TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information
by Erik Davis
The Guardian, the year it came out whatever dude
by Simon Reynolds
Science and spirituality have long been considered enemies. The Englightenment consigned mystical impulses into the murky netherworld of superstitious unreason. In reaction, the Romantic tradition generally rejected technology as a force of disenchantment---in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzche blamed science for banishing the mythopoeic, Dionysian spirit from modernity, while Henry Adams's famous dichotomy of the Virgin and the Dynamo presented sacred mystery and scientific mastery as mutually incompatible aspects of the human condition.
American critic Erik Davis aims to complicate this received opposition. The punning neologism that titles his book *TechGnosis* condenses his core assertion--that there has actually long been a mutual entanglement of the scientific and spiritual imaginations.
argues that "magic is technology's unconscious." For their practitioners, spells and rituals
aren't mumbo-jumbo but rather (like "proper" science) attempts to
manipulate laws of nature to achieve practical results. Sometimes yesterday's
magic becomes tomorrow's science. Alchemy was a prequel to chemistry, a sort of
proto-science that blurred the distinction between "ritual" and
"experiment", "vision-quest" and "research".
Similarly, mesmerism--today regarded as mere smoke'n'mirrors
charlatanry--actually laid the groundwork for psychotherapy and Freud's
discovery of the unconscious. In one of his most provocative feats of knowledge archaeology, Davis traces the
origin of the complex "data
architectures" of contemporary
cyberculture all the way back to the "memory palaces" that Renaissance hermeticists mentally constructed--a mind's eye technique
that enabled these scholars of esoteric knowledge to store vast amounts of information in their own brains.
The flipside of
Davis's argument concerns the way that the
mystical and Romantic imagination has repeatedly seized on the scientific,
technical, and engineering developments of the era as a source of
metaphor. TechGnosis's stand-out
chapter, "The Alchemical Fire",
investigates the many manifestations of
dubs "the electromagnetic imaginary." These include theories of an "electrical" life-force (such as Mesmer's animal magnetism and Theosophy's etheric
body) and Spiritualism's debt to the
newly invented telegraph and Morse Code (the movement's leading periodical was
called The Spiritual Telegraph).
Like other paradigm-shifting innovations in telecommunications such as the telephone, wireless, and Internet, the telegraph was hailed as the advent of the New Jersusalem, an earthly paradise of peace, prosperity and global village-like intimacy among all mankind. A fifth-generation Californian,
Davis tends to look on the bright side
himself; in a sense, his stance is
"why can't spirituality and technology be friends?". But he's too
sharp to ignore technology's darkside, its potential for control and cataclysm.
Accordingly, TechGnosis explores how technology's dystopian aspect has been mirrored by a darkside spirituality. In
Medieval times, paranoid schizophrenics expressed their dread through the
demonology of witches, fairies, and
incubi; in the Modern era, technology possessed the troubled
imagination. Within a few years of Alexander Graham Bell's invention, one benighted soul suffered the delusion that
his enemies were telephonically transmitting "fiendish suggestions"
directly into his brain via an subcranial implant. Today, similar persecution
complexes involve controlling rays beamed from satellites or microchips implanted behind the eyes. Science
fiction author Philip K. Dick based his later novels like Radio Free Albemuth on his own paranoid
hallucinations that he'd been contacted by a sort of Cosmological Internet called VALIS (Vast
Active Living Intelligence System).
Drawing on a slightly staggering range of erudition, and written in a vivid style that oscillates between earthy ("the tangled noodles of the collective mind") and flowery ("blueprints inked upon the fiery heart"), TechGnosis succeeds brilliantly in revealing the unexpected interdependence of science and spirituality. If the book has one flaw, it's
Davis's well-meant attempt to walk a "sane" midpath
between non-judgemental generosity towards the often preposterous expressions
of the mystical imagination and
postmodern distrust of belief
(including the theology of science as salvation). Endorsing Vaclav Havel's rather hazy notion
of "post-religious spirituality," Davis aspires to be something
oxymoronic: "a sacred ironist or a
visionary skeptic... dancing between logic and archaic perception, myth and
modernity." Yet surely one of the things that spirituality
and science share is the aspiration to truth;
both say "this is how reality/the cosmos really works." Postmodern irony, which makes every assertion
provisional, is ultimately the real enemy to the scientific and spiritual
impulses, which are both based on the
conviction that we can know something for certain.