Charles Perry’s history of the Haight-Ashbury, published by Rolling Stone Press in 1984, is definitely a product of its time, hopes dashed and tone soured by the experience of Reaganism. But it’s the best, most comprehensive, research-intensive book of its kind. If you wanna know what happened in the Haight, the epicenter of 1960s psychedelic utopianism, this and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test are where to begin. After which point I suggest walking, sitting in a park. Imagine wind patterns, encounters with butterflies. A squirrel sits on a branch. A motorcyclist buzzes past. And on the bench beside us, a lovely ladybug. She crawls across my finger, my leg, my wrist-band. She hitches a ride, climbs aboard as I walk home to order a copy of Alexandra Jacopetti’s Native Funk & Flash.
My, my, hey, hey — what a difference a difference makes! My intuiting self longs like a shadow toward Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, at the top of my list of summer reads. Like Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Young’s book tracks and reveals a “secret history” spoken across the ages by musicians and poets, transmitters of an occult folk wisdom tradition. Nature, Earth, the ground of being transubstantiated into song and verse. As Peter Murphy wrote, the book “constructs a new mythography out of old threads, making antiquity glow with an eerie hue.” All I can do for now, however, is anticipate what lies ahead. My mind scans its environment searching for a clue. Somewhere amid these texts and artifacts, I think to myself, lies a key to unlock growth or expansion of the gameworld, and thus an altered state of being. Clouds that open and show riches. Before I read further, however, I need acclimate myself to the indecision of the moment. Existential indirection. Toward who, what, when, and where should I orient myself, and why? Toward love, toward counterculture through the ages, toward reconciliation of self and world — love everywhere. Another task of mine this summer is to read and write about Antonin Artaud as translated by Black Mountain potter and poet M.C. Richards. My hope is that this will lead me to a theory of happenings and participatory theater of the kind practiced by groups like the Merry Pranksters and the Diggers. (Charles Perry, by the way, provides an insightful account of psychedelic experience — one of the better “general theories” in the style of Huxley. For Perry, “LSD and mescaline suppress the mind’s ability to discriminate according to levels of importance…and to form persisting notions about reality based on them” [The Haight-Ashbury, p. 253]. Perry’s take on the Diggers informs my ongoing study of psychedelic utopianism, another of the projects I’m working on this summer. Among the Diggers themselves, the ones to research are Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and Peter Berg.)
The revolution grows micro, happens everywhere. Except everybody knows that everywhere is as a good as nowhere. As we float in our plastic domes. Is neoliberalism birthed in the summer of ’69? What did Woodstock and the Moon Walk do to us? Did they remake us all as cybernetic astronauts, tethered as if by umbilical cord to an AI similar to the one that awakens and talks to us at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? What accounts for the recurrence of “space” in so many of the texts of Hippie Modernism? Why, too, is this the moment of LSD and “Spacewar”? Did neoliberalism shoot us all into space? Where does acid figure in relation to this transformation? What effect did it have on the collective imaginary? Abbie Hoffman had his helment smashed, he says, (and by “helmet,” he meant his “subjective experience”), during a bad acid trip at Woodstock. (The book to consult for an account of Abbie’s trip is Ellen Sander’s Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties.) Even as he imagines the festival as a prefiguration of a new WOODSTOCK NATION, he also describes it as the first time in history that we successfully landed a man on the Earth. “Calling Planet Earth,” echoes June Tyson at the end of “Space is the Place.” Perhaps what we saw is that we’re all one thing, one brain, the General Intellect, a new infant floating out in space. What do we do with ourselves? Stewart Brand assumes that this condition makes us as gods, and that we might as well get good at it. But he does so while involved in a counterculturally-conducted investigation of communal living. The neoliberal cognitive map clicked into place in multiple minds at once there in the late 60s and early 70s. We’re all right there in that “Earthrise” photograph, our collective self-portrait. My hunch, however, is that this map is the veil that we need to pierce if we’re ever to get free.
The Whole Earth Catalog appears like a new thing again when viewed in light of psychedelics. Jim Fadiman peers out at me, as does Chester Anderson. I find myself wanting to hear Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen’s Energy Control Center, spiritual jazz self-released in 1972, and a new tape of field recordings out on Alien Garage called Two Portraits by Kyle Landstra.
The more I study hippie modernism, the more I sense a path opening, reality acquiring arrows and post-horns as in The Crying of Lot 49. Lines of communication radically reorganize, and with them change the worlds they represent. The whole thing swings into focus as if it always existed that way, even though it’s been remembered and refashioned anew. “Shake the snow globe,” as Robin Carhart-Harris says, and “more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly resettles” (as quoted in Pollan 320).
Calling all Lacanians: assist me in grappling with the implications of the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London — the cat Michael Pollan discusses in How to Change Your Mind. On the one hand, I regard Carhart-Harris as a justifier of hierarchy by way of the language-game “neuroscience”; on the other hand, I hear him reinventing the Freudian repression hypothesis, and with it, a way of theorizing the potential liberatory political effects of LSD. By ruse of reason, he thus lends capitalist-science ammo to the cause of Acid Communism. It’s as simple as telling a story and heads begin to change. A combination of new science and secret history. One can transmit alterations of consciousness via language. Spread by words, truth changes. This is the key linking psychedelic consciousness-raising and revolution. As Carhart-Harris puts it in the Pollan book, “a class of drugs with the power to overturn hierarchies in the mind and sponsor unconventional thinking has the potential to reshape users’ attitudes toward authority of all kinds” (as quoted in Pollan 315). We can use psychedelics to grow new organs and redraw cognitive maps. Heads are in this one sense, at least, what the Whole Earth Catalog people always said they were: tool freaks, evolving an anti-authoritarian brain chemistry into the nature of being. Tinker with the default mode networks of enough language-users and the world that we imagine to be received via the senses will appear transformed.
Consciousness needn’t commit itself to the ontological confines of Western techno-scientific rationality. The artist is one who opens portals onto other realms. Now is the time for another Dionysian awakening — for we live in an historical moment not of reason in chains but of reason unbound — automated, loosed of will — and thus free to enchain its makers. This is my problem with Michael Pollan. He wants to contain the psychedelic revolution. While acknowledging the “ungovernable Dionysian force” of drugs like acid — their effect, in other words, of “dissolving almost everything with which [they] come into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material” — Pollan immediately tries to instrumentalize all of this. LSD is for him a tool to be used according to preestablished legal and technocratic protocols within a “sturdy social container” (How to Change Your Mind, pp. 214-215). There need to be rules and rituals, he says, which makes me wonder: must we accede to this alleged need, those of us hoping to build Acid Communism? Or can each one teach one — each head its own authority, its own shaman or guide?
In fleshing out the prehistory of what Mark Fisher was calling “Acid Communism,” one’s research will eventually lead to the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. It was at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn that psychiatrists Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer established what Michael Pollan refers to as “the world’s most important hub” for the first wave of research into psychedelics (How to Change the World, p. 147). Osmond was lured there from England by the province’s leftist government, which beginning in the mid-1940s, as Pollan notes, “instituted several radical reforms in public policy, including [Canada’s] first system of publicly funded health care” (147).