What is “Technocratic Shamanism”?

It strikes me that, before I get into the potential redemptive factor in the Anthropocene, I need to explain what Algis Mikunas means by “technocratic shamanism”. The term appears in an essay called “Magic and Technological Culture” contained in the book Consciousness and Culture: An Introduction to the Thought of Jean Gebser.

If we understand the Anthropocene in Jacques Ellul’s terms as “the ensemble” of all technique, “technocratic shamanism” would be the mode of administration of that ensemble or of the Anthropocene in general. It’s not coincidental that “perception is reality” has also become a fundamental metaphysical pillar of the Anthropocene as well, and that technocratic shamanism concerns itself with “perception management”. It is also connected, too, with Arthur C. Clarke’s remark that “any sufficiently advanced technology becomes indistinguishable from magic”, and that, of course, underlies the not only Mikunas’s essay, but also books like Technology as Magic: The Triumph of the Irrational, or The Enchantments of Technology, among others.

In broad terms, Mikunas describes shamanism as the ability to turn one thing into another thing, as, say, lead into gold (or gold into lead) as was the apparent ambition of certain alchemists. But it is more the case here that Mikunas is referring to the manipulation of perception, or an old illusionists and con-man’s trick called “direction by indirection”. An example of technocratic shamanism might be “the spin doctor”, and the opportunities for this have risen practically exponentially with the issue of virtual reality, “deep fakes” , and so on, and with the various enhanced possibilities of the instruments of propaganda or related technologies of social administration or manipulation, or indeed of “owning” consciousness, perception, and imagination.

This was made quite evidently manifest in the scandals surrounding Strategic Communications Ltd and Cambridge Analytica. And there are, of course, various ongoing arguments about whether it was really all that effective. But it seems quite evident to me that things like Rolf Jensen’s “Dream Society” could only be effectively administered by Mikunas’s “technocratic shamans” — men like Aldous Huxley’s “Mustafa Mond” in his Brave New World. Or, for that matter, “the Great and Powerful Oz”.

Gebser, for example, argues in The Ever-Present Origin that magic or “sorcery” is effective under some conditions and not effective under other conditions. It is not effective with a relatively highly developed individuated consciousness but is very effective with group consciousness or what we call “groupthink” or a kind of neo-tribalism, at least of the kind that Jensen anticipates in his “Dream Society” (which seems to liken the shopping spree to the return of the hunter-gatherer, and where “tribes” are organised around brands as totems or icons). The Anthropocene does, in many respects, represent this re-collectivisation of consciousness, something that Marshall McLuhan also anticipated in his various writings. It’s one of the things that usually bowls us over about “authoritarian populism”.  Just as almost everything else in the Anthropocene is artificial and synthetic, so are such “brand communities”. And, of course, one of the great successes of technocratic shamanism is to make the artificial and synthetic appear “natural” — the “genuine imitation”.

(It was, in fact, one of the ambitions of certain alchemists of their day to create an artificial human being, too — a homunculus. This has returned as the robot “Sophia” or as “sex robots” illustrating what Gebser wrote about the close association of the magical and the mental-rational, and the potential for their mutual corruption. That’s the meaning of Mikunas’s synthesis of the “shaman” and “the technocrat” respectively. Such an unholy synthesis can only be counter-balanced by a corresponding regard for the mythical and the archaic. It’s that equilibrium that makes for “integral consciousness”. It’s this same “technocratic shamanism” that is described in Gary Lachman’s recent book Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump.

These two axial relations — magic and the mental-rational on the one hand, or the archaic and the mythical on the other — correspond to the issues of “Having” and “Being” respectively, and the tension that often exists between these two orientations.

“Direction by indirection” is quite central to the techniques of the technocratic shaman (as well as the con-man), and this is otherwise referred to as “deflection” or “diversion”, and this can become quite sophisticated. For example, advertising doesn’t really advertise promote physical products for sale, but subtle ideals of the perfect life, which is the ostensible “subliminal” or background message. The actual foregrounded product or brand is really only there as an essential ingredient or prop for this ideal life. That, of course, raises the evident question — where do we get our notions of this perfect or ideal life? That might even be considered the chief question that Nietzsche asked, and tried to answer.

And this issue of Having or Being is what Blake also addressed in his “manifesto” of sorts, There is NO Natural Religion, where he wrote “More! More! is the cry of the mistaken Soul. Less than All cannot satisfy Man”.

The “return of the repressed”, therefore, is a highly paradoxical and ambiguous matter which cannot be properly assessed in moral terms. Technocratic shamanism is one of its aberrant manifestations because still one-sided in terms of the pursuit of power and “having” or domination. But whether it can also withstand the pressure of other, more “spiritual” forces also arising with the return of the repressed is something of an open question at the moment.

6 responses to “What is “Technocratic Shamanism”?”

    • Scott Preston says :

      BTW, and just as a matter of interest, the German’\s have a very expressive term for this — a Teufelskreis. A Teufelskreis translates literally as a “Devils circle” or “Devils circuit”. Otherwise what we call in english “vicious circle”.

      This Teufelskreis blows to smithereens all nonsensical talk about the “virtuous circle” that one typically finds in economic literature.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Let’s look at the shocking implications of what the Washington Post has described here: that the Trump Administration’s own internal documents and reviews a) admit that climate change is happening and b) it is anthropogenic and c) it is very likely to lead to at least 4 C degree warming by end of the century and d) since there’s nothing we can do about it, let’s take the world for all its got right now, cause, really, we won’t be around to face the music anyway.

      In other words, global catastrophe is inevitable, so let’s take while the takin’s good, and we’ll just help make for the Greatest, the Best, the Hoogest Catastrophe ever. Or maybe they just believe that “God” will intervene to prevent it from happening, like the possessed serial killer who dares law-enforcement to “stop me before I kill again”. Just like Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll who actually kills himself in order to stop “Mr. Hyde”.

      Think of the implications of that, if you dare. How close are we to actually WANTING the Day of Judgement to fall upon us? Or is it, well, God is Dead and we are a meaningless accidental speck of nothing in the vast expanse of the Great Nothing, a transient phenomenon anyway, so that our passing out of existence — also a nothing?

      Nietzsche foresaw that too — a self-loathing; a dangerously suicidal self-loathing, a kind of “suicide by cop” writ large.

  1. Scott Preston says :

    When I think of the term “technocratic shamanism”, what comes immediately to mind is a line from a Rolling Stones song — “practiced in the arts of deception”.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    An interesting development. We’ll see what comes of it. But I still can’t help but think that much of this is simply ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room — climate change.


    • Dwig says :

      Perhaps the more immediate “gotcha” for all current web technology is its insatiable appetite for electric power. For the kind of massive data, instant response applications that are in use now or in development, like Berners-Lee’s brainchild, the impending increase in the cost (and declining availability) of energy, whether driven by fossil fuels or renewables, will make it harder, and eventually impossible, to use them. (Not to mention bringing to a messy end the currently dominant economic systems that are predicated on perpetual exponential growth.)

      A potentially useful alternative would be the use of the old radio ham network, combined with local computers (but probably not “smartphones”), to create apps that are designed to deal with slow and intermittent data transmission. The ham networks are still being maintained in many localities as a useful tool to respond to natural and man-made disasters, by providing a “lightweight”, resilient communication medium to help deal with the aftermath. If you’re interested, look up ARRL — the American Radio Relay League, among others.

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