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Tantric meditation is a rainbow-hued affair, but arguably the most essential colors are red and white. Tibetan Vajrayana traditions speak of two essences or “drops” in the subtle body, one white and one red, the white drop associated with the crown center and the red with the navel. In many Vajrayana meditations, the red drop ignites and rises and “melts” the white drop above, allowing the two essences to combine at the heart.
Making, if you think about it, pink.
That’s right, Barbie fans, pink. Indeed, the adoration of this color is one of the many things to celebrate or at least enjoy about Greta Gerwig’s spunky blockbuster. Another thing is the perverse if ultimately submissive way that the film transforms its corporate-approved exercise of branding into a timely metamodern comedy that combines existential irony and feminist bite with warm fuzzies and Peewee surrealism. “Combines” is maybe too formulaic a term—this film, more than most, has its cake and eats it, too.
Barbie also provides the strange summer of 2023 with a much-needed blast of old-school collective movie-going mania, the sort of pop communitas that streaming utterly lacks. And part of that mania propagates through the celebration of pink, the color that dominated the festive outfits at the multiplex where the wife and I caught the film. This is important: these people were not celebrating a film by wearing branded merchandise. They were celebrating a vibe by sporting a color that lives in the commons.
And what a color! Often listed in polls as one of people’s least favorite, which shocks me given the inferiority of yellow or boardroom beige or those vomity browns, pink might seem flat and saccharine but is culturally deep and rich. Think pinkos and pink slips, pink triangles and pink elephants, Hustler pink and the Pinks that “Bob” Dobbs warned us against. The complexities of pink are of course belied by modern associations with childish cotton-candy femininity that OG Barbie dolls helped fix in the first place. That gender code is, surprise surprise, hardly fixed in amber; in the eighteenth century, when pink came into its own as an adjective and fashion tint, it was read as masculine as often as not—a parsimony that lasted well into the twentieth century. Pink went full-femme only after World War II, which set the color up to be gender-fucked magnificently by Vivienne Westwood and punk.
But that doesn’t mean the powers of pink are “only cultural constructs.” Please stop thinking that way; it’s not exactly wrong, but it’s just not that helpful anymore. Colors have real effects, and pink possibly the realest. The Baker-Miller hue (#FF91AF) has been known for decades to temporarily reduce muscular strength, as well as hostile and aggressive behavior, and is sometimes found for those reasons on the walls of grim institutions.
This fact may rile up the manosphere, whose Barbie-burning conspirators no doubt see Gerwig’s film as proof that pop culture is plotting to turn men into sissies, or rather, dickless Kens who can only “beach” but not actually surf. But I prefer to read the Baker-Miller effect as a sign of pink’s aggressive potential to transport you into a Buddha realm suffused with luxurious peace. It is, in my book, a holy hue. When I invoke the red and white drops in my home-brewed and totally unauthorized subtle body meditations, the fusion of the colors at my heart results in a radiating explosion of pink light that permeates the universe with compassionate candyland delight.
That said, while pink pops up in some Tibetan thangkas (which may reflect modern styles), the color does not feature in traditional tantric cosmology or subtle physiology. (This is not the case with Western “Neo-Tantra,” where “pink tantra” focuses predictably on the heart, love, and romance.) One place that pink does play an outsize role in metaphysics and cosmology, of course, is the strange lore of Philip K. Dick. In 1974, the prophetic and rather damaged science-fiction writer claimed to have encountered a cosmic intelligence he called VALIS, which stood for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. These encounters were often mediated through a “pink beam” that he saw multiple times, including one event triggered by the synesthetic hues he caught while listening to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
PKD’s pink light recoded the light of revelation as the light of radiation, a laser-beam transformation that invokes the apocalyptic vibrations unleashed in the collective imagination by the incinerating flash of the atomic bomb. This is the deeper significance of our movie-going moment’s #barbieheimer meme, which mashes up the Mattel-approved film and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer into one chocolate-and-peanut-butter blockbuster delight. Barbie and the Bomb are both postwar signifiers, of course, the former a timeless exemplar of all the shiny plastic objects postwar consumer culture tossed out in a bid to distract us from the nuclear dread that has more or less haunted the last seventy-five years.
Archetypes literally radiate from this void. These include some of the first UFOs, whose appearances were read as nuclear warning signs from alien ambassadors, and more recently the uncanny horror of Twin Peaks: The Return and its unforgettable eighth episode, which Lynch opened an aesthetic portal into the screaming incandescent void that was always already there, at least since the 1940s, lurking at the atom-scale edge of all our postmodern froth and hurry.
Another one of these fell symbols is the Southwestern desert itself, which first staged the Trinity blast that triggered Robert Oppenheimer’s spiritual transition into Shivadom. Here we should recall the landscape that Barbie and Ken first encounter when they leave Barbie Land to journey to our world: a pop Sonora that, by the way, also rhymes with the intentionally ersatz set of Wes Anderson’s recent Asteroid City, where UFO/A-bomb/blond bombshell connections are also forged.
The Platonic model of all these fake desert nuclear locales were the various “Doom Towns” constructed in the Nevada desert to test the effects of the atomic blast. Most of us are familiar with this footage, though some claim that an even deeper artifice was afoot. According to Marc Andreessen, speaking recently on the Joe Rogan podcast, some of these clips may themselves have been faked in a secret Air Force reality studio called Lookout Mountain, which really existed in LA’s storied Laurel Canyon and has since become the site of some ingenious conspiracy theories (this is the “production studio” Andreessen is describing at the start of the following clip).
To wrap up all these radioactive threads—Barbie, stage sets, blasted landscapes, pink tantra—there is only one place to go: into the pocket universe of Perky Pat Layouts. Phil Dick first offered us his satirical twist on the original Barbie phenomenon in his 1963 short story “The Days of Perky Pat,” which he later expanded into his remarkable novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), perhaps his most disturbing and powerfully prophetic book. In the novel, Perky Pat is the name of a commercial doll, a lithe blond clearly based on Barbie, whose Ken is named Walt. The doll and its accessories, including diorama-like “layouts,” are wildly popular, with the latest styles, props, and editions managed by pre-cogs who anticipate consumer desire.
But Perky Pat is given a psychoactive and even mystical twist on Mars, where conscripted colonists live in hovels and try to farm the unforgiving desert soil. To relieve themselves of their ennui and bitter interpersonal dramas, small groups of colonists gather together and take the drug Can-D, which allows them to temporarily and collectively inhabit the Perky Pat layouts they carefully build and expensively accessorize. Pat lives in a world of sexy California hedonism, already a kind of simulacrum of the simulacrum. Walt, for example, works at Ampex, a real-life Silicon Valley company that—PKD could not have known—also employed the ace engineer Myron Stolaroff, an important figure in LSD research in the early 1960s. But it’s always Saturday in Perky Patland, so Walt eternally takes Pat to the beach, where she sports a new Swedish swimsuit and the colonists, collectively inhabiting the characters, continue their mimetic rivalries as they strive to enjoy their all-too-brief “translation”.
Some colonists believe that translation is just a fantasy or hallucination, but others treat it as a kind of religious communion, one that allows them to shed their bodies and their sins and take on “incorruptible” forms in an eternal (if evanescent) world of constant youth, wealth, and sunshine. Many highly relevant things could be said here about PKD’s dark inversion of Christian communion, or of consumer capitalism’s confusion of Platonic longing with death denial, or of the delusional and imprisoning potential of psychoactive technologies.
But the real spiritual crux, as in so much PKD, is the glitch in the matrix—the interruptions and intrusions that simultaneously ruin the dream and destroy illusion. In the novel, the experience of translation is interrupted in various ways. Walt finds a note tacked on the mirror by colonists on previous visits (“THIS IS AN ILLUSION…MAKE USE OF YOUR TIME…CALL UP PAT PRONTO!”), while Pat finds her thoughts punctuated by the bleak realities the colonists face. The colonists, meanwhile, face the intrusion of the other colonists into their mindstreams, and ultimately by the sharp and depressing diminution of the drug’s effects.
Of course, the ultimate crack in anybody’s personal fantasy, or fabulous enchantment, or hedonic escape, is the same glitch that bedevils Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” at the beginning the film: that the decay and entropy registered in the body are harbingers of your own personal demise. At such moments of existential dread, even Barbie can become Death, destroyer of worlds and illusions. And yet a thin hope lies in such destruction, even in the midst of Barbie’s ultimate capitulation to the imprisoning logic of gendered consumer fantasy satirized by Dick. There’s a crack in everything, after all, but that’s how the pink beams in.
(•) Sonic Ecologies – an Expanded Listening program
On Friday August 4, at 7:30 pm PT, the Berkeley Alembic will host the first of what I hope will be a series of Expanded Listening parties. Attending to the sounds of music and nature is fun, but the process of listening—deeply, sensitively, with great attention (and sometimes with psychoactive enhancement)—can also be a practice, a mode of contemplation and discovery as rich as any meditation regimen.
“Sonic Ecologies” will present a lively and immersive program of environmental field recordings and other unprocessed natural sounds that range from the gorgeous to the sublime to the bizarre. The evening will begin with some comments from me on expanded listening practice, along with a brief introduction to the sounds from Sam Plattner, the musician, sound designer, and recordist who put together the evening’s program. Evocative soundscapes featuring recognizable critters will drift into more dissonant and unfamiliar terrain, as the program turns toward far-out creatures and sounds captured with contact mics, VLF antennae, hydrophones, and the like. We guarantee you will think some of the tracks are heavily processed, but they aren’t. Tickets here.
(•) How to Think Impossibly: Jeff Kripal in conversation with Erik Davis
On Saturday, August 5 at 7:00 pm PT, I will be appearing again at the Alembic to host my friend, colleague, and academic mentor Jeff Kripal. If you don’t know him (and if you read me you should), Jeff is what happens when a scholar of religion gets bitten by a radioactive spider. In Jeff’s case, the spider was a gale-force and unexpected “mystical” experience, a Kalified energetic encounter that helped inspire a torrent of witty and mind-blowing scholarly books that wrestle with examples of “the Impossible”: paranormal consciousness, flying saucers, occult sexuality, the esoteric dimension of superheroes, the mysticism of studying mysticism, and other topics that Jeff uses to playfully (but seriously) challenge the secular materialist foundations that still define so much intellectual culture. Jeff also found time to supervise my High Weirdness dissertation project, and I thank him for allowing me to go places no normal PhD supervisor would even consider. That said, I can confidently say that Jeff believes more weird things about the universe than I do.
Tonight, Jeff will give us a glimpse of his forthcoming book, How to Think Impossibly: About Souls, UFOs, Time, Belief, and Everything Else. Before opening it to the floor, he and I will chat about the pleasures and challenges of studying weird things, how naturalism relates to the marvelous, and how to navigate the exploding mainstream interest in occult and paranormal topics. Tickets are here. If you are not in the Bay Area, or are busy, you are in luck: this evening’s event will also be streamed, with options for folks in merciless time zones.
(•) August Dharmanaut Circle
Jeff Kripal is such a nice guy that he invited me to Esalen once again. In early August, I will be joining a crew of scholars, selected by Jeff and Wouter Hanegraaff, to discuss the “Psychedelic Humanities” in between nude hot spring plunges and morning movement grooves. For this reason, the monthly Dharmanaut Circle will be taking place on the second Sunday of the month, on August 13 at 6pm PT. I have no doubt that my skinny-dip in the Esalen current will inform the proceedings, which will consist of the usual mix: a talk, a sit, and a group discussion open to everything under the sun. Donation only, register here.
(•) The Ezra Klein Show
I got to have lunch with Ezra Klein last spring, before he moved to New York from San Francisco, and I was shocked to discover that on top of everything else that well-lobed fellow tracks, he was also tracking me. We had a fun chat, but I was still kinda shocked that he invited Mr. Weirdo to appear on his popular and excellent New York Times podcast a few months ago. I think it was partly his way to say good-bye to California and San Francisco, which inspired a lot of our conversation, a good dense chat that also touched on AI and the inevitable weirdness trope (which Ezra also relies on to great effect). It was definitely the highest profile podcast I have done, and I can’t say it was a walk in the park, but I am very happy with how it came out.
(•) Hacking at Leaves
Remember deep pandemic? I barely do, which is why it was such a treat when the Austrian filmmaker and über-nerd Johannes Grenzfurthner sent me a screener of his fine new documentary Hacking at Leaves, which includes me as a minor talking head sporting major Covid beard. The film follows Grenzfurthner, bedecked throughout in a yellow hazmat suit, as he explores the Four Corners region in the American Southwest, grappling with colonialist violence, Navajo tribal history, and the hacker movement. The latter theme sets up an inspiring portrait of a small Durango makerspace that cranked out a significant amount of scarce PPE gear they wound up shipping all over the country. Given the time and place of the shooting, the film inevitably echoes the Southwest mythos touched on above, an intertwingling of American artifice and apocalyptic technology incarnated on the film’s poster.
The film features great interview clips from coders, media activists, and a number of striking Diné thinkers, including an anonymous rez hacker whose scathing insights are voiced by an actress. (“Indian” is preferred over “Native American” because, they explain, it forever recalls the shocking ignorance of white people.) That said, the film’s various leaves sometimes float free from the trunk of the story Grenzfurthner is trying to to tell. If Hacking at Leaves still works, and it does, it’s because of Grenzfurthner’s singular personality, which wafts the whole proceedings with a spirit of clear-eyed curiosity and ironic care. Grenzfurthner can speak of dark and terrible and super nerdy things without lapsing into somber didacticism or virtue signalling. His editing and shot selection are deliciously bent and witty, and his invocation of the communitarian, DIY, and smart-ass spirit of hackerdom rings so true it made me sad, as I reflected on decades passed, when the hacker ethic was much more visible in American and technocultural life.
Hacking at Leaves is now in that unenviable documentary limbo where the producers try and get the damn thing into festivals before trying to sell the damn thing to the cut-throat streamers. On July 22nd, the Navajo Nation Museum hosted an exclusive preview, which would have been awesome to attend, but I have no idea when and where you will be able to see the film. If you are in the position to nudge the dial on this one, nudge it!
I hope you enjoyed this flicker of Burning Shore. These pieces and updates come when they do, and I dodge the stress of the hamster wheel by not offering paid subscriptions. But you can always drop a monetized appreciation in my Tip Jar.