What Jason Silva's "Daily Grail" Interview Tells Us about Drugs, the Sublime, and the Quest for Meaning
Since this is apparently the week of mystical thinking, and my week of upsetting the rich, powerful, or famous, I figured that I should finish up by discussing the strange interview with television personality Jason Silva, best known from NatGeo’s Brain Games, that ran in the Daily Grail earlier this week. While not exactly interesting in and of itself, except as a portrait of a hyperverbal person talking faster than he thinks, it speaks to what I think is the grander underlying theme that is driving so much of the conversation around the fringes of science. Sadly, it’s the same theme that has circled science for a century: the quest to replace religion with something—anything—that might restore some magic and enchantment to the world. Sometimes I find that as I write about a subject, my views change. This was a case where I started out amused and ended up kind of angry.
Silva, 36, is a Venezuelan-American TV host, internet video producer, and lecture circuit speaker. He describes himself as a futurist, and he lectures about science and technology. I’ve watched him on TV since he started with Al Gore’s now-defunct Current channel when we were both very young. He’s an engaging TV presence, and I have enjoyed his shows in the past. He focuses his work on what he says is science and philosophy. But in reality, that is a cover for his actual interest. He terms it “awe,” by which he means a sort of mystical experience of wonder and majesty. Those with a philosophical bent will recognize this as the Sublime, which has a long philosophical history that Silva tends to approach at angles, and somewhat unsystematically. “The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity,” Edmund Burke wrote in his famous essay On the Sublime and Beautiful, which explains why it is such a great fit for television and YouTube.
Let’s begin by getting the most unsurprising issue out of the way first. I had long thought that Silva had a bit of the stoner’s lilt to his voice, and in the interview with the Grail, he confirms that he gets high, usually on marijuana, in order to experience the sublime. Carl Sagan did the same thing, but in Silva’s case, he seems to be pursuing the sublime for emotional satisfaction, much the way Graham Hancock claimed that his use of drugs let him communicate with the spirit world. But don’t take my word for it. He says it himself: “Why it matters, is intimately connected to the emotional experience that I’m having, as I make sense of this idea in the moment, right? And so, that’s where the, you might call it the ‘hypomania’ comes from– The anxiety and the impulse to transcribe and record and immortalize and eternalize and clothe in language these epiphanies.” Language he has in spades. Editing, however…
He name-checks Terrence McKenna and compares his own work to that of the Romantic poets. He says that when he is filming, he induces (he does not say how) an altered state of consciousness, to the point that he does not recognize the “him” that appears on camera. “I first had to cultivate a way of getting out of my own way,” he says. “I had to find a way how to talk about these ideas without being self-conscious about the fact that I’m talking about these ideas and thinking about how I’m coming across on camera for fucking chrissakes. Then I had to figure out how to induce a reverie.”
I will concede that I have a little bit of a problem trying to square his claim to be pursuing “awe” in an unmitigated “frenzy” with his description of the process as a desire to “make content,” specifically the YouTube videos he produces for Discovery Networks, the parent of the Discovery Channel. He describes at length his pursuit of wonder as mediated through a variety of, well, media—through lenses of cameras, though social media, even through random collections of inspirational quotes. “I concoct a world that’s built around my needs for being able to output at that level,” he says. The most generous reading is that he wants to share his enthusiasm for the sublime with a mass audience, but how much of the sublime do you actually experience when filtering it through a calibrated media strategy to maximize your social media footprint and deliver optimized content on a fixed schedule?
All of these threads are present in what I consider the most telling, and also the most verbally incoherent, of Silva’s unscripted remarks. I will have to condense them because his meandering comments take up too much space. The highlights compare cannabis to a sexual lubricant and suggest that getting high is like giving your brain an orgasm that, perversely, returns you to childhood innocence—and it’s all great for the business of selling people on your “content”:
You want uninterrupted play. Which means baseline reality, the reality of adults, the reality of rules, the reality of consensus needs to be outside the container you’ve created. Where do little kids play? In the yard. On the beach in a container set up by the parents where they can be free, in the playground… What’s the playground for adults? Vegas, if you like alcohol but that’s not really my cup of tea. So what’s my playground? Maybe I’m in a castle in Edinburgh, stoned with Jason Goodman– But if there’s annoying tourists around then it’s no longer my playground. So why a place like Amsterdam? Number one: The modality of transportation for the entire city is the bicycle. […] And I don’t see signs anywhere that say ‘No biking allowed. Dismount!’. I don’t feel the matrix of rules being imposed, so the feeling of freedom is ever-present, the landscape is magical-mystical-fairytale-like. Cannabis is legal or tolerated, which means you can also add what they call ‘cognitive astro-glide’. Because you’re already in a liminal landscape you’re already riding your bike with your friend, you’re already absent of any rules telling you that you can’t play here, so the mood is already geared towards play.
I will admit to being a bit charmed that the Grail interviewer, Grant Calof, in transcribing this almost incoherent response, was apparently unaware of what Astroglide is and didn’t recognize it as the brand name of, shall we say, a type of personal lubricant. I also admit to finding Silva’s lazily meandering syntax running curlicue around fossilized fragments of corporate Newspeak and random science and technology terms to be infuriating. I’ve never before said that someone speaking extemporaneously needed an editor, but … did he do this interview high?
But at a deeper level, look at what Silva is really saying. He, like Mitch Horowitz and Gary Lachman and the ancient astronaut theorists and Graham Hancock and all the other operators on the fringes of science and belief, wants to be free from the strictures of science and society, to imagine a world pregnant with magic and retreat into the fantasia of childhood. It is a depressingly familiar refrain. I am reminded of Lovecraft’s words in “The Whisperer in Darkness”: “To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural law—to be linked with the vast outside—to come close to the nighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and the ultimate—surely such a thing was worth the risk of one’s life, soul, and sanity!” When he wrote those words in 1930, he was reflecting what Max Weber called the drive to reenchant a world that science and capitalism had ground into quotidian boredom. Nine decades later, we are still there.
And that’s what gets me. The people who tell their audiences that they are acting in the name of science (rightly or wrongly) eventually reveal themselves to be on a spiritual quest in search of the Sublime. They want to touch the divine, and to find in wonder and terror the fingerprints of the gods. I will concede, though, to finding myself surprised that most of these speculators identify the best ways to transcend mundane reality for the Sublime is through spending lots of money on experiences that everyday working people might need a lifetime to afford. Many seem to believe that personal self-indulgence, taking plenty of free time to engage in fantasy away from workaday responsibility, is the best path to spiritual rapture. It must be nice to either be rich enough to take weeks or months to go play somewhere exotic or to have a powerful corporation willing to pay for your vacations and altered states of consciousness. But it’s really just spiritual wish-fulfillment for their paying audiences, not unlike watching couples buy unaffordable McMansions on HGTV, or watching chefs cook $500 dinners on Food Network. It’s a beautiful dream, but one that very few will ever experience as anything but a dream.
There’s nothing wrong with searching for the Sublime or experiencing the joy of awe. But I’d like to see the seekers have the courage of their convictions and admit to what they’re really looking for. Silva alleges on his webpage, for example, that the search for awe has anti-inflammatory properties (that’s probably just the pot) and produces a measurable return on investment for workers and businesses in terms of enhanced productivity. Wrapping the spiritual in the clothing of science to cater to the prejudices of capitalism cheapens the whole experience and adds a layer of cynicism that gives a depressingly modern American veneer to an age-old desire.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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