An Interview with Erik Davis (1999)

An interview with the author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information.

HK: One of the main strands of your book is tracing the suppressed mystical impulse in the history of technology. Why has this aspect of its history been suppressed?

ED: We're taught to think of technology in rational and utilitarian terms. Particularly in the modern world it arises in a post-Enlightenment context of the conquest of nature by human reason. We tend not to look at the more spectral or irrational dimensions of technology. We are just habituated to think of it as something that's useful and if it has weird consequences or impacts the general imagination those are secondary effects.

HK: What is very striking, as you point out in the book, is that all the way through history many of the key figures in the development of new technologies have had explicitly religious or mystical agendas.

ED: That's very true and that is something we no longer pay attention to in the twentieth century. If you go to a conventional university or high school history of science textbook it will talk about the great figures of science, Newton, Kepler, and Michael Faraday or whoever, and it will act as if their scientific discoveries can be completely separated from the religious context in which those scientists were operating. This division was made very late in the history of science. In the nineteenth century scientists who were perfectly aware of the distinction between rational procedures and religious thought nevertheless found many different ways to bring these things together. I think this is very important because personally I think there is no way to have a purely rational society. Reason,technology and science are always embedded in a larger context of values.

HK: It seems necessary for the ideological underpinning of modern science that this 'exterior' material is repressed in order to construct the objective observer, the subject of science. Do you think this is the sole reason the mystical tradition has been suppressed?

ED: No, I think this repression is more widespread. Many people, intellectuals, artists, whatever, have not come to terms with the variety of strands of religious and mystical thought in the West. We're not really sure how to deal with it. There are actually many different ways in which these streams of thought have helped compose our secular moment.

HK: You make a strong argument for the reappraisal of pagan thought and other strands of mystical thought which have been condemned as worthless by the mainstream intellectual tradition.

ED: I have a materialist viewpoint but I'm not entirely a materialist in the sense that I don't know enough to reduce consciousness to the material. Leaving that question aside I am materialist in my approach to history, culture and I think that that's actually the best way to approach religion or mystical thought, not in order to reduce it or explain away its dreams or transcendental fantasies, but to find out how it works on a social level, how it affects people.

HK: You seem to be edging towards a particular position in the book without polemically stating it. Phrases like 'mystical materialism' and 'the spiritualisation of matter' appear. You seem to be interested in a strand of thought which is rigorous and naturalistic, but will allow for a poetic appreciation of the world.

ED: I think that by maintaining a basically materialist approach you allow a certain kind of pragmatism, a non-hostile relationship to naturalism and science. Yet by insisting on a kind of poetic or magical or visionary dimension to that productivity you get yourself out of the dryness in which a certain kind of secular rationalism can trap you. It's not that it's true or not true, just more interesting and fruitful to live your life that way. We're open machines in a way, and as open machines our programming - ie the way we structure the world - is to some extent under our control. By allowing certain kinds of visionary frameworks into our point of view we produce a different experience of the world, and that's valuable and interesting, even if mysticism's greatest visions don't ultimately ground themselves in a way that a more reductive materialistic account does.

HK: You use a lot of Gnostic material, notable for its hatred of the material, its flight from the World - the Heavens Gate impulse if you like. You seem broadly hostile to that wish to flee the world, but you also deploy that Gnostic history as an argument in favour of regaining a spiritualised experience of the world.

ED: I'm not going to claim to be entirely coherent in the way I weave these impulses together in myself or my work. There's a gap in my worldview where I really don't know what's going on. I'm interested in certain kinds of idealist or consciousness-based descriptions of things, which means that I have a certain kind of sympathy with this gnostic impulse, in the sense of understanding how it comes about, both in terms of a religious context, and a way of dealing with a familiar twentieth-century sense of alienation, being so alienated from your day to day experience that you pull back, you have a sort of radical detachment from the world. This is a very common experience and you see forms of it become science-fictionalised into ideas about whether we are inside some kind of VR gameworld, the matrix. This type of popular myth points to a certain kind of problem about the relationship between mind and matter. To my mind you can't resolve that tension by reducing one to the other. To reduce mind to a phenomenon of neurons, that's too easy.

HK: In some ways. Perhaps because it doesn't capture some of the qualities of the experience of having a mind. Maybe it's objectively true that a mental event is composed of a series of chemical or electrical interactions, but that description happens not to say anything about the subjective experience of that event.

ED: I'm basically hostile to the denigration of the world, of matter, of ordinary experience, of the flesh, of death. The impulse in Western culture which I'm calling gnostic, which pulls away from that, which believes in a world separate from that, is something I question. But at the same time I can resonate with a certain aspect of that, because of the questions about consciousness that it raises. The desire for freedom, a certain kind of desire for knowledge, the virtual capacities of the mind or the imagination to exist in a realm that's so different from the realm of matter.

HK: So Plato isn't the big villain after all...

ED: No, not at all.

HK: To the monotheistic spiritual impulse which places the source of value outside
the world, you oppose something you look at variously through the lens of Gibsonian voodoo-in-the-matrix tropes and pagan or hermetic interaction with spirits. It's a kind of religious interaction between people and other entities who may or may not be people, who may be real or constructs, hostile or benign. A pragmatic and negociated kind of spiritual dialogue, very canny, very street. You seem to see this as a valuable model for contemporary spirituality.

ED: Very much so. For a number of reasons. One is that I think polytheism is a very healthy way of modern people going about things. We live in a world of multiplicity. We are beings in a world of multiple dimensions, multiple actors. And the idea that it becomes unified into one and all becomes organised by a single lawgiver is in many ways a historical construct that has had its day. We're burdened with this notion of a singular self and now that notion is under attack from neuroscience, from postmodernism, from cultural constructionism. However if one reflects on the psyche through a polytheistic lens it's much more fruitful. It convinces us we won't go mad living in a world of multiplicities.There's this fear that we're going to move away from the One and go crazy. But no! You become supple, networked. You don't disappear. It's a different kind of subjectivity. The other reason I like the pagan imaginary, polytheism, is it deals with a particular type of intermediary figure. They're not cosmic all-knowing gods, but sort of human and sort of inhuman. We're moving into an era when we're going to be dealing with lots of human - inhuman hybrids. Whether they're machines or new species, new mutations in social space or different kinds of posthuman activites in which people will be participating, it is important for us to grow comfortable with a kind of intermediary that is both of the human world and not of it.

HK: We are already familiar with them in politics. Look at Jamie Shea. These spokesmen perform an oracular role, so that when you interact with them you're not doing so with an individual who has an emotional response to a situation, but a kind of virtual projection of the network of flesh and institutions he represents. A true posthuman entity. NATO voodoo. Speaking of which, I'm interested how far you consider magic as having real effects. You approach pagan ritual as a set of techniques and practices, then step back from saying 'such and such an action has such a consequence'. What are the effects produced by ritual?

ED: The difficulty comes when you talk about producing effects on the shared material world. Much of our experience is a historically-accreted social construction. We have certain agreements about how spaces operate, we move into this room, we sit down, we get up - these agreements operate in the background and shape our ordinary sense of experience. What you do in a group ritual situation (individuals can do it too but it's more obvious in a group) is to subject that to a different kind of cosmology, a different relation between the objects and all the physical operations that you have during a ritual. By invoking the body, by invoking the voice or sound or dance or drum by drawing on these very basic dimensions of the responsive human psyche you can produce a change in the social construction of reality. It's not just that you change consciousness, it's that the actual space of reality begins to warp. I'll go that far. It's that you're actually changing the network of relations that are composing that little corner of time and space.

HK: You argue in the book that the moment of writing is also the moment when an instrumentalist attitude towards the world becomes possible. You give a narrative of the development of writing which sees it start with a pictographic mode, moving in a direction of increasing abstraction, through phonetics and the alphabet to the possibility of silent reading. Now we seem to be moving back to a visually-based culture, through the construction of image technologies and architectural virtual spaces. What effect does this have on instrumentalism?

ED: I think that everybody, including to some degree scientists and technocrats and military control freaks are beginning to recgnise that instrumentalism is out of human control. Even these forces which are so invested in instrumentalism realise they're increaasingly shuffling off the real autonomy of instrumentalism into machines, into forms of automatic surveillance and control. So the systems you're using in order to achieve instrumental control as an individual human become more elaborate and complex until they take on a life of their own and then all you can hope to do is to nudge this incredibly complex system - if you look at control as being something that's not being manipulated by a subject but that's actually a product of some kind of system, there's a point in it where there's a fair amount of control
HK: but control is an emergent effect

ED: right, of a whole system. So if the whole idea of instrumentality is that there's a rational will manipulating an instrument in order to achieve an end, where is that going? In certain ways it will make some kinds of magical thinking more obvious. In the meantime control is going to happen at higher and more freaky levels. We're moving into a world where this totalitarian apparatus is becoming incredibly sophisticated with all these different systems of regimentation and abstraction. All that nightmare side of the Enlightenment has met up with computer technology and it's just going all over the place.

HK : It's as if we have the panoptical State but there's no longer a single eye doing the looking. It's become distributed across the entire body of the social. How far do you go aong with Delanda and the whole machinic evolution thing? How do you assess the chances of machines developing some degree of autonomy and reproductive capacity outside of human agency?

ED: When I think about that I can only do so in terms of science fiction. It's not that I think it might not happen, but what's more interesting to me is how we have started to encounter and construct that story. It's not something that happens in a purely objective field. It's something we begin to tell ourselves - ah! this machine is becoming a little more lively than I expected. There's a moment when Kasparov is playing Deep Blue, and it's half way through the third game, the one the computer won. The computer does this move, and he's blown away, all that chess pros are like, what was that? It came out of some other possibility space. And it's not that that wasn't as machinic as all the moves that led up to it - obviously it was - but that inside that context, inside that game, that move had a certain deeper quality. That move produced the sense that, as Kasparov said, 'this is an opponent'. So he constructed his computer as an opponent. I'm interested in how that happens.

HK: So in the short term it's less important whether in some real sense the machines can produce baby machines than whether we are increasingly attributing consciousness to them.

ED: This doesn't mean that when I listen to the more hardwired futurists I don't find their scenarios plausible. It's very plausible to me. But it's what it does to us, and this is another answer to the magic question earlier. It curiously thrusts us back into an earlier stage of human culture. We begin to have a relationship to our technological environment that is more similar to our relationship to nature than it is to our relationship to a construct. There's a strand in technological and cultural criticism that's very hostile to any kind of naturalism. Any time you talk about nature and machines you're doing something politically dangerous. But I think it's very profitable to bring certain cybernetic ideas and ecological ideas together. It's productive. It's pragmatic.

HK: But you can understand that people educated in a Marxist tradition are concerned to salvage the category of politics at all costs, and see any attempt to analyse some topics outside it as denying the reality of ideology - naturalisation in the service of dominant ideologies, making them invisible. I think that's a good thing to bear in mind, but it's also become a problem for Left analysis, because it makes it difficult to assess many contemporary technocultural developments.

ED: And while they're doing that everybody else is becoming even more naturalistic. On a political level what I don't like about that tendency is that it's so isolating, it's not making an attempt to think politically in a world in which nature has a role.

HK: It complicates matters that so much of this technical vocabulary has been coopted by Neoliberalism, which employs it to justify a mobile atomised type of subjectivity, the kind of subjectivity that capitalism needs to carry on accelerating.

ED: However much we conceive of the world in Darwinian terms is that there's still something else, there's still a way in which there's a 'we' however we construct that.

A version of this interview appeared in Mute.