Occult, Esoteric Art of Cybernetic Capitalism
Lecture delivered at DUVE Berlin, 2013
In this age of cybernetic capitalism we are witnessing and explosion of cults, secret doctrines, totems, and magical thinking. This is not merely a nostalgic phenomenon. It is a symptom of a dawn of a new world and attempts to live with the passing of the previous one. Magic is back.

The mainstream cults are looser in organization – organized around a totem. Rather than being a monumental totem in stone whose form is fixed and whose size somewhat limited (the ancients always wanted their icons as big as possible!) the new cult totem is ever growing - a process of accretion, created by thousands devotees offering each other images of the icon. Each new image is a different aspect of its godhead: the god playing a piano; the god dancing. The largest of all these totems, in terms of informatic magnitude or amount of ‘content available’, is the cat – often known as the ‘funny cat video’. Despite the huge numbers of devotees, and almost unfathomable number images being circulated, it is a rather simple cult of a pagan disposition: The cat is the ruler of domestic environments, evidenced by him occupying human scenarios when he is not being mischievous and inscrutable as deities are wont to be. He is the 21st century sublimation of Crepitus, the Roman toilet god, and his coterie. Why cats? Because if there is to be a god presiding over whether your domestic shit goes well then one hopes he is a warm and fuzzy type. This is a cult of blind obedience to the totem, which represents wish fulfillment. It has no theology.

We have only recently entered a new age of cybernetic capitalism. The total revolution of life that the term implies is proceeding so unstoppably, and comprehensively, that some people think they see the apocalypse coming and find justifications for this belief in ancient, outmoded prophecies. In fact, the world (more precisely, a world) has already ended. The apocalypse happened to the edifice of metaphysical dualism (the conceptual distinction between mind and body), snuffing out its drawn out and increasingly untenable position as a viable mass culture persisting in the face of monist science. This dualism had its roots in the distinction between god and his creations. Monism, by contrast, whose Greek root is mono (one), explains the variety of existing things in terms of a single material reality. In the contemporary cult of cybernetic capitalism this substance is information. Information, far from being ethereal, is inherently material.

How does this affect us? In the new cybernetic age we feel the practical applications of monism most acutely, as the technological fruits of the enlightenment caress our skins, penetrate our flesh and restructure our subjecthood, right down to sexual and reproductive life. But this is just a small part of the picture. The monist hegemon is redrawing our social fabric, cultural production, and politics. The fate of place is characteristic – increasingly subordinate to a whole new geography; the topography of the network. This means the eclipse of brick and mortar institutions by data streams. Perhaps it was the very tangible weight of stone that allowed us to cultivate a sense of these institutions’ inhabitants – animating spirits like humanist ‘justice’ at home in our impressive courts of law. Now, the weightlessness, speed and distribution of our new cybernetic architectures only deliver moral indifference of materialism.

And yet we only half perceive this – as our pre-revolution institutions still seem to be functioning. But they operate differently. In the most advanced economies they appear gradually uncannier, as all ideology departs the scene. Modern politics, the academy and cultural industries’ claims to represent ‘humanity’ and the good look true only in relation to their historical missions – but the metaphysical and moral philosophies that drove them are no-longer the preeminent historical force. Something’s not quite right with them. The peculiar site of their undead agency grows ever more disturbing – given their total monopoly on force – and every day a new movie about a virus that spreads amongst people, turning them into zombies, is released.

Consider the apocalyptic millennialism of the year 2000. The world would end, some said – prophecies would be foretold! But when no explosion happened did we put that belief away? No. Last year it was 2012 – the end of Mayan calendar. Mass interest in the end of the world continues, everywhere. But within this popular feeling there seem to be two branches of cults. One, a death cult – as in “that’s it, the end, it’s over, what a nightmare, goodbye cruel world”. The second is the cult of rebirth. The first is a retrospective fixation that refuses a radically different future – like throwing yourself into the funeral pyre of your departed prophet, going down with the ship, or at least talking about it. The second, the cult of rebirth, is inherently futurist – embracing a whole new life.

We talk of Modernism as a response to modernity. We talk of the avant-gardes, and the origin of the term in the notion of an advance guard. With the general assumption that it means a group of people who were experimental and innovative in responding to the effects of the industrial revolution and capitalism proper. People ascribed individual, heroic genius to these figures because they weren’t themselves modern enough to understand what these people believed. What they believed about the end of one world and the beginning of another - and their role as prophets (not gods!) who took it upon themselves to stake out a path in the unknown. To the death cult the unknown is void, total alienation, the disenchantment of the old world. To the cult of rebirth is a space in which effect the magical gestures and rituals of enchantment.

The art of the second half of the 20th century, and developments in academic art historical studies, have demolished the cult of the artistic genius of the avant-garde. This misinterpretation, as I have said, came about because the critics and general public had not yet managed to meet the gaze of modernity themselves. The avant-gardes were their mediation, and so they mistook them for its infinite depth: like thinking the world and everything in it inheres in the lens of a pair of spectacles. While the lens can focus sight it is not the object being looked at.

Perhaps now we can better understand the avant-gardes: They were New Agers, like many of their generation, and practitioners of magical thinking. This isn’t just a metaphor. The Futurist Luigi Russolo – the first man to develop a systematic poetics of noise, and the inventor of what has been considered the first mechanical sound synthesizer - was a paid up devotee of theosophy; the modern mysticism of Madame Blavatsky. A groundbreaking recent book by Luciano Chessa has convincingly demonstrated how Russolo’s theorization and invention of the aesthetics of noise, and the machines he called the intonarumori, were intended to boost practitioners into higher states of spiritual consciousness. Such attempts to fuse science and spirit were characteristic of this era in general. Take, for example, Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy – an attempt to reconcile mysticism and historical esoteric doctrines with empirical analysis. He was a direct contemporary of Russolo.

The futurist avant-gardes led a revolution in occult ritual, iconography and magical thinking. This is to say, they saw their task as enchanting the new world by creating new myths, icons and incantations in its service. What are the manifestos if not spells? An attempt to imbue the bloodless rationalism of science with passion; an attempt to anthropomorphize something terrifyingly indifferent. Meanwhile, Picasso and others attempted to re-tool or upgrade classical mythical symbols and magic tokens for compatibility with the new knowledge: Ritual masks from Africa, the Minotaur. It goes on. But the futurist cult and its magic science, while directed at the new world, could not fully shake off the primitive belief in the necessity of a blood right. And in their demand for human sacrifice they drew too closely to the ritual magic of death. This was categorically the case with Nazism, whose roots were firmly set in secret societies freemasonry, theosophy and other movements advocating the fusion of science, mysticism, esoteric myth and political control under the sign of sacrifice. Rudolf Hess is known to have even travelled to England in the hope of making contact with members of Alistair Crowley’s Temple of the Golden Dawn, and Himmler’s SS, with their black uniforms and esoteric training – amongst other things – were an imitation of the mythical Black Order of initiates who prophesied that the end of the age of Pisces, the eclipse of the rule of the fish god, was a sign for the overturning of the rule of the Jewish ark.

Duchamp was deeply interested in magic and the occult – and theosophy in particular. As Jean Clair has said of him “He observed them, believed in them without a doubt always, entirely”. Indeed, he is on record as saying he had once been unconsciously preoccupied by “a metarealism…a need for the miraculous”. After the War he spoke of the artist as a “medium” in the following declaration: “To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way to a clearing”. A clearing in the new age of modernity. Duchamp sought a magical relation to this emergent real. Isn’t appropriation the ultimate magical performance – changing one thing into another; transubstantiation? Duchamp is a profit of rebirth: a profane urinal, enchanted. His message was not that the urinal and everything profane should be a new totem. It is that there is a place for us in the new monist age only if we are prepared to reinvent our myths, rituals and totems – only if we are prepared to acknowledge and exercise our god-making powers.

A metonym is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name. “Hollywood” is a metonym for the US Cinema industry, because of the fame and cultural identity of Hollywood, the LA district in which many film studios are housed. All myths, icons and totems are metonyms. In the case of ancient myths, they refer to other things – often the stars: The ancient Egyptian religious myth of Osiris speaks of his death and rebirth. Sounds like bullshit! I used to say. Yes, it’s bullshit if you don’t understand the historical function of that myth – as a way of encoding how our seasons such as winter and spring are written in the sky. How are they written? – in the disappearance (the death) of the Sirius at the onset of winter due to the tilted axis of the earth’s rotation in relation to its orbital plane around the sun, and its reappearance announcing the onset of summer. The story of the death and rebirth of Osiris, is redrawn in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and countless other sacred teachings. Many of the great religious myths are the historical record of mankind’s discovery of physical connections between the earth, everything in it, and celestial bodies. These myths a proof of the ancients groping attempts to systematize the recording of what was being observed. But the system was a clunky beta version with a lot of bugs, due to the limitations of its code: namely, its being anthropomorphizing and narrative, without ordered data storage or metadata.

The idea of a unified physical cosmos springs from ancient stargazing. But the New Age of triumphant monism chooses to repress this fact. We have prided ourselves in our improved means of description, the invention of mathematics, reason, symbolic logic and, finally, code and digital computation. Physics looks so little like Osiris that it is tempting to pretend they’re not related. But losing sight of this intellectual history – the history of attempts to fuse material and mystical, is to forget how to be at home in an indifferent cosmos. The monist new age of science needs the magic of transubstantiation and ritual if it is not to appear like an apocalypse – the end of a human world; a total alienation.

The New Age of monism, characterized by the synthesis of science and cybernetic capitalism, embracing, penetrating and grounding all aspects of our experience, is paradoxical. One the one hand, we can barely imagine life without it. On the other hand, we feel pressed at the cold bosom of an undead stranger. So many of our most famous middle aged artists are the high priests of death cults, and they would have us drink the milk of this void: Damien Hirst - slaughter, sacrifice, memento mori, and a retrospective turn to pre-modern icons: a golden calf. His most important early work A Thousand Years (1990) is the image of a closed loop. The maggots are born in an indifferent, dead, host – they grow into flies and love only to be zapped by the buzzer. They are meat for the machine.

Magic opens the loop. Fidelity to our ancient ability to transubstantiate the ever-growing indifference of the cosmos, to enchant it, is to choose rebirth. The Duchampian lesson was absorbed by American pop, but the magic is weakening in relation to the stronger magic of artists who have come of age in this New Age. Jeff Koons makes putative totems of found products that are supposed to enchant the sentiment but don’t. This is to say, he attempts to transubstantiate the indifferent logic of capital by re-enchanting its icons. He does this by turning puppy dogs into oversized totems, playing with scale and material. But not enough of the icons and myths that he selects are sufficiently characteristic of the New Age of Cybernetic Capitalism. His methods also don’t draw from social technologies of this age.

In contrast - The work of the new futurists of the Internet generation is suffused with new age symbolism. DIS Magazine runs horoscopes, Shana Moulton creates medical dream catchers, AIDS-3D make OMG into a physical totem. James Howard highlights the passage of New Age beliefs, marketed as products, through the circulation of Internet spam. He then resurrects them – removing them from the tomb of the junk folder. Bringing people back from the dead is total magic. Jon Rafman’s film You, the World and I demonstrates how the indifferent eye of the Internet – encapsulated in Google Earth and Street View – can be harnessed for just this purpose. The film is based on the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. When the latter dies, Orpheus cajoles his way into the underworld with his musical charms and his lyre. Wanting her but not her shade, he cannot forbear looking back to physically see her - and so loses her forever. In this modern day Orphean tale, an anonymous narrator desperately searches for a lost love. Rather than the charms of the lyre, contemporary technological tools, Google Street View and Google Earth, are his path to her. The last frame of the video, the new Eurydice, is the clearing that Duchamp mentioned – a clearing reached from “the labyrinth beyond time and space”.

The disenchanted postmodern impasse outlined by Jean Baudrillard in Simulations – visualised as a map of such detail that it comes to cover the whole earth, obscuring more than it reveals – is dated. Paralyzing confusion dressed up as worldly cynicism is now giving way to a new poetics. Today, contemporary artists confront the data magnitudes of the information age – almost limitless imaging, inhuman speed and the collapse of real and virtual space – as an expanded field of practical and aesthetic competence, rather than a cause for glib despair. What once appeared as a sea of over-representation threatening to drown meaning and hope has – through its unstoppable expansion – become a kind of ‘ground’.

Though this ground is utterly indifferent, it is pregnant with real possibilities. Just as generative power is released by death and decline in real space (new shoots emerging from burnt grass) it is present in the virtual. All it takes is magical thinking. Egregore is word with roots in ancient Greece, that refers to the energy produced of a specific group of magicians who are working together – creating and building the same thought-form. An egregore is an entity that exists between material and psychic realms, in contact with both. If this sounds like a joke it is because you’re not meeting the gaze of cybernetic capitalism. Consider World of Warcraft, a massive multi-player online game in which – amongst other things – you can virtually mine for gold. It takes time and effort to retrieve this virtual substance. So what? Well, the sheer amount of people with a psychological investment in this penetration of virtual ground, have succeeded in successfully playing midwife to an egregore that straddles the game and offline space. Virtual gold from the cold womb of Internet now has a real value in gold and can be traded for such. This is alchemy!

Artists of the New Age of cybernetic capitalism are re-tooling occult, esoteric and magical practices for the new era:

Surf clubs involve the creation and display of a private language, one that is on full display to outsiders, but which can only be understood by initiates fully immersed in the play of iconography. You can look at one icon but will not understand what it means unless you are proficient in recognizing how it fits into a semantic topography – a constellation of meaning. Contrast this with the cat totem mentioned at the beginning of this talk.

Beyond structural similarities with secret societies like the freemasons and more obscure orders, groups like the Eternal Internet Brotherhood embrace this idea as myth, and attempt to harness its power to increase their influence. They go on a retreat to a Greek island (a mythical place) and tell everyone that they’re going but no audience is allowed. As a result, more people know about them. Elsewhere, the performance experiments of Ed Fornieles, Ben Vickers and Relational Data in London involve artists’ role-play in real social space, appropriating and enchanting the alienating identities and activities associated with cybernetic capitalism: working in marketing, setting up an entrepreneurial business, internet dating.

Still more artists in Berlin, the US and elsewhere turn their attention to enchanting the space where the body meets the everyday nexus of commodity and biopolitical technology. That is, the alienation of your embodiment sold back to you. Tobias Madison’s sculptures filled with Vitamin Water, Steve Bishop’s tray of Listerine, Mike Bouchet’s Diet Cola Pool, Timur Si-Qin’s Sword penetrating a bottle of axe shower gel are some examples. All these products for your comfort, sustenance and well being, things that we want, are suffocating in their integrated penetration of one’s biology and psychology. Their suffocating fit, the way they indicate your position in an instrumental nexus – a closed loop, like a fly in Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years – needs to be counteracted by the creation of a magical clearing if it is to be borne without despair. Since pop, artists have been fascinated with the spell cast by the professional magicians of cognitive capitalism: Those who would sell us our alienation from our own bodies in the guise of a corporate icon. The artist’s role as the occult prophet of rebirth went into decline while we were busy bowing at their totems, meanwhile the high priests of the death cult gained in stature.

Things have changed - artists of the New Age reject the horror of the death cult. They are also convinced that consumer myths have no power to make you feel at home in monism unless they are transubstantiated. They want a clearing in the technical edifice of myth that attends the cosmos of information. The life-affirming magic of art is back, and it looks very strange indeed.

New Age of Aquarius