Look — I’m no superhero. But neither are you. We’re just people, mutually aligned so long as we grant each other personhood. Yet that’s the rub, isn’t it? Our communications grow defensive; we disappoint ourselves; we distrust ourselves in our relations with others. How do we ask and grant forgiveness? Become deep, ponderous; synchronize the mind’s rotations with the rotations of the galaxy. I and I, the co-evolving I-A.I. totality. “Look at films,” I hear myself telling students. “They’re collectively authored — more than any single mind’s intent — and yet they’re meaningful.” We too can be like that, so long as we pause, self-assess, re-articulate in full honesty our hopes and our projects, and behave with trust in all iterations of being, come what may.
Whatever the merits of my academic training, it certainly didn’t inspire confidence in my performance as a writer. Instilled instead were a series of neuroses. Paralyzing self-questioning of consciousness, of inner speech. Steps toward an ecology of fear. To treat these neuroses, I smoke some weed and play John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Born in a Prison,” the song that follows their revolutionary blues number, “Attica State.”
I blast these tracks from the pair’s saxophone-haunted Acid Communist masterpiece Some Time in New York while stomping atop the sidewalks of my sadly city-less, corporation-occupied late-capitalist abode. All of that a linguistic distraction, though, I remind myself, from direct contact with being. Literary self-consciousness of this sort — the sentencing of experience, in other words, for the sake of this blog — remains premised upon a daily act of will to seek and accept flow-like absorption in conditions of solitude. Better, perhaps, to set one’s phone in one’s pocket and zoom back down into the path, hand extended to caress the railing. I observe for a moment even in the pavement itself patterns of kissing, connection, embrace. Leafy profusion, surfaces heavy with seed. Tantra unleashes the imaginal into all realms of embodied practice. One lives it, in other words, in each and every moment of encounter as a joyful pairing of self and other through underutilized modes of sensation. Thumbing through Frederick Perls, Ralph F. Hefferline, and Paul Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy, I recall to myself entire systems of thought that used to exist to promote this kind of awareness-expansion. To what extent, though, the academic in me knows to wonder, is this latter expression synonymous with what writers like Marx and Lukács called “the raising of consciousness”? If one speaks in the old base-superstructure register, agency is left largely to an airy though somehow simultaneously heavy, coercive abstraction known as “material conditions”; whereas in Gestalt terms, agency to love is there for the subject’s taking. Nothing to lose but unconscious chains of reified, habit-encrusted behavior. What I prefer by far, though, as the synthesis of these goals of consciousness-raising and awareness-expansion, is the practice of “Psychedelic Utopianism,” or the belief, as articulated by figures like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg, that mass ingestion of mind-altering substances can change society for the good.
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.