interviewed by Konrad Becker April 1997
INTERVIEW WITH ERIK DAVIS
interviewed by Konrad Becker April 1997
KB: Your are working on a new book, "TechGnosis" about the occult undercurrents of the information age. Could you give a preview of what you are talking about?
Erik Davis: It's somewhat difficult to put it into a small framework because I am talking about a number of things at the same time. The title "TechGnosis" refers to the way that technology becomes a contemporary expression of patterns of religious thinking and esoteric subjectivity which you can trace throughout history. On the one hand, I'm trying to point to those aspects of technoculture which are either explicitly religious or that, unconsciously or not, draw from coherent patterns of religious, mystical or occult ideas.
At the same time, I am also trying to enrich the language of cyberculture or technoculture with a great deal of historical and imaginative material. I'm interested in going back and talking about images, stories, gods, and myths that resonate with a lot of contemporary topics. Up till this point, the language of cyberculture has been dominated for the most part by postmodern concerns, which are obviously a very important part of the discussion. Postmodern/poststructuralist thought allows us to analyze the mechanisms of the system very well, and in many ways, technoculture operates as a cultural symptom of postmodernism. However, I think that, in its exhausted Enlightenment skepticism, postmodernism refuses certain kinds of languages about subjectivity, consciousness, imagination, and experience without which I doubt we can really get at the really profound cognitive and cultural changes that the new technologies are staging.
So I want to add a lot of other material into the discussion which more resembles a kind of social history of the imagination. And though the images and ideas are philosophically naiveté, that naiveté gives you a kind of richness of imagery, and a certain kind of honesty about experience, consciousness and the popular imagination.
KB: Do you think that postmodern culture or the cultural studies discourse that is going on right now about new media will be able to incorporate these ideas, or do you think that we need a new way of looking at things?
ED: I am frankly skeptical. Within postmodernism, there seems to be an ingrained hatred and distrust of words such as "experience" or "consciousness" or "imagination," and an unwillingness to engage worldviews that stands outside the basically rationalist axioms of the Enlightenment. For me, I don't see how we can have a discussion of what is outside of the modern or what appears in the crack of the modern without also talking about the pre-modern. But I am not necessarily convinced that intellectuals who are immersed in postmodern rhetoric will be interested in the kinds of things that I am talking about. However, I do think that these issues will become more important because they produce social and cultural forms that take on these ideas and live with them. In the end, I suspect I'm still presenting a secret or esoteric way of thinking about technoculture that won't fit into the intellectual mainstream.
KB: Would you say that postmodern discourse is irrationally challenged?
ED: Yeah, I think it is irrationally challenged. It does not recognize the productive and creative dimensions of irrational thought, and it refuses to directly engage the question of consciousness and altered states of consciousness. It freezes before the autonomy of those states and the discourse, inevitably flawed, that comes out of those states. But I ultimately don't like to approach this question theoretically. I am not interested in fighting a rhetorical battle in order to create a philosophical framework that will justify my interests, because they don't work that way anyway. The point is just to do them: to produce images, to produce critical networks of correspondences without bothering to evoke some pre-modern philosophy about the spiritual connection between the symbol and the higher levels of reality. Without falling into the old hierarchical traps, you still produce that kind of thinking: an analog thinking, a magical thinking, except that now it has a critical quality that allows it to weave through history and different kind of discourses. For me, it is a creative expression of the liberation from rationalism that postmodernism allows, while leaving some, but not all of, its skepticism behind. You keep the skepticism but you do not stand on it.
KB: Your work touches on where the irrational is the dark side of the rational. In many ways, there is a dark side to rationalism beyond the critiques of rationalism as such. I am thinking of some exponents of radical materialism connected to early developments of technology. It is sometimes hard to say where the real distinction is between an extreme materialist and an idealist is. Were you interested in that ?
ED: Yes, this tension does come up a lot. Being aware of the patterns of the religious imagination, and the history of those patterns, allows you to recognize things that are going on, not on the level of philosophical axioms, but as patterns of thought. The best example of what you are describing is the hardcore, Extropian, artificial-intelligence people. They are absolute reductionists and materialists in their philosophical approach. They are incredibly anti-Cartesian. They are not dualistic about the mind. They do not believe the mind exists outside of the meat, that spirit comes from some other sphere. Mind is an emergent property that is produced through the parallel interaction of a complex system of neurons.
These Extropian types then take this idea to its logical extreme: if we reproduce the proper underlying matrix of informational complexity, then we will be able to boot up consciousness. Taking it even further, we will be able to download our own minds into some sort of machine matrix, creating an opportunity for immortality and for the godlike expansion of consciousness. Suddenly, you find ourselves with a profoundly gnostic idea embedded in the heart of the most extreme reductionist materialism. If you approach the situation on a philosophical level alone, you will see merely a vaguely absurd extension of materialist thought. But if you recognize it on an imaginal level or a mythic level, then you see it is very much as a gnostic idea and that it plugs into a whole set of spiritual problems and, in some sense, possibilities -- aspects that I deal with at length in my book. Even though Moravec and company come from the level of the body, they end up reproducing the basic religious belief that there is a radical separation between mind and body, and the gnostic tendency to harshly deny the matter side of the equation. We can leave all these husks of meat behind and enter a pleroma of information and engineer our own experience and expand our knowledge to its Promethean extremes. If you look through the history of hermetic thought and gnostic thought, you find these images coming up again and again and again. Looking at it historically, these older myths, these pre-modern images and ideas, inform, enrich and complicate the things that are going on now, without closing off their peculiarly contemporary aspects. Reflecting backward is a way to go forward with more density and resonance.
KB: The discourse in the last few years has identified the term "virtual elite" and it has been somehow equated with the virtual elite of cybergnosticism. Peter Lamborn Wilson talks about this and there has been debate as to what cybergnosticism actually is. There was a posting on Nettime recently, and for this particular person, more or less everything was gnosticism. Would you make differentiations between strains of cybergnosticism?
ED: There is more than one thing going on within the cybergnostic impulse. Unlike Peter, I take a more ambivalent perspective on gnostic thought, an ambivalence I draw from the wide variety of gnostic positions in the history of religious and esoteric thought. For Wilson, decrying gnosticism is a way of pointing to a fundamental error that arises again and again in religious thought: the idea that you can transcend the body, and that there is a realm of representation or information or consciousness that is outside of the body. Obviously, cyberspace has now become the locus of that kind of false transcendence. For him, the best part of the religious or spiritual impulse is its immanent dimension -- the ecstatic and antinomian celebration of difference, autonomy and imagination in the body. From this perspective, the gnostic drive towards transcendence is a deadly move that is being technologically reproduced today in the cyberworld.
Wilson's critique is both powerful and accurate, and it plugs in directly with the question of political power and how it relates to patterns of imagination and spirit. But as soon as you make that cybergnostic connection, you are forced to talk about the historical, philosophical, and mythic dimensions of gnosticism. That becomes very complicated. There are very many different things going on with the gnostic impulse, and I read it with more ambivalence -- in the sense of being both "good" and "bad" -- then Peter. On the one hand, while it is an extreme expression of the transcendental split between mind and body, a split we have all come to distrust for very good reasons, there is also a radically autonomous aspect of gnosticism. Rather than receiving the mystical goods through the mediation of an institution or through a book or through a church hierarchy, it is radically internalized. In fact, transcendence becomes immanence within the gnostic subject. The gnostic subject experiences the eschaton or the metaphysical dimensions of reality within the psycho-dynamics of the self. That immediately begins to complexify our sense of cybergnosticism.
KB: Is this the anti-hierarchical strain in cybergnosticism?
ED: To some degree yes, and this feeds in with the history of hermetic thought and the alchemical divination of the self. Such things are always ambivalent. They are always two-sided. But one hopes (and this is purely speculative) that technology will allow an external machinic expression of such an expansion of consciousness, or an intensification of simultaneity, or a sense of losing the boundaries -- that the cognitive boundaries we operate in the normal world are loosened and opened up. The gnostic tendency in technoculture is not just the ideology of the cyber-elite -- it is a symptom of the fact that this technology, like all information technologies before it, really does produce cognitive change. It does something to ourselves as experiencing subjects: how we integrate the different levels of our experience, and how we relate with other people, and how we experience a realm of information that is, in some sense, discreet from the realm of physical reality. Such shifts are actually producing effects on people's consciousness, and gnosticism is a crude expression or a crude myth that emerges from experiential shifts that people are actually undergoing. What I hope to do is not simply critique the gnostic tendency but to recognize its roots, and to suggest that within it is the seed of a more mature, ambivalent, and ambiguous relationship to the experience of information, and the relationship between mind and body.
KB: Is there a battle between authoritarian and non-authoritarian gnosticism? It has been positioned that here are the bad cybergnostics going up their own asses into cyber heaven. On the other side there are the immediatists. It has become very dualistic but it is not quite clear where the borders are.
ED: Of course, one of the things we are looking at with the "bad" cybergnostics is the question of power. Gnosis was always a mystical religion of the elite. It was always an elitist construct. Not an elite in terms of political power necessarily, for in many ways the gnostic tendency turns against worldly power. But it is certainly an elite in terms of "the chosen ones", the ubermensch, the pneumatics, or the ones who have perceived a more essential level of the way the world works.
KB: But then everybody could have the chance to become a god?
ED: Mythically, yes, but do we want that world or not? That is a good question. We dislike the cybergnostics because their elitism is not only an elitism of the spirit in the Nietzschean sense. It is an elitism of practical power. Moreover, they break down the distinction between the two qualities of power and knowledge, which is something the political elite always does. As soon as you have a worldly institutional power which constructs an elite, that elite gives itself the lie of being selected by heaven or by their own internal excellence. So we have the divine right of kings, and that repeats itself over and over again. The elite has a self-justifying story for itself about its chosen power which is something we always need to fight and struggle against. If you look historically or imaginatively at the anti-authoritarian dimension of gnosticism, you can recognize a tendency which pulls away from the gradual institutionalization of the Christian church. Instead, gnosis demands the radical autonomy of the individual's relationship with mystical reality; it can also have a more positive and productive hermetic aspect in that it expresses this autonomy in the medium of images and practices that are bound up with the explosive power of nature and material reality. That is a different mode of gnosis, and one that I think may be coming back as well. I believe Peter Lamborn Wilson would agree that there are different kinds of gnosis, and perhaps even that immediatism itself is a kind of gnosis. It is not the gnosis of the transcendental elite, but derives from the insistence on the spiritual autonomy of the subject as against the "church" of representations.
KB: Part of why some postmodern discourse seems so retro already is because of the quickly changing realities or ideological settings. It has been stated that the only true force in the world now is capital. That is, that we are in a post-ideological age, and that capital takes that place that perhaps religion took, or that worldviews took. How would you see the work of cults and of religions in pan-capitalism, a synthetic globalized environment. What kind of reactions do you expect from that kind of environment? What would be the effects of that unified new world order--- a global capitalist society---on religious expression?
ED: There are two things that are going on. As it becomes totalizing and pervasive, money itself becomes an organic subject. It has a kind of life, which sets up a new form of animism. Look at the language of global capital. When you look at the rhetorical images that cluster around the development of information media, the development of new technologies and the development of financial markets, you find that it is imbued with organic metaphors, metaphors which are not simply ideological traces. There are plenty of people who are comfortable to stay in the critical position of ideological decoder, who look at things that are happening in the world and decode them in showing how they serve the interest of power. That is all true, that is always going on, it is always important to remind us of that, but I don't think that is the only thing that is going on with the organic life that capital expresses as it passes through the crucible of planetization. I do think that the so-called "sciences of complexity" are onto something, and I am compelled by the essentially cybernetic insight that artificial systems and organic systems share many similar properties. So, both philosophically and, if you will, imaginatively, I think it's fine to think that we are creating increasingly autonomous systems which have a kind of life-like quality to them, or a kind of animistic charge that transcends the merely natural. I just don't think that's necessarily a good thing.
What that all leads to is an animism of money, a sort of imperial paganism of capital flows. Money is the dark side of immanence, because capital wants to achieve the pervasive closure of immanence. It wants to achieve the enmeshed totality we associate with animism, a kind of sacred "econosphere" that utterly encloses us such that we no longer have a way out. What I expect to see, in both positive and negative ways is that, the absolute rule of money will produce a profound kind of backlash. It will obviously take many different forms, but one form I believe it will take is a recovery of religious questions -- about ethics, about evil, about the self, about the purpose of life. Religion will come back precisely because religion is now unnecessary. Such will take many reactionary forms, and undoubtedly many hopelessly naive ones as well, but my hope, and perhaps it is a thin hope, is that it can also take a more non-authoritarian form, one that insists of the specificity of individual consciousness, and on the differences that disrupt globalization.
One of the dualistic tendencies that now animates discourse is the celebration of immanence as opposed to the philosophical lie of transcendence. From certain perspectives, this emphasis on immanence is a deeply fruitful engagement with the real potentials of existing conditions, including the untapped creative force of bodies and matter -- a potential that certainly has its own esoteric expression, which I won't go into here. The question here is the role that transcendence may play in pointing to something -- even an empty something -- that lies outside this immanent rule of money. Recognizing all of the old traps, it's still true that transcendence, like myths or "essences", can also be used as a tactic, as an immanent sword. The blanket distrust of transcendence is naive, not just because transcendence implies a renewed critical capacity, but because the experience of transcendence is grounded in cognitive capacities that we all have. Within meditation or visionary trance, the individual can undergo vastly different states of consciousness which the under-structure of consensus reality reveals itself in profoundly different ways -- ontological, psychological, aesthetic. According to Buddhism, whose take on such matters I regard as the most amenable to the modern mind, transcendent reality cannot ultimately not be distinguished from the relative reality we inhabit, because neither of them are capable of being so reified. Such a perspective immanentizes this transcendence, while dissolving the tendency to reify them -- or the self that perceives -- into an abiding substance. In doing so, such a perspective provides an enormous distance, a kind of slippery ontological pivot, from which to engage the existing state of things. The notion that meditation dulls the critical capacity is simply ignorance.
This is, in a sense, the positive side of gnosis, one which can provide a kind of obverse myth to the Extropian myth of cybergnostic transcendence. In general, gnostic myth does not only hold that the soul or the mind come from an alien place, and that we are lost in this body and this material world. They also hold that the world itself is ruled by fallen beings, by the archons. The creator of this world is not god, but a false god, an ignorant god, a foolish god, perhaps an evil god, and a lot of gnostic mythology is devoted to explaining how this condition came to be. For the Marcionites, who were quasi-gnostics of the second century, the Yahweh of the Old Testament, the one who rules over the Garden of Eden and banishes Adam and Eve, is such a false demiurge. In a profound subversion, Marcion held that Adam and Eve were doing the right thing to eat the apple of the knowledge of good and evil, because it was the apple that gave them gnosis, that gave them the recognition and the remembrance that they potentially transcended their surrounding conditions. In its most extreme form, such a view is harshly dualistic. Because of the false and ignorant archons, this world is fallen, this world is a trap, this world is a danger, it is a hell, and we are from somewhere else. Hence our radical sense of alienation.
KB: Sounds like a media critique to me.
ED: Yeah. That's the trick: when Peter Lamborn Wilson talks about the errors of gnosticism, about how the gnostics hated the body and they hated the world, he's right. But you can also look at that from a different perspective: the gnostics hated the world because it was ruled by ignorant and insidious archons. You could not conquer them -- the only hope was to trust the creative capacities of the self (and the community of such selves), and to learn various tricks and traps to avoid spiritual corruption. So if you remove the desire to transcend the material world, and instead emphasize this almost paranoid metaphysical skepticism about the existing state of order, and then you map this mythic mindframe onto the information millennium, then suddenly the gnostic impulse has a very different quality. Suddenly, it takes on a much more critical edge, one that also is rampant in technoculture.
For an example, you can look at the writings of Philip K. Dick. He has a very strong gnostic temperament that expressed itself not only in metaphors and narrative structures, but in his own life. In 1974, he underwent something that we would recognize as a classic religious experience -- partly a visionary eruption of primary process, partly burst of schizoid paranoia, and partly something that eludes the grasp of reductive explanations. But if you look at his writings, both before and after that lapse, you will see that he does something like what I am describing: he maps the mythology of the archons, of the satanic rulers of this world, onto the increasing virtualization of commodity capitalism and the domination of the imagination by corporate power. His characters are often locked inside false worlds that are constructed out of commodities, and their task is to learn how to break out of them. I am reminded of Sharon Gannon's line: freedom is a psychokinetic skill.
And so I see the mythic return of gnostic images and desires as something ambivalent rather than something to fight. Partly that is my nature -- I remain more interested in how things come about, in all their foolish sloppiness, than in identifying enemies or disclosing false ideologies. I am also using "gnosticism" more broadly than someone like Peter Lamborn Wilson, who understandably wants to point to the dark side of cyber-enthusiasm, to the elitist side, to the absorption into the spectacular machinery at the expense of the body. I am trying to flip it around, and suggest that the same set of myths can be used to launch a skeptical transcendence from within the simulation, or from within the media spectacle, a critical form of the problems posed in the literature of Philip K. Dick. It is as if gnosticism arises out of the social fact that there is an increasingly stark disjunction between the incorporeality of media experience and the anguished shudderings of the material world, and that the self finds itself attempting to straddle this yawning gap.
KB: I'd like to ask you two more questions, one regarding the past and one regarding the future. First I'd like to touch on "secret history". The influence of secret societies within societies has been underestimated in official history. You are doing some revisionist work on history, and I'd like to know what your ideas are about that.
ED: There are two parts to it. One is that there is no way of understanding the modern world or the Enlightenment without talking about secret societies, in the conventionally historical sense of trying to understand the forces that we got us here. Within that history, there is no way to talk about the Enlightenment without talking about secret societies. There is no way to talk about the political dimension of the Enlightenment reaction to the church and to medievalism without talking about freemasonry, without talking about illuminism and the associated modes of Rosicrucian occultism, much of which is shot through with gnostic designs. Our suppression of this secret history has given us a hollow sense of the forces that drive modernity. When we address the problem of modernity, or the course of technological development over the last few centuries, this key piece is missing. Without integrating it or at least undercutting the conventional tale, we will always be rattling around in this false cage that believes that the modern world must be seen as the result of a purely secular, scientific process. The stories that capture the occult, alchemical and millennialist dimension of modernity -- especially the Age of Reason and the nineteenth century -- need to be brought into the discussion, not only to understand how we got here historically, but also because those things still live in their various mutant forms. The secret society, with is elite gnosis, continue to express a certain formation of power.
On the other hand -- and this is very important -- the mere fact of trying to enter into the conspiratorial history of the West moves us outside of the paradigms of conventional history. You can no longer narrate your story within the axioms of conventional history, because the mere fact of insisting on a secret history calls into question our whole construct of history as a rational object. In that sense, historical thinking becomes more postmodern and imaginative, perhaps hopelessly so -- we are forced to recognize that there are a multitude of stories or histories that provide context, and that each one gives us a fragmented perspective on what is going on.
We already know all that, but there is something that secret histories give you that is very different, because you are trying to uncover the histories of groups and forces that always avoid history. In order to narrate those stories, you must become a little paranoid, though not in the sense that They are out to get you. I mean you must become a little paranoid as a critical method. You must start jumping across vague and shadowy realms of ambiguous data, weaving patterns that won't hold up in court, pointing out strange synchronicities that occur, names that reappear. Suddenly possibilities that exist outside of what we can conventionally narrate start to cohere, many of them bordering on the incorporeal and the imaginal. Patterns resonate in ways that seem to undermine conventional historical thinking itself. You And yet that process is infinite. You can take it in any direction, farther and farther. Anybody who is interested in conspiracy literature but does not have an idee fixe will recognize that the conspiracy is an infinite array.
Yet that infinite array, that simultaneity of connections, is itself an expression of the fact that we cannot contain the real, either the historically real or the contemporary situation of power, within a conventional framework, within a simple causal scheme. History does not work simply through those kind of causal schemes. By entering this more synchronistic and analogic way of telling histories, it forces you to recognize the different levels at which historical reality works. To ignore that level of activity, to deny its energies and events because they do not follow the rules, is to ignore so much of what was going on at the time and all the time. At the same time, the minute you have an idee fixe, you are sucked into a black hole and may never return. This is the tragedy of secret historians. To use a played-out metaphor, the trick is to constantly surf the edges of these various conspiratorial attractors while always staying on edge, and remembering that there is always another story behind the story you think you are seeing. It becomes a simultaneously paranoid but anarchistic critical method of telling stories that situate us in different kinds of webworks of forces.
KB: Chances are, people will be reading this on the Internet. You made very interesting points about how new waves of technology or new developments react within the framework that you spoke of from the first telegraph to the globalization of telecommunications. Obviously, the Internet fits well into that frame. History may repeat itself but there are slight differences. What is the future of this new situation and what characterizes it as a specific point in your framework?
ED. One important thing to recognize is that, from the telegraph onwards, the development in electronic communication produces a moment of extraordinary utopianism. This utopianism is fundamentally ambivalent. When people recognize this constant repetition of techno-utopianism, they say, "Look at all the hype about the Internet. Look back at what they said about the radio, they said the same thing. Look back at what they said about the telegraph and they said the same thing." Because of this repetition, we can recognize this rhetoric---and again, this is the ideological critique----as a sort of ruse of power, as a way of capturing people's hope and dreams in order to institutionalize another reign of power and control and money. That is indubitably true. Obviously, the same deflation that eventually occurred with earlier media -- who gets that excited about the phone anymore? -- may well occur with information networks and the planetization of those networks. But of course that technological utopia is not going to come, not by any stretch of the imagination.
On the other hand, those utopian ideas are just top-down illusions, ideological advertisements crammed down our throats by the powers that be. These images are playing off and emerge as well from a resident dream or utopian imagination that exists to varying degrees in the social body. Given the opportunity to project a utopian possibility in an emerging historical framework, some of us will take advantage of it. We will begin to dream of that as the object. The object always fail us, but in the activity of dreaming, there is a spark or a shard of revolutionary potential, at least in an imaginative sense. The utopianism of the Internet is not just the absurd idea that the world is going to get better, that we are going to achieve a better life for ourselves while communicating with people in a new way. What is more interesting than the notion that technology is going to realize such dreams is that those dreams are still happening, and that they are being captured by a political and social apparatus on an unimaginable and historically unprecedented scale. No-one can say what the consequences of capturing utopian desires on such a plane will be.
One of the reasons that such a process happens is that, from the telegraph on, information technologies shrink space and mangle time, literally bringing people being brought closer together. This sparks a communicational utopia, a dream of transparency, that is technologically realized to a certain degree. As the new space is created, we flood that space with the utopian and imaginal desire -- a space that becomes reconstellated by the powers that be, the archons if you will, according to their rule. You can see this very much in the history of radio. Radio is a remarkable technology, one that opens up an incredible spectrum of possibilities. You can completely understand the hype. The avant-garde possibilities, the social possibilities, the musical possibilities....there is a tremendous space. But what do we have? With some exceptions in pirate radio and a few novel alternative stations, we just have this enormous appendage of the recording industry, advertising, and the mainstream propaganda machine. It is an incredible deflation, and yet we do not learn.
To some degree, this deflation is already happening regarding the Net and the various digital media that lie just around the corner.
Except that unlike, say, the telegraph and the telephone, these new technologies are constantly and rapidly mutating. So they will continually push the envelop of communicational and incorporeal possibilities -- and this process will constantly elicit an imaginal possibility as well. On the one hand, this is just going to draw us farther and farther into the new machinery of power, the reign of cybercapitalism and cybergnosis. But on the other hand, it means that technology will be a site of a constantly churning imagination. It is not just going to disappear in five years because everyone will be bored with the Internet. I don't think that is going to happen. I think that we are on a course now where things are going to be constantly changing in a rapid way for quite some time, a process which produces a profoundly apocalyptic imagination. To navigate the collective mind of millennium properly, you need bifocals, schizophrenic eyes that recognize both the dark archons that are constructing the new space of global capital and the constant availability of new spaces, modes, and symbols of, if nothing else, a positive and creative way of organizing the world and ourselves.