Psychiatric Power and Taboo in Modern Psychedelia




In the April 20 edition of the New York Times Magazine, a front-page article appeared outlining the current state of scientific research in the field of psychedelic medicine.  The article -- entitled "How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death" -- described clinical trials in which substances such as psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA have been administered to adult volunteers suffering from a variety of medical conditions, ranging from cluster headaches to life-threatening forms of cancer.  Such research has become increasingly common during the last two decades, with numerous studies gaining F.D.A. approval and receiving the support of prominent institutions such as Harvard and Johns Hopkins.  The result of this trend has been the formation of a new paradigm of psychedelic practice -- one defined by a thoroughgoing medicalization of psychedelic discourse; a scientific professionalization of access to, and control over, psychedelic experiences; and an incorporation of psychedelic chemicals into the pharmacopeia of modern industrial medicine.

For the most part, the novelty of this paradigm lies not in the discovery of new information about the healing powers of psychedelic substances, but in the emergence of a new political and scientific apparatus within which a range of legitimate psychedelic investigations can be carried out.  Essential to the functioning of this apparatus is the cultivation of a reformed public image, based on the appearance of a rupture with the "dangerous" psychedelic experiments of the American counterculture of the past fifty years.  Accordingly, as with much recent commentary on the subject, one finds that the New York Times Magazine article is written in a kind of doxastic code.  "Anti-Leary" is the term used by Dr. Charles Grob -- one of the psychiatrists interviewed in the article -- to describe the outlook he shares with other members of the new professional class of psychedelic researchers.  This attitude is echoed elsewhere by some of the earliest and most influential proponents of legitimized psychedelic research, who invoke the dangers of "unsupervised" and "uncontrolled" use of psychedelics, and lament the "misuse and improper use" that, in their judgment, characterized the "drug culture" of the 1960s and 70s.

This attempt to identify "improper" experimentation with the figure of Timothy Leary also situates the new wave of psychedelic research in relation to an older sectarian debate over the appropriate use of psychedelics in modern society.  As the psychedelic experience suddenly emerged as an object of critical reflection for Anglophone intellectuals in the 1950s and 60s, Leary came to represent the "populist" side of this debate, in contrast to figures such as Aldous Huxley, who believed psychedelics should be reserved for an elite class of visionaries and cultural pioneers. However, there was another dimension to Leary's role in this controversy -- his refusal to confine his psychedelic experiments within the boundaries of established scientific protocol -- and it is this aspect of Leary's legacy that his present-day opponents find most disturbing.  

The coded discourse of the New York Times Magazine article reveals the extent to which the public debate on psychedelics has shifted, in recent years, in favor of this "Anti-Leary" prejudice.  Whereas in the 1960s, the central rift was between advocates of institutional research, on the one hand, and proponents of free, "unsupervised" experimentation on the other, now the problem of psychedelics is addressed almost exclusively within the framework of scientific oversight and control.  Both sides of the intellectual polarity set up in the New York Times Magazine article, for example, fall squarely within the "Anti-Leary" end of the spectrum. 

Rick Doblin, whom the article casts as its token representative of psychedelic "populism," is the founding director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization whose primary mission is to finance and publicize clinical research carried out by scientific institutions in collaboration with government regulatory agencies.  Doblin's supposed "populism" consists in his willingness to extend the scientific legitimation of psychedelic research beyond the treatment of terminally and severely ill patients to include the general promotion of psychological health and self-realization among members of the undiagnosed population.  While this approach holds the promise of facilitating access to psychedelic drugs for law-abiding individuals unburdened by serious medical conditions, it leaves the more difficult question of the appropriateness of scientific, psychotherapeutic, and state-regulatory models for the administration of psychedelic experiences largely unexamined.

Even as the terms of the public discourse on psychedelics move further in this clinicalized, regulatory direction, cultures of independent psychedelic exploration continue to grow in both influence and complexity.  Indeed, without trivializing the efforts of MAPS and other scientific researchers to actualize the healing powers of psychedelic medicine, it must be acknowledged that the vast majority of successful psychedelic experimentation throughout human history has been carried out independent of scientific, medical, and state oversight.  The inability of the new legitimizing discourse to take this body of research into account is symptomatic of a deeply rooted taboo in modern civilization on the matter of psychedelic experience.  This taboo is not reducible to the legal prohibition of psychedelic substances, as instituted by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, though criminalization is one of its functions.  Rather, it is a taboo that conceals, distorts, and excludes specific channels of information made available in the course of psychedelic experience -- information that implies a fundamental break with the metaphysical order upon which industrial mass society is based.  By seeking to incorporate the powers of psychedelic experience into the institutional and philosophical matrix of modern science, the new paradigm of psychedelic research participates in the enforcement of this taboo, even as it tries to ameliorate some of its inhumane effects.  

The logic by which this taboo operates is illustrated in paradigmatic form by the discursive regime of the New York Times Magazine article, "How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death."  As indicated by the title, the key medical breakthrough attributed to psychedelics in the article is their ability to aid certain individuals in establishing a modified relationship to death.  Elsewhere, a leading psychiatric researcher claims that psychedelic substances, taken under favorable conditions, have the power to "alleviate or even eliminate" fear of death, and "to positively transform the experience of dying," in those who receive them. 

Patients approaching the end-stages of a terminal illness have been the principal subjects of research in this area, and the New York Times Magazine article focuses almost exclusively on such cases, reporting their results as the latest achievements of cutting-edge medical science.  However, far from being confined to any narrow clinical context, the relation to death is a problem that must be faced by all civilized human beings.  Indeed, this problem, rooted in the modern-historical conception of death as the absolute negation of the existence of the separate self, is one of the fundamental sources of the suffering and alienation inherent in civilized life.  It is not only the sudden awareness of mortality brought on by extreme illness, but the unbearable, irresolvable consciousness of death inscribed in all lapsarian worldviews, that calls for our attention.  And yet the New York Times Magazine article excludes the possibility that psychedelics could be utilized by independent experimenters to break through the pain and fear encoded in the modern consciousness of death.  On the contrary, the author assumes from the outset that such transformative effects of psychedelics do not actually manifest beyond the boundaries of institutional and clinical studies -- an assumption which many readers of this journal will recognize as patently false.  

This denial of common psychedelic experience, on the part of the "paper of record," is made possible by a background of manufactured consensus on the subject of psychedelics -- a background that is not fundamentally distinct from the generalized cultural consensus maintained by the New York Times and other agents of mass media.  Within this controlled environment, the use of psychedelics is classified by default as a form of criminal activity, and independent psychedelic experimenters are relegated to the status of criminals, worthy of punishment.  Far from qualifying as healing or spiritual behavior, the activity of seeking transformative experiences through the ingestion of LSD or psilocybin is defined as an immoral, pathological state -- a state of being "on drugs." 

Moreover, even when psychedelic experiences are recognized by the user as possessing extraordinary healing or revelatory value, this value is ultimately explained away as a by-product of hallucination, or as an anomalous episode of merely subjective enthusiasm.  In this way, the civilizational taboo on psychedelic experience is enforced through an encoded logic of exclusion and pathologization, according to which the user of psychedelic substances is identified as a degenerate, criminal, and abnormal subject, capable only of errant or delusional perceptions, contributing nothing of enduring transformative benefit or truth-value to the wider community.  

With the institution of a new scientific and professional model for the use of psychedelics, a place is established in the dominant cultural order for psychedelic substances, along with a new set of mechanisms by which the taboo on psychedelic experience can be formalized, regulated, and systematically applied.  Under this regime, not only psychedelic experiences, but the need for psychedelic experience, becomes defined according to technically precise categories of health and pathology.  Access to psychedelic substances is restricted on the basis of these categories, with the new quasi-priestly class of psychedelic scientists serving as official gatekeepers and mediators of psychedelic knowledge.  A new discourse is generated, in which the normative, clinical analysis of the mediating expert is prioritized over the "first-person" perspective of direct, unmediated experience. 

The result is a meta-psychedelic form of knowledge -- a predominantly "third-person" form of knowledge about the clinical effects of psychedelic substances -- which increasingly supersedes any immediate receptivity to the information contained and transmitted in the experiences themselves.  Taking this logic one step further, the very nature and content of the subject's own experience comes to be governed by the norms of clinical psychiatry -- with its underlying values of instrumental reason and functional self-integration -- while the crucial particulars of set and setting are micromanaged by professionals to serve these normative ends.  Most fundamentally, the metaphysical decision, built into this scientific apparatus, to psychologize the contents of psychedelic experience, thereby reducing novel discoveries to projections of a nonmaterial subjective consciousness, sets strict limits on what realms can be traversed in the course of psychedelic experimentation.  The mere fact that we call our experiences "psychedelic" ("mind-manifesting") indicates the extent to which this reduction is built into our engagement with extra-worldly dimensions, such that, in the modern world, the psychedelic experience is defined primarily by a resistance to the revelations that can occur when the limits of normal waking consciousness are temporarily suspended.  



Coda: Reconjurations

The attempt to control and re-engineer psychedelic experience according to the norms of scientific discipline perpetuates a longstanding defensive strategy against experiences that violate the metaphysical boundaries of the modern-historical worldview.  Ultimately, this strategy requires not only a denial or absorption of the ecstatic experiences of independent modern investigators, but an active suppression of the vast psychedelic prehistory of the human species.  In addition to promoting universal pathways of experience that would burst open the modern-historical conception of death, prehistoric and tribal cultures have long maintained free and open contact with interdimensional, extraterrestrial, and transrational zones of intelligibility through the use of psychedelic materials.  Under the modern gaze of scientific mediation, the implications of these boundary-crossing experiences are subjected to a series of a priori restrictions and assimilations, until psychedelic phenomena are divested of their original cosmic force and absorbed into the order of scientific knowledge.  (In a similar fashion, such phenomena may be viewed from the supposedly privileged standpoint of anthropological observation, thus withdrawing their content from immediate experiential consideration and reducing them to the status of cultural artifacts.)     

To some extent, this process is coextensive with the ongoing destruction of tribal lifeways, and the violent harvesting of aboriginal knowledge for the advancement of civilizational ends.  However, as much of the information revealed by ancient psychedelic practices cannot be fully accommodated by the epistemology and metaphysics of modern science, the strategy of appropriation has often given way to one of exclusion, pathologization, and willful ignorance.  In still other cases, more or less systematic efforts have been made to recover the memory of prehistoric psychedelic experience in the form of myths, esoteric religious images, and fantasy, but the information preserved in these media likewise becomes devalued and domesticated as it is separated from its origin in direct transconscious experience.  Even the most sympathetic efforts to analyze psychedelic experiences in modern psychological or spiritual terms are implicitly designed to uproot their content from the domain of empirical reality, thereby neutralizing any threat to the modern image of humankind and its place in the universe.  By operating within this restricted metaphysical framework, it becomes possible to harness the power of psychedelic experience, making it work on behalf of the rational self and its "healthy" integration into the order of civilized existence.  

Subordinated to the demands of rational representation, the common information disclosed in psychedelic experiences is buried beneath the edifice of specialized knowledge, obscuring the fact that, for many millennia, prehistoric humans enjoyed widespread, communally shared interaction with the extra-worldly dimensions opened up by psychedelics, and were able to accept these dimensions as part of the natural interplay of vast cosmic forces.  Psychoactive plants, fungi, and other naturally-occurring psychedelic agents facilitated the transmission of vital information to the human species, and constant refinement of this network of inter-species relationships allowed the channels of psychedelic communication to remain open.  That such experiences still occur, despite all the efforts to convert psychedelics into standardized industrial medicine, suggests the presence of an endogenous factor in these experiences, an innate ecological spark or nexus that connects human beings to psychedelic dimensions as part of our inalienable nature.  What these experiences also imply, if we receive their lessons somewhat optimistically, is that the modern-historical worldview, which so far has been only a brief aberration in the evolution of our species, lacks the power to separate us completely from our thousand-centuried prehistoric heritage, and that by reawakening the flows of our immanent ecology, which wire us naturally into psychedelic infinity, we affirm the possibility of breaking out of our strange, silent dormancy, and of listening again to the multitude of voices that remind us of what we are and have always been.




Image by Twid, courtesy of Creative Commons license.