Philosophy and Humanities

A Fantasy on the Gaechka, the Divination Tool of Post-Soviet New Age Sorcery

Ilya Lobanov23/08/22 09:162.4K🔥
Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1986
Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1986

Most often, magic requires some kind of physical mediator in order to be performed. This might be a wand, a ring, a dagger, or, if you are born in Russia, a nut bolt fastener, aka a gaechka (гаечка). My grandma Emma is adept at this sorcery, outsourcing the decision-making process to an omnipotent “outside” force that possesses knowledge about the past and the future. Emma always makes it sound as if it has something to do with the Orthodox faith, as if a gaechka provides direct access to the tutelary advice of a guardian angel, a benevolent carrier of divine wisdom.

An alternative way to approach the source of truth behind this practice is through the insurgency of late-Soviet alternative scientific discourse against the Enlightenment, disguised through a canon of writings that were generously encrusted with technical jargon. From this perspective, gaechka is powered by the phenomena of radiesthesia (better known in the region as “biolocation”), an ability to detect and access the hidden layer of reality, one consisting of biopsychospiritual energy that manifests itself in so-called torsion fields. A brief look at the titles in a list of Russian literature on biolocation shows how gradually this field of research expanded out of the realms of geology, water management, and archeology into biology and (para)psychology, then to the point of explicitly disclosing itself as sorcery.

Illustration from Irina Sudarushkina, Health Calendar of Babushka Travinka, 2011
Illustration from Irina Sudarushkina, Health Calendar of Babushka Travinka, 2011

No matter which force stands behind the gaechka, the origins of its use lie in another, more ancient practice of dowsing. Now, entertaining metonymy: in their mystical practice dowsers use the witch-hazel tree, the one on which nuts ripen (but of course not nut bolts). In dowsing, the tools of sorcery are the Y- or L-shaped twigs meant to spin once the dowser passes them over a source of water, deposits of precious ore, or the location of a lost object. With a gaechka, it is a metal nut put on a short thread that answers the yes/no questions of its operator. The operator holds the thread in one hand and allows the pendulum to swing freely. They then observe the pendulum’s swinging and interpret the motion in order to offer insights based on the direction of its rotation. To figure out which direction stands for “yes” and which means “no,” calibration is required. This is done by observing the gaechka’s behaviour after asking it simple questions with answers that are already known. For instance, the operator might ask the gaechka to confirm that their name is in fact their name.

The access to wisdom, no matter of what origin, that the gaechka mediates is constituted by two modules: module a contains a log of all the past and future events; module b is responsible for the evaluation of this data from the perspective of the maximisation of good, subjectively understood by the forces behind the gaechka. Let us investigate both modules closely, starting from module b. The manuals of the gaechka stipulate that its understanding of good by no means amounts to the subjective profit of the operator, although in some instances it might match it. Rather, it is some sort of a common good, the essence of which, however, is not elaborated. We may only guess whether the reasoning behind the gaechka’s advice invokes the advent of a caste-based utopia, world communism, or the extermination of humanity in favour of other organic (if not inorganic) formations. Should the mythos of the gaechka be true, and its swaying not mediated by ideomotor movements, only its widespread use could provide the opportunity to empirically test out the potential structure of a society guided by the “outside.”

Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1985
Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1985

Let us stick to the imaginary world in which the gaechka all at once becomes widespread and people suddenly start unquestioningly coordinating their actions using its advice. In this case, module a, containing the log of all the past and future events, could dramatically expand the horizon of the foreseen future which now remains constantly hidden from us. Unlike one-time revelations in the Oedipo-Macbethian manner, with the gaechka such a horizon could be constantly expanded and would only be limited by the time humans spend seeking the gaechka’s advice and the power of their creativity in formulating good questions. What would be the consequences of the widespread use of the gaechka? I argue that it has the potential to eliminate the foundations of any power besides that of bare physical violence formed by cooperation between small interest-sharing groups. It is the unpredictability of the future that provides the foundation of sovereign power — to be the one to make, and often even more importantly, not make decisions.

I feel obliged to reference Colin Drumm, whose seminars introduced me to the role that having options plays in understanding power. The basic idea behind such a concept, which Drumm uses as a foundational framework to analyse sovereignty, money, and capital, is that the ability to make decisions constitutes power. When a decision-maker is facing a fork in the decision making road, the peak of their power is exactly the moment before one of the optional paths is followed. Not making a decision means keeping other actors unaware of what one’s future course of action would be. It could either benefit them or harm them by threatening their interests.

Imagine a situation in which a king faces the need to make a decision about the future of a faction of rebel barons. Each of the available decisions (execution, imprisonment, parole, or exile) has certain accompanying benefits and side effects. However, it is exactly the option to make a variety of such decisions that indicates the real sovereign power of the ruler, the power to decide over the future. It is the teeth-on-edge Foucauldian concept of the panopticon, one that precisely illustrates a situation in which the knowledge that the sovereign’s option for punishment is inevitable, that disciplines members of society. The reality is that if everyone simultaneously disobeys the established order then that order will collapse. However, the uncertainty of the sovereign’s actions to follow, and whether the option to punish will be exercised against a particular disobedient individual, hampers collective action. If the future is certain to each and every individual, the threat provided by the uncertainty of the future will no longer be an option. It would be by default clear whether or not certain actions or inactions will be followed by counter-actions or inactions. It is the same with capital. It is exactly the future risks that provide the opportunity for the growth of capital. Not to mention that there is no capitalism in the absence of a political power to ensure property rights, but there is also no capitalism in the absence of risk.

What else would change? Uncertainty of the future is the reason why money presents an excellent tool for the accumulation of power and for the hedging of risks, as it is a liquid asset that could potentially be converted into any other good or service. While the value of most objects in the economy fluctuates based on demand, the value of money remains relatively stable and the acceptance of it as a means of payment allows for prompt exchange. Some of the money in your account could easily be exchanged for an expensive medication in the case of an emergency, while a pair of headphones do not provide the same opportunity for exchange. It is exactly this uncertainty that prevents people from establishing a particular, unaltered, correspondence about the value of the goods to one another. Potential disruptions in supply chains caused by harvest failures, supply-chain disruptions, political instabilities, or labour-force strikes all prevent the establishment of a strict system of relations between different goods and services based on their scarcity and the volume of labour applied.

Should the potential risks be foreseen, nothing stands in the way of the creation of a system of money-free, centralised distribution of resources, again, within the limits of small communities built on the remains of civilizations based on the uncertainty of the future. The value of a bag of grain, considering that the size of the harvest for the next few years is already known (even if its volumes are predicted to fluctuate), could remain fixed to the value of a kilogram of steel, as long as the extraction of said steel is known to be kept at the same level (or even fluctuate somewhat). This is something totally impossible in the realm of real-world economics, which requires money and abstract units of measurement.

To sum it up, the widespread and total introduction of the gaechka’s “yes/no” into everyday economic and political activities would not only equip agents with certain advise on their further actions, but would also eliminate the existing power structure, either by providing a path to a bright, barter-based and commune-ruled anarchist utopia with no money needed and no possible coercion or creating a plunge into an abyss of chaos where in the absence of sovereign power, barons fight with each other over scarce resources. More likely, the result would be something situated in between these two scenarios.

Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1985
Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1985

Up until now, we have only considered a setting where the gaechka’s advice is binary, which means it fixes the flow of future events. However, an alternative school of gaechka also exists. It postulates that when the pendulum swings with great force, it’s answering with a high degree of certainty. Swinging with a light force can be interpreted as a less committed response. Thus the confidence of the pendulum’s movement is proportionate to the probability of the event. In such a setting, the meaning of the gaechka is completely altered. Now, in contrast with other binary occult technics like tossing a coin or pulling out matches of different lengths, working with the gaechka provides a spectrum of outcomes either positive or negative. Its positive or negative movements could be interpreted as a function that spits out results in a range from -1 to 1. What an excellent tool to reflect the very mode of thinking in an epoch that is obsessed with probabilities.

Should the gaechka’s predictions be probabilistic, compared to the binary version discussed earlier, a completely different reality would emerge from its widespread use. In this setting, the future remains uncertain in a strict sense and the gaechka basically serves as a powerful computer calculating the probabilities based on access to all the possible data in the world. The current post-linear temporal ontology is based on the rendering of complicated systems (i.e. weather, financial market, climate change), which allows for the extrapolation of their developments into the future. As Davor Löffler points out, the scenarios themselves are not virtual but objective. For instance, the potential scenarios of a 2°, 3°, or 6° increase in the Earth’s average temperature show entirely different future worlds. All three scenarios are the consequences of the preceding human actions in the present. In this sense, it is the present that is uncertain and up to be decided (unlike in the world of binary gaechka, where the foreseen future is inevitable). In the case of a probabilistic gaechka, the uncertainty of the present remains, however, the predictive capacity increases, dramatically solving both the problems of data collection and the methodology of complex systems modelling.

Now, back to fantasising. For common folk, the gaechka would provide benefits, such as estimating the chances of hooking up with someone, getting a promotion, or surpassing the average life span. However, those who would actually make use of such a tool would be the ones able to constantly process probabilities of different events in a complex manner, in relation to one another, i.e.large corporate or state formations. Gathering data on different probabilities would completely redefine data capitalism, producing armies of people employed to spin gaechkas and collect answers to be further fed into a system that would compute grand-scale predictions. In a fashion of the time, I see them as precarious freelancers working for a little coin, following the instructions appearing on their screens, watched over by webcams that would neatly capture the gaechkas’ movements. Such armies would provide their masters with data that would allow for the radical domestication of the probabilistic horizon of events, which could then be used for their commercial and political goals. In terms of social order, if one prefers, the leftist accelerationist utopia could be anticipated with time, once the means of prediction were to be appropriated by the public. Otherwise, it would remain the same.

Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1985
Milly Canavero, Untitled, 1985

Back in January, just one and a half months before the war broke out, my sister and I walked Emma around the block, as the typically uncleaned and slippery pavements of Petersburg (or “Leningrad” as she calls it out of habit), left no chance for a eighty-three year old to leave the apartment alone without the existential threat of performing a pirouette eventuated by a broken pelvis. She would share the same fate as her husband who, after an unfortunate fall back in the early 80s, was left paralysed for almost a decade until his death a few months before the collapse of the Soviet regime. Emma’s mum died shortly after him, leaving a widow one on one with her only daughter who was busy with the process of entering into the life of an adult. A few months after this, the Gosplan city-level bureau where she was working was closed, pushing her into a premature retirement. Unsurprisingly, Emma fell easily into the salvation-promising embrace of the Post-Soviet New Age as well as onto the bosom of the Orthodox Church.

As far as I remember, the gaechka has always been with her. With the gaechka she seeks advice on a variety of questions ranging from the probabilities of successful outcomes of surgeries, to the freshness of cottage cheese in the local supermarket, to the tightness of the closed fridge door. Within years, it seemed as though she had become merged with the gaechka, as if it was consulting with her on almost any matter. Her gaechka had become an extension of herself. Back in January, when after a short walk we reached the supermarket, my sister and I witnessed a scene in which Emma, holding the tail of the inflexible belt of her coat, urged me against buying a fresh pack of cottage cheese. “Don’t take it, it’s not fresh,” she pronounced as if to spite me, pointing to today’s date on the pack. At that moment it became crystal clear that the “outside” had devoured Emma completely.


Polina Timofeeva
Dmitry Kraev

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