My first memory of Erik Davis is of playing the Japanese game of Go together in an apartment in Brooklyn, in the dark days of the early 1990s, while the plagues of AIDS, the New World Order, and our own young male testosterone-addled consciousnesses swirled around us. Dinosaur Jr. or the first Sun City Girls record was on the stereo as antidote, and there were stacks of comix, used pulp SF novels and other pop arcana all around glowing with totemic intensity. We played Go because we were both high on Deleuze and Guattari’s recently translated theory Bible, A Thousand Plateaus, which approved of Go as a rhizomatic, non-hierarchical game. It all felt like something out of a back issue of Doctor Strange, the two of us seated cross-legged on some abstract gaming board, calling forth whatever powers we could. We were both interested in materialist magic, some kind of key that would unlock and transform the universe around us, and one of the places we sought it out was in writing.
Erik has been one of the chief chroniclers of some of the madness of our times, publishing his work in magazines that make up a catalogue of the US hipster avant garde post-1980s: The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Details, Mondo 2000, Wired, The Wire, Gnosis, Hermenaut, Yeti, 21C, Feed, Reality Sandwich, Arthur. Sometimes one of these magazines morphs into the mainstream and an actual paycheck, sometimes one of them sinks without a trace. Either way, except for the web-based Feed and Reality Sandwich, these are some of the last vital gasps of the Gutenberg galaxy, the universe of the printed word whose outer limits Erik has explored, without any security or guarantees.
Erik is known for his writing about gnosis, subject of his acclaimed first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. But what is the gnostic situation? A basic definition: you are in a trap and you need to escape! Many of us have lived our whole lives in this strange trap that’s variously given the names of late capitalism, postmodernity or just simply Babylon. What happens to writing and writers in this situation? Greil Marcus wrote that to understand Lester Bangs, you’d have to recognize that the greatest American writer of the 1970s might write nothing but record reviews. To understand Erik and his fascination with weirdness and esoterica of many kinds, you’d have to recognize that just writing record reviews would be way too conservative an approach to actually describing our world today.
Erik has been one of the most enthusiastic advocates of Philip K. Dick’s writing and vision of the future, and like that great master of late twentieth century fiction, Erik has made his way on his own, without academic backing, through the deserts of the real and all the strange encampments lurking there, whether in Nevada, New York, San Francisco or London. Like Dick, Erik is a native Californian, and a passage from a letter from Dick to Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem illuminates something of the method and environment that they share. Lem had previously praised Dick as the only great SF writer around (besides presumably himself!), but sniffed that it was unfortunate that Dick appeared to be so obsessed with such tawdry, disreputable subject matter. Dick responded:
But you see Mr. Lem, there is no culture here in California, only trash. And we who grew up here and live here and write here have nothing else to include as elements in our work; you can see this in ON THE ROAD. I mean it. The West Coast has no tradition, no dignity, no ethics – this is where that monster Richard Nixon grew up. How can one create novels based on this reality which do not contain trash, because the alternative is to go into dreadful fantasies of what it ought to be like; one must work with the trash, pit it against itself, as you so aptly put it in your article. Hence the elements in such books of mine as UBIK. If God manifested Himself to us here He would do so in the form of a spraycan advertised on TV.
Dick died in 1982, but the trash has continued to pile up sky-high. Using the word “trash” sounds condescending — but the point is that in our society, anything of value is thrown out, devalued, abandoned and forgotten. Take Erik’s second book, a magisterial reading of Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP that appeared in the 33 1/3 series of books (OK, I lied, Erik does write about records too). Zoso is a mass-cultural artefact, and the object of a million banalities. What Erik does is draw out a whole esoteric history that informs the record, both in its production and reception, tracking the way that revolutionary energies are both displaced onto but secretly resting in an object of everyday life. What distinguishes Erik’s work from the mass of pop cultural meditation and academic cultural studies that have blossomed since the 1980s is his affirmation of religious or spiritual energies as valid aspects of this everyday world. But it’s a critical spirituality that Erik affirms, equally skeptical of postmodern irony, dogmatic materialism and born again fervor, but at the same time open to the world as he finds it.
There is a tradition here that Erik is a part of, a tradition of religious dissent, independent, non-conformist, often hedonistic in orientation. Its most recent form is the great revelations of the 1960s, whose echoes and ripples were still everywhere in Erik’s 1970s SoCal childhood. From there, we go back to the older, weirder America, the DIY transcendentalists and Great Awakeners who persist in the margins and rooming-houses of the imagination, back to the vast history of vanquished seekers, the Ranters and other heretics of the English Revolution who crossed the Atlantic, the Albigensians and Anabaptists and other dissenters from Christian orthodoxy that haunt European history, right back to the gnostic sects of the Biblical era, trying to square Jesus with Epicurus and the Upanishads, and beyond that to the murky characters lurking at the very beginning of what is called history, who refused to get down with the priests of the Rig Veda or the founders of the state of Uruk. And that’s just in the Western lineage, which is only one small part of the history of what has gone on on this planet. A lot of unfinished business … which is why it persists and returns today.
Second definition of the gnostic situation: a flash of illumination that allows you to escape. But how do you do that? Erik’s interests are a catalog of the spaces and practices by which contemporary people have tried to trigger that flash that allows escape. They include: yoga, Buddhism, taoism and other Asian religious traditions; hermeticism, Neopaganism and other Western esoteric traditions; psychedelics, of both the old (LSD, shrooms) and new (DMT and MDMA) diaspora; theory, notably of the Deleuze and Guattari lineage, but including skirmishes with Zizek and anarcho-mystic Hakim Bey; pop and subcultural artefacts including zines, comix, fandoms; festival/party/pilgrimage scenes such as The Rainbow Gathering, the global outlaw rave scene that originated in Goa, and Burning Man, of which he is the most celebrated chronicler; the personal computer and the internet, and the proliferation of cultural forms around them including MUDs and MOOs; most of the interesting music scenes of the last twenty years from the Mekons’ post-punk, through the 90s alt diaspora, Goa trance and other electronic sounds, to the freak folk scene and enduring tricksters such as the Sun City Girls.
Did anybody actually escape through any of these means and forms? That’s a secret — you have to find out for yourself! But what makes Erik a writer in the heroic sense of the word is his ability to get on the bus and take the ride without a whole lot of delusions or Romanticism about achieved utopias. In fact, the problem of “failed transcendence” is not high on Erik’s list of priorities, and he can put up with all manner of goofy shtick if the result is a generous and progressive social situation – as in Burning Man for example. There’s a whole vocabulary of enjoyment that comes with this: “fun” of course, but also the “juicy”, the “tasty” and the “yummy” — moments where righteous vision is attained, usually through some kind of protocol or practice.
Erik’s work has an ambiguous relationship to the world of academia. A graduate of Yale during the heyday of literary theory, he gravitated instead towards a tai chi teacher he would visit after his Hegel and Nietzsche seminar who said to him: “PhDs don’t impress me, people who’ve confronted the void impress me!” The category of “the impressive” is a puzzling one to me — after all, there is no one to impress but the Gods in the zones where anything that really matters happens — but it’s an important one in Erik’s lexicon too, both in terms of what he’s attracted to and his own stance. I take it to refer to the importance of the gift economy to him, the generosity of attainment which serves as a vehicle of friendship, prestige and community. It recognizes the authority of practice over theory, event over system, action over word — with the twist that, as will all great writers, he still is drawn to write about this stuff!
Erik moved back to California in 1995 and has become a cultural archeologist of the region, uncovering scenes and characters including the alternative film and visual arts worlds of LA and San Francisco, figures like Wallace Berman and Jordan Belson, and the locations and histories described in his third book, The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape. Perhaps Erik’s solution to the gnostic dilemna–which as scholars such as Hans Jonas have noted, is one of existential homelessness–is to explore the groundless ground of what is called home, which for him means the state of California, and the various attempts to found intentional communities there, and to attain realization.
The title of this introduction is taken from a song on Sonic Youth’s remarkable record Daydream Nation, which came out around the time that I first met Erik. This record, which both of us love or have loved, is always associated in my mind with Erik. The sense on that record, of urgency struggling to make itself known in the face of an overwhelmingly deep, sluggish trance, a trance which the band is all too familiar with, reminds me of Erik’s work, as do the enormous surges of euphoric clarity, which do break through that trance, again and again.