Erik Davis: Techno-Occultural Nomad
By Sean MatharooMay 2, 2015
IN HIS PIONEERING 1998 book Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, Erik Davis traces the importance of Gnosticism to the more ecstatic techno-mystical visions of early 1990s cyberculture. Speaking to its enduring prescience, Techgnosis was recently updated and reissued by North Atlantic Press with a foreword by Eugene Thacker and a new afterword by the author. Throughout the book, Davis focuses primarily on technologies of communication and their shared thematic terrain with technologies of the sacred, sustaining a tension between the material and the immaterial dimensions of various mythical narratives significant to our technologically networked society.
For example, Davis shows how Hermes’s proficiency at techne offers a compelling model for navigating our own technocultural world while also anticipating the subcultural figure of the hacker. In much the same spirit, the Mahayana Buddhist Net of Indra is seen as a diagrammatic way of comprehending the vast interdependent matrix of creation, symbolized by the emergent World Wide Web and other new communication infrastructures. As evidenced by these examples, Davis argues that the esoteric and the religious considerably inform our technocultural imaginary. With this in mind, he investigates a wide range of phenomena, such as Nikola Tesla’s electromagnetic experiments, Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics theory, G.I. Gurdjieff’s mechanistic vitalism, the silicon revolution of the 1970s and ’80s, modern science fiction, online role-playing games, technoparanoia, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s conception of the noosphere. Davis is critical of the more wide-eyed articulations of gnostic transcendence, cautioning against the dangers that come with unchecked individualism at the expense of collective experience.
Davis carries these themes into his 2006 monograph on Led Zeppelin IV, an encyclopedic entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series that focuses on that classic album’s “occultural” elements. In a chapter on “Stairway to Heaven,” for example, Davis draws attention to the role of ritualistic replay in securing the song’s infamous status within the pantheon of rock. Following Friedrich Kittler, he focuses on the continuity between one’s own physiology and consciousness and what happens as the physical vibrations of the spinning record saturate the air. Davis underlines the gnostic implications of the album’s movement toward non-dualistic thinking and away from the cybernetic feedback loop of media culture.
In The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape (2006), a gorgeous volume enhanced by Michael Rauner’s crystalline photographs, Davis evokes the “California consciousness” via a compendious survey of the state’s unique cultural geography and arcane technocultural history. In a chapter on science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, for example, he draws out the mystical leanings of Dianetics through Aleister Crowley’s magickal notion of Thelema. (Hubbard was linked with Crowley via rocket scientist Jack Parsons, one of the founders of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.) Davis expands on science fiction’s significance to the California cultural imaginary by considering the gnostic themes of Philip K. Dick, whose novels reflect the state’s unique “inner space.” Davis also organized the annotations for Dick’s massive Exegesis, at once a philosophical treatise on gnostic theology and a meditation on the overwhelming power of mystical experience.
Davis’s most recent book, Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica (2010), is a collection of essays that extends his previous work into multifarious terrain. The essays cover everything from Goa trance, Sun City Girls’ psych funk, Lee Scratch Perry’s studio-bound dub, and Boards of Canada’s electro-nostalgia for the 1970s to Star Trek conventions, H.P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction, Terence McKenna’s writings on psychedelics, and the Burning Man festival. The nomadic drive to experiment and to form alternative subcultural communities connects the scattered subjects Davis writes about, and the essays resonate nicely with his previous work. Once again, technology and esoterica intertwine throughout the book, and Davis’s signature wit and intellectual rigor make for a fascinating reading experience.
In the following interview, Davis shares his thoughts on his work, the technocultural present, the analog/digital divide, the psychedelic renaissance, and his PhD work in Religious Studies.
SEAN MATHAROO: In Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, you identified an important confusion within our technologically networked society that gives rise to a paradoxical embrace of both postmodern cynicism and premodern mysticism. In your view, has much changed in the last 17 years?
ERIK DAVIS: I started work on Techgnosis around 1994, when the technocultural possibilities tied to online communities, virtual reality, and the internet resulted in a giddy eruption of utopian, visionary, and apocalyptic ideas and discourses about minds, bodies, and societies. As a life-long participant-observer in various occult, Eastern, and alternative religious traditions, I couldn’t help but notice that this technological imagination was deeply if surprisingly informed by esoteric and religious sources. I came to the conclusion that new media can turbocharge the popular imagination, at least in modernity. New media warp, disrupt, or amplify human communication, and since communication is so basic to our sense of consensus reality, this disruption results in a loosening of the claims of that reality. The imagination — whether political, technological, cultural, or spiritual — rushes in to fill this gap with possibilities, dreams, and terrors. In its day, even the humble telegraph conjured dreams of universal education and space-time meltdown, but while that technology did transform time, business, and imperial command in crucial ways, its authentically visionary potential was brief. However, soon other technologies — the telephone, the telegraph, the wireless — created similarly evanescent spaces of great dreaming.
The summer of the internet is long over, and some of the utopian and magical ideas unearthed in Techgnosis are now most familiar to us as the hype that still enlivens the more benighted wings of consumer technology. So what about all the technologies that followed the mass adoption of the internet? The pattern of media metaphysics I identified continues to play out in the cutting edge of technological and computational thinking — just dive down the rabbit hole of big data if you are curious. At the same time, the visionary enthusiasm of the 1990s has clearly become more murky and complex. While the emergence of social media has allowed religious, mystical, and occult ideas to thrive as never before, the Icarus of the network as a transcendental form has fallen into the sea of 21st-century reality.
In addition — and here I may sound like an old fart — many contemporary media developments seem to preclude the sort of imaginative space that once allowed us to dream through media — that enabled, for example, the half-fiction of “cyberspace” to mean so much to so many with so few pixels on the ground. Data tracking, the quantified self, GPS, the hive-like quicksand of social networks, pervasive surveillance, the in-your-face quality of algorithmic mediation — all of these create a kind of claustrophobia that crowds out, or pre-programs, the sort of imagination I tracked in the book. The one big exception is the dark side: paranoia and conspiracy theory, which are rife with occult and apocalyptic memes, all feed on the uncanny presence of contemporary technologies and the pervasive media fictions that now saturate our lives. At least from my perch, small-scale utopias and engaged spiritual lifeworlds seem to lie increasingly offline, in a vanishing space between rumor, retreat, and disappearance.
In the book’s introduction, you describe the yin and yang of technomysticism as the spirit and the soul, respectively, where the soul is perhaps best understood as an analog technology of material creativity and the spirit a digital technology of abstract code. In the newly published afterword to Techgnosis, you draw attention to the role that millennial-era subcultures played in dismantling this distinction. What do you make, then, of the resurgent popularity of analog technologies (i.e., vinyl, VHS, etc.) today?
My generation — generation X, if you will — belongs to the analog sunset. As kids, our sensibilities were shaped by analog media, which gave us a peculiar front-row perspective on the subsequent digital transformation of culture and society, which was terribly novel and exciting. There are lots of ways to squeeze meaning out of the distinction between analog and digital, and one way is through their very different relationships to materiality, time, and embodiment — in general, analog forms seem to possess more character and more limitation. I think the return to (and fetishizing of) analog media resonates with other personal and social investments we see today in material and local culture: foodie scenes, the maker ethos, the romance of the offline, the energetic body. Part of this reflects consumer nostalgia, and part of this reflects an attempt to build a livable lifeworld. Analog has soul, and people want more soul, even if the soul too becomes a kind of packaging.
Analog desire can be satisfied with simulations, of course, like the Polaroid filters on Instagram, whose unquestionable pleasures to me feel like a vampiric attack on the texture of memory, which for my generation was already mediated by the sad hazy glow of Polaroid and Super 8 film. Seeing those filters for the first time reminded me of first watching a VW ad from years ago that used Nick Drake: I had been captured, and even the authenticity of melancholy has been appropriated. However, such nostalgic attachments are already a ruse, and this recognition is how we face the posthumans we are becoming.
Today’s analog desire is also producing product lines that restage all the same old problems — now that major record labels like Universal have returned to regular vinyl releases, independents are having a tougher time accessing the shrunken number of record plants, and the costs have become ridiculous, producing a kind of collector luxury that uses scarcity as ballast to the vaporization and piracy associated with the mp3. But in other domains, like the massive modular synthesis scene, analog is recognized as a fundamentally different and deeply enriching way of engaging and playing with signs and signals. If anything, we are becoming amphibian, learning to leap and blend between the different domains of analog and digital while remaining, I hope, aware of the difference. The challenge, it seems, is to fully engage and extend the analog and not simply fetishize it — to allow ourselves, at least some of the time, to live analog lives. Sometimes I wonder how many people buy vinyl only to listen to the music on the mp3s you get through the download code.
With the increased emphasis placed on biotechnology in recent years and the coextensive proliferation of new human-nonhuman hybrids, we are living in an increasingly weird world. Do you think gnostic visions of transcendence (e.g., in some strains of cyberpunk science fiction) will continue to play a role in the cultural imaginary given new technologies that privilege the body as a primary locus of technological innovation and augmentation?
I think it’s important that you tie the question of contemporary gnostic vision to an SF subgenre, because thinking the future, like thinking spirituality, remains a form of thinking with and through fictions. And there are many subgenres of the future! You’re right: increasingly these genres, whether in “science fiction” or not, are populated by real bodies — hybrids, chimeras, superhumans, complexly gendered mutants. But there remains a deep strain of disembodiment within engineering culture, and transhumanist visions of uploading consciousness to machines continue to hold purchase on singularity folks. Perhaps the difference is that rather than setting their sights on an endless virtual Second Life, the post-transition vision focuses on extending itself through robotic telepresence and other ways of being in the world.
Since the 1990s, the notion of cyberspace as a separate realm has declined, though it remains to be seen how much the new wave of virtual reality stirs up these imaginings once again. It’s not like millions of people aren’t still inhabiting MMORPGs. But what remains more important is how gnostic ideas continue to speak to our deep sense of alienation from the world and, increasingly, our paranoid and conspiratorial fears that consensus reality is a fabrication designed to keep us occluded. As long as such suspicions live and thrive, modern Gnosticism will continue to play a role in the spiritual imaginary.
In your 33 1/3 monograph on Led Zeppelin IV, you tease out the techno-occult dimensions of one of rock’s most notoriously polyvalent albums. With last year’s deluxe edition remastered vinyl release, a new generation of music lovers has analog access to its journey into the magickal beyond. Can you explain why you decided to write on Zoso and do you think it still carries with it the potential to blast open the gates to the occult?
I was already working toward the deadline of my book The Visionary State when the opportunity to submit to David Barker at Continuum arose. It was immediately clear to me that I wanted to write about Zeppelin, and only slightly less clear that IV, the most canonical of their records, was the album to do. Once the proposal was accepted, however, I quavered over the wisdom of taking on another project. Then I woke up one morning from a dream that involved Jimmy Page, black candles, and some weird ritual. I took this, or chose to take this, as a sign, not only that I had no choice but to do the book, but that I should risk a certain occult excess in the work, to tank up on Lester Bangs and allow myself to read “too much” into the album. In part I wanted to mimic the kind of stoned teenage obsession that I, like so many, had directed towards the band as a moody adolescent. But I also wanted to play with the ambiguity that marks so many great works of occulture, an ambiguity that never lets you know how deep the rabbit hole goes until you have gone too far. A lot of readers missed this — some of the one-star slags on Amazon are hilarious, I really enjoy them — but lots of readers got the half-serious joke — the alchemical ludibrium — as well.
In Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica, you at one point mobilize Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the machinic phylum in an attempt to delineate the ontological amorphousness of Gak. Following D&G, there seems to be an underlying rhizomatic structure to the book that results in a digital reading experience in which one might experience uncanny repetitions that mutate over time. Do you find that the subjects you write about melt into your own writing and organizational style?
Definitely. A lot of my cultural criticism proceeds through infection, through taking on the sensibility and underlying “vibe” of the stuff I am writing about so that I am writing both within and about my subjects. Moreover, since part of what I am trying to communicate is enigmatic and elusive and falls between the cracks of discursive prose, there is a certain repetition that characterizes my writing and the apparent diversity of my topics as well. Attentive readers have noticed that I keep looping back to a certain crossroads or conundrum from a different angle.
If I am flattering myself, I like to think I picked up this rhythm of difference and repetition partly from D&G. Those characters were lifesavers when I first encountered them in college. They not only provided me with a philosophical initiation into a kind of psychedelic materialism that I am still wrestling with, but also, even more importantly, they gave me permission to follow my weird, to build resonating assemblages out of my obsessions regardless of their propriety or the exact mixture of high and low. After all, they cited Lovecraft and Carlos Castaneda! Though I have never stopped reading and reflecting on philosophy and theory, most of the time I have not written directly out of that discourse, which grants me a certain naiveté I find productive. But in that I was just doing what they suggested in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus — I grafted what I wanted, listened to the tracks that I liked, and ignored the rest.
You organized the annotations for Philip K. Dick’s mind-blowing Exegesis. Has Dick’s unique sort of gnostic SF inspired your own writing?
Lots of stuff came together for me in college: poststructuralism, media theory, American rock criticism, visionary literature, Gnostic esoterica, materialism. When I started reading Philip K. Dick during my sophomore year, I was gob-smacked, because all these interacting discourses found purchase in his work, which was one that also engaged the deep strata of my personal imagination and my own sometimes grim emotions. I wrote my senior thesis at Yale on Dick, and he plays a prominent role in my current dissertation project, not because I can’t move on, but because I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of what I want to say about Dick’s unique cross-wiring of religious experience, technoculture, and California pathology.
Along with Maja D’Aoust, you host the weekly Expanding Mind podcast on the Progressive Radio Network. In a recent episode entitled “Brains on LSD,” you interviewed Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris about the world’s first imaging study of the human brain on acid, a project that was successfully crowd-funded. Given the emergence of a study like this and the increased destigmatization of marijuana in some areas of the country, do you think that there has been more widespread acceptance of hallucinogens recently? Do you think we’re at the brink of a psychedelic renaissance?
The psychedelic renaissance has already begun, and for the most part I welcome it. A number of studies over the last decade have broken important new ground, both in terms of hard scientific research like Carhart-Harris’s, which tries to understand why psychedelics produce the effects they do, and in terms of psychological studies that explore how these sorts of extraordinary experiences might alleviate ills like depression or the mortal anxieties of cancer patients.
Whether or not scientists and academics are ready for it, we are also on the brink of an era of consciousness hacking that will bring together the unregulated use of novel psychoactive drugs, electronics, and what Mircea Eliade called techniques of ecstasy. Agents of consumption and control are certainly going to be interested in this, as will individuals and experimental collectives taking their minds and bodies into their own hands. While this emerging culture sometimes freaks me out, it is hardly more freaky than any of the dozens of onrushing cyborg developments we might talk about.
For me, given my work, the question becomes: what to do with the lore and ethics and garage science that was developed in the underground? How do we redeploy what was genuinely countercultural in the counterculture and not just psychedelicize consumption and new technologies of distraction? It is significant that something as weird and psychedelic as Burning Man is part of the conversation about the future of technology and culture, but in many ways Burning Man is a cautionary tale.
The rapid shift in social and political attitudes towards cannabis use is not just a sign of a more rational approach to the conundrum of psychoactive drugs. I also believe it indicates that as we move deeper into the century of the brain, then the pleasures and possibilities of non-ordinary forms of consciousness are increasingly going to be on the table. I see this as an inevitable outgrowth of sophisticated, non-reductive neuroscience: how can we claim to understand the phenomenon of the mind without seriously engaging the weirdness that arises at the edge of consciousness, whether dreams, drug visions, “placebo” healing, non-dual awareness, even incorporeal entities and paranormal phenomenon?
Can you tell us about your PhD in Religious Studies (working title: “High Weirdness: Drugs, Media, and Gnosis in the Early 1970s”) and why you decided to go back to school?
Well, my “career” has always been more of a careen, full of lateral moves and questionable leaps that I can only narrate in retrospect. For years I have nursed the idea of getting a PhD — of taking a break from California, stepping back from the challenges of freelance life, and shoring up the more scholarly side of my writing and research through an encounter with an academic discipline.
The Department of Religion at Rice is one of the few places on the planet with an academic concentration on esotericism, mysticism, and Gnosticism. I do a lot of things based on invitation, and when Jeffery Kripal, then chair of the department, sought me out, it seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse. Kripal is a consummate and influential scholar of mystical pop culture, tantric currents, and the paranormal, and he is a great writer to boot. I correctly imagined that I would not be forced through a grad-school cookie cutter. My thesis was originally going to be on Philip K. Dick, but at the last moment I expanded it to include a number of other crazy white guys (Terence McKenna, John Lilly, Robert Anton Wilson, etc.), all of whom had bizarre experiences in the early 1970s that involved alien intelligences, technology, synchronicity, California, and the occult. As such, the project has become as much a portrait of a significant and widely misunderstood era as an in-depth study of these avatars of high weirdness.
You’ve always identified with what you call the “California consciousness.” In the compendious The Visionary State, you and photographer Michael Rauner explore the spiritual landscape of California and reach some startling discoveries along the way. I especially like your chapter on DIY and assemblage culture. How do you think growing up in Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe has permeated your work?
The Visionary State grew out of a very particular experience: the experience of wanting to have cultural roots despite growing up in a place and a culture that rightly epitomize rootlessness. The fact that I had family here before the Gold Rush gave impetus to my quest, but it was more directly driven by the desire to forge a shared sensibility out of the grab bag of subcultures, sects, fads, and crazies that formed my cultural experience from the 1970s through the 1990s. Now that I find myself writing another project involving the state, I realize that in some sense my work has always been about California’s peculiar conjunction of technology and ecology, sun and sunset, trash and transcendence. Whether I wind up leaving it or not, it wont ever leave me.
California is remarkably resilient. I remain cautiously optimistic that the state will find some inventive and not entirely sucky ways to remake and reimagine itself once again, in the face of white decline, an income chasm, a 21st-century drought, and the brilliant idiocy of hyperactive technology. I also remain reliably irritated by the propensity of East Coast and European thinkers to reduce the cultural and metaphysical complexities of the state to some purported “California ideology.” While the Bay Area’s commingling of hippie libertarianism with hardcore corporate capitalism is indeed a peculiar and in many ways noxious brew, the tag is crude and parochial, a tired iteration of Old World superiority, and one that serves to cloak and deny the countless ways that California has been — and, to some degree, continues to be — a site of creative struggle, recombinant culture, embodied exploration, and social invention. I met Richard Barbrook shortly after he co-coined the phrase in the 1990s. He was a nice enough bloke, and I can’t begrudge anyone I share a spliff with, but when I told him I lived in San Francisco, he asked how I could stand living so far from civilization. Enough of this. In fact, I am increasingly persuaded by the historian Josef Chytry’s argument in Mountain of Paradise that California, inclusive of its Spanish and Mexican past, is a world civilization, one that should be considered separately from America. That doesn’t mean, à la Benjamin, that its culture is not also marked with barbarism, only that its glories and tragedies are world scale.
Sean Matharoo is a PhD student within the Department of Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages at the University of California, Riverside, where he studies Anglophone and French SF and horror literature and cinema, cult film and film theory, retro and analog culture, extreme subgenres of music, and Deleuzian philosophy. He has reviews forthcoming in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and Science Fiction Studies.
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