What Sorcery is this?

Haig Aivazian

In Tim Burton’s 2012 film Dark Shadows, adapted from a Goth sitcom aired on American TV between the 60’s and 70’s, Johnny Depp plays the role of Barnabas Collins, long undead and inadvertently awoken from a centuries-long slumber by construction workers. In a classic trope of the time travel genre, Barnabas, not a time traveler so much as traveled by time, sees brother and sister duo The Carpenters performing their hit song On Top of the World on television. Alarmed and angered by the sight, Barnabas rushes towards the ornate wood-paneled set (the film takes place in the 70’s) and begins ripping out its internal wires. “What sorcery is this?” he asks, ordering the singer to “reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”

The question “What sorcery is this?” has come to circulate in meme form, generally mocking luddites and other idiots who, when faced with elements they are unable to comprehend, resort to magic and the supernatural to make sense of things.

It’s endlessly funny, really, but the interrogation is actually at the dark genocidal core of modernity, a fault line drawn in blood by the enlightenment project. For the moderns, progress was predicated, among other impulses, on the drive to organize the world into categories, classifications and taxonomies. Unsurprising then that the inability of some societies to discriminate or differentiate along these lines would classify them, in turn, among the ranks of the primitives, the colonized, the insane, the hysterical, the infantile, the not quite human…

Who can tell the difference between animate subjects and inanimate objects? Between humans and non-humans? Who is rational and who is backward? Who does not have the scientific knowledge to explain perfectly understandable things and instead runs for the hills, crying witchcraft? For Freud and many other whites at the time, the answer was ‘the savage’. The savage believes that signs carry the power of their referents and that the two are tied by a shared energy (like a talisman for example,) a belief that conflates the symbolic and the real.[1] Anthropologists used to call this kind of thing Animism, a system of beliefs that was not predicated on the principle of “an objectified nature composed of absolute facts” on the one hand, and a thinking subject separate from the object of study on the other. This detached, thinking subject would be none other than the modern, Cartesian Man.[2]

But even the moderns never really abided by the neat divides they had so painstakingly erected, suffice it to mention the libidinal impulses, anxieties and irrational fears that undergirded the modernist drives. The most urgent matters facing the planet today have exposed the epistemic limitations of Cartesian thought;[3] and the idea of modern man as perpetrator of a disastrous chain of environmental events, from the so-called discovery of the New World to global warming, has gained substantial traction, at least in activist and academic circles.

As well, the ever-expanding capacities of computation, of what is calculable, predictable, modelable, has cracked open notions of linear time, subjectivity, individuality and agency in unprecedented ways. Conceptions of urban environments —with all their humans, their electric grids, their homes, buses, etc…— in the image of the free market makes cities into highly complex self-regulating systems, organisms which bring into motion disparate elements into one efficient flow —think cybernetics, IoT, smart cities etc.[4]

Within these arrangements, where humans and objects are constantly shaping, traversing and animating one another, taxonomies of sentient and non steadily erode.[5] So too does the idea that rational thought or cognition in general is equipped to treat the complexities of the world. What emerges instead is the conviction that the world is predicated on variables so vast and complex only computational intelligence can make sense of it and keep it running.

The supremacy of this kind of algorithmic governmentality as generalized organizing logic, from our neurons to the world at large, constitutes the eruption of a new form of animism, one that flips on its head another more fundamental metaphysical dichotomy: the capacity through symbolic representation —mainly language— to take stock of the world and another capacity, historically subservient to the first, to shape the world through techne, or through the production of human-made instruments.[6] This new animism believes that metrics produced by calculating instruments are more adequate to reflect the world than thought or analysis.[7]

Indeed, Prometheus’s yanking of fire from Zeus was also meant to remedy mankind’s helplessness in a world controlled by the gods. Prometheanism came to signify the belief that, through synthetic means, there is no limit to our plasticity and the plasticity of the world. But it is also the belief that we can only fully know that which we make. The only way to truly know the world we live in then is to make a synthetic alternative to the organic world, which is knowable only to “God,” its creator.[8]

With such radical shifts in the fabric of lived experience, it is crucial not to fall into the historical myopia which has many theorizing from the precipice of exceptional times  (“the world has never been so,” “we live in a time of” …) Among the data subjects flowing frictionless are the heavy ghosts of the brutal past who persist in the present and have already shaped the future. Ghosts of those whose status as human was always under attack. Those who were kidnapped and trafficked as human property, who were extracted like carbon, or domesticated like animals, ghosts who dwell in the ruins of a world combusted through and through.

In this issue of the Derivative, we propose three words to three new guest editors. Mirene Arsanios will conjure the ghost, the pesky revenant that persistently seeks redress for the deep systemic injustices perpetrated by mankind. Sumayya Kassamali addresses the human, the contours of its agency and the manners in which personhood is made and unmade by legal and social instruments. Rijin Sahakian plays with fire as a stand-in for the vertiginous development of mass killing machines, as a force of resetting histories and erasing civilizations, but also as metaphor for a relentless and contagious will to fight.

[1] Bracken, Christopher. Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy. The University of Chicago Press, 2007,p. 2.

[2] Franke, Anselm. “Introduction.” Animism (Volume 1), ed. by Anselm Franke. Sternberg Press, 2010, p.12.

[3] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. by Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press, 1993.

[4] Spencer, Douglas. The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, pp. 17-46.

[5] Mbembe, Joseph-Achille. Brutalisme. La Découverte, 2020, p. 27.

[6] Ibid, p. 33.

[7] Ibid, p. 83.

[8] Brassier, Ray. “Promethianism and Its Critics.” #accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Ed. By Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian. MIT Press, 2014, p.477.