‘The Sorcerer’s Apparatus’

In the above image, a contemporary sorcerer conjures a magic orb from his palm. An enchanted blue and green globe is orbited by a set of networked computing-machines that project economic charts invoking continued growth and capital accumulation, all swarmed by power-symbols of the major currencies — the Euro, Renminbi, Pound and the Greenback. Along with lush vegetation, exotic fish, rainbows, lens flares and a commercial airliner, the summoned orb is populated by cut-out, one-dimensional people, little deal-making homunculi adrift in service of the machine.

And behind it all, the sorcerer, a faceless white man in a crisp business suit, emanates an aura of power, control, and mastery. The whole image is a vicious material contradiction. Simultaneously bad stock imagery and a vision of capitalist propaganda; this image can serve as an entry into why this website is called The Sorcerer’s Apparatus.

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus (1771 ) Joseph Wright of Derby

This website’s landing page opens with Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous painting The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus (1771), which I doctored by crudely overlaying an ugly piece of generic stock-image smartphone propaganda.

The full name of Wright’s painting is The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers. In it, Wright depicts Hennig Brand, a Hamburg based alchemist who in 1669 succeeded in discovering the element phosphorus whilst attempting to synthesis the ever-elusive Philosopher’s stone. As an early propagandist and champion of emergent industrial capitalism, Wright glorified and mythologised Brand’s experiment, dressing the alchemist in medieval robes — as opposed to the 17th century clothing that he actually would have worn — and places him under Gothic arches of a cathedral, with a full moon beaming in, just in case more supernatural elements were needed. The alchemist is on one knee, his eyes gazing into the light, an expression of holy reverence on his face. This is a rather extreme dramatisation when compared to the way that the actual Hennig Brand discovered phosphorous: his method involved boiling down giant vats of human urine.

Drawing from Wright’s painting to the bad stock image above, one may well seek to find the contemporary vats of boiling piss that fume behind the world conjured into being by the 21st Century capitalist-sorcerer.

The name of this website, The Sorcerer’s Apparatus, draws on a set of ancient myths about how attempts at gaining total control often get out of control.

Elements of this narrative have surfaced across cultures and history, from the curse borne by Gilgamesh after slaying the forest guardian, to the fated titan Prometheus from ancient Greek mythology, to the tale of Abhimanyu in the Indian epic Mahābhārata. Then, across capitalist modernity, versions of it can be found in the Golem of Prauge from Jewish folklore, the various incarnations of Faust, and Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein. This website’s name is a specific reference to a poem written by the great polymath Goethe, who back in 1779, penned a ballad in fourteen stanzas called ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.

Click here to read the poem:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Now that the old sorcerer has left me on my own at last,
I can make his forces labor just exactly as I ask.
I’ve learned in this tower, all his words and spells,
With these mental powers, his art is mine as well.

Hurry, hurry, fetch the water, bring it quickly, come get going,
Fill the buckets and don’t dawdle, fill the bath, we need it flowing!

So come on, you dry old broomstick! Wrap yourself in these old rags;
Servant is what you are, toothpick; Obey me now and do not lag!
Stand up here on two legs, screw a head on top,
Run down to the stream’s edge, with the water pot!

Hurry, hurry, fetch the water, bring it quickly, come get going,
Fill the buckets and don’t dawdle, fill the bath, we need it flowing!

Look, it’s running to the river; see, it’s made it to the stream,
Like an arrow from a quiver, shooting its way straight to me.
There and back already, for the second time,
Filling buckets stead’ly, as the water climbs!

Cease now! Cease now! Stand and heed me! Halt! Obey! I must be heard!
Oh now, what now, can’t believe this! I don’t know the magic word!

Just one word, to end this madness! Argh, it’s going to be my doom!
Endless water! Oh, what badness! Stop, please and just be a broom!
Nonstop it keeps hauling water from the stream,
Soon I will be crawling, drowned among the bream.

No, can’t take this any longer; nasty creature! How deceitful!
Oh! This couldn’t be much wronger! Ghastly features! Oh! It’s evil!

Fie, you wicked spawn of Satan! Would you have the whole house drown?
Water’s pouring down the stairwell, water’s gushing all around!
You’re a wicked broomstick, pretending not to hear!
Turn back into wood, imp, or I’ll teach you fear!

Will you not just cease your running? I must catch you, I must snatch you,
Though you may be fast and cunning, this sharp ax it will dispatch you.

Look, it’s back and still it’s hauling! I will thrash it now but good,
Soon, you goblin, you’ll be slaughtered! Bulls-eye! Sliced into the wood.
Perfect! Right on target! Ha! It’s now in two!
And now I can hope that this whole trial is through!

Worry! Worry! Two live pieces! This increases all my problems!
Help me please, oh higher powers; save me from these two new goblins!

Still they’re running! Wet and wetter, down the steps, the water’s falling.
How appalling, all this water! Lord and Master! Hear me calling!
Oh, here comes my master! Help me Lord, I plead!
Spirits I have conjured, no longer pay me heed.

Broomstick! Broomstick! To the corner, go now, I’m the master here!
Spirits, spirits! When I need you, only then may you appear.

Translation by Katrin Gygax, 2013


Written as capitalist modernity began literally gathering steam, Goethe’s brief poem proved influential, inspiring people as different as Karl Marx and Walt Disney. Back in the revolutionary year of 1848, Marx famously wrote a passage referencing it in the Communist Manifesto, a sentence that is has a large impression on the writings amassed here:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Curiously, a century later, and with a rather sweeping ideological pivot, the poem became the basis for a ten minute sequence starting Micky Mouse in Disney’s Fantasia. In this sequence, Micky loses control of the mindless workers who cause a ‘revolution’ which of cause ends in a catastrophic deluge, thus making it a classic Cold War warning to keep the workers in their place.

Drawing the above myths, the secular sorcery of today’s world — powered by the techno-sciences, military control and capitalist accumulation — has summoned forth an immense apparatus: a vast world-spanning composite of people, machines, burning fossils, legal agreements, and reconstituted earth. As it expands, both extensively and intensively, the sorcerer’s apparatus draws in more and more natural fibres that have been spun by geological processes, life-cycles, and history’s unfolding, pulling in a great diversity of subjectivity and sociality, minerals and moments, labour and life.

Within the apparatus, threads of these relationships and processes are being mined and recombined, extracted and abstracted, appropriated and exploited, accelerated and accumulated. The result is an entangling and layered knot of tensions and contradictions, a smog-shrouded, abstract monster, the consequences of a project of control that has gotten out of control, and is rapidly undermining the conditions necessary for life to flourish on planet Earth.