High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies
Erik Davis

Strange Attractor Press & The MIT Press, London, England and Cambridge, MA, 2019
550 pp., illus. 23 b/w. Trade, $34.95; paper: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1907222764; ISBN: 9781907222870.

Reviewed by
Stephanie Moran
September 2019

Historian of religion Erik Davis excavates subcultural techno-mystical practices as an ingenious inventor of descriptive phrases for such emergent numinous phenomena as the ‘spiritual cyborg’, ‘gnostic infonaut’ and the ‘coming cosmic community’. He coined the underused ‘technopaganism’ in a 1995 Wired article of the same title, whose claim to fame was the expression’s use in a 1997 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 1, episode 8, ‘I Robot, You Jane’). High Weirdness could be viewed as an equally cultish sequel to his brilliantly illuminating and thoroughly researched 1997 esoteric history of technology, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, and following on from his 2006 The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape. Where Techgnosis documented a long occult history, his new book is tightly focused on the particular timeframe, location and aesthetic mode contained within three sets of specific experiences: the McKenna brothers’ psychedelic experiment at La Chorrera, Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger experiences, and Philip K Dick’s 2-3-74 complex.

The action of High Weirdness all takes place in California between 1971-1974. The three case studies, events well-known within 70s psychonaut lore, exemplify a mode of extraordinary experience peculiar to the 1970’s psychedelic, mystical limit experiences that Davis classes as high weirdness. High weirdness is a dimension of late 60’s/early 70’s underground culture associated with the Freak scene. Davis references a 1988 directory of real and nichely weird organisation, Rev. Ivan Stang’s High Weirdness by Mail: a Directory of the Fringe: Mad Prophets, Crackpots, Kooks and True Visionaries. He endeavours to emulate the catalogue’s approach to its subject matter, an “ironic but strangely loving aesthetic… a mode of enjoyment, amazed and sometimes perverse” (p. 3), maintaining the agnostic outsider-insider position of Techgnosis. The close readings he performs aim to map influences, resonances and structural dynamics of the experiences and consider how these visionary practitioners, who are all also writers, make sense of and retell their weird encounters.

High Weirdness adopts a more extended and subtle sense of technology than Techgnosis, and shifts the perspective to expand on the ways media has infiltrated mystical experience. It demonstrates shared occurrences and experiential similarities in the three accounts, including “alien downloads, pulp-fiction synchronicities, techno-media metaphysics, apocalyptic flashbacks, voices in the head” (p. 36). Davis situates these in the debris of post-60s “identity drift” among occult revival, the plethora of new religions and “consciousness culture”, countercultural publishing, the rise of surveillance technology, paranoia, and the sci-fi prefiguring of such coming technologies as the world wide web (such as Lilly’s Solid State Entity and Dick’s VALIS). He attempts to demonstrate the systemic feedback loop between cultural and phenomenological information driving this weirdness. The range of practices he describes are themselves the kinds of arcana the internet was made to proliferate via its long tail which, as Davis points out, has played its role in the disintegration of consensus reality and mainstreaming of conspiracy theories today.

Davis moves between skepticism and sympathetic acceptance, or at least a willingness to suspend disbelief, a hybrid position shared by his protagonists. He discusses, for example, the way this manifests in the McKenna brothers’ fusion of etic and emic approaches, evidenced in the set-up of the La Chorrera experiment as a cross between a scientific investigation and an esoteric ritual, and their treatment of “extraordinary subjective experience as something like observable data” (p.109). He describes their method as science-fictional in its realist attitude toward speculative ideas. Although only one of the writers discussed, Philip K Dick, fits properly into the genre of sci-fi, there are a number of science fictional threads running through this book. There are recurring topics of extropian consciousness, cybernetic feedback and “bootstrapping”. High Weirdness explores links between the rise of new communication, surveillance and information technological networks, and communication with non-human intelligences that possess interspecies motifs: the McKennas’ cosmic mycelium’s “network metaphysics”; Wilson’s messages from the dog-star Sirius; and Dick’s religious Icthys (fish symbol) triggered visions. Sci-fi time is another frequent theme, implicit in Terence McKenna’s eschaton as temporal structure, and eschatology in Wilson’s Illuminatus!; and in the repetition of synchronicity as a resonant event connected to divination, pointing (science-fictionally) to the future. The book itself revolves around the “metamorphic narratives” and fictions that leak into subjective realities it describes, or “the positive feedback loop that bootstraps new realities out of twists in data” (p. 394). These are neatly categorized by Davis as psi-fi.

Some of the more theoretical commentary seems extraneous, such as the scattering of many of Bruno Latour’s complex concepts, although briefly framed in the introduction around Latour’s experimental metaphysics approach. The discussion of how the Enlightenment Great Divide is challenged by the McKennas’ experimental method, for example, would benefit from a more detailed unpicking in relation to another point Davis addresses, the very particular historical context of post-60s white male Californians and early transhumanism. The narrative is at its best when it sticks to religious mysticism and altered states, Davis’ field of expertise, and contextual theory available at the time of the events (such as William James, Eliade, McLuhan and Lilly), rather than engaging piecemeal with contemporary critical theory and philosophy. The overlong, rambling introduction is made up, at times, of a stream of unedited consciousness of methodological ideas and stuff that presumably wouldn’t fit into the main body of the text. It outsources to the reader the cognitive labour of working out how the independently interesting but unconvincingly cobbled-together theoretical underpinnings form a complex systems approach method. However, the narrative’s contextualisation in relation to Foucault’s technologies of the self and Sloterdijk’s recent discussion of vertical tension is extremely useful.

Otherwise High Weirdness is an informative, flowing and fantastical read that compares, conceptually situates and historicises the three sets of synchronicitous psychobiographies. It is also, in the house style of Strange Attractor Press, a beautiful volume with appositely weird illustrations; Arik Roper’s front cover cleverly synthesises the main thematic imagery of the three encounters: mushroom-UFOs, a one-eyed pyramid and a Christian fish in a ray of pink light. Davis offers convincing explanations of the ways in which these weird experiences were recursively shaped and interpreted via the contemporary extant literature available, including newly fashionable Eastern esoteric writings, Carl Jung’s alchemical work and Mircea Eliade’s histories of religion; and how the narratives were grounded in the participants’ reflexive awareness of this hermeneutic process.