Psychedemia: The Discursive Boundaries of the "Psychedelic Renaissance"


 

The following article was presented in "Psychedelics, Power and Authority" at Breaking
Convention: A Multidisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness at the
University of Kent on April 2, 2011.

 

At the fourth
annual Horizons psychedelics conference in New York City last September, data
surfaced from a 2006 psilocybin study at Johns Hopkins University demonstrating
that roughly two-thirds of study participants had a mystical experience. Reacting
to this cross-circuiting of secular and mystical discourses, Erik Davis responded
by asserting, flatly: "We already knew that." The study, he claimed, was a
secularization and materialization of a spiritual experience — rather than a
discovery of a genuinely novel content. Davis continued, "The research model is
not sufficient…. Neurology is on a collision course with the full-on DMT
experience" (qtd. in Traveler).

That same weekend,
at Alex and Allyson Grey's CoSM upstate, Rick Strassman, M.D., participated in
a panel discussion for the premier screening of The Spirit Molecule, where he remarked:

How to explicate the full
meaning…of the psychedelic experience in this current wave of interest in
studying these drugs again? … I don't think that we can solely depend on
psychiatry to be the leader in discussing how these drugs work and their effect
and their application to everyday life. I think it has to be as
multidisciplinary a pursuit as possible, because the full psychedelic
experience impacts on everything — it impacts on art, anthropology, music,
religion, cosmology, physics, psychology, cognitive sciences, chemistry,
everything…. We don't want to overextend one discipline at the expense of the
other[s].

 

As Alex Grey expressed during the
same event, "Now with the gifts of science and scientific research, serious
interest is again making it legally possible to discuss these matters," but
this fortuitous resurgence of activity and attention demands a chorus of new
voices, new models and approaches. In part because of the recent conferences
like this one and the movements they represent, it is finally an appropriate
time to address the question of psychedelics and their continuing impact on
culture from multiple critical, academic perspectives — and to confront the
issues that have impeded these conversations during the past century.

There
is certainly a lot of excitement among the younger generation of psychedelic
researchers, including myself. In mid-January, the Multidisciplinary
Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) announced to attendees of their
recent "Catalysts" conference that they would be sponsoring a new listserv for
graduate students actively working or writing on some aspect of "psychedelic
culture, use, practice, or theory." Jim Fadiman wrote — in response to students
like myself, who found it difficult to locate support and mentorship for
psychedelic work — "It's time to build a national graduate student research
support network." We are incredibly grateful to both Jim and MAPS for stepping
up the tenor of the graduate community, and for instigating a truly, radically interdisciplinary network for
young scholars across the world. This is a significant event both for
psychedelic studies — since every other major academic subject has networks of
this or similar kind — and for academia at large, which often talks about but
falls short of realizing genuinely interdisciplinary work.

Yesterday
morning, I presented a paper at the American Comparative Literature
Association's annual conference in Vancouver, Canada on the concept of
"hyperspace" in relation to DMT. I explained that since the DMT experience is
notoriously difficult to integrate into the terms of "consensus" reality,
hyperspace has emerged as a framing mechanism that enables members of online
forums like the DMT-Nexus to articulate and co-create an alternative worldview.
My thesis was that even if we leave the ontological status of hyperspace
suspended, it functions as a Kantian "as-if" that pertains to a communicable,
phenomenological experience, which strengthens the cohesiveness of the DMT
countercultural community while manifesting a virtual hyperspace within the
internet's bounds.

This
is just one example of the manifold ways that psychedelics pertain and respond
to questions of philosophy, creativity, imagination, religion, culture, and
language, of which I'm sure most of you here are aware. The crucial step now is
to bring these conversations into the
university, into reading groups and
think tanks, and into conferences that usually cater to other subjects.

In
1970, R. A. Durr published a currently out-of-print book entitled, simply, Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience — which
I've been approved to teach to undergraduates during the Fall 2011 and Spring
2012 semesters. Durr's modest thesis argues that the core of the psychedelic
experience is identical to the heart of all romantic, mystical, and visionary
literature through the ages — "moments of vivid awareness, of intense realization
of and absorption in the immediacy of life" (Durr 37). By close reading psychedelic
reports alongside excerpts of poetry, Durr cites the persistence of topics such
a sense of timelessness, a transcendence of the self, and a transfigured view
of the everyday world.

And
the stakes are significant. As Durr remarks, "We are in need of a kind of
philosophy of vision, an intellectual grasp of its nature and recognition of
its value, so that the psychedelic or imaginative experience may be
incorporated into our lives as wisdom" (49-50). A review of Durr's book in The Journal of English and Germanic
Philology
hailed it as the herald of a new subfield of psychedelic literary
studies, but sadly, this field failed to materialize.

Not
because people lost interest, of course. While the full extent of the cultural inhibitions
and reaction formations to this material are too pervasive to cover here, the
significance of the new movements of visionary art in the context of art
history are illustrative. The visionary art of Amanda Sage, Michael Divine,
Adam Scott Miller and others is spiritual, optimistic, and performative — which
is to say it aims to do
something — whereas the academy is still entrenched in an outdated notion of a
secular, ironic postmodernism. Whereas postmodernism is predicated on an
absence of perspectival view and an ironic coexistence of temporalities,
performative works create their own temporalities and perspectives. They create
worlds and ways of seeing: performances in and of context.

Additionally,
there is a long list of "buzzwords" associated with psychedelic discourse that
leads to immediate disqualification from being taken seriously in a university
setting, including "spirit," "destiny," "prophecy," "psychic," "aliens,"
"channels," et cetera. This is a large reason why Terence McKenna, possibly the
greatest psychedelic philosopher of our time, is completely absent from
university syllabi, where he definitely belongs. The ideas which he champions
have consequences reaching far beyond the psychedelic community, which has
ultimately been his sole audience. The media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whom
McKenna greatly admired and who championed very similar ideas, has nearly been
relegated to the same fate.

In
his essay, "The Humanities in the Electronic Age" (1961), McLuhan highlighted
the radical character of the epochal shift facing humanity, arguing that the
transition from the "mechanical" to the "electric age" requires a corresponding
transformation in the nature and function of the humanities. He writes:

[T]he discovery of
the twentieth century [is]…the discovery of the process of insight itself, the
technique of avoiding the automatic closure of involuntary fixing of attitudes
that so easily results from any given cultural situation. The technique of open
field perception…is a method of organized ignorance[,]…the means of abstracting
oneself from the bias and consequences of one's own culture…. [T]he technique
of the suspended judgment…means, not the willingness to admit other points of
view, but the technique of how not to have a point of view. (McLuhan 8; 10; 11)

 

McLuhan, who saw the university's
potential to promote and explore this capacity, is explaining a notion similar
to McKenna's description of "resetting your operating system," a function that
McKenna associates with psychedelic use. These two figures-along with Jacques
Derrida, who is also disparaged but highly regarded-are aware of the inability
of existing constructions (such as logocentrism and obsolete media) to account
for future developments or even contemporaneous alternatives, and they are
interested in how the knowledge of ideological contingency (of the effects of
media and of psychedelic experience) influences existing ideological
structures. In an interview, Derrida explains that "the future is necessarily
monstrous: the figure of the future, … that for which we are not prepared, … is
heralded by a species of monsters" (Derrida 386-37).

There
is clearly work to be done, and the only hope for a future university "without
condition" depends on assembling an army of monsters-a species of monsters. A species
of prophets, perhaps. The Derridas and McLuhans and McKennas of the world need
to be able to communicate, and not just on the level of one myth facing
another. There is much to be learned from a conversation blending absolute
alterity with boundless creativity, and the future of the humanities depends on
the uninhibited cooperation of these different strands of thought.

One
crucial step in this direction involves developing critical rationales and
precedents for investigating issues like hyperspace entities within a mainstream
academic conversation. Thought experiments, acknowledged as such, should be encouraged rather than taboo. Rick
Strassman writes in Inner Paths to
Outerspace
:

The only explanatory model that
held itself out as the most intuitively satisfying, yet the most theoretically
treacherous, involved assigning a parallel level of reality to these
experiences. In other words, I engaged in a thought experiment…. I had to
accept their8 reports as descriptions of things that were "real." I allowed
myself, at least theoretically, to accept that under the influence of DMT,
these things do happen-in reality, although not in a reality we usually
inhabit. (Strassman 75)

 

The Western, positivist
fetishization of the seen over the unseen impedes our ability to discuss viable
alternatives to the capitalist, mechanistic worldview, which is pushed on us by
the media and what is laughably described as "education." Even if we are
eventually able to "prove" the nonexistence of hyperspace, what good does it do
us to shut down avenues of inquiry just because they blister against our temporary,
contingent ideological constructions?

Literary theory
can finally provide us with justifications for creative explorations within
these and other domains. As an extension of the "absurdist philosophy" known as
‘pataphysics, which I studied in a graduate literature seminar earlier this
semester, "pataphor" is a term referring to a metaphor gone cataclysmic,
seeking to "describe a new [and] separate world, in which an idea or aspect has
taken on a life of its own" (‘Pataphysics).
Taking the notion of hyperspace and running with it, in other words. As
described in an article on Reality
Sandwich
, "psychotic knowledge" is "produced by ripping apart the fabric of
consensual reality." It is psychotic "from the perspective of the hegemonic
paradigm that cannot permit multiple realities," encouraging the retention of
sanity while remaining open to new horizons of possibility. Alien intelligence,
vine spirits, and eschatologies are ideas that can be played with, in ways that
don't depend on absolute truth values for intellectual significance.

In Inner Paths to Outer Space, Rick
Strassman writes:

Within traditional Western
academic settings, anthropology is the field that has focused attention on
psychedelic plant use and the role of these plants in the societies that use
them. More than any other field, it has maintained the flame of interest in
these plants and drugs over several hundred years of Western suppression of all
information about them. Within the last sixty to seventy years, however, it has
been within the medical-scientific framework, primarily psychiatry, psychology,
and the neurosciences, that our culture has viewed and understood psychedelic
drugs. (Strassman 13)

It is time that
literature and philosophy join these disciplinary ranks.

Thank you.

 

Works
Cited

Burge,
Brad, and Jim Fadiman. "Message to Attendees of Catalysts: The Impact of
Psychedelics on Culture…" Message to the author. 19 Jan. 2011. E-mail.

Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Weber. Points…:
Interviews, 1974-1994
. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. Print.

DMT:
The Spirit Molecule – CoSM Premiere
. Dir. Richard Grove. Prod. The Tragedy
and Hope Online Community. Perf. Mitch Schultz, Rick Strassman, Alex Grey, and
Allyson Grey. YouTube. 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.
<;.

Durr,
R. A. Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience. Syracuse, NY:
Syracuse UP, 1970. Print.

McLuhan,
Marshall. "The Humanities in the Electronic Age." Marshall McLuhan -
Unbound. Ed. Eric McLuhan and W. Terrence Gordon. Vol. 7. Corte Madera, CA:
Ginko, 2005. Print.

"'Pataphysics."
Wikipedia. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/';Pataphysics>.

Shunyamurti.
"The Ascendance of Psychotic Knowledge." Reality Sandwich. Web. 30
Mar. 2011. <http://www.realitysandwich.com/node/78438&gt;.

Strassman,
Rick, Slawek Wojtowicz, Luis Eduardo Luna, and Ede Frecska. Inner Paths to Outer Space: Journeys to
Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies
.
Rochester, VT: Park Street, 2008. Print.

Traveler,
Jedi Mind. "Psychedelics and Human Destiny: Notes from the Horizons
Conference." Reality Sandwich. 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.
<http://www.realitysandwich.com/node/69500&gt;.

Image by retinafunk, courtesy of Creative Commons license.