REALITY SANDWICH IS PSYCHEDELIC CULTURE
Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

 

The following was originally presented as a lecture at
Duke University, January 2010; originally printed in Trigger93: The Word,
Volume 1.

 

"The
brain is just the weight of God," wrote Emily Dickinson,

For,
lift them, pound to pound,

And
they will differ, if they do,

As
syllable from sound.[1]

 

Poets
must be shamans of a particular kind, playing with language, which means
playing with interpretations, tricks of reference, and heart-rending ambiguity.
It is a tremendous thing, the ultimate estranging Enlightenment thing, to
reduce God to an entity that, like the brain, can be weighed and compared pound
to pound. But then once you have taken that plunge, it is hard to resist going
the whole hog and asking literal questions: how much might he weigh, and whether
his weight is constant and whether, like an Old Testament god such as Brecht's
Baal, he might be prone to stuffing himself with food and drink and blowing out
into a many pounded god indeed? Is he middle class so that even if he is god of
the fast-food nation he can yet remain like Bill Clinton slim and trim, as is
not only proper, nowadays, but is the sort of miracle that only he could pull
off and that America sorely needs? Is he even a guy?

Of
all organs, the brain strikes me as especially uncanny to look at and to hold
and to eat, too. Is this because it is quote unquote the seat of consciousness,
which must be very close to god, especially when you consider the very strange
status of that piece of it called the pineal gland, seen by different
philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, as the guardian of the threshold where
matter and ideas, things
and god, meet? Ah! The pineal gland, that good old friend lost in swirling
deconstructing mists of con-fusion, its importance way bigger than its
diminutive size, more like a syllable than a sound, like Kafka's doorman to the
law who likes to keep you waiting way past bedtime.

Well
that was a long time ago, you say, so now I should, like a good scientist,
bring you up to date and tell you about a professor who came to my campus in
Ann Arbor as a special guest of the philosophy department and who was kind
enough to give a little talk to the anthropologists on certain aspects of the
topic of his invention known as "sociobiology." When he was done, a graduate
student challenged his reduction of mind to matter, and she did so in a rather persistent
manner. The visitor brought out two words that I recall well — talk about poetry!
One was "preprint," which was new to me, and the other was — well you guessed
it — our old friend the pineal gland. He had a preprint with him he said,
gesturing vainly to his back pocket, and went on to sketch in the miraculous
role of the pineal gland — what I call Kafka's guardian — in pulling off the
greatest alchemical trick of all time, converting chemical and electrical impulses
into thoughts and god knows what else god knows.

Poets
must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being their
tools of trade, and here I cannot but wonder at the relationship between
"preprint" and pineal gland, as if the pineal gland is the permanently
preprinting device, that god-awesome potential behind all potentiation, the
dream and vision almost within grasp that, yes!, with a little more of a nudge
and a little more money from the National Science Foundation, will — like
infinitesimal calculus — keep on closing the gap between soul and electricity,
thought and genes, mind and matter…such that finally, on the Day of Judgment perhaps,
we shall be able to fuse the two into one, like cheese melting into the pizza
crust.

I
wonder, however, if reduction of this order can ever be achieved without the
miracle working pizza god? For as the professor reached for his preprint, he
became pale — perhaps the preprint was not there or was only in the pre-preprint
stage — and he slowly slid off his chair into a dead faint. Boy, were his hosts
in the philosophy department worried, running around in circles looking for a
wet handkerchief while casting dirty looks at that graduate student who was
basically doing nothing more than following graduate school protocol in going for
the jugular, as they say. Others might call it murder, or at the least
manslaughter, and still others sorcery. Slowly he recovered consciousness and
was led away by his handlers to deliver, next day, a robust declaration
concerning sociobiology. But you do have to wonder. Perhaps the pineal gland
misfired or something? Who knows?

On
the other hand might this not have been a fortuitous ascent into the higher
realms of consciousness whereby the soul escapes the body for a lofty purpose,
thereby contributing in no small measure to the power and brilliance of his
lecture the following day? Who knows. Poets must be shamans of a particular
kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being their tools of trade, and of course
picturing too, as in a blacked out lecture hall in an old Midwestern university
where a slide-show is going on sometime around 1980. Up on the stage a strongly
built academic is in his three-piece suit lecturing on his favorite theme,
ethnobotany, a field he claims to have invented or at least put on the map. The
hall is large and full of people.

The
slide-show takes us to the Amazon looking for rubber for the USA during World
War II and then, lo and behold!, we come across some Indians with their strange
hair-dos and body paint and near nakedness. Why! They are taking drugs! Some
rare snuff you get blown up you nose through a hollow bird bone the shape of a
"Y."

In
the dark, the lecturer is but a vague shadow manipulating the images that come
out of nowhere to fall like blessed light on the screen. The face of one of
those Indians now occupies the whole screen. It is a face covered with
yellow-green mucus. He is cross-eyed and out of focus. Heaven forbid, he is
taking a psychedelic drug. The hall is deathly quiet.

"They
call this drug their god," says the man in the three-piece suit. His voice
reverberates.

He
pauses, a blur in the dark, "I will show you what their god is!"

Poets
must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being their
tools of trade, along with their picturing. The screen goes black for a moment
and is then filled with the most serene blue, that celestial blue of the
ceilings of churches in the countryside in Colombia, that same celestial blue I
saw repeatedly in medical school in Australia in biochemistry classes, the
trick being that the white outline of the hexagonal benzene ring is thereby
brilliantly set off and easy to read.

And
here it was again. Twenty years had passed. And here it was again. That same
blue. That heavenly blue. And that same hexagon, albeit with a few more bells
and whistles.

"This is their god!"

And
there was their god. A hexagon ring on its bed of celestial blue. The audience
gasped and tittered and I, who had also taken hallucinogens with the Indians in
the Amazon, walked out, stumbling in the
dark and leaving them to further enlightenment.

So
by all means let us talk about science and religion, but first let us talk a
little about the art of science including its shamanism and the art of out-shamanizing
the other shaman, which is what most of shamanism is about anyway.

What
the man in the three-piece suit did not get, at least consciously, and ditto
the audience, was the stupendous fact that in replacing "their god" with a
biochemical formula he was actually showing us his
god and implicitly urging us to accept this god as ours as well.

The
translation of god into a hexagon is pretty much the same as the pre-print of
the pineal gland in that in trying to close the gap by reducing god to a
chemical, you become aware that the gap can never be closed. The cheese will
not melt into the pizza. The magical thing — the formula — is itself just that:
magical, a symbol, if you like, standing in for something else that leads to
another something else ad nauseam. Hexagons all the way down.

Moreover
the man in the three-piece suit is piggy backing on them naked Indians and
their gods of the pre-print era. He uses them to cancel themselves out in place
of science. But he does not realize that in cancelling them out this way he is
actually in need of their power — their symbolic power, if you like — so that as
with Hegel's aufhebung he is utterly dependent on the ghost in the
machine, the act he is reacting against, victim of the anxiety of influence
that befalls us all. This is nothing more than the missionary position as well
as that of the conquistadores, building churches on top of their
temples.

Finally,
I hardly need to bring to your attention the ritual upon which all this
depends-the darkened room, the man with the magic wand-i.e. pointer, the magic
of the slides, the abrupt montage action from the mucus smeared face to the
celestial blue of chemistry, and of course the exotic nature of the subject
matter, all mustered together to provide a mighty wallop.

Poets
must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being part
of their trade, so it would only be fair for me to tell you about my own
performance as an academic giving the lowdown on magic and the religion-science
interface. It was many years ago in 1972 in the whitewashed colonial city of
Popayan in Southern Colombia and I was giving an academic talk — my very first — to
an audience of students and professors in a room in the Casa Mosquera in the
oldest university in the Americas. A job was being advertised in the anthropology
department and I had elected as my title "Brujeria y Estructura Social"
(Witchcraft and Social Structure), having been impressed by two things that had
happened to me recently. One was my discovery of sorcery and the other was my
desperate search for enlightenment on this obscure and eerie topic — it never
having been part of my orthodox Marxist sociological training at the LSE.

With
the luxury of hindsight I now see that my lecture title was intended to impress
my prospective audience with a finely balanced tension between mystery and
science, as with the magical word "estructura" or "structure," the implication
of that one word being that science had magic by the balls, so to speak.

When
I got off the bus after a three hour trip up the Andes from the hot sugarcane
valley where I lived, I was both surprised and proud to see in bold black
letters on yellow parchment on the venerable whitewashed walls all over town
that a "Dr. Michael Taussig from the University of London" was going to give a
talk on "Witchcraft and Social Structure." Later I realized that this
advertising all over town was responsible for the large number of elderly women
seated in the front rows of that room in the Casa Mosquera, silent as mice but
with anticipation all over their faces. It turned out that they were witches
themselves or attached to spirit centers of dubious repute.

Opening
with a description of the poverty in the sugarcane areas, I used the word barriga
to describe the swollen stomachs of a near majority of kids because of
malnutrition and intestinal parasites. Like a shot, a professor of
anthropology — who had extensive rice farms in that region and had written on
tobacco among Colombian Indians for the same ethnobotany department that the
man in the three piece suit had founded — stood up shouting that he didn't want
to hear any more of this demagoguery and that the word barriga was
vulgar usage. I was staggered. But no sooner had he spat out what he had to say
than a bunch of vociferous students stood up and shouted at him that he was the
demagogic one! I have no idea how I finished my talk but I do recall the
glistening eyes of the elderly ladies in the front row.

However
I did finish, to tepid applause, only to be met by a strident call to arms from
the back of the room. With the voice of a preacher, a man in his thirties
implored the audience to take account of the work of Sir Isaac Newton. "Once
you reckon with that," he thundered, "you will realize there is no such thing
as witchcraft." The women in front were spellbound, as was I. "This must be
like what happened in the days of Enlightenment," I thought to myself, "in Paris,
London, and Konigsberg."

To
say the least I was confused and a little scared by the passions aroused as one
of the elderly women approached me, smiling, with her card advertising a spirit
center. With my title advertised all around town — Witchcraft and Social
Structure — I had come looking for a job as a scientific anthropologist. To
polish my wares I had industriously applied the poetics-of-mystery versus the
revelatory powers-of-science, allowing the concept of "structure" to do the
heavy lifting, so as to allow science to have the final say. And what had
happened? The witches took me as one of their own and the students, who had at
first rushed to my defense, finished up by throwing Marxist and Enlightenment
stones, identifying me in the same way as did the elderly ladies, as a
spokesman for witchcraft. Everything was twisted upside down. Truly witchcraft
is a trying phenomenon. There seemed no room for the neutral, dispassionate observer
because description was conflated with advocacy — first by the large rice farm
owner, professor of anthropology, interpreting my description as demagogic
leftism, and later by the students, or some of them, conflating my description
with advocacy of something that, according to them, did not exist or, if it
did, should not. Their dilemma was that of outlawing something that in their
eyes did not exist. This must have been the same dilemma facing administration in
the colonies of the European powers. What good would Sir Isaac Newton provide me
in such a situation, especially as I was now on the side of the witches?

Poets
must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being part
of their trade, and here I was, the scientist, caught by poetics and hung out
to dry. Let us review the evidence.

First,
the sociobiologist, the ethnobotanist, and I myself, were all operating in
fields overlapping with, or fully within, the human and social sciences.
Second, we were each of us operating in one of the preeminent theaters of
scientific discussion, namely the lecture theater. Third, each one of us acted
like shamans in using our trick of the trade-language, our mumbo jumbo such as
the pineal gland, the "pre-print," the biochemical formula, and in my case the
ever-ready workhorse of "structure." Fourth, in each case we were addressing issues
of consciousness, and in my case and that of the ethnobotanist, that of
religion and magic, making a real mess of things. We were novices because we
had gotten the science-magic thing ballsed up. We were totally taken in by
scientism and the mythology of the detached observer, oblivious to our social
and mythic contexts and the impact our selves made in those contexts. We were
in fact using implicit magic to contain magic. We were using ritual and theater
to contain ritual and theater. And we were using poetry to out-maneuver the
poetry inherent to all human understanding and activity. And we failed. We were
not up to the task. Maybe the ethnobotanist got away with it. You can't beat a
magic lantern show and he had enormous prestige and the right audience, young
science jocks like himself. And plants are guarantees of innocence and honesty,
not to mention beauty.

But
we were not good enough because we were confused without knowing we were
confused. We thought we were fighting the good fight against obscurantism and
mumbo jumbo, magic, and religion, etc., in the name of genetics and Darwin,
biochemistry, and structure. But willy nilly without being aware, we were
actually practicing the same stealth arts we thought we were fighting, and from
which we thought we were immune. If only we had started afresh, with the poets,
and listened to Emily Dickinson, "The brain is wider than the sky,"

For,
put them side by side,

The
one the other will include

With
ease, and you beside.[2]

 


[1]
Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
(Boston: Little, Brown,

and Company, 1924), Part One: Life,
CXXVI (126).

 

[2]
Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
(Boston: Little, Brown,

and Company, 1924), Part One: Life,
CXXVI (126).

 

Related Posts

The Keeper of the Fire: Shamanic Initiation

The growing spiritual movement and neo-shamanic community are hotly debating a number of questions, such as: What is the role and relevancy of shamanism in our modern world? Who is a shaman? What function must a person perform to be called a shaman?

Read More »
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!