Wilderness of Mirrors

The Burning Shore, no. 8

After High Weirdness was published in 2019, I started doing the usual round of podcasts and readings. I expected to mostly talk about Philip K. Dick, and maybe round out the chats with some takes on Terence McKenna, whose dark-elf charisma is greatly missed amidst the slick nostrums of today’s psychedelic discourse (at least by me). But I wound up mostly riffing about Robert Anton Wilson, the most obscure character in my triumvirate of high weirdos.

The reason was simple. RAW speaks most directly to one of the central features of our times: the massive uptick of viral conspiracy theories and tricky darkside counter-narratives that, as both symptom and cause, seem to be further eroding the already rickety foundations of consensus reality. True, PKD did map many a gnostic racket, and Terence also tossed fuel on the fire—seeding Alex Jones’ DMT rants, not to mention that whole 2012 thing, which these days looks merely hasty. But RAW’s work is the most relevant to the task at hand: to understand and navigate the matrix of rabbit holes that has rendered our once sorta solid modern world a Swiss cheese of suspicious plots and phantasmic speculations.

“Conspiracy theory” is a vexed term, of course, though still a useful one, especially when Republicans are nominating QAnon proponents, and your high school buddy on Facebook can’t shut up about Bill Gates. That said, for over fifty years, the phrase has also been deployed by academics, politicians, and mainstream media outlets in order to marginalize alternative or threatening ideas, histories, and claims—some of which, needless to say, eventually prove to be true, or at least generally accepted as such. And even when they are not true, these stories sometimes serve as valuable allegories of real conditions—the feverish images of a pop sociology that need to be reckoned with, and not merely left to fester in the waste-basket of rejected knowledge.

Perhaps we are all conspiracy theorists now, but if not, we definitely all have theories of conspiracy theory now. Secular liberals fear and misunderstand QAnon (and maybe overstate its reach), while conservatives—rightly in my view—point to the media’s inflation of Russiagate as an example of conspiracy mongering on the blue side of the aisle. In other words, both conspiracy theories and “conspiracy theory” have become tactical moves in the larger Great Game that is now afoot: a global mindshare struggle that involves narrative warfare, attention algorithms, meme magick, cognitive biases, a splintered Internet, weaponized fear, and infectious phantasms.

Don’t wanna play? Too late!

Let’s call this open-ended augmented reality game Wilderness of Mirrors. That phrase comes from the notoriously paranoid CIA counter-espionage maestro James Jesus Angleton, who cribbed it from T.S. Eliot in order to describe, during the Cold War, the “myriad of stratagems, deceptions, artifices, and all the other devices of disinformation which the Soviet bloc and its coordinated intelligence services use to confuse and split the West … an ever fluid landscape where fact and illusion merge.”

Ring a bell? Angleton’s image reminds us that today’s digital remix of Cold War struggles with Russia, alongside the freshy we’ve got going with China, directly contributes to our own juicy landscape of factualized illusions and illusory, or elusive, facts. Whatever the reality, our beliefs about the power of Russia’s insidious election hackers bounces back on us regardless, while the Man Behind the Curtain’s latest Oz volume is clearly Tik-Tok from Red Square.

But Angleton’s image covers a broader terrain in my mind than today’s global Realitypolitik, and a much more intimate one as well. Wilderness of Mirrors also names and maps the peculiar optics, alienated claustrophobia, and epistemological uncertainty that characterizes the mazy chaos of screens that has drawn us into the not-so-funhouse of Circus Hypermedia. You might want to pin Wildnerness of Mirrors above your monitor, or etch it onto the face of your mobile, not unlike the medieval map-makers who scrawled Here be dragons in the margins.

The wilderness is a weird place, in the specific senses that I unpack in High Weirdness: uncanny, tricksy, and ontologically unstable. This makes the wilderness a ripe zone for the religious or occult imagination, as well as for cosmic mindfucks and what Bob Wilson (and his writing partner Robert Shea) called “the paradoxical paranoidal paranormal parameters of synchronicity.” What haunts mirrors, after all, are appearances. Pragmatically speaking, these appearances are representations of the world that are generally good enough to go by, even if they are not always quite what they seem. But what makes our present situation a wilderness is that these good-enough appearances are increasingly impossible to sift from reflections and projections, from phantasms and tricks of the light, even as the underlying infrastructure of those networks of screens grows ever more unpredictable and entropic.

This confusion is so discombobulating that it invokes the Imagination whether we want it to or not. The Imagination furnishes the glue to link disparate events; its phantasms are manipulated by spinmasters; Hollywood and immersive designers engineer it into entertainments; and wild youtube self-aggrandizers create conspiratorial exposes out of magical thinking and ancient folklore. But despite these distortions, the Imagination is not mere fantasy or delusion. (That’s why I am capitalizing it.) What I am talking about is something deeper, “archetypal” if you want, but at the very least haunted with patterns and presences that stretch far beyond our individual fancies, even beyond the limits of “the human.”

As scholars of conspiracy theory have noted, a number of the classic plots are feverish revisions of older religious imaginings. The whole New World Order thing, for example, derives in many ways from ideas about the reign of the Antichrist that premillennialist Protestants wove from the visionary figures of the Book of Revelation around the turn of the last century. If you are one of those noble fools who try to argue with conspiracists head-on, using common sense, logic, and conventional knowledge, you have probably encountered more than a touch of this sort of millennialist fervor in response: intransigent conviction, an apocalyptic urgency, and, especially, an overwhelming Manichaean tendency to split the agents involved between good and evil, white hats and the very blackest.

These religious and apocalyptic drives are crucial to keep in mind—QAnon makes a lot more sense when you see it as an emerging faith, with hope and community woven into dark obsessions with pedophilia. But for my purposes, its important to somewhat tease apart these apocalyptic patterns from the more esoteric and aggressively surreal oddities that also haunts conspiracy narratives. Claims about the Trilateral Commission and chemtrails are one thing; invocations of extraterrestrial blood lines within elite families, or secret societies that stretch back to Sumer, or sorcerous Illuminati “twilight language” lurking in pop media, are another.

Weirdo scholars like me have been tracking this stuff forever. Recently the mainstream has cottoned on, as an anxious and unraveling system of authority tries to outrun Q drops, the dangerous denialism of Plandemic, and 5G infrastructure freakouts. Their push-back, of course, is almost exclusively a secular-rational one. Conspiracy theory, in this Enlightenment light, represents a delusional kink in our evolutionary psychology, or an Internet-driven meme plague, or a rightwing politics of fear and resentment. As an infectious social-cognitive disease, conspiracy theory should be met with gentle logical argument, university discourse, and proper information hygiene.

Go for it folks, I wish you the best of luck, but forgive me if I don’t hold my breath. As my readers and listeners know, I am a fan of critical thinking (despite its blinkers), science (in its usually understated complexity and ambiguity), expert knowledge (taken, as always, with Himalayan pink salt), and the critical methods of historical scholarship (however fragile and sometimes deceptive). But as all these parentheticals indicate, such approaches have their limits, and sometimes we find ourselves—spiritually and existentially, individually and societally—beyond those limits.

Here and in a few posts to come, I want to sneak up on conspiracy theory more obliquely: with some commentary on California-bred texts by Wilson, Thomas Pynchon, and Ishmael Reed with some personal tales and gnostic reflections. With one possible exception, I won’t be hacking my way through the dense underbrush of particular theories—work that is made particularly tedious and exhausting by the obsessional, data-dense, and flabby, pile-it-up associational logic that characterizes many (but not all) such narratives. For now I want to stay away from the nitty-gritty. You have plenty of that between your toes already.

Instead I am interested in something more general, but also more esoteric, ironic, and imaginal. I want to probe, from the inside as well as out, the underlying mindset that Thomas Konda calls conspiracism—the cognitive and mythopoetic attitude that expects, discovers, and extends narratives about the hidden agents behind historical events into massive and sometimes paranoid designs, cosmic plots that sprout all manner of strange and baneful phantasmagoria. Conspiracism is a different beast than conspiracy theory proper, and both are different from the broader conspiracy culture—in which I must admit participation, up to a point—that enjoys conspiracies as a mode of fringe entertainment. 

Here’s my esoteric wager: I want to suggest that conspiracism, and the paranoid vibes that often fuel it, can be seen as a kind of initiation, or a simulacrum of initiation, or an initiation gone awry. It is no accident that secret societies, whether occult or elite or both, play such a central role in so many conspiracy narratives, because secret societies centrally involve structured forms of initiation. It’s a wilderness of mirrors, remember? Catch a glimpse beyond the veils of the conventional, and follow one of the bouncing data-points in the right (or wrong) direction, and then you’re in the know, chasing the white rabbit down the hole, like Ahab after his whale, your cognitive and moral framework shifting invisibly as you descend. Well jeez, when you think about it that way…If you don’t keep your wits about you, or your ironic distance, you can lose that thread of yarn or trail of doughnut crumbs that keeps you tethered to the tangible. Then, oh wary knight errant, you may stumble into Chapel Perilous.

Chapel Perilous is an enigmatic locale scattered through the medieval lore of the Holy Grail, where it sometimes suggests a ritual encounter with death and its foreboding mysteries. In his book Cosmic Trigger, which I wrote about extensively in High Weirdness, Bob Wilson uses the phrase to name a quasi-psychotic weigh-station of paranormal possibility, one that folks sometimes find themselves in if they seek too long and hard after conspiratorial plots, occult entities, and full-throttle psychedelic experiences (especially all at once, which was Wilson’s practice, along with reading and writing weird texts). Once you are in the Chapel, Wilson insisted, there are only two ways out: as an agnostic, or a stone-cold paranoid. “There is no third way.”

This is, admittedly, fringe stuff. Most of us personally don’t wind up in the Chapel, even if we hunt the weird and hidden, or even if we believe this conspiracy or that (I am sympathetic to a few). But in my more paranoid moments, I fear that we are entering a collective Chapel Perilous. In this case, it’s not only important to understand why so many gun nuts, Instagram influencers, and future members of Congress get into Pizzagate or vaccinations or pancake earth or yet another imminent UFO “disclosure.” We also may need to learn how to mix some of Wilson’s saving agnosticism—not the usual bland variety—into the mix of reasons, intuitions, and rules of thumb we ourselves use to navigate the Wilderness of Mirrors.

Of course, I can only peel back the layers of the onion I hold. My strong hunch is that the Imagination is more intimately tied to objective, historical, material reality than secular moderns are led to believe, and that conspiracy narratives flourish in this zone we have been led to not see. The other important hunch here is one I learned from the penetrating post-Jungian writer James Hillman, who argues that the Imagination, in its full, archetypal, more-than-Romantic-poet sense, is both a healing balm in demented disguise and an irremedially pathological place to be. (Not unlike California.)

Like so many drugs, the Imagination is both poison and cure, and we are not getting rid of that paradox any more than we are getting rid of pop paranoia or conspiracy politics or apocalyptic psyops. Living with Imagination does not involve the transcendence of pathology, but something more daemonic, more ironic, and also probably more tragic. The Imagination provides forms of sense-making that do not deny the chaotic disorders of our inner wilderness, and it nourishes us to the degree that we approach it as an ally to barter with rather than an overlord to slavishly believe or a “cognitive bias” to avoid. As Hillman wrote of Greek lore, “Mythology, without its pathological side of animal monsters, cruel slayings, perverse arrangements, wanton rapes, ruinous penances, no longer touches the passions or speaks of and to the individual soul in its distress.”

I don’t know about you, but with California burning, America unraveling, and climate change out of Pandora’s box, my soul is in some distress. And it is hardly alone. All the nightmares have come today, at least online, and it looks as though they’re here to stay. This phantasmagoria is, in part, a soulful response to the global distress, however distressing the response itself has become. I can only hold out hope that the trials ahead, which are psychological and spiritual as well as brutally material, equip us to move through the wreckage that is upon us with more grace, empathy, and humor. But first we need to escape the Chapel—and to choose the right door.

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!