You can listen to or download the interview at Disinfo. Here are some of the points Ellis made:
In Transmet Ellis was more interested in the effects of celebrity on Thompson.
Celebrity had a corrosive effect on Thompson. Although he became more well known, he was portrayed as a cartoon character and that resulted in him being defanged and not taken seriously.
Because Thompson’s work is so seductively well written, it can actually be a bad influence on writers who try to imitate his style.
The point of drawing on 60s and 70s politics in Transmet was to show how little things had changed in the 90s and 00s when Ellis was writing it, and how unlikely it was that things would change substantially in the future.
I love Thompson’s work but think he can be a bad influence on writers and journalists who wind up writing crappy prose in an attempt to be edgy and play it fast and loose with the facts to be “gonzo.” And because of his image and style, his message was often lost. Too many people remember him as a character.
These aren’t Authonomy-esque, publish-and-be-encouraged-by-fellow-writers sorts of sites, though, or even collections of self-published novels. The websites host what is being dubbed “freemium” publishing. Publishing Perspectives has more details: a growing number of self-publishing websites host thousands of free-to-read web serials – anything from historical epics to sci-fi – posted by their authors. As a serial gathers critical mass, the author is invited to become a “VIP”, and readers have to pay for the new instalments – only a few yuan, but these micropayments from readers can number in the millions: China Daily reports that one author, the 26-year-old Huang Wei, makes more than more than Y1m a year (£100,000).
Erik Davis has been covering fringe spiritual movements, underground music and subcultures for magazines like Wired, Arthur and Spin for the past two decades. He’s probably best known for books his books TechGnosis and Visionary State. He’s currently a contributor to several publications, including Reality Sandwich and HiLobrow. His web site is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.
Erik’s latest book, Nomad Codes, is a collection of several of his articles and essays. It can be purchased from its publisher YETI or from Amazon. I talked with Erik about the new book, the changing American spiritual landscape, and why he’s now pursuing academia.
Klint Finley: Over the last few years, while writing the essays that comprise this book, have you seen any significant shift in American spirituality? Has much changed since the publication of TekGnosis?
Erik Davis: Spirituality is always changing, because “spirituality” itself is almost defined by its informality, at least in contrast to those more organized movements we call “religion.” And even religions are always changing. Since the 1990s, there have been some intriguing developments, some cool, some odd.
One has been the extraordinary popularity of yoga, and what makes yoga particularly interesting is that it bridges between spirituality and a purely secular world of exercise and keeping fit. People don’t go to yoga for gurus like they did in the 70s — it’s about the “practice.” That shows some healthy pragmatism in some ways, but it also represents how easily spirituality gets commodified in America. I mean, yoga is pretty cheap when you boil it down–you on a mat on a floor. And yet it has become a whole industry.
Yeah, the brouhaha over Bikram yoga really exemplifies that.
Then there’s the 2012 thing, which has really grown tremendously, right on schedule. I have been tracking that for years, a combination of archaic dreaming and very contemporary apocalypticism. I knew some folks in British Columbia that all decided to adopt the 13 moon calendar for a while, and they lived their lives partly in that alternate calendrical frame. Pretty outside stuff! Then a year ago, my sister, who is not a freak by any stretch of the imagination, started talking about 2012 and what it meant. That represents quite a shift. Even Christian fundamentalists are talking 2012 these days. Everyone on the bandwagon!
Where does the title of the book, Nomad Codes, come from?
For me the phrase Nomad Codes really captures something about the 1990s culture that really influenced me and most of the writing in the book, even the later stuff. In some ways, we never leave our home-base cultural framework. In the early 1990s, there was a tremendous sense of novelty and possibility–the Internet was opening up, electronic music, a revived psychedelic culture, even “Twin Peaks” on the TV seemed to confirm that reality itself was warping. That sense of warp was captured by the figure of the nomad–slipping beyond the established narratives and institutions, not trying to root himself anywhere, flowing between the cracks. But all this stuff was happening in the context of an exploding media and particularly digital culture. So codes were, and are, everywhere. The world we perceive is partly dependent on our codes–not just our ethical codes, but the codes of perception and experience we use to program our engagement with reality.
Do you have a favorite story from the book? One that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s a number of pieces that come out of really amazing trips and explorations I’ve one on. “Sampling Paradise” was about going to Goa in India in 1994 to hunt down the origins of raves; it was just when Psy-Trance was starting to leak into the west, and I went to some amazing parties. But the craziest time was my visit to Burma, which I write about at length. At the end of the piece, I am drunkenly dancing with a cute transvestite spirit-medium whose gaudy outfit was stuffed with currency. My wife was there at the time and she found it all hilarious.
I don’t have a copy of the book yet, so I don’t know if “Technopagans” and/or “Songs in the Key of F12” are included, but I wanted to tell you that those two article were formative for me.
Well thanks. They both nearly made the cut, but not quite. “Technopagans” was too long, and a little dated, and some of the ideas were repeated elsewhere. And not a lot of the music writing made it in, other than a profile of Sun City Girls and a long piece on Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe I should have given more thought to “Songs” though! That was a fun time to write about electronic music. I am curious though: how did they influence you?
I read “Technopagans” in 2000 just as I was starting to learn about chaos magic, and the way the article related it to tech culture kind of gave me the push I needed to jump in and start doing it.
I read “Songs in the Key of F12” around the time it came out, and it planted the seeds that eventually lead me to become a laptop musician myself – though it was years after reading it. I guess, like “Technopagans,” it told me “This is something YOU can do.”
That’s great. That’s why I love writing about subcultures: I get drawn toward things I want or attract me, and then I try to communicate the attraction and the appeal, even if I don’t end up becoming a chaos magician or a laptop musician myself.
Here’s a question someone on Twitter just asked me to ask you: Have you faced any challenges as an independent scholar outside the university system?
Well its funny you should ask. I have faced some challenges, and the unfortunate fact is that, in terms of getting paid, the challenges have only gotten larger the more established in my career I have become. I came of age as a writer at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to live off interesting magazine work–I got paid for the Goa piece by Details magazine, all expense paid trip and a good fee, even though they never ran the story. That world is gone, at least for someone with my interests, which have only gotten farther off the beaten track as far as the “mainstream” goes. Which is why I have decided to cross the great divide and enter the academy. I am at a religious studies program at Rice that specializes in magic, mysticism, and the esoteric tradition. I still like to think of myself as an independent scholar though, cause I am just doing what I want to do!
In a round-table on the impact of the Internet on writing, you said “I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” Since then, Slate has reportedly found long-form pieces on its site to be the among the most popular. Have you seen any shift back towards a demand for longer form work?
Well that’s wonderful news. I have certainly gotten great reactions from the half-dozen longish-form pieces I have written for HiLobrow this last year or so. They werent super-long, but they were dense and careful and reflective. I think the interest for this kind of stuff probably never went away but the editors and the people designing magazine and online templates went for the short stuff. I will be a happy camper if the pendulum swings back.
What are your favorite publications, print or otherwise?
Online I rove; I rarely return to the same place as if it were a magazine. Print is more conducive to a regular relationship, in my experience. I love Fortean Times, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a subscription. Marvels and Wonders every issue. Coming to school I kind of went on a magazine diet though, so I am not reading the journals I normally do, from the annoying/enjoyable New Yorker to the occasional issues of Plazm. My parents just got me a subscription to The Economist, which is great because I don’t usually read that much news online, so it keeps me more “current”–whatever that means. But I like it because they write intelligently about this insane, totally fucked up world and somehow manage to seem chipper about it all.
And what’s next for you? Are you working on another full-length popular audience book, or are you completely focused on academia now?
I have always written some stuff that had an academic twist–I’ve hard articles in almost half a dozen university press books. So I will be emphasizing that side of the equation while still doing as much online and magazine work as possible. I’ve also been doing the Expanding Mind net radio show on the Progressive Radio Network for a year and a half, and will continue to do that. It’s great because I have to push myself to discover new and interesting people–or to remember all the interesting people who have crossed my path, and bring ’em on and find out what they’re doing now. I love that conversational style. I am also working on an collection of Philip K. Dick’s writings from the Exegesis which is really fun.
In Henry Baum’s novels Golden Calf and North of Sunset he explored the American religion that is Hollywood. His latest novel, The American Book of the Dead, delves into religion more directly – specifically apocalyptic Christianity and New Age ufology. It’s likeThe Stand as written by Philip K. Dick. You can buy the book here or download a free copy here. Henry’s now serializing the sequel online here. He took the time to talk to me about music, writing and fundamentalism.
Klint Finley: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a musician. I’m actually listening to your soundtrack to The American Book of the Dead for the first time right now, in fact. I’m wondering if you see yourself as more of a writer or as more as a musician, or whether you make that distinction.
Henry Baum: I started as a musician – age nine, guitar lessons. My dad was a fiction writer growing up (now a playwright). So in high school, the way for me to rebel against my parents was in a way to be anti-writing. So I was in punk bands and such. Played in indie rock bands in New York City. My own songwriting was always on the backburner. I always thought of myself as a drummer and fiction writer first, rather than a songwriter. Now, though, I’ve got a copy of Logic and can record any way I want, so I’ve been working on this whole backlog of songs I’ve had through the years. But still…I find fiction writing more satisfying for some reason. I love writing and playing music, but it’s not the thing I wake up thinking about, even if I’ve been playing music a lot longer than writing fiction. It’s less in my bloodstream, maybe.
How long have you been writing? What made you decide to start after avoiding it for all those years?
In college I lost that teenage rebellion and realized I was fighting the inevitable. I started working on a novel and realized how much I liked it. The novel wasn’t so great, but I at least found that I enjoyed the process. So I’ve been writing since I was 18 – which means, 20 years. Damn. The American Book of the Dead is my sixth novel, though I’ve published three. The first two were practice. One ripping off Richard Yates, who I was once obsessed with. The other trying to be a twenty-something Charles Bukowski. I’ve excised everything that was readable from those two novels and put together two short stories – i.e. 20 readable pages out of hundreds.
You’re serializing a sequel to American Book of the Dead right now, so I take it you think serializing the other novel online was a success? Do you have the novels written ahead of time and then release them piece by piece online, or do you write them as you go?
I actually abandoned serializing the novel almost as soon it was started. I put it up on Blogspot and soon realized I wasn’t ready for it. The site’s still live but what’s there is basically half of the introduction. Instead, I started posting a blog called “God’s Wife” which was part one of a completed novel I wrote about a porn star who joins a religious cult. I posted the porn part – it’s first person, female, and I posted it as if it was being written by a real porn star. People bought it. It makes me sound like a James Frey type, but this was in 2004 – blogs and Blogspot were new, and it was a literary experiment. Some people were pissed when they found out, some were supportive. Now, many years later, I’m ready to start posting something online as it’s written, which I’m trying to make a part of the story – but it’s also kind of terrifying because it doesn’t give me as much time to get used to something before publishing it.
How much of both books is autobiographical? Have parents at your daughter’s school really confronted you about ABOTD?
Ha, no – that’s totally a projection of my worst worry, as was the chapter in the first novel – about a father discovering his daughter doing porn online. Basically, that confrontation is one I’m having with myself. I’m torn about writing this whole sequence because at some point my daughter’s going to be reading what I wrote. It’s an honest fear though, and something many fathers out there are dealing with, so my self-judgment isn’t totally overwhelming.
I’ve only read the introduction and first chapter of the sequel, but so far it’s much more personal, while the first one is more, I guess, universal. Is that why you decided to do a sequel? To work out more personal rather than universal issues?
A little bit. The first novel is about me in the year 2020, so it’s purely a fantasy about what I could be. Whereas Part II covers this time period. Eventually though it gets pretty far out – and revisits the 2020 character. Part II is going to be much more about the UFO issue: what first contact could do to the world’s psyche. How the world’s psyche could be prepared for that “awakening.” The first novel’s more about far right fundamentalism and the damage that can cause. I always intended it to be three parts, but the autobiographical writers are the ones who appeal to me most – Kerouac, Bukowski, Philip K. Dick’s Valis books. So it’s nice to be writing about who I actually am in real time.
That’s interesting, because yours is one of the few “writers writing about being writers” novels that I actually like – along w/ Dick’s stuff, though it’s not as expressly about writing. I couldn’t make it through Ask the Dust for that reason. Records about how much the recording industry sucks annoy me too.
Wow, thank you for that. I like Fante. To be honest, I’m not sure I need to read Post Office or On the Road ever again. They’ve been formative, but that period’s over. I absolutely love Philip K. Dick’s Valis books because they mix the totally far out with autobiography. I recently read Anne Dick’s memoir (and interviewed her) and it’s pretty remarkable how autobiographical ALL his novels are, which is why he appeals to me more than other science fiction writers. I read Jonathan Lethem recently say that Dick is continuing the legacy of Kerouac more than Asimov. So that’s what I’m attempting to do. Emphasis on the word “attempt.”
Do you have a particular process or ritual for writing?
I pretty much write in an insane trance for three months at a time and then have long spells where I don’t write at all – recovering from the trance. That’s why music’s been helpful to me. On my fiction writing downtime, I often dive back into recording. It’s rare when I go full-on with both at once.
How much do you buy the fringe ideas that have influenced the American Book of the Dead novels? For example, do you really think the world is in need of a mass die-off to curb over population?
It’s a disturbing concept and one I’m still exploring. I look at the recent mosque controversy and wonder, for instance, what would happen if there was UFO disclosure. If people think Obama’s a socialist Hitler terrorist now, they might be turned into David Ickean conspiracy theorists at that point – he’s a reptilian. There’s just so much volatility that seems like it could end in violence. People are crazy – how do we introduce new radical ideas into the culture if a centrist like Obama is seen as a radical? I’m not advocating genocide of any kind – but metaphorically at least, many different types of thought need to die, especially different aspects of fundamentalism. And now it seems fundamentalism is getting a louder and louder voice in the mainstream. It’s like the culture is primed to create mass conflict. So while it’s not something I desire, it does seem inevitable.
It can suck to be prescient sometimes, huh? You started the novel, what, 8 yeas ago? Those seemed like dark times then, but fundamentalist rhetoric just seems to be getting worse and worse.
Sarah Palin didn’t even exist when I started this book. I was fearing the Bush/Cheney cabal and what they were capable. Sarah Palin makes Bush look like, I don’t know, Bill Clinton.
Speaking of Clinton – you’re a little older than me so you might remember this period a bit more clearly than me – was the right so apocalyptic during the early years of Clinton’s presidency? Some elements certainly were, it seems like, reading those old Ron Paul Survival Report issues that were published online during the presidential primary.
And those seem to fit my very young memory of Clinton’s early years – I lived in rural Texas then, but I was only 11, I think, when Clinton was elected.
The far right’s always existed. But 9-11 really blew a hole in people’s last shred of rationality. The vitriol then seemed to be aimed at Hillary Clinton. But post 9-11, post electing a person named Barack Obama, and people have totally lost it. I mean, 9-11 blew a hole open in how I look at the world as well – it was then I started looking at conspiracies, UFOs, mysticism, and everything else that went into this book. I asked, as many people did, What the fuck is going on?
You’ve said that you write because you hope you can change people’s thinking. If you could change society’s thinking in just one way, what would that be?
Whoa, big one. The main thread here I think is the problem of fundamentalism. First two novels I wrote were about Hollywood – which I see as another religion, with the same kind of blind worship. I also mentioned porn up there. Though sexual taboos are a problem, being overly devoted and thinking sex is the only thing that matters isn’t the alternative. Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are next in line. I just posted a piece on Reality Sandwich which expressed the possibility of skepticism about 9-11 truth, and people were PISSED. Frankly, I don’t think this kind of true believerism makes any more sense for the fringe than it does for Sarah Palin devotees. So, short answer, the thing I think needs to go away is: blind devotion.
As most elementary school kids know the letters of the alphabet are the building blocks used to construct tiny words, big words, made up words; with a dash of punctuation entire sentences can be built from letters making up short articles like this one or filling up volumes to create massive epic narratives or turgid philosophical treatises. Yet like the atoms that make up our universe the letters of the alphabet contain within them subatomic particles and secret histories. Peter Lamborn Wilson has done a remarkable service in teasing out the ghosts trapped within the Roman letters by tracing them back to more arcane iconographies, all the while giving a reminder that when writing originated it was considered a magical art, and one closely allied with statecraft. While those two functions have not disappeared they have been (deliberately) obscured as the symbols transformed over time.
Many years ago a friend made one of the most perceptive comments I have ever heard about Russian writers. “Yeah,” he said, “they’re profound and all that. But they’re also incredibly hard. I mean, there’s Pushkin: died in a duel. Lermontov: died in a duel. Tolstoy: fought in the Caucasus. Dostoevsky: sentenced to death, exiled to a Siberian prison camp. Solzhenitsyn: fought in the second world war, sent to the Gulag, survived cancer, defied the USSR …”
“Don’t forget Griboyedov,” I added. “Torn to pieces by angry Persians after he tried to save an Armenian eunuch. And Varlam Shalamov: Seventeen years in the Gulag.”
“Yeah – and what have English authors done? Dickens? Who did he fight?”
This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.
No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.
The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.
Dent goes on to explain point by point, chunk by chunk, what must go into a marketable pulp story. I don’t know if this formula would still be effective today, but I suspect it could still be of some use to genre writers.
Thanks to Trevor for telling me about this a couple years ago, at one of the very first PDX0 meetups. I only just decided to find it today.