The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 3, No. 2 pages 7-41
© 2002 CENTER FOR COGNITIVE LIBERTY AND ETHICS
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946

 

 

 

 

Technoculture and the 
Religious Imagination

Erik Davis

A Digitally Remastered Remix of an Improvised
Word-Jam delivered at Metaforum III, October 1996

I had prepared a rather elaborate argument comparing information theory to the Gnostic heresies of the second century, and tracing this curious connection through technoculture. But after this long full day, I thought that another lecture packed with information, taxing arguments, and a lot of strange machinery might not go down so well. So I decided to simplify my talk and speak extemporaneously, which means that my discussion will be somewhat rambling, not particularly theorized, and certainly very tentative. Usually I include more cultural and historical materials in my work, as well as building more irony into the gameplan. So though I’m going to rather loosely discuss a number of topics which might strike your bright brains as rather problematic, I ask you just to ride with it all.

There’s one very clear distinction I’d like to make up top, and ask that you keep in mind. Usually when we talk about anything religious, we focus on well-organized belief systems and the institutions that embody and enforce these beliefs.

But it's very important to make a distinction between religion as a dogmatic belief system and the more experiential, imaginal, creative, and practical dimensions of religious life, dimensions which have little to do with ideological convictions and everything to do with what I’ll call, using a sadly eviscerated term, “spirituality.” Within the phenomena of religion, the relationship between these two modes is very complex and tangled, and not nearly so straightforward as is often assumed.

One of the main concerns in my work is the question of the religious or spiritual impulse in cyberculture, a topic I come to more through the study of subcultures than through questions of theology or metaphysics. In writing about and researching a number of different imaginative subcultures, including Neo-Paganism, Star Trek fandom, Grateful Dead followers, and psychedelic ravers, I came to recognize that even in secular subcultures, many elements—the use of imagery, the notion of the tribe, of ritualized sociality—resonated with what I would call popular religion. This carries over to technocultural tribes, who have their own “technologies of the self.” Religious discourse—and here I mean something quite broad—is an inevitable and vital part of our discussions about technoculture, not only because contemporary technology has become a secular religion, with its own curious mysticisms, but simply because we are concerned with the social and imaginative implications of technology.

Because of this, it is on our shoulders to become a bit more sophisticated about how we talk about religion. Numerous critics of the wackier elements of cyberculture have recognized strong elements of mysticism, apocalypticism, millenarianism, and what Richard Barbrook artfully calls “mystical positivism.” And yet I find that the ensuing dialogue about religion and the sacred is often very simplistic. One example is the Critical Art Ensemble [CAE] and their piece in ZKP3. At one point this theoretically sophisticated crew discuss the way that religion relates to nihilism in a very different way than secular moderns, in that the wholesale embrace of the flesh, the ego, and the physical world is considered to be something of a problem. “In terms of the Eastern theology the situation of subject/object is mediated by the Hell of desire which can be only be pacified when the subject is erased, and thereby returned to the unitary void.”

There’s more, but I’m interested in just that sentence. Besides the silliness of referring to a clearly Buddhist paradigm as being “theology”—after all, Buddhism has no God—CAE’s notion of Buddhism derives directly from the earliest and crudest 19th century Western interpretations of the dharma, which are dominated by budding Western notions of nihilism and the “void” as filtered through Schopenhauer. Philosophically, this “void” is simply the absence of any abiding substance to things, the ultimate de-reification of existence. Though the quest for simple extinction into Nirvana is somewhat relevant to Theravada Buddhism, it remains a crude depiction of Eastern wisdom traditions, and is devoid of any mention of Mahayana or Vajrayana, both of which mightily complicate the question of desire, nihilism, and immanence. In the Mahayana, for example, the recognition that there is no abiding substance to the illusory self is accompanied, not by an escape to Nirvana, but by the bodhisattva’s radical commitment to the world of suffering, where such illusions have real force. In the Vajrayana, all passions, including lust, are simply considered energies which can be tapped and alchemically transformed towards spiritual goals. Dzogchen and Tantra are all about immanence, and Zen masters are known for their concupiscence and fondness for booze. And so religious ideas emerge into a very important discussion, and yet their power dissipates by being caricatured as the easy “enemy”: world-denying transcendence and mushy, always-authoritarian unity.

Another example, which is much more interesting, is Richard Barbrook’s ZKP3 piece on the sacred cyborg, which discusses a number of crude metaphysical and apocalyptic notions that are reborn within the frenzied edges of Extropian-styled technoculture—Artificial Intelligence, digital immortality, and the radical separation of body and mind. I am compelled by the connections he draws, by his sharp analysis of “mystical positivism,” and with the fact that these things are deeply problematic. And yet, for Barbrook, the error is simple: these images are utterly false irrational fantasies that deny the cold hard facts of historical—i.e., economic— materialism and the necessity of a social democratic grand narrative that has no recourse to such pesky atavisms.

But spirituality, the sacred imaginary, and cosmology (which is what mystical positivism boils down to) are not atavisms, though they contain seeds of all sorts of violent, stupid and authoritarian possibilities—just as surely as historical materialism does. By saying this, I’m not attempting to defend the power structure of established religion. I just want to point out that one can mount critiques of the sacred cyborg from within religious language just as easily as you can from without—and many do so. For me, this material is very much along the lines that Toshiya Ueno described in another context: a medicine and poison situation, a radical double bind. The mysticism that Barbrook describes is strange and powerful, and makes up a rather significant dimension of cyberculture. So, you might ask, where does it come from? As an intellectual I can critique these “illusions” all I want, but there is something rather significant going on here on a sociological, psychological, and imaginal plane that takes us beyond the critique of concepts into the abiding concerns of humanity as they have unfolded over millennia.

Barbrook’s piece relies on an interesting timeline, a deeply linear notion of cultural history which pegs these mystical elements as primitive, atavistic, and regressive. The idea here is that human civilizations arise from the childish elements, and then mature into modern self-consciousness, at which point we realize that the premodern worldview is no longer evident or relevant, that it erodes our own political autonomy, and obscures the real forces in the world. There’s much to be said for this scenario, though to my mind it results in a bit of the throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater effect that Barbrook has criticized vis-a-vis the “postmodern” critique of leftism. One of the things I like about the Nettime discussions, in fact, is how unwilling they are to be satisfied with either the postmodern or the modern, as well as their willingness to mix these periods in very strong, exciting and open-ended ways. But I would add that one cannot really engage the sociological and imaginal hybrids of cyberculture without also including the premodern—not as an atavism, but as a positive, productive, and dangerous regime—just like all the others. Of course, this premodern is not a pure return—it is an articulated premodern, a constructed archaism or medievalism. And yet it forms a vital dimension of the strange, mutant environment that we find ourselves in, and we lose touch with both the juice and the terror of the moment by cluthing a strictly evolutionary—or in the case of postmodernism, a rather vapid if exuberantly eclectic—timeline.

Perhaps the most interesting theory about the functional presence of the premodern I've come across is the interpretative matrix proposed by the great French historian of science Bruno Latour. In his book We Have Never Been Modern, Latour talks about the emergence of the Enlightenment, how the new rhetorical and procedural constructions of modern science divided the world between nature—a productive and determined reality articulated by science—and the free range of culture and political self-determination.

This “Great Divide” works in many different ways, and continues to inform many different questions. A crucial contemporary example, which is not Latour’s, arises in gender studies. We recognize that gender is very much of a construct, and yet critics of radical social constructionists insist rather obviously that we remain saddled with physiologically and genetically differentiated bodies, limits that are succinctly and productively articulated in many ways by science. Unless you are willing to argue that your own death is merely a social construction, then you find yourself hopelessly entangled with a carnal organism with its own specific histories and limits. At the same time, the moment we speak of the body and make decisions about how we narrate its apparent limits, we are already in the realm of discourse and construction, including all of the dreadful power-games that are implied with the language of natural law. On the other hand, critics who deny the enormously productive and articulate activities of science in order to serve the idols of semiotics and hardcore relativism wind up with a distinctly unpersuasive combination of linguistic idealism and pessimistic irrationalism. And so we shuttle back and forth across the Great Divide, shifting the arrows of our causal explanations from society to nature to society again.

In his book, Latour contrasts this modern intellectual condition with what he calls “the anthropological matrix” of the premodern. Within the anthropological matrix, the Great Divide does not really exist. There is not nature and culture, but what he calls nature-cultures. Things are not crisply divided between object and subject, but are hybrids: subject-objects, animist actors in a web of necessary relations. Say that I am a traditional Inuit and I kill a polar bear. What is the polar bear to me? At one level the polar bear is a perfectly useful material object that I manipulate in perfectly rational ways in order to fulfill perfectly human needs and desires—nothing mystical about it. At the same time, and inextricably, the polar bear is a figure in an imaginal cosmological network, a slowly-shifting set of relationships drawn between material practices and all sorts of symbolic, religious, and mystical elements which co-create the ontology of my world. Though of course subject to historical change, this network is inherently conservative, because every action of production, every technical development, and certainly every emergence of novelty, is immediately registered and constrained by the entire matrix as a new subject-object, a new technical actor. It is this webwork that the Great Divide rips apart, allowing the astounding productivity—in the broadest sense of the term—of the modern world. One need only compare the hermetic and alchemical science of the Renaissance to the sciences of Boyle, Descartes, and the Royal Society to see this.

What Latour wants to suggest, in a subtler way than I am proposing, is that today the Great Divide is breaking down. And it’s breaking down because of the incredible complexity of the networks of inter-relationships that we find ourselves submerged in now, an ever-expanding network of mutating hybrids that cannot be captured by modernist disciplinary matrices or their underlying causal axioms. We must genuinely engage the new hybrids, which are most emphatically not simply semiotic cross-breeds of floating cultural signifiers that smash into one other and produce new cultural mutations. That kind of “postmodern” hybridity is fine and very fascinating, and makes for an exhilarating if overly-engineered cultural stew. But there is a far deeper kind of hybridity as well, which has to do with the way that cultural practices, images, technologies, knowledges, and myth fuse into novel and open-ended material and informational conditions: the subject-objects constructed by an increasingly market-driven science, the production of new goods and services, the explosion of new subjectivities, the collapse of master narratives, new information landscapes, new gadgets, etc. We are surrounded by new networks of subject-objects, and the animism that drives “mystical positivism” is not simply an ideology but a fundamental symptom of the fact that the conceptual reality constructed by the Enlightenment can no longer keep its act together. In many ways, this is terrifying, or at least disarming. But if you acknowledge the irreducible ontological, sociological, and imaginary force of this premodern return—which is of course a return with a difference, and no longer definable as antecedent—then the questions of the religious imagination—of mythic perception, of technologies of the self, of radical interiority, of ecstasy, even of faith—can no longer simply be written off as a set of dodgy concepts, reactionary ideologies, or regressive retreats from the intellectual and existential rigors of modernism.

Though it’s fruitful to do so, one need not delve into the vatic utterances of Marshall McLuhan to recognize examples of this premodern return. Our whole Deleuzian, postmodern language of tribes and nomadism is shot through with the premodern imaginary. This language resonates because even intellectuals have established, in however constructed and articulated a fashion, a relationship with a partially mythic formation, one that suggests new-old subjectivities and perceptions—Deleuze and Guattari’s “witch’s flight.” That doesn’t mean that we can’t use it in theoretically sophisticated ways, for one aspect of this return is that it is imbued with a new technical sophistication. I was very interested and very pleased that Heiko Idensen included the Torah in his hypertext project, for the traditional packaging of the Jewish scriptures is a great example of hypertext. In New York, you peek into these tomes that the Hasidim read on the subway: these books are stunning, as aggressively dense as Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib, with patchworks of different typefaces to indicate the nested levels of interpretation and commentary. The mystical Kabbalah is full of recombinatory elements, full of codes and ciphers and deconstructions of the Book. Obviously, hypertext is not necessarily a religious mode of writing. But there is a strange technical resonance here that is very important, and it raises many questions about hermeneutics, the tactics of interpretation, the social construction of texts, and the ambiguous status of the author. Again there is a return, but with a difference—an articulated return.

One of the more ominous dimensions of all this is that, if I am correct and the logic of the religious imagination gains steam as we plunge ahead, then the spread of “postmodern” communications technologies will hardly prevent the most insidious elements of religion from reappearing: manipulative control, fanaticism, and the violent imaginal divisions erected between self and other. One interesting example is discussed by Ravi Sundaram in his article in ZKP3, where he draws attention to the fact that it is the Hindu nationalists in India that dominate the Net. Of course, these movements are contemporary constructions, whose reactionary and quasi-nationalist politics have nothing necessarily to do with the blooming mosaic of cults, practices, and metaphysical jewels that we rather simplistically call “Hinduism.” And yet these groups are also certainly religious, and they can dominate the Net partially because they are able to exploit its symbolic and imaginal possibilities. Specifically, Sundaram discusses how they project into the nomadic plasticity of the Net the virtual image of a nation unified by their version of Hindu culture.

That information technology allows a premodern return of religious reaction should only really surprise us if we are under the mistaken assumption that the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not part and parcel of modernism. Whatever wellsprings of interiority it draws from, the exoteric forms of fundamentalism always take place within a contemporary context. Though you wouldn’t guess it from listening to the US media, Islamic fundamentalism is fundamentally a product of modernism—or rather, of its failures. Such a return to foundations has next to nothing to do with Islam before the twentieth century—a religion that, after its initial centuries of bloodthirsty expansion, is historically far more tolerant than Christianity. These things are still constructs of the now; they select and remix the past in extremely powerful ways, and they are very schizophrenic when it comes to communication tools. While the Taliban hang televisions and VCRs from the telephone poles like dead presidents, the Ayatollah laid the groundwork for the Iranian revolution through underground networks of cassette recordings—an example of the “secondary orality” discussed by Walter Ong. New information technologies may continue to prove quite able to simulate and recrystalize “tribal” thought and practice.

One important element follows from this line of thought. If we recognize fundamentalism as a hostile component of modernity rather than a leftover or a holdout from the premodern, that means that everytime we run across a contemporary religious formation with a political tinge, we should not necessary call out the dogs with cries of “Reactionaries!” If that is your instinct, then you should sit down and have a long hard look at the Zapatistas. And once again, I say this not as a defender of tradition, but as someone who is rather desperately interested in the various forms of resistance and revival that might take place as we plunge into something that may well take the form of Mark Stahlman’s New Dark Ages.

Of course, one of the reasons we instantly launch into critiques of contemporary religious formations, and react to religious motifs and spiritual language with an instinctive horror, is that we are still reacting to the historical nightmare of institutional Christianity. Because of this, our dominant idea of religion considers it as violently institutional belief system, a totalizing ideology that functions as a repressive social, intellectual, and imaginal control mechanism. That’s all very true and very accurate, but we must be careful not to treat religion as we do other ideologies. Culturally, the relationship between religious practice and the dogmatic or conceptual level of religious ideology is very complicated, producing many different problems and possibilities. Too often critics and intellectuals only recognize the belief system, reducing the whole complex of religious phenomena to symptoms of reactionary ideologies that can be attacked on both philosophical and political grounds.

For example, both Richard Barbrook in his piece, and Mark Dery in Escape Velocity, discuss various aspects of cyberculture that are apocalyptic, millenarian, New Age, gnostic, etc. They then radically critique these cultural phenomena, arguing that such ideas and dreams are obviously illusory, and that they absorb energy from the real world where we have work to do to resist noxious forms of power and to help the lives of a lot of suffering people. But techno-spirituality is not just some unthinking atavism. If I had time, I would go into some detail and show the historical and psychological background of these phenomena, their roots in American spiritual heteroxy (which was once shot through with progressive elements), and how these tendencies wind up being so strangely intermingled with today’s technology.

Though I do not agree with the anthropological and psychological axioms that underlie Barbrook or Dery’s critiques, I agree very much with many of their political concerns. The problem, though, is that you have to ask what function these notions, experiences, or imaginations serve within a set of very different and open-ended kinds of practices and conditions. The problem with examining religious phenomena, and especially with spiritual people who are extolling a certain kind of vision of the world, is that we tend to respond to their level of discourse and not necessarily to their level of practice and experience.

Things look very different if we take a broader, cultural studies perspective. In this regard, it’s interesting to compare technopagans, Extropian transhumanists and the like to non-elitist and secular subcultures, particularly those associated with popular music. If we are coming from an older perspective of cultural critique—the Frankfurt School/Debord model—the spectacle is so dominant, the commodity is so dominant, that it seems impossible that anything organically cultural or subversive or revivifying could emerge from these mechanisms. The industrial production of popular music, the fetishistic consumption of records, the mindless fandom encouraged around stars—how could this possibly be a site of anything interesting? And yet we know from cultural studies that there are a whole number of fascinating forms of resistance and of cultural re-creation found within the social consumption of recorded music. Moreover, many of these subcultures are also inflected with a certain kind of religious sensibility, and not just in terms of the “cults” composed of “fans”—from the Latin fanaticus, used to describe inspired members of mystery cults. For example, you have the phenomena of reggae music in the Seventies, a deeply religious and millenarian music whose political and spiritual force fed directly into all sorts of contemporary anti-colonialist cultural movements, and even the British punk scene—superficially a most anti-spiritual subculture. The utopian ecstasies of the Deadheads are another example (a secret history of what we too crudely call the California Ideology), and the Goa-style techno scene is very much an example now. What I draw from this is that, just as we have to look at the imaginal and social practices of fans engaging commodities, poaching and reconfiguring signs, and developing relationships within the belly of a dominant commodity culture, so too should we bring more care and attention to the imaginal and social practices of people engaged in what we would recognize as religious or spiritual “ideologies”—including those we discover in technoculture.

All this brings to mind some of Michel de Certeau’s notions about the practice of everyday life as being a locus of both resistance and creative accommodation—notions that are certainly inflected by de Certeau’s religious background and researches into mysticism. He talks about how, in our radically electronicized, technological, and engineered environment, the individual cannot so much directly resist these forces as attempt to detach themselves from them, to outwit them, to play games with them, to recreate within a technological environment the art and practices of earlier hunters and of rural people. It’s a striking image, if a politically pessimistic (I’m tempted to say pragmatic) one. And yet it resonates with the tribe, the gang, the technopagan, the raver, any number of exuberant “atavisms” reconstellated in the postmodern ruins. But in order to uncork the essence of these phenomena, it behooves us to look at them through an imaginative as well as a critical or ideological perspective.

All this becomes more interesting if we cease looking at religion as a belief system, and look at it instead as a kind of congealed institutional response—a kind of apparatus of capture—to the extraordinary psycho-spiritual potentials we carry within ourselves. It's tough to talk about these potentials these days. Despite the sophistication of critical discourse, it often displays a tendency to reduce complex, multi-layered networks of forces and agents to plots of land controllable inside certain disciplinary or theoretical languages. And this is particularly the case when we are talking about ideological or social formations, and how they interact with concrete individuals, their minds, souls, and altogether human potentials. How do we relate these two levels of reality, discourse, and experience? How do we relate the ongoing fact of our conscious, subjective, creative lives with these huge abstractions, warring ideologies, and complex media fields of simulacra?

Faced with this situation, there is a very strong tendency to collapse levels, to reduce everything to an abstract field of ideological wars. Ferreting out the ideology embedded in cultural formations, often paranoically, becomes a way of avoiding the existential problem of our concrete embodiment in ideas, practices, institutions, and the flesh. The intellectual sits there and looks at a particular cultural formation and says: “Ah, I see the secret hand of ideology at work, reproducing its unwholesome notions beneath the surface.” And so we lose touch with the lifeworld. It’s not that we should cease considering questions of ideology, of the hidden hand clutching our own thoughts as well as the thoughts and imagination of the culture at large. But we can introduce a far more fluid, open-ended, and substantive multiplicity into our discourse, particularly when we are dealing with questions of experience and human subjectivity. Spiritually, it becomes a question of how you fit the enormous energies released by ecstatic experience, or the endless productions of the creative imagination, or the perceptual and philosophical changes introduced through hardcore contemplative self-examination, into the more mundane frameworks of life and thought, politics and art.

A number of people have pointed out that of all the religious, spiritual, or mythic qualities that seem to be mobilized in technoculture, gnosticism is one of the more predominant (by saying gnosticism, I am speaking more about a tendency found within many patterns of religious thought, and not so much about a specifically “Gnostic” set of groups and texts).

If you boil it all down, the gnostic impulse can be defined simply as a radical dualism between mind and body, self and world—with the radical rejection of the fleshy side of the equation. In “The Information War,” Hakim Bey shows how the image of disembodied spirit is mapped onto the cultural construction of information, such that the self becomes virtualised and disengaged from a whole set of carnal and real world relationships. This gnostic split is a very strong temptation, both from a spiritual perspective and from the perspective of digital subjectivity. And it is one to be heartily resisted, or rather, transmuted into a far less naive integration of self and world. But to do so thoroughly, we must understand its appeal.

Gnosis is not knowledge in the abstract sense of possessing a bunch of information within an interpretive framework. Leaving aside a more rigorous phenomenology of mystical experience, we can say that gnosis is an ecstatic moment, one in which the conventional division between experience and knowledge breaks down, an expansive almost “psychokinetic” experience that unfolds itself as a kind of knowing that rewrites the boundaries of the self. Though found in mystical literature, I don’t believe that such ecstasies of knowing and perception are reserved for the religious. A particularly embodied example is the peak of ecstatic communion engineered at raves: entheogens uncork your loving heart, the music is superb, the people have hit a peak of absolute collective life—what is that like? Nothing is like that. Though more “pagan” spiritual modalities could describe that moment, gnosis captures its cognitive character.

An even more technological “ecstasy of communication” derives from the intense kinds of epiphanies that many people often describe when they first realize the reach and magnitude of the Internet. There is a kind of sparkling leap when you realize that the relationship of your solitary communication and the world have radically changed, that the horizons of communicative possibility have drastically changed, and that this new medium of mind is both intimate and powerful. As Hakim Bey has noted, info-gnosis arises when the self becomes recoded as information. And the enormous temptation of gnosticism, in both religious history and technoculture, is to hit the escape button: to reify the peak, the utopian possibility, the promise of disembodied liberation, and to reject everything else. In some sense, this capitulation has fueled the Californian Ideology, especially in its more Extropian guises; more generally, it has led to the incorporeal hubris, ecological insensitivity, and otherworldly disassociation that fuels the cultural enthusiasm for information technology.

It’s a foolish feeling to build a politics upon, as so many have attempted to do, but if we ignore this experience, we will never understand the millennialism of the Net. What is going on with that moment of cognitive ecstasy, and what is going on with the startling return of spiritual and religious patterns of thought in the midst of technoculture? When I encounter people who simply condemn the religious elements and spiritual modalities they recognize within technoculture as atavistic and ideologically suspect, I am disappointed. That such premodern material could return with a vengeance at this late date indicates to me that we cannot simply turn our backs on this stuff and let it fester in its most reactionary and misguided forms. It’s part of who we are, and we need to engage and transmute, not simply attack out of some strained mixture of Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern cynicism.

I am not going to try to defend this position philosophically, and certainly not according to the canonical axioms of contemporary “discourse.” I am just going to say that spiritual phenomena, cosmology and the like, as well as its perhaps inevitable reification into religious and mythic forms, simply keeps coming up. Look at the 19th century, which is so committed to materialism, a commitment not only realized in the near total detachment of science from religion effected by the end of the century, but also in the utterly this-worldly orientation of both Darwinism and historical materialism. We only need to crack open Kevin Kelly to realize how mystical Darwinism can become. And yet, as a pattern of social expectation and historical thought, Marxism too was infused with a millennialist spirit that you can trace back to Joachime of Fiore and the pre-socialist utopias of the hermetic imagination. Though its intellectual force has waned enormously, utopia maintained a vital role in critical discourse throughout the twentieth century, and the image of utopia ultimately derives from an image of the soul projected onto the immanent possibilities of the existing world. In whatever guise, revolution cannot be divorced from an underlying wellspring of millennial emotions, from the sense that something is just coming to be, that the self is about to fuse with the world in some unexpected and magnificent fashion.

So when we encounter that feeling complex, even in the most degraded of places and in the most cynically manipulated of manners, it seems like we miss the boat by refusing to look it in the face, to recognize the mutant subjectivities suggested in technoculture. At the same time, I am not suggesting that we abandon our critical attention on those institutional and cultural mechanisms that capture, diffuse and even help engender these subjectivities—to “religion” in the repressive sense. We might even say that spiritual experience, ecstasy, and vision are always captured by belief systems and institutions, which construct themselves and their meanings around experiences that both legitimate them and always threaten to escape and upset their rule. Not to invoke Kevin Kelley, but spirit is always out of control. If institutional Christianity is the archetype of religious oppression and control, its history cannot be seen outside its own deterritorializations: massed peasant rebellions, mystical antinomianism, millennialist reform, the heresy of the free spirit, even the pagan this-worldliness that lurks in the edges of the Christian imaginary. Religion too is the story of nomads and states, the smooth and striated spaces that commingle within the self. How often has real immanence been produced in the name of a transcendence that never arrives?

Now I want to leave the problem of dogma, belief, and institutional control aside, and to mention just two spiritual modalities that impact discussions of technoculture. Both of these modalities figure in traditional practices and cosmologies, as well as in the eclectic postmodern stew of spirituality we too often write off under the catch-all category of “New Age.” And yet I’d like to discuss these modalities in non-religious, secular language, because their intelligence and fundamental lack of dogmatism ultimately escape such discourses. Those two modalities are the imaginal, and what for the sake of simplicity I will just call attention.

Because we associate the imagination with moldy philosophies and now fashionably denigrated aesthetic theories, our relationship to the imaginal these days is impoverished and full of suspicion. Shredded apart by different disciplinary machines and eviscerated of its experiential force, we are now more likely to blame our imaginations for perceptual errors than to claim it as an engine of what Hakim Bey would call poetic facts. Bracketing all sorts of psychological and philosophical issues, and leaving aside the problem of Romanticism, I would like to simply argue here that the imagination cannot be reduced to a concept, but should be recognized as an irreducible component of the human sensorium, as real as its siblings dream and desire. Obviously the creative imagination is allied with the subconscious dimensions of the psyche—another heretical, or should I say, “problematic” construct. But though I toy with the belief that there are some deep patterns in the psyche that are in some sense transhistorical, the Jungians are wrong to picture it as some pure and changeless realm where the great godlike archetypes of the past live eternally. The psyche too moves and mutates and creates itself through history, even if its dream-like resonances and imaginal relationships always beckon to some eternal return just out of reach. The cavern of the imaginary is full of machines.

All this is important because of course the whole motive force of the commodity spectacle derives from its ability to invade and rewrite the imaginal. What’s happening on the Net and throughout our culture of the simulacrum is the extraordinary technical intervention, manipulation, and externalization of the imagination. My favorite description of this process is “the corporate colonization of the subconscious,” a phrase that captures both the invasive quality of media viruses as well as the plastic nature of the subconscious. But if we take the imagination seriously, perhaps even dangerously seriously, then these imaginal relationships we form with the mechanisms of the spectacle have real consequences. I am quite taken with the British cultural studies rejoinder to Frankfurt School pessimism regarding the culture industry, and unlike those who are content to sniff out the evil hand of capitalist ideology in every crass blockbuster or MTV video, I follow Benjamin in remaining passionately committed to the imaginal traces that course through the media carnival. At the same time, the narcotic, hypnotic, and coercive aspects of imaginal control need to be considered even more seriously then ever in our era of engineered media viruses.

By taking the creative powers of the imagination seriously, we also open up its social and democratic potential, as well as its ability to revivify our fractured lives and fragmented subjectivities. The imagination is not some aristocratic faculty reserved for poets and artists, which allows them to make art that the rest of us consume in our poverty. To varying degrees, we all have the capacity for imaginal action, no less than we do for rational action. One of the things we love about subcultures is that ordinary people create, in however degraded a guise, a space of the active imagination within the spectacle’s clamoring mall of glittering images. One quite technical example, culled from the popular culture of healing practices, is guided visualization, which, though now associated with New Age self-help practices, can be traced through esoteric and mystical traditions of the past, like hermetic magic or the Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism. These traditions indicate that the imagination is an internal generative force, that we can improve and shape it, and that we can achieve some autonomous power over its products. At the same time, the unleashed imaginal always overleaps the mechanisms of control, internally or externally imposed—that is its “magic.”

Living in San Francisco is very interesting because one often sees early glimmers of technical developments. Most of these things will fizzle out, but it’s still interesting because even the false starts are symptoms of the evolving logic of dominant technoculture. I am particularly fascinated by the psychedelic freak culture which has driven the technocultural machinery of the so-called Californian Ideology in such extraordinary and bizarre ways. This freak spirit, which has everything to do with technically stimulating the magic of the imaginal, through LSD or electric guitars or virtual worlds, is now focusing on avatar and VRML [Virtual Reality Modeling Language]-based worlds. These are graphic, three-dimensional, networked environments where you construct or adopt an avatar—an image that represents yourself and allows you to navigate and move around the space. It’s like a MUD [Multi-User Dimension], except with graphics, and some worlds even have little microphones that sound just terrible. The ones I’ve seen are crude and rather stupid, with extremely chintzy graphics. But though full immersive virtual reality on the Net remains a pipe dream, it nonetheless seems that we will eventually be treated to extremely addictive virtual worlds that people will pour a lot of time, energy, and imaginal force into.

Speaking from personal experience, I’d say that low-bandwidth, text-based MUDs are already remarkably addictive, partly because they sink their talons into the imaginal. Something about the combination of implied space and textual constructs, the interpersonal play of personas, the amplification of the imaginary potential of writing—all of this allows you to lose and remake yourself inside these worlds of text. Of course, many other things are going on as well, which is what makes MUDs to my mind the most interesting socio-cultural petri dishes on the Net. And these avatar VRML worlds may very well produce similarly evocative, complex, and addictive realms of phantasm—except now they will be delivered to a mass audience currently alienated from textual production. And of course, these junky strip-mall astral planes will be brought to you by the same old bastards, littering their products and icons about, manipulating and capturing the revolutionary potential of imaginal desire.

So the task of revivifying both our conception and practice of the imaginal becomes a non-trivial task, if only to understand the underlying nature of technocultural transformations. The imaginal will continue to be a dominant factor in the mystification of the Internet, in the future possibilities of play and phantasmic resistance, and in the re-engineering of the psyche by the new mechanisms of spectacular communication. I suspect that a frank, demystified look at mystical traditions, shamanic practices, popular occultism, and esoteric religions may well come in handy, because it is there that we find the richest story of imaginal technologies without necessarily tangling with aesthetics, Romanticism, surrealism, etc. Moreover—and in this I could certainly be accused of romanticism—the synthetic and spontaneous qualities of the imaginal may very well suggest their own avenues to overcoming Bruno Latour’s Great Divide with grace and vision, enabling us to wisely play with the emerging patterns in the networks of thoughts, practices, images, and technologies we now, by necessity, must weave.

Now I’d like to turn to the second spiritual modality I mentioned, which is attention. Though the gnostic inflection in cyberculture is for the most part a dangerously dualistic tendency, it arises at its core from something very profound. To put it baldly, even willfully naively, I would say that it is the recognition that individual consciousness, or mind, cannot ultimately be reduced to anything else. We are used to collapsing consciousness to another level of reality and explanation. From a political cultural perspective, we reduce it to a symptom of ideology. From a poststructuralist perspective—with its horror of the untheorized subject—we reduce it to an effect of the networks of language and difference. From a cognitive science perspective, we reduce it to a symphony of neural chemicals, an epiphenomenon of the Darwinian expansion of the brain pan. There are many ways of demystifying consciousness, and though I’m not interested in remystifying it per se, I do think that from a certain very important perspective one cannot afford to reduce it to anything else.

Whatever I conceptualize about the “true” mechanisms of power, authority, and causality, I still have to engage my own existence as an awake and aware being with an active self-consciousness about my own subjective flux unto death. How much can I afford to ignore that, in myself and in others? The gnostic temptation—as we are characterizing it here, and as you find it expressed in the history of religion and mysticism—is to identify solely with the meta-level of consciousness. The body, the physical world, the world of power—all that becomes a prison for the free light of the mind. And while we are hardly experiencing a mystical renaissance these days, much less a mature one, this gnostic spirit charges the digital air, because, as Hakim Bey has explained, the Internet and our hyperreal media simulations hardwire a crude and technological analog of the gnostic split, whose ultimate example is the Extropian dream of downloading consciousness into a machine. And Bey is quite right in bringing attention to the dangerous and disassociated aspects of this impulse.

Of course, for critics like Barbrook and Dery, all this simply reaffirms the essential pathology of the spiritual imaginary. And yet many esoteric religions, hermetic practices, and wisdom traditions also have ways of both critiquing and integrating the gnostic tendency into a more mature and transformative view of the world, of infusing body and world with the alchemical potentials of consciousness. We could certainly discuss both Bey’s and Peter Lamborn Wilson’s work in this respect, but I am going to switch gears and talk a bit about Buddhism, which is very much a religion of gnosis, one whose phenomenology and philosophy rest upon the radical recognition and technical exploration of the liberatory potentials of consciousness— potentials that have as much to do with immanence as transcendence. As a historical religion, some dominant forms of Buddhism have certainly drifted into hardcore asceticism and otherworldly flight, but many of its more Tantric and Taoist-inflected forms, as well as its current Western manifestations possess encouraging this-worldly elements.

What moves to the fore in many of these Buddhist mutations is attention, mindfulness, and a commitment to the spontaneous clarity and emptiness of the mind as it reveals itself to us in everyday experience. This quality of attention has the ability to de-reify the given reality of ordinary experience, which in some sense is the first step on the ladder of gnosis. And yet, as a practice, the work of mindfulness and attention also revolve around a radical embrace of the passing present, and serves as a hedge against both the constant temptations of delusional fantasy, and the instrumental machinations of the anxious clutching ego. It is not an escape so much as a letting go. Renunciation does not just mean a quiescent refusal to act; one can also renounce those very illusions that prevent an honest appraisal of the reality of our condition, socio-historical as well as subjective.

Gurdjieffians say that “There is no God but reality. To seek Him elsewhere is the action of the Fall.” One of the ways these considerations can fit into the question of technoculture, media power, and the Internet concerns the psychodynamics of attention in the empire of signs. How do you move in a hypertext environment? How do you filter a suspect media glut? What draws you through the digital garden of forking paths? How do they sink their talons in? The answer, in part, has to do with the tactics of attention. As Bruce Sterling has pointed out, one of the secret equations that defines the future of the Net is that money is attention. Attention is the evanescent point of capture and resistance. The more awareness you have about the way your attention works on a moment-to-moment level, the more suppleness, the more space will form around that activity. Your tactics change. It’s not that you are no longer captured, seduced or compelled, or that you escape somehow to some realm where you can completely control your experience of the world. But psychodynamic practices which deepen your awareness and attention, whether from Buddhism, or other contemplative traditions, or purely secular techniques, give you a sort of edge, a more fluid and tactical intelligence. And all of this has nothing at all to do with religious belief.

All of which is important, because, while the Net could not exist without the corresponding framework of political fragmentation and the rapacious nomadism of global capitalism, I think that there is something very juicy and intriguing about the gnostic or mystical response to cyberspace. Again, however we analyze, critique, and resist our digital-historical condition, we are also participating in it as mental agents, a participation that by its very nature erodes the familiar rules about consciousness, bodies, and the machinery of subjectivity. We are extending our minds into machinic fields of collective information, into incorporeal, engineered environments. For all the junk, the Internet remains an astounding zone of connections, histories, texts, images—and most of all, of ever-bizarre and fascinating individuals. We are colonizing each other’s brains, and we—at least the limited “we” with access to these tools—are doing it on a global scale at a time of overwhelming uncertainty and cultural crisis. Though I am mighty wary of techno-utopianism, Californian techno-myth, and Extropian glee, it seems to me that we must plunge forward into this funhouse—which is not the same thing as capitulating to the money-mad agenda of Wired’s editorial crew.

This brings us finally to the bizarre but nonetheless potent myth about the Gaian mind, the digital noosphere. According to the acidhead Rebublican John Perry Barlow, as more and more of us get online, we are becoming the neurons of an enormous complex system that is engendering an emergent collective mind, which at a certain point will create an apotheosis of planetary consciousness. As an unholy blend of Arthur C. Clark, Teilhard de Chardin, Neuromancer, and eco-cybernetics, the Gain mind can be seen as intriguing, if depressingly, unironic mystical science fiction—a resonant image with many forebears in the religious imagination, metaphysics, and consciousness of the West.

Of course, we can critique it like hell. Besides its basic goofiness and dull literalism, the Gaian mind naturalizes the current state of capitalist planetization, especially through its recourse to Kevin Kelleyish neo-Darwinian arguments and the “mystical positivism” that Barbrook criticizes. Of course, genuine mystics would have trouble with this confusion of pattern-mad, cyber-materialists and the higher experiential stratospheres of consciousness and Being. And most proponents of this worldview would virulently deny the charge of mysticism as well, pointing to a wide variety of scientific and technological developments and research into nonlinear dynamics and the properties of complex systems that undergird their arguments. And Barbrook is right to insist that both these denials are not really tenable.

We all know that science is in some sense a social and ideological construction, and it certainly seems that the moment you start recognizing patterns and goals in nature, you begin this slide into mystical positivism, dodgy theories of history, and ripe excuses for the abject failure of the social imagination to grapple with the material breakdown of our new conditions. But to ignore the substance of the paradigmatic shifts in science by constantly invoking the invisible hand of ideology, as Barbrook does, misses a deeper point. Which is that the Great Divide between the productions of nature and the productions of culture, as they are mediated through human actors, is breaking down. We are part of the welter of cosmic phenomena, however much we also transcend it as rational observers who like to make disciplinary divisions between regions of experience. It is perhaps inevitable that the cosmological imagination returns, attempting to revivify and re-enchant the patterns and logic of the material world. It seems that it’s just as useful (though not necessarily any more useful) to seize that cosmological and speculative ground in the name of progressive, humanitarian, and ecological values as it is to endlessly and skeptically carp about its suspect qualities.

While the new networks of “subject-objects” uncork all sorts of dangers—social Darwinism, determinism, etc.—I will remind you, as an example, that nowhere in Deleuze & Guattari do you find such a divide; instead you discover that bird songs are machinic, morals are geological, mathematics is a monster slang. Though I certainly have my problems with D&G, I remain deeply inspired by their distant sympathy with science, and the almost pagan (or at least Spinozan) exuberance they bring to the productive capacities of desire and material reality (if you doubt the pagan charge, reread “How to Build a Body Without Organs” and Deleuze’s appendix on the phantasm in The Logic of Sense). Moreover, Manuel DeLanda’s work, which is both theoretically scientific and deeply Deleuzian, reminds us that these notions do not by any means intrinsically lend themselves to the bloated and irresponsible elitism of unrestrained information capitalism. Though I am glad old school leftists like Barbrook are still about, I am not convinced that we are doing anybody much good by simply retreating into Enlightenment categories of reason, at least in so far as these categories divide nature and science from the context of a subjective, interpersonal lifeworld that must remain always, in some sense, imaginal.

But rather than bare my chest even more to the arrows of ideological critique, I want to look again at this striking image of the Gaian mind. What kind of mind is it, at least as it shows itself to us online? It’s a mind full of idiocy, cant, and rage; of agents seducing and selling junk to each other; of moments of clarity, lust, and phantasm; of endless chattering debates; of secret investments in the technologies of power; of intimacies blooming across great distance; of boredom; of the fetishistic embrace for technique. In other words, it’s a lot like our minds, our ordinary human minds, at least as they appear to us at this stage of the historical game. Which is to say that even if we are hardwiring a great collective Mind, it is pretty foolish to believe that this medium is going to get us out of the problems that our individual minds already encounter and create as they navigate and constellate social and interpersonal reality: those perennial emotional traps, anxious ego-projects, power games, and immense conflicting drives, none of which can honestly be written off as the alienated effects of an admittedly overwhemlingly degraded social condition. As long as we don’t change, become wiser and more compassionate and more imaginative, the change certainly isn’t going to come through some extension of instrumental rationality. In fact, it may just amplify the ills that already beset and delude us.

So I’d like to counter the Gaian mind with another image of networked unity, one that comes to us from the remarkable imaginary of Hua-Yen Buddhism, perhaps the most philosophically sophisticated Chinese sect, and one that, like much Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, is permeated with the immanent flux of the Tao. With its extraordinary emphasis on the immanent and profoundly productive networks of multiplicity, along with more perennial Buddhist notions of emptiness and transcendence, the Hua-Yen school in many ways strikes me as the most Deleuzian of Buddhisms. Sects of Chinese Buddhism tended to cluster around one particular Buddhist sutra, and the Hua-Yen scripture, known as the Flower Garden Sutra, is an immense work of visionary ferocity that easily stands as one of the most psychedelic religious documents of all time, a kind of Eastern Finnegan’s Wake. Unlike all the other sutras, which are said to have been written for beings already mired in samsara, the Flower Garland Sutra purports to issue directly from the world as directly perceived by the dropout Gautama in his moment of enlightenment, when he sat beneath the bodhi tree with a diamond mind and an utterly broken heart. The text blows the mind.

The central organizing image of Hua-Yen philosophy is the Net of Indra, the ancient sky-god of the Vedas. Indra’s Net is an infinite lattice of connections, a great web. And at each node in this vast web of multiplicity, at each juncture point, there is a jewel, and each reflects all of the other jewels, all the other nodes in the network. In a sense it is like Leibniz’s monadology, an important precursor to cyberspace, except that here the monads are nothing but windows. Indra’s Net captures the infinite extent and endlessly combinatory set of relationships found in multiplicity, and at the same time suggests a kind of unity through reflection, and all-in-oneness that does not dissipate the all. Like ourselves, the jewels are empty of any abiding substance, and yet they are still constructed in relationships. Their lucid emptiness allows them to reflect the totality of this network of relations without collapsing that network into a monarchical monad of the Western religious imagination, an overly synthetic unity, the great transcendent Overmind that now promises to digitally coalesce into some kind of paternalistic all-being. It’s not that kind of unity at all.

Whenever Mark Dery bumps up against folks who profer the spiritual conviction that we are all connected, he likes to quote P.J. O’Rourke’s snide line about the hippie notion that there is “a throbbing web of psychic mucus and we [are] all part of it somehow.” Deployed as an argument-solving philosophical or political concept, this amorphous “altogether-now” is usually quite mockable. But unless the countless mystics scattered through the wisdom traditions of the world for millennia are fibbing, then the Net of Indra is not just a concept, but a perception, a state-specific realization about the nature of reality that inevitably sounds lame when translated into our chattering daily discourses. Moreover, such a transpersonal realization, in principle anyway, compels a radical commitment to the world, encourages an engagement with the suffering of others, and with maintaining the fragile, non-commodified networks that bind us to other humans and the nonhuman world. In this sense, one is reminded of the etymological roots of “religion,” which have to do with binding and connecting—not as in some authoritarian machine, but as in the anthropological matrix that Latour discusses, an endless animated web of hybrids.

And so the next time you log onto the Indranet, you might consider: what am I connected to? What is my computer connected to? It’s connected to phone lines, to electrical grids, to the Internet, to the World Wide Web. It’s connected to all these different minds in a historically unprecedented fashion. What else is it connected to? As historical materialists and Buddhists both recognize, it is connected to its own conditions of production, political, social, ecological. This is its “karma.” How far can I follow this hyperlink? Do I stop with my online ecstasies, or with the Malaysian factory that helped build my machine, or with the stock market fluctuations that brought the factory there, or with the working conditions of the women who soldered the circuit boards, or with the poisoned ground that my CPU leaves in its wake? Sober and concerned people often bring these questions up in a banal, hand-wringing way, but they are very real. That’s what’s online. That’s the web. That’s the Net of Indra. It is the conditions of causal production in our world that make us “one,” and those conditions are mighty dire these days, whatever goodies the techno-utopians have up their sleeves. So even if I accept this goofy, gooey, very Californian idea that we are all connected and that the Internet has something to do with it, that doesn’t really let me off the hook. If I really reflect on our condition in the mindful, compassionate, and witheringly self-critical way that the sharpest spiritual teachers encourage, I come to the conclusion that the only thing of real validity is to work on the networks that are most evident to me, on the ones that most authentically bind us, and the ones where I feel myself most alive. Thank you.

 

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Erik Davis is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Harmony, 1998).