A Therapeutic Instrument

Federico Campagna, Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality

Bloomsbury, 256pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781350044029

reviewed by Jakob Horstmann

Like many fields of scientific scholarship, philosophy has long been plagued by the gradual shrinking of its research questions. Most contemporary academic philosophy concerns itself with ever smaller technical details within once vast areas of enquiry, not even bothering to pretend that it has any direct link to everyday life. With this in mind, Technic and Magic. The Reconstruction of Reality is a highly unusual book in at least two ways. Firstly because Federico Campagna unapologetically attempts nothing less than the construction of a new ontological supersystem; secondly because he dares to do so with the explicit aim of offering some sort of respite to those who, like him, feel unsatisfied with what life has become in our day and age. This is not just a book, it's a 'therapeutic instrument' against a 'reality setting in which imagination, action or even just life or happiness seem impossible, because they are impossible.'

This project begins with a belligerent analysis of what Campagna calls 'Technic', his term for the malicious hegemonic 'system of reality' that shaped the contemporary world and is the ultimate source of human unhappiness today. Based on soulless metrics and an 'absolute language' whose units refer to nothing but placeholders within an empty network of propositions, the very metaphysics of Technic makes a meaningful life impossible. It is a 'cosmogenic force acting as the form both of reality and a specific historical age'. Fuelled by causality and instrumentality and mercilessly impounding its dictate of productivity, Technic inevitably leads to a rather dismal human life: '[T]he regime that it imposes over the world produces [. . .]a very concrete experience of the annihilation of our ability to act and to imagine.'

In contrast to all this Campagna goes on to install 'Magic', both as a mass term for all such counter-cultural systems of belief or knowledge that 'throughout Western history have acted as the silent shadows of most hegemonic cultural forms'; and as the exact ontological counterpart to Technic that does not rely on the rigid portioning of reality into meaningless units, but rather on the conscious perception of the 'Ineffable'. To those capable of sensing it, this unresolvable and paradoxical founding principle, according to Campagna, radiates powerfully through the whole body of individual human experience, filling it up to the very limits of being and thus enabling 'life' in the true sense of the word.

Campagna then sets out to clarify these contrasting forms of reality with the help of two opposing conceptual grids, illustrating the ontological state of affairs on both shores. On Technic's side, this 'alternative cosmogenesis' starts at the 'absolute language' mentioned above and finishes at something called 'life as vulnerability'; while on Magic's part it's the 'Ineffable as life' working its way down to the life-affirming 'paradox' – all of which fits into a neat diagram of five rows apiece with more or less enlightening arrows pointing across from a box to its respective counterpart.

This attempt at orderliness confirms one's sneaking suspicion that Campagna's theory might be the result of an act of creativity rather than deduction: schemes as tidy as this tend to be designed, not found. And this thought, once had, is very hard to shake when reading Technic and Magic. Upon closer inspection, hardly anything of Campagna's 'reconstruction of reality' strikes one as inevitable. Even worse, the notion of 'Ineffability' – so central to the whole of the 'magical cosmogenesis' – seems to suffer from a built-in necessity of a phenomenological leap of faith that points more in the direction of a full-on spiritual as opposed to philosophical investigation.

In fact, there are a number of indicators that Campagna's mission is, at its core, a spiritual one. His work is decidedly not looking for universally applicable truths, one classic benchmark of philosophical success. Instead his 'therapy' is aimed at the individual human, who is invited to start engaging with the realm of Magic through an epiphanic moment in which the 'light of the Ineffable' shines through his or her self. This type of suggestion, while no doubt well received by those in search of mysticist guidance, are unlikely to convince academic types of Campagna's ontological claims. In a similar vein, his insistence that the Ineffable is impossible to describe with words (or in any other way, really), and his repeated likening of the realm of Magic to the struggles of religious counter-cultural communities throughout history, all contribute to the sense that Technic and Magic is intended to form the foundational text of some millenarian cult.

In fairness, Campagna himself seems to be entirely at peace with this notion – he expressly likens his work to the kind of self-help literature that shows ‘what an individual can do, within yet beyond the limitations imposed by their historical context.’ In another unsparingly honest passage, he writes: 'Our primary concern was to show how it is possible to imagine an alternative reality-system that was capable of reactivating that space in which living individuals can live, act and flourish.’ This insight is on the one hand somewhat sobering – after all, if it's merely a matter of 'imagining' something that helps us lead our daily lives, the possibilities are endless. On the other hand, such a casual attitude to universality is liberating in that it enables one to read Campagna's book in such an interpretive way as one might read, say, a poem. In this regard it is important to situate Technic and Magic in the context of Campagna’s stated interest in promoting what he terms a 'Mediterranean' school of thought – a loose assemblage of intellectual traditions from the region and the Middle East that rely on things like faith, prophecy, and imagination rather than the ‘hard facts of the mind’ associated with the analytical-empirical tradition that has dominated Western thought for so long. The sheer quantity of sources from the Mediterranean region broadly understood – from Avicenna and Mulla Sadra to Bifo Berard and Pessoa – is impressive and refreshing for readers tired of the Western philosophical canon.

Nevertheless it’s hard to ignore certain shortcomings in the book’s central thesis. One is never quite sure, for example, just how 'current' the evoked crisis really is, considering that apparently the same or at least eerily similar issues seem to have bothered the most diverse collection of old to ancient philosophers that Campagna calls on for help. Even if one accepts that the woes specifically imposed by Technic were peculiar to the recent past only, the question lingers: what was it, then, that thousands of years ago gave cause to similarly arduous philosophical enquiry into highly comparable existential plights?

For all his righteous anger, Campagna is not one for specificity. Who or what specifically it is that is responsible for all the Bad Things that befell humans in Technic's modernity remains entirely vague. Especially in the realm of absolute language, the least abstract of Technic's 'hypostases', he clearly has concrete positivist thinkers and intellectual currents in mind, but denies us the pleasure of a targeted engagement. There is a gaping hole where one would have loved to have a theory of agency. When, for example, Campagna writes: 'Unable to break [the ‘this-ness’ that resists all attempts at annihilation], Technic thus attempts to recuperate this obstacle by including it, however partially and negatively, within its own cosmogony', one is just dying to know who or what is behind this ploy? Who or what is it that made Technic both so powerful and terrible?

Being left in the dark as to what, precisely, we are up against, we might be forgiven for despairing over what at times reads like an erudite venting of directionless and juvenile vexation with life. On more than one occasion this reader found himself wanting to give Campagna a good shake by the shoulders and shout: ‘Life is irritating! Get over it!’ And then give him a hug and maybe buy him an ice cream.