In Expanded Cinema, written in 1970, Gene Youngblood outlines what he deems as his contemporary scientific transition as an era of Cosmic Consciousness. Youngblood explains: “At their present limits astrophysics, biochemistry, and conceptual mathematics move into metaphysical territory. Mysticism is upon us: it arrives simultaneously from science and psilocybin.” (p. 136) Within cosmic consciousness, a place consisting of a metaphysical mysticism that derives from science and psychoactive substances, thresholds of “normal” consciousness expand allowing individuals to “become aware of the transcendent dimension of humanity beyond space and time” (LSD Experience). Youngblood explains that the early experimental and abstract filmmaker Jordan Belson is exemplary of ‘Cosmic Cinema’. Belson made films “representing a state of total integration with the universe, of blinding super-consciousness” (p. 169), which reside “equally in the physical and the metaphysical” (p. 157). With concerns to the physical, Youngblood stresses that the works by Belson, along with other audiovisual movement-image makers (like Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, James Whitney, etc.), are not “abstractions” but are concrete. He writes, “Although a wide variety of meaning inevitably is abstracted from them, and although they do hold quite specific implications for Belson personally, the films remain concrete, objective experiences of kinaesthetic and optical dynamism.” (p. 157) In these materials as well as aesthetic forms, Belson’s films “are literally superempirical —that is, actual experiences of a transcendental nature. They create for the viewer a state of nonordinary reality similar, in concept at least, to the experiences described by the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda in his experiments with organic hallucinogens.” (p. 158)
Belson’s films sought to capture something more transcendental, with several of his works being referential to Eastern mysticism (e.g. the mandala was a recurring theme in his work). He was committed to a practice of Yoga and a serious student of Buddhism. The film work that came directly after a two-year rigorous commitment to Yoga practice was Samadhi (1967). Belson’s attempt to convey psychedelic transcendentalism through optical stimulus in abstract moving imagery eventually merged with that of video pioneer Stephen Beck. Beck explains that in 1968, at The University of Illinois, there was a burgeoning collective interest and community committed to electrical engineering, electronics, synthesisers, and the merging of the audiovisual. During this time, there was also “a lot of experimentation with consciousness-altering substances such as cannabis, LSD-25, mescaline and shamanic rituals” (p. 123). These experimentations were predominantly employed in collective mediation that aimed to induce visions, hallucinations, and non-common heightened sensorial awareness. Consequently, this mystic and cosmic tendency of experimental movie makers extended beyond the material parameters of analog film and to the art of video and subsequently the digital.
In my attempt to further research this techno-psychedelic trajectory, I stumbled on a recorded lecture titled ‘Cybernetic Psychedelia’ given by the author Erik Davis, known from his books High Weirdness, The Visionary State and Techgnosis (see his own website). In this talk, Davis offers a modern interpretation of psychedelic transcendentalism, aesthetics, circuitry, and second-order cybernetics. In outlining the aesthetics of a ‘New Psychedelia,’ Davis emphasises the contract between the traditional shamanistic view of psychedelics and a more rational, technological perspective. He does so by way of textual analysis of various aesthetic works including ancient iconography and psychedelic imagery from the 1960s and 70s. One example is an illustration of the woven patterns present in the cloths by the Shipibo, a group of people in Peru who consume ayahuasca. He explains how the cloth features traditional geometric patterns commonly found in their designs. Patterns that not only relate to certain aspects of Ayahuasca visuals but also exhibits a connection with the visuals that feels resonant and familiar with the grids and circuit designs found in technology.
During his presentation, Davis references James L. Kent’s work entitled Psychedelic Information Theory (2010), which derives insights from information theory and the functions of synthesizers to offer a comprehensive phenomenological exploration of psychedelic experiences. This encompasses trance states, profound encounters, immersive journeys into extraordinary visual realms, and the endeavours to articular and understand them. Fundamentally, Davis contends that Kent perceives the human sensorium as a technical apparatus or system for information processing, one that can be influenced or manipulated by these substances. This viewpoint essentially involves establishing an “information theory” within the context of psychedelics, characterised by its reversible, referential, destabilised and non-linear framework.
In the interview published here, recorded on April 5th, 2022, I delve further into these overarching themes in conversation with author Erik Davis. Our dialogue navigates through topics that resonate with the research I’ve outlined and simultaneously delves into Davis’ concept of New Psychedelia. Throughout our exchange, I seek to understand his dismantling of a constructivist approach and its interplay with the various and diverse modes of existence, along with the philosophical foundations of real abstractions within the framework of Cybernetic Psychedelics.
If you’d like to watch the 2011 Eindhoven lecture (before or after) reading the interview, please find the talk here.
Megan Rebecca Phipps: I would like to talk about the intricate connections between the field of cybernetics and psychedelics, especially in the context of moving images, early video artists, and Gene Youngblood’s ideas on expanded cinema. I came across your talk ‘Cybernetic Psychedelic’ delivered in Eindhoven back in 2011, and I found your perspective on psychedelics, through a structural or formalist approach, very interesting. Can you explain some of the key ideas in this talk and why this psychedelic history and theory of cybernetics remain unexplored, and scarcely used, particularly in contemporary academic new media theory?
Erik Davis: I consider cybernetics as one of the single most important paradigms or frameworks to think about the second half of the 20th century up to our contemporary moment. What happened in World War Two is a situated event and bifurcation point in the history of humanity that included the deployment of electromagnetism for information. This event is not just another technological development that affects human societies. It’s that there is this stuff — electricity and electrons paired with electromagnetism — that has entered into or crossed with information systems and the telegraph that changed the natural history of the planet. Cybernetics has a similar intervention on a very deep level: while happening with machines, it also happens with societies, conceptual metaphors, subjectivity, and media and that’s partly why we look at the post-war order.
It’s not just that there was a kind of neoliberal agreement to create global markets as a way to avoid totalitarianism and war, as well as to enrich the United States and various other parties. While that’s all true, it’s the writing of a cybernetic shift that is both revealed and concealed within a historical memory in interesting ways — which has to do with this question you have. Part of it I’m not really sure, part of it is definitely linguistic. But I think linguistics is a symptom of something actually, which is that cybernetics becomes dated. Once you start talking about “cybernetics,” it kind of splits into ‘ecology’ on the one side and ‘systems science’ on the other. And, while they’re related, they’re kind of different. All of that changing nomenclature disguises the continuity and emphasises the sort of divisions. Even within systems science itself, there’s a kind of New Age system science, which gets into Esalen and the role of Gregory Bateson.
But then, people who want to be more rigorous in their approach argue to push those topics aside. And then, you’ve also got complexity and chaos theory and emergence entering in. All of these things are kind of mutating historically and different enough to justify a linguistic shift. But then, it means you have to start being a meta-systems thinker in order to even be able to recognise the historical layers of this current. And, to my mind, the more you see it as being (at least) as much about continuity then it becomes more clear that this really is the story of the second half of the 20th century up to today. That’s the core in a lot of ways, and on a lot of different levels, when leaves you with this problem of ‘well, where do I locate it then?’
Megan Phipps: Can you discuss how the juxtaposing frameworks of ‘the Realm of Abstraction versus the Real of Imagery’ in your talk provide a fresh perspective or method on locating meta-systems thinking? Particularly, you mentioned recurring structures or form constants within the Real of Abstraction, resembling R. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of pattern integrity.’ Could you elaborate on whether it’s possible to find an alternative meta-systems language by examining the history of analog-to-digital abstract, structuralist video images through this Realm of Abstraction? Or, do you believe that this history is doomed or confined linguistically to the ‘Realm of Imagery’ framework, with all its subjective, subcultural, pop-cultural, geographic, patriarchal, commercial, political, etc. constraints?
Erik Davis: Beyond the core video and film artists you talk about, one thing you said that I’d love to pull out is the quality of abstraction because to really wrestle with systems thinking (let’s call it that instead of “cybernetics” for now) there’s a particular role that abstraction plays. This role is different than the kind of abstraction you find in logical systems: [e.g.,] where you’re going to create a logical set of figures that you can then perform mathematical type operations on, or at the abstraction, in order to be able to generate certain statements. But, within system sciences, abstraction plays a different role: you need to create a high enough meta-language able to make rigorous analogies between different fields of thought, different languages, and different materials. By doing so, you have an abstract system of feedback loops associated with learning and you can use that same abstraction to draw connections between human learning and simple machine circuitry.
How do you make that analogy? How to make that analogy where and when you need to a kind of level of abstraction that is not just logical abstraction? Exactly. It’s something more like formal systems-thinking. But, it’s a tricky one because it simultaneously reveals and conceals: it conceals difference, it reveals analogues. And so, it might be very interesting to think about the conceptual role of abstraction in cybernetics and in systems-thinking. Maybe there’s a connection with that abstraction you are seeing in video effects that isn’t just non-representational but is actually demonstrating that feedback processes are processes of the circuitry, as a kind of representation or an analog or an expression of precisely the role of abstraction in systems-thinking. That being, you have to look at the circuit level or the formal level, not at the content level. So, I do feel like there’s something there. And, the role of grounding the circuitry in audio and visuals is in some ways what synthesis is about, the classic era of synthesis: Where’s the aesthetic? Where’s the circuit? I’m not so sure anymore.
Megan Phipps: Let’s dig a bit deeper and discuss the concept ‘Cybernetic Psychedelics,’ your interpretation and reading of it from your lecture. It appears this fusion-oriented framework, combining both ‘cybernetics’ and ‘psychedelia’, is currently under-utilised, under-recognized and lacks significant recognition in theoretical explorations within research fields like cybernetics, machine learning, new media, and psychedelic research. Why do you think this approach, including your own thoughts and reflections on this fusion-esque framework, has not gained more reputable and academic recognition as a viable and fruitful philosophical and theoretical path?
Erik Davis: There’s a certain history upon how science has changed because there’s a tension on who gets to hold the high ground on meta-abstraction language. Is it a form of formulas, like in Laws of Form by G. Spencer Brown? Is it cybernetics as technical cybernetics? Is it ecology? And then, once you get into ecology and cybernetics, what’s the difference between the two? What’s the similarity? There’s obviously intensely polarized cultural expressions of ‘what is it’? What does it mean to live-in and think-in-light of these systems? Systems that actually take almost diametrically opposed forms? Part of the secret history of West Coast ideology, or the California ideology, is that fusion or confusion on the sort of technical, control-oriented, cybernetic approaches versus the fuzzy, ecological, immersive, holistic approaches is that same equation. All of these differences and histories that get acknowledged, but also those hidden within the historical narrative, helps to explain why the California ideology takes the form that it does. A revolving around concrete historical explanations rather than the superficial explanations we often get, those explanations where it’s just about libertarianism or social ecology, the hippies meeting, the raw avarice of technological capitalism. No, there’s something actually deeper and more systemic and equally fucked up. Something much more historically grounded in the evolution of actual systems, and in the process of thinking about these actual systems.
Looking at the Whole Earth Catalog as a kind of utopian space offering a possible integration of these modes yet also with reflection on some of the things that are not seen; this is a way of creating a larger context to understand that particular history. A history that these artists you’re talking about play a big role and, within which, you’re able to draw more grounded links between trans-personal consciousness exploration over here, circuitry over there, and the development of kind of meta institutional languages. Even towards a human resources business systems kind of approach, it’s not just about a new face of the ideology of capitalism but it’s about how systems work. We’re in this moment that it is a fact, it’s an event in natural history, that we are now condemned to figure out how to navigate. It’s not simply an ideology that’s projected onto some other kind of surface. And that’s where, while I’m not necessarily a technological determinist, I do believe that technologies of communication and information fundamentally rewrite the operating system within which we have to navigate. This is why I’m attracted to [Marshall] McLuhan’s approach as I feel like that’s what we’re really operating in. Yet, people don’t want to acknowledge that, intellectuals don’t want to acknowledge it, and individuals don’t want to acknowledge the degree to which they are themselves feedback effects.
In addition to the history, we’ve now laid out, there’s a psychological blind spot (almost like a programmed blind spot) about acknowledging the depth. In a way, this lack of movement sits in a “you can’t get out of the loop” kind of problem, which can seem sort of debilitating or ideologically simple, or that it’s simply capitulating to a certain kind of technical logic: [i.e.,] we must resist that in the name of solidarity. I don’t think this fact is easy [to acknowledge], but it’s [also] sort of a depressing thing to acknowledge. Now, I’m really thinking of one of my biggest discoveries in graduate school: Niklas Luhmann. While Luhmann may not necessarily help this problem because he’s so abstract and so hyper-theoretical that there’s not always a place to grab, his way of presenting the subject in psychology and subjectivity (though it’s not very much of the work) is actually really interesting. It has to do with this resistance when thinking sociologically and in terms of systems and how it has to do with an almost “the grim science.” As though, once you get ‘it’ there’s both a psychological toll and an intellectual resistance to the capitulation to which cybernetic logic and ecological logic (if we want to see them as different) condition, guide, and constrain our choice and behaviour.
Thinking about feedback, early video feedback art, and the cybernetic explorations of it, and staying with Luhmann, there is definitely something underdeveloped that is very interesting. Mainly how Luhmann talks about subjects, how we are communicating systems, and that what is actually communicating in us is ‘communication’ itself, languages and external set of signs that are tied to networks of communication and sustaining society. But, unlike so much of the linguistic turn and deconstruction and Lacan, Luhmann recognizes that there are aspects of subjectivity that are also non-linguistic. We are hosted by communication systems, but there is also a gap, there’s an “extra”, there’s a space. Once you go in the direction of psychedelics and transpersonal consciousness alongside [sic the idea that there’s some sort of way of being a system, or grokking the Big Mind of the system, that becomes a very interesting thought. At that point, it’s not just about reproducing another linguistic mode or another communicational network. This under-recognized gap points towards certain possibilities – or at least certain weirdnesses – within an otherwise very intense communicational, more or less cybernetic, view of subjectivity and its relationship to all other kinds of meta-systems.
This always struck me as interesting because that is also part of the psychedelic problem: why has psychedelics, particularly Western psychedelia, been so attracted to feedback? Why has it been so attracted to cybernetics? It is because it was born in a cybernetic context, such as Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture and The Democratic Surround. [The latter text], is perhaps a more innovative topic in a way. It’s about the pre-history of this and how early ideas of multimedia were used or rolled out partly to support the post-war order, but also to set up a certain kind of subjectivity that gets intensified in the 1960s – particularly in the Happenings (and similar kinds of art) but also the Acid Tests – that [leads to the] sort of embrace of multiple technical circuits as a kind of ecstatic space of collective transmutation. You can see that more clearly early on – in the simplified guises – within the early turn towards multimedia as a model of globalism and as a model of a kind of neoliberal subjectivity. So, part of the reasons overall are very technical. And, if you look at Stuart Brand’s personal life, his relationship to the military, his relationship to labor, and his relationship to business, then you can sketch out this kind of circuit. Which, if you only look at it in terms of the political economy then I think you’re actually missing something, which makes it an interesting vein to go through.
What attracts or was driving Gene Youngblood and some artists at that time, as well as some artists today, is that while maybe it’s a romance or a kind of Romanticism, there’s also something about this gesture towards Bateson’s kind of Mind at Large. What is the circuit of circuits? What is the total grok of the circuit at one moment? Is that possible? If it’s not possible, how close can we get to it? That’s always an interesting thought, which I think is important to consider when you’re looking at media artefacts attempting to mobilise, incarnate, orient, and transform into a sort of transpersonal ideals. Namely, even though as critics we can see the way they fail, the way there’s noise, the way that they don’t manifest the full vision, they get close. That getting close, that asymptote, really makes a difference.
There tends to be this idea when you can see the crack in the system and the ways it’s not able to achieve Mind at Large, it gets asymptotic. Even the visual feedback loop of early video art is kind of asymptotic. [Meaning], if I manifest the loop fast or intensely enough, the way in which the loop gestures beyond its own circuit, its own self-reference, is introduced into the field. How you can’t see when you’re standing between two mirrors since your head is obstructing the view, but you almost see it. And, that ‘almost’ that ‘little abyss’ is like the portal to the Mind at Large, which may never become realized. The abyss of self-reference is really important in that kind of gesture. I do think you can partly look at it in terms of Romanticism, but the connections between ecology and system sciences become important here again because that kind of work can be seen as part of an ecological posthumanism. A properly re-embedded posthumanism, rather than just “Let’s blow our minds” or “Let’s leave the planet” or “Let’s just plunge into the machine.” A proper environmentally reinvented posthumanism also has within it this kind of abyss of self-reference in light of a system that is larger than itself.
Cary Wolfe would say that once you acknowledge first-order cybernetics in the way Bateson sets it up, you can fantasize a totality – or a unity – that can be gestured towards in a quasi-idealistic way or even in a spiritual way. But, once you move into second-order cybernetics, where the observer is always located in a particular place and has a corresponding blind spot (which is the Luhmann approach), you acknowledge that from the outset there is no simple unity possible, there’s no totalizing possible. There’s always a gap, there’s always a crack, it has that kind of deconstruction quality. But, that also doesn’t mean we force another idea of what the transpersonal might be. When I go back and look at the video artists you’re talking about or if I read Youngblood, partly I do see a kind of Romanticism of the Whole. But, partly I see also a technical operation of approaching that “limit point” and refusing to relent, which I think is something it’s a very important part of psychedelic art. You see it even in more recent psychedelic art, there are gestures towards that kind of self-reference, iteration, or asymptotic means-of-beams but without any romance. No longer is there a hope of utopia of transcendence. Instead, we’re kind of in this skittering, sketchy, stuttering, quasi-ontology and that’s what the subject is. I think both of those sides are really powerful, both the holistic romance and the stuttering-repetition machine can be seen as poles of subjectivity today.
Megan Rebecca Phipps: This perspective makes me consider the constant tension between formal abstraction and socio-cultural public discourse. It seems something important is happening within this tension that is also prominent in ‘cybernetic psychedelia,’ e.g., the stuttering machine versus this holistic approach. I wonder if you have any concerns with this juxtaposition or find any areas within this perceptual framework problematic as well? Do you think the ‘both poles,’ stuttering-romantic approach could perhaps hinder the growth or sprouting of alternative possibilities, points of reference, and/or socio-cultural approaches? Can this lead to stunted topics, research areas, disciplines and subcultures? Can the ethics be examined more critically – or experimentally – in order to try to move past the stuttering, of violence (symbolic and literal) for example? Could the repetition of certain “points,” “claims,” “truths,” “arguments,” etc. contribute towards making the same social, ecological, political and revolutionary mistakes over and over again? Could the realm of abstraction (as opposed to the realm of imagery) be used as an objective neutraliser to redirect the conversation, or view the persisting socio-cultural ‘form constants’ in their state of stuttering? I wonder if abstraction could be a more fruitful approach because it’s not so antagonistic, more of a “let’s take a step back and refresh ourselves with what could be seen as romantic and reassess” or ‘let’s examine the meta-language of form constants, those that stutter in abstract formalism but then maybe we should also do this within social and cultural contexts as well?”
Returning to the concept of the Mind at Large and Youngblood’s insights on moving-image artists, he articulates their attempt at exploring the ‘other side,’ delving into the abyss and breaking through cracks in pursuit of new perspectives or that gap. However, Youngblood also expresses anti-Mind at Large sentiments in the context new media and technology: i.e., “Let’s go against this Mind at Large, let’s go against the Broadcast, Secession From The Broadcast (2012)”. Essentially, technology has the potential to induce a psychedelic Mind at Large yet through psychedelic-inspired works, like those discussed in Expanded Cinema, one can explore the cracks and dimensions that go through to this other side. Such exploration and experimentation, like those involving the breaking up of audio synthesizers and creating alternative technologies like video synthesizers, can be compared to standing between the two mirrors, where unseen flows of energy and circuits exist. Architectures are highly abstract, invisible lines going throughout our spatial reality, outside of our visual perception and/or awareness. Reflecting on contemporary California, such as Silicon Valley and holistic wellness culture, do you believe re-visiting the history of the West-Coast video arts community in the 60s can offer valuable insights to digital culture today? Valuable insights into topics such as digital utopianism, psychedelics-as-media, big-tech ideology, and moments when this philosophy may have faltered or deviated from its original path?
Erik Davis: With concerns to the Mind at Large and the questions of ‘how do you foreground the circuit?’ this foregrounding is part of the content and the expression of the work that Bateson elucidates. He illustrates the Mind at Large with a person cutting a tree with an axe. In one view, you have the person and their skull. Inside the person’s skull, there’s a mind that’s modelling the process of cutting the tree, changing the aim of that cut [or incision], as well as all that’s happening inside the subject. But, it actually seems to make more sense to view it as if there is this circuit between the eyeball, the hand, and the cut. There is this loop going through and off the feedback, feeding back information [thus] it is not just inside the skull. That’s a kind of gesture towards the Mind at Large. A gesture where there is a submission to the circuit of the body and/or the subject, a kind of synecdoche or representation of a larger sort of submission to a greater idea of how ‘circulation’ itself operates.
There might be some interesting research there when you come back to differences and difference in subjects today, particularly in terms of indigenous and/or indigeneity. To my mind, if you start talking about indigeneity then you have think about cosmo-vision. A cosmo-vision that’s, on the one hand, very materially sensitive and Intelligent (with a capital ‘I’). And yet, one that is also animated by a kind of otherness (and I don’t mean ‘otherness’ like exoticism, but as in there is a sense of the ‘other’ as being an agent) so that you get this kind of inter-agent relationships of animism. In a way, that’s the furthest out for some of these ‘non-white male’ folks that you’re seeing inside of the psychedelic community right now. What do we do with cosmo-vision where the plant is an agent, an agent that is speaking to you? And then, over here you have the therapy lab and they are trying to make a medicine and then you think to yourself “This is very interesting..” That quality of enchantment inside of psychedelic cybernetic art is not simply a residue of a certain kind of hippie romanticism, (which you can see also in Youngblood), it’s also a gesture towards a possible way of thinking about systems or relating to systems that requires a transcendence (or, a transcendence-with-integration) on the logical mind-frame that produces technical systems in the first place. That gesture is part of what you’re seeing in aspects of psychedelic culture. Naively, sort of taking up an exoticised indigeneity or magical thinking that can lead to all sorts of dumb ideas. There’s a lot of problematic sides to it, but I don’t think it’s completely spiralling off in the wrong direction. I think it’s actually clustering around something much more profound and difficult to pull off. Something that is gestured towards the ways indigeneity is now engaging and speaking with science, or with more technical approaches to the environment – once everyone can calm down enough for the dialogue to happen. There’s something really significant there, but it’s hard to get to because of all of the romance, the hippy-chi, the easy myth, the iconography and the appropriation.
But it’s there, and that’s part of what we’re still wrestling with is: How do we relate to the larger system? Not just the system of media that’s clearly shaping subjectivity more and more aggressively, in a feedback loop kind of way. But, what do we do with our embeddedness in this planetary set of open-ended circuits, let alone the cosmic one? We still don’t know how to think about that and sometimes it feels like intellectuals and culture-workers (highly Westernized culture-workers alike) think that it is no longer there, that those realms have collapsed and all we’re really now within and taking about is media or all we’re really doing is talking about the politics of signs and the circulation of human-signs about identity. I think is just wrong and that one of the reasons that psychedelics (or the subtler reasons that psychedelics) are now part of the equation is that they break down those “merely human” circuits. They force a confrontation with some kind of “outside” that, however much it too becomes another story or another myth or another Terrance McKenna take, that gesture towards the outside is still incredibly required. That, in a way, is what Systems Science or systems-thinking is like: there’s always an outside, there’s always a blind spot, and there’s always a gap, so go towards the gap. That’s an aesthetic gesture, a psycho-spiritual gesture, and an intellectual gesture and yeah, you don’t see that much of it.
Megan Rebecca Phipps: In my own research on trance subcultures, specifically in relation to the histories of house and techno-culture, I find it useful to draw comparisons to the ‘analog-video of new media’ or ‘pre-Internet’ culture. I’m curious to know how you perceive the relationship between trance or techno-culture and this concept of Cybernetic Psychedelia. For instance, these techno/rave events often occur in isolated locations, such as warehouses and forests. A techno-rave scene is often then characterized by spatiality and mass spectacle, an analog space of where a technological influenced mass spectacle emerges. Could we see a connection between this spatial aspect and the psychedelic-oriented concept of set-and-setting? Furthermore, does the notion of set-and-setting encompass any tensions between the ecological and the cybernetic, similar to what we discussed earlier? Are there questions about whether the concept of ‘set and setting’—linked to cybernetic-intellectualism and psychedelic experiences—could be perceived as too anthropocentric and possible restrictive when applied in contemporary psychedelic research, including academic and scientific discussions?
Alternative phrasing: Considering the emphasis on spatiality in the techno/rave scene, often taking place in isolated locations like warehouses, sports halls, or forests, could this be related to the psychedelic-oriented concept of set-and-setting? Furthermore, does the notion of set-and-setting encompass tensions between the ecological and the cybernetic, as we discussed earlier? Do you think the concept of ‘set and setting,’ which has associations with cybernetic intellectualism, psychedelic trip experiences and contemporary psychedelic research, might be too anthropocentric and possibly restrictive in its application?”
Erik Davis: The set and setting topic is definitely interesting. There’s a paper by Betty Eisner, in which she argues for set, setting, and what she calls matrix. The “matrix” is that larger context within which the set and setting are operative. So, I think that this is a really good example of the kind of intervention you can do because, on the one hand, I still think [the topic of set-and-setting] is under-recognized (at least in the worlds that I move in). Mainly in the ways set-and-setting is seen as a fundamentally cybernetic idea, that it involves media, Timothy Leary used media to think through the concept when he talks about ‘programming’ psychedelic sessions using audio and visuals – the whole idea of bringing books, having certain things around you, the music playlist, [etc.]. All of that stuff is actually acknowledging you’re entering into an amplified situation of cultural and/or psycho-cultural feedback. I do think even that idea is still undervalued and lets you put set-and-setting into a larger framework, which is point towards the real conundrum of the condition that we’re in. That’s why, to my mind, it’s not an accident that LSD is part of that post-war matrix of technologies. It’s like: well, that’s kind of weird… another cybernetic technology, but it’s happening within a media space or a subjectivity space. But, there’s still something in the way the concept is mostly used, as you point out: is too limited, too anthropocentric, it’s too much about the human in their particular environment. [Subsequently], you’re missing this large framework of genetics, epigenetics, cultural institutions, etc. So, working with Eisner’s text and ideas is a way you can then kind do yes/and and/or yes/but to then be able to acknowledge and expand the concept because set-and-setting is a useful idea. It’s a way to connect with a lot of other psychedelic thinkers and sort of have an agreed-upon floor plan, and then take that plan in another direction.
In terms of trance culture, I do think that trance culture is about that gesture of and aversion to an intense kind of mode of iteration – repetition with a difference – which is part of what I meant when I talked about stuttering before. How there’s an aspect of psychedelic phenomenology that can be heightened by media and pointed out by media: where there is a time glitch, a stutter, or a repetition that sort of runs into abyss that isn’t transcendent particularly. It is more like a fragmentation in mirroring and happens visually, it also happens with time, and it happens with the subject (e.g. Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?). These kind of iterative loops are ones that you can diagram, that occur technically, that have a psycho-spiritual dimension and a phenomenological dimension. It seems to me that aspects of psychedelic trance are intensifying that kind of iterative submission. Particularly, in the way the invariant beat works and how syncopation works. Or, another way of saying it is: here we have a media archive of a culture that is attempting to use technological tricks to amplify that phenomenology as much as possible and there is sort of nothing else that is like that. There are aspects of this in these films from the 1960’s, and there are aspects of feedback in earlier analog technology, but there’s nothing that’s tried that as much. You can really learn a lot from the kind of technical features of psychedelic phenomenology by looking at how people have amplified it or mutated it with psychedelic trance. There, you have a culture of ecstasy that is immediately plugged into that sort of zone.
Megan Rebecca Phipps: In Graham St. John’s book Technomads, there’s a striking depiction of a massive sound-system interwoven with multiple video cameras and screens, situated above a large gathering of dancing and raving individuals (attendees). The image evokes and conveys the idea of a ‘giant machine system’ hovering over the masses, seemingly entrancing the attendees collectively through a blend of technology and active participation or a participatory force. It’s as if distinct ‘sets’ of people are influenced by this technological force, moving and dancing together like an amoeba, guided by or under audiovisual technologies. I’m interested in exploring how this more analog and tangible phenomenon might relate to contemporary intangible occurrences, such as algorithms. Algorithms that guide various segments of the population or different ‘sets’ of people today, steering them toward political filter bubbles or presenting preferences aligned with what’s ‘liked’ on platforms like Spotify or YouTube. These populations and sets under this algorithmic influence become enveloped in a technologically induced effect on a collective level. Given this context, how can we gain insights by exploring the early trance culture’s political ideology (like digital utopianism) and contrasting it with the current state of technological society? In what ways, if any, has the role of the ‘collective’ shifted?
Erik Davis: There’s some interesting stuff that aligns or pulls from an earlier or more social “utopian” direction. There’s a great book on Jamaican sound systems by Julian Henriques called Sonic Bodies, which is about reggae sound systems and ways of knowing. It is a kind of analog version of what you’re talking about and takes on a more dystopian caste than those celebrated in cultures today. Perhaps one of the ways to talk about the interesting problems to explore is within that model where there is both the dystopian and the more productive, ecstatic situation. And, how it is in that model that the taking place and becoming of a collective is: e.g., “I’m dancing in the crowd. I no longer identify as a solo member. I am one with the crowd. I am one with the music. We are creating an organism.”
Okay, right away, that is simultaneously utopian and dystopian. One is simultaneously having an ecstatic experience of oneness with all of my fellow dancers and also, I’m being manipulated and controlled by a technical system. So, you have that problem — which is in a way what we were talking about before: — how do you articulate the unity factor that is mobilised in these different technical systems and within psychedelics? What it comes down to is, we still don’t know how to talk about that. We then maybe gesture with that ecstasy because we also have all these indices of fear, control, mind control, hypnotism and seduction. But, I think it’s partly because we just don’t know how to talk about experiences like that or social assemblages. Just take the history of the word ‘assemblage’ and how that gets used by Gilles Deleuze: Is it a collective body? Is it a multiple collective body? Is manifold a good word for it? Is it a crowd? It is like, we don’t know what to do with that. And yet, if we can’t figure out how to do that and/or be that, at least some of the time, we’re not going to make it.
Megan Rebecca Phipps: If we accept the apology made between current online social behaviors and the representation of psychedelic experience, in psy-trance culture for example, as a precursor to the new media landscape, could we conclude that the new media environment is inherently and perhaps inevitably psychedelic.
Erik Davis: Well yeah, earlier I was saying that this is an interesting time to make bold statements about psychedelics and culture, and one of them (to put it bolder than I would ever say in public, but I think is kind of true) is that: all of the postmodern turn, it’s all just psychedelic. That’s more than anything else, even the intellectual stuff: that looseness, that self-referentiality, that openness to multiplicities that then hollows out. All of that stuff you can find in “the zone”. And, I think it’s just like the way we can think about post-war media effects in a Kittlerian way, we can do the same thing with psychedelics. And so, I think as we go forward more and more post-war cultural histories will be seen as essentially psychedelic histories. It’s the elephant in the room.