The “altered state” presumes variance from a norm: or at the very least, contrast between varying states. Modulation among intensities of experience. Sleeping and waking states. Dream states, drug states, trance states. States of hyper-absorption: flow-states, runners highs, fever-induced deleria. All of our texts this semester assume some ordinary, everyday waking state, as well as an alternative to that state. And in fact, we’ve all experienced “altered states” of one kind or another. Moments of intense concentration, moments of absorption or immersion.
A new semester approaches. Altered states of consciousness and perception: let us consider religious raptures, drug-induced ecstasies, “peak experiences” and the like as phenomena central to human activity as evidenced by literatures of many cultures and historical periods. A narrative forms as we travel Bill & Ted-style among ancients, medievals, and moderns. We detect patterns; the texts of different places and periods constellate in a kind of cyberspace of meaning, speak to one another as allegories of a transhistorical process or project: the attempt to get free. Confronted with the disruptive power of gnosis, we’re left wondering: “Red pill or blue pill?”
There are rhythms of thought that sing to us, patterns formed of rituals we perform with others. These hours of sitting are part of one such ritual: “the time during which I write.” Activity in phenomenological reality is built of these rhythms. The day is a music we co-create with others. Cook up a meal to celebrate: “NO MORE TRUMP.” Soon there will be garden beds. Let us learn and do as we teach. Expanses opening on the backs of our eyelids. Encourage students to admit to having had weird experiences — “altered states” — the cause of the alteration of less importance than the state itself. Present these as symptoms of an outside or an unconscious beyond the physics and logic of everyday experience. Invite by these means a partial suspension of disbelief, an openness to what the texts speak in sum.
The “heroes” that we encounter in literatures about altered states are individuals and groups, authors and movements, creators of counterculture, figures who rebel against systems stacked against them — because some of us can’t breathe. Some of us feel trapped economically. Others of us feel trapped educationally, betrayed by those trained in STEM. And yet we must practice love anyway, despite, because. Time to revisit the debates internal to counterculture, among the Whole Earthers and others, about technology and ecology. Bring ecofeminists and cyberfeminists and Afrofuturists into account when re-examining these debates. But do so while staring at crows atop a pine tree. Allow time to admire patterns of sunlight and shadow amid fallen leaves. Then up and about: gather the books, assemble the argument. Defend pluralist methodologies and anarchist epistemologies. Critique capitalist science and its institutionalization of consciousness. But do so as an Eco-Marxist, acknowledging climate crisis as a real condition of existence — the Pascal’s Wager of our time.
Upon re-reading a collection of poems by Nathaniel Mackey, I find myself scribbling in the margins at the end of “Song of the Andoumboulou: 22” the cryptic statement, “The story of the garden, the story of the desire for knowledge, is the story of intoxication and altered consciousness.” Bruce Hornsby interjects, stating, “Ha, but don’t you believe them.” Is that just the way it is? Do words get in the way? Mackey suggests otherwise, words used otherwise allowing us to ascend and descend reality’s ladders and trees. He refers to this otherwise as a kind of “musical speech.” Music that lifts readers into other ways of experiencing space and time.
Students and I grow together as heads by reading and discussing literature about consciousness. Minds throughout the ages trying to know themselves. This is literature about education and enlightenment, minds as they undergo alteration and metamorphosis. Patterns disclose themselves, meaningful coincidences compound over time — formal and thematic resonances that defy existing paradigms. By attempting to interpret these, we arrive at new conceptions, new understandings beyond existing enclosures of possibility.
These trance-scripts haven’t spoken adequately yet about the most common altered state of consciousness, the one to which our society remains addicted: namely, fear. There is an element of anarchy in the ontology of the cosmos. This is its beauty. We each have to find our own truths, our own interpretations, the meanings that suit our being. Before meaning’s arrival, though, before its revelation (when all is said and done), there is the maze, the labyrinth, the dungeon — the as-yet-unexamined. Fear emerges when we project into the labyrinth a Minotaur, a spirit of malevolence, an enemy Other. If we concentrate on breathing and re-center in our bodies, fear dissipates. Sunlight catches on windblown leaves, goldens a wall of stained pine.
Up next: live textual re-enactment for the blogosphere of the “Dr. Edward Jessup” role from Ken Russell’s psychedelic thriller Altered States. A tongue-in-cheek model of sorts for one of my personae here at Trance-Scripts — minus, of course, the primatological regression, the obligatory serpent in the garden, the film’s return to propriety after its initial prodigality, its surrender to disciplinary mechanisms, its obedience to traditional morality in its final half. Neoliberalism does everything in its power to provoke this turn historically, and to emphasize it in the accounts it allows the culture to tell of what we thenceforth come to think of as the “failed revolutions” of the late 1960s. “Disarm the utopian potentials of psychedelic communism,” read the instructions for this ideology. “Stage elaborate spectacles of punishment and retribution. Contain the figure of the acid freak within narratives that end unhappily.” The wonderful documentary The Cockettes, for instance, bows to the weight of this narrative arc — as does Wild Wild Country.
Imagine reality evolving into the unthinkable of existing sets and disciplines. Call the results of this dream-work The Ones Who Follow: A Modern Mythology. The Jonestown Massacre lies on the outskirts of all ventures of this sort, utopian communities of joy derailed everywhere, cursed, denounced, undone. How might we again induce a change in people? How might we together achieve self-actualization, group-realization? As opposed to just repeating over and over again history’s pattern of conquest, domination through separation of people from their lands. The “altered state” is what we’re after. That phrase, in its various senses, is what we mean by our Utopia. Lovers as hemispheres, fused at the mouth, as in John Donne’s “The Good Morrow.” We’re trying to raise consciousness, awaken the sleepwalkers from their deadly slumber — beginning with ourselves if necessary.
“And…(wait for it)…we have liftoff.” Sarah and I, toward the end of a beautiful, sunny afternoon walk through a park, arrive upon a patch of ground covered in a thick carpet of green mosses ornamented with tufts of lichen. Elsewhere on our way we cross paths with dogs, runners, old men operating radio-controlled aircraft, mountain bikers conversing in a forest. Our hunger for time outdoors not yet sated, we stroll the neighborhood, kneeling to admire newly flowering purple crocuses. Like Ginsberg to Carl Solomon, to ashes I whisper, “I’m with you.” Live ambient pick-up. Voices popping high in the mix, ignored, give way to shouts and clanks. Rattling chains. I close my eyes and persist nervously in an unpredictable sonic universe. Flotation tanks allow us to question not just what Erving Goffman called the presentation of self in everyday life, but the nature of the self in the absence of sensory input.