Erik Davis: Mysticism in the Machine

April 26th, 2002 | Category: Interviews

Erik DavisSurveying the overlapping regions of mysticism, religion, media theory, postmodernism, and cyber-critique, Erik Davis makes maps of new mental territory. His book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Harmony, 1998), is a journey through the varying and plentiful connections between old-world religions and New Age technology — connections few noticed before Erik pointed them out. As Peter Lunenfeld puts it, “Davis performs alchemy, fusing disparate strands of techno-hype, mystical speculation, and hard-nosed reporting into a Philosopher’s Stone, unlocking secrets our culture doesn’t even know it has.”


Roy Christopher: Techgnosis analyzes the countless and largely unacknowledged connections between mysticism and cyberculture. What originally lead you to write this thesis?

Erik Davis: Sometimes I think that it just happened to be the case that I have always been interested in mysticism/religion and media/technology, so the two interests naturally fused. But the real kicker was reading Philip K. Dick in college, when I was also studying postmodernism and media theory. His interests in gnostic experience in the midst of a science-fiction world of false realities and warped signals encouraged me to start looking at my own media culture through that filter. Then I just kept noticing more and more overlaps and connections. Few people were talking about these links, so inevitably, I had no choice but to write a book!

RC: Aside from semantic discussions on what it means to be “human,” are we indeed becoming — or have we become — posthuman?

ED: Well, unfortunately, part of the question is inevitably semantic, not just in a nitpicky linguistic way, but in the more basic sense of the term, which has to do with meaning. In other words, is the meaning (or lack thereof) of the human changing in some marked and irrevocable way? When you think that now we can blow up the earth, clone ourselves, seriously contemplate genetic eugenics, eradicate natural wildness, alter the climate, kill off millions of species, create proto-intelligence with machines, force photons to slow down, etc., etc. — the question becomes: can the being that can do and contemplate such things be seamlessly woven into the millennia that came before it? Or is there a rupture, a rupture worth talking about? The problem that I have with people who don’t see a rupture, who think that we are just doing what we’ve always done, or are simply carrying forward the Enlightenment project, is that they don’t acknowledge how much our basic context of meaning has changed. The human condition no longer means anything, because many of the limitations that once defined that condition now seem to be up for grabs.

RC: Adapting McLuhan, you call the web, “the supreme amputation of memory.” With all of this externalization of knowledge going on, from the machines of Gutenberg to the file-associations of Berners-Lee, what is the “average intelligent unit” to do to maintain some semblance of balance?

ED: I don’t know. We’re all on our own! And who knows — maybe balance is overrated. My own media intake is much smaller than it once was, but that’s partly because it seems like we are being lied to and manipulated at a far greater pitch these days than before 9/11. For myself, balance comes by being open to as many different kinds of media or information as possible. In other words, even if you did nothing but read news on the internet all day, you would still never catch up with the world. So why bother sticking with one media type? Instead, why not learn to navigate between the internet, musty old books, the weather, your dreams, comic books, film, your body’s internal dynamics, conversation, solitude, meditation, random scraps of data, etc.

RC: Whom do you read and respect these days?

ED: I am never very good at these list questions. These days, I am more in the past, because my next project is about California. Right now I am reading David Dunaway’s Huxley in Hollywood (HarperCollins, 1989), which is great; the poet Robert Duncan; Isherwood; some more Phil Dick; the novelist Kem Nunn; the pulp fantasy genius Clark Ashton Smith. When it comes to respect, I mostly respect my friends, since I’ve met too many people whose work I admire but whose persons make me woozy. I admire many; respect few.

RC: Is there anything you’re working on that you’d like to tell us about?

ED: Well, I am writing a book about the spirit of California. I also have an essay in a great new book on psychedelics and Buddhism called Zig Zag Zen (the book, not my essay, which is called “The Paisley Gate”). It was edited by my friend Allan Hunt Badiner (whom I respect) and it includes totally amazing art (picked by the great artist Alex Grey, whom I also respect) and a wide range of opinions and styles on a most fascinating topic.

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