Transformed as if in a Dream: Alchemical Transmutation and Our Sacred Earth. Interview with Michelle Ramona Silva, PhD., by Willi Paul - Magazine.
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    Transformed as if in a Dream: Alchemical Transmutation and Our Sacred Earth. Interview with Michelle Ramona Silva, PhD., by Willi Paul - Magazine.

    What do you see when you speak about the "residual effects of digital alchemy" as a ghost?

    Residual effect is really a metaphysical term because it is meant to describe how a material thing leaves a residue or remainder that is both material and spiritual (for lack of a better word). I stressed in the dissertation that we really don't have a language to describe this process. All attempts to artificially re-create life or create a 'thing' leave a residue that cannot be recycled back into the earth. This is how alchemy is analogous to the production of artifacts today. In visual texts the residual effect is an 'aura' or a temporal signature. In material things, residual effect is a trash heap of plastic that cannot be recycled back into the earth. This will be the basis of the book I'm working on.

    So the whole body of work that I'm looking at is the relationship between the real and the artificial. This investigation was spawned by criticisms that I had as a graduate student with the field of cultural studies' overemphasis on how society produces artifacts and relatively ignoring the artifacts themselves. The ideology of this scholarship is that everything is socially determined and that is why one has to focus on cultural forces. There is a long intellectual or philosophical history to this position that I can't do justice to here. As an essentially Marxist theorist I largely agree with this position. I just thought we should switch our attention to the objects in and of themselves. In fact, even to say such a thing was to commit a kind of disciplinary blasphemy. I quickly realized how difficult it was to talk about things on their own terms without referring back to the social context that produced them. I needed a new language to look at artifacts that deserve far more analytical attention because of their political implications. The practice and language of alchemy helped me to do this.

    Would you expect my neighbors at Pixar to be routinely discussing alchemy at the white board?

    I've noticed that interface designers, digital designers and engineers frequently go to the well of the mystical, ancient and mythological in naming their creations. For example: Rosetta Stone, Maya and there is company called Philosopher's Stone Software out there. I did come across a few papers for SIGGRAPH conferences that referenced alchemy but as I explain in the dissertation, most references to alchemy are merely meant as useful metaphors to some process of transformation. So, in short I wouldn't be at all surprised if your neighbors at Pixar might use alchemy in this way. I'm not sure that they actually think themselves alchemists, although my research shows they can be a delightfully wacky bunch so it would not surprise me. I'm impressed by the levels of interdisciplinary that occur among talented people in the real world that completely bypasses the comprehension of academics.

    How is this ancient process communicated today?

    Alchemy is preserved today as metaphor, rather than as a practice. I expand upon its usefulness as an explanatory set of terms and symbols later in the interview.

    Please define transmutation in a computer design context.

    According to my research of many SIGGRAPH papers and articles, the quest for realism (defined as the ability to 'trick the eye') was a strong, almost monomaniacal driving force in the industry. The "philosopher's stone" or "golden mean" would be if a designer could create a digital human that seemed real to the audience. I argue that as with the alchemists in the past, this goal is always just out of reach. Like the quest for the Holy Grail, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in that the closer you think you get the further it slips away onto the horizon.

    That designers were never really able to fool the audience into thinking they were looking at real actors was exemplified in the first watershed (for digital design the Holy Grail was the ability to create a human) triumph of the feature length and completely digitized film Final Fantasy. It was not only panned by reviewers but it really riled some folks up to a frenzied pitch. It seemed as if something sacred was being tampered with and they felt somehow cheated. This reaction also fits uncannily well with the history of alchemical practice since alchemists were frequently reviled has charlatans and tricksters-magicians of a kind.

    The reason that audiences can identify a 'fake' is because it is an artificial attempt to recreate life (i.e. something that is ostensibly within the realm of god or nature) that leaves a residue or temporal signature (working this out fully is the focus of my current research). Audiences quickly get hip to more sophisticated levels of digital special effects. I think the 'realism' goal is subsiding now. Digital design in film has become a great tool for transforming material reality, although this is an extension of a long history of special effects in film and not necessarily revolutionary in its own right. For instance, the film Inception, plunders advancements in digital special effects to create sequences in which inert substances are moved and transformed as if in a dream. This is very interesting in that it connects up well with Jung's seminal work on dreams and alchemical symbolism.

    Not sure what you mean by "animation of inert substances." Can you give us a digital example?

    By this I mean the process of endowing movement or life to substances that are not alive. In a published interview with George Lucas, he explains that they scraped together tape, popsicle sticks, airplane models and all kinds of objects to create their award winning contribution to the history of special effects. He describes how the creation of Star Wars: A New Hope frustrated him because it was so low budget. His imaginative vision far exceeded the resources available to realize it. But through the alchemy of transformation, they made a film that did, in fact, fool the eye (largely through camera stunts).

    Everyone of my generation remembers the breathtaking opening scene of the gigantic imperial ship chasing the smaller one. . . it just kept going, and going and going. As far as a digital example goes, well we can look at what happened when Lucas integrated digital beings awkwardly and to the profound chagrin of his older fans. Technology can be used in a way that profanes the sacred (as the alchemists were well aware). The example extends to other areas of design such as artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and the like.

    Is alchemy more than a metaphor today? Who are the main practitioners and thought leaders that we should call on for knowledge?

    From studying the works of alchemists such as Paracelsus, I learned that the actual practice of refining a base metal has to be repeated over and over again in different ways using different instruments and catalysts. What was curious is that there always seemed to be a remainder or some type of residue that again, had to be submitted again to further distillations. This connects well to the mythological, symbolic and metaphorical aspects of alchemy as a type of search for the Holy Grail, The Fountain of Youth; a never ending fruitless quest for a constantly receding end point. In today's world, this translates materially into garbage-our version of alchemical residue. The alchemists failed to copy nature because nature can recycle and we cannot. We don't know what to do with the profane material we created since it cannot be subsumed by the earth.

    This translates into the symbolic and cultural in the sense that one of the greatest achievements of human beings; the creation of stuff that makes our lives better has also hopelessly inured us in piles of junk. We have no idea how long it will take all that plastic to break down. I would be hopeful that knowledge of alchemy and its particular status as a scientific dead-end ought to teach us to stop cluttering the earth, and outer space for that matter, with our garbage. We need change the way we live as apologetically driven by the laws of consumption to collect more and more stuff. The late George Carlin's joke about life being defined by finding a place for our "stuff" comes to mind here. I do think alchemy is alive today but not obviously in the manner in which it was practiced by the ancients. But alchemical transformation may be more of a warning than a boon. Alchemical transmutation didn't simply disappear, but folks found a way to transmute substances successfully and house it under the appropriate and respectable realms of science, technology, capitalism, and progress.

    The way we look at the world by comparing other countries' levels of development to our own is largely driven by who has more stuff. This measure of success and quality of life absolutely has to change if we are to survive as a human race. The fact that the material goal of alchemy essentially failed is a pertinent point even though the history of alchemy is rich and highly misunderstood. Writers and producers of science fiction (filmic and print form) are excellent "thought leaders" of alchemical concepts because they dare to imagine and exaggerate (as is necessary in all storytelling) the possible future consequences of artificial transformation. There is a well developed debate among scholars that has been going on for decades now about the relative triumphs and disasters wrought by technological development that I really can't do justice to here. But the field of technology, engineering and industry and those that practice and write about it are most certainly at the heart of this issue.

    You stated: "Alchemy's explanatory strength lies in its capacity to toggle between the seemingly incongruous realms of practice and metaphor." Can sustainable practices be improved with alchemy?

    Unfortunately, I do not see alchemy as sustainable practice-or at least I haven't thought about it in that way. Alchemy is still inextricably linked to the idea that you can change base metal into gold. The spiritual side to this is that the alchemist becomes a golden man, thus capable of transcending the material plane. This sounds great to me! But people have a hard time thinking of the metaphysical outside of the structure of religious practice-and I don't want to get into all the problems caused by religion and the ways in which it is holding us back as a race. That would entail a very long discussion indeed. Later in this interview I state the possible positive influence of alchemy for society.

    Can you discuss how symbols in the sustainability movement are charged with global meaning through digital alchemy? ["In Paracelsian alchemy, metaphors and symbols refer to concrete practices, and concrete practices refer to psychological realities."]

    One of the reasons that alchemy is often spurned by academics, theorists, or researchers is due to the fact that it claims access to a universal language. The idea that there is such a thing is a big "no no" in vogue in the academy. These symbols include the Sun which represents the male principle and gold, while the moon represents silver and the female principles. There are many more symbols and some are quite complex. Alchemical language offers us a font of useful symbols with which to think through environmental issues.

    We shouldn't make stuff that we can't recycle. We probably shouldn't be ceaselessly raping the earth either as learned in the recent oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The alchemists adopted a much more ancient and pagan understanding of the sacred and the profane. It is a mistake to think that it was necessarily a Christian worldview that motivated alchemical practice. Nature is the only truly successful alchemist because she creates life that is constantly being recycled-life re-lived and reincarnated. The alchemists always had to deal with the residue or left-overs that remained in the vessel after repeated phases of distillation. So I the final word is that there may be a right way and a wrong way to go about manipulating our environment.

    "The promise of instant metamorphosis pervades the material alchemy of yesterday and the spiritual alchemy of today." Please expand on the idea of spiritual alchemy.

    "The spiritual alchemy" of today is my blanket term for the fact that alchemy is alive and well and used mainly metaphorically within many disparate disciplines from business to occult studies. Simply put, I don't think many people are actually trying to turn base metal into gold anymore. The point is that the term has great explanatory power in many contexts and usually refers to a transformation or transcendence of some kind.

    "If the alchemist wants to copy nature, then he must observe the proper times and seasons for carrying out the 'Great Work.'" What is this Great Work?

    The "Great Work" is the moment of simultaneous transformation; base matter becomes gold and the alchemist becomes a transcendent being or "golden man."

    Can alchemy work on a global scale?

    The way I'm developing the idea now it is tending more toward an environmental model that could certainly have implications globally but this is still in an undeveloped stage in my research.

    Can multiple alchemists join forces to create transformation? You speak of manipulating matter."

    Transformations are occurring among teams of people across a wide variety of disciplines which are largely scientific or technological in nature. Again, I doubt that they would identify themselves as "alchemists" per se. The most promising example I came across in my research and which I wrote an article about is within the field of bioengineering. Within the field practitioners try to copy the workings of nature rather than plunder it.

    Is alchemy an evolutionary catalyst for humans, plants and animals and the Earth?

    Alchemy seems to have developed into a cautionary tale in my work since we have mainly used our alchemical powers to make stuff and destroy the planet with them. Part of me wants to say that forces have been set in motion and it is simply too late. On the other hand, we need (academics included) to start looking at the consequences of the objects or cultural artifacts that we create rather than overemphasizing the social contexts or conditions that brought them about. Once we start the analysis with the end product then we may be able to develop a strategy to stop our obsession with amassing things. In other words, cultural artifacts are not a trivial or marginally important outcome of social processes but rather, in many cases, extremely powerful and frightening consequence of capitalism that deserve attention in there own right.

    Is EarthDay an example of alchemy?

    I certainly wouldn't dismiss the possibility of organized social action motivated by alchemical metaphors and/or historical lessons.

    Is vision alchemic?

    No, not by itself. There is a large body of work devoted to visual studies and in part, as with the example of ever increasingly savvy audiences the role of vision does have some play in alchemical studies of digital design. But visual studies also get subsumed under the "everything is socially constructed" theory. The pleasure of seeing is often linked to the pleasure of consuming goods. Many have argued that vision is not just a physiological process but also a sense that changes as society changes. I think I tend to skirt this issue or footnote it in my work because it has been over-studied and historically overemphasized as our most important sense.