Technocratic Shamanism and Hermeticism
The uses of magic or of the principles of Jung’s archetypal psychology in “holistic branding” or “marketing 3.0” presents a conundrum for me — a great big riddle and question mark. It even occupies my dreams at night.
Here’s the rub of it: Jung’s archetypal or integralist psychology is founded upon his rediscovery of the symbolic meaning of alchemy and the Hermetic philosophy. The Hermetic revival is also figured in Northrop Frye’s rediscovery of William Blake, in his book Fearful Symmetry, that is credited with arousing renewed interest in Blake. Blake was also an Hermeticist. Hermes the Messenger, who is the courier of the gods, is also the patron of magic and the Trickster, and as such the patron also of the advertiser as also messenger, trickster, and magician (FTD Florists even uses Hermes with his winged sandals as its logo, but bearing a bouquet of flowers rather than his usual wand, the caduceus).
The Hermetic Philosophy that was forced underground, or into the background, with the Age of Reason seems to be returning with a vengeance. Books like Philip Ball’s The Devil’s Doctor on the alchemist Paracelsus also reflects this trend. But it’s returning in the peculiar form that Algis Mickunas calls “technocratic shamanism” (in his essay “Magic and Technological Culture”). It’s also implied in Raymond Williams’ aforementioned essay, “Advertising: The Magic System“. It could just as easily be called “technocratic Hermeticism”. What’s going on here? There is, in fact, a precedent for “technocratic shamanism” in the lore of alchemy.
First, it might be said that the Hermetic Philosophy is the theory (or theoria) for which alchemy serves as praxis. This has to be understood in specific ways, though. For Blake, Hermetic praxis was “the Arts” — the Arts guided by Vision or Imagination. The Arts are the path of spiritual transformation, symbolised by the transmutation of lead into gold. The Hermetic Philosophy is less about analytical reason and discursive logic as it is symbolic thinking or metaphorical consciousness. The transformation of lead into gold, often deemed the chief goal of the Hermetic Philosophy and alchemical practice, was modeled upon Christ’s “miracle at the Marriage of Cana” — the transubstantiation of water into wine. True alchemists weren’t so crude as to interpret this as some kind of magic trick, but as a living parable about spiritual transformation, the transformation of crude materialistic existence into the light of spiritual enlightenment, and the Marriage of Cana itself was interpreted as the hieros gamos, or “sacred marriage” — the union of the opposites. The Hermeticists saw the life and teachings of Jesus not as a matter of “history”, but as symbolic and mythical in depth, and the entire New Testament as a symbolic code of the mysteries.
Those who believed that alchemy was literally about turning lead into gold (of which there were many) were dismissed as “puffers”. The word “puffer” referred to someone furiously working the bellows in his laboratory, whereas in the Hermeticist’s symbolic code, “bellows” was a symbol of the lungs and of breath (spiritus). In other words, the “puffer” was a technician, and while he may have come across useful materials in the course of trying to change lead into gold, he was nonetheless precisely he who cannot discern the “letter of the law from the spirit of the law”, which are, in one way, antitheses. The statement that “only a hair separates the false from the true” corresponds to this confusion of the letter of the law for the spirit, and this is the flaw of the “puffer”. The “puffer” is the example of what is called “spiritual materialism”. And this “spiritual materialism” is probably the intended meaning of “technocratic shamanism”.
It’s now well-known that Sir Isaac Newton practiced alchemy in secret. But that didn’t prevent William Blake from dismissing him as a “puffer”, too, when he denounced “Single Vision & Newtons sleep.”
A way in which alchemical practice and art or craft are closely linked is in the making of compost, which can be sacramental, in fact. Good compost is a proper and harmonious mixture of the four elements — earth, air, fire, water — in equal proportion. That’s the rule. These are not only the four “essences” of antiquity, but also have some symbolic connection with Blake’s “four Zoas”. The task of composting is to transform crude matter into living soil. If you approach composting in that symbolic mode, and with the proper mood and attitude, it becomes a meditation, for the four essences have correspondences or affinities with your own psychophysical structure — respiratory system, circulatory system, nervous system, and metabolic system. Composting work also becomes an enactment of the work of self-realisation, because there is a bond or affinity between preserving the equilibrium of the compost pile and the equanimity of the human form. Human and Humus become one process. Making compost, and approaching that work in the proper sacramental mood — becomes “the Great Work” itself as alchemical process. As you turn crude matter into living soil or humus, you yourself become equally more human. It is symbolic process, which is probably one reason why some people become great compost enthusiasts.
It’s in the same sense that Nietzsche’s famous maxim: “What does not kill me makes me stronger” belongs to Hermeticism, which is why I’ve found some strictly logical types don’t get it at all, and think it’s illogical. But, it’s akin to composting. You’re taking something crude or false, and transmuting it into something alive and true, and that is, properly speaking, magical or alchemical. It’s the meaning of “transubstantiation”. It’s the same imaginative process of intending or transmutation that Blake used to defeat the deception of the angel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In Blake’s view, “Imagination” (or “Vision”) and Intent are exactly equivalent and belong to Hermeticism.
Symbolic or metaphoric thinking is associated with the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere of the brain, according to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary — his great work on the nature of the “divided brain”. This is largely the mode of attention that Hermeticism relies upon. The left-hemisphere mode of attention (the Emissary) associated with the ego-consciousness, or analysis and rationality, is the realm of “technique” proper — instrumental and instrumentalising rationality and the pursuit of power or the self-interest. “Technocratic shamanism” or “technocratic Hermeticism” would seem to suggest the continuing attempt of the Emissary to usurp the authority of the Master — the theme of McGilchrist’s book. That is to say, that the eruption of “unconscious knowledge” in our time, as Seth puts it, appears to have some connection with this “technocratic shamanism” and the Hermetic revival. But, as Seth also warns, unless this eruption is accompanied by an “enlightened ego consciousness” capable of organising this unconscious knowledge into new cultural gestalts or patterns, the result will be catastrophic — cultism, superstition, fetish, and wars of religion and ideology. This has to be our concern when assessing the meaning of technocratic shamanism.
Now, contemporary branding practice now consciously (relatively speaking) uses Hermeticism, via Jung’s archetypal psychology, for its advertising campaigns. Manufactured products are magically transmuted into symbolic forms, and marketers no longer sell “products” but “meanings”, no longer market “ways of life” but “reason for being” — magic and myth are becoming the norm of social communications in our “post-Enlightenment” era. Goods and services are not only being sold, rather, as Jung’s “archetypes” (basically, the gods and goddesses of antiquity as now “brand identities” and “brand personalities”) but also capitalism is being sold as a “religion”. All this is being done consciously and deliberately and strategically and with the promise that the new cultural milieu (branded culture) and the branded articles of consumption will facilitate the individual’s “self-actualisation” and “self-realisation” through consuming meanings. Rolf Jensen calls this, for example, The Dream Society. The subtitle runs “How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination Will Transform Your Business“.
There is, in this shift to Imagination, both promise and peril. Remember the slogan of the 1968 student uprising in Paris — “Imagination is seizing power”. It was a rebuke and repudiation of managerialism and technocratic approaches to social organisation and public life, and it is really the cry of the Hermetic and the Hermetic Art, which holds the Imagination to be higher and more fundamental to life and consciousness than instrumentalist rationality. Imagination is the true creative faculty in the human form and reason exists only to help guide the creative imagination in the process of actualisation and realisation (reason and reality and realisation all being related words). McGilchrist’s “Master” is, in fact, the same as Blake’s “Imagination”, and the Emissary is Reason. Reason is the ambassador for the Imagination.
Marketing 3.0, or “holistic branding”, proposes the whole redesign of the consumer culture and society along the lines of this “Dream Society”. Whereas before, products in the form of goods and services were packaged as “values”, the new model specifies the reverse — the packaging of meanings as products — as goods and services. The meanings are the “archetypes of the collective unconscious” as “brand personalities”. In effect, people no longer consume goods and services, but meanings, which the goods and services only symbolise. Thus, brand managers are now reconceived as “makers and managers of meaning”. The rationale for this is that the brand “personalities” will guide the consumer to a truer, more authentic form of fulfillment through self-actualisation or self-realisation of their inner archetypes, inasmuch as the ritual of consumption, through identification with the “brand personality” or meaning, will facilitate and enable the consumer to express their true inner self, through the drama of consuming the “personality” of the brand, which is, as I mentioned in the last post, what is called “theophagy” — eating one’s god. “Meanings” are sold as food and nourishment and fulfillment.
Now, this “Dream Society”, superficially at least, resembles Blake’s “City of the Imagination” called Golgonooza, the city of arts and sciences. And that’s where the similarity actually ceases. Blake’s city is a city of creativity — arts and crafts and true science because true individuation happens through creativity, not in a paradise of consumption. So this “Dream Society” of ubiquitous fantasy looks like an inverted image of Blake’s Golgonooza — a fake of the “genuine imitation” variety.
Consumerism 3.0 (it’s all the same, whether we call it marketing 3.0, capitalism 3.0, propaganda 3.0 or “holistic branding” for that matter) promises “authentic” (it’s a word they use a lot) experience of individuation through the consumption of meanings and of forming honest-to-goodness communities of shared interests around these brand names and brand meanings (eg, Pepsi Generation, Harley-Davidson Clubs, the Saturn family, and so on — “where two or more are gathered in my name”, as it were).
In The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson (which is another “marketing 3.0” manifesto) the number of Jung’s archetypes exploitable for branding purposes are presented as twelve: Creator, Caregiver, Ruler, Jester, Regular Guy/Gal, Lover, Hero, Outlaw, Mage, Innocent, Explorer, and Sage (a similar “twelve” also occurs in Martin Lindstrom’s Brand Sense). This number “12” is most peculiar — it’s the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples of Christ, the twelve signs of the zodiac, the twelve winds of the Compass Rose, and probably has some connection, too, with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay on “The Twelve Tones of the Spirit”. All these archetypes have their roots in or correspond to some symbolic process in alchemy, because each one of us is a composite of these archetypes, although one usually constitutes the “ruling mythos” or predilection of the individual. They are all part of the ecology of the soul, we might put it. The twelve are processes, aspects for facets of the Jungian “Self” — the symbol of psychic integration that Gebser calls “the diaphanon” — and the effective reality that underlies them all. So Consumerism 3.0 is essentially the claim that “holistic branding” empowers consumers with the tools necessary to achieve true self-realisation and individuation, and therefore has a legitimate right to call itself a “religion”. This is its lure and seduction. But is it really just the old “bait and switch”?
This is technocratic shamanism. Is if fraud? Is its claim to empower of consumers in terms of aiding individuation and self-actualisation “authentic” (as they claim) or a disguised will to total domination? This is the riddle I’m wrestling with. It has all the features of the Hermetic creed, and yet… there seems to be something quite fishy about it all, perhaps competely narcissistic and, therefore, somewhat pathological. Spiritual enlightenment through realisation of “wholeness” does not seem to be its real motivation.