Sunday, November 13, 2011

Taking Thaumatagens

I posted my review of Morris Berman’s Why America Failed yesterday, over at Goodreads (here). One thing I did not address in the review was Berman’s critique of technology. I did struggle with that a bit. While I certainly agree with the premise that technology comes with unanticipated consequences, and limits some freedoms while expanding others, and we do need to engage in more critical thinking about technology to mitigate our current utopian technological idolatry, still… I think we need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I admit that as a sci-fi fan from a wee age, I’ve perhaps drunk the Kool Aid, so to speak, and am in love with the wonder that technological advancement evokes. We could call technology a thaumatagen, a wonder-making drug. Indeed, like entheogens (“God-making” drugs), technology is like a drug under whose influence we experience and believe in wonders.

But like a lot of drugs, our perceptions under the influence of thaumatagens are widened in some ways but restricted in others. We love the high but we’re blind to their downsides. Yes, automobiles allows us access to places we might not have been able to travel to in the past, but once they were invented, society reorganized itself around them such that, in places like Atlanta, you simply have to have a car. The freedom to opt out isn’t freedom at all. The spell cast by thaumatagens prevents us from bringing foresight to bear on our inventions and anticipating how they might impact the common good. Instead of integrating tech into our human lives, we rearrange our lives and schedules at the behest of the machine. This is ironic because Prometheus, who brought us the Divine Fire that is often associated with invention, was forethought – that’s what his name means. So why don’t we have any? Is it because we are not actually the Prometheans we pride ourselves on being, but are instead Epimetheans, scions of Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, whose name means “afterthought”?

While doing yard work today, I listened to Erik Davis’ Expanding Mind podcast (here). The guest was Jason Silva, who is a self-proclaimed techno “wonder junky.” And this is where it struck me that techno progressives (actually, techno transhumanists) like Silva are embodying the puer aeternis, the Eternal Child archetype. They’re off on flights of fancy and seek to escape the grounding – the laming – that comes from living in a mortal body. Meanwhile, Berman is embodying the Senex, the Wise Old Man archetype, warning the techno puers that they’re heading for a fall and they’re going to take us all with them.

Isn’t there a middle ground? A sacred way in which we can use these thaumatagens for insight without becoming addicts fated to crash and burn and hit rock bottom? Can we not have something akin to the ancient Mysteries, where we can take our thaumatagens in the context of the sacred and society? That is, use technology’s intoxicating effects not just for material gain but to enliven society and culture? Technology made in the context of culture, rather than the context of Capitalism and individualism. Tech that doesn’t cause us to “bowl alone” or only in virtual leagues in online games instead of in-person. Tech that brings us together rather than sets us apart, as in the individual cells of our automobiles during rush hour. How can we honor the puer’s sense of wonder without falling into the Senex’s depressive gloom?

I don’t know.

I think Berman’s right that an individual solution will only work for individuals. We need a systemic solution to address a systemic problem, and the alienating effects of technology are systemic to society. We don’t see it because we’re on drugs. And yet, I keep going back for more hits -- as this blog, and the Internet it rides on, attests. As does my livelihood, too – making computer games. Eternal Child, indeed.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Our Secret Masters Return

In a previous post titled Our Secret Masters, I wrote about one of the ideas expressed in Grant Morrison's Supergods, that we are being authored by someone or some persons other than ourselves. I linked this idea to the daimon, that Classical idea of a twin or spiritual other in each of us. 

It turns out that Jeffrey Kripal has been thinking about this, too. I just finished his Mutants and Mystics, and it just so happens that that idea is what drives the whole book -- we are being written and we can become authors ourselves of our impossible lives. His previous book, Authors of the Impossible, explores this in some detail by singling out four "authors of the impossible" (Frederick Myers, Jacques Vallee, Charles Fort, Bertrand Meheuest) and how the paranormal intertwined with their work in unexpected and uncanny ways. I haven't read this book yet, but I certainly will soon.

It's a fascinating idea. Alan Moore has talked about this, too, referring to how Iain Sinclair developed a limp after writing in depth about a character with a limp. Was he writing himself? Or was he subconsciously aware of a problem with his leg that his mind alerted him to through his writing? Or was someone else writing his life? These things are curious and hard to fathom in our materially causal paradigm, although a paradigm that organizes life through meaning rather than the physics of dancing atoms comes closer to providing a coherent sense to it all. Jung's and Wolfgang Pauli's theory of synchronicity, for instance.

What I am especially curious about is the idea that we can turn all this around and author our own lives, not in an orderly, causal manner, but in a pattern centered upon meaning. We can write meaning into our lives and watch as elements imbued with that meaning are attracted to us in strange and unexpected ways. Doors open where before there were walls. I'm not talking about some egoistic get-rich scheme like The Secret, but a weirder experience, one we can't fully control but can participate with. 

Keep your eyes open.

Review of Kripal's Mutants and Mystics

I've just posted my review of by

Here's the link, if you want to read it there:

And here's the review, if you want to read it here:

This book was written just for me. I swear Jeffrey Kripal telepathically scanned my mind and knew all the buttons to push to make me devour this book. For someone like me who has spent years reading and writing sci-fi and weird horror in pop culture mediums – comics and games -- it's a welcome relief to see an academic take it all seriously. Well, not so serious as to make it boring and stuffy. Kripal admits that it was his remembering his love of comics as a kid that called him to take a fresh look at what comics have been telling us all these years, in light of his religious studies scholarship. That and a synchronistic X in a parking lot upon exiting an X-Men movie.

The book explores the intersection of pop culture – specifically comics and the sci-fi pulps – and the paranormal, and finds things are stranger and more uncanny than most readers, let alone sci-fi fans, are aware of. Kripal reveals the many hidden themes that all-too-often synchronistically crop up in comics and the lives of those who author them. He proposes that we are living in a Super-Story, an over-riding narrative behind the many sub-narratives we tell ourselves in pop culture. Well, we think we’re telling these stories, but we ourselves are being written. By what and by whom? That remains mysterious and rather Gnostic, but once we come to Realization we can move to Authorization and becomes “authors of the impossible” writing the stories of our own lives.

This is a good companion book to Grant Morrison’s Supergods. It covers some of the same territory, but now from a broader perspective than the experiences of just one artist (Grant Morrison); we also discover the weird and prescient lives and art of other key comic-book and pulp prophets as Alan Moore, Jack Kirby, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Ray Palmer, among others.

Next on my reading list is Kripal’s previous book, Authors of the Impossible. I’d previously read portions of his book, The Serpent’s Gift, and I plan to get back to that one soon, too. There’s a cornucopia of rich ideas and connections in Kripal’s work and I look forward to exploring them all.