Strange Attractor: An interview with California Visionary Writer Erik Davis
10.25.06 Keith Boyd
Erik Davis is one of those omnivorous, strange attractor intellects who seem to find nothing but the most vital and interesting ideas to write about. His three books and multitude of essays are essential reading for anyone wanting to better understand the crossroads of technology, geography, spirituality and the trajectory of human society. His landmark book, "Techgnosis" (republished by Serpent's Tail in 2004) is a potpourri of concepts, ruminations and ideas on everything from Scientology to Cyborgs. His new book, "The Visionary State" (published by Chronicle Books) is a pure product of California genius. It's a Rand-McNally on peyote road atlas of the history of fringe religion in the Golden State. The book is a beauty to read and look at thanks to the wonderfully vivid and creamily textured photographs of Michael Rauner. In addition to these great books, Erik's website, www.techgnosis.com is an ever expanding compendium of his various articles and essays. It is well worth spending some time there sampling the wide-ranging brilliance.
This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting Erik at a talk and signing for "The Visionary State". In a reversal of the usual paradigm of meeting one's heroes and being let down, I found Erik to be as thoughtful, intelligent and gracious as I was led to believe he was by reading his work. In a kind gesture he agreed to an e-mail interview and this is what he had to say.
1. When examining the diverse religious movements in California an essential question comes to mind. Why here? What are the factors that make California such a fertile breeding ground for these movements?
There are lots of angles to answer that question with, but the most interesting and imaginative to me is geographical. Geography is destiny. The Himalaya, the home of Shiva and Tibetan Buddhism and thereby the home of the some of the highest mystical vibes the world has seen, was formed when the Indian subcontinent slammed into the EuroAsian plate. Heavy! Similarly California is the hinge between the Pacific and North America--it is as much a part of the Pacific Rim as the continental US. So it's no surprise that it became one of the main gateways that Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism entered the West. California holds the first Hindu temple in the Western hemisphere (the Vedanta Society Old Temple) and the first Zen monastery (Tassajara). But these two plates are grinding against one another, building up tremendous tension. Perhaps that energies California with this sense of transformation, of possible apocalypse, of a restless urgency to invent, to not stand on the same old ceremonies. Most importantly, though, is the sheer diversity and range of the state's ecosystems. Not only do they make California a "natural" place for a religion of nature, but they everywhere remind us of diversity and multiple perspectives--that the way the world looks from this angle is not the way it looks over the hill.
2. What role does the internet now play within the currently active alternative religious groups in California?
The Internet has changed religion like it has changed everything else. Most of the changes are pretty practical--the web becomes a place to connect with like minds not linked in space, to share texts and information, to draw in people, not just to a place, but to a whole worldview. Increasingly, of course, as we move into a video-dominated Internet, then the charismatic opportunities really explode--video "darshan", or the visual experience of a holy person, is now common, and any alternative religious movement worth its salt needs to start exploiting the new visual language of short, snappy, online videos. Music is key as well. I am not sure how well it will work, since a lot of the power of alternative religions derives from mystery, and the data-heavy intensity and transparency of the medium does not necessarily lend itself to mystery. I suspect some of the more esoteric stuff will derive its power precisely by going off-line. But the net does lend itself to alternative narratives, to spreading networks of connections ("It's all connected!"), and visual displays. I am just waiting for the hip sneaky viral Scientology version of lonelygirl15!
3. What was the biggest surprise you found while researching and traveling for the book?
Research-wise, my biggest surprise was how far back this stuff went in the history of the state. I mean, I wasn't terribly surprised to find isolated communes exploring unusual cosmologies, breathing practices, and sacred sexuality in the late nineteenth century. But there was tons of this stuff! One of my favorite quotes came from a Los Angeles writer in 1913 who was already complaining about all the swamis and "astral-planers" and Rosicrucians. 1913! Those folks were almost coming out on buggies! Plus there was a tiny subculture of German nationals who came to Cali in the teens and lived live hippies -- long hair, raw food, bare feet, playing guitar, communing with nature -- the works!
4. What is your list of the 10 most vital and important books?
Yowza! This is the kind of thing I could spend a week compiling, so this list is Not Gospel, but just what formed itself this afternoon. I am interested in so many things, that its hard to say what is important overall because the priorities keep shifting. I am going to go with "vital" rather than "important," because, like Das Kapital is really incredibly important but its not going on my list, which is pretty personal, but still in a change-yer-life kinda way. These are books that gave me transmission, so they have more to do with the forces that shaped me than where I am now. I have left out fiction and poetry, which demand other lists. In no particular order:
Morris Berman: Wandering God: An Essay in Nomadic Spirituality
The I Ching (read multiple translations!)
The Other Bible, edited Barnstone (apocryphal and gnostic texts)
Dale Pendell: Pharmaco/Gnosis
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus
G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy
Lester Bangs: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
Chuang-tsu: Inner Chapters (Watson is canonical translation, but others are good)
Marshall McLuhan: Understanding Media (The Extensions of Man)
Mircae Eliade: The Forge and the Crucible
5. What is the next project you'll be working on and why did you choose to do so?
Well I tend to follow the opportunities, and this fall I am teaching at Berkeley, and will be following that up with a class at UC Davis. So rather than plunge into another Big Project, I want to see if I can juggle a couple of balls at once: teaching, posting to www.techgnosis.com, writing articles and essays for different publications, playing more music, maybe writing a libretto, etc. There is usually a whole middle period when I don't know the next book I'll do. I wish I could crank em out like Douglas Rushkoff but I have learned that that is not my Tao. Even the next "book" might be me doing a couple things at once though. Its our ADD world, seeping in. So hard to do one thing, or be one thing, though it still seems worth trying in some ways.