All Because of a Couple of Magicians

Twenty-first century subjects of capitalist modernity and whatever postmodern condition lies beyond it have up to Now imagined themselves trapped in the world of imperial science. The world as seen through the telescopes and microscopes parodied by the Empress in Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World. That optical illusion became our world-picture or world-scene — our cognitive map — did it not? Globe Theatre projected outward as world-stage became Spaceship Earth, a Whole Earth purchasable through a stock exchange.

Next thing we know, we’re here.

Forms from dreamland awaken into matter.

Cosmic Coincidence Control Center

CCCC is an agency encountered or imagined by legendary scientist-psychonaut John Lilly. The latter claimed the group reached out to him in the early to mid 1970s through its local affiliate, the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO, while Lilly was studying dolphins and conducting experiments involving combinations of LSD, ketamine, and sensory deprivation tanks at his marine research lab, the Communications Research Institute, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Erik Davis writes of Lilly’s odd experiences from this period in his book High Weirdness. Lilly wanted to communicate with dolphins, and Margaret Mead’s ex-husband Gregory Bateson assisted with funding. Lilly writes of his encounter with ECCO in his 1978 memoir The Scientist. His ideas informed the 1973 science fiction thriller The Day of the Dolphin starting George C. Scott, as well as the 1992 Sega Genesis videogame Ecco the Dolphin. Lilly also served as the basis for Dr. Edward Jessup, the mad professor character in the 1980 film Altered States. My sense of him follows a trajectory the exact opposite of Jessup’s: Lilly was a villain of sorts only in his early years. His research of the 1950s, funded by the military, was what we might call “MK-Ultra”-adjacent. Despicable acts like sticking wires into the brains of monkeys in the name of science. Yet Lilly rebelled, acquired a conscience, became a free radical of sorts. With commencement of his self-experimentation with psychedelics, Lilly transforms, becomes a rabbit hole of immense strangeness from the 1960s onward. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog promoted Lilly’s books, especially Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. A 1972 paperback edition of the latter features Brand calling it “The best internal guidebook I’ve ever seen—far more practical and generalized than transcendent Eastern writings or wishful Underground notes….It makes an open start on fresh language and powerful technique for the frontier.” By the latter, Brand means what? Some sort of moving boundary or threshold state, I guess, where through self-experiment with tools, subjects grow new organs.

Under the Dome

Camping: a play starring mother, sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephews, aunts and uncles, Sarah and Frankie. Air mattress craps out, so Sarah drives into town to purchase another. I stay behind at the camp, in a camp chair beside Frankie as she naps. Sister orders pizza; brother-in-law and uncle handle boat and jet-ski. Domed tents go up amid leafy profusion: Coleman, Ozark Trail. ‘Tis the universe of Sears-Roebuck, L.L. Bean, and Whole Earth Catalog: temporary tools and architectures. But beside each tent sits a car, where in earlier times would have stood a horse. Nothing here is as I wish. No wisdom, no gnosis. No silence, no solace. No love ’til I sit with trees. Is the time travel narrative’s hero the one who stays or the one who goes?

Tuesday June 22, 2021

Let this book of ours be a joyous one. Let the writing of it happen in the manner of a dance song or dream. Find in it an occasion to read Gurney Norman’s Divine Right’s Trip, a “novel of the counterculture” serialized in (and thus functioning as a paratext to) The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Leary, Di Prima, Huxley, Olson, Ginsberg, Kesey, Baraka, Sanders: all have their places, all have their roles in this tale we are about to tell. Words written on behalf of Utopia. ‘Twas a time when the not-yet was still possible, and that time is now.

Sunday May 16, 2021

With end of semester nearing (another day or so of grading and that’ll be that), I acquire tools and prepare for summer. Gardeners needn’t be “tool freaks” like the Whole Earthers — but they do need tools. Garden tools: “objects of both practicality and great beauty,” as Derek Jarman notes. Shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows: these are all “means of production.” Tools both for planting flowers and vegetables and for removing grasses and weeds. Frankie digs beside us as we work. With help from Sarah’s parents, we replant beds around the base of the house. The work we do now opens new avenues of thought, new spaces of possibility featuring rocks and stones. Before I know it, I find myself in the know again about Sakuteiki, the oldest published Japanese text on garden-making, written in the mid-to-late 11th century, when the placing of stones was gardening’s essence.

Monday November 2, 2020

“It’s All Gardening,” says Stewart Brand in his book Whole Earth Discipline. What about the Green New Deal? And what about Gary Snyder’s “Call of the Wild”? There must be room for all of these. Community gardens, community farms. Households communicating and exchanging in networks of mutual aid. Brand married an Ottawa Indian mathematician named Lois Jennings. He joined the Native American Church, consumed peyote with them in ceremony at Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico in the 1960s. Brand describes the ceremony in Whole Earth Discipline, acknowledging that it affords no more than a tiny glimpse of Native American culture. Along the way he quotes Gary Snyder. “There is something to be learned from the native American people about where we are,” the poet wrote. “It can’t be learned from anybody else.” What Brand advocates is “reinhabitation” of Turtle Island. Attention to and immersion in a locale. This is an idea he draws from Snyder, who writes, “we are all finally ‘inhabitory’ on this one small blue-green planet.” To which Brand replies, “might as well get good at it.” Somewhere in the Whole Earth Catalog is a conversation between Snyder, Brand, Ken Kesey, and Paul Hawken. I’m curious to know Snyder’s thoughts on Brand, as the latter remains for me a villain of sorts — not least due to his support for nuclear power. Snyder of course scolded him for that. The two are among the handful of signatories of the “Declaration of Interdependence,” a document unveiled at a press conference at Berkeley in September 1969.

Friday February 14, 2020

Work load plus baby care plus seeking a home plus preparation for an interview and a job talk: it’s a lot. What is our dream home? Pool? Garden? Zendō? A base from which to launch on walks and dérives? A place into which one grows as a family. Space for growth. As I said: it’s a lot. All the same, I leave time in the evening for a walk beneath the stars. What will this house of ours look like? Will we know it when we see it? I have a large collection of books and records. The organizational models proposed by hippie moderns were loose and spontaneous — experience a kind of free play amid minimal “scripting.” The “tool freaks,” however, featured in the pages of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, focused instead on “personal computing” and videogaming, programming scaled to the person. The neoliberal order instantiated by these technologies decollectivized the body politic, reducing users to “islands in the net,” connected only by media mail and money. The housing market seems a bit like a game one must play once encircled by the system, ensnared in its webs of debt. Time to watch or at least save for later a six-part BBC series based on Brand’s book How Buildings Learn. Unless time is a thing better spent reading and sleeping — and it is, it is. There is a house out there that is right for us. Let us wait and walk and see.

Thursday January 16, 2020

I situate myself amid circles of relatives and kin. Friends and family shower Sarah, F. and I with gifts. Each day is lovely. I wish to give back, give thanks. How do I do that properly in light of settler-colonialism? What happens, too, when we view postal systems in that light? Let our view take into its account Thomas Pynchon’s approach to these matters — but also the idea of mail systems as prehistories of the Internet. Wasn’t the Pony Express an arm of the settler state? What happens when texts replace letters as units of exchange? How do we remove or subtract from these relations guns, money, and oil — the tools, in the Whole Earth sense, at the core of the settler toolkit? Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand produced a multimedia slide show which he performed called “America Needs Indians.” His wife at the time was a Chippewa woman named Lois Jennings. How did the commune movement that Brand and Jennings catered to with their Whole Earth Truck Store negotiate its relationship to the settler-colonialist project? Were they attempting an alliance with Native people, or did they think of themselves as cowboys, as in Ant Farm’s Cowboy Nomad Manifesto? For Ant Farm, though, the cowboy was distinct from the settler. The cowboy “carried all his life support systems with him being restricted by what his vehicle (horse) could carry.” Something of the same can be said for the hero of Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger. Missing from that figuration of the cowboy, however, is his relation to land. Does the cowboy’s migrancy, his refusal to settle down, absolve him of complicity with the settler-colonialist project? By “migrancy,” I mean his life “on the road,” as Kerouac put it — the latter’s Dean Moriarty character nothing if not a cowboy. Poet Gary Snyder described Moriarty as an embodiment of “the energy of the archetypal west, the energy of the frontier, still coming down. Cassady is the cowboy crashing” (as quoted in Ann Charters’s “Introduction” to On the Road, p. xxix). The hippie counterculture at its best, however, was more than just a collection of “cowboy nomads.” It fashioned itself into a Woodstock Nation, a coming together, a global village, a gathering of the tribes.

Saturday August 31, 2019

Now that students have submitted written responses, my days feel crowded with text, words greeting me everywhere I look. Friends entertained Sarah and I last night by suggesting outlandish names for our daughter. Other friends from Chicago sent a beautiful art book modeled upon the Whole Earth Catalog (a publication about which I’ve written at great length, in many ways dear to my heart, expressive of my utopian and eupsychian ambitions), designed by one of their students. Unbuckled is the mail. I walk the neighborhood during magic hour, photographing spider flowers and clematis.

Monday August 5, 2019

Tools remain for me things that make me a bit wary. They trouble categories. They implement will. When we use them (as, in our current state, we must), we invoke them, we grant them a daemonic energy. It’s like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia. Marx envisioned something similar seventy years earlier with his famous image of the dancing table from the chapter on the commodity-form in Capital. Questions arise for me, then, any time I encounter “Access to Tools,” a saying that appears on covers of the Whole Earth Catalog. The script runs as follows: If capital’s mythic origin was a magical act, a medieval summoning of a Moloch-like entity, might magic have something to say about how to counteract that act so as to save the planet? Or is magic itself the problem, its alchemical experiments—its rituals, its instruments, its techniques—already in some sense a disruption of oikos, a breaking of cosmic rules, leading inevitably toward Solid State scientific manipulation of matter and consciousness? Were the Whole Earth Catalogs and the various other guidebooks of the 1960s and 1970s a bunch of counterculture spellbooks, part of an entheogenic revival of magic, and thus occult in their own right? I say, if we’re going to allow that the cosmos is magical, then let’s be dialectical about it. Let’s assume that we ourselves contain both active and passive roles. This is part of what was meant by the perennial teaching, “AS ABOVE, SO BELOW.” We, too, are made of stardust. Let’s assume, then, that we, too, are magical. That’s the sense, I think, in which Stewart Brand was right: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” This seems a far more optimistic and hopeful approach than the passive defeatism of the left-melancholic path. I’ve explored the latter path; the paralyzing guilt it induces can be just as dangerous, just as apocalyptic as the instrumentalism it shuns, amounting in practice to little more than a sad-faced laissez-faire shoulder-shrug. Wands, crystals, Tarot cards, spellbooks, all of the various anthropotechnic implements of magic as a Craft: these are to be tested through practice, in service of the Good.