Thursday, August 3, 2017


TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis
(Serpent's Tail)

The Guardian, the year it came out whatever dude

by Simon Reynolds

Science and spirituality have long been considered enemies. The Englightenment consigned mystical impulses into the murky netherworld of superstitious unreason. In reaction, the Romantic tradition generally rejected technology as a force of disenchantment---in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzche blamed science for banishing the mythopoeic, Dionysian spirit from modernity, while Henry Adams's famous dichotomy of the Virgin and the Dynamo presented sacred mystery and scientific mastery as mutually incompatible aspects of the human condition.

            American critic Erik Davis aims to complicate this received opposition.  The punning neologism that titles his  book *TechGnosis* condenses his core assertion--that   there has actually long been a mutual entanglement of the scientific and spiritual imaginations.  Davis argues that "magic is technology's unconscious."  For their practitioners, spells and rituals aren't mumbo-jumbo but rather (like "proper" science) attempts to manipulate laws of nature to achieve practical results. Sometimes yesterday's magic becomes tomorrow's science. Alchemy was a prequel to chemistry, a sort of proto-science that blurred the distinction between "ritual" and "experiment", "vision-quest" and "research". Similarly, mesmerism--today regarded as mere smoke'n'mirrors charlatanry--actually laid the groundwork for psychotherapy and Freud's discovery of the unconscious. In one of his most provocative feats of  knowledge archaeology, Davis traces the origin of  the complex "data architectures" of  contemporary cyberculture all the way back to the "memory palaces"  that Renaissance hermeticists  mentally constructed--a mind's eye technique that enabled these scholars of esoteric knowledge to store vast amounts of  information in their own brains. 

            The flipside of  Davis's argument concerns the way that the mystical and Romantic imagination has repeatedly seized on the scientific, technical, and engineering developments of the era as a source of metaphor.  TechGnosis's stand-out chapter, "The Alchemical Fire",  investigates the many manifestations of  what Davis dubs "the electromagnetic imaginary." These include  theories of an "electrical"  life-force (such as Mesmer's  animal magnetism and Theosophy's etheric body)  and Spiritualism's debt to the newly invented telegraph and Morse Code (the movement's leading periodical was called The Spiritual Telegraph).

            Like other paradigm-shifting innovations in telecommunications such as the telephone, wireless, and Internet, the telegraph was hailed as the advent of the New Jersusalem, an earthly paradise of peace, prosperity and global village-like intimacy among all mankind. A fifth-generation Californian, Davis tends to look on the bright side himself;  in a sense, his stance is "why can't spirituality and technology be friends?". But he's too sharp to ignore technology's darkside, its potential for control and cataclysm. Accordingly, TechGnosis explores how technology's  dystopian aspect has been  mirrored by a darkside spirituality. In Medieval times, paranoid schizophrenics expressed their dread through the demonology of witches, fairies, and  incubi; in the Modern era, technology possessed the troubled imagination. Within a few years of Alexander Graham Bell's invention,  one benighted soul suffered the delusion that his enemies were telephonically transmitting "fiendish suggestions" directly into his brain via an subcranial implant. Today, similar persecution complexes involve controlling rays beamed from satellites or  microchips implanted behind the eyes. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick based his later novels like  Radio Free Albemuth on his own paranoid hallucinations that he'd been contacted by a sort of   Cosmological Internet called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).

            Davis identifies this sort of delusion as a technologized update of Gnosticism, the early Christian heresy that bypassed faith and doctrinal obedience in favor of direct knowledge of  God.  Each human soul contains a latent "spark" of divinity which can be reawakened by a signal from the higher realm--a notion Davis likens to satellite radio transponders that are designed to remain dormant until an activating transmission is received. The most recent example of  this syndrome is the Heaven's Gate cult, who shared the Gnostics' distaste for the human body  and couldn't wait to be beamed up from this fallen world by the Hale Bopp spacecraft. Then there are the Extropians--technophiliacs who believe that humans can become godlike via bionic prosthetics and smart drugs, and look forward to the day when they can defeat death by downloading their consciousness into immortal machines.

            Drawing on a slightly staggering range of erudition, and written in a  vivid style that oscillates between earthy ("the tangled noodles of the collective mind") and flowery  ("blueprints inked upon the fiery heart"), TechGnosis succeeds brilliantly in revealing the unexpected interdependence of science and spirituality. If the book has one flaw, it's  Davis's well-meant  attempt to walk a "sane" midpath between non-judgemental generosity towards the often preposterous expressions of the mystical imagination and  postmodern distrust of belief  (including the theology of science as salvation).  Endorsing Vaclav Havel's rather hazy notion of "post-religious spirituality," Davis aspires to be something oxymoronic:  "a sacred ironist or a visionary skeptic... dancing between logic and archaic perception, myth and modernity."  Yet  surely one of the things that spirituality and science share is the aspiration to truth;  both say "this is how reality/the cosmos really works."  Postmodern irony, which makes every assertion provisional, is ultimately the real enemy to the scientific and spiritual impulses,  which are both based on the conviction that we can know something for certain.

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