Prestigious Demons 3
May 1, 2011
For May Day…
The Dionysian machine serves as a fit image for the transformations that demonic appearances undergo during the early modern period, when a growing culture of skepticism, an obsession with “secrets of nature,” and a market surge in technical innovation paved the way for the emergence of properly scientific thought. One place to locate this transformation is in Giambattista della Porta’s Magiae naturalis (1558), a pivotal compendium of lore that sought to establish natural magic as a legitimate empirical science. Largely devoid of theoretical speculation, the tome mostly consists of recipes, wonders, tricks, and experiments in medicine, horticulture, mechanics, crafts, and other “secrets of nature.”[i] In the second edition of the work, Della Porta devotes an entire book, “De catopticricis imaginibus,” to optical illusiones produced through the manipulation of mirrors. Though Della Porta is not interested in epistemology, these techniques and devices nonetheless extend the sort of cunning deployed by the craftsmen of simulacra in The Sophist. Stuart Clark notes that Della Porta has a particular enthusiasm for one particular effect: the “hanging image,” a reflection that stumps the spectator’s ability to discover either the original object or the technical means that produce the reflection. Clark notes that the hanging image, which sounds similar to the famous effect known as Pepper’s ghost, was itself “more alleged than real.” But what is important is the role this effect plays in Della Porta’s technical imagination. At the beginning of the book of catoptrics, the natural magus asks:
what could seem more wonderful, than that by reciprocal strokes of reflexion, images should appear outwardly, hanging in the air, and yet neither the visible object nor the glass seen? [so t]hat they may seem not to be the repercussions of the glasses but spirits of vain phantasms (sed spectra, et praestigia videri possint)?[ii]
Though clearly framed in the naturalistic spirit of marvels, Della Porta’s effect is a perfect analogy for the Deleuzian logic of the phantasm, which, like Augustine’s iron image suspended in mid-air, floats free of the “corporeal state of affairs which incites it about or in which it is actualized.”[iii] Even if it is a trick, in other words, Della Porta’s “apparitione” is also an event, an eruption of the extraordinary that suspends the distinction between reality and illusion in a paradoxical “incorporeal incarnation” of the marvelous. Such marvels are hardly incidental to Della Porta’s project, which seeks to establish natural magic, not only as a science, but as a science of the extraordinary. As William Eamon explains, “In contrast to Aristotelian natural philosophy, whose aim was to explain the normal, everyday aspects of nature, natural magic explained the exceptional, the unusual, and the ‘miraculous.’”[iv] This very desire makes even the most naturalistic hunt for marvels a science of phantasm-events.
Indeed, in some ways Della Porta’s compendium could be seen as a practical manual for wonder-workers and stage magicians, who are all about the business of the event. According to Eamon, Della Porta’s obsession with tricks and illusions has made it difficult for some modern historians to take the Magia naturalis very seriously—in other words, to integrate it into a progressive narrative of scientific development that enshrines sobriety and utility in the articulation and application of natural law.[v] As Eamon points out, there are social reasons for Della Porta’s emphasis on marvels. Courtly sponsors wanted to be entertained as well as informed; demonstrations of natural magic might be seen as the dramatic analogs of the wunderkammers of the early modern period, whose collections of extraordinary objects of natural and human history formed a hallucinatory anticipation of scientific classification. Similarly, the natural magician’s delight in marvels and optical tricks also exposed an important ideological and imaginative orientation toward the simultaneous enchantment and disenchantment of nature. For “professors of secrets” like Della Porta, nature was a kind of conjuror whose marvels should be enjoyed but also, in the end, dissected, her tricks exposed and shared through the media of public demonstration and print. At the same time, the ambiguity of the marvel, with its underlying taint of demonic deception, was winnowed and displaced rather than banished. By exposing the mechanisms of natural marvels, the professor of secrets not only unmasks nature, but also—by extension—can steal her tricks. As Eamon explains, “The illusions and sleights of hand that Della Porta included in his book were imitations of nature hiding herself.”[vi] Such performances, as well as the recipes and experiments communicated through the growing early modern market for books of secrets, displaced rather than dissipated the play of deception—first from demons to nature, and then from nature to the knowers of secrets themselves.
In this process of displacement, however, the demons cannot be said to have entirely disappeared. In hunting for the secrets of nature during the paranoid reign of the witchcraft theorists, natural magicians like Della Porta risked slipping into an “impious curiosity about demonic forces, and worse, into heretical attempts to control them.”[vii] After all, demonology itself was already a “preternaturalist” philosophy of the marvelous—what Clark defines as “the study of anomalies par excellence.”[viii] Della Porta himself came under scrutiny from the Inquisition, though he also seemed to relish his reputation as a magus. At the same time, the demonic heresy associated with natural magic was paralleled by the less obvious but more important skeptical heresy already contained within the discourse of magic. This is the legacy that we have been tracking throughout this paper, from the early Church fathers through the demonologists of the late medieval and early modern period. We have shown that demonology, with its concern for deceptive appearance, was always already a skeptical or at least naturalistic discourse in potentia. As Stuart Clark exhaustively shows in Thinking with Demons, one reason that the discourse of witchcraft and demonology played such a pivotal role in the emergence of scientific thought is because demonology was already a physics of incorporeal forces and, to a lesser degree, the discourse of prestidigitation and optics.
As such, “demonic naturalism” is strongly evident among those early modern thinkers who were skeptical of the sorts of witchcraft theories promulgated by Kramer and other experts in diabolism. One of the first important scholars who publicly disbelieved the witchcraft theorists was Johann Weyer, who argued that witches were not female agents of evil but simply hallucinating melancholics. Nonetheless, Weyer was still convinced that the hallucinating melancholics were being deluded by demons into believing they had undergone satanic experiences that transcended natural law. Drawing from Della Porta, Weyer even suggests that the hallucinogenic properties of the witch’s salve was sometimes the botanical vector of demonic influence. But tricks were not Weyer’s trade. Despite the title of his deeply Fortean tome, De praestigiis deamonum, there is relatively little discussion of optical devices, mechanics, or legerdemain, either by human charlatans or, in a now well-established topos, demons themselves. One exception is an analysis of a peculiar genre of witchcraft afflictions that result in the ejection of enormous objects from the mouth—iron nails, strips of course cloth, needles, bones, underwear, “and other still more ridiculous oddities.” These corporeal apparitions anticipate the ectoplasm and apports of later Spiritualists, and like the skeptics who also dogged the Spiritualists, Weyer reaches for prestidigitation as an answer. But in the peculiar way of early modern thought, even the hand behind this sleight of hand required “the imperceptible subtlety and speed of a demon.” [ix]
A few decades after the first edition of Weyer’s tome, the Englishman Reginald Scot published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a more resoundingly skeptical attack on witchcraft theories that also took on the demonological physics that Weyer largely accepted. Though Scot, a Lutheran, still believed in demons, he removes them from the world of physical laws, vaporizing their aerial bodies into internal forces that tug, in the old Augustinian fashion, on our wills from within.[x] What remains without are nothing more than Della Porta’s “secrets” of natural magic: a proto-science of wonders, devices, and the legerdemain of human tricksters—with or without optical devices, mind-bending unguents, and other “deceitful machinations.” Unlike Weyer, a witchcraft doubter who retains great respect for demonology and learned magical traditions, Scot is generally a scoffer about spiritual wonders (at least beyond the Bible), and he regularly adopts the amused mocking tone often deployed by professional skeptics and atheist mockers today. In the midst of a lengthy and impartial account of the demonic hierarchies and ritual magic of early modern sorcery, he unleashes this classic zinger: “He that can be persuaded that these things are true, or wrought indeed according to the assertion of couseners, or according to the supposition of witchmongers & papists, may soone be brought to beleeve that the moone is made of greene cheese.”[xi]
Scot also shares his era’s fascination with wonders, marvels, and illusions, even as he rejects demonic naturalism in the face of a more “scientific” understanding of natural law. This understanding fundamentally shifts the frame of the phantasm-event. Rather than banish the no-longer demonic appearances produced through human contrivance or natural substances, he wants to corral them in the frame of entertainment and amusement, integrating the extraordinary into a world of physical laws even as the very (non)being of such events continue to apparently rupture those laws. In this light, the most fascinating section in The Discoverie is Book XIII, which begins with a discussion of the marvels of natural magic and ends with a dozen or so chapters on “juggling”—ie, prestidigitation. In a time honored tradition, Scot couples natural wonders with human tricks and gadgets, but rather than concentrate on the optical contrivances of Della Porta or other natural magicians, he looks to sleight of hand and stage magic. After describing the range of “miracles” wrought by jugglers—making pennies disappear, guessing cards, thrusting knives through the brains of chickens without killing them—Scot then proceeds to “rip up certeine proper tricks of that art,” exposing some techniques of legerdemain and even providing diagrams of the instruments used in various “knacks.”[xii] Given the enthusiasm and command of detail evidenced in the book, it seems rather clear that Scot himself was an experienced practitioner of the art. Indeed, he even apologizes to his fellow jugglers for revealing their secrets “to the hinderance of such poore men as live thereby.”[xiii] He is willing to break the code, however, for moral and ideological reasons. Like many of today’s self-professed skeptics, Scot is on a mission, and believes, like Penn & Teller or David Blaine today, that if he exposes a few of the tricks of the trade (but only a few), then the mendacious cons of supernaturalists (“not omitting Pharaos sorcerers at anie hand in this comparison”) will be finally accepted as humbug and delusion. Though a characteristically skeptical predilection, however, this rhetoric of exposure also profoundly resembles the critiques launched by the early Church fathers.
A question remains: why would a pious and skeptical reformer like Scot, who sticks his neck out to condemn witchmongers, not condemn the cunning marvels of stage magicians as well? Why still delight in prestidigitation? What bothers Scot is clearly not the tricksy production of “miracles” themselves, but rather the causal or explanatory frames that surround them. In constrast to obfuscating and pretentious wizards, Scot demands that “alwaies the juggler confesse in the end that these are no supernaturall actions, but devises of men.”[xiv] This final confession serves as a kind of skeptical moral, banishing the apparent ontological ruptures of the phantasmic and revealing an epistemological toy that, in the end, serves to confirm the rule of natural law. It is the sort of anti-Oz gesture that Prospero makes at the close of the play:
Scot’s fear, again, is that if natural magic is presented as supernatural, then “a witch, a papist, a conjuror, a cousener, and a juggler may make us beleeve they are gods.”[xv] Such chicanery offends Scot, who is both a man of God and a man of reason, but what really bugs him is the prospect of other people succumbing to such wiles. In other words he is concerned with the power of appearance. The patristic critique of idolatrous stage shows, which claimed that demons were pulling the strings, has itself been naturalized: the demons are now lying men, attempting to dupe the flock, and their skullduggery and contrivances demand a public declaration of common sense and a faith in natural law. Nonetheless—and this remains the key point—there is still a place in Scot’s world for St. Paul’s “lying wonders:”
When these experiments growe to superstition or impietie, they are either to be forsaken as vaine, or denied as false. Howbeit, if these things be done for mirth and recreation, and not to the hurt of our neighbour, not to the abusing or prophaning of Gods name, in mine opinion they are neither impious nor altogether unlawfull: though herein or hereby a naturall thing be made to seeme supernaturall.[xvi]
Intention, and performative frame, legitimates the production of wonders and the release of phantasms, whose uncanny dance across ordinary causal chains becomes an object of mirth alone, a seeming that, while on the edge of becoming unseemly, is elsewhere deemed by Scot “greatlie commendable.” What saves the appearances—the marvelous ones, in this case, the ones no longer (quite) demonic—is not the revelation of the mechanics itself, but the claim, communicated to the audiences, that such explanations are possible and sufficient. The mechanics, and explanations, are themselves deferred. The phantasmic event cannot become the site of its own exposure, or it would not appear as an event. What is needed is a reframing that is also a shift in power—in the place of the impious enchanter, the papist or vain sorcerer, there is now the disenchanter, the rational man who remains, nonetheless, a professor of secrets. Here we can sense the emergence of a distinctly modern disciplinary performance of knowledge and power that needs the phantasms—still deceptive, but in a new sense—that it now conjures and banishes within a purely naturalistic triangle of art.
But how stable is this frame, or indeed any frame that surrounds phantasmic appearance? How to think what we might call, in a modern context, the demonic supplement? There is no keeping dissimulation down. In one chapter Scot warns stage magicians performing before unknown crowds to “beware of him that seemes simple or drunken; for under their habit the most speciall couseners are presented, & while you thinke by their simplicitie and imperfections to beguile them…you your selfe will be the most of all overtaken.”[xvii] But the real threat of the skeptical frame is epistemological, and takes the form of an immense historical irony with extraordinary philosophical consequences. As Clark explains in Vanities of the Eye, some critics of extreme witchcraft theorists like Kramer recognized that credulous notions of demonic deception, taken to the limit, destabilized perceptual reality itself. Clark explains the paradox: “demonic deceptions that radically undermine visual certainty cannot be described without using the very categories usually designed to secure it. The demonology of the senses carries conviction precisely to the extent that it draws on a cognitive system that it effectively subverts.”[xviii] By saving the appearances, the skeptical disenchanter, with his insistence on human prestidigitation and purely natural marvels, would seem to put reality back together again. But the devil is in the details, and the banishment of witchcraft theories and even “demonic physics” doesn’t help. As Clark persuasively shows, the early modern culture of “secrets of nature” and proto-scientific theories of visual experience continued to undermine epistemological stability. The result? Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, “European visual culture experienced not so much the rationalization as the de-rationalization of sight.”[xix] The discourse (and demonstration) of scientific optics, diseases of the eye, prestidigitation, and the emergence of “psychological” etiologies for phantasms had the paradoxical effect of intensifying skepticism to the point where perceptual reality itself could be thrown radically into doubt. The world itself becomes an appearance. It looked, for a spell, like the phantasms won.
And so it is that, in René Descartes’ study, the ultimate demon takes the stage, of “utmost power and cunning,” an evil artificer who does not engender this or that deceptive appearance but eats away at the world as such: “the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams…devised to ensnare my judgment.”[xx] Descartes and subsequent minds built a new world of philosophical, rationalist, and spiritual dimensions from this Phil Dickean moment in the First Meditations, which might perhaps be characterized as the closest thing modern thought has to a primal scene. These considerations lies elsewhere. What is important to recognize here is that Descartes’ operation of radical doubt does not simply engage our reason with argument, but provokes what we can only call the imagination—an imagination ineluctably bound to the wayward perceptual category of demonic deception. In comments to Frans Burman, Descartes acknowledged that, of course, the demon was not philosophically necessary to his argument. But because his intention was to throw his readers into as much doubt as possible, Descartes decided to pull out all the stops, all the old vexed hunches: “this is the purpose of the introduction of the demon, which some might criticize as a superficial addition.”[xxi] But the introduction or addition of the demonic supplement was, arguably, unavoidable and certainly not superficial. Or rather, it was the deepest superficies of all: the incorporeal event that leaps free from the surface of bodies in motion: the phantasm.
[i] My discussion of Della Porta leans heavily on William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton University Press, 1996); 206-221; see also Clark, Vanities, 98-9, 201.
[ii] Cited in Clark, Vanities, 98.
[iii] Deleuze, 210.
[iv] Eamon, 210-11.
[v] Eamon quotes a historian writing for Scientific Renaissance who accuses Della Porta had the motivation of “the party conjurer who deceives the eye by the quickness of his hand or eye.” 
[vi] Eamon, 227.
[vii] Ibid, 195.
[viii] Clark, Thinking with Demons, 158.
[ix] Johann Weyer, Witches, devils, and doctors in the Renaissance: Johann Weyer, De praestigiis daemonum, Book 4, ch.2. Edited by George Mora, trans. John Shea (Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991), 286.
[x] See Robert Hunter West, Reginald Scot and Renaissance writings on witchcraft (Twayne, 1984), especially 39-57, 78-98.
[xi] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, XV.v. (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), 330.
[xii] Ibid, XIII.xxii, 269.
[xiv] Ibid, 291-92.
[xv] Ibid, 261.
[xvi] Ibid, 258.
[xvii] Ibid, XIII.xxvii, 277.
[xviii] Clark, Vanities, 130.
[xix] Ibid, 329.
[xx] René Descartes, Meditations on first philosophy: with selections from the Objections and replies (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 15.
[xxi] Cited in Clark, Vanities, 320.