A colloquio con lo sciamano Erik Davis



di Adolfo Fattori


Erik Davis has completed his scholarly work for doctorate with a thesis on Philip K. Dick. His Essays appeared in Wired, Gnosis, Rolling Stones Magazines.
In Italien has published Techgnosis: myth, magic and mysticism in the age of information, translated by the Ipermedium- Naples in 2001.
In this enchanting and sophisticated essay, Davis explore the affinities and links between the traditional imaginary world relative to spooky and the contempory imaginary world.
from 1990 he lives in west coast of United States.
While his most recentrly book das published in U.S.A: "The Visionary state: a joourney through California's spiritual landscape"in collaboration with the photographer Michael Rauner, we asl him to illustrate his point of view about the disenchant of the world, his re-enchantment and the actual state of the sacred. *

Letīs start with a preliminary question: we Europeans perceive the words sacred and secolarization in a slightly different way from you Americans. Could you specify what are the most significant differences from your point of view?

There is an idea floating around that secularization is an inevitable aspect of modernization. This idea has become so well-established in part because it is so true of Europe, which over a handful of centuries went from a theocratic medieval mode to a profoundly secular society.

Today it is very rare to meet a professional European, let alone an intellectual or artistic sophisticate, who is religious or even particularly "spiritual." Even if you look at a successful German artist like Anselm Keifer, whose work deals with explicitly religious, esoteric, and mystical themes drawn from deep European sources, and you will discover these interests existing side by side with a very disenchanted view based on science and an existential sense of our senseless thrown-ness in the world.

This is simply not true in America, and not just in the "red states" where the conservative Christians live. The progressive, novelty-seeking, inventive side of American culture has always been tied up with religious and spiritual forces, sublimated or otherwise. I live
in California, which tells, in a sense, the opposite story as Europe.

The territory became a state in the middle of the nineteenth century, was unusually diverse and multicultural, was always marked by technological innovation, and was industrialized more quickly than most of the United States. So you would think it would be super-secular. But
itīs not. In fact, the opposite is true: as well as spawning some strong Christian movements, including Pentecostalism, California has played a huge role in the development of the New Age, of contemporary mysticism, of the translation of Eastern traditions into the West, of the pursuit of the sacred through the body. In California, as in Hollywood, disenchantment went hand in hand with reenchantment.

I suspect that Europeans have a more subtle, careful, and historically informed sense of where the sacred is. But that clarity is accompanied by a suspicion that the thing itself is gone, that the sacred is simply a ruin of culture or consciousness. In America, there is still the sense that the sacred is accessible-perhaps as another extension of consumerism. But it also has to do with the land, with the fact that, in contrast to Europe, there are still so many wild and open spaces here, at least relatively. So the role of the sacred in America can be more coarse and naïve but also, perhaps, more energized and alive.

As Kenneth Harvey seems to demonstrate in his `The town that forgot how to breathī the dominion of the sacred has always been inhabited by forces which could seem either reassuring or uncanny and frightening. Assuming that the sacred still survives, where can we find either the one or the other?

I agree that the sacred survives today, but it does so in a modern way, which has perhaps utterly transformed it. In previous eras, the sacred existed outside our individual experience, but I am not so sure about that anymore, except in a strictly anthropological sense. The
objectively sacred always belongs to the Other now. So the sacred today is discovered through feeling, through experience, through the fluctuating images and energies that inhabit the edges of the body and mind. This is why, for so many people, powerful "aesthetic" experiences
exist in a continuum with sacred or mystical experiences.

So the reassuring and bountiful and life-giving aspect of the sacred can be found in many places-in music, in mountains and rivers, in celebrations, in stillness, in holy places, in the play of love. Another route is through terror, or confusion, or the abject, the uncanny. In my own life I can sometimes see that on the worst days, I am still somehow closer to ultimate sources-which doesnīt make things any easier!

Because both of these routes to the sacred--the light and the dark--have power over people, they have also been tapped and commodified in various ways--perhaps "technologized" is an even better word. So our sacred often seems to lie in the vicinity of kitsch, of cheap tricks, of
naivete. And yet its call continues. Can you hear it? What else do you need? But now it arrives only like the unexpected guest; it cannot be compelled or depended upon. In this sense, the sacred is now more like grace or wonder - it loses resonance when it is too calculated. It
depends on us and the time as much as the place or the thing. One day a holy well in Cornwall can strike us as sacred; another day it is just a muddy hole surrounded by superstitious New Agers who need to get a life!

We believe that fantasy and science fiction have re-elaborated and recycled the magic and the supernatural. If you agree with this, what is, in your opinion, the reason for that?

Well the connections between fantasy and magic are pretty obvious: the fantasy genre emerges from the Gothic, and the Gothic is a romantic and haunted reaction to the progressive liberal spirit and rationalism of the Enlightenment. As such the Gothic attempted to reconnect, through images and stories and torrid emotions, with older forces, with the irrational, and the supernatural, and the explosively poetry of the uncanny. If you have an eye for continuity, as I do, then you can see the genreīs recycling of magic and the supernatural as an expression of
magic and the supernatural. It all depends on your perspective: where a modern view sees only the entertainments of our disenchanted era, another view-the "we have never been modern" view-sees in these pulp distractions fragments and sparks of much longer, deeper currents running through the human soul, the imagination.

SF is a more complex case--though it also grew from the Gothic, it often possesses a hard-edged secular edge that has no interest in magic or the supernatural. But even in that case, the fantastic possibilities themselves often seem to invoke older strata of the imagination-as when the cyberspace in William Gibsonīs Neuromancer trilogy fragments into the loa of Vodun, or Neil Stephensonīs information virus in Snowcrash derives from the earliest formations of religion as a memeplex. If you look at SF films, its also clear that special effects themselves are an extension of "magical technology." Throughout the modern world, when
humans invent a new perceptual technology, the first thing they often do is to conjure up banished ghosts and ghoulies! This is true for cinema, with Melies, or light shows, or computer graphics. It may look like entertainment, but the links between entertainment and the uncanny are deep-sometimes things are uncanny precisely because they are cheap, like a carnival.

We believe that in your Techgnosis you support the idea that the Network in its immateriality defers us to the sites of magic and to the first scientific theories. Can you clarify this relationship?

Look, itīs pretty clear that the human world is now radically redefining the divide between matter and the incorporeal. We are more aware than ever before that the natural world that we are embedded in is reaching the edge of its hard-wired limitations, and the constraints of matter represented by global warming or mass extinction or the finite supplies of water has the whole world in an anaconda squeeze of materiality.

At the same time, our supposedly "materialistic" civilization is dematerializing before our eyes, as money goes virtual, online gaming worlds explode, physical location dissolves into data points, the CD gives way to the MP3, and everything falls into the screen. It doesnīt matter that we are still dependent on electrons and power grids-the experience of culture, consciousness, and communication is increasingly disembodied and malleable. To my mind this means that older ways of understanding the relationship of mind and body perhaps have something to tell us, not in an ontological or scientific sense necessarily, but in an epistemological or practical sense: we are entering new worlds of mind, and who is to say that Kabbalah or Zen Jedi mind tricks are not useful metaphors and maps in this new world. And if the Transhumanists are right, and we are somehow able to shape and condition the new
circumstances afforded by the technologies of transformation, then the temptation to use older metaphors and concepts will be strong, because they can help orient us, speaking to many levels of our beings. They may be irrational, but they make sense.

Philip K. Dick is for sure the science fiction author that has better showed how the perception of the relationship between reality and illusion is weak. This makes us think of Castaneda and his research and experiences especially those described in his first books. Considering the proportions of the sacred in which his master Don Juan is plunged, is it possible to find a connection which links the sciamanic culture to the tardomodern dimension?

Absolutely. In some ways, the figure of the shaman is particularly accessible to the postmodern mindframe, even if-as we need to remember-this "shaman" is as much a figment of the Westīs anthropological imaginations as a real historical actor authentically tied to the old ways. Castaneda, of course, was making it up-at least on one level. So why does shamanism resonate with us? Partly because it does not operate in a moral world. It operates in a world of power, and moreover in a world that is not organized along traditional hierarchical dualisms about good and bad, light and dark. Itīs a jungle on the other side, a multiverse of spirits and realms. Itīs a networked, deal-making kind of place. Moreover this realm can be accessed through our own experience, though mind devices like plants or trance drumming.

A hallmark of modernity is the central role played by this sort of direct experience, and this emphasis on experience carries on into the postmodern by way of the emphasis on affect, on haptics, on sensation, only now freed from a coherent subject who experiences. But that is
precisely what happens in a shamanic context: the subject, the person, is dismantled in the translation into other dimensions of sensation, perception, image, and encounter. Perhaps shamanism is also such a resonant metaphor because shamanic cultures tended to be much more closely bound up with the energetic imagination of the earth than other mystical religions or spiritual paths. The great context now for all our questions, all our quests, is the shudderings of the earth. Shamanism is an invitation to reconnect, to plug our postmodern networks into the ancient networks of the planet. It will never be a perfect fit, but it is better than just building new forms of escapism and denial.

* Traduzione dell'introduzione dall'italiano all'inglese a cura di Gabriella Sedda