Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mercury: Queer Objects & Disturbing Ontologies (P1)


“Matter and meaning are not separate elements… 
Mattering is simultaneously of substance & significance, most evidently perhaps when it is the nature of matter that is in question, when the smallest parts of matter are found to be capable of exploding deeply entrenched ideas & large cities. Perhaps this is why contemporary physics makes
the inescapable entanglement of matter of being, knowing, & doing, of ontology, epistemology,& ethics, of fact & value,
so tangible, so poignant”

Meeting the Universe Halfway
Karen Barad



To have a mind of mercury is to think in queer and inhuman ways. Mercury pollutes brains and gives language, freezes limbs and transports, amalgamates and mediates, rises and retrogrades, hardens, flows, and evaporates. Calling it quick-silver, Hg, argent vive, the primal matter and the philosopher’s stone, we have been speaking with and of Mercury for millennia and, perhaps more importantly, listening to this elemental metal speak to us. 

We have come to know it as the messenger of the Gods and the sphere that rides closest to the Sun, the mythological fount of knowledge. Alchemists saw Mercury as the first element, the substance that came before all materials in the universe’s creation. When God, or the gods, in Genesis & the Metamorphoses spoke of the foundational chaos, undifferentiated seas from which all other things came into being & which shares some quality with all other substances, the alchemists registered them as waters of mercury. From this object, if properly purified, they believed that we can come to translate and transform all other objects. 

Today, chemists use quick-silver as a measurement tool as well as an agent of both binding and expulsion. It grasps on to other metals to form alamgates for dental fillings or to draw out tiny bits of silver and gold from the soil. Fat however sucks it up while the digestive track reacts but ejecting it and a mess of fluids (sometimes even seminal ones) along with it.  A substance of ecological, ethical and medicinal concern it surges through our barometer bulbs, mines, minds, rivers and blood-streams. 

In that way, this project is alchemical as well as chemical, medieval as well as scientific: by letting mercury become our queer object, our goal and our messenger, we map how it disturbs our modes ontology, telos & epistemology as it travels between bodies, topographies & times.

What do I mean by calling it a queer object? Queer studies has done a good job of challenging logics of identity and identification, my project with Mercury is to apply that same critical attentions to object oriented ontology. Michel Serres & Bruno Latour, among others in object, ecology & disability studies, have set the stage for such an investigation of deviant objects:

“We live in a hybrid world made up at once of gods, peoples, stars, electrons nuclear plants, and markets” writes Latour, “Once there is no longer a mind-in-a-vat looking through the gaze at an outside world, the search for absolute certainty becomes less urgent, and thus there is no great difficulty in reconnecting with the relativism, the relations, the relativity on which the sciences have always thrived. Once the social realm no longer bears these stigmata branded upon it by those who want to silence the mod, there is no great difficulty in recognizing the human character of scientific practice, its lively history, its many connections with the rest of the collective”

A disturbing ontology, as we will discover throughout our material convers(at)ions is already underway. What sign posts will we look for on our search for our queer objects? 


I. disturbing ontologies of a thing; failing “to be”

II. illicit touching between things supposed separate

III. resisting forms & parameters; of time, space or category; locating multiply or inconstantly

What are the consequences of this study? What does it mean to have a material turn in queer studies or a queer turn in object studies? It provides us first with more allies and avenues than other such theoretical turns, because in this case we extend the conversation beyond simply the field of human politics. Suddenly we can begin finding symbolic and material support for our interests from bodies that won’t make the usual human demands.

The difficulty, as we will see, is that different forms of ecological demands may begin to assert themselves, ones which may require us to change our sense of responsibility, ownership and even identification with non-human animals, ecologies, and sciences. A cursory investigation will however demonstrate that these contingencies & alliances have already been active. Listening to our mercurial messenger, we will find a noisy world, a cacophony of things in motion with metonymic lines of dialog—and yet it is our own world that we are arriving into. Making the familial strange, running together, we are arriving at an ever more disturbing world.



I. Disturbing Ontologies

“Only one in the saddle of whose soul rode Mercury himself could have unmade language” 

That Hideous Strength
CS Lewis 

“I feel ali-li-li-live” groans the melancholy Gay Icon, Freddie Mercury as he leans slantwise against the microphone stand, speaking to a crowded room of jam-packed bodies exchanging more than sweat. “And the woooooooorld” continues Mercury “ill turn it inside oooooooout! Yeah! I’m floating around in ec-sta-sy. So: Don’t. Stop. Me. Noooooow! Don’t. Stop. Meeeeeeeee!” Of course, Mercury would too soon be brought down by HIV/AIDS. His was a body, like his fans, through which flowed diverse waters, that made it bend, limp, shake & sing.

Moaning somewhere on the edge of articulation, sexual exaltation, and insanity, Mercury and his music embodied a queer material lineage. “Like an atom-bomb, about to woooooah, wooooooah, woooooag exploooooooooode” his song tells us “buuuuuurrrrrrrning through the sky! 200 degrees that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheeeeeeeeeeeeeit. I’m traveling at the speed of liiiiiiight….Don’t stop me. Don’t stop me. Don’t stop me now!”

Mercury here speaks to his hotness and specifically his ability to register heat, like the embodiment of mercury as quick-silver that has been traditionally used in thermometers. At the same time, and in interviews, he imagines himself as a bright body flying through the sky, like an amalgam of gasous mercury vapours, the god, and/or the planet closest to the sun. Indeed they all are at play in Mercury, according to accounts in Queen: the Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crowned Kings of Rock that he took his name from his astrological sign: Virgo with Mercury Rising. Valuing the affect of galactic forces on his body, the would-be Freddy Mercury came to embody and speak on behalf of the great messenger. 

Freddy was hardly the 1st to view mercury, elemental, divine or planetary as a singer. Mythology records Mercury as the musician that lulled to sleep Argus, the all-seeing servant of Hera, using his reed-flute. Lewis Carol has the mercurial Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland singing joyfully, a mind-riddled with the neuro-toxin after years of breathing in its fumes. Kira Obelensky in her play Quick-Silver presents a town of musical but moody citizens poisoned by years of imbibing mercury-rich waters, which flow through blood, collecting in fat around nerves and in the brain. It’s a puppet-play, materially suggesting the stiff, wooden movements of bodies saturated with mercury.

Even accounts which personify Mercury, calling upon its celestial and divine embodiment, still exhibit a striking performance of the acute effects of a body ravished by quick-silver, as in CS Lewis’s account of “the Decent of the Gods” in his book That Hideous Strength where two characters, Dr Ransom and the revived Merlin (both figures, like quick-silver, born from the skies and bound in rock for a time) become vessels for mercury's powers:

“Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling of the mind and heart which shook their bodies also. It went to a rhytm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments. And then it seemed that this had actually happened. But it did not matter: for all fragments—needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyes thoughts—went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves.

“It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unbearable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled visions.

Ransom [a philologist], whose study had been for many years in the realm of words it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest to the sun. Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.”

Indeed, even when Lewis flirts with an absolute theological truth in Mercury, he swerves, disturbing both the body & the matter/meaning of the experience. At this moment we see now simply Lewis the theologian, but Lewis the astrologer and the medievalist steeped in angel and alchemical lore. Mercury, also called Hermes and Thoth, was regarded by alchemists for centuries as the first of their order and even attest a number of works on physics and nature to him. 

The elemental embodiment of Mercury, they also believed held the secret to eternal youth and universal transfiguration. It was not only one of the first beings to become a god (Hermes was not born as one), and the first closest to the sun, but the first of all elements in creation and closest to a physical manifestation of primordial, undifferentiated chaos in existence. It was a secret, what Sam Kean calls a “cultish” metal, but in its secret, retreating ontology they hoped to come to translate and transform all being.


...On the Horizon...

Queer Objects
Convers(at)ions with Mercury [Part 2 & 3]
Illicit Attachments & Objecting Forms

No comments:

Post a Comment