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This is an extraordinary time to be a Californian living in California. I say it that way because, if, like so many, you live here but aren’t born here, it’s easier to imagine leaving, or not being here, even if you are here for now. For transplants, California can feel like a long dice throw still in the rolling. For me, California feels like fate.
These fires feel like fate as well, or at least like the fall of ancient dominoes, rather than some bizarre weather anomaly or the result on contemporary human screwups alone. One of the many bleak paradoxes of our moment is that, even as a myriad of feedback loops and systemic complexities multiply and intensify beyond our ability to reckon or track, many people are very sure about where to heap the blame. (They seem to mostly live on Twitter.) This is not to absolve anyone of climate denial, or questionable building practices, or a century and half of suppressive fire management policies that ignored indigenous know-how and the facts of living in a fire ecology. Instead it is to suggest that, sad to say, our respect for the autonomous realities that lie beyond modernity’s extractive, parasitic, and now imploding game can only begin when non-human systems that we can’t control get seriously up in our face.
And that’s part of the terror here: not just our inability to control or contain some of these fires, but the face that we don’t really understand them anymore. The tragic loss of lives and homes, the destruction of communities of animals and people, the savaging of lungs and the shattering of emergency systems—all these slip into horror movie territory when you realize that these blazes are behaving in ways we have never seen before. It is as if we had been dealing with mere servitors of Fire in the past, and now the boss djinn are upon us.
The fires are also consuming much of whatever remained of the unusual symbolic capital that California had accrued over the last century. Tracking this rise and fall is part of the point of the Burning Shore—the sort of reflections that only conflagrations, cultural and spiritual and political, can bring. So its not just Napa or the Emerald Triangle that are burning. Hollywood is burning. Silicon Valley is burning. Endless summer and yoga mats and nutburgers are burning. Watts never stopped burning. The California ideology is burning. Even Burning Man is burning.
Though the view is dark and the air is bad, I and mine have not suffered too much this harrowing summer. For now we are hunkered down behind a fraying buffer of privilege in a city that only some days is under a poison cloud and that at least, unlike Portland, is not fringed with Proud Boys. Occasionally I feel a panicked desire to get out of Dodge, even to leave America—especially during this creepy “calm before the storm” October. But it’s not in the cards. I’m a lifer out here, and I still hold out hope that the ingenuity, resources, visionary capacity, and polyglot cultural strengths of today’s unquestionably fucked-up California might at least present a better-than-average response to the general shitshow that is the 21st century. Cows have conquered the planet, so when they come home there is nowhere to hide.
The Burning Shore is a way to reflect on California through my own personal mandala. When I began it, I imagined a regular publication, but while I am inspired by the project, recent history has shown that I am managing to squeeze out only one long essay a month, plus these Blasts. To stick closer to the theme, I am going to focus my forthcoming reviews more on Californiana, then and now (and sometimes liberally interpreted). I am also going to start posting appropriately “golden” articles from my vast archive of essays and reviews, drawing from material buried deep in the cellars of techgnosis.com as well as stuff from my clip file that has never seen the digital light. I also intend to post one Expanding Mind-style “Cali Conversation” a month, for paid subscribers only. I hope to get these into gear by the end of the year, just as I hope to drum up more paid subscribers and readers in general. So pass on the word if you are wo inspired.
• I am on the advisory board for Chacruna, and I have been hankering to do an event with this fine outfit for a while. In early September I fulfilled the dream in the best way imaginable: a frank, rich, and dynamic seminar conversation with two of my favorite people: Kat Harrison, from Botanical Dimensions, and Bob Otis, from Oakland’s fascinating Sacred Garden Community.
In my last blast, I complained about the tedium of so many psychedelic events and discourse. Curating this conversation was my attempt at getting to some of the questions that most interest me now: At a time of a largely secular psychedelic renaissance, how do we think about the psychedelic sacred? What is the relationship between religion and spirituality? How do we understand and build entheogenic practices that go beyond “wellness” and personal psychological goals? Indigenous cultures contain many ceremonial approaches, but how do we relate with these if we aren’t indigenous? At a time when “religious freedom” has become a key principal for decriminalization, is the formation of official psychedelic “churches” the way to go? The resulting conversation was rich and reverberant, and we got great feedback from the many who tuned in.
• Lex Pelger is a psychonaut I first met some years ago in Brooklyn, where he was part of a fun and happening tripster scene. He was deep into a madcap Moby Dick project at the time, and the walls of his book-stuffed room were covered with Melville quotations, and conspiracy-theorist style annotations and arrows linking the novel to facets of the arcane cannabis lore he also tracked. And now, from his new home in France, Lex has unfurled a podcast, the Lex Files. In our recent conversation we talked about UFOs, a topic I haven’t dealt with at length for quite some time. It was fun. Plus he called me Doktor!
• For the third episode of the new podcast Mapping Minds, I spoke with host Jimmy Sudekum about a rich range of the “Weird and Wondrous.” Especially these days, I really enjoy having focused conversations with stimulating new minds like Jimmy’s. Podcasts are also a good way to get my stuff out there—even to small audiences—and to continue to contribute to an important media format in the wake of Expanding Mind. That said, I have been getting more requests than I want to take on of late, and also realize that I reflexively agree to conversations that take time away from writing and my own projects. I will be teaching in the spring, and so I will probably be doing fewer podcasts in the future. But we will see! I love conversations, so it’s a hard habit to break.
• On Saturday, October 3, I will once again convene the San Francisco Psychedelic Sangha online at 6pm PT. The event will combine a talk, a practice, and plenty of time for discussion among the sangha crew, which is developing a nice community vibe. This month I want to reflect on the possibly Paleolithic roots of meditation and to explore one of my favorite meditations, “The Clearing.” Sign up here; any dana donations for the event should be tossed into the SF Dharma Collective bucket.
Though “The Vow” won’t conclude until later this month, this 9-part HBO documentary has already offered fans of weird cult docs all manner of rare and troubling thrills. The series tracks the fall of NXIVM, a brilliantly marketed corporate leadership organization that included a secret “sex cult” whose most extreme practice was the ritual branding of female pelvis flesh with the initials of Keith Raniere, the group’s leader. In other words, NXIVM perversely coupled the two major meanings of the word brand, providing yet another symptom, as if one were needed, of the deep rot in the capitalist religion of success.
Some of the ex-acolytes that star in this doc had a media-savvy fetish for recording their communications, and when they turned against Raniere, realizing that they could salve their consciences only by exposing this vindictive and well-funded manipulator, they continued to record their struggles. All this media became raw material for “The Vow”, and so we get tons of phone calls, retreat videos, and iPhone encounters, as well as all we would ever want to see of Raniere, aka “Vanguard”, in action. As a master, or at least a master salesman, Raniere is impressive: conceptually engaging, creepy-charismatic, and possessed of real interpersonal gifts, including the ability to quickly recognize and probe the insecurities, inner narratives, and psychological blocks of the people drawn to him. He also possesses the hazy eyes of a reptile.
Unlike many so-called cults, NXIVM had very little to do with the spiritual counterculture, and a hell of a lot to do with late capitalism. The visible NXIVM schtick includes little woo or metaphysics. Instead it took the form of a peculiar but seemingly productive mix of self-development seminar, entrepreneurial go-get-em coaching, and Scientology-like meta-programming—all of which was in turn wedded to a pyramid scheme of recruitment framed as an empowering solution to the world’s problems. Ka-CHING. The men and women it hooked—including actresses, successful film-makers, heiresses, and near-royalty—are generally bright, attractive, and highly motivated. They are already winners, in many ways, and part of the train-wreck fascination here is watching them lose hard by wanting to become even bigger winners.
But how fulfilling are these values? It is as if the emptiness at the heart of NXIVM’s multi-level marketing scheme opens up the kind of void that inevitably fills with a far more twisty and self-destructive achievement culture: a calorie-counting, master-slave, scarred sisterhood whose organizational pyramid was topped by Raniere as King Schtuper. We don’t learn why he gave this secret society of female insiders the techy name DOS, but it’s hard to shake the sense that we are watching an unintended allegory of domination through digital social media, especially when we see how smart phones were used both to synchronously control initiates and to produce the kompromat that underwrote their loyalty.
I love Sarah Davachi’s subtle and evocative music, whose drones and drifts are more demanding, and rewarding of attention, than at first appears. Most of Davachi’s records—there are many, she is quite the monster—were made using analog electronic gear, and they construct invisible landscapes that lie somewhere between sophisticated electroacoustic compositions and the chill-out couch. On her new double-album, Cantus, Descant (Late Music, a new Warp imprint she runs), Davachi performs her pieces on a variety of organs, and mostly on five big pipe organs that live in cities around the globe. This type of instrument was one of the most bad-ass machines of the late medieval era, the synthesizers of their day, and they carry a sacrosanct charge that Davachi here redirects towards the fragile contemporary work of mourning, interiority, and material intimacy.
Davachi is a good writer, and in album notes contained on a separate poster, she explains that, while her stuff is devoid of religious (or New Age) aspirations, “the awareness of a moment’s feeling remains.” For all the album’s enveloping tones and drifting clouds of sound, her phenomenological offerings are never anodyne—the closer you listen, the more edgy textures and tense dissonances appear. Microtones sing like melodies, harmonics melt into ghostly fogs, frequencies beat like moth wings. In contrast with the behemoth blasts of old-school organ music, such intimate revelations are, perhaps, where your find the sacred today.
While the tracks all share a definite soundworld, and a thematic unity alluded to in the album’s title, they are also quite varied. There are brief sketches; there are tracks that sound like hymns or folk songs or soundtracks from grainy Hungarian animations; there are visits to yet another green world; and, for the first time, there are actual songs featuring Davachi’s own vocals, cloaked in a pleasant indie haze. As a musician, Davachi long ago found her voice, but with these songs, along with her new label and her recent collection of essays (Papers), she continues to expand its range.
Here is a book I wish I had read before completing High Weirdness. In The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in ’70s America, the cultural historian Daniel Belgrad offers a convincing argument that many seemingly distinct features of 70s culture—ambient music, the Experiment at La Chorrera, contact improvisation, “biophilic cowboys”, Neopaganism, The Secret Life of Plants, and the Crying Indian ad—can be understood in light of the idea of feedback that lies at the heart of cybernetics, ecology, and general systems thinking. Belgrad reminds us that, while cybernetic hippie culture (exhibit A: the Whole Earth Catalog) led to Silicon Valley cyberculture, an equally important (if less trumpeted) aspect of what Bruce Clarke calls the “systems counterculture” was profoundly ecological, not only committed to the environment but to ways of weaving humans into the larger circles of non-human existence (animals, plants, noise, biofeedback machines).
The Culture of Feedback is an academic book, so it lacks some pizzazz, but it is clearly and intelligently written, full of great 70s arcana, and never leans on needless jargon. Belgrad also offers a sharp critique of the usual view of the 70s as an era of malaise and narcissism. For Belgrad, the self that was being developed was also being dissolved and deconstructed into new relations with the world outside. Though I think Belgrad goes a bit far here, I do wish that High Weirdness had more explicitly emphasized the creative and experimental features of the decade, and that I had also been more clear about the central role that systems theory played in the thought of McKenna, RAW, and PKD. All these elements are there, but I wish I had turned up the gain.
I hope you enjoyed this flicker of The Burning Shore. Please consider a paid subscription if you can. As a bonus you will get a paid-subscriber-only audio recording of all new posts. The Burning Shore only grows by word of mouth, so pass this along to someone who might dig it. Thanks!