Bill Viola’s “Tiny Deaths” and the Inversion of the Gallery Space

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Video artist Bill Viola’s oeuvre spans four decades and hundreds of works. Known best for his tableau video installations and huge scrim projection works, there is one “minor” work from 1993 that I think is his most intriguing and startling. Confronting it was a life-changing aesthetic event.

Tiny Deaths is an installation piece for a very darkened square room. As one enters, muted distorted voices become apparent, softly moaning and speaking unintelligible mantras from some undefinable space, as if unconnected to the room. The immediate effect is spooky as hell. The walls are soon found to be shimmering in very dark grey-scale projection, like the snow of an old television screen with the brightness and contrast at zero. But the projectors are hidden. As one walks about the dark you will come to notice a shadow—perhaps your own—is on the barely lit wall before you. But it stands still as you move; it is a phantom presence. You inspect it. The mutated voices are growing louder and illumination is bleeding rapidly into the space. Suddenly the sounds crescendo in a whoosh and there is a flash behind you. You turn but everything is the same: three barely shimmering walls. Your eyes once again must adjust. The voices murmur low. You look back at the shadow before you, which seems washed out by the intense flash. But it’s still there and growing dimmer. If you choose to concentrate upon it, over a period of a moment and a half or so you notice it has begun to take on details. There is a face. Eyes, a mouth. Clothes. It is glowing slightly brighter with a light that is somehow generated by the image itself and not from a projector. The details appear quicker. The voices are growing louder again. Suddenly a person in black and white in full detail appears before you but is gone in a flash before you discern fully any details.

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On reflection you discover that the light is acting two ways, as projection and reflected illumination, causing a “third realm” in the gallery—or the viewer’s mind—where the viewer(s) is a part of the work. You are gradually washed out by the light and equally disappear to the other patrons.

This is one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever experienced. You have to be there a while to get it. The flashes create a “liminal space” between the depicted persons and the spectators. You can view a two dimensional representation of a person on a wall or a living person standing beside you in the gallery space and the same fleeting effect occurs, but the latter is the “real” world—the world of mortal beings who grow old and die. The images could theoretically cycle through eternity.

Thus the work has a subtext about the visual preservation of the human form that photography grants but can never encompass. We in the gallery are the real subjects of the piece. Viola has reversed the arrow of signification on us, brilliantly.

Illumination in a spiritual sense. Viola has been a Buddhist for 40 years. Suddenly the frail human being appears from the nigredo of a roiling, dimly sparking wall, only to vanish in less than a second and return to darkness. We witness a sudden, finite drama on a two-dimensional surface that reflects its light onto our three dimension world. But like these trapped representations, we exist coursing along the dimension of time as well…The voices drifting through the room offer no condolence or condemnation. They are beyond legibility and meaning. And so is this mystery of existing as a representation of something beyond this four-dimensional and ceasing to inhabit it. It asks us: to what realm are we akin to these persons displayed upon the wall?

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The Epistemological Autocracy

With us the disguise must be complete. The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.

                                                                                                      —Mark Rothko

The Primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.”

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Pareidolia: a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the duck rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek para- (“beside”, “with”, or “alongside”, in this context meaning something faulty or wrong, as in paraphasia, disordered speech) and eidōlon (“image”; the diminutive of eidos – “image”, “form”, “shape”). Pareidolia is a type of apophenia.


Apophenia: the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random nature in general, as with gambling, paranormal phenomena, religion, and even attempts at scientific observation.

Consider the enormous variety of stories that have been told throughout history about the world’s creation, a lost “Paradise”, the purpose of the stars, or the division between sky, earth, and sea.

Judging from the surviving written accounts of the most ancient of these tales, the manner in which early humanity experienced the world, from the dawn of symbolic thinking until the Bronze Age, was quite different than we do today. According to some paleoanthropologists and linguists, ancient creation/explanation myths not only recorded a peoples’ history but transmitted religious and astronomical information to initiates through codes embedded in the narratives syntactically, metaphorically, or through imagery. They were polysemic, that is, the rhythmic patterning of phonemes with which the stories were composed also functioned as mnemonic devices to facilitate memorization of the oft-complicated narratives. These codes also functioned as symbol-systems that could transmit information in a different manner than the linear, propositional capacities of speech—a “twilight language” was embedded inside the text connected with religious ritual that opened the initiated to altered states of consciousness.

The best studies of this are Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong; Hamlet’s Mill by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend, and two works by William Irwin Thompson: The Time Falling Bodies take to Light and Coming into Being. The authors of the latter three books admit that, while historically sound, their own writings are works of projective imagination. In this, they freely admit that a scholar cannot but involve an imaginative aspect to their supposedly “objective” work when they are dealing with the study of human prehistory.

In the case of Hamlet’s Mill, the authors’ method was rigorous, yet they admitted the speculative nature of their conclusion that the wide range of myths they studied showed signs of encoded astronomical knowledge of the equinoctial precession. The caste of “expert” critics mostly damned the book by pointing out that, in a few of the authors’ examples, “recent findings” in scholarly archaeo-linguistic interpretation must surely render their thesis invalid.

I would say the dust-up only demonstrates that “firm knowledge” is an ever-contingent state of affairs in the discipline of archeology. Santayana and von Dechend did their best, and their thesis still stands, simply because the book contains such an expansive cross-cultural range of myths, spanning the world. They were not wrong in all of their interpretations, just some of them—and their evidence is enough to establish that a deep background existed for ancient myths related to astronomy. Further, the authors admit that they cannot absolutely surmount the possibility that their own work is a case of apophenia—a condition the experts are prone to also but loathe to admit.

These methods probably originated from the experimentations of the earliest shamans. While the shamans drummed, spoke in tongues, and invoked the invisible worlds and deities they encountered there, their successor poet-bards wove together the visible world with invisible phenomena to create fields of infinite imaginary richness in their stories that was meant to activate the same faculty in their audience.


Now consider a vehicle for truth in our age: the fact(s), taken singularly or as a web of interconnected propositions.

Imagine watching a Siamese cat on the mat in the sunlight before you.

The cat sat on the mat, you think: that’s a fact. And what could be a more succinct transmission of the scene’s meaning?

At bottom, it is only a spare, descriptive statement—to which you could, however, bring a galaxy of subjective associations.

These subjective associations, and the “well” from which they spontaneously emerge, many times unwilled by the conscious mind, is part of what this essay will be about. It will also address the assault under which subjectivity itself—and privacy—have come in our current epistemological autocracy.


In using the propositional-descriptive mode described just above, we perform a specific act between our minds and phenomena. Beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers, the idea of truth—for which they used the term a-letheia (un-forgetting, un-covering)—evolved into the more concrete conception that truth exists as a correspondence between the world and the primordial elements of a spoken or written proposition, or that a locus of propositions could act as mediation in which truth solely resided.

This idea has, of course, continued to this day, and appears to be the only mode of discourse the sciences recognize as real: the empirical facts undergirding theory can only be encompassed by using the propositional mode, whether in spoken language or the abstract propositions of mathematics.

Our society gives a comfortably settled place to the powers of art and poetry to reveal the so-called human condition—but very few people seem to take these forms seriously as vehicles to convey truth anymore. I do, and I hope this essay can enlighten about what may be at stake.


The human mind uses Coleridge’s Primary Imagination by way of his secondary imagination to produce culture from what one might call the “apophenic canvas” of sensory experience. When Imagination “paints upon” this apophenic canvas, humans are first and foremost storytellers, that is, context or meaning-creators, and since we in the Greco-Abrahamic West conceive history as a linear succession of discrete events, this implies an origination point for the narratives. Each story or artifact must have originated in the mind of a particular person or a group of people at a certain time, and occurred spontaneously that first time.

When these stories integrate a stable social order, they also require advocates of them to either disarm or interdict further “mutations” or competitors from threatening their primacy and replication. The elders, or expert caste, guarded against violations or prevented the “subjective fancies” of individual initiates from altering them and threatening the social order. Interpretation is tightly circumscribed; it is the social role of the priest class to be the guardians of interpretation.

The role/function of priest and our contemporary scientist are socially identical in this respect (and even, unfortunately, our public officials and the official media with their narratives of “what really happened”).

Social cohesion comes at the expense of free exercise of Imagination. Upon entering the rites of initiation into an order, one relinquishes the right to alter scripture and its interpretation. In a sense, one pledges to renounce one’s Imagination, or at least renounce public displays of its products, as one’s identity is subsumed into that of the group. If I can anthropomorphize a bit, Imagination sacrifices itself for the good of the group (and, paradoxically, in certain myths, it tells its own story of this sacrifice for the larger good).

These authorities police their society’s ontology (what “really exists”) by way of its epistemology (the method by which something is known).


Whether we are speaking of an oral/written creation story, a piece of jewelry depicting a deity, a work of sacred architecture, or a sculpture of a hero, etc., the stories from which these artifacts are depictions underwent a process of social inculcation to have been embodied in the material form that survived down the ages.

The number of ancient artifacts destroyed, lost, or forgotten dwarfs those that we still possess.

We might conjecture that the “mutations” of what did survive did not reproduce within their host cultures; major alterations of the stories or artifacts were proscribed, and subsequently these mutations could not reproduce (unless we are talking about a “vessel” meant to preserve both mutations and new material, such as the frame-story of 1001 Nights, which allows for infinite length).

Obviously any society needs stability in order to successfully function and reproduce its forms over time. I am not criticizing the necessity for expertise or the need for a caste of elders to pass along knowledge, but we have to always realize that Imagination was at work in the original creation of an artifact, and continues its work almost ceaselessly over time; small changes made repeatedly over time will alter the form and content of a cultural artifact in a major way.

When people from distinct geographical areas and linguistic forms came together for the first time, they probably attempted to translate each other’s beliefs and culture into their own terms. This gave rise to heterogeneity of expressions. Thus, where we perceive unity and pure expression in some ancient artifact was once two separate forms. Mutations themselves may often have occurred between separate cultures.


So the human mind is restlessly creative. It will naturally alter, it will remix, it will mash-up, it will fabricate. Its “rational faculty” will exploit the visions that its apophenic filter compulsively presents, made of the things granted by one’s culture.

Very often, these new visions clash with the dominant, “official” view of reality. A social order that vigorously seeks (and very often accomplishes) the erasure of ideas or practices that do not fit within its ontology we might call an epistemological autocracy.

An epistemological autocracy seeks to channel all apophenic interpretations and eliminate all competing interpretations. It attempts to literalize into its own terms—freezing in time—the significance of all phenomena, holds fast to its singular explanations, and brooks no interpretive disagreements with its pictures.


Despite its avowals of “free inquiry” and “freedom of belief,” our technological-capitalist society is, of course, in no way an exception to this autocratic tendency. In fact, our society’s present drift into autocracy extends several orders of magnitude beyond any other that has ever existed, because of the massive scale of our submission to mediations. From the apophenic/quantum flux presented to the mind come structured impressions that are ordered during the process of learning language. These impressions are represented and stored as memories; language can produce intentionality and the means of recording and transmitting both knowledge and personal experiences. These we have to learn, and are the first level of material mediation between people.

I’m going to avoid the usual terms of perennial debate about the split between mind and “reality,” between representation and experience, between phenomenon and the noumenon. Philosophers have wrestled for millennia with the “thing in itself” which may exist beyond the mind’s abilities to accurately represent it. I will only say that the biological process of a mind producing “sense-data” from its surroundings qua physical brain-states cannot be separated from the contents produced subjectively during those brain-states, a phenomenon equivalent to what the Taoist yin-yang symbol visually represents: an irreducible interdependency between any physical measurements taken of the brain and the concurrent thoughts within the person. We cannot know anything certain about that which is “given” as raw sensory input for the mind’s apophenic processes to mill into either given “literal” or “metaphoric” or “hallucinated” or “real” categories.

The “creative” mind, which can by definition temporarily evade the strictures of the autocracy by engaging Imagination, makes use of a cognitive matrix in which the categories of the “literal” and “metaphoric” are blurred.

Beyond this level things get tricky, for at the next level we have cultural representations of these natural representations of experience. The ancient artifacts listed above could be examples; the entire world-view of a culture can be embodied in a single work of art (think of the immediate recognition we may have of a Yoruban mask or a high Renaissance painting or an Abstract Expressionist piece). These artifacts reified the values of the cultures in which they were produced and had significance in a lived, everyday context of ritual or remembrance. They are mediations to any viewer, rich with (sometimes multiple) meaning(s). The plastic arts embody systems of signification between themselves, and with the culture surrounding them.


Along with the Marc Rothko quote above, the two definitions of pareidolia and apophenia point towards what I perceive as a deep problem: that, through the web of mediations, the “finite associations” our technocratic-capitalist society has inculcated in us towards reality has become a dubious one, at best, for the personally transformative experiences with which Imagination is meant to give meaning to our lives and heal us.

It has achieved this state of dominance through three “cartels” which I will outline below. For differing motives, these cartels attempt to invalidate the significance of a person’s private, numinous experiences—negating the validity of the revelation Imaginative truth can give and that has been fundamental to the human psyche since the archaic age.

The following three ontologies are three possible ways of viewing the world. I am speaking of:

  1. A. The scientific worldview in its strict physicalist mode; that is, the contention that all that exists is only measurable matter on finer and finer scales, and in no need of higher principles or “first cause” or “holistic” or vitalist conception to explain them, and that only what can be directly observed or quantifiable through material instrumentation and replicable conditions is real;
  2. B. Religious thought that constricts the meaning of scripture/language to a single interpretation, invalidates the spontaneous content that may constitute a person’s spiritual experiences, and maintains the metaphysical assumption that all human beings’ beliefs and actions possess the capacity to “save” or “damn” them relative to their adherence to that particular interpretation; and
  3. C. The mass media’s direct and indirect reduction of the spectrum of human activities to a limited function of materialist signifiers (people as “economic agents”, “political actors,” “cultural producers”, “content providers,” celebrity, natural catastrophes). The mass media’s delivery of information curtails the function of language to communicating a parade of political and economic and scientific “facts,” along with rumor, hearsay, hoax, government disinformation.

So I’m speaking merely of dogmatism?

Yes. But not quite.

Each stance, the religious and scientific-materialist, has ascended in human history and continues to shape our experiences. But on the whole we now customarily separate the two as if they could not have originated from the same field within the human psyche.

This division is illusory, and its continuing enforcement a hallmark of what I called the epistemological autocracy: that they are not equally valid products of the same faculty of Imagination.

In America we have reaped severe social consequences from a peculiar schism between the scientific worldview and that of religion. Under the Enlightenment and our “republican experiment” in democracy, scientific-materialist autocracy arose in direct conflict with the Lutheran Christian ontology of individual, inalienable conscience that originally spawned it. In reaction, Americans have show prodigious examples of communal religious autocracies, of varying sizes, that have sprang up in reaction to science’s encroachment upon “the work of God.”

Many religious or spiritual people feel estranged under modernity and its consequent; with all its creature comforts, the fruits of science compete with the succor offered by “salvation” whose source lies entirely beyond this material life.

Many materialist-atheists are equally uncomfortable with what they see as archaic superstitions of religion lingering on well past their expiration date in our society.

This psychic schism is not endemic solely to America; it is now felt all across the world, in all peoples who confront their “inevitable,” electronically enmeshed future in the form of mass-media and communication technologies that cannot but entirely transform their conceptions of Nature, space, and time. These technologies have a profound effect on cultures everywhere they are introduced.


In our society, things are few and far between that foster a living relationship with transforming the Primary Imagination into its secondary manifestations—because its activity has been pathologized as deviance. Physicalist science, mass media, and fundamentalist religion are integrated together like a machine whose purpose is to interdict or channel our use of the primary Imagination and its products, and that their autocracies are in fact the driving force of human civilizations.

By Primary Imagination we are not speaking of the personal faculty of recalling memories, or remixing the elements of one’s life and projecting them in new combinations upon some inner screen—that is part of the secondary imagination of which Coleridge speaks in the epigraph above.

C.G. Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious is similar to Primary Imagination: a flux from which the mind produces and filters experiences that can be taken neither literally nor metaphorically, but as basic to sense-mediation itself. The seemingly opposed categories “literal” and “metaphorical/figurative” clash over a numinous mystery that our cause-and-effect-bound minds are condemned to play catch-up using logic, and thus rationalize in the autocracies’ terms of engagement.

Jung’s collective unconscious was populated with archetypes akin to living myths that structured the arcs of our lives. In contrast, Jung’s personal unconscious contained repressed emotional images from one’s life, with a cast of family members and friends and even celebrities or the famous we would encounter in dreams, for instance.

According to Jung, the collective unconscious could use these familiar people as symbols, but most of the time, in a numinous dream or Imaginative leap, one would encounter unknown figures like kings, wise old men, horrific killers or monsters, etc. The extremely vivid “aura” of these dream-figures often causes the experiencer to question their existence as mere figments of the mind; they seem to be as real as the people they know in their waking life—but their presences are invested with great emotional power that is in some way transformative on the person’s views of life.

Coleridge’s Primary Imagination is timeless, spaceless, infinite, just as Jung often characterized the collective unconscious. It is for both of them the “field” in which reality itself appears—and which, secondarily, through our individual minds, produces our stories, artifacts, religions, and technologies.

This may sound like an odd, alternative definition of God—but indeed the Primary Imagination is where, I believe, the conditions for creativity and the sensing Higher Power and nature exists. One can deify Imagination, or make it the supreme force worthy of veneration, as some Romantics did, but this veneration is always a means and never an end in itself. To use it is to “worship” it—to create. To worship it is to worship an empty vessel, for Imagination is a formal property of human existence. It would be like worshipping the fingernail, or the thumb; it has no content in itself. It can never be grasped to be turned into an object of worship, and cannot be essentialized. Nor is it a technology. Its vehicles are technologies—language, music, painting, etc. It creates the technologies in the first place.


Very little in our techno-utopia fosters a living relationship with Secondary Imagination. I believe many of us are in danger of losing contact with it, with the noise of our ever plugged-in, information-overloaded daily existence.

Physicalist science, mass media, and fundamentalist religion are integrated together akin to a machine that interdicts a relationship with the Primary Imagination.

The ontology of our technological society is supported by the narrative of scientific and social progress that supposedly brought into being this world of human-made marvels around us. I therefore believe our problem resides at the ontological level, and our ontology is a manifestation of the epistemology by which we’ve arrived at our catastrophist presentiments. And backwards: our ontology narrowly limits what we perceive as “legitimate” ways of knowing that something is real.

This diagnosis is admittedly harsh, reactionary and Romanticist—all three, jack—but didn’t we somehow already cover this territory, loudly and violently, in “The Matrix”? Perhaps so; but maybe “The Matrix” (and contemporary attempts at myth like it) is a representation of the situation the Imagination has found itself in when confronted with a specific, digitally-mediated autocracy.

There is an impulse within us to be freed of all strictures—but what our “autocrats” have learned is that this impulse towards inner freedom can be canalized in particular ways.

The autocracy has evolved to a point where it describes all phenomena, channels all experience: One cannot turn away from any one of them without describing what has been turned away from, without using the other autocracy’s terms.

Perhaps the primary problem is that our minds over the past century have been relentlessly mediated into viewing reality through cloudier facets of the jewel of human Imagination…Yet another way to say it: that scientific-materialist vocabularies have attained supremacy over the natural multiplicity of noetic human tongues—and are further in the process of proscribing those “traditional” languages to heresy, to pathology, to irrelevance, to extinction.


If you find this preliminary thesis dull, already endlessly rehearsed by others, or muddled, then opt out now—the latest cat videos on Youtube are waiting, after all.


I cannot say that truth is stranger than fiction, because I have never had acquaintance with either.

-Charles Fort

Epistemic autocracies in religion and politics have existed as long as there has been a world-order for the “Elites” to police. The obvious religious form is any Inquisition against the heretics. There is no difference in the political. Politically, millions perished in the paranoid struggles over orthodoxy and efficiency in Soviet and Chinese Communism. Millions were killed as well in the struggles of capitalists, bankers, and their governmental puppets to dominate, for personal profit, countries and regions.

Scientific inquisitions have existed too, of course. Ever since the Enlightenment, the Newtonian/Cartesian idea of “soulless mechanism” in matter has come to underwrite methods of social control. The new humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment arose over the past five centuries with its conceptions of “sovereign conscience” and supposed freedom of inquiry. The mechanistic model deployed in physics, medicine and engineering have had spectacular success in any conceivable number of ways. Gradually the mechanist scheme also informed the modeling used in the “soft sciences” like psychology, economics, and sociology, despite the relation between cause and effect being nebulous in these disciplines. The social sciences’ modeling of transpersonal forces led directly to our contemporary political science that uses psychological technique and sociological analysis in its arsenal of management techniques to control both what, and more importantly, how people are supposed to think.


Burgeoning epistemological autocracies always become closed ideologies that marginalize or erase human experiences that do not fit their framework. Philosopher-journalist Charles Fort called these anomalous experiences “the damned”—the events that are ignored, suppressed, or explained away by both secular and religious orthodoxies. Thus, in our present scientific milieu, are classified encounters with ghosts, fairies, UFOs, Jesus, Mary, jinn, angels, events of ESP, telekinesis, near-death experiences, etc.

It would be charitable to say these nagging phenomena have only been marginalized as anomalies—that is, awaiting some theoretician to incorporate them into a neat explanatory framework—but they have only been roundly ignored or explained away without definitive closure. They will not go away, as Fort once said: they march on, as they always have, from the deep past and into the future.

But it’s only fitting that they be damned, we say from our peculiar Darwinist way of thinking—for were there any truth to them, they would have gained scientific purchase and flourished unimpeded as recognized realities by now—surely.

There must be a reason they are damned, and it appears to be this: A scientific model of the mind in which they might be definitively explained hasn’t come close to emerging under our epistemic autocracy—and won’t, because such phenomena are by definition single witness-dependent, subjective phenomena. They are incommensurable with our scientific method of hard data, replicable experimentation, and peer-reviewed study, so they are to be eliminated from consideration.

A single witness-dependent, subjective phenomenon cannot be successfully translated into mass-media representation without minimizing the personal, individual significance of the experience in which they were born. In all their strangeness, they cannot be reproduced or transmitted successfully—except by a sympathetic recognition by other people to whom something similar has occurred. The mass media cannot compass idiosyncratic experience, a mass popularity fueled by and on spectacle, by action, by outer-directed, extraverted mindsets. In short, anomalous experiences do not fit the compressive laws of mass media representation. One cannot make money off them (unless you’re talking about the current train of quickly-cancelled-for-revelations-of-selective-editing Bigfoot/UFO reality shows featuring “crack” researchers on the trail of physical evidence).

From the point of view of the religious fundamentalist, their ambiguous nature contradicts the idea that God has a specific order.

Cognitive scientists and psychologists claim to have divested themselves from Cartesian dualism but there it is: the inner, subjective experience that defies logic and causality versus an objective measuring system, publicly available data for inspection by expert and amateur alike.

What is needed is the third way, the mediation.

Epistemic autocracy’s legitimacy rests on there being no other possible conception than the scientific as an explanation for them, however.

As a culture we have tended to throw Fort’s “damned” experiences all together in an inchoate mass. Fringe incidents begets fringe community: a near-death experiencer gravitates into a support group with others, learns of the afterlife’s “ascended masters,” then the UFO connection to the masters, then crystal power, and is embraced by the New Age set and ends up converted to belief in a nefarious New World Order—simply because their original experience found no home in our materialist culture.

What happens we are compelled to retreat from defending the pragmatic value of one’s anomalous experience to arguing over whether it even existed? What happens when we are forced to depend upon the same epistemological methods used by the dominant regime to explain our unique experiences?

Militant atheism and materialism has become very popular over the past decade, headed by biologists Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson, critic Christopher Hitchens, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Stephen Hawking, who have all publicly criticized organized religion as pernicious superstition to be rid of. Some of them have gone so far as to cast as delusional the beliefs in a soul, Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), Out-of-body Experiences (OBEs), UFOs, etc.

Always ready to trot out the neurophysiological explanation, these avatars of dogmatic skepticism always seem to conveniently ignore the particular content of any experience these people have had, which, more often than not, have astoundingly inexplicable aspects about them if they would care to examine closer. ( example) and put down to outright lies.

These individuals are the latest spokespeople for scientific skepticism and avatars of the “accepted wisdom” that New Age syncretism and spirituality is simply the end-result of the 1960s vision-questers and to be laughed off as unserious offshoots of the postmodern consumer culture.


The war on the private and the subjective began long ago—perhaps, ironically, with the musings of that perennial whipping boy for the holists, Rene Descartes, who posited an infallible witness within the brain that held exclusive access to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations—and that ethereal observer was separate from the physical body that was its vehicle. This move demarcated the physical as something without psyche (soul), in the ancient Greek sense of something with the potential for “spontaneous inner-generated movement.”

Thus, Descartes’s human agency was narrowly located in the unseen “I”—the being that thought itself as separate.

His peculiar conception played a huge part in the “sovereign conscience” the Enlightenment thinkers bequeathed us—an amplification of the Apollonian, rational ego of literal meanings—that located our agency solely within the logical, cause-and-effect-structure.


Ironically, the Cartesian ego has been invalidated by some influential schools of neuroscience. The inner “I” a person ascribes to oneself is considered by them simply the emergent property of a billion separate neuronal processes, and no more. The I is not real, but an extra, expendable property of neurophysiology. It cannot be measured, therefore it should have to place in scientific discourse. Other neuroscientists believe the conscious ego is the slowest part of the human mind—it lags behind the. They believe both methodologically and substantively that a person’s “sense of self” should be eliminated entirely from any model of the brain.

The inner experience of humanity, qua individual human ego, is now suspect.

You might even say a “hit” has been contracted upon the concept of an individual sense, and with it, the active force of Imagination in Coleridge’s sense, which is to be considered just another random product of those wet, algorithmic processes, meaningless and trivial…In short, the techno-fascist agenda seems poised to destroy the human Imagination, and all the possible multiplicities it signifies—for it poses the main threat to its program.

There are many people out there critiquing the burgeoning “monoculture” of transnational capitalism and its culturally-deadening influence around the globe. But a techno-autarchic civilization like the one slouching into being around us requires our individual minds to ratify in practice its ontology and grant it this continuous legitimacy. It has taken a slowly-built consensus of faith in its methods; it has taken a singular consciousness fashioned over centuries by mass media, starting with Gutenberg’s printing press. It has specialized knowledge into the compartmentalization of societal functions; it has and continues to divide society into seemingly separate “spheres,” economic, cultural, and political; it has taken cults of expertise whose division created a situation in which the “right hand” appears ignorant of what the “left hand” is doing—except from the top, where “elite managers” supposedly reign over the scientific-political machine we’ve all legitimized.

The upshot is that the mass-media engines of our society (cable network news channels, academia, think-tanks, laboratories, lobbying and advocacy groups, “intelligence-gathering” centers) all play a part in the vast, integrated “fact-making machine” whose products surrounds us like a web—a comfortable matrix underwritten by the assumption that that things, in the human world at least, are more or less under control.

Nothing could be further from the truth, friend.

The hard & soft sciences, the media, and those walking haircuts we call politicians all create for us a comfortable galaxy of steady-state, banal realities from their neat atoms of separate “facts”—but many people instinctively don’t even buy them, because they sense its infringement against the natural, spontaneous workings of Primary Imagination that has given them their religion and folkways. The ascendancy of the technocratic mentality, to me, is the primary reason why fundamentalisms of all types have exploded in number across the globe—including scientific fundamentalism, or “scientism” as it’s called. We know that we have created a system that is outside anyone’s control.


When the expert or politician or scientist passes judgment and creates a fact for our “consumption” they make an orphan of truth, because the deeper verities—those that enrapture us and enchant our lives—are not facts in the sense that statistics are facts. The most profound truths cannot be sound-bit, for they are not frozen pictures in time—they are as alive “out there” as we are. Private epiphanies we have give meaning to our lives, when we begin to perceive and live myths greater than any “fact.” This truth that we are each living, and how this truth manifests and resides in us, is the central thing our techno-fascist society will seek to delegitimize: the faculty of Imagination, whether in its nighttime dreaming or day-lit forms.

It does not serve our society’s techno-fascist ends for us to elaborate upon our private myths and somatic epiphanies, when we are being trained to live only by visions sanctioned by Mammon 2.0 and licensable by Disney.

Our “elite managers” in the political class purport that creativity and entrepreneurship are the greatest goods. If these qualities are allowed to flourish, we will all in turn thrive. The truth is that under epistemic and capitalist techno-fascism, all products of entrepreneurship and the visual arts alike are now simply farmed for novelty en masse by the transnational cartel—just like our mass-produced food, automobiles, computers, etc. The billionaires have full reign to shop for–and possible even take by court or force–the millionaire’s hard-earned wealth and product.

The creative types who gravitate to Hollywood, the music industry, and television are farmed for visions that conform to the acid-baths of scientific despotism. We even have our dreams designed for us nowadays in our mass-media entertainments—yes, in this illusion of “factual consumption,” we’ve become that damn lazy. Only that which can be translated into a commercial imperative survives—over and over. Witness all the sequels and comic book adaptations and “pre-branded” franchises being made. Hollywood as we’ve known it is dying, loudly, because at the crucial time when it’s in competition with Youtube, cable, and so many other media outlets it has banked upon the familiar instead of showing vision and Imagination and throwing those production billions into dozens of smaller, imaginative works that might not strictly conform to focus-group preferences (witness the stellar rise—and subsequent absorption into the maw of the machine—of Pixar). Just like a bully who gets louder and more violent as his star is eclipsed by the new and bigger bully. Instead of believing in the intimate products our minds naturally give us, our society makes of Vision a CGI bone-rattling nightmare in the cathedral of a movie theater, transformed to pummel us in violence from without. We enter the cinema now to be ritually punished with visions of a magick world whose flatness on the screen is somehow part of the meaning, reminding us of what has passed us and now out of reach: Narcissus’s mirror-lake as a flat pool glowing upon the wall, beaten in our unconscious that our human inheritance is being leached away by our ‘entertainments’.

The epistemological cartel grants no means of ratifying or receiving anything transformative that might originate from inside our own psyches, and hence the reception of any impulse of sacred Imagination from without. At best, our subjective visions are diagnosed as pathological; the sacred inside is rendered phantasmal, neurological, with its reception stripped of personal significance…Our autocrats’ goal is that there be an answer to our mysterious, private, epiphanic encounters—an “explanation” already worked out for us, whether by megachurch or laboratory. Mystery cannot be allowed. The answers should come easy…The Hollywood and video game dream-factories grant us ritual catharsis for our mythic instincts, and we are all left to our atomized glorified simian or sanctified Glorified Body to work out some relation to the sacred outside the glowing rectangle

This, of course, is all in line with the continued destruction of privacy on the internet and all our forms of electronic communication. The processing of our personal agency into a hive-mind is nearing its terminus—an omniscience by the “Masters” unknown in the history of mankind.


We like our madness safely contained in the past, or in our artists—the Blakes and Artauds and Pounds and Van Goghs. In a society under the epistemic cartel, we have safely cordoned off the imagination into the visions and activities of the artists, who are the only one permitted to see with different eyes the mundane and banal surroundings inflicted upon us by a technological, socially over-determined and thoroughly managed society.

Everyone at times experiences hallucination or a momentary misapprehension of objects, when we spontaneously see things anew. This peculiar ability is considered a mundane property of the human mind. Psychologists after Wittgenstein call it “aspect-seeing,” a phrase coined to describe the reversals or oscillations in significance that occur when perceiving Gestalt images in a clinical context (the duck-rabbit, old/young woman, etc.).

Apophenia and pareidolia are natural human abilities, but any psychologically “healthy” answer to a pareidoliac test is necessarily shaped by the forces of socialization. Reward accrues to those who interpret “correctly” according to the consensus as laid out in the mental health manual; conversely, punishment goes to those who stubbornly insist on retaining their private associations.

When these subjective oscillations happen frequently in the everyday world, it is not so good—and even worse when a person spins narratives around them. An example of this would be, say, a conspiracy in which no one else in the world could possibly believe—if someone were to associate the sunlight’s reflections on the surfaces around them with what they happened to be thinking, and conclude that the reflections of light were speaking to them. If such a phenomena occurred in an engineer or a bus driver or a pilot, it would be considered mental sickness and lead to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, at the least.

If a person experiencing it happened to be a poet or visual artist, it would perhaps slightly take the psychopathic sting out of the clinical label—but only slightly.

But these are just definitions courtesy the priest-cult we call clinical psychiatry.

An example of this epistemologically autocratic trend is the decisive turn from psychotherapy to pharmaceuticals in the treatment of mental illness over the past thirty years. Philosophers of science and psychology maintain that behaviorism as practiced by B.F. Skinner is dead, but of course this isn’t true at all; Skinnerian behaviorism, on the contrary, has been so spectacularly successful that it has become ubiquitous and invisible to us, its ontology lurking in the neuroscience behind the pharmaceutical paradigm: If you chemically change the molecules in the person’s brain, you change the person’s behavior; if you change the behavior, you thus change the person.

This therapy of neurochemicals now dominates, while the “talking cure” has been relegated to second place—but the various schools of psychoanalysis, for all their faults, are philosophies of meaning. They value the long view of a fully-lived life in comparison to the immediate material change in the pharmaceutical paradigm with which epistemic fascism laden us

Many people undergo tremendous reversals in their outlook on life, in which the “whole of reality” is turned “inside out”—call them epiphanies, religious conversions, spiritual experiences. The world is then seen as numinous and filled with a significant connections that infuses its entire fabric and involves a revivification of the whole. The motive force ascribed as the cause varies—Jesus, Allah, universal mind, nirvana, etc. Isolated from any religious context, a person may well fear for their sanity. These experiences are entirely subjective and beyond the quantifying reach of neuroscience (as of yet), yet friends can perceive the fruits of such experiences in the changed behavior of the individual.

For almost all of recorded history these experiences have occurred and been accepted as proofs of a higher power. We don’t normally call these conversions pathological, but the experience is becoming dangerously close to being termed such under techno-fascist regime. The subsequent monomania often associated with religious conversion is usually considered the pathological aspect, yet the contents of the beliefs as well are now under assault as deviant. Even as fundamentalists of any stripe seek to eliminate the anthropology and psychology of the spiritual conversion as the work of the Adversary.


What do I mean by “epistemic autocracy”? Perhaps I should define it by contrasting it with what could be called “epistemic multiplicity” or “neurological diversity,” drawing lines between 1) active pareidolia, apophenia, and Imaginative vision on the one hand, restless, always active, and 2) the Autocracy’s atomistic, reductionist approach that threatens with the loss of meaningful narrative on an influx of random data on the other. Perhaps one could also draw the distinction between realms of knowledge, one called facts and the other wisdom. The former, “factual” realm’s entities are quantifiable, verifiable, and the latter’s vague—and EA is definitely an emergent property of the former, an expanding regime whose constituent parts support and undergird one another in a consensus that spans a society’s entire spectrum of activities—currently, a network operating through mass media to induce orthodox uniformity of opinion between the industrial complexes of medicine/psychology to academic to entertainment, all constellated around the certainties of the disciplines of chemistry and physics.

The Imagination itself “sees through” the single-minded, literal interpretation of reality.

The world sleeps together in the night. We retreat to these private worlds out of biological necessity but there is more genuine healing in these golden hours than any of the faux panaceas our society could ever propagandize us into believing. We dream and in the dream the Other speaks to us. In the daylit world, we are taught not to listen. We are all children before this mystery and of this mystery and the morning light’s clamor dissolves the awe. We awake to a world that orders itself back to another Other’s idea, a mad dream. There is more real knowledge in a simple fever dream than in a library of their consensus fictions. But everyone, all of us, in that somatic museum called sleep, is an artist. The disorder of hallucination is the recapture of Imagination working through.

These differing world views, coherent as each had been, are “snapshot” examples of pareidolia. We have a succession of world-views now coming under the unification of science in which each “moment” has a clear relation to the next and projects its telos into it. The former daimonic power becomes literalized through our technologies: the clock has usurped God’s domain of time, maps have conquered physical space. And thus we unconsciously become gods.