Where realism often prompts sympathy, fantasy often prompts empathy: full, emotionally immersive engagement. Is it still possible, though, to construct aesthetic foundations for empathy across current divides in American society? And would we even want to? After teaching China Miéville’s “Floating Utopias,” a devastating Marxist critique of the proposed right-libertarian “Freedom Ship” venture, I overhear a wealthy female student of mine turn to her roommate and fellow classmate and say, without a hint of irony, “Doesn’t that just make you wanna go on a cruise?” At which point I drag myself home and pretend I’m Rodney Dangerfield.
How long before a thing loses its novelty, its precognitive wonder? I take shelter by reactivating the experimental leftist music-affect-subjectivity of my early twenties: jerky, spastic, militant, navigation of social space soundtracked via Fugazi’s album The Argument.
That “me” was in some ways an entirely different being, occupying a radically different memory-stream. “Debt was for him still a thing he thought he could beat.” I can’t thread into a coherent narrative the life-path leading from him to me. Events happened to him within an expanding linguistic framework. The universe offered me a different array of parts. I was never seen, and never had a place to belong. I was an “other” suffering from shyness, or what we now call “social anxiety.” The ideas get bigger when the space around me does. Somewhere among my collection is the book that will help me unlock the next-level conceptualization of the game-world. Perhaps that book is Tijuana activist intellectual Sayak Valencia’s Gore Capitalism
, due out from Semiotext(e) next spring. A hand reaches down, scoops me up. The self is non-negotiable. It may be a troublesome nothing, but at least it’s my
troublesome nothing. And it’s not like there’s some grand alternative waiting behind Door #2.
Plug in to Experimental Lakes by Peripheral Living.
And while doing so, look up the story of Swiss pharmacologist Peter N. Witt, who, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing throughout his career, researched the effects of drugs on spiders. Witt dosed his test subjects with delicious treats like Benzedrine, marijuana, mescaline, and LSD, and then recorded in turn each drug’s effects on web production. Despite my limited scientific literacy (and by “limited,” I mean “minimal”), I remain fascinated, eyes rapt in experimental observation of insects, birds, dirt, greenery. Aspects of my immediate environment. I sit in my backyard riding the ululations of a siren from a nearby fire engine. I am “growing in a certain direction,” as Alan Watts would say: growing tired of a certain kind of game. No more superior and inferior classification. Just flowings and becomings. “An oak,” he chuckles, “is an acorn’s way of becoming other acorns.” Despite however many hit-points it delivers in damage to my hipster street cred for me to say so, say it I must. I have great admiration for early Randy Newman records. I mean, I get it: who wants to admit to liking a songwriter best known for scoring a bunch of Disney-Pixar films? But I do. Tracks like “Political Science” and “Sail Away” are among the most bitter, damning portraits of this country ever set to music. The dominant ideology captured with its pants down. Then again, I also really dig the Butthole Surfers. Psychedelia comes in many forms, contains many sub-species. Is my presentation of all of this a bit too Pacman-consumerist? Would it bug you, for instance, if I flipped to Angel 1’s Terra Nova, a new tape out on Constellation Tatsu?
This is what my ideal warehouse rave scene would be pumping now, if life wasn’t such shit. In honor of our fallen arachnid comrades “utilized” in the above Dr. Witt’s experiments, I gift unto consciousness Andreas Brandal’s The Work of the Spider.
A sonic neck muscle relaxant. Psychonautics is alright, but I’d much prefer to be an oneironaut, like April Larson. That’s about where I wind up by day’s end. It’s about perceiving the concealed, reasserting control of a voided reality.
I reject Adorno’s belief that enduring suffering is the only way not to collude with its manufacture. Is that the same as what Jameson meant by “History is what hurts”? I insist that there are other means by which the ineffable manifests itself, like those experiences to which psychedelia bears witness. We demonstrate the contingency of suffering whenever we transmute it or chemically alter it into joy. As Daniel Colucciello Barber notes, “the exodus from this existence is to practice existing otherwise” (171). Barber believes with Adorno that this othering occurs through thought’s alliance with animality (and with the suffering of animals in particular), whereas I propose thinking otherwise via plants. Once inhaled or ingested, plants rewrite our scripts, re-script our minds. The one replaces parts of the other. I’m really intrigued, by the way, by that Stone Fruit cassette by Primitive Fiction.
The B side in particular is just magnificent. A massive, sprawling, morphing abstract soundscape. I guess I’ve committed myself to this world, though a strong faction within me, perhaps a majority, would prefer not to. I contemplate writing about political stupidities uttered by certain of my students, but a voice from the back overrules by shouting, “The heck with it. Why bother?” I ordered the ocean blue and commanded a fleet of dolphins, and now look at me, I mutter with an eye roll. My soundtrack on the ride home from work yesterday was Categorize Your Dose, particularly that track “Therapeutic Firearm,” by Ben Versluis.
Well-timed beat-based techno. Long live the exploratory self, habitual reality ties suspended. I slide my chair down a snow-covered hill. My legs yell, “Use me! Use me!” But all roads point toward archives. The bread and the butter of my discipline. Part of me wonders: does the plant want to be inhaled? I would say, I would think. Do they think? And do they communicate only by bonding themselves with neurons? Chemical fusion, psychotic reaction. We’re thick here with the rest of the world, the multitude of material things. Beyond words and without time, hurrah.
All of us become part again of that from which we came. Plant matter. Primordial soup swamp scum. Others but me get to be free, as complains Pearl‘s jeweler. How are we to conceive of the voices that speak for us: manipulable, or objectively other? I get sucked up into the aerial contortions of Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition.”
I used to have such a positive outlook. What scripts have I forgotten? Are there mantras I should be reciting constantly under my breath? Eyes struggle to decide which light scheme to adjust to: inner or outer? Assimilative or immersive? The body communicates its irritation with our behavior by coughing. Follow me with emotional awareness through Eyeball Under
by Weeping Icon.
Echoing hand gestures, BMX racers, stickers on binders: the band’s forward-driven noise-punk conjures these. An underlying propulsiveness amidst muffled, anguished languor. Heads can swim themselves between left and right speakers. But voices can’t always contend with it, can they? The body grows restless from too much repetitive mindlessness. “Turn off that damn racket!” yells a head popping out the window of an upper floor apartment. Receding feedback spray feels good, though, dunnit? The texture of the time is full-blown totalitarian. I am the cherub with the flaming sword, my own worst enforcer of the Big Other’s banishment of me from Paradise. Is it superstitious of me to regard the compositional process as fundamentally inexplicable? Perhaps — but the important thing is to connect the act of writing with the self’s refusal to be made someone else’s means. The world can be wonderful so long as it quiets to outdoor sounds like engines and crickets and birds. When we psychonauts forget what we’re supposed to be doing according to others (working, behaving productively for society), the moment-to-moment becomes a consistently joyful opening onto an endless becoming. (Consistently, that is, until our phones push-notify us of Trump’s latest atrocities.) Today’s high mellows me; sense data hover above me, a fog-covered nighttime skyline. I soundtrack it with Stone Fruit by Primitive Fiction.
“Huge buzzing synth drones”: think of that as denoting an affect. Moments later, Sarah calls and scares me half to death when, mid-conversation, she narrates what she thinks is a blown tire, but which proves later to have been no more than the breaking off of some plastic molding from the wheel well. Never a dull moment.
Big discovery today: Richard M. Doyle’s Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noosphere. Doyle also blogs at mobiused and wrote an “Afterword” to Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. Dick’s exploration of Gnostic beliefs and teachings in the Valis trilogy proved to be of great importance to me in the months following my initial encounters with psychedelics, so I’m excited to see what kind of sense Doyle makes of these themes. Lana Cook
at MIT is another scholar to watch. She recently completed a dissertation at Northeastern titled “Altered States: The American Psychedelic Aesthetic.” Along with studying more canonical texts in the psychedelic tradition, like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception
, Cook’s project also sheds light on works by early female psychonauts. Adelle Davis, for instance, writing under the pseudonym Jane Dunlap, published a book on LSD in the early 1960s called Exploring Inner Space
. That’s about as far as I advance with my research when the dog enters my office begging for food. “No! No food! Stop with the begging!” I tell her. She lies on her stomach and stares up at me, breathing heavily, continuing to whine — at which point I promptly cave to her demand, and then hustle across the street, where my neighbors are screening Guardians of the Galaxy 2
on a sheet in their backyard. Walking beneath trees amidst shadows and streetlights. A videogame offers me work as a courier. Kids play with green, pink, and blue glow-stick bracelets and say, “Wow, trippy, man.” They make such a satisfying “pop,” those glow-sticks. And with floor speakers and a stereo amplifier, it’s quite a set-up, here inside the neural net of a catch-22 fungus from outer space. The activity feels vaguely utopian: a weird sovereign fleet, neighbor-stranger gathering, each of us remotely piloted. Are the characters we play in videogames posthumans? Is my marijuana-enhanced self an empath? The jerk who doesn’t trust anyone is a show that, for fear of bad ratings, never gets made. Young People’s Socialist League versus the planet-devouring Boomer Ego.
Have others noted the weirdly apolitical, careerist vibe that seemed to permeate the Psychedemia conference? I keep returning to that documentary I posted about yesterday. What gives? When scholars begin to study this material in the academy, do we (I include myself in this category) run the risk of “co-opting” the psychedelic underground? “Mystical experience,” “psychology of religion”: some of the research presented at Psychedemia seems worryingly pseudoscientific: as in, some of it resembles the type of academic hot air balloon that the “Sokal Hoax” tried to puncture in the 1990s. But then again, several figures featured in the documentary seem genuinely legit. (Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics is a similar forum, by the way, held each year in New York.) One catches snippets of language: “neuro-chemical art,” “radically singular worlds.” Australian philosopher David Chalmers, author of The Conscious Mind, enters the frame, commingling amid a cast of quivering neuroatypicals. What is the relationship between the mental and the physical? Ask Alfred North Whitehead. Mind, whatever it is, possesses a degree of freedom. It can produce out of itself mystical experiences of oneness with the universe, about which the most we can say is probably something like, “What do all metaphors have in common?” Jane Roberts, author of the Seth books in the 1970s, might be an interesting figure to consider as a producer of texts “received” through trance. Why have I never read Edwin Abbott Abbott’s book Flatland? Perhaps because I live in a monstrously truncated, self-absorbed universe. I no longer know how to behave like a proper host or guest. My horizons are monoculturally constrained. I don’t see my mother very often. I’m basically a lousy person, having plunged into my personal opposite. No, this is a re-centering. No, this is a property. I want to imagine cinematic vibrations folding me downward into a past. A minute had passed when I emerged, no longer a mere commodity. You see, it’s all about bran in your oatmeal. So many other regions of linguistic activity, meaning inscribed in practice. But I’m heartbroken. My dog betrays neither recognition nor affection. She no longer lets my eyes hold her eyes. Of course, Wu-Tang were the ones who said it best: “Life for a shorty shouldn’t be so rough / But as the world turned I learned life is hell / Livin’ in the world no different from a cell / Every day I escape from Jakes givin’ chase / Sellin’ base, smokin’ bones in the staircase.” In an interview about those lines, Inspectah Deck said, “At that point, you’re just thinking, ‘I’m about to go head-first into whatever it is I’m doing.'” Here goes.
“Stop! You’re embarrassing me!” says the exasperated mall-inhabiting eighties teenager to his mother. “Ma, get away from me!” There were just these ludicrous situations. She was like a little kid, dancing to the radio in her punch buggy blue Volkswagen Beetle. Always with the perm and the giant sunglasses. I miss those early years of childhood; I remember much of it with great fondness. I loved strolling invisibly back then through bits of the visible world. Others probably think of me as one who dwells too much in the past — stiflingly so. Keep tossing, a voice advises, until you get to one you know. There used to be a thing called leisure-time — though it was never entirely free of fears of bombs and missiles. How foolish it now seems to have believed in theological niceties like “progress.” Whereas now, things that matter are being gunned down by police, pulled out from under me. I fixate on grievances, I harbor grudges. Like, permanent 24/7 hex against those who delete my comments — that’s right, my evil eye is trained on YOU, motherfucker. Good for a minute, next bit. You’re done. And like, my dog, who pees on the hardwood floor just to spite me. There was once a time when words had meaning. I lived in their midst. The best medicine, though, is to “relax and let go.” Dance a bit, loosen limbs and neck muscles, allow oneself to be drawn upward toward reconciliation with the dog. When I see her lying in bed, I feel panic: what if she’s given up, what if I’ve lost her? I also learn about “chemical poetics” and studies of trip report literature.
Go to archives, I tell myself. Explore correspondence between early psychedelic pioneers. Watch as faces get photoshopped in, reporting hypnotically from other dimensions instructions for the evolution of consciousness. “Come here: I found it, see?” proclaims an onscreen scholar. Look up Beat poet George Andrews and his letters to Leary in the 1960s. Leary, too, is an important figure to study. There’s a rich, vast psychedelic literary network to add to our histories of late modernism and postmodernism. A whole field has begun to coalesce around the study of this network. By which I mean, check out Psychedemia
, a documentary about a “Psychedelics” conference held at University of Pennsylvania in September 2012. Neşe Devenot appears to be one of the field’s leading scholars. Should I start calling myself a psychedemic?