They: the standardizers, the calculators, the settlers. They convert by use of culture, / but cultures need not comply. We can learn other languages, teach other literatures, wise up, rise up.
Breathe, relax, listen around. Ask into a phone, “Who are you, love?” and type, “Bless you!” Seek out “America Needs Indians,” the multimedia show that Stewart Brand performed at the 1966 San Francisco Trips Festival. The show placard for the festival lists “America Needs Indians” as the first part of a double bill on Friday January 21, the first night of the three-day festival. It describes the event as follows: “AMERICA NEEDS INDIANS — Sensorium 9. By Stewart Brand and Zach Stewart. 600 slides, 2 movies, 4 sound tracks, flowers, food, rock ‘n’ roll, Eagle Bone Whistle, Thunderstorm, live Cheyenne Tipi, Chippewas, Sioux, Blackfeet, Tlingit, Makah, Pomo and Miwuk, plus anthropologists.” If ever I happened upon a time machine, the Trips Festival is certainly among the events of the past I’d visit. Charles Perry describes the festival in his history of Haight-Ashbury — though he says no more about “America Needs Indians” than that it was “mournfully out of place in the rackety, echoing space of Longshoremen’s Hall.” Ben Van Meter shot footage at the festival, eventually releasing a short called S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening (1966). Look, too, for a feature film of his called Acid Mantra or Rebirth of a Nation (1968). Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses Van Meter in his book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.
Governments are like media providers, designers of a simulation, a game-world users are coerced into enduring. Why, amid all the many games we could be playing here in our sandbox cosmos, did we get stuck with this one? How do we deprogram it, how do we take back the means of production so as to play new mind games together? John Lennon said “Love is the answer.” Love not war, one day at a time. As always, easier said than done. If only I had time to read Ted Nelson’s book Computer Lib / Dream Machines. At the beginning of Dream Machines (the reverse side of Computer Lib), Nelson appends a section titled “Author’s Counterculture Credentials,” where he describes himself as “Photographer for a year at Dr. Lilly’s dolphin lab (Communication Research Institute, Miami, Florida). Attendee of the Great Woodstock Festival (like many others), and it changed my life (as others have reported). What we are all looking for is not where we thought it was.” All of which leaves me wondering: at what point was Nelson first turned on?
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.
Reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again with students, I find us wanting as readers to separate the book’s countercultural critique of the Combine from its racism and its misogyny. On race, as on gender, Kesey maps power-relationality ass-backwards. The novel erupts into an episode of cruel racial violence when black orderlies threaten to hose down the book’s white male patients. When one of the orderlies sprays a germophobic character named George, the book’s redheaded TV-cowboy brawler protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy lashes out with racial epithets and starts swinging. In reality, of course, it was black children, not white men, who were sprayed with fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham, AL by racist white police officers on May 3, 1963, just one year after the novel’s publication. By teaching the book, the country’s racism lies there exposed: Oregon’s history as a white-only state, with laws forbidding black people from living in its borders upon its entry into the union in the midnineteenth century; the persistence of antiblack sentiment more than a hundred years later even among 1960s counterculturalists like Kesey. These are sobering facts, are they not? Even among those who had found the enlightenment of LSD, these ideas persisted. Granted, in Kesey’s case, enlightenment came courtesy of MK-Ultra. Not the most auspicious set and setting. Yet this, too, is part of the tale’s appeal. Kesey was there, present as a participant in events of world-historical importance, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Tools remain for me things that make me a bit wary. They trouble categories. They implement will. When we use them (as, in our current state, we must), we invoke them, we grant them a daemonic energy. It’s like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia. Marx envisioned something similar seventy years earlier with his famous image of the dancing table from the chapter on the commodity-form in Capital. Questions arise for me, then, any time I encounter “Access to Tools,” a saying that appears on covers of the Whole Earth Catalog. The script runs as follows: If capital’s mythic origin was a magical act, a medieval summoning of a Moloch-like entity, might magic have something to say about how to counteract that act so as to save the planet? Or is magic itself the problem, its alchemical experiments—its rituals, its instruments, its techniques—already in some sense a disruption of oikos, a breaking of cosmic rules, leading inevitably toward Solid State scientific manipulation of matter and consciousness? Were the Whole Earth Catalogs and the various other guidebooks of the 1960s and 1970s a bunch of counterculture spellbooks, part of an entheogenic revival of magic, and thus occult in their own right? I say, if we’re going to allow that the cosmos is magical, then let’s be dialectical about it. Let’s assume that we ourselves contain both active and passive roles. This is part of what was meant by the perennial teaching, “AS ABOVE, SO BELOW.” We, too, are made of stardust. Let’s assume, then, that we, too, are magical. That’s the sense, I think, in which Stewart Brand was right: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” This seems a far more optimistic and hopeful approach than the passive defeatism of the left-melancholic path. I’ve explored the latter path; the paralyzing guilt it induces can be just as dangerous, just as apocalyptic as the instrumentalism it shuns, amounting in practice to little more than a sad-faced laissez-faire shoulder-shrug. Wands, crystals, Tarot cards, spellbooks, all of the various anthropotechnic implements of magic as a Craft: these are to be tested through practice, in service of the Good.
Ellen Sander’s book Trips begins with a lovely dedication to “the incorrigible spirit of the Sixties; a seed planted, a weed grown, the promise, forever beckoning, of a garden.” That garden is the same one that beckons to us as the before and after of these trance-scripts. Sander was an early rock critic who covered the scene for Hit Parader, Vogue, and Saturday Review, among other outlets. Her book documents a change in awareness, the consequences of which continue to be felt today. She wrote in an age of bombs, flying saucers, superpowers, rock and roll groups — the same age of “high weirdness” analyzed by Erik Davis in his recent book of that title. These were the years when we first made contact — people of the world united in dance. Where has it led us, though? Localized changes, small but significant, keep me hopeful, each of us doing what we can. One of my nephews honors me, for instance, by adopting my habit of wearing colored Tyvek bracelets, the kind acquired as tokens of admission during visits to amusement parks, concerts, carnivals, and pools. It’s a quirk of mine, I guess — part freak flag, part makeshift memento mori — something I’ve been doing ever since I was a teenager. A modest bit of deviant self-fashioning.