terms to the art
of direct expression of certain musicians (especially singers) in the
sense of a transparent and unaffected rnelancholic longing for an
absent transcendent or beloved. The Persian fable teaches that the
pain of rejected love turns an ordinary sparrow into a nightingale.
The lover is poor as the dervish is poor, because desire is that which
is not fulfilled but from this poverty there emerges an aesthetic of
wealth, an overflowing, a generosity or even painful excess of
meaning under the guise of melancholy and disappointment.

Aside from the inadvertancy of the unseen, there also exists a more
active form, so to speak the form of the deliberate unseen. This is
part of the sphere wherein appears the consciousness of everyday life
of itself and its tactical intention to enhance its own unmediated
pleasures and the autonomy of its freedom from representation. Thus
conditions are maximized for the potential emergence of "the
marvelous" into the sphere of lived experience. This situation
resembles that of the artist but "art" enters this space only on
condition that it refuses to mediate experience for us and instead
"facilitate" it. One example would be a love affair based on an
eroticism that does not appear in mediation, for which no "roles" are
constructed, no commodities produced. Another example might be a
spontaneous festival, or a temporary autonomous zone, or a secret
society; here, "art" would regain its utilily.

The Renaissance magi understood that the ancient Egyplian obelisk was
a perfect hermetic form for the dissemination of their hieroglyphic
projective semiotics. From the top down it represents (mathematically)
a sun-beam; from the bottom up, a lingam. It broadcasts or radiates
its text/image complexes therefore both to the light above
consciousness itself, and to the unconscious represented by sexuality.
>From the emblem-books such as the great Hypnerotomachia of 1499 we
learn that the hermetic purpose for such monuments would be to call
into existence the utopia of desire and the bliss of alchemical union.
But the Magi never perfected their deciphering of the hieroglyphs and
their utopia remained enclosed within the hermetic landscapes of the
Emblems. The notion of the power of the obelisks, however, took root
in western consciousness and unconsciousness, from the Napoleonic and
British appropriations in Egypt to the Masonic involvement in the
Washington Monument.

By contrast to the obelisk of the State, one could imagine a genuinely
hermetic obelisk inscribed with magical writing about direct
experience of non-ordinary consciousness; its effectiveness would
consist of the near-impossibility of its being seen; it might, for
example, be sited in a remote wilderness or in the midst of abandoned
industrial decay. It might even be buried. It would be a "poor"
obelisk. Rumors would circulate about it. Those who actually found it
would perhaps be deeply moved by its mysteriousness and remoteness.
The obelisk itself might even have vanished, and been replaced again
with a beam of dusty sunlight. But the story of it might retain some

5. The Organic Machine

But what is revolt for? Simply to assuage the terminal resentment of
the eternally disappointed and belated? Could we not simply cease our
agitation and pursue that teacup or that beam of sunlight, if we
cannot be satisfied with the ecstasy of the totality? Why should our
hermetic critique lead us to an assertion of a dialectic of presence
over exchange, over alienation, over separation? If we pretend to
"create values" then we should be prepared to articulate them, however
much we may reject "ideology". After all, pancapitalism also rejects
ideology and has even proclaimed the end of the dialectic are our
values therefore to be subsumed in Capital? If so, then why struggle?

One possible response to this question could be made on the basis of
an existentialist revolt-for-revolt's sake, in the tradition of Camus
or the Italian Stirnerite anarchists. We would be ill-advised to
despise this answer but it may perhaps be possible to add to it in
more positive terms (in terms of "form", not "spectre").

For example, we could say that the Paleolithic economy of the Gift
still persists, along with the "direct experience" spirituality of
shamanism, and the non-separation of "Society Against the State"
(Pierre Clastres), in the form of those rights and customs discussed
by E. P. Thompson, reflected in myth and folklore, and expressed in
popular festal and heretically resistant forms throughout history.
Refer to Bakhtin's Rabelais, to Chrisiopher Hill's Word Turn'd Upside
Down, or Vaneigem's Free.Spirit. In other words: a tradition of
resistance has persisted since the Neolithic, unbroken by the rise of
the first States, and even till today. Thus: we resist and revolt
because it is our glorious heritage to do so it is our "conservatism".
This resistance movement has become incredibly shabby and dusty since
it first arose some 12,000 years ago in response to the "first
ideologies" (agriculture, the calendar, the appropriation of
labor) but it still persists because it still defines most of the
"empirical freedoms" that most people would like to enjoy: absence of
oppression, peace, plenty, autonomy, conviviality or community, no
rich or poor, spiritual expression and the pleasure of the body, and
so on. It may be impossible to construct a system or ideology or
strategy on such uncategorizable desires but it is equally impossible
to refute them with ideology, precisely because of their empirical and
"tactical" nature. No matter what, they persist even if they remain
for all practical purposes unseen, still they refuse to go away. When
all the ideeas have betrayed us, this "organic machine" (Society vs.
the State) declines even to define itself as an idea. It remains loyal
to our immemorial inarticulacy, our silence, our poorness.

Capital pursues its telos beyond the human. Science has already
betrayed us perhaps the next (or last) betrayal will be of the human
itself, and of the entire material world. Only two examples need be
given here to illuminate (rather than "prove") this contention. The
first concerns money, which in the last five or six years has
transcended its links with production to the alarming degree that some
94.2% of the global "money supply" now consists of pure financial
capital. I've called this the Gnostic uploading of the economic body,
in honor of those old Gnostic Dualists and their hatred of everything
material. The practical result of this situation is staggering for any
consideration of economic justice as an "empirical" concern, since the
migratory or nomadic nature of pancapitalism permits "disembodied
Capital" to strip the productive economy of its assets in the cause of
profits that can only be measured by purely "spiritual" means.
Moreover, this Capital has become its own medium, and now attempts to
define a universal discourse in which alternatives to exchange simply
vanish as if they'd never existed and could never exist. Thus all
human relations are to be measured in money.

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