Burning Shore Redux
Plus News & Notes
It’s been a while since I posted, and longer since I posted anything substantial, but while there are definitely more interesting things to read and write about than a poor slob’s worries about their production of words, that’s what you are gonna get here.
The good news is that I’ve finally emailed off my manuscript to MIT Press. Tentatively entitled Blotter: The Art and Design of an Acid Medium, the book came in at almost twice the length I had projected, and took about twice as long to write as I’d thought it would. That said, I am exceptionally happy with how it came out—the subject is almost virgin territory, so it required more oral history and primary-source work than I have done before, making it the most ground-breaking, and entertaining, piece of history and media studies I have done. The interviewing, document research, image handling, and historical synthesis all took it out of me, to say nothing of my pathological drive to write well. There is still a lot more to do, and I am crisped.
I am not alone. Some of us dealt with the pandemic by working all the time, and I am one of them. I did a lot of worthwhile stuff over the last few years, in both personal and professional arenas, even as my life grew more complex, both blessed and cursed in those ways that can accumulate in midlife. Currently I am also teaching, organizing a conference, working on a new metamodern meditation center, working on a property, playing guitar regularly, taking care of finances and family, devotedly practicing Zen, and—as always—reading books. I keep thinking of that classic headline from The Onion: “Bottom of the Barrel Dangerously Overscraped, Experts Warn.”
So at the moment I am not sure I really have the energy to plunge back into the sort of substantial posts and extended letters columns I was regularly writing for Burning Shore, a project that has gone through some mission drift. I started the Substack roughly two years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, and I did so to improve on my Mailchimp list, try out new modes of writing, explore my voice, and rediscover some of the play and joy that scribbling has often meant for me. The idea was to cover California in the broadest of senses, and to weave in lots of personal stories, since I haven’t written much memoir and have led a passably interesting life that becomes more interesting to me as I age. I have written a lot of posts that I am proud of over the last two years, but some of the earlier pieces are still my favorites, because they were me exploring fresh ground—like ethnobotanical essays, or my family’s Cali history. I had no thought about making any money on Burning Shore beyond casually tossing out a busker’s hat alongside my online sandbox.
I don’t do well measuring myself against others. I produced my podcast Expanding Mind for nearly a decade, and it was only in the last few years that I ever looked at my download numbers. For years I just recorded the episodes live—one take, including the intros—and sent them off without editing, which is why the early years sound like shit. I thought of it as punk-rock, or my version of an unstructured late-night FM talk radio show, but it was really a way for me to avoid the obsession with professionalism that rapidly transformed the DIY space of early podcasting. (I now believe it is unethical to release crap sound into the world’s eardrums.) When I finally did begin tracking my numbers, after years of building a fan base and providing unique “content”, they were solid but unspectacular. Early in their own success, my comrades at Weird Studies were surprised how low those numbers were when I told them. Tracking numbers mostly made me feel sad.
I never thought about monetizing Expanding Mind, and I began my Substack with a similarly garage-rock attitude, albeit with that busker’s hat. But it’s impossible to use the system without getting into numbers, and within a year I started to track sign-ups and opens, and compare myself to other similar Substacks. I began to fantasize about gaining enough paying subscribers to make it A Thing, solid in some elusive way that would satisfy my compulsion to communicate to the world in a substantial fashion, to “make it.” I told myself that I was seeking the freedom to do what I want for people who wanted me to do what I want. This might actually be true, but I now know I was also subconsciously submitting to the commercial logic of Substack and its corporate interest in my “conversion rates” that was baked into the system. I tracked which posts got more shares or sign-ups, and while none of them went close to viral, it was clear that the more opinionated I was, or the more I riffed on current pop culture topics, the more the needle budged. I began to expect a certain number of sign-ups per post, and come up with ways—like the subscriber-only Ask Dr. D. letters column—to increase the number. Along the way I lost the naivety I had maintained with Expanding Mind, and also lost some connection to my own desire.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s an amazing thing to have a mostly DIY platform that allows one to write what one will and receive direct patronage. I have a number of problems with Substack, and I have been poking around alternatives, but the model is cool and even Good For the World IMO. And I am incredibly grateful to the four hundred or so humans who pitched in to support my work, just as I am grateful for the hundreds more who have left tips and the thousands more who read and forwarded my posts to the wider world of weirdos. But somewhere along the way I managed to lose the original impetus for the thing. My question was no longer what I wanted to write about but what, of all the things I could write about with some degree of enthusiasm, is gonna make the mark? And this shift, subtle or drastic depending on your aesthetic commitments, turned it into a hamster wheel. A sorta fun hamster wheel—with flashy decals and a groovy electronica soundtrack and more than a few paying audience members—but a hamster wheel nonetheless.
Another problem has also become clear. If I don’t watch myself, I go long. My intellectual temperament tends towards the complex and ambiguous, and I love to tease out nuances and to find an excuse to do more research—diversions that often get reduced to a line in the final piece. (But what a well-supported line!) Hell, I am complicating the whole thing right here! And because I am not an “opinion” writer, I can’t just grab a controversial position and ride that bronco out of the ring, which is how a lot of Substacks gain traction. I am more interested in the ecology within which our struggles and fascinations play out, and that takes time to map. Over the last few weeks I started two different articles that began to sprawl and seethe into all sorts of vital and sensitive complexities, and I just abandoned them. It just takes time to think the way I think and write the way I write.
And that plate is getting full. With everything else going on, including a new book project I am already researching, I am not able to maintain the pace and depth I feel is required to respect my customers, some of whom may just be happy to support me, but others made a bet with their limited cash that I would keep producing the kind of stuff that first attracted them to Burning Shore. It may just be a feeling, but it’s the one I have—as a writer who came up at the Village Voice, I take the generosity behind Robert Christgau’s idea of a “Consumer Guide” pretty seriously. Respect readers and their needs and expectations.
So here is what I am going to do: I am going to make everything on Burning Shore public, including comments. You will no longer “get” anything exclusive by paying for a subscription. If that means you want to abandon ship, I actively encourage you to do so. If you want to keep subscribing out of the luvs, or just toss some coins in the bowler on occasion, that’s great too. But if you expect a certain number of doughnuts for your dollars, then feel free to unsub, because you will get everything for free anyway.
After that, who knows? For now I will keep using Burning Shore for news and notes, including announcements of upcoming events and shorter reviews, and I genuinely hope to keep up “Ask Dr. D,” the letters column, on an occasional basis. If I can make Burning Shore more of a sandbox again I may start cranking out the fatties again because it’s fun and I am inspired. For now I want to step away from the transactional and back towards the mutual gift. So thanks!
(•) April Dharmanaut Circle
The Dharmanaut Circle will be gathering on Sunday April 3, at 6pm PT. The Circle is a monthly online meditation and conversation space for Buddhist psychonauts, experimental yogis, and Zen idlers who dig my style. This Sunday, inspired my recent immersion in Psymposia and New York Magazine’s unnerving Power Trip—a podcast series critiquing psychedelic therapy—we will work with questions of power and authority on and off the pillow, in and out of groups. As always, we will record the talk and meditation—we purposefully do not capture the Q&A—and post them on the DC Youtube page which you can check out later. Follow this link to register for the upcoming circle. Suggested donation $20-40, sliding scale.
(•) Techgnosis Today
The good folks at the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions have invited me to participate in another event, an episode of their Gnoseologies series. The particular good folk in this case is Giovanna Parmigiani, a terrific ethnographer of contemporary Paganisms who also wrote a very important (and free) JAAR essay on Covid and conspirituality. Dr. Parmigiani has generlous invited me to have a conversation about my first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, which was—gasp!—published almost twenty-five years ago. We will talk about my intellectual trajectory, the relevant lessons of 1990s "cyberdelia," and how techgnostic themes continue to inform our era of AI, post-truth polarization, the simulation hypothesis, and the explosion of digital occultism, from Insta-witches to TikTok “reality shifters." The event, which will take place online on Wednesday, April 13, at 10 AM PT is free, but requires registration.
(•) Religion and Psychedelics Forum
For the last six months I have been working on a conference with the Chacruna Institute, an independent psychedelic research and education nonprofit whose advisory board I sit on. One of the things I appreciate about Chacruna is the bridges they build between scholarship and the public, a link that was very much on my mind when we came to organize the Religion and Psychedelics Forum, a three-day online gathering that will stream April 22-24, and will include an in-person event in San Francisco on April 21. The gathering will feature scholars, religious experts, and spiritual practitioners interested in entheogens. I helped put together half a dozen panels or more, a number of which I will be moderating, and which include topics like Buddhism and Psychedelics, the Psychedelic Religion of the Counterculture, and the Neuropsychology of Visionary Experience. I am pleased to have called in a number of pals and peers for the effort, including Nicholas Powers, Wouter Hanegraaff, Maria Mangini, Amy Hale, Andy Letcher, Nikki Wyrd, Tehseen Noorani, and Kati Devaney.
I hope to see you there!
I hope you enjoyed this flicker of Burning Shore. Please consider a paid subscription, or you can drop a tip in my Tip Jar.
Burning Shore only grows by word of mouth, so please pass this along to someone who might dig it. Thanks!