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Weekend Other World


My long-awaited book, North: The Rise and Fall of the Polar Cosmos, is in the final stages of preparation for the printers. It’s due out near the end of this year, published by the fantastic Strange Attractor Press. The website will be launched soon. It’s all happening.

I’ll be doing at least a few talks to coincide with the launch of the book, and first in line is Weekend Other World, an exciting event put together by English Heretic.

English Heretic and Exploring The Extraordinary present ‘Weekend Other World’. An evening and day of kaleidoscopic discussions, screenings, and performances at the intersection of film, fiction, music, anthropology, cosmology and occultism.

Friday 24th October – Apiary Studios Hackney
Electricity and Nature, Megalithic Drone, 21st Century occult rock Performances by: Teleplasmiste * Matthew Shaw * English Heretic

Saturday 25th October – Cinema Museum, Kennington
We gather some of the finest researchers, curators and artists in the fields of extraordinary experience and outre culture to look at music, film and fiction from magical, cosmological and anthropological perspectives. Weekend Other World attempts to define a rigorous yet creative approach, cross-pollinating various disciplines to breed new genres of research, artistic expression and cultural theory,

Dr James Riley * Will Fowler * Dr Hannah Gilbert * Lisa Cradduck & Adelle Stripe * Gyrus * The Quietus * Unearthing Forgotten Horrors * Evie Salmon * Jack Hunter * Andy Sharp

Followed by a screening of the 16mm print of Derek Jarman’s In The Shadow Of The Sun

I’ll be talking about the films The Thing and The Truman Show, using them to inspect the strange post-Copernican mutations of archaic cosmological motifs.

More details and tickets over at the English Heretic website.

Hugh Brody at the October Gallery

hugh brody

Next up at the October Gallery in London, on Tuesday October 29th, we’ve got the anthropologist and filmmaker Hugh Brody. He’ll be discussing his 40-year career studying, living with, and fighting for hunter-gatherer peoples such as the Inuit and the Kalahari Bushmen.

Anyone curious about Hugh’s work can check out his brilliant book The Other Side of Eden and the Tracks Across the Sand DVD.

I’ve you’re on Facebook, please join the event to give us an idea of numbers (you may need to join the Ecology, Cosmos & Consciousness group first). The event will start at 6pm, and tickets will be on the door for £7 (£5 concessions).

Hope to see you there!

Lucumi talk at the October Gallery

Daniela de Armas

This autumn, the founder and host of the Ecology, Cosmos & Consciousness lecture series, David Luke, is on sabbatical in the wilds of Wales. He’s passed the baton on to yours truly to bring you some stimulating Tuesday evening salons at the October Gallery in London.

First up, next Tuesday 24th September, is Daniela de Armas, a London-based Priestess of Ochun in the Lucumi tradition, and director of the London Lucumi Choir. Lucumi (also known as Santeria or La Regla de Ocha) is a syncretic religion of West African and Cuban origin, influenced by and mixed with Catholicism. Daniela will talk about how her stroll along the Lucumi path connected her to God, Nature, and Spirit, and hopes to dispel some myths about this tradition. She particularly wants to look talk about how this religion can be important in connecting with Spirit in an urban environment, and how balance, good character, and a relationship to ancestors are central to the philosophy of Lucumi.

If you can RSVP on the event page on Facebook, we can better anticipate numbers (you’ll have to request to join the Ecology, Cosmos & Consciousness group first). But you can just turn up if you want—all tickets on the door. It’s £7, £5 concessions. Arrive 6pm for a 6:30pm start.

There’s two other lectures lines up. On 29th October we’re lucky to have renowned anthropologist and film-maker Hugh Brody, author of the brilliant The Other Side of Eden and director of Tracks Across the Sand, talking about his life working with hunter-gatherer cultures. And on 26th November we’re equally lucky to have artist and musician Amodali, formerly of pagan industrial band Mother Destruction, introducing some of the themes from her forthcoming book The Marks of Teth, which documents 25 years of research and practice within the sphere of female initiatory magical formulas and praxis.

Hope to see you there!

Photo of Daniela by Nadjib Le Fleurier; peacock feathers image, CC licensed by Rose Mendoza

Tracks Across the Sand

Tracks across the Sand DVD cover

I just finished watching a remarkable DVD from anthropologist / filmmaker Hugh Brody. Tracks Across the Sand follows the progress of a land claim made by ‡Khomani San people, hunter-gatherers indigenous to the Kalahari Desert, who were driven into destitute exile in townships by European colonists.

I first encountered Hugh Brody’s work recently in the form of his marvellous book The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. It chronicles his experiences among Canadian Inuit communities, and is one of the most intelligent and sensitive examinations of what was lost in the transition between foraging and agriculture that I’ve read. It lacks both naivety and cynicism—a rare achievement in writing about precivilized cultures. The dominant theme is that of place. Paradoxically, it is us “sedentary” farmers who have, in the long run, been the rootless wanderers lacking deep connection to place; and it is the nomadic hunters who, in fact, come to bond with a particular region intimately, engendering an interweaving of nature and culture that is unique.

Brody was involved, in the ’70s, in helping some Inuit reclaim lost territories, by mapping the recollections of elders who could remember the time before they were exiled from their native lands. When Brody ended up in South Africa in the late ’90s, to learn about the famed San “click” languages, he happened to meet Nigel Crawhall, a sociolinguist who was doing research in support of a land claim recently initiated by a group of ‡Khomani San. Brody became involved in the claim and the efforts to map the people’s ancestral connection to the land. Being a filmmaker, naturally he brought along his camera.

Rather than cut a regular-length documentary from the 130+ hours of footage, Brody decided to release this DVD, which features themed segments and interviews that run to around 4.5 hours. It’s worth watching every minute.

Especially moving is the discovery, during research for the land claim, of old women who still speak the presumed-dead Nǀuu language. One woman is found, then three sisters. They are played recordings from the ’30s, and understand them perfectly. As they are being interviewed, watched by curious children, they remark that this is probably the first time their grandchildren have heard them speak Nǀuu. By the end of the process, they are spending time teaching the apparently enthused kids. They’re realistic about the slim role that the language will play in their cultural future. But merely seeing this incredible thread of ancient culture, almost severed, in the process of potentially re-spinning itself, is an astonishing thing to have captured on film.

The film doesn’t shy away from the huge problems faced by the San. Even after the claim’s success, the people relocated back to their ancestral lands face battles with alcohol and violence. But in their willingness to forgive the wrongs visited upon them by European colonists, and their pragmatism and canniness in the face of the unavoidable modern world, there’s much hope for the future. And their unreserved joy at being back in the places that form part of their being is a delight to be aware of.

The DVD can be purchased for around $40 from Face to Face Media.

Here’s the trailer:

Climbing Ben Nevis for Survival International

On 1st June 2013 I’m doing the 11-mile trek up Ben Nevis to raise money for Survival International. Survival is the only organization working worldwide for tribal people’s land rights and human rights.

I’ve been writing about indigenous cultures for a while now, exploring their spiritual beliefs and myths, and more recently examining the current debates about violence in indigenous societies and in pre-agricultural history. My forthcoming book expands on this research. I’ve decided to do something to more direct to support the ever-threatened rights of tribal peoples.

In the current economic climate, naturally everyone’s being squeezed. And while naturally I support the fight for greater equality in developed countries, I can’t help feeling that those at the very bottom of the scale of our modern vision of “progress” are going to be squeezed the most—and deserve extra support. Even as the supposed pinnacle of this scale, our own capitalist economies, teeter and founder, and continue to damage the environment, we try to convince ourselves that people who still sustain their lives through simple technologies and small-scale living are “primitive” and unworthy. At best, they should be folded into the modern world. I think they, like all peoples, should retain their self-determination. Survival deserve more support in helping them do this, in the face of unstable but still arrogant modern power.

If you can please help by sponsoring me via my Virgin Money Giving page. Every little helps, and you can donate any time up to a month after the event (the deadline is 30th June).

Thank you!

Douglas Rushkoff talks to Dennis McKenna

A great bout of intellectual riffing. Around 1:04 there’s some clarification from Dennis about the issues raised in this post. But the rest is worth a listen, too.

UPDATE: Seems the SoundCloud one’s dead for now. Check the C-Realm.

Survival International slams Jared Diamond’s new book

I haven’t read Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday. I’ve enjoyed his other work, and this one seems interesting. I read Wade Davis’ recent book The Wayfinders. I’m so immersed in more in-depth works looking at tribal and foraging cultures that such accessible, popular fare isn’t quite juicy enough to really galvanize me. But Davis is a good writer, and it’s naturally heartening that there are more popular books flying the flag for indigenous people. On this level, while I’m not sure when or if I’ll get round to Diamond’s book, I’m glad it exists.

However, I just came across an article by Survival International director Stephen Corry that describes much of the book as “dangerous nonsense”.

There are two related points on which Corry takes Diamond to task. Firstly, the extent to which contemporary indigenous cultures can be take as representative of the world before farming. Secondly, the thorny debate, recently given life by Steven Pinker, about who is the most violent: pre-civilized tribes or the modern industrial world? I deal with both of these issues in my book War & the Noble Savage. Assuming Corry isn’t misrepresenting Diamond’s work, I have to concur with much of his critique.

For me, the bottom line is that both of these issues are extremely complex. I wonder to what extent the subtle (or not-so-subtle) demands that writing for a mass market place on the level to which you can present truly complex debates have shaped Diamond’s position. The problem is, Corry’s position—having to counter such simplifications at a level which will have as broad an impact as possible on the book’s probable readership—also lends itself to simplification, and an ongoing polarization that seems inevitable, but worth calling out where possible. Actually, Corry’s article does pretty well to represent complexity, by constantly raising questions.

Further than that, I wonder if “bottom line” is the best expression for the undoubted role of irreducible complexity in these debates. Maybe “rule of thumb” is better? Because even though things are complex, often the evidence—if you examine it closely, and are forced to come down on one side or the other—points in the opposite direction to Diamond, Pinker, and other mass-market authors who are, perhaps unwittingly, resurrecting old myths about “savages”. I can’t in good intellectual or moral conscience merely object to these people by shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Well, it’s complex.” They are feeding destructive cultural prejudices that are wrecking lives on an ongoing basis, and this is all based on questionable scholarship.

My upcoming book touches on some of these issues related to contemporary indigenous people, and archaic foragers. I don’t quite agree with Corry’s implication that we might be able to learn nothing about our remote ancestors from living pre-agricultural people, and I do try to make use of inferences from anthropology into deep history (in this book, mostly to do with issues around cosmology and egalitarianism, as opposed to the issue of violence that I dealt with in War & the Noble Savage). And while I’m aware that my position as an armchair anthropologist involves certain dangers of generalization, this issue with Diamond’s book reminds me that fieldwork has its own pitfalls. Diamond’s fieldwork has been for the most part a deep involvement in New Guinea. I learned from my research into tribal violence that this region has been at least semi-agricultural for quite a while, leading to inter-tribal dynamics that involve quite a lot of conflict—conflict that bears little relation to the dynamics of hunter-gatherers. While it has to be stressed—lest we invoke the ‘Noble Savage’ straw man that is the prime weapon of people arguing that people living without states are excessively violent—that all humans are violent to some degree, this kind of indigenous cultural complex cannot be taken as representative of anything in our past before around 12,000 years ago. Corry says Diamond’s book’s dust jacket says that “tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years”. If Diamond really is taking semi-agricultural people like those in New Guinea as representative of our lineage going back long before the advent of Homo sapiens, then his closeness to that region seems like a severe problem. Of course tribes in New Guinea deserve respect and autonomy like any other people. But in contributing to the West’s grand narrative about human history, Diamond should be casting his net much wider.

Enough. Judgements on books you’ve not read are dubious, even based on reliable reviews. I’ll be revisiting a lot of these issues, not only in my upcoming book, but also in blog posts on the book’s website that will accompany the book’s launch, and elaborate on the many issues it raises. No doubt I’ll write something updating my views in War & the Noble Savage—hopefully I’ll have read Diamond’s book by then, to pass better-grounded comment. Until then, if you have read or are going to read it yourself, do read Corry’s piece for some crucial balance.

Exploring the Abyss

After the last post, a reminder of Terence McKenna’s floor-wiping verbal magic. I think this is the earliest talk of his I’ve heard, 1982—and it certainly bears out Bruce Damer’s impression that McKenna as a speaker arrived “fully formed” in the public eye.

Terence McKenna’s strange duplicity

Note: Please read this comment first as a caveat. See also Dennis’ clarification around 1:04 in this fascinating talk with Douglas Rushkoff.

Terence McKenna by turance

Now that we’re shot of the “2012 phenomenon”, it seems to be a ripe time for reassessing the legacy of Terence McKenna. Just as significant as the non-arrival of the eschaton seems to be the public revelation that at the end of the ’80s, Terence experienced a mushroom trip that terrified him with a vision of absolute meaninglessness. Apparently he never took mushrooms again—and only took ayahuasca and DMT from that point on infrequently and with extreme trepidation. This has emerged from his brother Dennis’ recent book The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, and has gained wider attention via a podcast from the Psychedelic Salon.

In this podcast Bruce Damer takes the odd fact that Terence’s terminal brain tumour was in fact mushroom-shaped, and pairs it with his emotional opening-up as he approached death—his realization that all his cerebral shenanigans were as nothing next to the overwhelming importance of love. Damer sees Terence’s horrific final trip, and avoidance of his beloved plant teacher during his final decade, as symptoms of his inability to process a shift in his psychedelic voyages from tours of alien futurity to painful confrontations with the knots and voids in his emotional self. The tumour, and his death, thus become the teacher’s reluctantly bestowed “shock treatment”—a last resort to open the heart. I think that, like the Timewave predictions for 2012, this is a too-neat story that belies the messy mysteries of reality. But like the 2012 prophecies—which besides being wrong, were also a symptomatic truth about our intensely precarious global industrial culture—Damer’s perception contains something worth taking note of.

Of course, the fact that all through the ’90s—the peak of Terence’s career as an advocate of psychedelics, especially mushrooms, and especially “heroic doses” in silent darkness—he was living in fearful abstinence raises even more serious questions about his integrity than the complex debate around how much he really believed in his Timewave’s predictions. Dennis’ account seems to paint a quite tragic picture of his brother being increasingly trapped in the public persona he had created, splitting him between what the audience had come to expect and the realities of his own lived experience. It’s a phenomenon as old as public performance itself.

I myself never accepted Terence’s invitation to embark on the “heroic dose” path. I was fascinated with his claims that for him, LSD had quickly taught him all he needed to know about the humdrum Freudian byways of the personal unconscious, but that mushrooms and DMT had unveiled a kind of trans-therapeutic doorway into the shamanic otherworld of collective psychotopography. However, fears and neuroses always made the opening of this doorway seem to be a rash move for myself, and I remained engaged with lighter doses and therapeutic approaches. I still always wondered if the disdain with which McKenna, and some other bold psychonauts, regarded efforts to resolve personality conflicts was quite as simple a matter as they publicly claimed.

I certainly got caught up in “McKenna fever” in the ’90s, and while after a few years’ pondering the Timewave I became quite cynical about 2012, the passing of 2012 itself has felt like the shedding of a too-old skin. There is bemusement at my youthful naivety, and a freshness about facing a future without some ridiculous prophecy ahead. Still, I wonder how much my being forced to remain engaged with humdrum personal psychic issues contributed to me failing to wholly buy into McKenna’s rap. (My memory is that I lost interest in 2012 before 2000—my journal Towards 2012 was named partly as an attempt to see past as well as engage with pre-millennial fever. Nevertheless, a friend recalls me telling him in 2001 that I was still convinced something crazy was going to happen in 2012, which I don’t remember saying at all. But then, apparently this was late at night in a club. Maybe 9/11 paranoia was kicking in, too…)

In any case, over the years the awe with which I regarded people who brought back tales of this otherworld beyond the petty knots of neurosis has been tempered and seriously complexified. I have seen friends who have assaulted their psychic boundaries with staggering quantities of psychedelics achieve personal breakthroughs only through a reluctant embrace of conventional psychotherapy. I have observed that even after an adult life of dedicated psychedelic and magical practice, no one seems to escape serious ongoing struggles with personal complexes. Many people find a good-enough niche in life and remain untroubled by the thornier parts of the psyche—or at least, receive the mixed blessing of remaining untroubled-enough to be able to ignore them. I recall reading of the psychedelic pioneer Joe Vivian (a.k.a. D.M. Turner) who, after many years of plumbing hallucinogenic spaces undreamed of even by seasoned trippers, felt he only began opening his heart up after joining a Wicca coven—shortly before accidentally drowning in his bath on ketamine. All this has underlined the fact that while psychedelics are indeed astonishingly important tools, they are no magic bullet. Intent is crucial, and the startling nature of their effects can blind some people to the quieter lacunae in their souls.

To learn that McKenna, too, failed to achieve the escape velocity that his wildest trips promised, and remained up to his final release caught in the unconscious eddies of the troubled human heart, comes in many ways as no surprise, then. Perhaps the news comes with a certain charge for me, given the symbolic value that—for all my protestations of cynicism—McKenna’s image has accrued in my mind. It is a little sad to think of him trapped in his public image during that time I was so inspired by his ideas. But in the end, it seems clear that he did himself and his “mission” a disservice by refusing to discuss his bad trip, and his abstention from mushrooms, in public. No doubt the experience was tangled together with unbearably painful, irreducibly private matters, and I would never criticize anyone for refraining from bearing this kind of material in public. But McKenna was, if nothing else, a supremely competent orator, and I find it hard to believe he could not have omitted what was intolerable—or inexpressible—while still contributing the bare bones of his experience to the public discourse that he so powerfully generated. To not realize that incorporating this kind of experience into the discourse would only have deepened and strengthened it seems to be a genuine failing.

But Terence has passed on, and we remain here, still bound to the unaccountable life of the mortal heart. Make no mistake, I still hold him as a truly important thinker. Even as the Timewave settles into its place as a historical curiosity, some of his other ideas—such as the importance of drugs in shaping cultural history, and the fractal nature of the historical process—are becoming potent currency in academia (see On Deep History and the Brain and Deep History respectively). As scientifically-tinged intellectual poetry, his talks will remain provocative classics. And despite his failings, and his cerebral biases, it must be noted that he repeatedly championed the importance of emotionally open relationships and simple appreciation of the love and wonder present in every moment.

His final lesson, though, seems to be a cautionary note: Never underestimate the blindness of which we are capable—especially in the face of the captivating weirdness of transpersonal voyages, and the image we project to others—when it comes to the mysteries of our own hearts.

Postcard from J.G. Ballard

In 1993 I moved to Leeds and quickly hit on the idea of starting a zine documenting and exploring dreams. I thought the title of J.G. Ballard’s wonderful The Unlimited Dream Company would be ideal. Slightly naive about publishing law and etiquette, and probably looking for a little approval from an idol, I decided to give Ballard a call and ask if he’d be OK with it. Having no landline, I went out and phoned directory enquiries from a phone box.

“I’m trying to get in touch with a friend, and I’ve lost their details,” I lied. “The name’s Ballard, and they live in Shepperton—if you have a look and if there’s only one that’s probably them.” I don’t think they were supposed to, but they gave me the number, which I called straight away.

“Is that J.G. Ballard?” I asked. “Yes,” came the clipped, confident accent. “The writer J.G. Ballard?” I asked, a little dumbstruck. He was very courteous and when I told him about my zine and asked for his address to send him a copy, he complied.

He sent me a nice postcard saying he was too busy to contribute but I was fine to use the title. (Contribute! To a completely unknown photocopied A5 cut-and-paste zine! I like the ambition that my naivety gave me.)

I was just watching some documentaries on the late author, and remembering how intensely inspiring he was and is. I thought I’d scan and post that postcard. It’s beautiful to have little physical mementos like this. Ten years later and this exchange may well have been an email—a nothing.


“Many thanks for your letter & all the best with your magazine but I’m afraid pressures of work are too great for me to be able to contribute. You’re welcome to use Unlimited Dream Co – there’s no copyright in titles.

Best wishes

JG Ballard”

The postcard image is the Longhua Buddhist Temple in Shanghai, which features in Empire of the Sun, being used by the Japanese as a flak cannon tower.