The Alchemical Conference

And then the thought struck me, we could use alchemy to improve conferences…..

Conferences come in all shapes and sizes. Some are so large they are more like conventions or trade fairs, others not much more than a group of friends scheduling their coffee breaks in a different city. What they nearly all have in common are the same tired old formats (panels, plenaries, poster sessions etc).

“Workshops” are often not much different except with added post-it notes.

I was recently in a meeting helping to organise a conference and wanted to move beyond the same old same old. Also recently, ideas about alchemy have been nibbling at the corner of my mind. The result of this fortunate conjunction (as if by its own magical process) was the idea of using alchemy to improve conferences and workshops.

What struck me was that a lot of what we try to do at workshops/conferences is similar to alchemical processes. Jung had explored alchemical imagery as an expression of different psychological states and dynamics. He saw how alchemy could be understood as a system of psychology with alchemical processes corresponding to the spiritual and psychological transformations in the alchemist. Maybe, I thought, we can see similar processes in the work that we carry out in conferences. Maybe alchemy can provide us with a language with which we can understand (and improve) conferences and workshops.

Let me explain.

There are several alchemical processes. Here are just four which strike me as particularly relevant

Distillation – a gentle heat to create vapours which are then distilled as an essence (e.g. the gentle provocations of a moderator or facilitator can help generate ideas which become distilled into specific points, actions or recommendations)

Dissolving – the process of breaking down and dissolving (e.g. dissolving the boundaries between disciplines or between stakeholders)

Coagulation – the process of driving away the superfluous to crystallise the essential structure (e.g. the need in workshops to focus on what is important and “essential”)

Calcination – burning away the dross and what is false (and wouldn’t we all like to do that at a conference!)

We might even reconceive a final plenary as the “coniunctio” or Chemical Wedding which reconciles disparate (often opposed) elements and principles.

The alchemist’s workshop had different pieces of equipment for these processes (e.g. crucible for calcination, alembic for distillation), so too our alchemical conference should have appropriate vessels. Instead of the usual posters, panels and plenaries our alchemical conference could organise sessions as a “crucible” or an “alembic”, and we are already familiar with “heated” arguments and “fiery” debates.

Many conferences, of course, are little more than an annual stocktaking of work being done in a particular field or discipline, together with the opportunity of adding something to your C.V. and doing a bit of sightseeing. They are, after all, places where people are expected to confer.

But some conferences (and more especially workshops) do have a more definite purpose and with a purpose we need a process or series of processes to achieve it. If we are more explicit in recognising the purpose and process then the language and imagery of alchemy may be of some help in achieving our own Great Work.

NOTE: Apologies to my fellow historians of science for presenting alchemy as something that appears so simplistic. There are, of course, several alchemical traditions that stretch across centuries, cultures and civilisations. There is also much more to explore in Jung’s psychological approach to alchemy (e.g. the stages of nigredo, albedo, citrinitas and rubedo). If anyone wants a more detailed exploration of the alchemical conference do let me know. It could be a future post or even a book if someone wants to help! For now, I have simply flown this little fancy to get away from another damn panel or poster session.

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