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Academic Alchemy: Pedagogical Gardening in the Postnatural West

Student Name: 
Nathanael Mengist
Student Email: 
Supervised by: 
Phillip Thurtle


When our ontological and ethical discourses are limited by the "royal formalization of science," typified by the reductive materialisms of neodarwinian biomechanicists and eliminative physicalists, we are left with a monolithic orthodoxy of knowledge, the logical conclusion of which being a dystopian global market producing poison for our children to either perpetuate or spend lifetimes cleaning up; the technoindustrial parasitism of toxic food systems, environmental degradation, chronic illness, and pharmaceutical dependency. If we seek to halt or reverse the accelerated desertification of the human body and the premature heat-death of the earth, I believe we must disentangle ourselves from this epistemological hegemony by dissolving our psychosocial binaries and bifurcations of nature; a metaphysical hieros gamos or 'marrying of the twos.'

 Is alchemy central to the deconstruction and recrystallization of a pluralistic and postwestern ecologic of "intra-action" with earthly communities? Will we be able to harmonize differences across 'cosmosemiotic' domains in their complex "dimorphs and distributions," as well as connectivities: the human and nonhuman, the organic and inorganic, and even material and immaterial; as well as the immanent and transcendent, the singularity and multiplicity, the subjective and objective? What if there is a vital "alchemist-inside" the somatic ecology of our psyches? It would yearn for a becoming-garden in which we each 'remerge' with the living soil and blossom anew as healing lovers!

 We will utilize an interdisciplinary genealogy of alchemy to deterritorialize our perspectives on the fluid relationships between early modern science, philosophy, medicine, and religion. I propose a generous approach to imagining the performing of alchemy as the inquisitive distillation of pragmatic esoteric insights from various experimental and perfective transformations of material life. These speculative natural artisans have provided transcendental narratives and countercultural practices in the hermetic literatures of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, the Islamic Golden Age, Renaissance Humanism, and even in Chinese Taoist healers and Indian Ayurvedic texts; this forgotten intellectual style has been an elixir for my mind. I invite you to allow for a magical exploration of various historiographical and cultural readings of alchemy to do the same for your gardens!

Our questions will center around:

  • What is alchemy and what separates it from, and links it to, chemistry?
  • How are alchemical physicians situated within the early modern development of western biomedical science?
  • What are some implications of alchemy’s decline and the subsequent rise of secular-industrial organic synthesis for pharmacy and agriculture?
  • How can unthinking-alchemy help us precipitate a fluid intellectual positionality on ecological posthumanism, vital and cybernetic materiality, hermetica in the postsecular turn, and ultimately the robotic aristocracy of capitalist science in the contexts of public and environmental wellness to provide ourselves and those less fortunate healthy food and drugs?

Special reference to CHID biophilosophers Phillip Thurtle and Adam Nocek! Particular focus on the recent work done by historians of science Bruce T. Moran and William R. Newman, the emerging field of material ecocriticism, essays by French thinker Michel Serres from his multivolume work Hermes, the science-mythology intercritique of French biophysicist Henri Atlan, the anime Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, political philosopher Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze, recent theories of plant intelligence and the mycorrhizal "Wood Wide Web," religions historian Mircea Eliade, therapeutic restoration agriculture and green psychosomatic medicine, and perhaps more!

This group will be focused on rigorous and patient reading, discussion, research methods, and trips to the UW Farm, Henry Art Gallery, etc. Opportunities for volunteers to propose and lead discussion with readings of their own if appropriately relevant. Assignments will be co-designed. PLEASE email to discuss whether this group will be right for you!  


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