A revival of weird thinking

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About a year ago, I started writing a series of posts I called “The Cold War Never Ended.” (Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). The title was a riff on Philip K. Dick’s line, “the Empire never ended,” which at the very beginning of the series I explained thusly:

After he got shot with a pink laser beam from space, Philip K. Dick realized that time was an illusion created by some malign force to blind us and keep us in bondage, and that we are living within a “black iron prison” of occlusion and unable to perceive the true nature of reality. Time had in fact ceased in 70 A.D., and everything that had transpired since was just an illusion. In fact, it was still some time in the first century of the Roman Empire. This is why Dick liked to say that “the Empire never ended.”*

“The Empire never ended” was useful as a starting-point for my own musings on what daily life feels like in the shadow of an apocalypse that might come anytime, or never. My point was that the most defining characteristic of the Cold War was not its peculiar geopolitical situation but what I called The Fear, a kind of parasite that lived for a while in the political/cultural/social form of the Cold War and then, shucking off the skin of its expired host, moved on to the post-9/11 era of terrorism and environmental catastrophe — or at least a threatened and everywhere-feared catastrophe, whose collective psychology replicates that of the Cold War.

I never really wrapped up this line of thought, though. After working through my idea, I wrote a post that summed up where I had gotten to and then pivoted off into a still-unfinished discussion of Sun Ra. What PKD and Sun Ra had in common was a style of daimonic thinking, a way of understanding complex dynamics of human history and culture as entities or intelligences, and that is exactly how I ended up characterizing The Fear: “an intelligence with its own malevolent will and designs, though not necessarily an intelligence like ours, or an intelligence we can readily understand. If we were in a occult frame of mind, we might call it a demon.”

I threw that out there and then let it alone, because before intellectual moderns can contemplate such notions there’s a lot of ground-clearing and stage-setting to do. At first blush it’s crazy to talk about demons. Everything I have written about magic since then (here are the previous installments: one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven) has tried to make a context within which this kind of thinking is maybe not so crazy after all, though it is still pretty weird, I admit. One thing at stake in this whole long series is the possibility of recuperating the idea of the daimonic for everyday life and perhaps for intellectual life as well.

The question everyone wants to ask (face it, this is what you’ve wanted to know all along) is, does magic work? Is it real? What is magic really? I love Alan Chapman’s response:

Below are the two most frequently asked questions about magick, with my answers.

Q: What is magick?

A: There isn’t a man, woman or child on this planet that does not know what magick is. Don’t ask silly questions.

Q: Does magick work?

A: No. [Alan Chapman, Advanced Magick for Beginners, 15.]

What I’ve asked is not “does magic work” but “is magic valid”? I have wanted to suggest that it is, not only as a subject of scholarly inquiry, but as a way of thinking about our scholarly practice itself. Chapman goes on to say that the only way readers can get an answer to either of his questions is through their own experience of magic. Such an experimental, dirt-under-the-fingernails approach to experience can be the basis for a practice of reading and writing by which we cultivate meaning in our lives — meaning that is radically individual, maybe, but that nevertheless, by some obscure alchemy, can open out into collective representation. For this kind of scholarly practice, I am not the authority. You are.

 

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This is one reason why Philip K. Dick is so important to me. Better than anyone else, Dick models precisely this kind of intellectual engagement.*

“The Empire never ended” was one of countless theories Dick entertained after he experienced a theophany, a direct revelation of God or at least of whatever strange realm it is gods come from. (I won’t recount it here, but R. Crumb’s comic “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick” tells the story very well.) This happened in 1974; PKD then spent his remaining eight years of life writing some eight thousand pages of homebrew philosophy he called his Exegesis, a sizable chunk of which was released a few years ago in a fine volume edited by Jonathan Lethem.

Most of the theories he developed in the Exegesis were as mad-sounding as “the Empire never ended.” I don’t think Dick was crazy, though. There’s a line between what conventional opinion holds to be sanity and insanity; delusional people have no idea where it is, but Dick always did. Throughout his novel Valis, a science-fictionalization of Dick’s own theophany that draws heavily from the Exegesis, Dick relentlessly satirizes his own crazy ideas. He even (in a characteristically meta way) makes fun of his own way of marking his thought’s precise degree of craziness, its exact co-ordinates w/r/t the boundaries between sanity and insanity. Dick writes, as the narrator of Valis, about his doppelganger, Horselover Fat: “What struck me was the oddity of a lunatic discounting his hallucinations in this sophisticated manner; Fat had intellectually dealt himself out of the game of madness while still enjoying its sights and sounds. In effect, he no longer claimed that what he experienced was actually there. Did this indicate he had begun to get better? Hardly.”

Here, Dick is considering the paradox of holding a strange opinion while fully knowing how strange and untenable it is — and yet holding it anyway. Which might prompt the question, what is “holding” an idea in this context? I would argue that the way Dick holds his ideas is much like the magician’s way of holding a seemingly impossible belief. He doesn’t believe them the way a devout Catholic believes in God; to use Ramsey Dukes’s useful gloss on belief, he digs his ideas:

It is because of  … the heavy associations which linger in the word [“belief”] that I have wondered about finding an alternative or replacement concept. Instead of “believing in” some idea, might we not “delight in” it? or “rejoice in” it? Or perhaps it is better to kidnap a dated phrase and say “instead of believing in ideas I am going to dig them.” So the answer to “do you really believe in spirits?” becomes “no, but I really dig them!” [Dukes, “Paroxysms of Magic,” in What I Did In My Holidays, 61-62.]

The Exegesis is a series of thought-experiments in digging the cosmos. It is a vast research project, grounded in astonishingly wide reading across many intellectual fields, whose sole subject is Dick himself. An outstanding blog post makes this point:

The first thing that must be made clear is that there is no single explanation from PKD to his mystical experiences. It is usually thought that he strongly believed very specific things like his pseudochristian visions, or that he believed literally all his visions on Rome and the current world and how they were both mixed up, etcetera. And the truth is the absolute opposite: the eight years that follow his mystical experience until he dies in 1982, PKD feverishly charts hypotheses to try to explain himself. It comes to a point in which he almost changes these hypotheses every day, with an inexhaustible imagination that could only belong to one of the most important science-fiction authors in the XX Century. One day he’ll argue that it all came from an alien intelligence which is able to live in four dimensions and who has penetrated our world. The next day he’ll argue that our universe is evolving so that a new intelligence form, one that is not a “god” who creates reality but sort of a “god” which is a consequence from reality’s development. One day he will use some christian dogma and adapt it to what he experienced and digress on how it would relate to the second coming on Christ, then some other day he will use gnosticism or eastern philosophies.

Something that must be highlighted here is that PKD isn’t taking a set of ideas he previously knew and trying to adjust his experience to them, like dogmatized (i.e. faith-religious) people do. He does exactly the opposite. He has had an experience he finds no way to explain, an experience for which he has no single point of reference. So, he uses everything he knows and everything he can find out and tries to extract from those sources anything that might say something about his experience and thus help him explain it. So, for example, the author’s christian background doesn’t condition his reasoning: instead it works like a resource he twists and exploits until he squeezes whatever he wants from it. Very often his interpretation of religious systems becomes so complicated that the results have nothing to do with the original set of ideas. If he needs a theory to tell him about ecstasy, he can pick the opposite extreme from christian suffering and end up concluding that the Dionysian is an initiatory hidden reverse that is the real core lesson of christianism. In a few words, the interesting thing here is that PKD has had such a deep experience that he tries to make the ideas from the world to work for the explaining of his experience, and not the opposite.

This seems to me to be a model for intellectual being-in-the-world. It is a mode of intellectual practice founded above all in experience, and in a willingness not to discount experience for the superstitions of the age. Experience becomes the ground for an endless process of imaginative exploration, and the work of thought becomes a creative act — the kind of thing that Graham Harman and JF Martel have called for — in PKD’s case, a creative act somewhere between philosophy and his fiction-writing.

Which makes me all the more pissed off when the half-educated children of a barbaric age presume to chuckle at PKD’s supposed insanity. He’s craaaaaaazy!!!

crazyBut he can’t be all bad, because his books did make a lot of money in the end, right?

Dumbasses. They’re not too smart, though they certainly believe in being smart. (“Brights,” forsooth.) When all you have is a hammer, all the world’s a nail: if your default worldview is a second-hand naturalism picked up from sophomore biology class, then all mental life is reduced to the brain, and everything you deem bad, wrong, or incomprehensible becomes “insanity.” It’s funny to see how the most rigidly scientistic thinkers, when confronted with people who disagree with them, can think of no epithet more damning than “insane.” If you make the mind your God, then mental disorder is your Devil. Where the devout of another age would blame strange ideas and actions on demons, the scientistic faithful invoke “temporal lobe epilepsy” to explain Dick’s experiences — a demon by another name.

Dick wasn’t crazy. He was weird, but that’s not the same thing. I am a big fan of weird: in fact, I think that weird can be the basis for a new and productive direction in thought, which is why I’ve been writing as I have throughout this past year. I think there is now a subtle but firm current of the weird in contemporary thought. If I wanted to give it the substance and heft of a movement, I could call it “the new weird thought” or something — only it’s the kind of thinking that by its nature is not about “movements” and isn’t about the modern game of being “the new” this or that, either. Let’s call it a revival of weird thinking and leave it at that. An efflorescence, if you like. We might count as its practitioners JF Martel, Eugene Thacker (whose In the Dust of This Planet I just realized, like two days ago, shares a lot of my own concerns in this series), Erik Davis, Jeffrey Kripal, Joshua Ramey, Douglas Rushkoff, Matt Cardin, Graham Harman, and others I’m forgetting or don’t know. This list could be extended quite a ways, especially if we include OGs like Dick, Deleuze, Robert Anton Wilson, Hakim Bey, and Ramsey Dukes.

All these writers are willing to play with notions of incommensurate and unspeakable realms, their daimonic inhabitants, and our elusive commerce with them. I don’t need to tell you that such ideas are dissonant with the values of our rationalistic age. But if there is anything that unites these weird thinkers, it is the way they allow this dissonance to remain unresolved. They hold ideas in much the same way PKD holds them — lightly. Their work generates its energy from dwelling in an in-between state.

Those readers who have hung on for this whole long series (thank you, by the way) might have wondered what I really believe. Do I really believe that the Cold War never ended because its motive force was a daimon that has made itself at home in the present day? Let’s say I hold that thought lightly. Let’s say that the value of the notion is in the practice of thinking it, in remaining indefinitely suspended in that space between skepticism and belief, the literal and the metaphoric. In this way, the scholar’s practice of reading and writing itself becomes a magical practice.

But who cares what I think. The only meaningful way you can decide if the Cold War daimon is real is by asking it. Or any daimon, for that matter.

Go on, ask it.

 

*The jazz composer John Benson Brooks does as well: his version of Dick’s Exegesis is his massive collection of notebooks, now held at the Rutgers Institute for Jazz Study archive. I write at length about Brooks and his decades-long notebook project in the last chapter of my book Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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