Why does my imagination tend toward abstract, textured, experimental imagery rather than traditional three-act narrative? How do I once again evolve in cooperation with grace? Explaining Palanese society’s use of “moksha-medicine,” a character in Aldous Huxley’s Island says, “In theological terms, the moksha-medicine prepares for the reception of gratuitous graces—premystical visions or the full blown mystical experiences. Meditation is one of the ways in which one co-operates with these gratuitous graces…by cultivating the state of mind that makes it possible for the dazzling ecstatic insights to become permanent and habitual illuminations.” My enemy, as always, remains the ever-encroaching somnambulism of fascism. All of our relationships, at all degrees of mediation, gain significance to us only by effort of consciousness. Only by way, in other words, of the names we affix and the stories we tell. My behavior of late has been that of a pouter. A glum, unhappy, apocalyptic defeatist—but for those times when I treat myself to medicine. For it is by my medicine that I activate dormant cognitive pathways, regain the brains of the defeated, re-inhabit the as-yet unfulfilled dream-structures of distant ungovernable ancestors. Like sadistic, Irresistible Impulse-era James Chances, these voices arrive into the flux of being and urge self-contortion—by which they mean, “Stretch and dance!” The energy is everywhere: let us cooperate with grace.
An old friend and I smoked together a few evenings ago in his beautiful downtown LA penthouse. As the weed kicked in, the friend mentioned Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: a book-length psychiatric study of an experiment of dubious ethicality involving a group of men suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. As the title indicates, Rokeach’s experiment brought together three patients with seemingly incompatible belief systems, each man convinced he was Christ, in the hope that these confrontations would cure them of their delusions. In the minutes and hours that followed in this friend’s penthouse, some sort of spiritual-metaphysical mythos or meaning-system crystallized for me around that detail. Next thing I knew, I had tumbled down a rabbit hole into a paranoid fantasy: a weird, apocalyptic tale woven around my soul, and thus discernible only by me, with plot points borrowed from The Stand and Miracle Mile — stories this friend and I encountered together and bonded over as teenagers. Milton’s Paradise Lost figured in there as well. Sarah was present through all of this, pleading my case with me, but I couldn’t shake the intuition that I was in the presence of some high-stakes decision tree. There I was like Adam, lacking the knowledge of good and evil needed to discern friend from foe, but convinced (because of what? the weed? my economic condition? my Catholic upbringing? my fear of dying?) that someone must be a foe, someone must be scheming to steal my happiness. Given this conviction, it seemed inevitable that I was damned either way, buckling under the strain of an impossible choice, an impossible demand. Perhaps, though, I’ve tried to tell myself afterwards, it is by this conviction and it alone that Satan is hypothesized and granted being. Or as Sartre once said, “Evil is making abstract that which is concrete.” Once we choose, of course, the paranoid condition evaporates. We become whole again, the psyche no mere compromise-formation Jerry-rigged by characters installed through socialization, the ones Freud called the Superego and the Id. The Real in which these characters are nested needn’t be defined as a tragic one. Behave lovingly and one is saved.
The “rise and fall” framework informing Jessica Grogan’s book Encountering America leaves much to be desired, not least because it imposes onto history an imaginary moral economy, one that equates moderation with virtue and radicalism with vice. I found this unexamined framework to be particularly intrusive, for instance, in the chapters of the book dealing with Esalen and LSD. Throughout these chapters, Grogan pins the blame for humanistic psychology’s alleged downfall on what she repeatedly refers to as the chaotic “excesses” of the counterculture — by which she seems to mean some combination of romanticism, hedonism, popular withdrawal of support for institutional authority, and unsupervised experimentation with mind-altering substances. Figures linked with these tendencies include Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Frederick Perls, and William C. Schutz.
A proper theory of psychedelic utopianism requires a reassessment of past and present theories of psychology. In particular, it requires a critique of contemporary cognitive-behavioral approaches (not unlike the Frankfurt School’s critique of positivism), and a revalorization of certain elements of the “humanistic psychology” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Jessica Grogan’s Encountering America provides an entry-point into the history of the latter movement. I’m thinking here of figures like R.D. Laing and Abraham Maslow, but also encounter groups, Esalen, and the so-called “human potential movement” more broadly. Finally, this reassessment would also have to engage with humanistic psychology’s successor, the field of “positive psychology.” Among contemporary scholars operating in this field, I’m particularly interested in the work of Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and the UC system’s Greater Good Science Center. On the other end of the political spectrum, however, we have figures like Martin Seligman and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks. (This latter figure, by the way, also serves on the advisory board of Charles Koch’s Well-Being Initiative.) For more on positive psychology, check out Daniel Horowitz’s book Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America.
Sitting in a chair in my backyard, gazing up through a cover of leaves at layers of clouds as they cross the sky, I experience self-tension, part of me a voice commenting live as another part awaits assumption, uplift, acquisition of an as-yet unpossessed knowledge. How do I overcome what Lacan calls the “narcissistic passion” birthed by the mirror-stage? Where am I? What do I want to do? I’m Philip K. Dick’s “electric ant,” a robot trying to seize control of consciousness. By practicing self-analysis, I can “regulate the yield of my ears,” as Lacan would say; I can learn to listen not just to breath and heartbeat but to brainwaves. By these means, one can self-regulate thought’s beats per minute, “in order to pick up what is to be heard” (Écrits, p. 45). These signals might guide one, for instance, to a reimagining of oneself as a “collective head,” a series of singularities slowly acquiring awareness of itself as plural. This head of ours floats atop the “pastoral krautrock” of Smoke Bellow’s ISOLATION 3000 while enrolling itself in a crash course on anamnesis.
I listen to David Van Tieghem’s These Things Happen while reading selections from Lacan’s Écrits. I intuit in the latter an abiding belief that humanity’s primary tormentors are images of aggressivity, or “imagos of fragmented bodies” formed during childhood. My reading leads to an objectification of prior experience via the concept of “autoscopy.” This concept names experiences whereby individuals perceive themselves or their surrounding environment from positions outside their bodies. Isn’t there an element of autoscopy, though, in precisely that “subjectless” discourse that calls itself “Science”? As evidence of the latter’s utter theoretical inadequacy, its insufficiency at the level of the human subject, I’ll just note here that neuroscientists attribute experiences of autoscopy to “abnormal higher-level self-processing at the temperoparietal junction.” Notice how the self-exiled objectivity of the body predominates in that formulation. Notice, too, the normative heavy lifting performed by the unexamined, unjustified labeling of such experiences as “abnormal.” What about me, though? Aren’t there still traces of science woven into the semantics of these trance-scripts? What aggressive intentions, I wonder, might cause me to self-sabotage my attempts to dialogue with others? That’s probably the main question psychoanalysis asks us to register, is it not? In this way, we take consciousness for a ride, we elevate it.
American Pop-Freudianism, The Twilight Zone, Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Op art, the psychedelic revolution, the divine paranoia of Philip K. Dick: all of these are approximations at a distance of German Freudo-Marxism and French Surrealism, I convince myself — the concerns, techniques, and affects of the two prior European formations modified through contact with the postwar American culture industry and adapted to suit the conditions of the Cold War. After thinking the matter over, however, I reject this notion of “approximation at a distance,” as it demeans the above phenomena, framing them as if they were mere second-order simulacra. No matter: Famed downtown New York ‘80s DJ Jellybean Benitez gets me dancing, makes me an offer I can’t refuse, with his divine bass-bumping “Wotupski!?!” EP, a copy of which somehow fell into my hands the other day at Goodwill.
It would be a fine record even were it not to include its grand finale, the lavish 8:44 cover of Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican,” a US Dance chart-topper upon the album’s release in 1984. (Note, too, those echoing numbers. A synchronicity, I suppose: a “meaningful coincidence.”) From there, I dig down a bit, I grant myself the supreme pleasure of Bobbi Humphrey’s psychedelic flute-funk freakout, “Fun House.”
And why not? I’ve submitted my grades. I’ve completed the terms of my contract. Out from the realm of necessity, I’ve arrived into the world of summer. The time has come to party. The time has come to get down.