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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Weird Tales from the Seventies

Erik Davis՚ recent book High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies is an engaging work of cultural history, focusing on the lives and works of three important countercultural intellectuals: the ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, the writer Robert Anton Wilson, and SF writer and later visionary Philip K Dick. These three psychonauts all inhabited California in the seventies, a moment when the druggy revolutionary energy of the sixties was in the process of mutating into a wild variety of spiritual practices and strange belief systems.

Davis draws a common thread through these pioneers and their stories. Aside from their obvious similarities (they shared a time and place, they were all writers, they all experimented with drugs and esoteric practices, they were all somewhat fringe figures who went on to have impacts on the mainstream culture) – they also all underwent strange experiences where fiction and reality start to bleed into each other, resulting in feelings of confusion, deep ontological crises, ambiguous spiritual revelations, and new writings that attempted to describe and understand their weird experiences. Their works began as fiction but looped back to intertwine with their real lives in unexpected and uncharacterizable ways.

This looping quality is a key aspect of the common thread that Davis identifies as high weirdness – defined variously as a textual genre, a subcultural mode; a realization of that mode at a particular time and place; a style of ironic self-reference; and a particular kind of personal quasi-religious experience. If it՚s a bit hard to pin down, that is another of its inherent qualities – it resists precise definition. But to me the most interesting aspect of it is how it starts to be a theory of how the relationship between text and reality breaks down at the extremes. As Davis puts it, they “pushed hard on the boundaries of reality – and got pushed around in return.”

Given the theme of strange loops and the structural strategy of viewing this deep and far-reaching idea through the lens of three different thinkers, it՚s hard not to think of High Weirdness as Gödel Escher Bach for acidheads. And while it isn՚t that obvious from its official presentation as a work of cultural criticism, it also shares Hofstadter՚s high ambition of capturing important but elusive glimpses of something fundamental to the structure of reality.

But where Hofstadter՚s metacircular loops tend to be orderly quasi-mathematical formal patterns, the loops of High Weirdness are subtler, stranger, and harder to pin down. They are viral and agent-like; they are darker, more personal, more like narratives than beautiful patterns. They begin as texts and but then leap off the page to enfold their authors. They take on aspects of a Landian hyperstition, a myth that has independent agency and can somehow act to call itself into being. They pose a challenge to mainstream metaphysics in a way that Hofstadter՚s more purely cognitive loops do not.

If High Weirdness is a viral construct that has a tendency to infect authors and readers, and can transmit itself by way of texts, then High Weirdness itself is a carrier. Davis is quite explicit about this, at one point comparing his text to bubble gum on the shoe, something sticky that just won՚t go away and is passed on from one carrier to the next (of course making this review another potential carrier of the infection – sorry about that! But you can blame the weirdly irresistible agency of the idea).

In other words, the book is not just a breezy biography of some colorful cultural figures, but also a quite serious attempt to absorb, synthesize, and reflect on their actual ideas and works and their broader meaning for the culture and for the nature of existence. It՚s based on genuine academic work (originally a dissertation in comparative religion) but does not patronize its somewhat disreputable subjects. It enters into their world of “garage philosophy” and their quests and connects it to more institutionalized forms of discourse. (Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, Graham Harman and Timothy Morton are prominent touchstones). It is a highbrow view of the lowbrow, and quite self-aware of the contradictions that generates.

Davis՚s philosophical framework for encompassing the experiences he writes about he calls “weird naturalism”: basically the position that weird things (UFOs, spirit visions, machine elves, etc) are real but not supernatural. They are not spirits from another plane of existence, but irreducible features of the one reality that we actually inhabit. Certainly the experiences they engender are real enough. One might consider them, especially given the generative role drugs play in producing them, as tricks of the nervous systems – real like an optical illusion is a real phenomenon of vision. But it՚s key to Davis՚s story that they are somehow realer than that, that they aren՚t mere hallucinations, but instead glimpses of unseen aspects of reality:
The… most substantial sense of the word is ontological. In this view, weirdness is a mode of reality, of the way things are…Weirdness here is not simply an artifact of our bent minds but a feature of the art and manner of existence itself…More than a genre, more than a psychological mode, the weird inheres in the loopy, twisty, tricksy way whereby things come to be. (p 9)
That all sounds very abstract, but one of the strengths of High Weirdness is connecting up these metaphysical speculations with the concrete details of the lives of the particular individuals involved, and with the specific cultural context they lived in. I can՚t say much about the Terence McKenna parts since I just don՚t know his work that well, but I՚ve been a big RAW and PKD fan for decades and even so there was a lot of new detail and insight into the lives and works of these author/visionaries, as well as the connections between them. I can՚t readily summarize these sections, which are dense with personal history.

RAW Illumination

But I can՚t resist saying a little bit about Robert Anton Wilson, who had an outsized influence on my own thinking. He՚s best known as co-author of the Illuminatus! trilogy, an underground classic that explored drugs, anarchism, cults and conspiracy theories at time when these topics were very much underground, rather than the stuff of pop culture cliche like they are today. While I was a big fan when I found these books, which would be late 70s at MIT, it՚s a little hard to read Wilson today, in part because this stuff has permeated the mainstream so thoroughly. Also, certain standards have shifted and both the sex and the epistemology, which seemed rather daring back then, are kind of dated. But that really means that he was in the vanguard of an important cultural shift.

Wilson՚s philosophy might best be encapsulated as epistemological anarchism – rather than cleaving to a single belief system, an enlightened mind had to treat belief lightly, recognizing that there are many possible conflicting belief systems that all offer something of possible value, and having a single vision is the death of thought “If one can only see things, according to one՚s own belief systems, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind”. Or in the words of the Discordian writer Malaclypse the Younger “convictions cause convicts”. Wilson himself was interested in occultism, drugs, fringe politics like anarchism and libertarianism, and fringe scientists like Timothy Leary and John Lilly. One of his minor causes was rehabilitating Wilhelm Reich and describing his “persecution” at the hands of the government for his orgone boxes.

When Wilson was writing, the idea that freakish alternative world views should be taken seriously was quite radical; today it՚s part of the cultural background assumptions. In the 60s and 70s, it might have seemed like a great idea to break free of the master narratives of mainstream culture and go seek your own truths. In the world of Trump and Fox News – well, like in so many revolutions, the outcome was not quite as liberatory as was hoped for. [I՚ve been warned all my life that I՚ll become conservative with age. It hasn՚t happened in politics for obvious reasons, but maybe I՚m becoming an epistemological conservative in my old age, looking back with a bit of embarrassment at the radical posturings of my youth.]

Davis dives into Wilson՚s career and writings, but the thematic focus is on a period in his life where he believed he was receiving transmissions from a higher intelligence from Sirius, an experience he detailed in the book Cosmic Trigger. He found himself in what he termed Chapel Perilous – a state of psychic confusion, where the synchronicities pile up and overwhelm rationality and skepticism:
Wilson awoke from a dream and scribbled down the following phrase: Sirius is important. This dream prompt, inserted like a virus into Wilson՚s already wacky weltanschauung, triggered a series of coincidences, paranormal experiences, and interlocking references that drew Wilson into what Lovecraft called “a structure of indefinite possibility and promise.” (p 246). … This “discursive network” produced for Wilson a wide variety of edifying teachings, prophecy, and gibberish.
Wilson was fully convinced that contact with an alien Higher Intelligence had begun…Wilson often slipped into what cognitive psychologists would describe as delusions of reference, confirmation bias, and off-the-hook agency detection…[he] considered the possibility of madness, but rejected the idea…
As Wilson said later, you either come out of Chapel Perilous as a stone paranoid or an epistemological agnostic. Wilson was fortunate to find the later path, due in large part to his inherent humanism and good humor. After his experience, he was able to write about it with an attitude of bemused detachment, and no firm commitment to its ontological status.
For Wilson had in many ways scripted his own extraordinary experience. Cosmic Trigger describes what happens when the sort of mischievous mindfucks that Wilson had unleashed in Illuminatus! come home to roost…unlike the many naive example of such self-scripting, Wilson was perfectly aware of the elements of “fictionality” that were shaping the “four-dimensional coincidence-hologram” his life had become. The irony was that this critical awareness did not dissolve the entities who seemed to be pulling the strings. (p 253)

Weirding the Wider World

The final section of High Weirdness attempts to trace the consequences of these writers and their experiences up to the present age, in no small part due to their influence on the technology culture of Silicon Valley and the general rise of “network culture”, which means not only the Internet but various New Age beliefs (Marilyn Ferguson՚s famous Aquarian Conspiracy apparently heralded the rise of networks as an organizing principle) and the rhizomatic epistemology of Deleuze and Guattari. This part I had a bit of trouble with. If the world is indeed shifting to a more networked and less hierarchical organization, it՚s not clear to me what the visions of three spiritual seekers had to do with it. The drivers are largely technological, and if these writers sensed the changes and incorporated them into their work they were not that unique in doing so.

There՚s also some discussion of the unavoidable fact that these concerns which used to be fringe are now rapidly becoming mainstream. Psychedelics are the stuff of bestseller self-help books, conspiracy theories are the stuff of mainstream movies. The weirdness of the world seems to have caught up or lapped the visionary experiences of the 1970s, making their struggles seem a big quaint. But High Weirdness is quite openly a work of cultural history, trying to draw a picture of the state of things in the recent past, so that is expected.

More ominously, the mindfuck media hacking techniques pioneered by the early Discordians are now industrial-strength tools of political warfare and intelligence operations, to the point where they have damaged the fundamental trustworthiness of long-standing political institutions – and not for the liberatory purposes that drove them originally.

The lesson may be that epistemic revolutions run into the same problem that plagues political revolutions: destroy the existing institutions of power, and the wrong people will rush in to fill the ensuing vacuums. The consensus reality that Wilson and others challenged seems like it might have been worth saving, after all. But this book is about a time when we were all more innocent. If some of their explorations seem foolish and embarrassing in retrospect, well, it՚s hard to imagine a more nuanced, sympathetic, and relevant attempt to retrace their steps and link it to the broader struggle to understand and improve the world.

Related posts: musings towards weird naturalismmy visit to a PKD festival. And maybe relevant if a bit a field from High Weirdness: my conflicted relationship with psychedelic culture.

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