Erotic Encounters in the Borderlands of Consciousness
In October 2012, the pop star Kesha claimed she once had sex with a spirit. Her report was conveniently announced along with the promotion of her new song, Supernatural, which happened to coincide with the weeks before Halloween and was quickly dismissed as a headline-attracting media trick. But there may be something to her claim, as her account is very much in line with the experience of millions of contemporary dreamers. Kesha’s amorous ghost is probably a subset of the incubus encounter, a nocturnal meeting with an otherworldly creature that sits on your chest or otherwise gets all up in your business while you lay in bed. The entity can take the shape of known mythological figures, ghosts, demons, or weird human-animal hybrids. Often, the encounter is fearful, and is described as supernatural assault. Part of the assault has to do with the fact that sometimes feelings of paralysis (and victimhood) are felt when sleep paralysis mingles with the vision. But for others it’s pleasurable, resulting in orgasm and bliss. We live in a time that tries to ignore the visionary moments of life, yet the experiences keep happening anyway.
The realistic encounter with nonhuman—or supernatural—entities has been recorded as early as Babylonian times. Some sexual imp traditions include the Sumerian sex demon Lilith and the ancient Greek god Pan. More often than not, these encounters were interpreted as demonic possession. But not always. For example, the Greek dream interpreter Artemidorus wrote that a sexual Pan encounter “foretells a great profit,” especially if he “does not weigh a person down,” referring to the more common paralysis sensations.1
In modern populations, a significant minority has erotically-charged hypnagogic experiences despite the lack of cultural prompting. Those who feel safe enough to “go with the flow” and not fight the ecstasy are sometimes rewarded with bliss. Physiologically, this shouldn’t be too surprising, as REM sleep is a sexually-active brain state. It’s quite common for both men and women to have multiple periods of genital engorgement during the night—usually these are not remembered, but clearly visible when men wake up tenting the sheet.
By way of example, one young woman wrote to me, “When I was younger I used to get paralyzed in my sleep and I use to think that the devil was coming in me. It made me scared. Now I’m 28 and started feeling like I was having the best sex. . . . I had no clue this happened to other people.” She went on to describe how she has had visitations since she was a child, and they were not always welcome. “Now that I am older and it’s been happening for so long…I always climax…I really want him there with me.2
Other nocturnal encounters mix pleasure and horror in a bizarre way. A reader of my blog Dream Studies Portal who goes by Nox Influx sent me the following narrative that mixes hypnogogia with sleep paralysis:
I was [sleeping and] lying on my stomach, on top of this beautiful woman, having sex, she was saying things, and the sex got more intense, at the point near orgasm I awoke to sleep paralysis, and I hallucinated me on top of a white skinned, blue-lipped dead body. It stayed a few seconds while I couldn’t move and then vanished when movement returned. It sounds negative, but I found it to be exciting in an odd way.3
So how does the positive incubus encounter take place, even when the dreamer does not have a previous understanding that these things are even possible? Taboo is a big part of visionary consciousness, but cultural influence is not the only influence. In my opinion, the cross-cultural nature of sexual incubi points toward a neurobiological constant, an ancestral legacy.4 David Hufford suggests that not only are extraordinary events normal, but “better knowledge of each [event] strengthens that belief rather than weakening it (e.g., learning that others have had virtually the same experience; information regarding possible physiological triggers is irrelevant to the assessment of the reality of the experience).”5 It’s simply a natural part of being human, but of course like all visionary experiences they can reflect our health and dis-ease as well as our relationship to the unknowable.
Case Study: Lucy Liu's Visitation
Kesha is not the first celebrity to announce supernatural hanky-panky. In 1999, actress Lucy Liu admitted in an interview with US Weekly that she had had sex with a heavenly figure. She was lying down on the couch for a nap, and felt an unknown presence on top of her. What followed was a pleasurable spell of lovemaking. “It was sheer bliss. I felt ... Read More »
This is the first teaser trailer for the long anticipated Max Mad reboot, Fury Road, directed by George Miller.
An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life. Within this world exist two rebels on the run who just might be able to restore order. There's Max, a man of action and a man of few words, who seeks peace of mind following the loss of his wife and child in the aftermath of the chaos. And Furiosa, a woman of action and a woman who believes her path to survival may be achieved if she can make it across the desert back to her childhood homeland.
A couple of little things first. This story is set on “the furthest reaches of our planet”... far away from what? A place where life goes on as it was before, where the Empire never died? Is it like the post-Collapse world of Cloud Atlas? Is there another instance of humanity across the ocean, that has kept the high tech life of those that came before intact, but are dealing with their own set of uniquely horrifying problems? What is the geography of the end of the world? To further abuse a much abused phrase, a future planet where “the Apocalypse is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." No one single Dark Age for all people, but local variants with different extremes.
Obviously we don't know, can't know and that's not the point of the George Miller's movie. And this is, of course, just a trailer. But the topic of ‘post-apocalyptic’ futures is fascinating to explore, and the Mad Max world provides a good jumping-off point. What is the meaning of this film? Another apocalyptic tale for a dying world? Can it mean something more? What can we read into it? What if we look at it through the lens of the new novel by one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk, who's been imagining the bleak dystopia to come for us since the early 1980s.
SPOILER WARNING: plot details of The Peripheral by William Gibson are discussed from here on in, in far more detail than my original review.
If, like me, you've recently had your brain re-wired by the latest William Gibson book, The Peripheral, then you are already thinking about the world we're occupying now as being set within “the pre Jackpot Years”. That though darker times lie ahead, rays of light are already leaking through for those that might survive what amounts to an extinction event. A whole new world awaits, completely unimaginable from our vantage point, equal parts horrible and wonderful. An idea of the course we're on that reframes the current techno-utopic future of the Singularity, by emphasising the pain and cost involved of such a societal transition. Pointing out that it doesn't just magically get all post-scarcity and mind upload cities, especially if that's all that's focused on.
Before Kurzweil & co re-branded it, the Singularity was never pitched as desirable. The influential Vernor Vinge originally described the post-human era as a dangerous place to be for those that didn't get upgraded in the process (that didn't win the Jackpot). He had some advice for the inhuman inheritors of the Earth, that applies equally to us today:
Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new environment to what we call human now.
I. J. Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good proposed a "Meta-Golden Rule", which might be paraphrased as "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors."
Gibson doesn't elaborate upon “the Jackpot Years” until over halfway through the novel. But by then he's made it clear that the events that separate the two time lines in his story have been very, very dark indeed. When Wilf, the future posthuman, finally explains it all to Flynne, the near future human, and thus to us reading it too, it's basically everything bad we ever imagined might happen, short of total annihilation, in a big climate chaos wrapped bundle:
No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.”
The future most of can see coming that aren't too distracted to be paying attention. The road we could still be on in the decades to come before things get bad as in feral cities and people dying by the billions. As the survivors run out of room to stack the corpses.
So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway.”
Do we want to talk about why the Singularity is known to its critics as the “Rapture of the Nerds”? Vinge continued in his dire revelation:
I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans' natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet ... we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is”
As another movie once said, “no fate but what we make”. Mad Max: Fury Road will show us a glimpse into the full Collapse future. (Let's be honest, we know exactly how this movie will play out, it's highly unlikely that it will have a twist ending with it all occurring in a VR simulator as a generation of posthumans kill time in some fan-fic recreation of the past, on their way to seeding a new galaxy.) Again.
It's worth pointing out that the original film was created in reaction to the early 1970s oil crisis, but that we're now living in the days of Peak Oil proper. Where another energy catastrophe and subsequent societal collapse is being held off in large part by frakking the planet; a word that sounds bad enough, without it already being a pejorative from a fictional scifi timeline (BSG). That's already triggering earthquakes. And the western democracies are doing it on their home turf too; though mostly in territory deemed politically expendable to their current administrations. Where land grabs on an unprecedented scale are being termed geoengineering.
We are a worldwide civilisation coasting with the fuel gauge nearing empty, thinking there must be another service station just over the horizon. So crank up the radio, let's sing along to some tunes, it'll be just fiiiiiiiine.
Many peak oil bloggers contend that the real moment to do something to prevent the Collapse so graphically rendered above was after the preview first given in the 1970s. That Mad Max should've been a guardian of a road not taken. Instead, here we are. Celebrating him again. And the doomed world he's a patron saint of leaks out all over the place. Like the entire plot of the excellent UK series Utopia. Like the grim prophecy of this scene in Newsroom on the reality of Climate Change.
Hopefully, unlike previously ignored attempts by the Hollywood machine at eco-catastrophe fiction – I'm looking at you, Waterworld – this very grindhouse film will focus attention and serve as more than a distraction. An over-the-top, cathartic outlet against a background of equally disturbing events – from the crackdown on Occupy Hong Kong to the CIA Torture Report, and every protest turned police action across North America in between. Whatever this all mutates into in the coming months. We don't need that.
Thinking about this as “the pre Jackpot Years” helps us reframe the narrative. Something better can come out of all this. This doesn't have to be the prelude to a future high-speed, nightmarish post-apocalypse, worse than the slow motion one we're in now. We don't have to wait for it to accelerate into an unavoidable crash and collapse. There is no techomagical Singularity that will save us. We must wake up behind the wheel and plot a new path on the map of the possible. Our civilisation survived the twentieth century and everyday Fear of the Bomb. We can make it through this too, and build something better. All the pieces are here already, waiting to be recombined. From advances in automated factories and 3D Printing to basic science and amazing speculations on the origins of life.
What comes next is up to us. In many ways we're limited only by our imagination. Why books from In The Dust Of This Planet to The Blood Of The Earth argue strongly for a change in consciousness in how we view both the world now and to come. What we make out of the building blocks we already have is for us to choose. Buckminster Fuller once said: “whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.” We just have to decide how to build a future worth living for all of us, correct our direction away from Oblivion and towards whatever version of Utopia we can agree upon. Or plan for life amidst the chaos and barbarity of Bartertown.
According to an online survey conducted in 2010, 20% of British adults had at least one tattoo.  The statistic crops up again and again if you're reading tattoo related articles online, but has been upped ever so slightly in more recent pieces to “more than 20%”, just to be on the safe side. A corresponding 2013 survey of US adults found that 14% had at least one tattoo.  So, taking into account the fact that I failed maths GCSE twice, I think that means that between Brits and Americans, roughly one in six people who are of legal age to get one has a tattoo. That seems like a pretty believable statistic to me. In 2014 tattoos are normal, passé even. Right?
I got my first tattoo when I was nineteen years old: a 2p coin sized yellow smiley with horns, surrounded by red flames (my children now refer to it as “Mr. Happy, on fire”). Seventeen years later I have again opted to have ink inserted via needle into the layer of dermal tissue underlying my epidermis. This time however, I thought things through rather more carefully. Because this time my tattoo is magical.
One of the most ubiquitous kinds of tattoo I see on a daily basis here in Liverpool – on the street, at the shops, at the school gates, in the pub – are those of names and/or dates. While there are of course exceptions, the majority of these name/date tattoos are in commemoration of births and/or deaths. Commonplace as they may be, these inscriptions are a perfect example of everyday magical thinking.
Choosing to have these characters etched permanently into your flesh is not rational. The name/date might be rendered in an aesthetically pleasing way but simply looking good is not the reason for having a name/date tattoo. The sentiment behind the commemoration may be summed up as “I will never forget”, but there is more to it than that. The promise of never forgetting is one the individual has made to the world at large, but more than that it is made to a realm beyond our own. A promise made to the place we speak to when we ask an empty room where the hell our keys are, or why we drank so much last night; the region we wish and we hope into. This is the domain of the omniscient, omnipresent other; the elusive Higher Self whose wisdom we all appeal to, regardless of spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). Most importantly of all then, the fallible everyday you makes the oath to the inerrant all-knowing you. “I will never forget, and somehow, in some way, I will be better for it”. Those who see the name/date tattoos might not realise it (indeed some who have them might not even know it) but those indelibly embedded characters are literally magical.
There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as 'the art'. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art, and that art – whether that be music, writing, sculpture, or any other form – is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness [...] to cast a spell is simply to spell; to manipulate words, to change people's consciousness. This is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman. 
I'm not usually one for quoting my father-in-law in my writing but, honestly, I'd be hard pushed to find a better, clearer explanation of magic than the one Alan Moore gave a decade or so ago in an interview with Dez Vylenz. Tattoos are an art-form, tattooists artists, and the tattooed person is ... Read More »