Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Puharich Nexus Interlude: television is the retina of the mind's eye

When we last ventured into the Puharich Nexus, we had established the portentous arrival of the UFO in 1947; the serendipitous discovery three years earlier of LSD in Basel, and the rediscovery of the sacred mushroom and cacti by western seekers in Mexico and California. We had essayed the idea of haunted technologies, hunting for ghosts and preternatural messengers flitting through the radio waves; therein we found the Influencing Machines of the schizophrenic imagination, the strange voices of John Keel's haunted West Virginian phone-lines, and the very real presence of NSA/FBI spooks hovering in the spaces between transmitter and receiver.

We hesitated to suggest that these things were connected in any significant conventional sense, but our methodology nevertheless implied that each separate jigsaw piece might constitute points or nodes in a deeper pattern or nexus. We begged your patience in accepting this particular nexus as having no clear distinction between its central and peripheral acts and players, but established nevertheless a mysterious master node in the figure of Andrija Puharich. Mr. Puharich we have established as a centre of innumerable puzzling connections: he has been a doctor, a military officer, and a scientist/inventor of sorts, but his real passion seems to lie in the pursuit of exotic mental talents and occult gnosis. To this end, he has found an early protege in the psychic Peter Hurkos. His quest for the sacred mushroom has brought him in contact with Huxley, while his work in parapsychology has elicited the incongruous attention of the US military.

Our tale is moving briskly into the sixties, and the magical, mysterious contours of the Space Age. To the grim, despondent moods prevalent in our times, the Space Age is itself a journey to a distant planet. Swaying fronds of bossa nova, purring organs and harps adumbrate a hermetic lounge instrumental landscape of ultimate bliss and languor. The future is a palpable Utopian presence, a giddy expectation of fulfilment that animates the architecture and ambience of the present tense. The television, increasingly affordable in colour by the end of the decade, is becoming the retina of the mind's eye, activating for the first time the communal, globalized media landscape familiar to all of us today. Huxley's The Doors of Perception would become a significant text in the later part of the decade, but it is arguably another of his Californian visions that casts the larger shadow: Brave New World's society of soma-dazed acquiescence and conspicuous consumption.

Every era evolves a technological medium of communication that transcends its role as a simple method of exchange, and becomes instead an instrument of authority, of trance, ritual, and metaphor. It becomes a presiding metaphor, and as such, informs the imaginative consciousness of its period, and begins to alter and even determine the information that passes through its auspices. At an earlier stage, this presiding metaphor must have been language itself; over time language evolved increasingly complex adjuncts to itself, and with the arrival of cinema and television, it has accrued methods of representation that increasingly mimic the human nervous system in full kinesthetic apprehension of the world.

In the Space Age, the television was the presiding medium of cultural exchange and transformation. Its transformative power was so stark and endemic that it required a spokesman, translator, and intermediary, all of which it promptly found in the form of academic, apocalypticist, and dead-pan stand-up Marshal McLuhan. The television, like all communication technologies, was deeply paradoxical in character and effect. It stultified the imagination, while simultaneously invigorating it to a degree that literature no longer could; it propagandised shamelessly, and yet in so doing could not but reveal the true nature of its cultural values and designs; it initiated a global connectivity of shared experience, and yet, as in the Brave New World, it served to further maroon individuals within the flashing synapses of their own nervous systems.

As it was a paradoxical entity, so the world it revealed was a most incongruous collage of disparate elements: overweening consumption expressed and enacted in sexual signifiers; political assassinations and technological utopia enacted in kitchenettes and automobile curves; soap operas, commercials, and Vietnam footage spliced together as an on-going art installation by the ubiquitous door in the wall. (It was the peculiar genius of JG Ballard to recognize this world of inviolate celebrity, anti-gravity, and napalm for the Dali-esque canvass that it was, and he produced the greatest novel of the Space Age in his remarkable experimental classic The Atrocity Exhibition). The primary signifying events of the new global consciousness were the slaying of Kennedy in Dallas, and the successful landing of the Apollo Eagle on the moon. These bookending chapters of the Space Age bore the distinct imprimatur of mystery ritual: sacrifice and apotheosis. In an echo of 2001's juxtaposition of primate aggression and futuristic space exploration, both were products of ballistics.

Perhaps the most characteristic and revelatory US television serials of the Space Age were the sci-if/fantasy anthologies The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Both shows, as well as their less illustrious predecessor One Step Beyond, utilize in their titles a spatial metaphor in order to establish the idea of a particular locus where all the normal lineaments of reality break down. On the one hand, the idea underlining each show might appear comforting: the ordinary world inhabited by the viewer was intrinsically safe and secure, and he or she would have to travel into the twilight zone in order to have the rug pulled out from under them. (During the Cold War, intelligence agencies labelled a country a "twilight zone" if the US had no definite policy regarding intervention in the event of Communism assuming power. The term was also used by the US Air Force to denote the terminator, the notional hinterland between the night and day sides of a planetary body.)

Herein, however, lay the strange subversive quality which was probably unintentional in the Twilight Zone, and became more pronounced in the Outer Limits. The twilight zone was indistinguishable from the ordinary, mundane world. Both worlds are contained within one another; there is no solid line of demarcation between the safe, predictable day-side of experience, and its strange, threatening, irrational night-side. This point is expressed most explicitly in the Outer Limits episode A Feasibility Study, in which a suburban neighbourhood is transported, people, homes, and picket fences, to another planet overnight. This unsettling conjunction of the mundane and the otherworldly gets to the core of the UFO phenomenon. A perusal of contemporaneous UFO witness accounts reveals a striking continuity in the metaphors employed to describe the mysterious crafts. Appearing in the midst of the most ordinary of locations and lives, they are described as being like "saucers", "platters", and "hamburgers", among other everyday household provisions. The UFO phenomenon, like the fantasy anthology serials, seemed to represent the point where ordinary reality breaks down, and its everyday constitute elements became immense, disembodied, and alien, in something similar to the way any word begins to sound meaningless and nonsensical if you repeat it enough times.

Wherein Andrija Puharich in all this? Aloca Presents: One Step Beyond was the most significant precursor to The Twilight Zone. Introduced by host John Newland ("Our Guide into the World of the Unknown"), One Step featured half-hour dramatisations of ostensibly real and inexplicable stories, including subjects such as precognition, astral projection, and wildly unlikely coincidence. However, by taking that one tentative step outside the pale of ordinary reality, Newland and his crew found themselves firmly in the Puharich Nexus. The most remarkable episode in the series was a departure from the normal format; in 1961 the show adopted a radical documentary/drama approach, and Newman and crew travel to a village in the Mexican mountains to sample a mysterious indigenous mushroom which apparently heightens extra-sensory perception. The Sacred Mushroom is a remarkable relic and document of the all too brief period between the discovery of psychedelics in the west and their subsequent demonisation in public discourse and legislature. Its mind-blowing today to see a show in which the host ingests magic mushrooms, and allows his reactions to be filmed. More mind-blowing for our current purposes, however, is the very visible presence of Andrija Puharich as an ESP consultant throughout the proceedings. Indeed, according to Newman, the on-camera mushroom-taking was largely at Puharich's behest.

Strange as it is to report, The Sacred Mushroom was not Puharich's only appearance on mainstream television in 1961. In a episode of the popular legal drama Perry Mason entitled The Case of the Meddling Medium, Raymond Burr's titular hero becomes involved in court proceedings surrounding the murder of a phony medium. Called to appear as an expert witness is none other than Andrija Puharich, playing himself, and armed with his trusty Faraday Cage. As usual, make of all this what you will.

"End of Transmission."
The last words of the Galaxy Being, in the first episode of The Outer Limits.

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Mark said...
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