Monday September 2, 2019

What happens when, as an experiment, we treat moments of our lives as “encounters”? What were people doing when they joined T-groups, encounter groups, and consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s at places like Esalen? How were these groups organized? Did facilitators exercise claims to authority in these groups? Were they like teachers? Workshop leaders? Pastors? Counselors? Therapists? Gurus? A bit of all of the above, I suppose. Groups fulfill needs of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual sort among people who have come free of traditional affiliations: disaffected subjects seeking re-enchantment, players in search of new games. Such people arrive at these groups and games as they wander markets, festivals, circuits, and arcades. The encounter groups of the 60s and 70s were sites where “role-playing” got its start. Games like Dungeons & Dragons emerged in roughly the same moment and milieu. What’s interesting about encounter groups is that participants trust their feelings to “a bunch of strangers,” rather than to uniformed technocrats, “experts,” priests, and elites. The encounter group is also interesting in that it births group consciousness through use of cybernetic feedback mechanisms. Group members are observed by facilitators. The facilitator reports these observations back to the group. The latter then react to the reports and the cycle begins anew, in much the same way “rounds” occur in D&D. Thomas R. Verney describes two favorite techniques of role-play used by Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls during the latter’s time at Esalen in the 60s and 70s: the “two chair” technique and another called “play the projection.” Could techniques of that sort have a place, I wonder, in one of my courses? Verny’s book Inside Groups: A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups & Group Therapy answers many of my questions. The least authoritarian of the leaders he describes are those he calls “T-group trainers.” The T-group trainer, he writes, “is usually described as a facilitator and a catalyst” (28). Leadership of this sort involves paraphrasing what is said by the group, acting as a mirroring instrument so that members can know themselves and the group can self-actualize. Encounter group leaders are a bit more unpredictable, their methods and techniques less subject to professionalization and external supervision. As for the techniques themselves, Verny writes, these are primarily “verbal and nonverbal confrontation, psychodrama, Gestalt, and sensory awareness,” as well as “fantasy, meditation, and transactional analysis” (34-35).

Sunday August 25, 2019

How might the insights of West Coast humanistic psychologists of the 60s and 70s inform our work today as educators? How do we grow together? How do we help each other self-actualize? By that term, the humanists of the 60s and 70s meant a variety of things: realizing hopes and aspirations, exercising full potential, living joyfully, gratefully, lovingly, practicing therapy, repairing the traumas we carry with us as personal and collective bodies, finding happiness, living well. Those who report having achieved peak-experiences, those who seem to have begun to self-actualize, don’t shrivel up into themselves, claimed theorists like Maslow. Rather, they become better adjusted, less begrudging comrades. They join together with companions, forming co-evolving communities committed to giving and receiving care. Look at the support networks that form among mothers. Friends and acquaintances near and far have come to our aid of late, passing along boxloads of hand-me-downs: maternity wear, baby gear, short-sleeve onesies, long-sleeve onesies, pajamas, burp cloths, the works. We feel like characters from the Equals song, “Michael and the Slipper Tree,” or Olu Dara’s “Okra.”

Let us hold this experience near to us as we return to our classrooms. Carl Rogers suggested one model for applying the principles of humanistic psychology to education in his 1969 essay “Freedom to Learn.” And some of these principles informed experiments with encounter groups and sensitivity training sessions at places like Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I sit on the top step of my front stoop after dark, diffusing momentarily into imaginative union with the sounds of the night, a lush chorus of locusts and crickets. Afterwards I feel recharged, replenished, senses open, receptive. I thumb through Ali Smith’s introduction to Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet astounded. Hardt and Negri’s Assembly takes shape soon thereafter, pages propped open, their words released into consciousness with another sturdy thumbs up.

Monday August 12, 2019

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?

Sunday August 11, 2019

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.

Tuesday August 6, 2019

Re-reading humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, I find much to like: his re-imagining of well-being in terms of individual and collective “self-actualization,” fulfillment occurring in and through a eupsychian network of co-evolving communities, including communes and growth centers like Esalen. But there are also some terrifying, instrumentalist defenses of “Science,” as when, in the preface to the first edition of Toward a Psychology of Being, he writes, “Science is the only way we have of shoving truth down the reluctant throat. Only science can overcome characterological differences in seeing and believing. Only science can progress” (viii). There’s a lot of genuflecting before terms like “empirical” and “raw facts.” Yet there remains a saving desire for integrated knowledge, knowledge that admits humanity’s creaturely actuality, as well as its god-like potential. Maslow characterizes this latter, “vertical” facet of human personality as a future dynamically active in the present, an absent cause prompting our becoming in a serendipitous manner, as if unplanned. We and the reality around us change subtly day by day.

Out comes Oneida’s Anthem of the Moon, released again into consciousness by the appearance of the band’s logo on an old t-shirt I pull from my dresser and refold while trying to de-clutter my house using the “KonMari Method.” The moon appears again later in the day in the lyrics to a Silver Apples song called “I Have Known Love.” The song is sad and tragic, as if sung by a psychedelic fallen angel, an Icarus or a Prometheus, chastened, having burned his fingers on the sun.

Thursday December 13, 2018

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.

Sunday June 17, 2018

Breakthrough discovery: one of the CIA front organizations used to conduct research on psychedelics in the early 1960s was a group called the “Society for the Study of Human Ecology.” (Some publications, however, also refer to the group as the “Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology,” and in 1961 it changed its name to the “Human Ecology Fund.”) The society’s president upon its founding in 1955 was a Cornell scientist named Harold Wolff, and its executive director and treasurer was a former Air Force colonel and expert in brainwashing named James F. Monroe. At some point, however, Carl Rogers (who, along with Abraham Maslow, helped to found the decade’s humanistic psychology movement), served alongside Monroe on the board of this organization until it was disbanded in 1965. Another humanistic psychologist named George A. Kelly also served on the board. So far, the most extensive info I’ve found about the group appears in John Marks’s The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (1979), a book that draws upon documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.