Calling all Lacanians: assist me in grappling with the implications of the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London — the cat Michael Pollan discusses in How to Change Your Mind. On the one hand, I regard Carhart-Harris as a justifier of hierarchy by way of the language-game “neuroscience”; on the other hand, I hear him reinventing the Freudian repression hypothesis, and with it, a way of theorizing the potential liberatory political effects of LSD. By ruse of reason, he thus lends capitalist-science ammo to the cause of Acid Communism. It’s as simple as telling a story and heads begin to change. A combination of new science and secret history. One can transmit alterations of consciousness via language. Spread by words, truth changes. This is the key linking psychedelic consciousness-raising and revolution. As Carhart-Harris puts it in the Pollan book, “a class of drugs with the power to overturn hierarchies in the mind and sponsor unconventional thinking has the potential to reshape users’ attitudes toward authority of all kinds” (as quoted in Pollan 315). We can use psychedelics to grow new organs and redraw cognitive maps. Heads are in this one sense, at least, what the Whole Earth Catalog people always said they were: tool freaks, evolving an anti-authoritarian brain chemistry into the nature of being. Tinker with the default mode networks of enough language-users and the world that we imagine to be received via the senses will appear transformed.
With its large, curtain-less, floor-to-ceiling window facing out onto a public street, my meditation room is a place of display, equal part studio and stage, wherein I perform and exhibit my daily being for others. It is in that sense much like these trance-scripts, which I imagine, by the way, to be a kind of Acid Communist variant upon the Prison Notebooks, the mind partaking in consciousness-raising and revolution while the body sits in a box. I know, of course, the absurdity of that comparison. I, for instance, lack accomplishment in any memorable, “world-historical” sense, unlike Gramsci, who headed the Italian Communist Party. My life unfolds in the long American slumber at the end of history, whereas the final years of Gramsci’s unfolded in one of Mussolini’s prisons. Did he, while “doing time,” as they say, ever abscond from the office of public intellectual? I hope he did. I hope he allowed his thoughts to dwell now and then upon the Self as consciousness and condition. Perhaps not, though. Perhaps he refused himself the luxury of “mere subjectivism,” as some of us might say—perhaps even “on principle,” as a “man of science,” his writing free of all trace of the personal. The moments I most admire in the Western Marxist tradition, however, are precisely the opposite: those “trip reports,” those brief phenomenologies of individual everyday being that we find, say, in Fredric Jameson’s report of his encounter with the Bonaventure Hotel in the famous “Postmodernism” essay, or in the confessional poetry in all but name of certain post-WWII French intellectuals like Sartre and Lefebvre. Devising a theory of Acid Communism will require a reappraisal not just of Gramsci and these others, but also of the so-called “Lacanian” turn, the late-60/early-70s moment of Althusserian Marxism in Europe and the UK, with its self-espoused anti-humanism and all of its other insights and peculiarities—all of this re-envisioned, basically, in light of the ideas and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Stanislav Grof. Because today’s heads, after all, exist amid vastly different circumstances. Why look for answers in so distant and so marginal a past? By the time Jameson was writing the “Postmodernism” essay for New Left Review in the 1980s, revolutionaries in the US operated largely in isolation, affiliated in many cases with academic institutions, but no longer able to identify with the consciousness of a party. Where does that leave us today, those of us sitting at our windows, wishing to act up as an oppressed class? How does the singular monadic debtor household in post-Occupy USA (by which I mean “me,” the first-person author-function, the Subject of these trance-scripts) live intentionally? How else but by the yoga of writing and zazen—sitting through, enduring, persevering, so as to instigate change both in one’s own life-world and in the life-worlds of others.
Consciousness needn’t commit itself to the ontological confines of Western techno-scientific rationality. The artist is one who opens portals onto other realms. Now is the time for another Dionysian awakening — for we live in an historical moment not of reason in chains but of reason unbound — automated, loosed of will — and thus free to enchain its makers. This is my problem with Michael Pollan. He wants to contain the psychedelic revolution. While acknowledging the “ungovernable Dionysian force” of drugs like acid — their effect, in other words, of “dissolving almost everything with which [they] come into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material” — Pollan immediately tries to instrumentalize all of this. LSD is for him a tool to be used according to preestablished legal and technocratic protocols within a “sturdy social container” (How to Change Your Mind, pp. 214-215). There need to be rules and rituals, he says, which makes me wonder: must we accede to this alleged need, those of us hoping to build Acid Communism? Or can each one teach one — each head its own authority, its own shaman or guide?
In fleshing out the prehistory of what Mark Fisher was calling “Acid Communism,” one’s research will eventually lead to the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. It was at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn that psychiatrists Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer established what Michael Pollan refers to as “the world’s most important hub” for the first wave of research into psychedelics (How to Change the World, p. 147). Osmond was lured there from England by the province’s leftist government, which beginning in the mid-1940s, as Pollan notes, “instituted several radical reforms in public policy, including [Canada’s] first system of publicly funded health care” (147).
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, I place a tab beneath my tongue, breathe deeply, and prepare for my adventure. Initial stirrings include a flutter in my stomach, warmth behind my ears. Intimations of an as-yet-unnameable source of wonder. I putter around a bit before finding my way outdoors. Autumn leaves flutter in the air as neighborhood dogs yip and woof. Squirrels gather in the trees. “My dear friend,” I whisper invitingly as one hustles toward me. It coos lovingly back and forth with a partner. Moment by moment, the beauty of this world is staggering. With each breath I take, I feel a tremendous ball of laughter welling up inside me. ‘Tis a divine joy, this flickering of sunlight on my eyelids. Slight giddiness, one’s entire nervous system aglow with energy. Amen Dunes soundtracks a restful, languorous moment with their “Ethio Song.”
Above me, flickering, fanning sensations, mushrooms welling up beneath me, offering themselves oh-so-tenderly and ceremoniously as a bed on which to rest. Sarah and I dance and touch tips, tendrils entwined. Much of the experience, in its directness and immediacy, is too glorious to squander, too lavish for words. Humming, giggling, the body does its thing, tests its sensory manifold, expands, grows outward, despite hardship and adversity — this thing is bigger, quivering, bursting, love everywhere triumphant. Let us know ourselves as this life impulse, this spirit of generativity and generosity. Time for all things — for all things there is a season. Sun and moon shed light on all, each yeasty striving, each humble beginning, budding gods and goddesses. Each and every one a universal plentiful complete cosmic plenipotentiary, spreading the good word of being. Climbing up or down from that perch, wherever one may be, allow oneself time to pause, look, take comfort. Recognize in each moment the crown and dignity of being. As we situate, as we gather and take stock, let us body forth this love toward one and all.
Whatever the merits of my academic training, it certainly didn’t inspire confidence in my performance as a writer. Instilled instead were a series of neuroses. Paralyzing self-questioning of consciousness, of inner speech. Steps toward an ecology of fear. To treat these neuroses, I smoke some weed and play John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Born in a Prison,” the song that follows their revolutionary blues number, “Attica State.”
I blast these tracks from the pair’s saxophone-haunted Acid Communist masterpiece Some Time in New York while stomping atop the sidewalks of my sadly city-less, corporation-occupied late-capitalist abode. All of that a linguistic distraction, though, I remind myself, from direct contact with being. Literary self-consciousness of this sort — the sentencing of experience, in other words, for the sake of this blog — remains premised upon a daily act of will to seek and accept flow-like absorption in conditions of solitude. Better, perhaps, to set one’s phone in one’s pocket and zoom back down into the path, hand extended to caress the railing. I observe for a moment even in the pavement itself patterns of kissing, connection, embrace. Leafy profusion, surfaces heavy with seed. Tantra unleashes the imaginal into all realms of embodied practice. One lives it, in other words, in each and every moment of encounter as a joyful pairing of self and other through underutilized modes of sensation. Thumbing through Frederick Perls, Ralph F. Hefferline, and Paul Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy, I recall to myself entire systems of thought that used to exist to promote this kind of awareness-expansion. To what extent, though, the academic in me knows to wonder, is this latter expression synonymous with what writers like Marx and Lukács called “the raising of consciousness”? If one speaks in the old base-superstructure register, agency is left largely to an airy though somehow simultaneously heavy, coercive abstraction known as “material conditions”; whereas in Gestalt terms, agency to love is there for the subject’s taking. Nothing to lose but unconscious chains of reified, habit-encrusted behavior. What I prefer by far, though, as the synthesis of these goals of consciousness-raising and awareness-expansion, is the practice of “Psychedelic Utopianism,” or the belief, as articulated by figures like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg, that mass ingestion of mind-altering substances can change society for the good.
The plot thickens considerably as I delve further into the history of the psychedelic revolution. As I reported previously, first-wave psychonaut Aldous Huxley died on 11/22/63: the same day as C.S. Lewis and JFK. As per Huxley’s wish, his wife Laura injected him with 200 micrograms of LSD on his deathbed—and the supplier of these 200 micrograms was none other than ‘60s acid guru Timothy Leary. (The Moody Blues would eventually include a popular song about Leary called “Legend of a Mind” on their third album In Search of the Lost Chord.) But grok this: as Don Lattin notes in his book The Harvard Psychedelic Club, Leary’s first meeting with Huxley occurred on November 8, 1960, the same day JFK was elected President. There’s also substantial evidence suggesting that JFK may himself have taken LSD during his time in the White House. Kennedy’s mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer, ex-wife of CIA official Cord Meyer, seems to have been the conduit. Leary claims in his book Flashbacks that Meyer visited him while he was at Harvard, asking for his help. Her goal was to usher in a peaceful, loving Age of Aquarius by turning on world leaders, under the assumption that acid would make them less violent. Toward this end, Meyer conducted a series of acid experiments, with prominent men in Washington as her test subjects. All of this occurred while she was involved in an affair with JFK. However, Meyer eventually returned to Leary in a panic after someone involved in these experiments threatened to go public. Leary lost touch with her for a while, only to learn about a year after the assassination that she, too, had been murdered — shot, execution-style, in broad daylight, while walking on a towpath beside a canal in DC. Hollywood explored the incident in partly fictionalized form in a 2008 film called An American Affair, starring Gretchen Mol.