inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #0 of 44: Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 6 Sep 00 13:59
Erik Davis has long lived in a world sharply inflected by the myriad
tonalities, intensities, and textures of Light: the bright beaches and
shadowy arroyos of his boyhood Southern California; the creamy golden
light filtered through the panes of translucent marble in Yale
University's Beinecke Library; the mystical Light and Darkness that serve
as central symbols in the so-called "Gnostic gospels."  It is, therefore,
no coincidence that light may be the "meta-metaphor," if you will, of his
book, _TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information_.  
As suggested by the title, in this book Erik uses contemporary technology
to illuminate the nooks and crannies, interstices and corners of the human
mind as they are reflected in a framework borrowed from the ancient and
syncretistic Gnostic religions.

As a Yale undergrad majoring in English, Erik's formal interest in his
subject was initially piqued by work he did for what might have been his
favorite course: The Bible as Literature.  He went on to write his senior
thesis on the work of Philip K. Dick, the science fiction author who has
remained a seminal, if somewhat kooky, archon of Eric's literary
imagination and intellectual soul.  Since college, Erik has become a
frequent contributor to periodicals like Wired, The Village Voice,
Details, Spin, Gnosis, Rolling Stone, and Lingua Franca.  He has created a
rich and substantial body of work, much of which provides the substrate of
TechGnosis.  His many articles are easily accessed by visiting his

In TechGnosis, we find Erik at play on an enormous field, mapped by the
compass points of his energetic intelligence and unceasing curiosity, and
carpeted with AstralTurf.  The scope of his erudition is breathtaking, and
the facility with which he finds associations between apparently unrelated
or at best tangentially related subjects is reminiscent of James Burke's
_Connections_.  In addition to Gnosticism, grist for Erik's mill includes:
information and communications theory; the philosophies of Leibniz,
Augustine, Deleuze and Foucault (among many others); D&D and MUDs; the work
of the rather weird Nikola Tesla; Wicca and other forms of pagan cults and
cyber-rituals; UFOs and Heaven's Gate; other sci-fi authors like Gibson,
Stephenson, and Vinge; Hinduism and Buddhism.  And this is but a very
partial list!

Tony Barreca, his interlocutor for this conversation, is also a student of
history and literature, philosophy, psychology, religion, and myth.  A
longtime denizen of The Well and co-host of the Futures conference, in his
day gig Tony serves as Chief Technical Officer and Vice President of
Engineering at Identive Corporation, a provider of tools and services for
interactive television and video production.

Please join me in welcoming Erik and Tony for what promises to be a very
provocative and intellectually stimulating discussion here in inkwell.vue!
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #1 of 44: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 6 Sep 00 14:49
Don't forget the web reference:

Hi, Erik...welcome back! You've been abducted by a UFO again, I see...
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #2 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Wed 6 Sep 00 15:42
    <scribbled by tbarreca Wed 6 Sep 00 17:26>
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #3 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Wed 6 Sep 00 17:28
Hi, Erik!  Let me join Linda and Jon in welcoming you to the WELL!

For the record, let me state that I enjoyed the book immensely and recommend
it highly.  And to kick off our conversation, will you please tell our
audience about the central thesis of the book, and why you think it's
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #4 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Thu 7 Sep 00 20:21
Well, I've always had trouble with the "central thesis" question,
because my book is really a network of related themes and images that
bounce around like a historical and metaphysical pinball game. I love
James Burke's Connections, but does Connections have a thesis other
than the fact that everything is connected to everything else?

 Basically the argument in TechGnosis boils down to the assertion that
technology has not squelched the "arational" kinds of thought and
experience we associate with myth, magic, mysticism and religion. We
are taught that the dominance of technology signifies the rationality
of our civilization, but that's just propoganda -- we have lived in
technological cultures for far longer than we have lived in rationalist
ones. And when it comes to communications technology (which is the
particular focus of the book) we actually find that many of our ideas,
hopes and fears draw from what one could call the archetypal imaginary.
What I do in the book is show the historical and cultural roots of
these decidedly non-utilitarian ways of  exploring and experiencing
technology -- UFOs probably being the best and most obvious example,
but virtual reality being another.

inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #5 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Fri 8 Sep 00 00:21
Considering that you are not fond of "central thesis" kinds of
questions, that was a great answer.  Even the introductory line, in
which you demurred a bit on responding, contains a great clue: The
structure of the book is a network, and since it is ultimately about
networks--communications nets--it is, in a sense, self-referential.  Of
course, self-referentiality generally leads to paradox, but we can
explore that a bit later.

As I've tried to charaterize for myself what I think the book is
about, I came up with the following (and perhaps inappropriate)
automotive metaphor: If a car represents modern communications
technology, it seems to me that the part in which you are most
interested is the sparkplug, and even more specifically, the
sparkplug's gap--the void through which the spark leaps to ignite the
fuel mixture--the force that fires the whole machine.

OK, so it's a little corny.

But it seems to me that the gap represents the mind, and the spark,
the ethereal substance--thought, if you will--that animates the
reality, that gives it meaning.  Stated in the terms of your previous
response, I suppose this amounts to saying that the technology itself
leaves plenty of room for us to project onto it our deepest psychic
realities--dreams and aspirations, horrors and afflictions.  In fact,
it was this realization that led me to conclude that a reviewer who
dinged you for not going into enough detail on the technology itself
really didn't "get it"--i.e., was clueless on what you were trying to

All of which was a lengthy setup for a rather prosaic question: In
general, did you feel that the reviewers of the book understood it?  As
a writer, how much do you care about reviews?  Do you go out of your
way to read them?
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #6 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Fri 8 Sep 00 07:27
Well, the book was not widely reviewed in the U.S., and did not really
crack the upper middle-brow zone that I had hoped for (New York Times,
New Yorker, New Republic, etc.). This was disappointing, but not
surprising -- the fact that I treat the margins of consciousness in a
suggestive as well as analytic light means that my book  frustrates
people who want to know "where I stand" on the tricky issues of
mysticism and popular myth. However, I was very pleased with the U.K.
response -- the book was widely reviewed, and well, and wisely.  They
generally "got it." There is far more appreciation of intellectual
eccentricity in that land.

However, even it these cases, I didn't really read the reviews very
closely. Instead, I scanned them for their general drift, and then
filed them away. Positive or negative, I mostly found the whole thing
kind of disturbing, perhaps because I have reviewed so many books
myself and know the way that one's personal agenda infects the review.
The only one that really pissed me off was in Wired, not because the
guy dissed the book, but because he provided no details about what the
text contained, leaving a reader little possibility of saying "Screw
this guy, this sounds good!" On the other hand, the nastiest review I
got, in New York Newsday, was full of detail and rich language, so I
actually rather enjoyed the fellow's Catholic-conservative-East-Coast
bromide (I recall that he claimed that the "smell of the bong" wafted
through the prose). 

My favorite review was a short blurb in a London South Asian magazine:
just a snapshot of the cover, and words in an "exotic" language I will
never be able to read. I am actually more interested in the reach of
the book than specific response, and am pleased that the text is being
translated into German, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, and,
perhaps weirdest of all, Polish.

I must say though that while many people responded and wrote well
about the material I covered and the underlying "we never escape the
weirdness of the mind" message, few people got what I was doing
rhetorically. I was deploying language with a very specific goal, which
was not merely to deepen the reading experience or show off my
verbiage, but to try to express on a level of suggestion, images, and
"poetry" the way all this technology makes us *feel* on unconscious as
well as conscious levels. Attempting to communicate these powerful but
often inchoate tingles and terrors was ultimately far more important to
me than making any specific "point" -- and also explains why I
generally stayed on the "surface" of technologies, avoiding the
explanatory prose that infests most popular books on technology. I
stayed on the level of surfaces and stories, because that's where the
images breed.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #7 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Fri 8 Sep 00 14:31
> ...the level of surfaces and stories [is] where the images breed...

You got that right!

Your point about "deploying language" was a most fascinating one, and
I'd like to pursue it a bit.  One of your favorite words is "fractal,"
and as I was reading I found myself wondering how familiar you might be
with the actual mathematics of fractal geometry.  Let's put it this
way: If you are not familiar with the math, at least at a conceptual
level, you have amazingly good intuitions.

I hope I won't bore you, Erik, or any of our readers, but a bit of
background is in order.  Fractals are broadly charaterized, at least on
a qualitative basis, by certain properties.  The word "fractal" itself
derives from the phrase "fractional dimension."  In other words,
although we live in a 3D world, and are reading this conversation on a
2D screen, the mathematics of fractals allow dimensions of 1.73 or 2.33
or whatever.  Fractals generally also exhibit the property of
self-similarity.  That means at every level of organization, the
structures found in fractals are similar to those found at other
levels.  If one looks at a computer graphic of a fractal closely, you
can actually see this pattern.  Finally, the computer algortihms used
to construct fractal images are what is known as "recursive."  This is
a structural analog to the self-referentiality that I mentioned in a
post above.

Why is this germane to your point about deploying language?

Well, it had occurred to me that this historical and metaphysical
pinball machine that you have created was indeed fractal in
structure--i.e., that it had the characteristics delineated above.  But
to find out that it was so intentionally done--really down almost to
the level of the individual sub-section, if not paragraph--is pretty
mind boggling and very impressive.  A writerly achievement of note!

But I have a question or two about how you accomplished it.  As I
noted in the intro, it seemed to me that your articles formed a
substantial substratum for the book.  What was it like to re-shape
existing material, create new material, and fashion it into a coherent
whole?  How did you go about it?  What made it hard?  Easy?  In the
Introduction, you suggest that you hit at least one obstacle along the
way.  You mention that your editor helped you get over it.  How?  What
was that process like?
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #8 of 44: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 8 Sep 00 18:14
It's been quite a while since I read TechGnosis so my memory may be
faulty, but the impression I have is that unlike some books covering
similar topics, you don't seem to take a stand on the truth of the
beliefs you talk about.  It's more like, here are all sorts of wacky
things that people believe, and isn't that interesting?

Do people tend to see your work in support of their favorite beliefs? 
(Or am I reading my own beliefs from it?)
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #9 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Sat 9 Sep 00 09:15
First an answer to Brian's question. When I embarked on the project, I
resolved to not spend much time wrangling over whether or not certain
mystical or religious ways of looking at the world are true or even
valid. I did this for a number of reasons. One, I tend to keep a
ludicrously open mind myself. While I have certainly developed my own
loosely held world view, with tentative answers to a few of the Big
Questions, I am possessed by the intellectual and spiritual intuition
that reality is much larger than my own filters. I love trying to get
into the heads of other people: Christian fundamentalists, UFO true
believers, ashtanga fanatics, Catholic conservatives, whatever. That
doesn't mean I don't end up leaving those world views aside for very
specific reasons, but I do like to keep the door open. In fact, one of
the most interesting email conversations that came out of the book was
a dialogue with a Scientologist, who convinced me that even my already
even-handed take on Hubbard was off on a few points!

Another reason for not taking a stand was that I think we waste a lot
of time, especially in the topic of religion/mysticism, worrying about
belief. Its like a political party -- are you with us or not? Belief is
a particular obsession of Christianity, as if what you officially
believe -- rather than what you actually intuit, dream, practice, etc
-- is what counts. This keeps us on the level of debate and away from
the rich loam where our minds and bodies and imaginations actually
construct the world. In other words, I am much more interested in how
belief systems and cultural perceptions *work* than I am in whether or
not they are true. How do they organize perception? What narratives do
they tend towards?  What faces of the self do they draw out? In this
sense, I am kind of a productive relativist -- I don't try to
adjudicate between different perceptions so much as show how they
produce "reality" in different ways, with different results. In terms
of my own life, I have found that whatever answers I have stumbled upon
to the Big Questions arise from the practices in my life -- where
beliefs are employed, like recipes or algorithms -- rather than from
philosophical speculation or ethical argument. (Its also a very
psychedelic way of thinking.)

Finally, I set myself a challenge: I wanted to write a book that
cynical atheistic cybercrits could read and love, AND a book that
smart, well-read "New Age" spiritual thinkers could read and love. 
Bruce Sterling loved the book and so did Jean Houston. Score!

I'll respond to Tony in a bit.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #10 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Sat 9 Sep 00 16:51
I have another quick inflection on Brian's question for you, Erik. 
You may have answered it already, but I think it's a slightly different
slant from Brian's.  If you don't agree, then by all means, feel free
to skip it.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book--in terms of finding
it both entertaining and intellectually honest--were tensions I
perceived.  A couple of different ways of charaterizing them: Observer
vs. Participant, Empath vs. Skeptic.

My question is: Does this perception capture a psycho-emotional truth
for you?  Do you feel these tugs?  Do you play them consciously? 
Another way to put it: What's it like for you to attend Burning Man,
which I know you did again this year?  (Note to the audience: Erik
wrote a great piece on a previous Burning Man, and it's available on
his Website.)
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #11 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Mon 11 Sep 00 12:15
Well, Tony, I'm a Gemini, so I suppose I have a certain tendency
toward ambivalence, paradox, and tension tattooed onto my energy body
or something. 

Given my attraction for curious worldviews, I think I have developed a
counter-tendency to break the spell, to step back and step aside. In
the end, at least in terms of my role as a cultural critic, I am more
of an observer who briefly falls into an obsessive rapture and then
returns to tell the tail. Again I am less interested in critique or
opinion than in trying to understand how a certain cultural phenomenon
works, including the internal contradictions that it both needs and

Certainly this is the attitude I had at the Burning Man that I wrote
about. But the more I go, the less interested I am in the observer. Its
fascinating to peel back the layers and try to explore how BM comes
together, the various forces that compose it, its own contradictions,
etc. But more interesting is to take advantage of the event as an
opportunity to practice, if not participation, than at least a kind of
aimless wandering that refuses the comfortable alienation of the
observer. My trick at BM is to plan as little as possible, to follow as
few goals as possible. The idea that there are certain events that you
want to see, and you organize your time to see them, strikes me as
absurd. I accept the Observer when he arises, but I'm perfectly happy
to let him go in the next burst of weirdness.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #12 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Mon 11 Sep 00 12:28
Thanks, Eric.  I'd still appreciate it if you'd have a crack at what
the creative process of shaping the book was like, especially because
you did incorporate some pre-existing materials into it.  Mind you, I
know that using other pieces is not at all an unusual mode to be in
when making a longer piece.  But because so many of our readers are
writers themselves, I think your insights into the process might be
very valuable!

After this, I'll stay away from the meta questions for a while to
focus on a chatper or two of the book itself.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #13 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Mon 11 Sep 00 13:27
I did incorporate lots of preexisting material into the book, which
was not half as efficient as it sounds. The chapter that included the
most pre-existing material -- Cyberspace, the Virtual Craft -- easily
took the longest to write, at least in terms of going through

Thematically, though, I was lucky: I suspect some people who write a
lot of essays and journalistic articles find themselves trying to cram
somewhat tangential pieces together when they turn to building a book
from their existing writings. TechGnosis emerged out of an essentially
intuitive fascination that has been with me since college, when I read
a lot of Phil Dick, Pynchon, Delillo, and Baudrillard -- a kind of gut
attraction towards zones of culture where religion/mysticism and
technology/media overlapped. All of the articles that got folded into
TechGnosis grew out of that fascination, as well as a number that I
couldn't fit in (Mormons and genealogical computing, pagan Klingon
Trekkers, etc). In some ways, TechGnosis was an attempt to figure out
why I was so fascinated by all these various phenomena, and what
commonalities they possessed. In a way it was like starting with a lot
of individual characters, and having to build a narrative that
encompasses them all and explains their reason for being.

So when it came to writing a book, I let some of that material form
the backbone for a number of chapters, although it was not a very
efficient system because the larger context had changed so radically.
Sometimes the process was downright excruciating, and I was sometimes
tempted to simply abandon earlier material that crankily refused to
slip into my new structure. Ironically, the chapter with the least
amount of pre-existing material in it was the quickest to write (except
for the conclusion), and remains perhaps my favorite: "The Alchemical
Fire." But even here, I went through many revisions, and a lot of
cut-and-paste. I am a thoroughly digital writer at this point, and use
pen and paper only for initial sketches of overall structure, and for
line edits.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #14 of 44: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 12 Sep 00 06:18
Did you start with an outline and write layers of iterations?
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #15 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Tue 12 Sep 00 16:23
As I mentioned, Erik, I've been wanting to get more into the actual
content of the book, and your previous response provides the perfect
segue.  Seems to me that we can discuss at least the two chapters you
mentioned by name, starting with "The Alchemical Fire," your fave and
one of mine as well.  Of course, the fire to which you are referring is
electricity, or more precisely, electromagnetism.

After the first chapter, "Imagining Technologies," in which you
discuss developments like the creation of writing and the roles these
developments had in forming a nexus between technology and
spiritualism, "The Alchemical Fire" probably contains the first
material in which technology is treated in more of its modern sense. 
From F.A. Mesmer to Samuel Morse to A.G. Bell to Tom Watson, Jr., you
set the stage for the whole rest of the book in this chapter. 
Throughout, Marshall McLuhan is prominently mentioned, and even the
most casual reader must notice that is he is one your major influences.

There's much to discuss in this chapter, so why not lead us off (after
you answer Jon's question, perhaps), and I'll follow up with questions
based on your comments. 
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #16 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Tue 12 Sep 00 18:50
Ooops, I meant Tom Watson, Sr. in the previous post.  A 1000
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #17 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Wed 13 Sep 00 12:36
(Good to see ya Jon!) I'd like to say that the process was as coherent
as starting out with an outline and then progressing through
iterations, but sometimes it was just one big darned mess. I often
needed to build a coherent sequence from the ground up. Inevitably, the
best laid plans when awry, and I had to build unexpected bridges. But
generally, things eventually fell into place. 

"The Alchemical Fire" for the most part fell right into place, because
it was a story that was waiting to be told: how the supernatural and
mystical ideas initially associated with electricity and, later,
electromagnetism, "infected" the technologies that exploited those
forces. Electricity is a marvelous topic, as its controlled arrival
into human civilization occurs during the birth of the modern era -- it
is almost as if a new element, in the old earth, air, fire, and water
sense, appeared when "science" began. 

I had discovered a German book called The Theology of Electricity, and
that formed a foundation for understanding "the electromagnetic
imaginary," along with Mesmer's magnetically charged "animal
magnetism." Then I traced the mystical side of the electron through
different technological manifestations, mostly in the nineteenth
century: telegraph, telephone, wireless. Some of the most novel
historical arguments concern Spiritualism, and how this incredibly
popular occult religion drew much of its force from the example of
telegraphy, literally proclaiming itself a "celestial telegraph." In
this way, I showed how media is always in some sense "haunted" by the
shadows and doubles of the self, whether you interpret those shadows
mystically or simply psychologically. 

Another way of approaching it is more productive: electricity and
electromagnetism essentially produce a new dimension of the real, and
this new dimension inevitably calls up fantasies, utopias, spirits, and
new mutations in subjectivity. This is a kind of McLuhanesque line,
and McLuhan was always very insistent on the importance of the
telegraph, even though its essentially a dead media for us today.

McLuhan was indeed a huge influence on the book, though ultimately
less for his specific proclamations (although I take his notion of the
erosion of alphabetic consciousness very seriously) but for his
tactics. I love the way he takes specific elements of media culture --
ads, images, technologies -- and "reads" them as if they were almost
poetic signs of deeper processes, psychological, literary, even

 Its a dangerous operation, because one can always be accused of
over-reading, even of slinging B.S. Certainly McLuhan was accused of
this, sometimes quite justifiably. And yet if we are to engage the
"inside" of technology, we must pull back the utilitarian and
functional narratives that package it for mainstream consumption. The
more you recognize the spectral dimension of electrical and
electromagnetic technologies, for example, the more you can understand
science fiction, UFO religion, the Tesla cult, certain strands of
alternative medicine, "power line paranoia," etc. By diving into the
meaning of technology, and risking the irrational, one winds up with a
much broader sense of its implications for our culture.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #18 of 44: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 13 Sep 00 17:55
It's all about power, no? And where power transcends the mean
level of social comprehension, you get myth, religion, etc.?

And marketing, of course. *8-)
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #19 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Thu 14 Sep 00 10:26
Quick question: How did you happen to find _The Theology of Electricity_?
It's such an off title that one must surmise that you got a hit on a search
with 'electricity" and "theology" as keywords.  I figure that the hit must
have surprised even you!
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #20 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Fri 15 Sep 00 13:26
Actually, The Theology of Electricity was not a websearch number, but
something I stumbled on through a catalog of esoteric books. The more
esoteric sides of culture are still only adequately represented online,
though of course that is changing -- Im still amazed at things that
*dont* turn up.

This whole aspect of electricity is really an undertold story. And it
does have to do with power -- literal and social. We steal the fire
from the heavens -- taming the thunderbolt is the ultimate Promethean
act, at least read mythologically. And then the whole dream of "power,"
which gets you into Tesla and the utopian visions of free energy, vs
the control and capital we associate with the extisting electrical
system. (Today's free energy buffs are definitely participating in a
very old tradition, albeit with new ideas). Finally, there is the idea
of metaphysical power, and all the fantasies that raises. In many ways
I do believe that new technologies, especially media technologies, open
up what amount to new "spaces" or dimensions of the real -- and the
first thing that we do is to project our hopes and fears onto these
spaces -- hopes and fears that are often tinged with the religious and
even mystical impulses that I believe are stitched into human being.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #21 of 44: Tiffany Lee Brown (magdalen) Fri 15 Sep 00 19:58

hi erik ... i'm wondering whether you've considered writing an entire
volume devoted to the "alchemical fire." it was a wonderful, fascinating
journey in your book, and definitely left one wanting more, more, more --
kinda like following Dr.Megavolt around the Playa.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #22 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Sun 17 Sep 00 12:37
Yes, Dr. Megavolt, which, for those who have not had the pleasure, was
a roving Burning Man performance that featured two Tesla coils and
lots of thrills and chills. What is amazing about the Tesla coil zap is
that it is now simultaneously science-fictional and nostalgic, amazing
and kitsch -- especially when you consider that people were wowing to
the same spectacle over a century ago.

Anyway, I have thought about a book length study, one that would do
more history but would especially go into more heretical, mystical, and
pseudo-scientific 20th century ideas about the energy body. There is a
new book by Jeffrey Sconce called Haunted Media, which is OK. It
covers a lot of the same 19th century territory as I did (though
frustratingly does not cite TechGnosis). But in the later parts of the
book, which was Sconce's dissertation, he just off into the typical
cultural studies analysis  of TV shows and movies, rather than talking
about HAARP, alternative medicine, channeling, etc -- far more
interesting electrico phenomenon. I made me go: The story remains to be

But I won't be starting any massive, weird, heavily researched books
for a  year at least. The sad thing is they take lots of time, demand a
lot from their readers (not a welcome move in today's publishing
climate) and put one into debt. That said, I love it, so I'm sure
something TechGnosis-like will happen again, though definitely in  a
more focussed and narrow direction (or, alternately, a more diffuse and
"philosophical" one). I am writing a proposal at the moment, though I
don't want to talk about it until we (its a co-written jobbie) get the
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #23 of 44: Tony Barreca (tbarreca) Sun 17 Sep 00 14:24
Erik, your next-to-last (dare I use "penultimate?") response
anticipated--or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "answered"--
my next question.

I am specifically referring to a passage in the chapter in which you
are writing about Galvani's experiments with frogs legs (which, as you
note, ultimately gave rise to another very "techgnostic" projection in
the form of Mary Shelley's _Frankenstein_).

In this case, I'd like to quote you:

"Count Alessandro Volta soon proved that, while animal tissue did
carry an electrical charge, Galvani had actually stumbled onto the
principle of the battery--only one in a long series of victories by the
mechanists over the vitalists."

In the 19th century, it was the whole panoply of vitalists,
spiritualists, mesmerists, etc.  In the late 20th, it has been the
MUD'ers, UFO freaks, etc., etc.

It seems to me that we touch upon a paradox of sorts here: The more we
spread the mechanisms of technology over the planet, the larger a
canvas or backdrop we provide for the sorts of irrational and arational
projections that lie at the heart of what you are illumninating with
the book.  As I said, you touched upon this fact in a previous
response, and I presume you agree with my observation.  But please feel
free to elaborate.

I also wonder if you notice any qualitative differences as this
progression occurs.  For example, where do the people fall who worry
about the effects of cell phones on neural tissues?  How about the ones
who are concerned about living close to high-tension power lines? 
Over time, is the gap between the "mechanical" and the "spiritual"

And although you only briefly touch upon it, some of the results in
superstring theory are getting pretty weird, at least according to
popularizers like Brian Green (unfortunately, it takes some serious
math to actually follow this stuff in a rigorous way, and my math
background is about 20 years too old to do so).  However, at least as I
understand it, superstring theory provides the strongest foundation
yet for ideas like parallel universes, which were previously relegated
pretty exclusively to the domain of science fiction.  I'd love to hear
your thoughts from the techgnostic perspective.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #24 of 44: Erik Davis (figment99) Mon 18 Sep 00 22:56
I was just reading more of Sconce's _Haunted Media_, and he makes the
point you did: that its not enough just to say that mystical fantasies
keep re-occurring in the context of technology (he is especially
concerned with the electronic media I talk about in chapter two of my
book). He points out that to avoid a simple "deep structure" argument,
a la Jung, you must draw attention to the way these electronic fantasms
change over time as historical circumstances change. I do believe more
in a deep structure than he does (or at least I am bored with the
relentless historicizing that accounts for much cultural studies), but
he's right here.

So how do these electronic ghosts continue? In terms of postwar
culture, Sconce goes into the media -- TV shows and movies that speak
to the mythology of electronic presence. Most obvious here would be the
discourse of virtual reality, The Matrix, etc. 

This makes perfect sense, and I say much the same thing in TechGnosis.
But I think perhaps a  more fruitful line of inquiry points in the
direction you suggest: fears of cell phones, power lines, even (I
discovered the other day) those pip-squeak handheld devices you use to
lock and unlock your car remotely. Here we are far from the scientific
metaphysics of the Spiritualists, with their celestial telegraph, and
yet we are continuing the same sort of intuitions. In this case,
however, fears arise about the invisible penetration and cancerous
"rewriting" of the body, with the attendant anxiety that all these new
tools which extend the body amputate the body.

Of course, there is a more "mystical" answer as well, one that I
provisionally accept as well. This is the idea that there is indeed
something like an "energy body" -- an energetic form that permeates our
flesh but partakes equally of characteristics of "mind." Anyone who
seriously practices yoga or tai chi or ceremonial magic or Chinese
acupuncture can grow familiar with these "tantric" flows of energy that
nonetheless elude Western reckoning. Even if the specific fears about
power lines and cell phones prove exaggerated (I don't believe they are
without any merit at all), these anxieties may arise because on some
level our unacknowledged "energy bodies" (such a flaky term, I know)
are suffering mightily. Or perhaps they are simply transforming,
molting into some sort of high frequency vessel appropriate for our now
saturated and spectral spectrum.
inkwell.vue.86 : Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information
permalink #25 of 44: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 19 Sep 00 05:31
This line of thinking seems to assume that 'qi' is fragile, but I've
always had the sense that it's tougher than visible flesh. However isn't
it the case that we are so detached from our immaterial or invisible
manifestations, owing to pervasive Newtonian thinking, that we fear that
whole realm? Meaning that we fear our own invisible essence as well as the
various immaterial energy forces, including those that are new and those
that were always present? And isn't it more likely that alienation from
the invisible or less visible realms is at the heart of our contemporary


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