Aliens are us: cosmic liminality, remixticism, and alienation in psytrance.

Author:John, Graham St.
Position:Essay
 
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Introduction

We journey from ignorance to knowledge. Growth reflects the advancement of the species. The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery. (1) In popular culture, outer space is suffused with cosmic liminality. It is a perilous realm potentiating gothic terror or gnostic awakening. This article explores how extraterrestrial space, and its imagined inhabitants, became a source of illumination within a stream of popular and alternative music evolving since the 1960s--and indeed since televised images of NASA astronauts operating in weightless conditions, orbiting the Earth, and traversing the moon were transmitted into family living rooms. It offers insight on the creative remix of popular culture in contemporary spiritual life as evidenced within electronic dance music culture (EDMC), and specifically psychedelic trance (or psytrance), a transnational visionary arts and dance culture suffused with the audiovisual tropes of space travel, UFO sightings, and alien contact. Sampled from film, television series, documentaries, computer games, NASA radio dialogue, and other popular cultural sources, it is argued that, in psytrance, space travel is a narrative device for inner travail, the avatar's quest, the hero's journey. In off-planetary and intergalactic narratives programmed into a definitively "progressive" music, psytrance would find in the figure of the discovered alien other--through sightings, encounters, abductions, and so on--the potential for the discovery of the self. (2) The liminal ambiance of outer space and the accompanying figure of the alien are deployed within this music and in its event-culture to orchestrate that which is considered highly desirable under the reflexive pressures of late modernity: self-awakening and empowerment.

In its benevolent guise at least, the iconic popular fiction of the extraterrestrial "alien" has become hitched to a meta-project of the self. As such, the alien is a device whose sampling and redeployment within the context of psyculture is consistent with the modern perception that "truth" is mediated, and authorized, primarily through personal experience (Heelas 1996; Partridge 1999; James 2010). While the meta-narrative of the alien is deployed within pathways that recognize the epistemological value of divinity independent of faith and institutional religion, this study departs from the majority of sociologies of New Age religion or "spiritualities of life," since they typically overlook the role of "entheogens" (i.e., psychoactive compounds held to awaken the divine within) related to the processes considered here (see Ott 1995; Strassman et al. 2008). As an approach to the grafting of extraterrestrials and space travel to cultural practices of self-realization and entheogenesis, this study of alienation also departs radically from standard preoccupations with alienation in modern sociology where this term refers to "the distancing of people from experiencing a crystallized totality both in the social world and in the self (Kalekin-Fishman 1998, 6). Far from designating estrangement from wellbeing, alienation, as it is used here, more properly identifies a transpersonal process assisted by the figure of the benevolent alien appropriated from science fiction and, furthermore, allegorizing contact with universal, or mystical, consciousness. While this study seeks to join contemporary discussions about the role of popular culture in religion and spirituality, about the growing significance of psychoactive compounds in contemporary spiritual practices, and contributes to existing research on the religious dimensions of EDMCs (St John 2004, 2006, 2013a), it is more directly a contribution to the study of the role of the remix in alternative spiritual pursuits, which given the compositional character of late modern identities, affords insight on the nature of contemporary spiritual life.

The article derives from the ongoing study of what I call remixticism, where a desirable experience of universal connectedness relies upon cut ups and disassembly, where the experience of "unity" and the sublime derives from destruction and breakdowns. This is a process integral to psytrance and its related genres, which are part of a cultural movement whose participants fashion identity from a cornucopia of occult, esoteric, and popular resources using an assemblage of digital, cyber, and chemical technologies through which music, media content, and pharmacologies are sampled. Cobbling together worldviews with the assistance of audio material ripped from the worldwide datasphere, psychedelic trance draws its technical influences from surrealism and Dada as much as from New Age "seekers" (Sutcliffe 2000), Beats such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Discordian groups such as the Temple of Psychic Youth (see Kirby 2012), and other psychedelic culture heroes such as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, (3) among whom sampledelic technics have been embraced as means of creating new sounds, worlds, and selves from disparate un/popular cultural resources.

At the same time, psychedelic trance takes its cues from a "cosmic" music tradition. Since the cosmic rock, krautrock, and cosmic jazz of the 1960s, in visual and sonic media, the journey in space has been among the chief resources appropriated and remixed as a means of facilitating utopian objectives, as well as echoing and inducing transpersonal states of consciousness (see St John 2013b). In this tradition, a "cosmic consciousness" that commentators have averred is a universal human heritage that has been forgotten or from which humanity has grown apart (4) is facilitated via the "psychedelic" technics of producers who fashion themselves as "engineers" of a progressive, revitalized, or evolved consciousness. Remixing science fiction and other narratives to facilitate liminal experience and spiritual purpose articulated in cosmic trance music and events, the producer-DJ is the principal exponent of the remixtical artifice. In music programming and in the techniques of DJing, electronic musicians reuse existing recordings to compose new works. As remixologists, producers appropriate vocal samples from popular cultural sources consisting of fleeting, heavily edited sound bites, entire film scripts condensed into a few lines programmed into audio recordings ("tracks") and, using performance techniques, conveyed seamlessly to habitues in those principal locales of reception: the dance floors of clubs, parties, and festivals. These repurposed and edited fragments are what I refer to as "nanomedia," of which this article provides many examples. Within cosmic trance, the mystical and potentially empowering effect of these remediations enhanced by the optimal atmosphere of the party itself offers further insight on alienation.

Psytrance, Remixology, and Media Shamanism

Psytrance is rooted in the psychedelic rock full-moon parties held on Anjuna beach, Goa, India, in the 1970s, which were overrun by a seasonal DJ-led electronic "trance dance" culture developing in Goa in the 1980s, before this dance music experience became formulated in the mid-1990s as Goatrance (St John 2012a). The latter would mushroom globally as psytrance by the turn of the millennium (St John 2010a) and splinter into various subgenres presently evident in EDM scenes the world over. Heir to the pursuit of ecstatic states, expanded minds, and evolved consciousness that had flourished in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, developing independent music production technologies, evolving a multimedia psychedelic and visionary arts scene, and harnessing the communication capabilities of the Internet, sources of identification are manifold and methods of transcendence are multiple in psytrance. This is an EDMC whose larger festivals are among the most ethnonationally diverse music and dance events in the world, a heterogeneity also apparent in the disparate and sometimes conflicting expectations imported by event publics, a complexity consistent with a movement whose paramount achievements--its parties and festivals--lie at the crossroads of leisure and religion (see St John 2013c). It is the uncertain conflation of transgressive and progressive spiritual practice in events featuring the characteristics of both the party and the pilgrimage centre that continues to attract participants to an event form enabling habitues to be creators and not simply consumers of "experience."

Enabled by digitalization and virtual communications, a decentralized, and arguably "democratic," legacy is integral to the technics of EDM which enable independent musicianship and the remixing of audiovisual material available to the "read/write" generation (see Lessig 2008) in increased quantities and at accelerating speeds. As processes of consumption and production are interconnected in EDM cultures, with the process of appropriation (where existing elements may be assigned to a new purpose) effectively constituting the logic of their association in psytrance, popular cultural sources are repurposed to the project of the self. The recycling and bricolage of pop-cult narratives reveals a revisionist sensibility, a refashioning, or to use one of Kodwo Eshun's (1998) insights, a "technofying," of the self. And for natives of the digital age, the copy is never 1:1, with the techno-spiritual remix throwing up unique products from its wash cycle, challenging assessments of cultural appropriation and postmodern theory. In its unique interfacing of popular culture, spirituality, and technics, psytrance pursues a project consistent with post-romantic figurations of the self culminating in the "spiritual revolution" of late modernity (Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Heelas 2008). In this circumstance, the self is not only "able to discover religious truth apart from divine revelation from without or the aid of some other external authority, but the truth it seeks is...

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