:: Article

an introduction to politics of/as sorcery

By Adam Kingsmith.

The meta-model relies only upon the institutions of which every speaker has of their language. Thus the maps we tend to refer to are actually a series of maps which result when we model our experiences by using what we call representational systems.” —John Grinder & Richard Bandler, The Structure of Magic, (p. 14).

What is magic if not the reduction of properties to simplicity by making them transmutable to utilise them afresh by direction, without capitalisation, bearing transformative fruit many times.” —Austin Osman Spare, The Book of Pleasure, (p. 51).

“If the writer is a sorcerer, it is because writing is a becoming.” —Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (p. 240).

Who arrived at this article by way of rigorous, self-contained thought and not through a bunch of hyperlinked wormholes teleporting us to increasingly curated and commodified digital spaces? Who here has arrived without making jokes that later became sincere, having recently been tugged even just one notch beyond their current understanding?

Life under anxious capitalism—a process that reactively reproduces anxiety through the compulsion to communicate in terms of artificial social performances grounded in the dominant system’s terms—has become a venereal cul-de-sac. Alienated as ever, we end each day by re-pondering the limits of truth and fact, re-grasping at articles where the outbound links lead either to the dead or to living persons who speak in tongues.

There is no escape velocity in our current condition—a condition of hypernormalization: the rapid oscillation between opposing views on subjectivity, the dialectics of the last century, and the indeterminate genealogical flows from modernism to postmodernism to metamodernism. It is this unpredictable and imperceptible terrain—a vicarious cultural milieu that has mutated from sincerity and irony into a form of unmitigated cynicism—against which anti-capitalist politics must begin to organise.

In such a society, where each statement is simultaneously genuine and sardonic, our options tend to resemble one of two possibilities: 1) we can attempt to evacuate these ambiguities, pushing for a re-turn to an enlightenment serialization of rationality, which, according to a well-meaning if not traditionalist segment of the Anglo-American left, can still provide a basis for transformation and emancipation OR 2) we can adopt the cynical language of power, a structuration of differences, an ironic-yet-sincere voice that attempts to ‘out-dada a dada president’ in a race to some infinite bottom against an opponent for which controversies make them more popular among their supporters.

Evacuate or accelerate. Whichever approach one sympathizes with, there is no denying the haunting impassability of this tautological trap we have created between serial rationality and structured cynicism.

On the one hand, we have the reactive cynic, an untenable performance that begins with the reproduction of left-facebook memes and culminates in the ultimate position of ‘eat the rich’ as a form of sincere left-cannibalism. The problem here is that someone like Trump and his team have spent years mastering how to structurate difference to secure power in the hypernormal age of intensifying spectacles and simulations; and one will always be at a disadvantage when fighting for power precisely on power’s terms.

As French philosopher Roland Barthes points out in his 1957 book Mythologies, in an increasingly spectacular society, where the logical conclusion of an event no longer interests the spectator, the performer secures power by assuredly presenting the very limit of the concept of ‘truth.’ They do so by positioning themselves to deliver ‘justice’ against evil forces by whatever means necessary. Terrorists, illegals, corrupt Wall Street bankers—by eliciting the maximum amount of passion in that moment, Trump can simultaneously define his opponent   and move to crush them with unbridled aggression.

“It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in politics than in the theatre,” (p.19).

On the other hand, we have a leftist thought that leaves behind the actually transformative potentials of materialism by giving in to the notion that cynic-capitalism has finally sullied the bathwater of subjectivity and thus an abrupt return to the serialized ‘rationalities’ of enlightenment thought is justified in order to stabilize the ship. Writing in the New Republic, Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim go as far as to argue that radical enlightenment philosophy was the missing element of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

In his 1978 lecture ‘What is Enlightenment?’, French philosopher Michel Foucault describes the enlightenment as “a set of political, economic, social, institutional, and cultural events on which we still depend in large part that constitutes a privileged domain for analysis.” Importantly, for Foucault, the notion one has to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ enlightenment thought—the ubiquity of the postmodern condition, or anything else for that matter—amounts to a sort of intellectual blackmail we have an imperative to refuse.

“It means precisely that one has to refuse everything that might present itself in the form of a simplistic and authoritarian alternative: you either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism (this is considered a positive term by some and used by others, on the contrary, as a reproach); or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality (which may be seen once again as good or bad). We do not break free of this blackmail by introducing “dialectical” nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have been in the Enlightenment,” (p.9).

If, following from Barthes and Foucault, we move to reject this trap of the ‘either-or’ and thus accept we cannot break free of this stalemate by EITHER introducing ‘neo-cynical’ nuances OR seeking to determine what is salvageable from the enlightenment project, the challenge of politics today becomes: How do we contest the structures of power in a system with such a wide net that everything falls in line with its ill-defined logics?

meaning has long been on trial

Consider Poe’s Law—a recent adage stating that without a clear indicator of intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views that is so obvious it will not be mistaken by some readers as a sincere expression of said parodied views. In a sense, Poe’s Law is a belated victory for the untimely: from Nietzsche’s infamous decree ‘God is Dead’ and Alfred Jarry’s absurdist science of ‘pataphysics to the dadaists and surrealists that followed. Helena Lewis’ 1988 Politics of Surrealism traces out, in highly contextualized detail, how meaning was largely placed on trial in the early parts of the 20th Century:

Dada was a direct response to the cataclysmic events of the First World. Mass slaughter, like none ever seen before, highlighted the irrationality of capitalism and the warfare state like a flare lighting a battlefield by night. The nightmare could only be answered with a rejection of the values of a society that had allowed this to happen. In Dada this rejection was organised around a denial of the artistic, cultural, (and as happens by association) political values of the old society. As such it was to have a key role in influencing some of the artists involved for more than fifty years, as well as influencing later movements like surrealism and the anarchist cultural activities of the 1960s,” (p. 38).

Thus in 2016, when Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth to be its international word of the year this was not, as many have decried, some sort of sinister victory for 1970s French intellectuals jumbled into what we loosely call ‘postmodernism,’ rather, it was the recognition of an anti-enlightenment sentiment that has been percolating at least since Nietzsche’s 1882 post-mortem—and in reality, these questions of truth, fact, and the production of knowledge categories have been on trial in Western thought as early as the Cratylus—in which Plato quotes Heraclitus: “All entities move and nothing remains still…thus we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not,” (402a).

What’s more, postmodernism DOES NOT claim all meaning is meaningless. Discourse theory—a loose field Foucault, Derrida, and other postmodernists are often lumped in to which focuses on power relationships in society as expressed through language and practices—tells us this that societal values are socially constructed insofar as they exist within a regime of truth (facts) rather than objective truth (Fact). Importantly, to say that reality is a regime of truth (that it is socially constructed) is not to deny the existence of facts within that regime of truth (a particular social milieu). Rather, it is to acknowledge that the facts are inescapably social; thus the fact of reality itself is socially constructed.

Postmodernism is not ‘suspicious’ of empirical evidence. It is alert to the ways in which evidence is marshalled in service of particular sets of arguments and the way that ‘common sense’ ideas are invoked in order to foster and perpetuate particular formations of knowledge such that they become regimes of truth. Postmodernists, just like everyone else, use evidence to determine the credibility of a series of knowledge claims while maintaining fidelity to the assumption that credibility is contingent and conditional on a particular historical, social, and political context (as is the idea that ‘evidence’ is the determinant of credibility). As post-structural theorist Laura Shepherd points out: “one can be ‘suspicious’ of Fact as a regime of truth and still have grounds to criticise the Trump administration for peddling outright blatant lies because they are lies within the total structure of meaning-in-use that we take to be our current reality.”

Contra the socio-politically contingent, empirical engagement of postmodern thought, classical modernity is akin to one of those exploded-view drawings. Every object (and indeed, the various processes of objectification are a fundamental part of the project) is reproduced as a schema—a technical representation that shows the relationship or order of assembly of various parts by presenting the components of an object slightly separated by distance, or suspended in surrounding space. Such a form of knowledge production reduces all modes of interconnectivity to the mating relationships of parts, subassemblies, and higher assemblies as observed by a neutral rationalistic expect.

Such an enlightenment philosophy has been on the popular decline since the First World War, a decline that has been accelerated with advent of the nuclear age—the pure, technocratic nature of Oppenheimer’s Manhattan project simultaneously represented a ritual sacrifice of both the Newtonian paradigm and the rational Cartesian subject.

‘Rationality’ is presently folding in on itself not because Foucault or Derrida recognized that it was, but because all the tropes and schemas and lexicons of enlightenment thought have, over a process of a hundred years or more, brought to bear a hyper-critical vigilance against rationalism that is eroding away our much-cherished foundations. In many ways, this critical postmodern paradigm has been the single most powerful-and-alienating mode of thought yet to be discovered. With the advent of further and more invasive technological capacities, we have merely replaced the bomb with satellite as we accelerate through a social-scientific threshold in which enlightenment thought becomes more and more untenable. As French theorist Paul Virilio reminds us, such advancements amount to a sort of topographical amnesia in which we are further exacerbating the rapid disintegration of both subjective and objective political, scholarly, and journalistic ‘evidence’ based on ‘rationality’ and ‘facts.’ The advent of ‘fake news’ is simply the dissemination of rabid virus that by simple extrapolation, infects and dooms ALL news channels instantaneously via the 365/24/7 news-for/as-advertising cycle.

Thus while Marshall McLuhan may have been at pains to point to the ways in which ‘the medium is the message,’ under this post-truth regime, the medium becomes the only message. The trajectory of sense becomes tied to what one wants to hear, not what one wants to say: language screaming through us from the future, using the human body and our digital creations as vehicles. The luxury flat of the future middle class becomes a bunker as the world falls into what Umberto Eco calls ur-fascism, a system based on a selective populism in which subjects have no rights as subjects and ‘the People’ are conceived of as a qualitative, monolithic entity expressing only a theatrical fiction.

For many ‘people,’ especially those in late stage capitalist societies where the condition of post-truth seems to be congealing—again, characterised by an anxious capitalism of dominant affect management—it is no longer possible to maintain totalizing worldviews without also feeling, consciously or otherwise, the inherent absurdity of doing so. Due to the existential panic and fear of some untethered anarchic selfhood this creates—coupled with the drastic increase of the precarit across advanced capitalist countries—many people are flocking to ‘leaders’ who mimic a form of the objectivist component of enlightenment thinking by making a multitude of bold claims in a factual manner.

series and structure

A previous work developed the concept fractal ontologies to explore the political spaces beyond the limits of tradition, being, and analogy—multiplicities situated far past the ceaseless constraints of the metaphor and against the smooth categorisations of language. To address this problem of contestation on a terrain of the ill-defined logics of anxious capitalism, we must once again return to this domain of analogy if we are to take seriously Foucault’s imperative to refuse the intellectual blackmail of EITHER-OR.

The tenth chapter of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, entitled ‘1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…’ begins with a distinction between what they refer to as series and structure. Such a distinction is between two forms of analogy: analogy of proportion and analogy of proportionality—the first being an analogy of the series and the latter an analogy of the structure.

The analogy of proportion (or series) is of the form ‘a resembles b, b resembles c, c resembles d,’ etc. What connects all of these terms is that they conform, in varying degrees, to a first term from which resemblance originates—a single, eminent term, perfection, or quality that functions as the driving principle behind the series. Serial proportion is a correlative form of knowledge production, and importantly, successfully doing so requires a teleological imagination that has to fill in the apparent ruptures, take branchings from a series into consideration, ward off false resemblances and graduate true ones, all while taking both progressions and repressions into account.

The analogy of proportionality (or structure) is of the form ‘a is to b as c is to d.’ What connects these terms is that they are not a single series, but rather a set of differences distributed across structures—each of these relationships realizes, after its fashioning, the difference under consideration: gills are to breathing underwater as lungs are to breathing air, or the heart is to gills as the absence of a heart is to a trachea. Structural proportionality is considered more precise because, instead of charting genealogical relations between members of a series, it requires all the resources of understanding in order to define equivalent relations by discovering the independent variables that can be combined to form a structure and the correlates that entail another in each structure.

Whilst this may seem like an obscure theoretical distinction it represents two radically different forms of mapping the world—both of which, foreclose the possibility of the other with their logics and are thus imbricated in a tautology of serial rationality and structured cynicism. What fundamentally shifts when employing one form of analogy or another is the emphasis and understanding of the forms under observation.

In the case of serial proportion, we attempt to observe relations of identification or identity between terms, whether a resembles b and perhaps, though a series of steps, whether we can connect a to z. Series fixates in on the content—it is determined by resemblances differing in a single series. Importantly, proportion is not an inherently teleological series: the presence of a does not predetermine a z, however, the presence of b does predetermine an a. In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin’s theory of the archetypal human development takes up an analogy of proportion to show evolution as gradual—small genetic changes regulated by natural selection accumulate over long periods. Moreover, discontinuities among species or other taxa are explained as originating gradually through geographical separation, extinction, and rupture. In other words, without a: the proliferation of the proto-hominid Australopithecus, there can be no series moving through to b: Homo Habilis, onward to c: Homo Erectus, d: Homo Sapiens, and beyond in a proportional sequence of steps rationally connecting a to d.

In the case of structural proportionality, we examine not the terms in themselves but rather the differential relations between terms. Structure fixates in on the form—it is determined by differences that resemble each other within a single structure and between different structures. In The Structural Study of Myth, Claude Levi-Strauss’s analysis of significations functions as an analogy of proportionality. For Levi-Strauss, our projection of signs transcends external resemblances to arrive at internal homologies. Here it is not a question of graduating resemblances, ultimately arriving at the identification of the termination of a linear spectrum, it is a question of ordering differences to arrive at a correspondence of relations. It is precisely this method that we would employ if we were to approach the translation of a symbolic system we thought of as an unknown language. The alphabetical series of a language would be constructed through discovery of internal homologies, which would begin to assign positions within the system to the elements based upon the existing knowledge of known languages.

Symbolic and contextual understanding switches out analogy of proportion with analogy of proportionality—the serialization of resemblances (series) with a structuration of differences (structure); the identification of terms with an equality of relations: “the metamorphoses of the imagination with conceptual metaphors; the great continuity between nature and culture with a deep rift in distributing correspondences without resemblance between the two,” (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 237).

These two systems of series and structure offer modes of becoming. To understand this, think of the distinction between a difference in kind and a difference of degree. A difference in kind poses a break between the differentiated elements, forming different sorts of things—a definite serialised logic. A difference in degree poses a difference between elements within a kind, measurable according to a unified criterion—a cynicism of pure structural imbrication. There are, for example, differences of degree between temperatures but differences in kind between temperatures and pressures even though these two structures can be brought into formulaic relation under laws of physical limitation. The first system we are looking at then, of a series based upon resemblance, offers a basic ontology of continuity, with differences organised according to degree; whereas the second system, of structural relations, posits a pluralistic or regional ontology with differences of kind—relations relative to a presently existing milieu.

How exactly does this relate to politics—let alone the present political climate—you ask? Well this is, of course, a reduction for the purposes of discussing alternatives to our present position (log-jammed between the pressure to EITHER re-turn to the Enlightenment roots of rationality OR adopt the ironically-yet-sincerely language of power) we can think of these two systems of knowing the world (series/proportion and structure/proportionality) in terms of the political possibilities of: 1) serialization—that is, deploying a reductive serialist rationality to re-establish a basic ontology of continuity that fixes ethical categories—and 2) structuration—that is, deploying a pluralistic or regional ontology that confronts our irony-laden condition with a cynicism of its’ own.

sorcery as politics

In response to this blockage, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that analogies of structure and series both ignore or reject something fundamental which they call the anomalous. In particular, whilst these two forms of understanding—forms presently manifesting politically as EITHER serial rationality OR structured cynicism—may well prove useful, Deleuze and Guattari ask: “Is there is still room for something else, something more secret, more subterranean”—the sorcerer and becomings (expressed in tales instead of myths or rites)? The sorcerer is introduced at this point as the figure of the anomaly.

The figure of the sorcerer is introduced alongside what are called ‘blocks of becoming;’ anomalous events indicated by the date in the title of the chapter, 1730. “From 1730 to 1735, all we hear about are vampires,” (1987:237). Neither serialism nor structuralism can account for the existence of conceptual becomings like vampires, they exist outside of their internal logics—logics designed precisely to deny or at least denigrate their existence: a correspondence of relations that does not add up to a becoming. When analogies of proportion and proportionality encounter otherworldly becomings pervading a society, they see them as phenomena representing a deviation from the true order.

The cultural (and thus material) reality of the vampire in 18th Century Europe is an example, for Deleuze and Guattari, of the blocks of becomings. These blocks of becomings are not fixed points from which something becomes something else—this is the central aspect of their argument. The blocks of becomings in this particular instance are what Deleuze and Guattari term becoming-sorcerer—a ‘fibroproliferative unground’ that allows us to begin a project of strategic affirmation of any becoming whatsoever: becoming-woman, becoming-child, becoming-animal, but also other even more strange becomings: becoming-vampire, becoming-cosmic, and yes, becoming-sorcerer.

To clarify their point, Deleuze and Guattari draw upon H.P.Lovecraft’s story of Randolph Carter in Through the Gates of the Silver Key. Calling the work Lovecrafts’ consummate masterpiece, they recount a passage from section 4 of the story, where a multiplicity of Randolph Carters’ come pouring forth: “Now, beyond the Ultimate Gateway, Randolph realised in a moment of consuming fright that he was not one person, but many persons,” (1987:295). This passage, pointing explicitly to a notion of a multiplicity of selves, which is be understood as a mode thought based on the anomalous—not unlike the practice of schizoanalysis I discuss at length elsewhere—reveals something about the role of the becoming-sorcery within Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy: the ability to access this anomalous mode of multiplicity is what is meant by sorcery.

Thus: the fundamental contribution of sorcery as politics is a claim to the involution of the limits of mimicry. In essence, sorcery is conjured when a political project discards the desire for fixed representation—defined broadly as the social subjections of capitalism, which assign people genders, races, occupations, etc. in the social hierarchy—and instead turns towards a conceptual openness to plurality and difference that eschews stable identities, essences, and conceptual unities that form fixed assemblages. Such conjurings do not require social power so much as a desiring-power of the phantasmical —of the cracks between series and structure. Beyond the critique there is no one Fact-Object-Series, sorcery as politics articulates the position there is no one Agent-Subject-Structure. Becoming is involutionary, non-conscious, creative—to ‘involve’ is to form a block running its own line ‘between’ terms in play and beneath assignable relations—relations defined by deep reliance on analogies of proportion and proportionality.

Through this involutionary process, politics of/as sorcery re-orients oft-ignored problems of the ‘reality’ of the situation as well as the problem of our belief in this reality. After all, the whole game of questioning reality, if taken as a game of doubting, puts the issue of belief in the foreground. And as analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it in his 1969 work On Certainty: “The game of doubting oneself presupposes certainty,” (18e).

To begin from a position in which disbelief in the phenomena prompts an attempt to understand it is to engage in a form of delusion itself, to cover over our own presuppositions contained in the worldview within which we are inevitably—always, already—situated. Issues of belief and the reality of the phenomena will rapidly fall into the dichotomy of the believer/understander and the insider/outside. We will find ourselves in an endless ramified series of questions about whether it is real, whether it be spirits, magic or a sorcerers’ practice itself. These are, in many ways, false problems.

For a sorcery as politics, the task is not to question whether what is happening is real, a ‘fact’ or objective thing, but to pursue the question of what is happening: “We should ask not what things ‘do,’ but how they work,” (Anti-Oedipus, 1983:87). By focusing in on how things ‘work’ and not some impossible reduction on what they ‘are,’ sorcery has no beginning point or end point and thus no substantive realities or objects whose reality status needs assigning. Following from Nietzsche’s 1887 Genealogy of Morality, sorcery as politics collapses the analogical distinction between ‘the do-er and the deed,’ the activist and the act. In other words, sorcerers deploy the concept of becoming to move through the analytic distinction between form and content—to think of possibilities otherwise which trouble this distinction between series and structure. After all, it is the wrong question to ask whether the ‘truth’ is in fact non-existent, since this simply confuses the process of becoming-true, with the reality or object that we might call ‘the truth’ within a different context. Thus: “becoming is never imitating,” (1987:305).

Magic is another form of knowledge, often relying upon the secret of the inexpressible experience in which ‘truth’ is an embodied, active process of experimental learning. And while serial and structural models continue to aid in specific cultural and historical analyses, they have no way of interpreting and responding to the anomalous—precisely those events which seem the most ‘unreal,’ (for example, when the celebrity millionaire host who made their name in reality television gets elected US president). To grasp at the anomalous—and thus better understand how to move forward from the current conjuncture—is to take up a politics of AND: using contingent social categories (series) AND pure unmitigated cynicism (structure) AND involutional multiplicities (becoming).

Any emphasis on an oversimplified concept of knowledge will fall prey to the permanent danger of a debilitating scepticism. The sorcerer introduces feelings of a complex, unknown nature into the reductionary analogies of serial rationality and structured cynicism. This is both a theoretical and a practical process (which also troubles the tired distinction between the two) which makes fluid the concepts of matter, thought, and being in such a way that limitations become temporary boundaries of possibility.

We can refer to such magical practices as ‘making the difference.’ Sorcery is but one technique in which, by focusing on becoming as opposed to being, we can cross the borders of consciousness beyond the metamorphoses of the imagination (series) and conceptual metaphors (structure) to tease out the intangible—an process encapsulated by the famous maxim of Deleuze and Guattari, which they take from writer Henry Miller: we should attempt “to succeed in getting drunk, but on pure water,” (1987:315).


A.T. Kingsmith is a PhD Candidate at York University, where he studies and teaches political theory. He lives in Toronto and writes at adamkingsmith.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 21st, 2017.