Empire at the End

Last night realized that I missed a golden opportunity in my last post—which began with the relationship/contrast between the delirium of the West and the imperial ecumenon as described by Deleuze and Guattari, and which ended at the weird of the 1970s—to mention Philip K. Dick and his time-scrambling suggestion that us (post)moderns are, in fact, living under the rule of ancient Rome. It nestles together perfectly: the weird 70s moment that I had in mind, a sort of aftershock to a long and turbulent history binding together not just fur trappers, gold prospectors and industrial capitalists, but wide-eyed religious pilgrims, social reformers, socialists and mystics, was the one sketched out by Erik Davis in his wonderful book High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies. Here, Davis takes up a series of figures—Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick—and unfolds their lives and encounters with ‘high strangeness’ in surprising and illuminating ways.

This book feels particularly apt in several different ways. On the one hand, contemporary pop modernist works like the third season of Twin Peaks (which Xenogoth has just taken up a bit in a great post) operates as both an exploration of late capitalist melancholy and nostalgia through the prism of the ‘postwestern’ and a playful engagement with the high weirdness that emerges repeatedly across American history. On the other hand, it forms an interesting counterpart to our own moment of cultural high strangeness: UFOs in the news, strange media events like Hellier and the forthcoming Penny Royal, the mass fascination with synchronicity generated by the popularity of Randonautica…

I’d like to hold off on this widespread diffusion highly weird for now and save it for future posts, and instead focus on PKD. What’s remarkable to me is that, while positioned at the limit-point of the geographical West (the Pacific Ocean) at the tail-end of the era that Fiedler was so acutely diagramming, he had a sudden vision of reality as, in the words of Davis, a “colossal cosmic illusion”. Present and deep past were folded together; the world of freedom, as Baudrillard was writing as the time, was a simulation, hiding from view the domination of Roman empire. Deleuze and Guattari described the flight to the West as the movement towards the planomenon, the plane of consistency, in contrast to the capture and overcode of ecumenon. If the ecumenon was at one time the term used for the seemingly universal reach of the Roman empire, then PKD’s vision seems to suggest, in a roundabout way, the point where the ecumenon (now manifesting via the ‘ecumenical machines’ of global capital) catches up.

A little background: PKD’s roots were in the very sorts of scenes that Fiedler, and late Deleuze and Guattari, were describing when they alluding to the underground orientation of the ‘the American way’. In the 1950s, he operated on the outskirts of the San Francisco poetry scene, which was closely related to the Beats. Via an apartment shared with some poets, he was introduced to a number of things reflective on the heady atmosphere of the time: Norbert Wiener’s books on cybernetics, the I Ching, theosophist channeling and its cousin, the surrealist technique of automatic writings.

All these things aid in cultivating the worldviews exposed by PKD and the literary experimentation that he undertook. It’s hard not to see Wiener’s cybernetics—and the later paranoia the scientist felt about what he had conjured up—in PKD’s juxtaposing of ‘androids’ and ‘humans’ (the two, for him, were ultimately interchangeable: the android belonged to a deterministic universe predicated on control by prediction, the human to randomness and rebellion. Each could become one another). The plot of his most famous alt-history work, The Man in the High Castle, was determined with the aid of the I Ching—while writing as a mode of experience for him was an experiment in automatism. “I am merely a conduit between myself and the typewriter”, he said. It’s interesting to compare this to Fisher’s description of his own writing process in (the now very appropriately-titled post on ‘psychedelic reason’):

Folks have asked me recently how I am able to write so much.

The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.

Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?

No. A strictly technical desciption of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.

It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.

The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.

Compounded by a prolonged period of amphetamine abuse—PKD was famously skeptical of the so-called merits of psychedelic drugs, something that sets him apart from other ‘psychonauts’ like Anton Wilson and McKenna—these influences perhaps set the stage for a series of mystical visions that took place at the end of the sixties and across the 1970s. The most infamous of these was incident involving the ‘fish sign’, the  ichthus—the Christian symbol for Christ developed during the 2nd century AD. As he recounted in a letter with Ursula K. Le Guin, he had a chance encounter, whilst recovering from oral surgery, with a woman with “black, black hair and large eyes very lovely and intense”. She wore a golden necklace, upon which dangled a small metal ichthus. Later that night, as he laid in bed, PKD found himself suddenly showered in a storm of golden images and symbols. The hallucination had a profound effect: the ‘fish sign’, he determined, had served as something of an activation signal that allowed him to pierce the veil of the cosmic simulation and to engagement directly with “the Spirit”.

In a later recounting of the story, the details shifted. The mystical experience is relocated to the happening upon the ichthus itself, with the activation taking place right as the woman brought her finger up to touch her necklace:

In that instant, as I stared at the gleaming fish sign and heard her words, I suddenly experienced what I later learned is called anamnesis—a Greek word meaning, literally, “loss of forgetfulness.” I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate with cryptic signs…
But, of much more importance, I remembered Jesus, who had just recently been with us, and had gone temporarily away, and would very soon return. My emotion was one of joy. We were secretly preparing to welcome Him back. It would not be long.

Thus was the origins of PKD’s notion that we were living under the ancient Roman ecumenon. He would write to Le Guin that “we are in Rome again, with the early Christians persecuted and fighting for freedom”. Elsewhere he would state that he was “back in the furtive Fish Sign days. Secret baptism and that stuff… I was a Christian but I had to hide it. Or they’d get”. All around him the sunny California landscape, the much-heralded and longed-for West, had become a “dreadful surreal reality… foglike and dangerous, with the subtle and terrible manifestations of evil rising up like rocks in the gloom”.

Davis rightfully ties this complicated folding of historical time back onto itself in terms of the ‘Messianic time’ described by Saint Paul and as analyzed by Agamben in The Time that Remains. Messianic time is the time that occurs between the Crucifixion and Resurrection and Parousia, the Second Coming. It is a time that is coming to its end (at the dawn of modernity, Martin Luther would believe that the Messianic time was compressing, speeding up as it approached apocalypse—making Luther something of the first Landian accelerationist). But as Agamben points out, Messianic time is not merely a time that is ending, but a time haunted by a particular presence, “a presence that is yet to come, and beyond the clutches of representation”. Kairos ruptures into Chronos, linear, measurable, sequential time, and thus undermines its capacity for representation. This means that in Messianic time, the time that it takes for time to end, ceases to be linear.

The importance of presence (Benjamin: “in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter”) also ties Messianic time directly to Fisher’s understanding of the weird: “the presence of that which does not belong”, at least to our interior perspective. When one talks of the ‘weird experience’—in moments of high strangeness, for example—what they are describing is the direct encounter with aberrant, which breaks down the usual order of things and the forms of representation in sequential space-time. And indeed, Vince Garton has linked Fisher’s weird to divine revelation and prophecy in the Jewish and Christian traditions:

The very fact of God’s intervention in the world is, in Mark Fisher’s sense of the term, weird… His presence, his activities, are the products of a radical freedom not of this world; pure act cannot be comprehended by this world, and certainly does not belong to it. The appearance of heaven to Ezekiel, its only direct unveiling until the book of the Apocalypse, is more than a match for any Lovecraft story, and how else can we understand the tesseractic unfolding of providence in this world as a whole? It is easy to see, from this perspective, that to be aware of an alien exterior to our perception is itself to sense God.

I’m not, of course, trying to place PKD in this prophetic tradition. His encounters with the ‘alien exterior’ are best filed under in the high strangeness folder. But it is worth noting the importance of the Christian character of his experiences. Davis suggests an affinity between PKD’s understanding of himself as a ‘secret Christian’ moving in shadows of the imperial state as being a counterculture expression—and I would suggest an affinity between this and the Christian socialism (which I discussed in my previous post and many others at this point) that spread across the American landscape between the late seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The millenarian character of many of these frontier-oriented movements was understood by their adherents as taking place within Messianic time: the time of the end of was at hand, and the flight to the wilderness was as much as an evasion of sinister forces as it was a rite of preparation.

So what was the nature of the Rome, both ancient and ultra-modern, that PKD saw looming behind the curtains of reality? For Davis, it is Nixonian America—and this is definitely by and large accurate. Here is where Fisher’s own writings on A Scanner Darkly, both PKD’s novel and Linklater’s film adaption, become pertinent. For Fisher, the subject the novel—a tale of amphetamine abuse, secret agents, schizophrenia and psychopharmocological management—is the “painfully drawn-out end of the Sixties – the collapse of psychedelic consciousness into sulphate psychosis”. It is the great come-down: for Fisher, PKD’s sacred substance of speed was the drug that best represented the High Fordist moment.

There is a sense in which – metonymically – speed was postwar, prepostmodern capital, not only because amphetamine gave users more time to consume, but because it induced their bodies into a becoming-capital. As they ingested speed, users transformed their own nervous systems into miniaturized version of capital’s boom and bust cycles. Like capital, speed, in itself, is nothing; ‘the great pretender, a charlatan that deceives the body into adjusting to heady heights of nervous activity by … altering its internal thermostat’, speed stimulates, but without bringing any new energy into the organism. Like speed, capital’s hype-dynamics appear to produce something from nothing. But the cost when it is called in – and it always is – is vast …

While being written across the 1970s, PKD cast the setting of A Scanner Darkly into the future setting of 1992, making it into something of a precautionary tale of the postmodern condition. If the events surrounding the ichthus necklace alerted PKD to the ‘Spirit’ that was obscured by imperial simulation-space, A Scanner Darkly shows a world where Rome has ultimately one. At one point into the book, the protagonist Fred/Bob Arctor finds himself—in language recalling PKD’s descriptions of a real-unreal, fog-shrouded California—falling into “murk”. Death looms up at even turn, taken up to a cosmological level: “The winter of spirit. Mors ontologica. When the spirit is dead”. Fisher takes these passages as signalling “Postmodernity as undeath… Reiteration without the possibility of innovation“…

The end of the river for Fred/Bob Arctor is the New Path clinic, was based on the X-Kalay experimental treatment center where PKD himself had spent time. This plugs A Scanner Darkly into the wider history of experimental treatment programs and quasi-New Age outfits that have been one of the darker legacies of 60s California (X-Kalay itself was inspired by the sinister Church of Synanon). For PKD, this tendency was a series of apparatuses for transforming the creative, free human into the easily-controlled android: the individual is flattened by being subjected to “conditioned-reflex machines”. In many respects, this is the logic of postmodern capitalism as a whole: the ‘culture industry’ and these handful of oddball cults, spiritual-rehab institutions and self-help outposts exact a deep, depersonalizing form of control that operates precisely through appeals to creative, free experience, and the formation of an authentic world.

Taken from the margins into the production and social relation in their totality, this marks the instrumentalization of the counterculture 1960s, this seemingly paradoxical formulation of control part is the baseline of the bid to create what Brian Holmes once described as the ‘flexible personality’. This personality is

an “ideal type,” revealing the intersection of social power with intimate moral dispositions and erotic drives… The word “flexible” alludes directly to the current economic system, with its casual labor contracts, its just-in-time production, its informational products and its absolute dependence on virtual currency circulating in the financial sphere. But it also refers to an entire set of very positive images, spontaneity, creativity, cooperativity, mobility, peer relations, appreciation of difference, openness to present experience.

The configuration of the flexible personality is a new form of social control, in which culture has an important role to play. It is a distorted form of the artistic revolt against authoritarianism and standardization: a set of practices and techniques for “constituting, defining, organizing and instrumentalizing” the revolutionary energies which emerged in the Western societies in the 1960s, and which for a time seemed capable of transforming social relations.

To loop back to the starting point, isn’t this the very image of capitalism—the reign of the worldwide ecumenical machine—that Deleuze and Guattari were trying to draw out near the end of A Thousand Plateaus?

…it is as though human alienation through surplus labor were replaced by a generalized “machinic enslavement,” such that one may furnish surplus-value without doing any work (children, the retired, the unemployed, television viewers, etc.). Not only does the user as such tend to become an employee, but capitalism operates less on a quantity of labor than by a complex qualitative process bringing into play modes of transportation, urban models, the media, the entertainment industries, ways of perceiving and feeling—every semiotic system.


2 thoughts on “Empire at the End

  1. it may at least be the same genre of paranoid delusion/wish if one equates platformed capitalisms with mass-media, in some lefty circles (especially in EU) they dream of Universal Interoperability as a kind of pinko/anti-monopoly deus ex machina reminds me of some of the utopian fantasies around developing a Universal Language.
    Something sort of steampunk about Google flying balloons over Africa so lots of odd spooky timeloops at work in the ether, the cult of Ananke has many tendrils…

    Liked by 1 person

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