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>;.

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>;.

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