:: Article

Textualizing the Quiddities

By Sean Hooks.

Eric Davis, High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies (MIT Press, 2019)

Erik Davis’s High Weirdness is a culminative text, its germination thirty years in the making. He is a writer who, in the eighties and nineties, “wrote articles and essays about heavy metal, cyborg theory, Burning Man, drugs, paranormal TV shows, UFOs, gnostic cyberpunk, Neo-pagan witchcraft, Buddhism, virtual reality, Goa trance, Rainbow Gatherings, and, of course, PKD.” All were far more exotic than they are today. Along with his enduring fave Philip K. Dick, Davis focuses on shamanistic thinkers of the 1970s (notably Robert Anton Wilson, and Terence and Dennis McKenna) and their

countercultural consciousness: psychedelics, esoteric visions, paranormal phenomena, psychopathology. As voracious readers and intellectual bricoleurs, they also shaped and interpreted their experiences by drawing from a similar store of building blocks available to the book-buying seekers of their era. At the same time, they were all freethinkers and garage philosophers, at home with naturalistic and critical attitudes: irony, skepticism, humor, and an existential realism rooted in the empirical body. They preferred hypotheses to beliefs, and played science-fiction games with their texts to infect their readers with their own conundrums. They were all futurists of a sort, fascinated with time and the sense that history itself was ramping up to a kairos point.

The sitting high priest of weird in the US is David Lynch, perhaps more synonymous with weirdness than any living artist in any medium. In “The Prosthetic Imagination of David Lynch,” from the essay collection Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017), Tom McCarthy distills Lynch’s oeuvre to amputations and puppetry—in Lynch’s imagination, we are all, continually, subject to the manipulations of a higher power, but not a god. Lynch’s industrial imagery, present from his earliest short films in the seventies, frames the question not as God-human but Operator-operated, the human as prosthetic. Eraserhead, released in 1977, casts a definitive miasma over the decade and all its peculiarity. In that film, a character known only as Mr. X says, “Oh, printing’s your business, huh? Plumbing’s mine.”

This sentiment serves as an overview and thesis for Erik Davis’s entire oeuvre. He’s an unrestrained thinker using printed matter to plumb, excavate, and dig deeper than the average academic, due mostly to his willingness to approach outré and otherwise oft-dismissed or “non-serious” topics like astral projections, occulture, experience architecture, various encounters William James called “the varieties of religious experience,” and the question of whether or not, as Davis recently tweeted, “the universe possesses a finite metaphysical infrastructure occasionally detected by the subconscious.” Such is the surfeit typical of High Weirdness as a text and Weird Studies as a field. The 1970s as a numerically-defined subset of history thrillingly exposed by Davis across 400+ pages, represent a more unified set of weirdness properties. “Weird things are anomalous—they deviate from the norms of informed expectation and challenge established explanations, sometimes quite radically.” Weird status is attained “when you refuse or transgress dominant behavioral and conceptual codes.”

The book began as an expansion of Davis’ academic work on Philip K. Dick, but he knew that wasn’t his larger goal. He wanted to “explore the possibility that his [Dick’s] experiences represented a broader mutation in the culture.” High Weirdness conflates the sacred and the profane, the familiar and the alien, in order to amass “accounts of extraordinary experience.” Davis describes his terrain as “the esoteric margins,” meaning things like “cybernetic media, alien communications, genre fictions, and psychedelic metaphysics.” The crackle of hitherto unforeseen connections is what excites him. “There were larger patterns afoot” is the overarching mandate. A counterculture expert who grew up in Southern California before attending Yale, he’s written for conventional publications like Spin, Wired,  Rolling Stone and Details, alongside online standbys Slate and Salon, and more intelligentsia-niche venues like The Village Voice, Artforum, and Bookforum—all while earning a PhD in Religious Studies from Rice University (in their Gnosticism, Esotericism & Mysticism program).

To read Erik Davis is, to skirt cliché, to embrace the trip, strip naked and dive headfirst into wonderland. Endings, severings, the end of the idyllic and the blissful, the burbling forth of paranoia, uncertainty, and turmoil; this is from what seventies weirdness stemmed. The terminus of order, of Nixon, of the capital “S” sixties, documented in countless epitaphs for that decade, mostly hovering around the Manson killings and the Altamont chaos in the fall and winter of 1969; it was a twentieth-century end of Eden. Musically, High Weirdness cites Joni Mitchell alongside fellow Canadians Leonard Cohen and Neil Young as singer-songwriters who told “of anxious interiority and hedonistic restlessness, all opportunities squandered or snatched away.” As the 1970s turnstile clicked into 1971, Don McLean looked back with anger to an earlier decade, offering his own elegy, “American Pie,” a desolate folk-rock epic.

While popular music certainly contained harbingers of the coming decade, Davis argues that “The gloomy backwash of the seventies is perhaps best memorialized in the nihilistic and existential tone of so many Hollywood films of the era, populated with errant cops, ominous conspiracies, lonely lovers, and twilight cowboys drifting hard.” Francis Coppola’s quartet — The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979) — semiotically signified the era in microcosm while more underground brethren — the seventies films of John Cassavetes, or movies like The Parallax View (1974), Night Moves (1975), and Straight Time (1978) — contributed to the drift, the errant and ominous loneliness, of a time of great atomization and disconnection. The German directors, particularly the Herzog of Stroszek and the Wenders of The American Friend (both released in 1977) support this depiction, as does Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971), hailed by Richard Linklater as “both the last film of the sixties and also the first film of the seventies.”

The visual-narrative (filmic) arts manage to tap into the matrix even if their reach exceeds their grasp, and this is not a negative in Weird Studies. Davis states that he is “more interested in providing close readings” than in explaining things or limiting their possibilities. He is a synchronicity scout, a cartographer of ontological turbulence whose aim is to scold strict causality with the ruler smack of parapsychology, to map “influences, resonances, and structural dynamics rather than unravel their ultimate meaning or origin or cause.” Almost everything is contingent on its environment, its context. Rationalism has its limits. Consider this, from a section of High Weirdness entitled ‘Wasteland’ (Davis, as a thinker, is as comfortable in wastelands as highbrow trippy as T.S. Eliot’s or as buried in b-movie bricolage as Soylent Green’s).

Some rationalists have never met an anomaly they didn’t want to crush. Many have devoted themselves to “solving” or unravelling noxious mathematical and logical paradoxes, which are considered anomalies within systems of reasoning. But if we take a broader, more holistic view, we will see that such paradoxes keep popping up, somewhere down the line, and sometimes within the foundations of the very procedures invoked to banish them. The anomaly is a moving target, a bouncing ball always headed towards a rabbit hole.

Amid its seemingly disparate, even squalid, subjects, High Weirdness continually embraces anomaly and deviance, refuses to trivialize the unsettling and aberrant, and roots out “connections”—a pivotal word for Davis, in terms of the associations afforded by technology, gatherings, and drugs.

So what connections were being made for the first time in the 1970s? Marvin Gaye’s “the sixties are over” album What’s Going On came out in 1971, a political soul record made by a seer perpending the larger chaos from which sex provides such an enchanting escape. Not the “free” love of the sixties, but the “funk” love of the seventies. The soul seer would ultimately be the victim of filicide in the eighties, but the seventies were the decade where true crime and mass slayings earned new attention—in literature as in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), in music as in the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” or as documented more recently in David Fincher’s series Mindhunter, where the seventies serve as the etymological birthplace of the label “serial killer.”

In High Weirdness, Davis furnishes a wide range of not-readily-apparent connections, chronicling varied and elusive material in order to provide a “look into the technologies of synthesis and control in seventies America…mirrored by new forms of consumer surveillance and technologies that wove the body more tightly into circuits of scanning and tracking.” He cites, for example, apocalyptic evangelist Hal Lindsey’s warning of the international computerized banking system and the viral spread of computers in our homes. The early seventies are also the preeminent period in the spread of broadcast television, a tech-form long lambasted by certain members of the intelligentsia but now spoken of and written about with nostalgia (similar to reconsiderations of Reagan and the Bushes in the wake of Trump). This forms a line of study to David Foster Wallace as well, a child of the seventies similarly fixated on the metaphysical implications of broadcast telecommunication in a decade where latchkey kids were babysat by TV.

“In the seventies,” Davis writes, “the personal became political. Living one’s life was building a world. That’s what the new pluralism offered. But the personal also became a product.” With his Muppets, Jim Henson avoided this by becoming an anti–George Lucas who preserved innocence and elided commercials through public broadcasting. The seventies were also the decade of local access TV, sloppy sci-fi, cornball cardboard backlots and early Cronenberg, all in contrast with the middlebrow rise of cable/HBO and the blockbusters Jaws and Star Wars in ’75 and ’77. It wasn’t all zany and outerworld in the seventies, but those are Davis’s primary areas of interest.

Erik Davis

Davis is a through-and-through Californian and his inner weird is downright regional. Altman’s Nashville is center-cut in ’75, San Francisco endured its Zodiac Killer period, bourgeois New Englanders hosted orgiastic key parties, and the death throes of pre-AIDS hedonism roiled across a New York City synonymous with Studio 54, Warhol’s experimental movies, Reggie Jackson’s Yankees, and the Berkowitz “Summer of Sam” rampage. The long, strange trip didn’t begin in 1970 or end in 1979, but this decade was one of aesthetics, of free-range childhoods. The seventies were the sixties’ dirty uncle (Warren Zevon and Tom Waits come to mind) as well as precursor to eighties’ excess and capitalism’s shift toward psychopathic corporatism.

In 2020, that point has long since been reached. We insta-commodify. The hive mind has the puzzle figured out. Counter-public intellectuals like Wilson, the McKennas, and Dick, risk-takers in the seventies when Davis was growing up, are now firmly entrenched in the Weird canon. The soundbyte is de rigueur, the “hot take” is the only one that gets traction, while the measured essay is often dismissed as TL/DR. The notion of an underground, a resistance, is harder and harder to imagine, despite our love of hacker-ology and the omnipresent idea of the “dark web,” perhaps second only to “dark matter” as go-to shibboleth and underground cred-term of choice. Straight physics? Straight-faced metaphysics? Straight ol’ regular internet? Pshaw. So mainstream.

The underground/mainstream confluence can be seen in individuals like Ursula Le Guin, who published her great genderless-future-world novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, in 1969. In High Weirdness, LeGuin serves as pen pal to Dick’s ravings and visions, herself a major contributor to seventies weird, one whose status, over the course of her life, rose from token to totem. This is a common pattern in Weird Studies, according to Davis, who points this out in his contribution to the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011), a unified field theory of a text edited by Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson that documents Dick’s quasi-religious experiences: “a motif is casually introduced, and later blooms into a matter of such great significance that it changes the visionary narrative in retrospect.” The blossoming of both LeGuin and fellow weirdsmith Octavia Butler (with some assistance from Harlan Ellison in the early seventies) into canonical sci-fi fixtures gives credence to Davis’s perspective.

The weird can become the canon and vice versa, similar to the way academic socialism entered the mainstream with Jimmy Carter’s election. The sincerity of that historical moment, in the wake of Nixon’s departure and Ford’s two-and-a-half years behind the wheel, led to what Davis calls “the prankster anarchism that shadowed the more visible collective radicalism of the New Left.” The term of the most liberal president since FDR coincided with another emergent form—technology in its period of ingress. Arising from boredom, isolation, and persecution by the popular kids, the hacker became the perfect role for certain members of a generation that grew up exhausted by Nixon, unable to participate in the main-stage sixties. In an ignored corner of the festival ground the proto-coders stirred up a new witches brew. In an interview with Aquarium Drunkard, Davis says, “I’m interested in what happens to the counterculture after all the flashy stuff is over.” Technology is often presented as both literally and metaphorically flashy, but in the monochromatic early days of floppy discs and Arpanet, tech was too fetal to be flashy. Its slow illuminations and dimmings were more akin to light-artist James Turrell’s skyspaces and Mendota stoppages—flickering and inimitable projects from the weird end of the high art sphere.

Philip K. Dick tapped into this wired hum as well and, according to Davis, “Dick held out the hope that technologies could also resist or outflank the apparatus of power.” This precedes perhaps the most seventies-ish example in the whole of High Weirdness, a man named John Draper, a.k.a. Captain Crunch, “who had discovered that the 2600 Hz tone of a plastic toy whistle found in Cap’n Crunch cereal could be used to control AT&T trunk lines and therefore place free phone calls. Later, Draper went on to build ‘blue boxes,’ tone controllers that inspired phone phreaks, a group of proto-hackers that included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.” If mini-narratives like these, and the promise of a follow-up riff about Discordian ontology, are your thing, High Weirdness is for you.

Politically, one of Davis’s fascinations is with libertarianism, which gets almost as many mentions in High Weirdness as Alistair Crowley. If politics has an occult, an opter-outer grouping, the libertarian-minded would be that sub-altern, steadily notching their three to six percent of the popular vote. This is not to paint Davis as a supporter of the Libertarian Party, or even a centrist, as he is a classic City Lights Bookstore lefty in many regards, but he self-describes, on his Amazon profile, as follows. “In politics and philosophy, I strive to be multi-perspectival.”

Musically, multi-perspectivity encompasses Led Zep IV (1971), Yes’s Fragile (1971), Ziggy Stardust (1972), Lou Reed’s Transformer (1972), Blood on the Tracks (1975), Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977), and also in 1977 Brain Eno’s Before and After Science birthing the ambient music genre, a post-pop and post-punk experiment that validated the use of the synthesizer, fusing weird tech with more ineffable human traits. One of Davis’s most singular traits as a writer is his sub-sectioning of empiricism. Throughout High Weirdness, and his body of work as a whole, he makes distinctions between “radical empiricism,” “inner empiricism,” “open-minded empiricism,” and “phenomenological empiricism,” carving out lines between aesthetics, cultural studies, spirituality, and social production modalities. Davis deserves real credit for this microscopic level of scrutiny. As evinced by the above-listed albums (all classifiable under the larger umbrella of rock), by the 1970s, fragmentation and subgenre-ification were creeping in.

In 1972, sociologist Colin Campbell circled in on the cultic milieu, examining the way fringe ideologies group together and spread virally. This is the way gray and black markets disperse their ideas and commodities, which brings us to the drugs. High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experiences in the Seventies places drugs first in the trifecta. The esoterica and the visionary experience have prominent stands on Davis’s boardwalk, the augmented dissertation on PKD is a niche draw for academics and Dick-heads, and the well-researched mania for Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson will secure Davis a seat on the dais at an academic conference, but drugs put asses in the seats. If David Lynch is the reigning weird royal, he takes the place of deposed homecoming kings like Andy Warhol and Timothy Leary. For the former, fame and postmodern appropriation were the godheads, for the latter it was not just LSD but DNA, as Davis astutely points out. “The importance of human genetics to the McKennas’ circuit may reflect Timothy Leary’s earlier enshrinement of DNA, which plays the role of God or dharma in his visionary materialism.” Leary, Warhol, and Lynch were all able to convert fringe status to mainstay status, perhaps due to the simple fact that we now worship the weird. Lay readers and creatives alike dig drugs (and aliens). An apex is the now-famous monologue by Rory Cochrane’s character Slater in Richard Linklater’s pomo seventies-time-capsule flick Dazed and Confused (1993): “This country was founded by people who were into aliens, man. George Washington, man, he was in a cult, and the cult was into aliens, man, you didn’t know that…Did you ever look at a dollar bill, man? There’s some spooky stuff going on on a dollar bill, man.” Or to step outside the dorm room-lore version of the seventies, check out this drug-trip report from Jim DeKorne’s Psychedelic Shamanism (1992), an account placed in the early pages of High Weirdness:

The high weirdness began. The tapestries disappeared and were replaced by darkness. Soon stalagmites and floor-to-ceiling columns appeared. I was in a cave with rock formations that resembled trees designed by Dali—seemingly vegetable and mineral at the same time. As I “moved” among them, I noticed one that was much larger than the others. Getting closer, I noticed a large crack in its side, and then that the interior was hollow and illuminated by a pale blue light. It was then that I noticed the entity. About the size of a large dog, but with reptilian characteristics.

“Weirdly high” means not just drugs and aliens but Lizard People. Oh yes, at the end of the tunnel, long past the illuminati and the pyramids and the encoded dollar bills, past even the time-travelling Masons and the scattered wastrels with their ”Hollow Earth Exists” signs, their eyeball gestures, their psilocybin-induced trances that have them raving about how it all started with the Hindenberg, or Da Vinci, or the Egyptian hieroglyphs that supposedly depict airplanes and helicopters, past that, way down in the slimy viscera of the tunnel, there always lie, at the bottom of the hole, the center of the maze, the end of the Fibonacci spiral: the Lizard People, the reptilian creatures, sometimes accompanied by a Cthulhu or two.

And if the reptilians (yes, their ombudsman David Icke makes an appearance in High Weirdness) lie beneath, buried, imbedded and subterranean, the ultimate underman, it is their antipode that soars, that gets literally high and resides in an elevated place (or enhanced conscious plane), and these are also an abiding concept in Mr. Davis’s work—psychonauts. A psychonaut is generally understood (by which I mean wiki-defined by Reddit) as:

a person who explores activities by which altered states of consciousness are induced and utilized for spiritual purposes or the exploration of the human condition, including shamanism, lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, sensory deprivation, and both archaic and modern users of entheogenic substances, in order to gain deeper insights into the mind and spirituality.

Davis connects psychonauts to Nietzsche in a subsection called “Acrobats” where he cites the contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s idea of anthropotechnics, “techniques of body and mind that enable individuals to mold and experiment with their own existence.” This process can be cybernetic or analog. In the 1890s, Nietzsche framed it as humanity walking a tightrope. Davis postulates: “In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s prophet of the future discovers a tightrope walker preparing to perform in front of a crowd. It is here, crucially, that Zarathustra announces his famous doctrine of the Ubermensch, the overman, the superhero of the spirit. Humanity, he says, is merely a rope ‘fastened between animal and Overman,’ a rope that passes over the abyss.”

Sometimes the temptation of the abyss is great. During the late seventies theorist Michel Foucault underwent an important shift in his thinking, one that would come to fruition in 1982 with “Technologies of the Self,” where he broke from the hierarchical top-down schemes of oppression he’d previously categorized as “technologies of domination.” How was Michel getting his weird on? As Davis points out, “In the seventies, Foucault began spending long stretches of time in California, where, among other things, he explored altered states of consciousness. He dropped acid in Death Valley, and experimented with the ‘creation of new pleasures’ through ‘postsexual’ S&M practices in San Francisco’s gay dungeons.” This was the real-world manifestation of Foucault’s seeker side, hunting the limit-pushing experiences read about in the works of his hero Georges Bataille. Why do people push themselves to extremes and wade into the swamps of weirdness? “To alter the ‘aesthetics of existence’ through the pursuit,” says Davis, “of new forms of experience.”

The druggier end of this era’s film spectrum calls to mind Nicholas Roeg, more than a mere dabbler in consciousness expansion, who crafted one of the great acrobat-who-falls-and-cracks-his-mask narratives, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), with David Bowie playing an alien. Bowie went on to portray three real-life individuals who all score high on the weird scale —Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol, and Nicola Tesla—and his discography covered the overman/underman spectrum several times over during his career.

A cynic might quip that they don’t own quite enough black light posters, M.C. Escher prints, or listen-throughs of The Wizard of Oz + Dark Side of the Moon to hang with Davis, and High Weirdness is, truth be told, a book whose Arik Roper cover art features UFOs, a glowing pyramid, and an illuminati eye, while its end papers feature an androgynous face or four (five, if you consider non-human faces capable of androgyny), a medieval castle, a slant-backgrounded dolmen, architecturally impossible roofing, and shmears of cosmic rays. This suits the investigatory groping of Davis’s appreciable fixation on the uncanny. By the end of the book, the gripping quality of the prose and the sheer depth of cultural enquiry are winning despite a significant critique—there’s simply an exhausting amount of Philip K. Dick. It’s not that the Dick material is uninteresting, it’s that much of it crosses the line from esoterica to pseudointellectual bric-a-brac. With conspiracy theories or New Age material, it is important to be non-dismissive, to not just, in a kneejerk way, resort to clichés like “tinfoil hat stuff” and “black helicopter fantasies,” although some of Davis’s assertions may deserve those derisive categorizations. The looming sense of an academic using his area of research as a crutch, going to the PKD-fastball too often, knocks the overall grade down a little, but it isn’t a massive deduction. Davis is not a solipsist, and the PDK-heavy sections are easy enough to skim.

Davis defines high weirdness as “both a genre and a sensibility.” So whether one’s weird sauce of choice is Frank Zappa, Arthur C. Clarke, Hunter S. Thompson, Hugh Hefner, Patty Hearst, Jerry Garcia, or any of the scores of other fixtures and catalysts Davis devotes pages to, what High Weirdness displays is that its author is a builder of texts, a worker in words far more than he is a deconstructor or a dismantler. And read the footnotes! They’re enlightening and funny, a cornucopia of levity. He’s assembling something, adding to the cultural discussion in the role of self-appointed and independent-minded public intellectual—one who builds without an ephemeral agenda, one who sculpts sedulously, and one who embraces, rather than eschews, the eerie and insoluble.

Sean Hooks was born and raised in New Jersey. He holds a BA-Liberal Arts from Drew University, an MFA-Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA-English from Loyola Marymount University. He presently lives in Los Angeles. His website can be found here.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 23rd, 2020.