Introduction to a dossier of writings by students in "A Deep History of Arts of the Secret," which I taught as a visiting professor in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard in Fall 2018. The course shared my research on the medieval Islamic practices of magic that, swathed in practices of secrecy as attractive as the magic contents themselves, traveled into early modern Europe. Magic relies on the premise that, if the universe can understood as an interconnected, deeply folded whole, it is possible to carry out operations on it. These operations, and the knowledge that makes them possible, comprise the arts of the secret. The course argued that these sources in Islamic Neoplatonism, Shi‘i practices of secrecy, alchemy, and astrology, restyled in European Hermeticism, furnished the concepts of encryption, dissimulation, and enfoldment that are deeply woven into modern philosophy, art, and computation. Please note that each work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Please contact me at marks[at]sfu[dot]ca if you would like to get in touch with any of the writers.
A cinephilic argument that films retain a core of enfolded mystery that resist the most exigent efforts of close textual analysis and technological prurience.
An enchanted cosmology that arises from a mordant critique of modern de-sensitization. Lee turns to the Neoplatonist magical texts of the eleventh-century Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm and fourteenth-century Florentine magician-philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino for models of an enchanted cosmology, in which sensuous materiality retains links to its divine sources.
A strikingly original theory of possessive perception that synthesizes Leibniz/Deleuze’s theory of the monad, Alfred Gell’s art index, and other sources. This thesis develops from Liu’s exquisitely perceptive analysis of Anna Biller’s provocative film The Love Witch (2016). “To be seen or perceived distinctly, for instance by a lover, is to be enfolded,” Liu writes.
Khakoo's essay is inspired by the Afrofuturism movement of artworks that re-fold history, i.e., fabulate, for reason of political need. In an exquisite close analyses of Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective’s artworks and self-presentation, Khakoo shows that the collective, rather than try to rebut the colonial regime of truth, deploys the powers of the false (Nietzsche, Deleuze) to cultivate creative paths of ambiguity, meanwhile inkfishing audiences’ attempts to master their practice by overwhelming them with information.
Toomey draws together a deep history of seafaring tattoos, Gell’s theory of the art index, amulet-like films, and original diagrams and charts to argue that tattoos function as amulets that may succeed in protecting the user from harm. She builds a theory that tattoos and their users share a language insofar as the inks that penetrate the skin align inward and outward identity.
Xia's fiercely feminist essay shows that women of our time are turning Early Modern attitudes toward witches upside down. Damned whether they did or did not pass patriarchal tests, transgressive females of the early modern period were punished for their secret knowledge. In closely guarded recipes and books of secrets then, as in the #MeToo movement now, women relied on the secret circulation of knowledge.
Spira examines Kabbalistic and Ismāʿīlī practices that veered perilously close to imitating God: the Sefer Yetzirah’s instructions for making a golem, and Jābir ibn Hayyān’s alchemical recipes for creating life. In divergent but remarkably parallel ways, both secret traditions allow practitioners to create artificial life by endowing words, letters and figures with transformative powers.
Toraman argues that a sixteenth-century Ottoman portrait manuscript and Google’s computer-vision program DeepDream both appeal to an intimate, scrutinizing gaze that discovers life in non-figurative patterns. She draws on contemporary views of Ibn al-Haytham’s theory of perception to argue that both bodies of work generate layers of ornament that initially overwhelm a viewer’s perception, then give it entry into the image by way of a small point.
Detailed program notes from the series I programmed at Harvard in association with the course, “Secrets, Enigmas, and Operative Images.”