California’s long-standing association with odd-ball spirituality is a brilliant topic for a study. And since it is far from automatic that a brilliant topic for a study results in a brilliant book, it is a delight to see that writer Erik Davis and photographer Michael Rauner have succeeded so well in their undertaking.
The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape is an intriguing register of spiritual places in the state of California. Davis has said that he wanted to write about locations were we can still see physical traces of something devout, places bearing witness to religious movements and pursuits. Location is a keyword – in fact people are curiously absent from the pictures – and thus Rauner’s photos not only illustrate Davis’ writing, they also set the premise for the text. Furthermore, Davis writes:
What ties together the sites we have chosen, is their visionary quality. What do I mean by visionary? It is a singular seeing, rooted in imagination and personal experience. The visionary person sees farther, or sees differently, and then draws others into the dream. Such visions are not inherently sublime – they can be tacky or mad or even terrifying. Disneyland was a vision of sorts, as was Hearst Castle, and McDonald’s. What is important in the life of California is the interplay between the visionary imagination and cultural invention, and how this creative fancy introduced an enchanted and sometimes sacred dimension to an often tacky world of cheap thrills, commerce, and trash.
Commonly unconventional Californian movements – philosophical as well as religious – are traced back to the hippies and the 1960s, sometimes to the Beatniks. But in The Visionary State the author thoroughly extends the narration to show how the alternative attitude is rooted further back in the state’s history. The gold rush was perhaps the pivotal point, when restless fortune seekers from all over the world came together and generated a cultural environment where one of the main experiences was that there are many different ways to see and do things. Davis and Rauner plots a wide-ranging cultural map, moving from geoglyphs in Blythe to Burning Man – from Mormons in Joshua Tree to the psychopharmacology of Alexander Shulgin – detouring and retouring with poets and charlatans, rock’n’roll clergies, UFO cults and campy mystics, sacred hedonists and prophets of the apocalypse, those who study themselves, those who study the stars – lost seekers, seeking losers, holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul* * … oh, Ginsberg, what have you done to me? – from Hearst Castle via the Spanish missions to the Manson family’s Death Valley shack, the blissful and the sinister, forwards and reversed. It adds up to a marvelous portrayal of California’s spiritual landscape – “restless, unresolved, with one foot in trash culture and the other in a vast, empty cosmos.”
Davis states in the book that this is “not a general overview of religion in California” – Native American and Mexican traditions are not very well covered, neither are the other most popular faiths. Instead the book is, in Davis’ own words, a “psycho-geography of California’s weird spirituality.”
The Visionary State is an inspiring read and a brilliant book!
Erik Davis books include TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information. Much of his work can be accessed at www.techgnosis.com He lives in San Francisco.
Michael Rauner is a San Francisco-based photographer and installation artist whose works reside in numerous collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. You can see some more of his work on his web page: www.michaelrauner.com
Martin Hoyem is a cultural anthropologist and the founder, publisher and editor of American Ethnography. Doing fieldwork among lowriders in Los Angeles and writing about outlaw aesthetics, he received his graduate degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Oslo in Norway. Hoyem has also done ethnographic fieldwork in fast food restaurants in Phoenix and Miami.
He spends a lot of time reading, and as a result he is outstandingly reflective when watching TV. All that education has—as we say—finally paid off … like, totally.