Esoteric Illuminations for Now People: an Interview with Erik Davis

Erik Davis is a marvelous writer whose project seems to be to invoke or evoke (or provoke) mystery and enchantment in the context of postmodern and transhumanist cultures that seem pretty much bent on hunting it down and draining it… one piece at a time.  He thrives on a world of odd hybrids and strange hidden subcultures.  At the same time, he has been known to delightfully illuminate such mainstream and semi-mainstream cultural expressions as The Matrix, Burning Man, and the works of P.K. Dick.

Now Yeti Books has released a collection of Davis’ writing: Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica. It includes meditations and experience reports on such various topics as the radical American sufi legend Peter Lamborn Wilson (perhaps better known for his tremendous influence on counterculture writer/provocateur Hakim Bey), transvestite mediums in Burma, Klingons at a Star Trek convention, the origins of trance music in Goa, Terence McKenna, famous Silicon Valley “UFOnaut” Joe Firmage, and much more.

I recommend this book to everybody who has even a slightly open mind.

H+: People thought technological acceleration would leave the past way behind.  But rather, it seems to be sucking all of human experience into it.  In your opening section, “Orientalismo”, you talk about the intrigue with the esoteric and “archaic” that exists in a rapidly accelerating culture.  Could you tell us how these two values – esoterica and acceleration –collide, merge, conflict, enhance each other and so forth?

ERIK DAVIS: Well as soon as the modern world really took off – technological development, capitalism, secularization – part of that modern experience was a nostalgia with the premodern past and a fascination with the edges of the modern – other lands initially, and eventually other faiths, cultural practices, drugs, and religions.  What is outside or before us?  It’s not just curiosity.  There is a soullessness that goes along with technological modernity, with the rootlessness and the rational reach of our machines, that creates a desire, at least in many people, for soul – for enchantment.  Whether it’s genuinely possible is an open question.  Certainly there is a lot of ersatz soul out there.  Esoterica – fringe phenomena, deep underground scenes, the non-rational, the magical – is one of the more attractive routes toward soul.  Of course, part of the logic of the acceleration is the penetration of all domains of human experience; as neuroscience grows more robust, it must engage the full range of meaningful experiences, if only to deconstruct them.  This includes all the subjective states associated with esoterica, psychedelics, mysticism, apparent paranormal phenomena.  These things are “closer” now.

But there is another reason for this.  Though I am too skeptical to buy the apocalyptic models of the singularity (or 2012), I am enough of a techgnostic still to believe that hypermediation is going to put some seriously vertiginous pressures on our collective sense of reality.  It’s already quite apparent, even if you just think about the sense of vertigo induced by massive social networking or the mobile ubiquity of the internet in so many people’s lives.  Even if nothing disastrous happens on the global political sphere, or with the biophysical matrix (and those are two gargantuan ifs), the engineered feedback loops of media are going to intensify, undermine, rewire and mutate aspects of human consciousness in very powerful ways.  I think a lot of people feel, sometimes unconsciously, that their encounter with esoteric practices or experiences will give them tools or transformative perspectives that will enable them to better manage this shift.  Critical thinking still seems more important to me, but there’s a lot of sense there: in an attention economy, who is going to teach you more handy tips about attention than magicians, psychonauts, or Buddhist meditators?

H+: We’re becoming ever more accustomed to spending our time in non-physical space…  or space that seems to us non-physical.  Some of the esoteric traditions are largely about escaping from or transcending matter.  But I don’t sense that you would be enthusiastic about downloading into the matrix.

ED: It is true that, especially on paper, a lot of gnostic, mystical and hermetic paths stress a kind of transcendence.  And sometimes, very clearly, it is an escape from the body and from matter.  But I think that side of it can be over-stressed.  It’s less about escape from the earth and more about escape from the world – that is, our human world of egos, stories, fears, compulsive desires, and identifications, including identifications with the body, which of course is passing away into oblivion every moment.  Religion, like some uploading scenarios, promises escape from the rotting flesh, but that is not the sort of transcendence that compels me.  In fact, I am pretty convinced that, for most people, immortality in a computer matrix or even a robot body would become hellish unless there was a fundamental transformation of the consciousness-ego stream – in other words, a transformation so powerful that it might as well be a kind of death.

H+: It seems as though various spiritual practices do promise at least some kind of resolution to the problems and pains of being human, and then transhumanism seems to seek the same thing.  But when we get too close to the potential to resolve, we find it suspect.

ED: Humans do seem addicted to their suffering, but it’s important not to confuse the refusal to transform, whether spiritually or technologically, with the recognition that such transformations only get you so far.  For me, one of the positive functions of spirituality and transhumanism alike is the way their “possibilian” stance forces us to reflect on what sort of transformations we still believe are conceivable.  Even if we don’t “believe” in these visions of transformation exactly – or believe in them too much – they are still an index for our own sense of potential.  We are addicted to our identities in many ways, and in many ways suffering forms the foundation of those identities.

The immortalist discourse among some transhumanists is very interesting in this light.  Transcendence of death is the great (false) promise of traditional religion, while the anxiety and fear induced by death lie at the root of so many human endeavors, from the highest to the most depraved.  Part of what defines the ethical nobility of the modern temperament is to try to actually accept death, to not tie the meaning of our lives to a religious immortality project, or at least to sublimate that project into good works or cultural production.  Then the transhumanists come along and dangle the possibility of real immortality, and everyone freaks out, and not about the science.  I myself find much that is naive in the transhumanist account of immortality, because I believe that finitude is more fundamental to our experience than they acknowledge.  For many of us, perhaps almost all of us, an endless life in a robot or a computer matrix or even a human body would eventually become hell unless our sense of self was utterly transformed in a way that renders the category of “immortality” questionable.  We would still need to die to ourselves – even this greatest of transformations only gets us so far.

H+: Relatedly, an intrigue with the occult/magical theories and practices is fairly widespread among hackers and other techno-types of some particular generations.  Why do you think that is… and do you think these practices convey any sort of advantages over the more reductionist, hyper-rationalists that seem to dominate, say, the singularitarian crowd?

ED: The connection between hackers and techie-types on the one hand and the occult is, as you say, widespread, especially for older generations.  I am not sure if it is as true in the younger generations today, when interest in the occult is both more wide widespread and more diffuse.  One reason is simply cultural: there is a strong overlap in the West of occultists and fantasy fiction, and therefore to a degree SF.  For hackers coming of age in the 70s, being into code and into Tolkien was common, and this embrace of the imagination alongside the algorithm opened up the far more important connection: both the occult and computer programming build worlds out of language and linguistic processes.  Both also very much stress the frame, the same sort of frame that helps define games as well (and of course there is another significant overlap between gaming, the occult, and computer engineering).  The basic idea is that you create a frame within which certain rules apply and which are simply more entertaining the more seriously you take them, even while you still acknowledge the frame.  From the outside, modern occultists might appear to be just another species of New Age true believer, but they are actually quite different in some ways, and one of the ways is in the acknowledgement that there are multiple frames of reality and it is simply more fun or powerful or wise to recognize these different frames and learn to navigate between them.  I think that kind of attitude is very important in the sort of world that is emerging all around us with such speed, even if one retains a strong fidelity to rationalism or materialism – which I have respect for.  Vernor Vinge said it in his still-epochal story “True Names,” which imagines a World of Warcraft-like cyberspace where algorithms are represented as elements of an enchanted world: the occult just has better metaphors.

You describe how a powerful urban technological music scene emerged out of a fairly non-technological hippie dropout scene in Goa. This seems to be the sort of thing that produces cultural novelty.

ED: Well I know it’s been quoted to death, but William Gibson’s line about the street finding its own uses for things applies very much to music as well.  There is something like “organic technology,” or at least the organic use of technology from the ground up as it were – the grime, the grunge (to use two musical genre terms).  One of my pieces is about Lee Scratch Perry, and I talk therein about dub music and how this very technologically self-aware music – a product of engineering rather than instrumental performance, and one that would grow highly conceptual and “abstract” – grew up in very humble circumstances, technologically speaking, and that humbleness we find inspiring.  We often think about technology driving culture, but some of the romance we have about scenes like dub is not only how much they did with how little, but the proof that it is not technology driving the scene but other cultural and musical factors.  The same thing is true of Goa, which gave us psy-trance.  The peculiar and particular characteristics of that genre, which is one of the most formally consistent and global of electronic dance scenes, was very much a product of intensely trippy cultural pressures that defined its original matrix.  So even digital music can have this fuzzy “organic” quality, which is also true of so many of the later mutations of dub.

H+: Nomad Codes
is a book about a broad range of people and topics and travels and readings.  What is the idea or sensibility that brings them together and what might H+ers derive from reading it?

ED: Well, the overarching idea is what I am calling “modern esoterica” – the ways that the modern world probes the edges of possibility, whether through mysticism or science fictional possibility or subcultures of transcendence.  These realms are of more than just passing interest to me, because I think that extraordinary experiences and the cultural (and technological) stories we tell hold keys not only for our self-understanding but for our evolution – or mutation – into the sorts of beings that integrate these possibilities into our worldview and our experience of ourselves.  In other words, for me, even traditional mysticism is already transhuman.  If the traditional teachers are even sort of right, we may need to understand and explore these particular domains of experience in order to discover the ethical or experiential ballast to allow us to navigate the very strange times ahead – actually, the strange times that are already upon us.

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