Grasping Towards A Map of High Weirdness [Trenchant Edges]

Everything's a Cliche Until It Happens To You.

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we mug would-be gurus and take their lunch money.

Today we want to look a little closer at High Weirdness because I got a couple of requests to explain it further and on looking at the explanation I gave in Taxonomy of Weirdness, I agree it’s not very good. Missing details.

More than Liminal

High Weirdness is, by definition, a liminal experience. That is, it occurs on the fringes and borders between two things, ideas, or places.

It’s both familiar and strange. Somewhat references existing tropes, but rarely in an obvious way.

Robert Johnson, the famous blues singer, didn’t sell his soul to the devil for blues fame in New Orleans or Memphis, but at some country crossroads in Mississippi. And if you’ve ever been to a Mississippi dirt crossroads at sundown, you can see why it’d be hard to rule the devil out there.

All of this is true but incomplete.

The defining features of High Weirdness are liminality, ineffability, authenticity, direct experience, and uncanniness.

Before we tackle them, let’s quickly map out what High Weirdness isn’t.

High Weirdness isn’t rumor, gossip, tall tale, or pulp fiction. That’s Low Weirdness.

High Weirdness isn’t organized religion, cults, or the occult. That’s Medium Weirdness.

High Weirdness is a direct encounter with the, “Here Be Monsters” part of old maps. An experience that simply doesn’t compute within a culture’s mainstream.

Reports of HW are often used in Low or Medium Weirdness, and are usually either exalted as miraculous or demeaned as gibberish.

Let’s take a look at a pulp example of a character having a moment of High Weirdness:

This red circle is, in the pulp story it comes from, a satellite outside of time that occasionally pops in to modify people to lead the way to the 2012 apocalypse the Invisibles is based around.

I picked this one out because it really gets across the ambiguity, confusion, and unexpectedness this kind of experience first brings about.

High Weirdness is always dubious, a quality intensified by the number of charlatans and frauds who claim such experiences. It also has a strong tendency to be deeply personally meaningful but useless to anyone else.

I’ve heard such experiences described as the universe winking at you and that gets across part of how it feels.

This is the important thing: Unless you’ve been there, any example of high weirdness is just a rumor or story to you.

I’ve built this newsletter around 3 examples of potential high weirdness: Terence McKenna’s Amazon psychedelic trips, Marshall McLuhan’s mind-warping theories, and the mixed bag of UFO phenomena.

Aside from personal interest, I picked these because they’re good examples of different kinds of weirdness. While it’s true we only have the McKenna brother’s word what happened out in Columbia in 1971, the whole affair very much reeks of a kind of authenticity.

Here’s an example: At one point during the experiment Terence was feeling very one with all things and opened his hand and appeared to summon a butterfly, which happily landed on his hand. He repeated this several times with success.

Realizing he’d finally found some repeatable proof that something unusual was happening, he went to one of the group’s skeptics to demonstrate his point.

It didn’t work while she was around.

Maybe it was the addition of a second mind, maybe it was his ego trying to show off, or maybe he made the whole thing up. But it just deepened the suspicions within the group.

Now, that’s a familiar detail for anyone who pushes the limits of human potential too far and tried to show off for someone else.

True Hallucinations especially is filled with moments like this.

They just have the right kind of vibe. So I’m not sure anything Terence describes in TH is true, but I am sure he’s found plenty of weirdness in his life.

McLuhan’s weirdness is slightly different as it’s about a different way of framing and understanding normal things and their effect on consciousness to seem uncanny.

So let’s go back to our list of qualities:

  • liminality

  • ineffability

  • authenticity

  • direct experience

  • uncanniness.

Liminality is the quality of being in a borderland between two places, conceptual or physical.

They’re in-between places, where expected definitions don’t work right, and one’s habitual reactions become maladaptive.

The Yin Yang symbol is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world and is all about pointing to the inherent liminality in any conceptual binary. Yin and Yang are defined by each other and therefore each blends into the other. There’s always Yin in Yang and always Yang in Yin.

In culture right now, the debate over how much we should support trans people is a hot-button issue of liminality. Otherwise decent people become very anxious when they discover their categories don’t apply the way they believed them to.

Typically they also get mad at those who complexify their worldview as well.

This unwillingness to embrace ambiguity is a kind of emotional immaturity for people who have never really felt their worldview hit an iceberg before.

Ineffability is the quality of being unmapped and possibly unmappable. My favorite line in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is his motto: “Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

Effing the ineffable is kinda my whole deal. And this blog is an admission I’ve failed about as much as everyone else there.

Now, some things are actually ineffable and some things only seem so. This is why trying to Eff them is so important, even if it’s often futile.

Authenticity is kind of a trap because our sense of authenticity is quite failable and most frauds know that if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made.

But there’s still a quality there we must try to interrogate: Is this real? Did this actually happen? What would it mean if it did?

I’d recommend having MUCH stricter standards for people selling shit than people who are just trying to cope with their experiences.

Direct Experience is about getting to touch the weirdness yourself. It can bear scrutiny because it’s actually happened rather than some reheated hearsay.

McKenna has a line I rather love about St Thomas’ skepticism being rewarded by being the only disciple to touch Jesus’ resurrected body. The story is usually presented as a failure of faith, but because of his skepticism, he got to do something none of the other disciples did.

Uncanniness is about being both strange and familiar. This concept is most well known for the “uncanny valley” where something that’s somewhat lifelike is creepy or off-putting where something less lifelike would just be comfortably recognized as animation.

THE B-LIST: Taking a short stroll through the Uncanny Valley – Shaw Local
As the only CATS movie stan, I deny there’s anything unusual about the horrible cat people in this image and/or film. Unrelated, it was the last movie I saw in a theater before the pandemic. No regrets.

For our purposes, we’re talking less about a lack of visual affinity and more about the way experiences of high weirdness will feel.

In perhaps the most repeatable of any example of high weirdness, smoking an effective dose of DMT will push you outside regular 3D reality into a hyperdimensional vortex of kaleidoscopic colors and shapes, all impossibly complex. This usually comes with a sense of being someplace else and possibly a sense of coming back home.

In my own experiences with the drug, I’ve literally had someone ask me, “What are you doing back so soon?” in a teasing way. There’s nothing quite like it outside high doses of other psychedelics, extreme transpersonal experiences, and/or very rare kinds of psychosis.

How Does High Weirdness Work?

Well, obviously we don’t know. I have a kind of a guess though.

But I think that’s best handled in its own email. Maybe I’ll add some more examples as well.