Every time I think of John C. Lilly, who early in his career worked for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), I’m reminded of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The latter was the source for The Secret of NIMH, a 1982 animated film that captured my imagination as a child.
‘Tis no mere coincidence, that all of these organizations of the future have such similar-sounding names: Mark Fisher, Sadie Plant, and Kodwo Eshun et al.’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), John C. Lilly’s Cosmic Coincidence Control Center (CCCC), and Benedict Seymour’s Central Control Committee (CCC). Of the three, the one that intrigues me is the CCC. In a piece titled “The re-Jetée: 1971, recurring,” Seymour sets the scene as follows: “The year is 2040. Facing species extinction and environmental collapse, the members of the Central Control Committee (CCC) of the newly established World Commune resolve to deploy their last hope — the time machine.” Does my own narrative need some such organization? Is there an occult time war underway? Or is the story, rather, one of recovery from trauma?
CCCC is an agency encountered or imagined by legendary scientist-psychonaut John Lilly. The latter claimed the group reached out to him in the early to mid 1970s through its local affiliate, the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO, while Lilly was studying dolphins and conducting experiments involving combinations of LSD, ketamine, and sensory deprivation tanks at his marine research lab, the Communications Research Institute, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Erik Davis writes of Lilly’s odd experiences from this period in his book High Weirdness. Lilly wanted to communicate with dolphins, and Margaret Mead’s ex-husband Gregory Bateson assisted with funding. Lilly writes of his encounter with ECCO in his 1978 memoir The Scientist. His ideas informed the 1973 science fiction thriller The Day of the Dolphin starting George C. Scott, as well as the 1992 Sega Genesis videogame Ecco the Dolphin. Lilly also served as the basis for Dr. Edward Jessup, the mad professor character in the 1980 film Altered States. My sense of him follows a trajectory the exact opposite of Jessup’s: Lilly was a villain of sorts only in his early years. His research of the 1950s, funded by the military, was what we might call “MK-Ultra”-adjacent. Despicable acts like sticking wires into the brains of monkeys in the name of science. Yet Lilly rebelled, acquired a conscience, became a free radical of sorts. With commencement of his self-experimentation with psychedelics, Lilly transforms, becomes a rabbit hole of immense strangeness from the 1960s onward. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog promoted Lilly’s books, especially Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. A 1972 paperback edition of the latter features Brand calling it “The best internal guidebook I’ve ever seen—far more practical and generalized than transcendent Eastern writings or wishful Underground notes….It makes an open start on fresh language and powerful technique for the frontier.” By the latter, Brand means what? Some sort of moving boundary or threshold state, I guess, where through self-experiment with tools, subjects grow new organs.
The author sits uncomfortably on his meditation pillow pondering the tranche of 80s jangle-pop / Paisley Underground LPs that turned up at Goodwill mere days after he set out to tell his story. In the heart of the heart of the story is the house he lived in two doors down from Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio. “Who or what passed these records to us,” he wonders, “at such an opportune time? What kind of entity must we presuppose, what manner of causality must we assume here in our rendering of the cosmos?” For two of the records are themselves Easter-produced efforts: one of them recorded and the other mixed at Drive-In. “Was it the Ghost who sent them?” inquires the author. “Or is there some other force at work?” Some covert, time-traveling, Antikythera-wielding group from the future, perhaps, name composed of a string of Cs. Such was the solution OG psychonaut John Lilly arrived at, his paranoid, drug-powered Cold War musings leading him to posit the existence of a shadow organization known as the Cosmic Coincidence Control Center.
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?