A friend texts requesting recommendations, works he could assign describing consciousness — particularly works that identify variable “dimensions” and “states.” I recommend Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Abraham Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being. Reflecting afterwards on the exchange, I note down in a notebook, “Consciousness is something we grant or presuppose — based on our being here amid others in shared dialogue and shared study. Consciousness is Being as it comes to attention of itself as autopoetic subject-object — soul in communion with soul, each the other’s love doctor and angelic messenger.”
More to my liking is John Cage.
Where the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis used probability, game theory, group theory, set theory, Boolean algebra, and computers to produce his scores, thus pioneering “stochastic music,” Cage composed “aleatoric music.” While stochastic and aleatoric forms of music both rely on chance procedures, aleatoric music eschews mathematics in favor of ancient divinatory devices like the I Ching.
Readied by Cage for further weirding, I tune in and listen to Alvin Lucier’s “North American Time Capsule 1967,” a 10-minute composition that neighbors a track by Cage on Side A of Extended Voices. The Lucier piece uses a vocoder designed by Sylvania Electronics Systems “to encode speech sounds into digital information bits for transmission over narrow band widths via telephone lines or radio channels.” Lucier says of the piece, “The performers are asked to prepare material using any sounds at all that would describe for beings far from our environment, either in space or in time, the physical, spiritual, social, scientific or any other situation in which we currently find ourselves.”
Thinking of 1967 as “situation,” I relate the song to the psychedelic consciousness of that year’s Summer of Love. Lucier worked at Brandeis, directing the University Chamber Chorus there from 1962 to 1970. While dwarfed in scale by hippie meccas like Berkeley, Brandeis was nonetheless an important independent nexus of sorts for 1960s consciousness. Abraham Maslow taught there during the 1950s and 1960s, as did Herbert Marcuse, who served as a faculty member at Brandeis from 1954 to 1965. Future Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman studied there, too, under both Maslow and Marcuse. Through Lucier’s time capsule, one becomes entangled again in that scene.
At three and a half months, the baby is all smiles, dressed in a jumper with bright yellow sneakers, chatty with a speech of sounds, sighs, efforts toward words. Sarah plays her “Bulletproof” by La Roux. I scoot next door and dip into Design for Utopia: Selected Writings of Charles Fourier. In his 1971 Foreword, Frank E. Manuel says Fourier’s ideal “calls to mind the ‘synergic’ society originated by Ruth Benedict and expounded by Abraham H. Maslow, who found it consonant with his own doctrine of self-actualization. In synergy, as Maslow defined it, the individual acting in his own behalf at the same time furthers social ends, fulfilling simultaneously and harmoniously his obligations to himself and his responsibilities to society” (4-5). Manuel maintains an attitude of bemused skepticism, maybe even a haughty distance, with regard to all such doctrines and ideals, his imagination far too stingy and conservative for my taste.
White roses overgrow a trellis beside the driveway. I admire them from atop my perch on my front stoop as I shelter in place. Look at all the lovely everything, the leafy and flowery manifold Earth, sunlit and glorious, waving in the wind! A softness, a gentleness, enters into one’s manner. A grey tabby that likes to visit now and then sleeps out on my porch. I let it. Dreamboat baby tell all. At some point, though, I plan to grill some hot dogs. In a journal I note down the following: “In an imaginary interview published in his book Revolution for the Hell of It, Abbie Hoffman uses language borrowed from his mentor Abraham Maslow to signal how his own approach and vision differed from those of his contemporaries in the New Left. Movements for change should be built, he says, not on sacrifice, dedication, responsibility, anger, frustration, and guilt, but on fun. ‘When I say fun,’ he tells the interviewer, ‘I mean an experience so intense that you actualize your full potential. You become LIFE. LIFE IS FUN’ (61-62).”
The life of ’60s counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman ought to be read not just in light of the Marxism of Herbert Marcuse, whom Hoffman studied under while an undergrad at Brandeis, but also in light of the humanistic psychology of another of Abbie’s mentors at Brandeis, the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow. Abbie was a self-actualizer, a seeker of peak experiences, his writing in books like Woodstock Nation spontaneous prose performances of life lived hopefully in pursuit of revolutionary overthrow of the police state he saw and experienced around him, the “PIG NATION.” There’s a lot of Ego in this performance, but it’s an Ego self-identified with a movement in potentia, like the Whitman of “Song of Myself” or the Ginsberg of “America.” A collective voice coaxing participation in revolutionary transformation of being. Hoffman learned to perform revolution as living theater using the techniques of Artaud and the Diggers. Unlike those precursors, however, Abbie staged his happenings as guerilla seizures of the capitalist opponent’s mass media. The latter became the unwitting narrators and documenters — and to some extent, participants — in Abbie’s dramas. The story continues, carries over, into other books of the era: Ed Sanders’s Shards of God, Jerry Rubin’s DO IT! and We Are Everywhere. Time to visit Peter Coyote for criticism of some of this, and for more on the Diggers. Yet what a riveting performance! Studs Terkel described it as “ebullience and despair rolled into one.” Paul Krassner’s tale of taking acid before taking the witness stand at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial adds another level of anarchic psychedelic zaniness to all of this.
There’s so much still to learn, I think to myself. Let’s begin by reading a history of Mexican philosophy. Study the works of Emilio Uranga, Leopoldo Zea, and Luis Villoro. Seek information about the latter’s correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos, a book called La Alternativa. Or, maybe just focus on housing. Rethink Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Why, in the mid-20th century, does Maslow wish to reintroduce a naturalized hierarchy into the “science of the human”? What were his fears? The hierarchy of needs is one we’re disciplined into by capitalism — so here I am, fretting about how to finance food, shelter, education, transportation. What Marxists call “social reproduction.” What good is a “hierarchy of needs” to a worker? The only truly humanistic psychology is one able to free workers to self-actualize: one that grants them relief from external structures of domination like debt. Is there a psychology of Being that can grant that relief?
“Spiral Dynamics” comes to mind as I listen to “Beautiful Crystals” by Sunwatchers.
The band takes its name from a song by Albert Ayler. Guitars interplay with horns, drums, and synths to form complex patterns. Concentrating on the band’s epic prog-psychedelic freak-outs, consciousness can float around a bit in a wild, hypnotic trance-state, reflections on sound and language intersecting to form brief synesthetic plateau-experiences. Life is mysterious, a bubbly, frothy, rococo garden of love, as one listens. Ever-changing, too—in constant surplus of itself. The band operates in a variety of modes: cosmic-archetypal in their aspirations one minute, urgently political the next. I look forward to seeing them when they play in town next month. Spiral Dynamics, meanwhile, seems to be some sort of West Coast “theory of everything,” popularized by the consciousness theorist Ken Wilber. Abraham Maslow fits in there somewhere in the movement’s origins, his “Hierarchy of Needs” adapted into a full-blown “tiered,” “evolutionary” theory of consciousness. It hasn’t been clear to me upon initial perusal whether or not this theory proposes a corollary ethics or practice, though I assume so. At times it sounds hyper control-oriented and egoic, encouraging practitioners to “sweep away objects” and focus on a prior “I Am,” consciousness in its most abstract and deracinated form—an ever-present, transhistorical “One,” divorced from the particulars of any thought, emotion, or object. Within short order, one finds oneself wondering, “Where is the Other in this model?” Reduced, it seems, to pure Becoming, known only through its momentary modifications, ripples, and arisings. The Other is that which encircles “I Am” as the latter spirals through states of distraction and re-cognition.
Maslow’s ideas influenced the utopian consciousness revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s in a variety of ways beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Betty Friedan wrote at length about Maslow in a chapter of her book The Feminine Mystique, embracing his humanistic approach as an alternative to the pessimism of the Freudian paradigm. Yet Maslow’s views regarding women certainly weren’t what we would now recognize as progressive. A woman could only self-actualize and “realize her own potential,” he claimed, “through her husband and children.” His views were shaped by largely unexamined heteronormative, gender-binary assumptions. He remained in all things a centrist, an opponent of the New Left despite an attraction to democratic socialism in his youth. By the time of his greatest influence in the 1960s, he was essentially a New Deal Democrat, fearful of communists, and committed to US victory in the Cold War — a war that was fought in part on college campuses, including those where Maslow worked. Integration, globalization — these were posited and advanced by Maslow and others as solutions to nuclear war. The humanities and the sciences need to synergize, the centrists argued, if we’re to avoid destruction. Let us love each other and teach each other to dance. Yet here we are today, globalized and integrated by digital capitalism, rich waging war on the poor, planet on the verge of catastrophe, fascism waiting in the wings. Might there be other ways for us to put our heads together, both on campus and off, consciousness used to heal rather than curse?
Utopianism acquired a “eupsychian” cast up and down the West Coast of 1950s and 1960s California. Pursuit of the good society became bound up with alchemical transformation, design of new anthropotechnics, and experiments with human potential. Abraham Maslow created a mailing list to connect organizations and individuals participating in these experiments, thus forming what he called the “Eupsychian Network.” The members of this network, he said, shared a “humanistic and transhumanistic outlook on life” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 237), by which he meant an orientation that sought to help “the individual grow toward fuller humanness, the society grow toward synergy and health, and all societies and all peoples move toward becoming one world and one species” (237). Already in Maslow, there were hints that the humanistic orientation in the social sciences and the “human potential” movement that arose alongside it might contain a dark side — or at the very least, a potential for misuse. Maslow prepared the manuscript for Toward a Psychology of Being while visiting La Jolla, California, in summer 1961, supported by a financially generous fellowship from the newly founded “Western Behavioral Sciences Institute.” The fellowship was funded by engineer-entrepreneur Andy Kay, who invited Maslow to return the following summer to observe operations at Kay’s company, Non-Linear Systems (Hoffman, The Right to Be Human, p. 246). This collaboration with Kay culminated in Eupsychian Management, a book completed in 1962 and published in 1965. Non-Linear Systems was an electronics manufacturing company. Before founding it in 1952, Kay spent two years working at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. By the early 1980s Non-Linear Systems evolved into Kaypro, manufacturer of an early personal computer. The concept of Eupsychia never fully shed this marriage of convenience with management theory and West Coast tech, though other members of the Eupsychian Network helped to temper these tendencies.
Maslow’s prose is dry and scientific. I keep having to take breaks while reading his book Toward a Psychology of Being. Parts of it seem wrong-headed, presumptuous; I’d rather be reading the poet Robert Duncan. Works of Duncan’s like “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” evoke Neoplatonic realms, scenes made up by powers of consciousness. A force of gravity pulls us near. Duncan calls this force the “Queen Under the Hill.” Her binding us to her in loving embrace allows us to be both one and other. Being self-divides into temporary autonomous zones so as to become that way, consciousness rising up into matter, probing itself with language before returning from which it came. Each being bears witness, Duncan says, before itself standing in judgment. But why judgment, I wonder. Let us resolve to live well, thanking the world for providing us a loving home by providing one in return. Let these trance-scripts be ways of advancing that cause. Let them be merciful rather than cruel. Let us not condemn in our attempt to improve.