Follow Your Weird: A Conversation with Erik Davis
Before we hang out with Erik Davis, I’d like to start with a story. I once had an idea to create a Freakipedia. It was inspired by an experience I had a few years ago at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. One evening while in the festival’s food court I shared a picnic table with a young dude from Georgia, a fresh-faced college student around 18 years old. While we munched away, at some point during our chit chat I started to deconstruct the music business, laying out how the culture industry plans and markets popular culture to kids like him. I guessed his demographic and interests and predicted some of his buying habits. He was blown away, thinking that I was some kind of wizard. I just explained that it was a fairly simple system, he just needed to know how it worked. But if he wanted to learn more, I warned, it wouldn’t be from his college professors. I gave him my card and told him that if he was still curious, he could write me.
I never heard from him again, but afterward I thought about our encounter and how when I was a young freakatoni significant guidance came from an informal network of like-minded kooks. I had been turned on to Rimbaud, Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K. Dick, Hunter S. Thompson, Lao Tzu, Tristan Tzara, Buddha, Emma Goldman and so on by elders and peers. Their works had comprised an important unofficial curriculum that helped blow my mind. My life is richer because of the artists, writers, punks, filmmakers, druggies, psychonaughts, Bohemians, homeless crazies and the like who helped school me in esoterica and an underground history of culture.
Which brings us to Erik Davis. It occurred to me after reading his new book, Nomad Codes, that Erik has created a subentry for the Freakipedia. A collection of essays compiled from close to 20 years of his writing life, they cover a vast, rhizomatic net of high weirdness both familiar but hopefully also new to readers of Reality Sandwich. You will be treated to jaunts among Burmese spirit mediums, Burning Man, the mad science of Lee Scratch Perry, West African trickster gods, Goa trance, “magickal realism,” H.P. Lovecraft, Terence McKenna, and much more. These essays are great supplementary material for his book-length cultural exegeses, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, Led Zeppelin IV (part of Continuum Books’ 33 ⅓ series), and The Visionary State: A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape.
Thinking about that boy from Georgia, I hope that he’ll stumble upon Erik’s new book. I also hope that millennials will take an interest in Erik’s writings because his work captures a zeitgeist that I feel is increasingly drowned out by mass mediation and the Web 2.0 milieu. This is perhaps why Douglas Rushkoff didn't like my idea for the Freakipedia as a Website: he thinks this knowledge has to find you when you are ready for it. A web search just doesn’t do it justice; it comes to us via a secret history, a subnet, or what Greil Marcus calls the lipstick traces of history. Not surprisingly, reading Nomad Codes is a respite from the hypermedia Web. Rich with contemplation, accidental discovery and unsolved puzzles that cause one to think and write, Erik engages an organic discourse with ideas that are like extensions of conversation between far out and strange people. I resonate with Erik's work for this reason: it will lead you to unexpected connections and places, things you didn't realize you should know, and sometimes things you shouldn't know (according to the conventional wisdom, at least). I hope this book will be an entry point for those who haven't taken the red pill yet. Fingerscrossed, there are plenty of folks out there following their inner weirdo, which should lead them straight to Erik’s work.
Antonio Lopez: As you write in your lead essay, Del Mar where you grew up was Reagan country. Like you, I also grew up in SoCal during the ‘70s and early ‘80s and came out of it as weird as the rest. Is there something conducive to the Californian landscape that produces high weirdness that we somehow imbibe unwillingly? To borrow a meme from an infamous California weirdo, what's in the Kool-Aid?
Erik Davis: I used to think the Kool-Aid was just the era. You and I grew up at the tail end of the counterculture, the long tail end, and we were surrounded by the spent fuel rockets of all those experiments with revolution, divination, drugs, mysticism, hedonism, and electric guitars. Punk -- hardcore to be precise -- just made the trip more gnarly. So even though it was nice beachside suburbia, the vibrations -- as we like to say -- were still pretty strange. And they were vibrations -- good ones, bad ones, a kind of humming in the air.
After writing The Visionary State, my exploration of California’s alternative spirituality, I have come to believe that it is also the place itself. Those fault lines, that big nothing-everything ocean, all the highs and lows, the big nature becoming a big mall before your very eyes. The topography mirrors the mindspace. Christopher Isherwood once said that California was a tragic place -- “like Palestine, like all promised lands.” Growing up in a land of plenty and promise with all that restless hunger intact, and nowhere left to go. It was fun though.
California also has the historical role of being the end point of the wild west, which makes it both utopian and dystopian depending on the reasons for why people migrated there. It has a wonderful mix and clash of cultures that results in the usual chaos and beauty of any borderland. My father worked in the aerospace program and my mother was an artist, which captures the kind of atmosphere of SoCal back in the day. But given the homogenization of everything, I wonder if the counterculture's long tail has been cut off like a lizard's and we're just kind of flipping around until our nerve ends fry.
There is a Lew Welch poem about California being "the last place," and I think what he meant was that it was the last big utopia for restless souls to seek and find. But I also think that the crappy and confusing techno-dystopia the whole developed world now inhabits was created or nurtured in California -- freeways, fast food restaurants, biotech, media industries, marketed pop hedonism. And it's where the first node of the Internet was established. So that’s another way it’s the “last place” -- it’s kind of the first place that becomes no-place. I agree that there is not a lot of "true" counterculture anymore. "They" sniff out every organic development before it barely starts to bud. The kind of fandoms that grew up around Star Trek or the Grateful Dead are manufactured from the get-go today. There is still deep experimentation of course. People living off the grid or going hobo or creating new communities keep some of that experimental spirit alive for sure. Some people say that nowadays "we" have to become "they," but I don't know about that. All I know is that there remains a counterculture of the spirit, a kind of internal refusal and internal fidelity to outside values and experiences. And communities form of such refusal and such vision, though they may take place on the subtle plane.
Certainly a lot of alternative cultural spaces can still be found on the Internet, but whether they get enclosed or not, like California’s subcultures, remains to be seen. In terms of your book, I’ve been trying to figure out the title, Nomad Codes. When I think of your work, I think of California, even if you’re writing about Led Zeppelin, because my immediate image of them is not England, but the stoner days that you write about in SoCal. Given that much of your work is so directly and indirectly rooted in California, what is the nomadic impulse that underlies these particular writings?
When I went to college in the 80s, the “nomad” was a trendy concept. It was set in contrast to the state or the control society, which it decoded or “deterritorialized” through its flight, its lack of foundation. For me the nomad is still an image of movement and transformation, but not necessarily joy. It might just be the way it is, or because you have no choice, like that sense of restlessness that’s so evident in a place like LA. A lot of the stuff that interests me -- ecstatic experience, magic, religion, intense music, beauty, weirdness, travel as pilgrimage -- is a kind of transport, a way to move from here to there, or at least away from here, wherever here may be. I’ve been a lot of places, though I have only “lived” in a few. But my writing too is nomadic in a way -- I have written a lot of different genres, in different voices. On the surface my books are all really different (though they share very deep concerns) -- I am an agent’s nightmare!
Experimentation with style and genre is definitely a hallmark of our generation. Maybe it's too much to say that Gen X and postmodernism are synonymous, but I think some of the ideas and identities we have played with in the past have become normal. There was an interesting piece I read by an art professor who recently asked her grad students if they had heard of postmodernism, and to her shock and chagrin none had. She later realized it’s because the so-called postmodern sensibility is now daily life for anyone who uses the Internet and engages in the various activities associated with it (remixing, mash-ups, etc.). Still, not to dredge up such an out of fashion idea, but like the art professor, I’m a Gen Xer who increasingly feels older and (gasp!) experiences a generation gap with the youth I teach. Do you identify as Gen X? I ask because I think your sensibilities come from a specific historical moment, yet you also seem comfortable in multiple time periods and don’t quite fit the normal role assigned to our generation (ironic, dispassionate, disengaged, apathetic).
In some ways I am very much of my time. I was always very aware of media, and I distinctly remember the first home computer I saw, an Altair my friend’s older brother had. He was a hardcore 70s SciFi computer nerd. I learned BASIC in high school, got a pint-sized Macintosh SE for college, and got on the net before the Web. (Not to sound like an old fart, but it was more fun back then!) I never really related very much with the media ideas about Gen X -- although there is definitely some irony in my work, I only feel I can use it because I also feel and think about things so intensely. As I get older, I am becoming even more aware of being in a generation that has its own specificity, although I don’t think it’s often been articulated well. We are a liminal generation, and now we are getting near the “middle” of things. In a way it’s a relief -- the forces of conformism lighten somewhat when you are not a youth. But I also have a really good cultural radar, so I feel like I catch the vibe (that word again!) of all sorts of people and places and things.
For the uninitiated, what is occulture? And why does it interest you?
I am not sure who exactly coined that term; there’s a British scholar who gets recognized for it but it was also online back in the day. It’s a good one. For me it means the place where popular culture meets the underground and very real currents of magic, mysticism, and the esoteric -- a stream that has always been with us, but which was rediscovered and reaffirmed, in not always healthy ways, in the 60s. “Occulture” is also a way to claim the occult or the religious fringe as a kind of cultural identity or playground, rather than an overly serious and hidden realm. I try to look at the mysteries from both ends -- I think its important to look at, say, the contemporary ayahausca scene as a scene, with dress codes and slang and rock stars, not as a sacred separate realm. (Even though sacred things can and do go down there.) At the same time I think it is important (or at least more rewarding) to look at our often junky world of late capitalist culture as a place where the seeds of insight and vision might be found, if only you look at the landscape in just the right way.
Agreed. It seems like joining the occulture happens whether your want to or not. For example, in terms of media, my beliefs are against the conventional wisdom which tends to argue that all mediation leads to hegemony. For me, it just makes me weirder. I think back to the kinds of shows that we watched as kids -- Sid and Marty Krofft, McDonaldland commercials with talking hamburgers and milkshakes, Sesame Street, cable TV with Japanese cartoons, the Adams Family, Three Stooges and The Munsters -- these were all magically strange realities that were being programmed by people doing drugs, participating in sex cults, engaging alternative spiritual practices and so on. Even the Eagle's “Hotel California” has Church of Satan's Anton Leve on its record cover. High weirdness, it seems, was not just beneath the surface but right there for our consumption. And like you say, it was fun!
Yeah, but again, there was something organic and spontaneous even about those fears of subliminal messages back then. Even though the Eagles or Led Zeppelin were mass culture, there was a space of mystery around those cultural forces, about something to decode. Today it’s less about encoding and decoding (what the song is "really" about) and more about decontextualizing and recontextualizing (you remix the song or sample it to say something totally different). That represents a more dynamic engagement with popular culture as raw material. At the same time, being a fan is more about being engineered as a fan, since the manufacturers of pop culture are now anthropologists who understand the dynamics of fan culture. But I think that has come with a loss as well -- there is less room for mystery and esoteric rumor. We know too much about our heroes now, and unless we are not really paying attention, we know they are as lame and ordinary as we are. Who cares if Led Zeppelin backwards-masked Satanic messages in "Stairway to Heaven"? If I want to hear Satanic messages in Zep songs, I can mix them in with Garageband.
I like Marcus Boon’s description of your work as critical spirituality, which riffs on critical theory. How does religious dissent figure into your interests?
A number of years ago I was complaining to my wife about how hard it was to make a living or get readers or get noticed -- the usual writerly whining -- and she was like: “What did you expect? Who are your heroes?” Oh yeah: they’re ranters, cranks, visionary poets, mad scientists, alchemists, druggy hippies, Zen hobos, gnostic Christians and academic esotericists. Duh -- what was I thinking? I have always been attracted to religious dissent. When I was a kid I listened to Jesus Christ Superstar all the time, that was how I learned the gospel story, and I was totally into Judas. Something about the willingness to go against the grain of religion in the name of the spirit, rather than just rejecting the whole thing, makes my soul sing. Or the idea that you think you know what “religion” is, and what’s wrong with it. And then you pull back the floorboards just a little bit, and a wild and sometimes frightening world appears, a world where you might just encounter something that makes you change everything you think.
In regards to being a spiritual dissident, do you consider yourself a public intellectual committed to some kind of truth or ethic? Can it be distilled into 140 characters?
I am not a slogan guy. My ethic is to juggle with everything that comes my way. To pay attention, but to do it for free.
When we met in the mid-90s there was a lot of utopian thinking about the Internet and high hopes for an enlightened consciousness to emerge from all the interesting subcultural activities going on during that period. In retrospect I feel like the corporations won and I feel less optimistic about technology elevating human consciousness. Where are you at with this?
Well I am pretty much with you, I hate to say. There are amazing things happening, but there is a hollowness throughout the land. But I think the change in the technosphere is bigger and weirder than just the corporations taking over, which means I am more, if not optimistic, then at least fascinated with tracking and engaging (and critiquing) this thick chaos than I would be if it was just the McWorld scenario.
Along these lines, how does TechGnosis hold up in the current media environment?
Well one of the big theses in that book was that when big media shifts occur, the cultural and spiritual imagination gets stirred up, after which things get routinized. That’s what happened with the telephone, the radio, TV, etc. And it's happened with the Net in many ways: a period of utopia and amazing dreams, and then consumer surveillance, personal data extraction, and an extraordinary amount of cheese, not to mention really bad writing that makes me mourn for our lovely tongue. I read Shirky and all those folks, I get it, but sometimes its just Crap 2.0.
Of course the net, and all our media tech, keeps changing. But the action is not in the gadgets or the spaces they create now. It’s about the world around us, about what’s happening to the world, happening to us in that world. That’s the really apocalyptic dimension of our situation: even if we keep the big disasters at bay -- environmental collapse, major social unrest, economic breakdown, etc. -- then the continuing transformation of the technosphere is still going to freak our shit out. Inside, outside, roundside out: things are going to get disorienting, claustrophobic, and surreal. They already very much are.
It won’t be long before sensors are everywhere, and the virtual and physical worlds will become ever more tightly coupled. I’m looking forward to that about as much as I am to the next time I have to go through airport security. But at the same time, there is something about human tenacity, about our ability to find a certain kind of off-kilter balance, humor, and goodwill in the midst of extreme or degraded circumstances that gives me a kind of hope. We are good at feeling “normal” (i.e., discontent, irritated, funny, and full of wants) no matter how weird the scene gets. I just hope there are still zones for nomads to roam, that we don’t go full ant farm.
Looking back at your earlier work, do you ever have some cringe moment in which you felt like you blew a call, or see your younger self trying to prove something to the world? What about those times when you see earlier work and you wish your mind is as sharp now as it was then?
Oh man, I did go through this to fix a few mistakes and it was kinda rough sometimes. Who does this guy think he is? But it’s a younger self -- of course it's gonna swagger, and reach too far, and miss the bouncing ball sometimes. But you’re right: there was an intense and voracious quality to my earlier stuff that no longer applies. I feel a lot of the same inspirations, but the instrument has changed -- more refined but less hot.
William Gibson described Neuromancer like it was a garage band novel. It seems a book like that can only be written with the naiveté that anything is possible. On the other hand, when I think of myself in my 20s I did not have the life experience or wisdom to say anything that I would consider to be of interest to the world. It makes me question our infatuation with youth artists and writers. Yet, it has to be said that after a certain point the brain doesn't seem to fire as quickly. And as a youthful rebel, life (and ideas) feel conquerable.
On a related note, does it seem strange to you that you are at a point in your "career" that you have created an anthology of your work? I mean, sometimes when a band does a "best of" album, or an artist has a retrospective, it's a sign that a certain era has passed. Certainly the idea of serious magazine journalism seems to be arcane at this point. Does Nomad Codes feel like a punctuation point? And if so, what are you looking forward to (and towards)?
Techgnosis for me was a kind of garage band book of media theory, although maybe it was more a psychedelic garage band with an analog synth player and a digital sampler guy. I wrote it in my 20s but I was lucky that the stars were right and something came through that is still meaningful today for people who study and think about that stuff. I was inspired and that inspiration still comes through. I certainly don't take credit for it.
Nomad Codes is a punctuation point of sorts. I started writing professionally in the late 80s and I had a wonderful time for almost two decades, managing to make a living writing about things I loved or that intrigued me for magazines, alternative newspapers, and online outfits, while managing to squeeze off a few books along the way. The twin prongs of the financial collapse and the Internet, which has not only glutted the mindspace with words but has encouraged the notion that writing should be free (and now with ebooks further undermining the publishing industry), stabbed the livelihood of people like me -- "mid-list" or alternative writers who were never going to be be bigtime but could once keep it going on the margins. I also realized that my interests had shifted, that I was more interested in teaching and in the sorts of esoteric and intellectual questions that are hard to ask in today's mainstream jabberfest. Serendipitously, I saw an opening in the academic world for people interested in outsider topics like me. So I am currently pursuing a PhD at Rice under Jeff Kripal, who is doing fascinating work on alternative religion, the paranormal as the sacred, and superheroes as avatars of transhuman mysticism. I just wrote a long paper on Christian demonology, stage magic, and the Deleuzian idea of the phantasm. It was pretty cool.
Does writing about magic invoke it in your life?
Absolutely. Writing has invoked most of my greatest friends into my life, as well as most of my voyages, and most of my best ideas. I was just reading Jacques Vallee, the brilliant UFO researcher, and he was talking about how most of his mystical experiences came while writing. I know what he means. Sometimes it feels like Hermes is there in the room with you, or VALIS or the Great Old Ones. Sometimes its kind of a global mind synchronicity, like when just the reference you need comes through an email or a random page search or an open book. All your sources start to resonate. Writing fosters a particularly kind of intimacy with the spirit of intelligence and creativity who, of course, is not really “you,” but comes up with all the good stuff. The bad stuff too, I guess -- but that’s your responsibility to edit out!
I imagine you have also had your share of kook encounters of the not-so-friendly kind. I remember in Hopiland visiting with a family associated with the Hopi prophesies. They joked about how they've had to deal with a variety of insane people who'd randomly show up claiming to be the "lost white brother," and others who thought they were Christ. Once you open that Pandora's box, all shapes and forms will avail themselves.
My interests have helped stage a number of very peculiar encounters over time, both with unhinged or even scary individuals and with the monsters of my own psyche (and maybe the cosmos at large). I value those experiences, though I recognize their dangers. I have learned a lot from the deranged and the deluded, including the way not to go! I think it is wonderful that people have inspiring revelatory dreams sometimes, but I think it is equally important to have and cherish nightmares.
Much of your writing career was established pre-Web 2.0. Looking back at your work, did you anticipate the social Web? Has twitter influenced your writing?
I didn’t see it coming, but that may also be that it’s not really my thing. I am not a big social networker. In fact, I am barely a small social networker. I like one-on-one friendships, eating and drinking with friends around a table, large very strange gatherings. When I’m online I am writing or researching or emailing. The pressure to get on Facebook feels like the pressure to go to the prom. But I do love Twitter: it’s like tickling the Gaian mind.
I'm like you. I prefer the Web for writing and researching. I'm more of a slow media guy, and most definitely a Net agnostic. But I have to say that I have come to really love Twitter. The strange thing is that in the beginning I really hated it, but only got into it after I met a bunch of cool people at a conference and discovered they were avid Twitterers. I felt like I could continue the energy of hanging out with them through Twitter. Strange to say, but going to Twitter kind of warms my heart in the way that you say, "it's like tickling the Gaiian mind." The more I get into Twitter, the more I hate Facebook. Maybe it's for the same reasons you say -- I hate feeling like I'm in high school.
I really enjoyed the bardo piece at the end of your book. For me it's a reminder that the act of reading and writing can bring us to a liminal state. Perhaps the primary difference I see between the Internet and books is that literature has a hermeneutic quality that seems to be absent on the Web. This is not to say one is better than the other -- for me they are apples and oranges that can do different things according to needs and desires -- but this would be a kind of plug to urge people to actually buy your book. Even though some of these pieces were published on the Web, I actually prefer reading them as book collection. The handsome drawings by Susan Willmarth also give the book an organic feeling. On this note, who do you hope will buy the book, aside from your fans and friends?
Nomad Codes works, I like to think, not just because it draws together some of my best stuff out of the hundreds of my articles available online, but because it lets the pieces talk to one another. I was surprised how integrated all these different topics became once they sat alongside one another in a book. That's partly that hermeneutic effect you are talking about, which I totally agree with: there is a space of depth and resonance in books that does not apply to online text, which has its own interwoven magic for sure. Plus Fred Tomaselli's brilliant cover and Susan Willmarth's utterly charming drawings really help flesh it out.
Who will buy it? I am not sure I will ever be a "name" author, someone who gets that kind of reputation where lots of people who aren't actually familiar with my writing will buy me because it’s what everybody is doing. I think my work propagates through resonance rather than argument -- my readers find me because something really strikes them, maybe they don’t even know why, and then they pass on the contagion to folks they know. I am happy to say my readers come from many worlds. Some are hardcore skeptics into transhumanism and technological futures; some are crunchy Neo-pagan types; some are academic weirdos; or psychonauts; or pop culture obsessives. As I said, I have met a lot of my favorite people in the world through my writing, so in a sense it functions like a kind of pirate radio station, broadcasting on odd frequencies late at night in order to reach the kind of people who tune into odd frequencies late at night. I know that’s a dead metaphor, of course, it’s all digital now, but that's one reason I started doing my net "radio" show Expanding Mind on the Progressive Radio Network about a year and a half now. I love to have verbal conversations with people who interest me. In many ways my writing is like a gift or spur to future interlocutors. If it works for you, we would probably enjoy each other's company.
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