Thursday, October 30, 2008

Elves and Eschatology: Virtual Reality Parties.

High Frontiers begat Reality Hackers, and Hackers finally begat Mondo 2000, “mondo” coming from Queen Mu because it sounded decadent and would look good on the masthead, and “2000” from Sirius because everybody back then was “using that to sell shit.” As the magazine evolved, the seemingly obligatory funny Pychonesque names continued to arrive thick and fast: Mondo Connie, Lady Ada Lovelace, Nan C. Druid, Marshal McLaren, and my personal favorite: G. Gordan MIDDI. Published under the then revolutionary auspices of desk-top publishing software like QuarkXpress and Adobe Photoshop, Mondo propagated a uniquely off-kilter world-view, which came on like the lush decadence of La Dolce Vita refracted through a prism of Californian psychedelia and giddy transhuman hubris. Written in a slangy, insider prose that combined the argots of computer hackers and esoteric New Age cultists, Mondo opened the lid an a cliquey world of virtual sex, smart drugs, virtual reality parties, designer psychedelics, and various fantasies of nootropic, nanotechnological self-advancement. Mondo was also one of the chief disseminators of the most surreal counter-cultural meme of the nineties: the self-transforming machine elves of hyperspace.

By the hey-day of the Mondoids, Terence McKenna was a fully fledged guru, appearing on stage to preach eschaton over the throbbing techno of the Shaman, getting name-checked by cult comedian Bill Hicks, and seeing his ideas infiltrate the world of mainstream American comic books via English invasion visionaries Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. Still proclaiming his predictions for the 2012 Timewave, by now transformed, like virtually everything else in the early nineties, into a commercial computer program, McKenna had also become a typically evangelical promoter of DMT use. Described by Daniel Pinchbeck as the “psychedelic equivalent of bungee jumping,” DMT is a naturally occurring tryptamine and potent mind-altering drug. When smoked, its effects are very brief in duration, but apparently intense enough to shatter every cozy rationalist paradigm and worldview going. DMT is possibly one of the most intriguing substances around. Minute traces of it are produced by the human body during normal metabolism, and this admittedly striking fact has placed DMT at the cutting edge of consciousness-exploration, both recreational and theoretical. An increasing number of both mainstream and outré theorists have argued that DMT may be the neurochemical wildcard responsible for such varied anomalies as dream imagery, near death experience, mystical epiphanies, and alien abduction. McKenna argued that DMT transported users not merely to another state of mind, but a whole other universe of incredible Escherian geometries, populated by its own intelligences and entities, which seemed consistent from one subjective experience of the drug to the next. His encounter with the notorious elves is described in typically florid manner:

“And what was going on in this place aside from the tastefully socketed indirect lighting, and the crawling geometric hallucinations along the domed walls, what was happening was that there was a lot of, ah, beings in there, what I call self-transforming machine elves of hyperspace. Sort of like jeweled basketballs all dribbling their way towards me. They were making objects come into existence by singing them into existence. Objects which looked like Faberge eggs from Mars morphing themselves with mandelian alphabetical structures. They looked like the concrescence of linguistic intentionality put through a kind of hyper-dimensional transform into three dimensional space. And these machines offered themselves to me. And I realized as I looked at them, that if I brought just one of these little trinkets back, nothing would ever be the same again.” ( Experience has taught me that discussion of the machine elves leads to largely unsuccessful job interviews, even when broached during the more informal “hobbies and interests” section. T.E.)

In many respects a product of their own insular, drug-addled sensibility, Sirius and his cohorts nevertheless crested a cultural wave. As the new journalism of the 60’s had been a voice commensurate with the radical effusions of that decade, Mondo 2000 spoke directly to a brief utopian blip in which people watched science fictions rapidly become tentative facts, and a global Revenge of the Nerds made the future seem, for a brief instant, firmly within the grasp of a generation of hyper-bright, sci-fi weaned geeks. Behind its impressive strangle-hold on the language and ideologies of the emerging technoculture, Mondo’s particular brand of subversion was politically neutral and hedonistically focused. “Fun” according to Queen Mu “is going to be the saving grace of our universe.” Much of the magazine’s pronouncements amounted to little more than an appeal to the libidinous, Dionysian aspects of the sixties counterculture, recast in a in a language of nineties technophilia:

“High technology enables us to explore sensuality far out on the New Edge…Why settle for passé kinkiness when you can actualize techno-aphrodisia from the infosphere?”

In a maneuver typical of the time, however, Mondo parried criticism by presenting itself as a self-imploding Warhol art-object, semi-celebratory and semi-satirical at the same time. The Mondoids virtual reality parties quickly came to represent for the nineties what Jay Gatsby’s mythical soirees did for the roaring twenties:

“A Mondo party might find a time travel expert being interviewed in one room, people playing word association games in another, others experimenting with weird mind-stimulation glasses, groups quietly chatting in conspiratorial whispers, or Bert Nagel and virtual reality expert Brenda Laurel leaping in the air to see if they could do a complete 360 degree turn without falling down. Rude pornography or Japanese animation videos flickered on monitors, figures preformed frottage on antique sofas. A journalist from GQ might be taking a piss on the lawn. One creature would trap people for entire evenings in conversations about how Sir Francis Bacon was actually William Shakespeare.”

Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media were eager to garner a handle on this Brave New World before it evaporated into yesterday’s color piece, and they descended on mass upon the Mondoids seeking exotic copy: “Having defined the nascent cybersexcomputerdrug culture, Mondo assumed the role of oracle to the rest of the media struggling to comprehend the trend. Sirius appeared on Donahue and Ron Reagan’s show. Reporters descended upon the Mondo house from all corners of the globe – Newsweek, Details, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and bureaus from Europe – as well as all the local dailies.

What is cyberpunk? they begged. Tell us why cyberpunks wear mirror shades and drink Jolt cola. What is virtual sex like?”

(Jack Boulware, A History of Mondo 2000.)

Such cross-fertilization between mainstream and underground culture became increasingly common in the nineties, and much of it was focused around the concept of virtual reality. The technology itself turned out to be another media touted high-way to tomorrow that went nowhere fast, leaving behind The Lawnmower Man and a wealth of fast-dating, tacky memorabilia. The concept of virtual reality, however, encapsulated something far greater than crude goggles and graphics; it expressed a pervasive sense that reality itself was becoming an increasingly plastic and mutable medium.

Reality should be the most solid and incontestable of all phenomena, and yet it has been subject to much doubt throughout the ages. Many of the perennial philosophies regarded reality as a beguiling but ultimately aimless dumb-show; as a preliminary step in the ladder of true understanding and being. Plato famously regarded it as a series of flickering shadows cast unto the wall of a cave; in the Hindu tradition, the phenomenological world, called maya, was an illusionary veil that must be pierced in order to attain freedom from an endless cycle of fruitless reincarnation. Interestingly, in the mystical tradition throughout the ages, the illusionary nature of reality has generally been evoked in the positive sense of offering at least the potential for liberation and transcendence. In the twentieth century, such notions assumed a wide currency in the west, but also a distinct positive and negative polarity. In the 1960’s, for example, the psychedelic movement, having had its own maya-shattering epiphanies, eagerly latched onto the classic Eastern texts as guidebooks to the acid experience, and preached a similar gospel of joyous liberation from the false cycles of unreflective being. At the same time, however, the novels of Philip K. Dick envisioned the loss of a stable reality as a paranoid, alienating experience, thrusting his protagonists into shifting, schizophrenic Wonderlands of media-saturation and mental instability.

To be concluded next post.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Entry 6: Elves and Eschatology Part 4: The Theology of The Ejector Seat.

In some ways, I like to see some of these as examples of drop-outs from the Darwinian evolutionary struggle. It seems that there are rewards systems that are built into our brain chemistry – they reward success (it feels like cocaine) and social approval, or at least acceptance. I like to think that certain dropped-out groups in human history have discovered a different reward system that is also somehow built into the human system – one that might be related to a mind-opened engagement with experience itself. Or it might simply be related to the absence of stress from refusing to participate in whatever rat race was particular to that culture.

RU Sirius.

In the early eighties, Ken Groffman was an aging former Yippie, occasional musician, and proto-slacker. Closely affiliated with Timothy Leary and the old guard of the psychedelic movement, Groffman was destined to fade into muddled anachronism like one of the denizens of Pynchon’s sixties hang-over novel Vineland. Nevertheless, for a brief period in the early nineties, his brainchild Mondo 2000 became become an essential zeitgeist primer for both the initiate and the neophyte, bringing its fractal melting pot of cutting edge technology and glib subversion from the fringes of Californian cyberdelia to the cover of Time magazine. Described by Mark Dery as a “heady blend of gadget pornography, guerrilla humor, human potential prep talk, New Age transcendentalism, and libertarian anarcho-capitalism”, Mondo and its adherents, labeled Mondoids, perfectly encapsulated an era in which the utopian imagination went into giddy overdrive. At some point in the course of this brief apotheosis, Groffman adopted the surrealist moniker by which he is still known today: RU Sirius.

In a more recent interview on Daniel Pinchbeck’s Reality Sandwich website, Sirius argued that information technologies have always produced unreservedly utopian projections and fantasies: “People were predicting the emergence of a global humanity and the breakdown of boundaries and nation states and all those sorts of things following the invention of the telegraph. Thomas Friedman wasn’t even yet an arrogant little spermatozoa in his daddy’s reproductive system when visionaries first imagined that global communications could or should result in a sort of global culture – and some of them expected it all to happen very quickly and suddenly.”

The reasons that this kind of techno-utopianism reached such a critical mass in the nineties are complex and varied. To a vital degree, the conception of how human beings interact with technology had undergone a rigorous transformation in the last few centuries. One of the most potent mythical images of the twentieth century remains the famous jump-cut in 2001 in which our ancestral bone-cudgel takes flight, and morphs into a space craft of the far future. The grey monolith corresponds to some degree with the Promethean myth with appears in virtually all the ancient traditions, but Clarke’s variation is infused with a new awareness of the extent to which human evolution is inherently a product of tool-making and interaction with technology. In previous word-views, characterized by a conception of human identity as an immutable, miniaturized fractal of the divine mind, technology was utilized in a largely naïve, unselfconscious fashion, and regarded as a by-product and extension of god-given human ingenuity. The scientific revolution radicalized our conception of the mechanical, and to some degree eroded forever the conceptual boundary between the organic and the inorganic. Marxism asserted that human nature was not a creation of some divine and immortal play-doh, but rather a product of material circumstances, of tool-making and modes of production. These represented sea-changes of outlook which have brought us gradually to the condition of techno-fetishistic cyborg consumerism which we inhabit today.

Human cultures have traditionally regarded consciousness as a unique, semi-magical animating principal, set in opposition to that which is mechanical, inorganic, or subject to computable, deterministic necessity of any kind. Automatons of every description maintain to this day a profound air of uncanny dread and revulsion, which probably achieves its apotheosis in the fairground carousel’s nightmarish parody of horse-riding. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, when the metaphor of mechanism had become an increasingly common tool to describe both the cosmos and the human body, something new happened: a kind of born again love for the machine inculcated itself into the fringes of human culture. A whole plethora of art forms, particularly electronic music, began to actively fetishize and celebrate the artificial and the inorganic. Science fiction writers instigated a fascination with the idea of human-surpassing robotic intelligence, and soon the quest for ever more powerful Artificial Intelligence would become a scientific reality, and a modern alchemical quest with both utopian and dystopian qualities. In 1997, chess world champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue computer, and with him, something of the indomitable spirit of Ned Ludd.

Towards the end of the century, a new kind of self-consciousness existed regarding the evolutionary potential of the human/technological matrix, and the idea of technology as a transformative and potentially transcendent entity began to spread with an almost religious fervor. As early as the sixties, Arthur C. Clarke eagerly anticipated a future of uninhibited, uninterrupted pleasure, facilitated by technologies of god-like intelligence: “In one sense…History will have come to an end….It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God - but create him. And then our work will be done. It will be time to play.” In the eighties, science fiction writer Vernor Vinge introduced the concept of the Singularity, a technological variant of Terence McKenna’s more overtly mystical novelty explosion theories. The Singularity basically suggests that at some point in the near future, machine intelligence will exceed that of its biological progenitor, and in so doing, attain the ability to produce exponentially improving versions of itself. As Vinge writes: “In the last few thousand years, humans have begun the next step, creating tools to support cognitive function. For example, writing is an off-loading of memory function. We’re building tools – computers, networks, database systems- that can speed up the processes of problem solving and adaptation. It’s not surprising that some technology enthusiasts have started talking about possible consequences. Depending on our inventiveness- and our artifacts inventiveness- there is the possibility of a transformation comparable to the rise of human intelligence in the biological world.”

Evolution, whose reigns have now been fully transferred from the bio to the technosphere, will spiral outward at terminal velocity, in a domino effect of novelty which, like McKenna’s singularity, is far beyond our current ability to conceptualize. Naturally, for adherents of the Singularity, who await its arrival like the Kingdom Come, the changes wrought will be overwhelmingly positive: many speak of a “Technotopia” in which aging, disease, and all negativity could potentially be eradicated by super-adaptive cyborg intelligence. The concept of the cyborg is vital; Singularity theory is permeated with a longing to absolutely blur the distinction between human and mechanical intelligence, and between biological “meatspace” and the realms of robotics, nanotechnology, and digital simulation. According to Ray Kurzweil, renowned futurist and author of key Singularity text The Age of Spiritual Machines, “in this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, between real and virtual reality. We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human illness and aging will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved.” Literally and figuratively the deus ex machina to end them all, cyber-critic Mark Deary has skeptically labeled this kind of thinking the “theology of the ejector seat.”

Out of these perennial longings to transcend the biological, entropic limitations placed on the human imagination by nature, the Transhumanist movement has emerged. The various Trans- and posthumanist ideologies eagerly adopt the assertion of Nietzsche that humanity must be regarded as a crude launching pad to better things, and infuse this basic doctrine with the modern jargons of cybernetics and the corporate self-actualization craze. As all these heady ideas permeated the computer/psychedelic/New Age matrix of nineties California, no periodical encapsulated the delirious energy and deep-rooted contradictions inherent in this intellectual melting pot better than Mondo 2000.

Mondo was a long time in the making. Shortly after the assassination of John Lennon, Sirius took an intense acid trip which assured him of the “all-rightness of everything”, and infused him with a mission to leave the sixties behind, and embrace the radical potentials of the contemporary zeitgeist. He became aware of the cyberpunk fictions of Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and John Shirley, and the growing excitement surrounding the development of computer and virtual reality technologies. His first periodical, High Frontiers, was published out of the back room of Mill Valley’s Flash Back Pizza restaurant. With a perpetually high staff of surrealistically named co-conspirators, including “Somerset Mau Mau”, “Amalgam X”, and Art Director “Loud Nose”, the magazine impressively averaged about an issue a year. The Flash Back, allegedly involved in minor drug trafficking, was also notoriously slow with its pizzas.

At an 1884 equinox party held by an archdruid in Berkley, Sirius arrived with the premier issue of High Frontiers under his arm. He met a woman named Alison Kelly at the party. In his own words: “She was talking about how she had been irradiated over in Germany, because she was living right next door to the Russian embassy. She had been irradiated and poisoned, she was sick and dying, and she was smiling from ear to ear. I immediately fell in love with her because she was so strange. She was also the prettiest woman at the party. I said “Lets go take some drugs” and it went from there.” Kelly was the wife of an eastern religion professor at UC Berkley, and a minor heiress of a wealthy Palo Alto family. When Mondo finally emerged in 1989, Kelly had been rechristened Queen Mu, Dominatrix, and was a frequent contributor, as well as the chief financier of the magazine.

To be concluded next post.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Entry 5: October 14, 2008: The Day the Earth might Stand Still.

By virtue of an extraordinary historical synchronicity, the run-up to 2012 continues to unfold as one of the most turbulent and potentially transitional periods in recent times. We are probably observing nothing more extraordinary than the regular operation of the historical process, in one of its admittedly brisker and more volatile moods, instigating changes and paradigmatic shifts that will be the commonplaces of futurity; that will become rational, even inevitable, in the analysis of future historians. But we have the projected date of the 2012 solstice, in reality a product of misinterpretation and myth-making more than anything else, and when we combine this with the profoundly jittery state of global affairs at the moment, the human mind finds itself easily seduced by the intimation of even greater synchronicities at work, by prophetic and apocalyptic modes of perception which are to some degree historically hardwired into our collective unconscious. At the moment, we haven’t the simple liberty of shooting the wilder effusions of fringe theorists like so many fish in a barrel; reality and the apocalyptic imagination are feeding off one another, and achieving a bizarre confluence. As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman writes in his recent book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution: “Last December, I picked up a newspaper and thought I was reading the Bible.”

In October 2008, with one of the most emotionally charged US presidential elections in recent times nearing its conclusion, and the global financial system remaining a virtual roller-coaster ride of dramatic fluctuation and paranoid speculation, the prophetic fervor continues unabated. Australian actress, writer, and psychic Blossom Goodchild may not quite have achieved Sara Palin levels of mainstream exposure, but her predictions for tomorrow (October 14) have become a massive cause celebre on Youtube, and various other rogue channels of the uncensored id of the internet. Basically, Blossom insists that a massive extraterrestrial space craft will appear somewhere in the southern hemisphere, and remain there for a period of about three days. Goodchild claims to be channeling information from a quasi-religious intergalactic alliance called the Federation of Light, which has opted to make their presence known to us in order to aid our evolution to a “higher vibration of love” in these dark times.

Prophesy normally thrives on maintaining a certain vagueness with regard to dating; in this fashion, the Book of Revelation has kept people on tender-hooks for centuries. Similarly, belief in a possible global disclosure of intelligent extraterrestrial life tends to always operate on the very edge of fruition. The world-transforming lightshow of apocalyptic rapture and alien visitation are longed-for miraculous intrusions which are perpetually hovering on the horizon, just around the next corner. Blossom’s insistence on a specific date has thus not won a particularly large coterie of true believers, such is the potential for egg-on-face so vast come October the 15th. Nevertheless, she is not the only one experiencing palpably strange and insistent vibrations running through the ether at the moment. The Arlington Institute, founded by John L. Peterson, is a large, non-profit futurist think tank dedicated to extrapolating future trends in technology, politics, and culture, and to the projection of positive strategies to deal with problems relating to the economy, species extinction, peak oil, climate change, and water scarcity. Although the Institute is primarily an interdisciplinary body of fairly conventional outlook, one of its more eye-brow raising projects is the study of precognitive dreams:

Here at the Arlington Institute, we have worked with real precognizant dreamers who have had experience with intelligence services and we have subsequently learned about the hundreds of case studies of individuals who had explicit dreams about the 9/11 affair (people jumping out of burning high rise buildings, etc.), beginning some six months before the event. We have been intrigued with the notion that the human collective unconscious somehow anticipates large impending perturbations. Our WHETHEReport project, for which we are looking for funding, is in fact based upon this dynamic. In telling people about this project I have received strong confirmations of the efficacy of the underlying logic from many individuals around the world.

The Institute’s dream monitoring experiment, which also collects data from a web-spidering capability which collates data from across the Web in order to uncover subliminal indicators of upcoming events, has been ablaze in recent times, literally awash with suggestions of apocalyptically transformative events to begin occurring this October. In a recent entry to his web journal, alleged alien abductee and New Age philosopher/entrepreneur Whitely Strieber writes: “Not since the summer of 1989 have I seen such a massive upwelling of dire prophecy in the world. At, we are getting emails every day from people who are having dreams or visions of terrible events in the immediate future.” There is no doubt that the world at the moment is having deeply perturbed dreams. Strieber himself believes that there is a high likelihood of a major terrorist attack derailing the presidential election and capitalizing on current global economic uncertainty.

Projections for 2012, and indeed prophetic ruminations in general, tend to fall into two categories: those that posit a wonderful, redemptive spiritual transformation, and those that posit a catastrophic disaster. Our current wash of prophetic dreams fall into this pattern too: the dream of Blossom Goodchild, which basically channels the more unreflective wish-fulfillments of religious sentiment through the language of science fiction, as against the various grim nightmares of impending 9 11 type attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, and so on. Our destinies are always poised between the opposing poles of Eros and Thanatos, and it may that at certain flashpoints in our history this perennial conflict becomes more intense and pronounced, and in the crucible of our dreams these perennial combatants assume vivid life in various strange forms. Even Time Magazine is presenting the economic crisis in apocalyptic terms: its current edition features on its cover the financial capitol of London sinking into a Day After Tomorrow-type flood, and a full page spread in which the earth is consumed in flames.

Writing about apocalypticism, Whitley Strieber argues that it frequently represents the externalization of a profound, epochal interior transformation:

However, I do have an idea why there is so much disquiet right now. It is because the mind of man is changing, and we know it, and we see the internal demolition that is taking place in terms of external catastrophe.

The Middle Roman Empire, while it was still thriving and things like Christianity were still far below the radar of the average citizen, was full of prophecies of doom. In fact, the apostles were originally expecting the end of the world in a matter of years, which is what they went out to preach. St. John wrote the Book of Revelation in a prophetic trance. Not long after, Rome itself burned to the ground and it was thought that the end had come.

But that’s not what happened. The burning of Rome did not bring the empire to an end, and the Book of Revelation was not about a physical catastrophe, at least not then. It is, rather, a prophecy of a fundamental change of mind that would explode into the Roman world in another two hundred years.

In the world today, we have witnessed the gradual evolution of the global banking system into something so vast, complex, and abstract that it has become impossible to fully understand, never mind control. The development of powerful computers, trading software and fibre-optic communication has made the markets of the world a densely interconnected biosphere, and created financial instruments – derivatives, swaps, structured investments, and so on – which have made the boundaries of what we call money increasingly fluid and opaque. Along with this delicate biosphere developed the economic equivalent of the naturalistic fallacy: the Regan/Thatcherite doctrine that the market, left as much as possible to its own devices, could do no wrong. The bizarre high-stages poker game of investment banking went no-limit, and wild cards began increasingly to abound. In the current implosion of this system and ideology, the Federal Bank and governments around the world are increasingly forced to make profoundly important decisions on the fly, instigating counter-intuitive, almost irrational measures that are nevertheless necessary to placate a global market which has come to resemble a drunken, vengeful Old Testament deity. Are we witnessing a complete breakdown of our current financial system, potentially a change as profound as the emergence of Christianity which Whitley Strieber discusses, or merely the end of the Regan/Thatcherite ideology of aggressive free-markets? As Thomas Homer-Dixon asks in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Are we simply in the midst of another gut-churning fluctuation of a world economy that’s prone to intermittent volatility, but always seems to find its footing? Or are we glimpsing a deeper emergency, one that goes to the heart of modern capitalism?”

Homer-Dixon certainly seems to believe that we have entered a crisis which perhaps necessitates a complete overhaul of the system, arguing that the financial system has morphed into one of inherent uncertainty rather than manageable risk:

Commentators and policy-makers are still talking in terms of risk. Markets, they say, need to reassess and reassign risk across securities and companies. But in reality, markets are now operating under uncertainty. Nobody really knows where the boundaries of the current problem lie, what new surprises are in store, or what measures will be truly adequate to stop the bleeding.

So are our apocalyptic dreams really the subliminal evidence that we are living in hair-trigger times of profound change, in which the great opposing poles of our nature, those which strive toward full evolutionary maturity, and those which pull us back to aggressive adolescent self-destruction, are once more to come into epochal confrontation? Or are we merely experiencing the typical fluctuations of history, and losing ourselves in an the excitement of an age old eschatological frisson, a prophetic delirium which will become immediately apparent in the cold light of day, when the Mothership fails to manifest itself in the sky? These are enough questions for tonight. I wish Blossom Goodchild and her followers a restful night. Tomorrow will be a big day.

Postscript. Many commentators have expressed a degree of surprise at the religious dimension to the Blossom Goodchild prediction. However, this has always been an intrinsic aspect of the flying saucer myth. Throughout his history, mankind has always intuited certain profound limitations to his own nature, and created gods to symbolize levels of perfection to which to he himself could not attain. In the twentieth century, some variations of the flying saucer myth made the alien the higher level of being and maturity which stood above the human level. Blossom Goodchild’s vision of a benign federation of advanced alien beings which we have to potential to join, but not yet the maturity, is an old idea. The 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still posits a similar scenario: in the darkness of the Atomic Age, an advanced alien arrives on earth to tell us, basically, that we have a lot of growing up to do as a species. The myth of the flying saucer emerged, interestingly, at roughly the same time that the human race attained the destructive capacity of the atom bomb, as though the collective imagination was inventing both a reflection of atomic anxiety, and a potential extraterrestrial deus ex machina. A remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, featuring Zen vacuum Keanu Reeves, is shortly to be released; I will hazard the prophesy that it won’t be any good. Blossom Goodchild’s prediction has also dovetailed with an increasingly popular piece of conspiracy lore which suggests that the New World Order will shortly consolidate for all time the agenda of the military industrial complex by way of a staged extraterrestrial attack. The plot of Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen also hinges on a faked alien invasion, this time for the purpose of ending the Cold War; that movie will also be with us shortly.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Elves and Eschatology Part 3: The Nineties.

On the surface of things, the nineties were a bland and culturally stagnant decade. If the seventies had witnessed the inevitable absorption and dilution of the radical energies of its predecessor, then the nineties experienced a similar kind of acquiescence with the corporate excesses of the eighties. Our image of corporate greed was subtly transmogrified from the demonic venality of a Gordon Geeko to innocuous boy-man wunderkinds like Bill Gates and boardroom hippie dynamos like Richard Branson. Much of the nineties seemed characterised by an ideological vacuum, by a tacit acceptance of technologically-driven Western capitalism as the Omega point of human societal evolution, and the final actualization of Huxley’s Brave New World of hedonistic conformity and bountiful ease. The ideas Francis Fukuyama proposed in The End of History and the Last Man may not have been particularly fashionable, but the sense that Western societies might, in the abeyance of ideological struggle, be slowly entering an oasis at the end of the long and tumultuous process of history was an illusionary, but deeply pervasive notion in the millenarian nineties subconscious.

In the nineties, postmodernism flourished as an all-pervasive cultural phenomenon, influencing academies by way of a variety of feted theorists, and popular culture by way of Tarantino, The Simpsons, and a whole corpus of popular artefacts extending all the way to the zeitgeist-defining pre-faded ironic tee-shirt. All of these ideas carry with them a sense of historical closure, of an exhaustion of the kind of conviction and belief necessary for the adoption of an ideological or cultural stance; an exhaustion of possibility resultant in a kind of self-conscious role-play through a vast historical garbage-heap of archetypes which had somehow lost the essential voodoo of sincerity and seriousness. The word play itself became a ubiquitous catchword, embodying both a solipsistic lingual preoccupation among the intellectual classes, and a transformation of the counterculture into a more hedonistic, ideologically neutral and non-oppositional entity. Ecstasy, the major zeitgeist substance of the decade, played a kind of Janus-like role, on the hand invigorating the rave and technopagan subcultures, while on the other taking drug-use out of the countercultural context entirely, operating as a more piquant weekend stimulant to revellers of an increasingly broad and professional spectrum. It was said of LSD that it could induce mystical epiphanies in carpet salesmen; ecstasy, on the other hand, came close to realizing the stultifying promise of Huxley’s soma: “Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.”

Lacking an oppositional vigour or sense of originality and purposefulness, much of nineties culture was thus anodyne in character. Though discussing his youth in the eighties, Daniel Pinchbeck nevertheless provides a brilliant summary of the presentiment incumbent upon those who were young at the turn of the millennium of having somehow missed out on all the fireworks:

No such freeing gesture seemed possible for my friends and me. We had the permanent presentiment that we had arrived too late – there would be no new underground, no French Resistance, no Summer of Love, not even another cleansing scrub of nihilism like the Punk Era that exploded in the late seventies and immediately collapsed on itself. The revolution – any revolution, or movement, or meaning – was over. It had ended in failure, and we had lost. History had snapped shut its traps, and we were exiles in a time after time…. (2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl)

This, however, is really only half the story. The nineties had a whole arsenal of fireworks of its own, but they were largely hidden in the margins of the buzzing, mercurial realm of rapidly expanding computer networks. Cyberspace, a term coined only a decade earlier in a sci-fi fantasia of high tech neo-noir, was then a entity unfamiliar, unprecedented, and strange enough to possess a whole churning witches cauldron of spiritual cabals and flitting goblins. People who were attuned to what was happening in the nineties, to the technological revolution which is now so pervasive and ingrained as to appear invisible, felt a weird sense of compulsive acceleration, of an evolutionary quickening, which, though entirely engendered in the realm of scientific rationalism, nevertheless had a kind of weird eschatological character to it. (Via the chaotic, ceaselessly random information channels of the internet, I have learned that the quickening is also a term from the mythos of the Highlander series, referring to an extraordinary release of energy which occurs when an Immortal has been beheaded. I will leave allegorical exegesis to the reader who is more familiar with the Christopher Lambert oeuvre.) It was to this mindset that the noosphere theorized by de Chardin, and the “strange attractor at the end of time” postulated in the impish techno-shamanic eschatology of Terence McKenna, suddenly acquired an immense fascination and ubiquity. In the Afterword to TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, Erik Davis evokes the strange sympathy that developed between the exciting crackle of nineties technoculture, and McKenna’s bizarre projection for 2012:

I do not take McKenna’s millennialist myth literally, at least most of the time. But it certainly embodied the secret thrill of the 1990’s, when an upsurge of technocultural mutation remade America and, to some extent, the world. It is a mistake to reduce this phase of technoculture to a “bubble,” that economic metaphor that now dominates – in the insidious way of economic metaphors – our cultural memory of the time. That decade was more than a shell game of smirking geeks and IPO pyramid schemes: it was an epochal convergence of new media, global flows of information, and an innovative, boundary-dissolving multi-culture of hacking, sampling, and hybrid experimentation – a culture just beginning to lick its posthuman lips.

The use of the internet – to engage in commercial activity of various kinds, to expand our knowledge of the world, to search out the tiniest minutiae of our pop cultural memory, to fritter away hours in amusing distraction and trivia – is now completely automatic and second nature. So much so, that we tend to forget, first of all, how quickly this transformation of the fabric of life took place, and secondly, the potent shock of the new that these technologies possessed as they evolved in the millennial warp speed of the eighties and the nineties. It is indicative of the extent to which technological acceleration has bestowed upon everyday reality the ambience of yesterdays science fiction fever dreams, that “cyberspace”, the defining buzz word and socially transformative reality of the past two decades, began its life in the pages of a sci-fi novel, William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination….A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system…. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind.

Cyberpunk, a term itself ruthlessly cannibalised by the mainstream mass media, began its life as an attempt to integrate the by then stodgy speculative acuity of sci-fi fiction with the leather-clad, amphetamine-soaked buzz saw energy of the Velvet Underground and its various punk/new wave offspring; in Gibson’s case, to further merge these elements with the rain-soaked, nocturnal ambience of noir, and the globalized, hallucinatory market places of a William Burroughs reverie. With a similar mutant energy, cyberspace as it evolved in the real world threw up an extraordinary plethora of hybrids and cultural cyborgs, fashioning unlikely marriages between archaic animistic magic and Western high-tech circuitry, between earthy countercultural energies and globe-spanning media empires, reigniting in the process the perennial, always bubbling-under-the-surface fervour of utopian and apocalyptic dreams.

Before the World Wide Web became in essence a digital simulacra of the material world with which it interfaces, and as such a confluence of all the positive and negative polarities therein, it was a fresh, unexplored territory, infused with intimations of magic and utopian fantasies of immaterial communion. In her book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, science writer Margaret Wertheim argued that computer technologies were activating a quasi-medieval division between material and spiritual, literal and symbolic space:

Strange though it may seem for a quintessentially twentieth-century technology, cyberspace brings the historical wheel full circle and returns us to an almost medieval position, to a two-tiered reality in which psyche and soma each have their own space of action.

These kinds of ideas were by no means simply the preserve of naive and hyperbolic onlookers. Many of the architects of the computer revolution drank from a peculiarly Californian stream of sixties counterculture and mysticism. According to Timothy Leary:

It’s well known that most of the creative impulse in the software industry, and indeed much of the hardware, particularly the Apple Macintosh, derived directly from the sixties consciousness movement. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went to India, took a lot of acid, studied Buddhism, and came back and said that Edison did more to influence the human race than the Buddha. And Bill Gates was a big psychedelic person at Harvard. It makes perfect sense to me that if you activate your brain with psychedelic drugs, the only way you can describe it is electronically.

Mark Pesce, the co-inventor of VRML, is also a typical example of this kind of nineties cyberpunk visionary, described by Erik Davis as “a technopagan, a goddess worshipper, ritual magician, and occasional partaker of psychedelic sacraments.” The result of all this was a little seen, but thriving 90’s subculture that saw itself riding the cusp of a Gutenberg revolution in fast forward, as standing in the frontlines of the awakening of planetary consciousness, the activation of the now mythical noosphere, or global group mind, of Teilhard de Chardin. Of all the defining artefacts of this period, none is perhaps as surreal and otherworldly as Mondo 2000, a glossy, cliquey cyberculture magazine whose publication history reads a little like a nineties variation of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. As Jack Boulware writes in his article A History of Mondo 2000: “Examined at close range, Mondo’s history reads as if fabricated on another planet, spewed forth by a sweaty cyberpunk novelist tripping on nasal-ingested DMT. Yet the story is true.”

Continued next post.