Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Aliens Are Us: Cosmic Liminality, Remixticism, and Alienation in Psytrance

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Aliens Are Us: Cosmic Liminality, Remixticism, and Alienation in Psytrance

Article excerpt

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. …

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