Eurasian Alchemy as an Anti-Authoritarian Form of Esotericism

Author: Nikolay Smirnov

Now, when I hear the term ‘Russian New Age’ in the context of the war in Ukraine with the ongoing transformation of Russian society into something more and more militant, barbaric, and intolerant, my first association is a sort of negative critical irony because Russia today is perceived by many as a fascist state. [1] And as such, it is almost automatically led by some occult syncretic ideology like Aleksandr Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism. However, this perception, or rather its ‘natural’ automatism, is shaped by a lot of mass media exoticization and orientalism, not only concerning Russia but also in relation to ‘mysticism,’ ‘occultism,’ and ‘esotericism.’ This is often uncritically heaped in one homogeneous mass and equated with something close to fascism, which, then, becomes an exhaustive formula for both of them. [2] In this process, the scholar of esotericism Marco Pasi noted a key role of some influential affective opinions produced after WW2 to prevent any future Nazism, particularly Theodor Adorno’s Theses Against Occultism (1947). [3]

For me, however, esotericism is not always and essentially irrationally dangerous in the Adornoian sense (although it can certainly go this way). It also has a very distinct anti-authoritarian tradition including, for instance, Gnostic-Hermetic alternatives to the mainstream Christianity-in-power; Renaissance humanist magus-rebels’ biographies like Giordano Bruno’s; projects of universal transformation formulated by Rosicrucians, Freemasonry, and revolutionary romanticism; and many other phenomena up to gnostic contemporary pop-culture narratives like the cult series the Matrix and Star Wars. Moreover, I suppose there are some essential connections, and even a structural resemblance between anti-authoritarian esotericism and revolutionary and emancipatory thought, such as the Marxian thought about the self-realization of humanity; anti-authoritarian postmodernism like Deleuze’s work and Guattarian rhizomatic ideas; and part of decolonial thinking with its dream for the non-repressive relational ‘fractured’ totality. Sometimes this structural resemblance surfaces directly as in early communist societies like the Diggers, ‘god-building’ projects among part of Russian Bolsheviks in the early 20th century, or the explicit connection of esotericism with emancipation in postcolonial literature. [4]

On a deeper level, this structural resemblance is provided by the anti-authoritarian understanding of esotericism. For me, it is the esoteric belief that access to the ultimate truth and universal social justice lies inside, at the ‘heart’ of the world/human beings/things/matter and not in some external authority such as state officials, capital, or an entirely transcendent God, who is and always will be detached from human beings in its nature. In contrast, esoteric understanding implies that every human being has a part of God’s nature inside, therefore, doesn’t need an external (‘exoteric’) religious authority. Moreover, human beings can and even should fix the fallen world according to the models of perfection found in the esoteric inner reality because it corresponds to the rest according to the micro-macrocosmic speculum/mirror/analogy principle. From this inversed understanding of interdependence, the esoteric projects of rebellious Reformation or Revolution followed like those of Bruno’s or Rosicrucians’.

Akira Takaishi, up left: Bend, 2018, L810 x W535 x D205cm, Hole in ground, Located in Hokkaido, Japan. Up right: A detail of Little Bend, 2019, 1/50 scale reproduction of Bend within another hole located in Tokyo, Japan. Down left: Dam, 2020, W73cm x D110cm x H45cm, Dirt from dam bed, Located in Victoria, Australia. Down right: A still image from Dam Movie, 2020, 3D scanned and animated image of Dam. Courtesy by the artist.

This anti-authoritarian esoteric complex became further secularized, appearing, for example, in romantic nationalism as a belief that people of one nation have the ‘truth’ inside (in the space between them) and not in the imperial external power. Or in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s and later in Karl Marx’s thought as the ‘esoteric’ (in Marx’s own words [5]) understanding of economics, where value is conceptualized as congealed human labor to be found at the ‘heart’ of things and commodities, or as Selbstbetätigung (self-actualization) of humanity as a self-driven process to realize the inner potential of nature and human [6]. That’s why I consider this vision as esoteric (inner) and anti-authoritarian (freethinking as challenging any external authority), where its anti-authoritarian rebellious stake follows from its ‘esotericism,’ i.e., attitude of the ultimate truth inside everything. Such reciprocal determinations of matter and discourse are logical not only for esotericism and alchemy but also for Marxism, decolonial thinking, and radical geography, like Edward Soja’s notion of ‘Thirdspace’ – ‘simultaneously material-and-metaphorical, real-and-imagined,’ [7] striving beyond repressive dualistic ontologies.

This concrete historical thread might be attributed to what researchers call “Western esotericism,” an “artificial category, applied retrospectively to a range of currents and ideas.” It has been intellectually constructed precisely through the scholars who noticed some ‘structural similarities’ amid a diversity of ideas [8]. Still, it developed in a much broader area than the ‘West,’ including the Middle East and Arabic cultures and even Russia, since I think that so-called Russian religious philosophy, Russian cosmism, and many ideas in Soviet dialectical materialism are a part of this heterogeneous (and a posteriori intellectually constructing) mega-tradition. Postmodernism, I suppose, is the new era in which we live when esotericism or “rejected knowledge,” to use Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s term [9], is resurfacing/re-emerging already as some constructed entity. Whether the anti-authoritarian esotericism depicted above coincides with what the scholars call ‘Western esotericism’ or not is hard to say by now, but at least it occupies a prominent place there and is the main object of my interest in so-called esoteric studies.

As a geographer, I try to observe these phenomena in relation to spatial issues and as a curator and artist to contemporary art. The case of the Yakutian shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev, who tried to march through all of Siberia to “expel a demon from the Russian president Vladimir Putin,” or the “demon Putin from power” (Gabyshev’s phrases and sources citing him vary in the mass media), became a kind of starting point of my reflection on anti-authoritarian esotericism. At that point, I called it ‘religious libertarianism,’ having written a few essays [10] and done an art research project for the Riga Biennial in 2020 [11].

Portrait of Shaman Gabyshev via sakhaday.ru. Unidentified photographer. In 2019, Alexander Gabyshev (Yakutia, Russia), considered a warrior-shaman, left Yakutsk to walk up to Moscow to ‘exorcise an evil daemon from Putin.’ At first, Russian society perceived this campaign as entertainment. Still, when supporters began to join the shaman along the way, it became clear that this enterprise was becoming something graver. Gabyshev’s statements that when he approached the Kremlin, ‘all Russia’ would join him did not sound that far-fetched. As a result, the authorities interrupted the procession, put Gabyshev under house arrest in Yakutsk, and when he was about to resume the campaign, he was placed in a psychiatric clinic.

In recent years, I have been working on the curatorial research project “Eurasian Alchemy,” supported by Frame Contemporary Art Finland, a curatorial fellowship, continuing my previous trips and projects in the Urals, Siberia, the Baltics but now also in Central Asia, Finland, and Amsterdam. In it, the accent is shifting from the rebellious ‘New Age’ personalities we called “religious libertarians” [12] to a more structural and historically objective perspective. In particular, the understanding has appeared of anti-authoritarian esotericism and the ‘alchemy’ as its praxis realized on many corresponding levels: on the personal level – as working with inner reality as ultimate truth; on the social level – as fixing the social wrongs with some General Reformation or Revolution through the projection of inner ‘true’ models to the outer world; and on the geographical or planetary level – as decolonization and/or geo-individuation. The last two levels, especially the geographical one, come to the center of Eurasian Alchemy, both in the objective historical process and in my curatorial project.

Religious Libertarians, 2020, Nikolay Smirnov’s installation with ancestral blessing ritual masks (Senču svētības rituālu maskas, Folkloras kustība). Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, RIBOCA2, curator Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel. Photo by Hedi Jaansoo / Andrejs Strokins. Courtesy of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. The installation Religious Libertarians was a part of the project’ Religious Libertarians Foundation,’ an essay-exhibition. The costumes for the installation were found in Riga in 2020 and provided by Julgi Stalte, Andris Kapusts and the folk collective Ritums.

Geo-individuation is the dialectical process of growing awareness of the world/Earth as an internally interconnected non-repressive wholeness, the Erdindviduum, to be revealed and realized. It is accompanied by the inevitable specification of its internal geographical parts, gradually liberated from the actual repressive geographical totality. It is a kind of continuous geographical differentiation, which consists of the political and discursive emancipation of smaller and smaller geographical units, nation-states, ethnic and sub-ethnic communities, and so on. In this sense, it is an ongoing progressive process, both esoterically and politically. An esoteric understanding of progress as a universal cosmogonic force implies that the world initially “progresses” or “emanates” from one to many so that increasingly people are alienated from each other, and objects are differentiated, falling out of the state of wholeness. When further fragmentation of the world is impossible, “progress” ends in a “revolution.” After that, the return, or regeneration of oneness, reassembling the environment from its disparate individualized parts, begins. A radical political understanding of progress today implies its critique but states its inevitability as a ‘lesser evil’ leading finally to revolution, i.e., a desired social condition. Paradoxically it correlates to or instead originates from the esoteric understanding when the growing alienation also multiplies differentiation and leads to the revolution at the end point of progress. So, both understand progress dialectically as an ambiguous procedure, differentiating the world and multiplying alienation, but an inevitable one, leading to the Greater Good on its horizon. Decolonization can be understood here as such a dialectical progressive process bearing geographical differentiation and alienation as its inevitable intermediate and leading to some new, better interrelated planetary wholeness beyond. Of course, this new non-repressive wholeness/total interrelatedness is understood today as principally ‘open,’ non-enclosed, ‘fractured,’ processual, and performative.

Jussi Nykänen (FIN). Playing with feathers pt. 1. Digital photo of body art project, 2021

That is why we can realize decolonization as a part of geo-individuation or as its main current procedure [13]. It is a historical process, objective in the Marxian sense, i.e., inevitable. At its very end, the repressive and not differentiated geo-totality will be replaced with non-repressive open ‘fractured’ geographic wholeness, where parts are constantly performed towards being fully developed and individuated as organs in a harmonic body, but at the same time, denying enclosures of modernist organicism. I think this understanding could be characterized as basically esoteric [14]. It aligns bodily/physical unconsciousness not only with matter but with the planetary body/unconsciousness, claiming for a kind of geographical alchemy as human and more-than/beyond-human endeavor, as an art producing some planetary inclusive open interrelatedness.

Many contemporary art practices and knowledge productions associate themselves with geo-individuation or geographical alchemy. In my curatorial research, I found a lot of fascinating examples. The Finnish artist Pia Lindmann’s practice, for instance, brings the Kalevala bone-setting healing to the art field, accompanied by her attempts to catch subsensorial and conceptualize it as “reassembling cosmopolitics.”

Pia Lindman. Kalevala diagram bear connection. September 12, 2019. Drawing made in the process of Kalevala bone setting procedure in the attempt to catch and visualize the patient’s subsensorial. Acquarell and oil crayon. The image provided by artist.

Another example is Lindmann’s project Chill Survive, aiming to build a network connecting scientists and artists to engage with hybrid ontology and human/non-human narratives that reflect upon how to survive in the profoundly transformed Arctic. [15]

.

Screenshot from the Chill Survive (Pia Lindman and Tinna Gretarsdottir) project’s website. Available at https://chillsurvive.org/

One further example is the decolonial feminism in art, like the Korkut Biennial in Almaty, connecting contemporary sound art and decolonial thinking, for which I published several essays during my relocation to Uzbekistan due to the Russian-Ukrainian war [16]. In one of the central pieces of Korkut, a kumalakshi, a fortune teller who uses for her divination practice kumalak (tartu) (құмалақ (тарту) in Kazakh) round pebbles, beans, or sheep droppings, from the bULt techno-queer collective was making a layout on the board while the musicians from the contemporary music ensemble EEGERU were playing the scores compiled by an algorithm from this kumalak-divination procedure.

Music of Fulfilment 41 concert at the frame of the 1st Korkut Biennale of Sound Art and New Music. Kumalakshi (kumalak divination person) from bULt techno-queer collective makes a layout on the board. 29 October 2022, Total Theater, Almaty. Photo: Korkyt Biennial

For me, such kinds of decolonial feminism are the best expression of geographical alchemy and the anti-authoritarian form of contemporary esotericism. The adjective “Eurasian” in the title of my research refers not so much to Eurasia as some geo-entity as to hybridity and metization expressed in the word lexically, or rather, not to the modernist ‘enclosed’ understanding of geo-entity but to a postmodernist one – disclosed, open, performative, and fractured [17]. Then, Eurasia is something in becoming, a constantly dwelling hybrid [18] as well as the differentiating fractured wholeness between Europe and Asia. I take this programmatic hybridity from decolonial feminist thoughts like Gloria Anzaldua’s claim for spiritual mestizaje as the “opus, the great alchemical work,” a “morphogenesis,” and an “inevitable unfolding” [19].

As the latest stage of my Eurasian Alchemy project, I took a residency in Amsterdam, where I contacted the Centre for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at Amsterdam University (HHP), whose activity I have been following for several years and participated in the recent book project Enfleshed: Ecologies of Entities and Beings (2023), a part of artist Kristiina Koskentola’s multistage project. Kristiina is a Finnish-born artist with Karelian ancestry, living in Amsterdam and working with the topic of Manchurian and Eurasian shamanism for years. Her personal spatial life trajectory between Eastern and Northern Eurasia, Helsinki, and Amsterdam mirrors the scope of Eurasian Alchemy in some ways. At the same time, the tags of her project, such as ‘Internal alchemy,’ ‘Anti-Cartesianism,’ or ‘decoloniality,’ have much to do with my understanding of Eurasian alchemy in art.

Cover publication Enfleshed- Ecologies of Entities and Beings (2023) © The Book Photographer
Kristiina Koskentola and David Muñoz Alcántara making tulip and vodka cocktails at “Palette” by Daria Melnikova, Enfleshed launch Kohta Kunsthalle May 2023 © Saara Klemetti

At the book launch at Casco (Utrecht), we listened to Han Xiaohan’s music based on Manchurian shamanic tradition.

Han Xiaohan performing Manchurian shamanic music, ‘Enfleshed’ gathering at Casco HQ (Utrecht) June 2023. Video still ©Luke Cohlen
Han Xiaohan’s drum at ‘Enfleshed’ gathering at Casco HQ (Utrecht) June 2023. Image © Go-Eun Im.

We also talked to the philosopher Rick Dolphijn, who writes on new materialisms, and Tjalling Janssen, whose Ph.D. research at HHP deals with Paracelsian elemental beings from the post-human and even Ernst Bloch’s perspectives. For me, this was a perfect collaboration model for the upcoming realizations of Eurasian Alchemy. The theoretical perspectives of the project lie in a more explicit conceptualization of geo-individuation in relation to art, alchemy/esotericism, and politics, approached through the spatial/geographic issue. I believe it is quite an urgent task since, first, contemporary critical studies are still in their ‘spatial turn,’ and, second, as anthropologist Michael Taussig claimed, the conjuncture of art, alchemy, and politics is crucial for the re-enchanted world of late capitalism [20]. Esoteric studies are an emergent field [21], and contemporary art is susceptible to all these issues. In particular, anti-authoritarian esotericism seems to be the focal point where all – radical geography, critical theory, esoteric studies, and contemporary art – perfectly coincide. ‘Eurasian Alchemy’ can be, I hope, a kind of symbolic concept for this type of esotericism, as well as the curatorial project aiming to speak of the most telling examples of contemporary art about existential human and more-than-human endeavor for some planetary inclusive fractured, disclosed, and open interrelatedness.


Footnotes

[1] In this row, contemporary Russia is perceived as schyzofascism (Timothy Snyder), neo-Fascism (Slavoj Žižek), proto-fascist regime “experiencing a dynamic fascistization” (Grigory Yudin) or ‘Ruscism,’ a combination of the words ‘Russian’ and ‘fascism’.

[2] I am not arguing against the productive and convincing analysis of contemporary Russia as a variation of a fascist or at least rapidly fascistizing regime or denying a prominent role in it of some mystic fascist components like Dugin’s views, or even against understanding fascism in general as closely connected with some irrational impulses like death drive. I argue against the equation of any fascism with some broadly understood ‘esotericism’ or ‘mystique’ as their exhaustive mutually-tautological explanation. This does not help to understand any of them and makes the talk about anti-authoritarian forms of esotericism imperceptible, which I undertake in this text.Regarding fascism, I agree with political philosopher Ilya Budraitskis that the use of the ‘F-word’ in relation to contemporary regimes makes sense not in essentializing particular and various doctrines that we can find within such regimes and making from these ideas ’a synonym for absolute evil’ in the binary logic, but rather in their specific ‘practices as a regime’ – ‘as a special type of domination,’ as well as ‘an alarming sign of global trends’ (Ilya Budraitskis).

[3] Pasi, Marco. “Coming Forth by Night. Contemporary Art and the Occult.” In Alexis Vaillant (ed.), Options with Nostrils. Berlin; New York; Rotterdam: Sternberg Press (Piet Zwart Institute), 2010, 103–111.

[4] See more on this in Erica Lagalisse, Occult Features of Anarchism (2018) and Michael Mitchell, Hidden Mutualities: Faustian Themes from Gnostic Origins to the Postcolonial (2006).

[5] In the second Volume of his Capital, Marx distinguishes between “esoterisch” as “tiefgründig, innerlich and wissenschaftlich” (profound, inner and scientific) and “exoterisch” as “oberflächlich, äußerlich and unwissenschaftlich” (superficial, external and unscientific) within the conception of commodity value and corresponding aspects of Adam Smith’s theoretical work. According to Marx, despite that Smith had the insight about the esoteric, i. e. “truly scientific,” understanding, in general he was lost in chaos between both. For example: “Aber auch die physiokratische Vorstellung läuft bei Smith unter, obgleich sie dem esoterischen – wirklich wissenschaftlichen – Teil seiner eignen Entwicklung widerspricht” (Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels. Werke. Band 24. Berlin/DDR: Dietz Verlag, 1963, 214).

[6] See more on this in Glenn Alexander Magee. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (2008); Cyril Smith, Karl Marx and the Future of the Human (2005); and Order of Sophianic Marxists. “Marx, the Alchemist.” e-flux 124, February 2022.

[7] See Edward W. Soja. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination,” 272 In Doreen Massey, John Allen and Phil Sarre (eds.), Human Geography Today. Cambridge; Oxford; Malden: Polity Press, 1999.

[8] See Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. 3.

[9] See Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[10] See Nikolay Smirnov. “Shaman, Schismatic, Necromancer: Religious Libertarians in Russia.” e-flux 107, March 2020.

[11] See Nikolay Smirnov. “Religious Libertarians Foundation.” An Exhibition Essay for RIBOCA2 (The Second Riga Biennial for Contemporary Art).

[12] See the conversation between Birgit Menzel and Nikolai Smirnov as part of the program accompanying the RIBOCA2 (Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art, 2020). “Religious Libertarians: Marginal Spirituality and Political Dissent” (Lastly accessed September 4, 2023).

[13] See more on these dialectics of decolonization and esotericism in Nikolay Smirnov. “Crisis of Decoloniality and Inevitability of Decolonization.” Posle media. March 10, 2023.

[14] Post-structuralist theories, in particular decolonial feminism and human geography enriched by them, criticized the modernist ‘grandiose scheme’ in which ‘everything that happens can be explained internally’ as a grand close ‘organicist’ system, calling it also “the Hegelian-Marxist moment” (Ernesto Laclau. New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, 1990, 75. Cited by Massey D. “Spaces of Politics,” 287 In Doreen Massey, John Allen and Phil Sarre (eds.), Human Geography Today. Cambridge; Oxford; Malden: Polity Press, 1999). Although recognizing that in them, “the future was both open and not” (Massey 1999, 286), They nevertheless contrasted such a scheme with open, performative, relational non-systems, exemplified in critical human geography by reinterpreted space and “place” (See note 17). At the same time, these newly disclosed ‘non-systems ’ were types of new wholeness, open but totally interrelated, where the notions of inside and outside were enmeshed. So, I suppose, despite this critique or due to it, they did not destroy the ‘wholeness’ and ‘esotery’ but proposed a new, more sophisticated notion of ‘wholeness’ that is even more esoteric than before since, in esotericism, the relations between inside and outside are in the same way complex, performative, non-essentialist and disclosed.

[15] Chill Survive website (Accessed May 27, 2023).

[16] See Nikolay Smirnov. “The 1st Korkut Biennale of Sound Art and New Music.” e-flux November 23, 2022 (Accessed June 23, 2023). See also, Smirnov, Nikolay. “Imperiia Refusenik.” syg.ma 15.02.23. (Lastly accessed June 23, 2023).

[17] See more on this postmodernist understanding of the place (geo-entity) in Thrift N. “Steps to an Ecology of Place.” Human Geography Today, 295–322 and Massey D.’ Spaces of Politics’ in Human Geography Today, Polity Press, 1999, 279–294.

[18] In the late Heideggerian or Tim Ingold’s sense. See Tim Ingold. “Building, Dwelling, Living: How Animals and People Make. Themselves at Home in the World,” 57–80 In Marilyn Strathhern (ed.), Shifting Contexts: Transformations in Anthropological Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1995.

[19] See Gloria Anzaldua. . La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness. (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza). San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999, 99–120, here 103.

[20] See Michael Taussig. Mastery of Non-Mastery in the Age of Meltdown. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2023.

[21] Consider the Center for Advanced Studies (CAS-E) in the Humanities and Social Sciences Alternative Rationalities and Esoteric Practices from a Global Perspective-in Erlangen – one of if not the most extensive research projects in Esoteric (Academic) Studies to date.


Featured Image: Microterritory Gorod Ustinov, Untitled / Roots, 2019. Collection of PERMM museum for contemporary art, Perm, Russia. Photo: Anastasiya Yakovleva, PERMM. Courtesy by the artist


Cite this article as: Nikolay Smirnov, “Eurasian Alchemy as an Anti-Authoritarian Form of Esotericism”, in New Age in Russia, 19/08/2023, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=7511.

Read this blog post in Russian.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Anna Grechanaia (August 19, 2023). Eurasian Alchemy as an Anti-Authoritarian Form of Esotericism. New Age in Russia. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/sblw


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