The Rhetoric of Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics

March 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

 This is a paper I was working on a few years ago on Ornette Coleman’s rhetoric.  It references an interview you can watch on youtube in two parts:

Harmolodics : The theoretical underpinnings of harmolodic theory are extremely suspect, even more so than those of George Russell’s Lydian chromatic theory, but there is no question that these sorts of casual, homemade approaches to jazz theory have been of great value to performers and educators, helping them to capture, or to communicate, through inferential or emotive means, some of the processes involved in jazz improvisation.

 -Grove Encyclopedia of Music

For fifty years, Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory has both baffled and inspired musicians and critics.  Coleman became nationally recognized when he entered the New York jazz scene in the late fifties after attending the Lenox School of jazz summer program in 1959 and then appearing at the Five Spot later that year.  His sound was controversial to begin with, but he was also a new face to the scene in New York.  The jazz press gave him so much attention that some musicians resented not just his new approach to the music, but because did not “pay his dues.”  Coleman’s rapport with journalists and record companies also has a history of misunderstandings.  It is not frequent that one gets a chance to interview him, and even when one gets a chance to interview him, his answers can at first seem vague or elusive.  Coupled with his status as the bringer of “free jazz” (which is not completely true), Coleman has a public aura of mystique and he is often praised by artists and listeners as a sort of legendary revolutionary.  His aesthetic of free improvisation has been read as both progressive and iconoclastic.  It appeared aesthetically opposed to the easier listening and more commercially successful “Cool jazz” at the time.  Coleman thus carries a sort of credibility for many listeners who prefer an “unpolished” or “rough” sort of sound, and thus he has been a sort of cult figure for underground and psychedelic rock musicians who seek authenticity in the austere in addition to younger jazz musicians. 

Affirming that Coleman’s sound might sound rough to some ears is not meant to diminish Coleman’s technique and virtuosity.  He is very much in control of what he’s doing musically, and he’s very consistent.  Part of his virtuosity is indeed the avoidance of a certain kind of techne, the kind one might find in a Paganini violin piece or a hard bop soloist.  His techne is altogether different.  In an interview for the Bonnaroo music festival in 2007, Coleman gives a description of his thinking that can perhaps shed some light on this issue.  It is important first, however, to frame Coleman’s ethos as an historical jazz figure to understand the significance of this interview. It is partly Coleman’s “cult status” that leads the interviewer in the YouTube video to ask him how he feels about playing in front of a “rock and roll audience,” and possibly prompts Coleman to partially evade the question, saying, “I never think about the subject of what I’m doing, I only think about the quality of what I’m doing.”  After this answer, the shot video has been edited, so we don’t get Coleman’s complete answer.  His words pick up again saying,

COLEMAN: So for me, making music is like a form of religion for me because it soothes the heart and increases the pleasure of the brain and most of all it’s very enjoyable to express something that you can hear and can’t see, which is not bad you know and everyone gets the same benefit.  That’s a pretty good equalization there you know plus I’ve been playing so long it’s not ummm…my real concern.  It’s my real concern for the things that I would uh like to perfect in music is to uh heal the suffering, the pain and the uh and the uh what is it called when you’re…when you’re lonely?


COLEMAN: Yeah solitude, and when you are depressed music seems to be a very good dose of light that cause people to feel lots better. And I think improvising is even freer because everyone gets a different feeling from improvising.  It’s not different where everyone’s hearing the same movements, you know,  because in the music I do I write out the music but I write everyone a different part so they can make a contribution to the whole. For me I mean it’s, I don’t call it composing, I’ve been calling it sound grammar and for a better technical part I call it Harmolodics.


What’s important here is that Coleman distinguishes between Harmolodics and composing. The interviewer then asks Coleman to explain his theory or approach.


COLEMAN: Well, between language, what we call electronic words that go through different frequencies to express thoughts and moods and most of all look at the amount of instrumentation that sound is involved with if you count all the instruments people use for sound it’s almost impossible to stop counting I mean from a whistle to a big tuba to a violin to a sax to …there’s many things that contribute like make a contribution to sound to sound and the most eternal thing that makes a contribution to sound is your voice, the mouth. Isn’t it?

INTERVIEWER: Constantly.

COLEMAN: Yeah, and not only that but imagine how many different words that have a different meaning for the same sound in the form of human you know I don’t know how many languages human on the planet speak but it must go up at least into the thousands right? and it’s nothing but sound making a relationship to meaning for your brain and who you are in relationship to what your environment and what your race is.

 So basically I guess you could say, sound is to people what the sun is to light…something like that. You know, which I don’t sound like I’m being very intellectual because I’m not but, you know, from the fact that I’ve been in this business for a long time and this is a moment of many moments that I’ve had and I’m always trying to make sure that they become beneficial by not taking up all your time to say something that doesn’t mean anything or to say something that someone is going to hear that might be more interesting than doing something they haven’t thought about. I mean I guess what I’m trying to say is human is more important than technology. I guess that’s what I’m saying. You know and it’s good that both subjects is appealing to what we call professionals…something like that right?


Is Ornette Coleman being cryptic or evasive in this interview?  On one hand he sounds entirely sincere; on the other hand, his answers rarely land in any sort of concrete statement. 

Transcribed, it’s especially apparent that Coleman’s words are full of ironic turns: phrases like “I don’t sound like I’m being intellectual because I’m not” in the midst of sweeping statements about the nature of sound and humanity and “human is more important than technology” or “I’m always trying to make sure that they become beneficial by not taking up all your time to say something that doesn’t mean anything.” 

It is worth considering that Coleman’s answer may itself be a performance of what he means by Harmolodics.  For example, the thoughts change mid-sentence instead of landing. “You know?” and “Right?” offer interjections that encourage interaction from his interlocutor.  Coleman is noticeably responsive to the interviewer, affirming the interviewer’s answers to his questions, and he seems to punctuate his thoughts with open-ended questions. He doesn’t show great concern with the answer (uh what is it called when you’re…when you’re lonely? – “solitude” in this case), but Coleman engages with the answer, embraces it and carries on.  He improvises his answer without landing in a concrete statement which would sound like a piece of composed material.  His associations continue a conversation without fully synthesizing a dialectical relationship of question-answer.  There is forward movement, but it is hard to track the conversation’s progress. Of course, the conversation is slightly informal; nevertheless, one can glean important themes from the conversational content.

The notion of “progress” is central to discussions about Coleman in terms of musical “progress,” which in jazz music is often problematically aligned with many kinds of progress: i.e. social progress, the intellectualization and domestication of jazz, fusion of African American and European musical aesthetics, and professional technical virtuosity among musicians.  At the same time, critics have heard Coleman’s music as challenging notions of progress. When Ornette Coleman’s quartet played a series of concerts at The Five Spot in New York in the 1950s, Coleman’s name became metonymic for a style of music eventually referred to as the “New Thing,” the “avant-garde,” and eventually “free jazz.”  Opinions about Coleman and his music ranged from calling him a genius to calling him a charlatan. 

In a world of “progressive jazz,” Coleman’s music challenged the very notion of progress, which had come to be associated both with the technical virtuosity required of jazz musicians as well as narratives of social progress and democracy by jazz critics and the U.S. government, who used jazz as generic symbol of democratic art that was – uniquely “American” – by sending established jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong on diplomatic missions (Anderson).  Because socially progressive critics (John Tynan at Down Beat, for example who praised Coleman early on) aligned the music with both civil rights progress and the economic growth as a result of fighting communism, Coleman’s music and free jazz was often read as iconoclastic (insofar as it destroyed the “image” of jazz), anti-American, and by the early (1960s), anti-jazz.[1] 

And yet, Coleman who is often heralded as the one who brought free improvisation to the jazz world, claimed to merely have a new system of composing music.  Does this “new” method imply progress?  Coleman calls his system “Harmolodics” and in 1983 he defined it: “Harmolodics is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.  Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position in the groups that come from the placing and spacing of ideas” (54-55).  Unlike the conversational example above, this statement  was written and published in Down beat magazine. While it is easy to critique this definition as being vague and fundamentally anti-systematic or relativistic, a generous reading of it sees commonalities across many aesthetic and intellectual disciplines throughout the twentieth century.  Coleman’s Harmolodics resonates with and thematizes much of the philosophical and academic struggles of the twentieth century, namely: language and representation, ontology and epistemology, modernism and postmodernism.  I believe Coleman’s theory has something significant to offer discourses centered on these topics.

Perhaps the best way into these large discursive themes is to ask: what is the difference between method and attitude?  This question is a theme in twentieth-century western thought.  It has long been present in philosophy, particularly in phenomenology.  In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty discusses the tension between a philosophy that is a “rigorous science” which still opposes a “natural attitude,” eventually claiming that “the opinion of the responsible philosopher must be that phenomenology can be practiced and identified as a manner or a style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at complete awareness of itself as a philosophy” (vii-viii).  Husserl’s epoche (phenomenological reduction) becomes a heuristic for engagement with a world in which experience is always already filtered by consciousness – intentionality.  In other words, phenomenology in the mid twentieth-century attempted to discuss in language what precedes linguistic articulation. The articulated is always already after the fact. Composition is always an ordering of the world.  Phenomenologists sought through rigorous attention to document the process of perception as close to real-time as possible in order to get at fundamentals of being.  While scientific, they recognized science itself as both attitude and method.

Or to speak to the literary disciplines, Blanchot in The Space of Literature claims that creating of the work is a kind of channeling.

A work is only a work when it becomes the intimacy shared by someone who writes it and someone who reads it, a space violently opened up by the contest between to power to speak and the power to hear. And the one who writes is, as well, one who has ‘heard’ the interminable and incessant, who has heard it as speech, has entered into understanding with it, has lived with its demand […] He has mastered it by imposing measure. (37)

Coleman during an improvisation would then be seeking the space where one can hear the composition. It is both lived and processual.  And his audience receives Coleman’s hearing.

A “popular” or secularized theme of such division between method and attitude often gets divided along the academic lines of “hard sciences” versus “soft” or “humanities,” quantitative versus qualitative, etc.  Scientific method relies on reproducibility of facts for verifiable evidence.  An attitude is more subjective and speaks to the underlying beliefs behind the method.  As academic departmentalization continues to become interdisciplinary in the twenty-first century, as scientific method (or positivism in a general sense) has been recognized by even “hard” scientists as an attitude, the question of attitude versus method acquires a theoretical exigency.  Namely, in the university responsible for tracking and storing knowledge, Francis Bacon’s method holds enormous rhetorical weight, even when it is seen as limited by both the sciences and the humanities. While such views do not make scientific method moot, they merely suggest that as a metaphysical description, it became limited – even lost the hermeneutic aspects present in Bacon’s New Organon.  In any case, a new metaphysics (or return to metaphysics)  became necessary.  One hears some of this in Coleman’s words from the video. 

Or, to choose another grand theme which Coleman’s theory parallels: postmodernism, in all its complexity, created a condition which has become a part of our facticity, to be dealt with whether we like it or not. This historical condition can be thematized philosophically in the twentieth century as the reworking of metaphysics as a necessary worldview for a world that must be experienced vicariously.  In a decentralized world without fixed power structures, subjectivity becomes an awareness of subjectivity’s constructed-ness.  One does not have the “original” experience; rather, experience is mediated by a “consciousness of…” and that consciousness plays avatar to the murkier aspects of self, indeed, calling the very notion of self a composition after an unremembered event – perhaps the event of membering.  The reintegration of metaphysics – a subject considered passé or irrelevant to positivists in the early twentieth century – became necessary for a world based on differing doxas.  Postmodernism is a kind of metaphysical description. 

This reintegration of metaphysics can be seen in the use of semiotics to account for the invisible.  Thinkers like Saussure, Derrida, and Lacan all attempted to make metaphysics applicable through the study of language and signs, and there is no wonder why their thought has been so pervasive across academic disciplines.  From a wide lens, these thinkers’ attention to language and signs thematizes an ongoing and ancient debate between philosophy and rhetoric that has a revitalized exigency in our current world.  For example, in the field of rhetorical criticism, Biesecker, in 1989 suggested the appropriation of Derrida’s deconstruction “method” (or “attitude”?) by rhetorical critics.  In a worldview where everything is construction, everything appears to be rhetorical.  Perhaps rhetoric has not been so self-conscious of its construction since the Renaissance.  In any case, everything appears as potential for rhetorical study of its constructed-ness, even the gaze of the constructor.

The attention to the constructor of meaning, the reader (audience), as implicated in the process of making meaning, creates the necessity for an intensified re-examination of ethos and ethics.  Why do we believe some theorists and not others?  Where is authority in the de-centered world? Is there such thing as a self? Who is responsible?  Is God dead? All these questions arise out of the necessity to relate to differing belief systems in a discursive environment that attempts the impossibility of secularity.  That is, postmodernism is a metaphysics that treats the virtual construction of the world as immanence in which individual subjects locate themselves through narratives of transcendence.  Postmodernism replaces God with the cultural manifestation of an untotalizeable human culture, and with an avid devotion to creating meaning from a world saturated with meaning. The contemporary academic, rhetorical critic, or scientist performs a kind of hermeneutics akin to Jewish midrash – God as an absent presence.

The subject as meaning-maker, as reader-poet, in Barthes’ sense, is central to an examination of the focus on ethics and the reintegration of metaphysics as discursive for contemporary understandings of the world.  When I say reintegration, I only mean it in the sense of metaphysical discourse.  Postmodernism presents itself as a metaphysics, but because scientific positivism inserts itself in the space of religion, making metaphysics passé and exalting a rational humanism (the Frankfurt School’s instrumental reason) which fetishizes, techne as progress, resulting in the political and social horrors of the twentieth century, it leaves people with the same fear of giving up positivism as it must have felt for religious people in England after Origin of the Species

What is needed, however, is not the rejection of positivism in favor of some new religious idol, but the recognition that religious tendencies toward transcendence and immanence remain present in human life.  It does no good to reject religion, spirituality, and mysticism, in favor of a flawed rationality that presents itself as divine.  It does no good to build institutional structures based on an enlightenment logic which only remains a perspectival frame of reality.  It does help to imagine ways of being beyond this, and Ornette Coleman’s aesthetics, while not being the answer, point in this direction.  In this sense, my reading of Coleman’s aesthetics is both progressive and cyclical, for he points to a worldview that to some may seem pre-modern, but it is a sensibility which has never been un-present during modernism; it has simply not been taken seriously by modernism.  

In order to understand the significance of Ornette Coleman’s aesthetics as I’m framing them, it is necessary to understand a bit of the scene or cultural milieu in which he emerges.  While I argue that Coleman’s aesthetics are progressive, they are not progressive in the traditional sense used by jazz critics.  Both musicians and critics at numerous points in jazz history have been interested in the idea that the music is constantly evolving and that this has been the result of both conscious acts by artists as well as the synecdochic tendency the music contains as a potential symbol for democratic values.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the epithet of the “moldy-fig” was applied to someone who preferred “Classic” or New Orleans jazz to that of modern or bebop.  In his biography of Charlie Parker, for example, Carl Woideck asserts that

a construct that was popular in jazz until the late 1960s held that jazz was constantly improving; that further harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic sophistication and complexity advanced jazz; that each new style superseded the previous one, e.g., New Orleans jazz was made obsolete by the swing style that was then superseded by modern jazz.  The devotees of early jazz styles felt that the music had classic qualities of simplicity, directness, honesty, and joy that were lacking in later styles. (137)

The idea that jazz exhibits an evolutionary process is itself ambiguous, but Woideck’s statement is clearly more directed toward the technicality of music.  The process of acquiring technique in reference to a musician and his or her instrument is undeniably evolutionary.  But the concept of evolution when applied to musical aesthetics becomes complex.  A linear evolution toward technical virtuosity can only become more and more esoteric, complex, and perhaps difficult for the average listener.  In this sense, the jazz of the late fifties was heading toward the same sort of crisis that modernist painters went through, namely a trend toward abstraction and greater emphasis on subjectivity.

            While avant-garde musicians like Coleman may have been initially criticized for having a lack of technique and thus been considered archaic in their aesthetic views, the musicians often thought of their innovations as being evolutionary in a different way.  While this doesn’t mean they weren’t concerned with technique, their innovations took a more subjective than objective turn and as a result their innovations were harder to calculate.  In retrospect, Ornette Coleman says,

I realized that if I changed the harmonic structure while someone else is doing something, they couldn’t stay there, they’d have to change with me.  So I would bring that about myself a lot, knowing where I could take the melody.  In other words, I could create a showcase for the melody and then show the distance between where I could go and still come directly back to that melody, instead of trying to show the different inversions of the same thing. (In Litweiler 43)  

Coleman intentionally directed the music toward his own musical statements and diverted people from playing directed at a pre-existing form.  In this sense, Coleman’s playing is rhetorical in a classical sense; as a leader, he made musical assertions that persuade civic action on the part of his band members, maybe not in terms of a state, but definitely in terms of a community.  In playing with Coleman, the other musicians had to give up the game of asserting mastery by establishing their virtuosic ability to play over a pre-given form and now play a “new game,” one that takes place in the moment with the other musicians.  As a result, the musicians’ engagement with each other became more direct. 

Coleman’s aesthetic turn was definitely a different kind of evolution than Woideck describes with the beboppers.  Because it was a more subjective turn, it became more particular to each individual musician’s identity.  While critics at times saw social ideals and ethics embodied in the music (particularly with race and democracy, see Anderson), they weren’t equipped for a subjective turn like Coleman’s that demanded more engagement on everyone’s part. 

While Woideck’s criticism focuses on musical evolution, other critics have seen evolution in the music and aligned the progressive tendencies with socially progressive political theories.  Amiri Baraka, an early advocate of the avant-garde, sees the music as “an aesthetic whose standards and measure are connected irrevocably to the continuous gloss most white Americans have always made over the Negro life in America” (185) and he states that critics need to

reorganize their thinking so that they begin their concern for these musicians by trying to understand why each played the way he did, and in terms of the constantly evolving and re-defined which has informed the most profound examples of Negro music throughout its history. (184)

Baraka not only aligns aesthetic innovation with racial or social progress, he implies that not understanding and supporting the music and musicians is to misunderstand “Negro” music.  The critic’s social responsibility is to understand the artist.  While Baraka sees an evolutionary connection between the music and the African American community, he is not saying that when jazz evolves, it makes previous styles of jazz obsolete.  This makes him different than a critic who sees greater complexity, virtuosity, and harmonic sophistication as the only way to go. Discussing the avant-garde, Baraka states,

The attitudes and emotional philosophy contained in “the new music” must be isolated and understood by critics before any consideration of the worth of the music can legitimately be broached.  Later on, of course, it becomes relatively easy to characterize the emotional penchants that informed earlier aesthetic statements.  After the fact, is a much simpler way to work and think.  For example, a writer who wrote liner notes for a John Coltrane record mentioned how difficult it had been for him to appreciate Coltrane earlier, just as it had been difficult for him to appreciate Charlie Parker when he first appeared. (183)

The ear of the critic evolves as well, and Baraka’s criticism comes from the late sixties.  With Baraka’s sentiments in mind, let us take a look back at Ornette Coleman from the historical vantage point of half a century.


Ornette Coleman, whose aesthetic sensibility asserts the importance of the fusion between the subject’s mind and body, who asserts the necessity for musicians to use “the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison,” may have some wisdom to offer in terms of developing an heuristic method to cope with the theoretical exigencies we find ourselves in.  Perhaps Ornette Coleman’s perspective seems even more appropriate because he is not an academic, yet his music and thought articulates concerns that academics find themselves dealing with.  As such, Coleman’s music and style becomes useful textual study to see his thinking in practice.  In order to help articulate these concerns to an audience of rhetoricians, in my next section of this essay, I will employ some terms from Kenneth Burke’s dramatism to expedite an understanding of Coleman and his place in jazz history for those unfamiliar with Coleman.   


            Looking back at Ornette Coleman’s career over the last fifty years, Coleman has gained widespread acclaim and criticism.  His music undoubtedly changed the way people thought about and played jazz.  His credentials are no longer in question.  That said, his music has never been considered “mainstream,” even in the commercial jazz scene.  As a result, Coleman’s aesthetics have come to be aligned with iconoclasm, revolution, challenging the status quo; and his ethos has been romanticized.  To critics of his music, Coleman’s music represents a decline in jazz music sales and jobs for musicians.  He has often been seen as the starving, marginalized, unappreciated genius.  It is partly because of this image that Coleman ended up playing at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2007, which would normally be a venue for rock bands.

            It is helpful here to consider Coleman’s ethos in the dramatistic terms of Kenneth Burke.  The scenic structure of the Bonnaroo Festival situates Coleman as an almost stereotypical “jazz legend.”  He is both protagonist and mythic or cult hero.  He’s a hero of course, because he has weathered the storms of critical disapproval over an entire career without ever compromising his artistic integrity.  He has never become famous enough to “sell out,” yet he has remained productive and at times received prestigious awards.  The scene – agent ratio, as Burke’s pentad might suggest, is one where Coleman as agent is both Coleman the man as well as Coleman consubstantiated into cultural ether.

            In Burke’s terms, Coleman’s substance as an artist must be in part defined by the scene which supports him.  This is partly because through etymological study, one finds a paradox at the basis of the root for the word “substance.”  Sub, meaning “under,” is combined with stance – to stand.  Substance would literally not be the subject (or object), but the thing that holds up the subject.  This also applies to the word “subject.”  As Burke explains in A Grammar of Motives

For instance, the key philosophic term, sub-ject (in Latin, thrown under) is the companion to the Greek hypokeimenon (underlying), a word that can refer to the subject of a sentence, or to the “sub-strate” of the world (the essential constitution of things, hence indeterminately a kind of basis or a kind of causal ancestor).  The word can also refer to what is assumed as a ground for an argument, in which capacity it serves as a passive for hypotithemi (to place or put under, as a base or foundation, to assume as a principle, take for granted, suppose… (28)

It is not, therefore, merely that Coleman as acting agent exists on a scene (be it a jazz scene, an American aesthetic scene, the Bonnaroo Festival, etc.) but that his stance on that scene is one of rhetor and artist. 

To align the “art” of rhetoric with Coleman as artist is to try to transcend an archaic model of a romantic artist whose subjective dialectic with western society is always entangled with the rise of a market economy – or, as stated earlier, Marxist (still romantic) critiques of that economy.  It is also to suggest that rhetoric and aesthetics be considered close together while simultaneously outside of a tradition which places aesthetics in the realm of an aristocratic sensibility where the “refined” person is an arbiter of taste and a creator of culture.  While aesthetics and rhetors may be related to the formation of ideology, they cannot be seen as having a strictly causal link.  Because both the subject (rhetor) and the audience  cannot be accurately accounted for as fixed entities, critical methods must be developed which account for less static views of rhetor and audience.  As Maurice Charland has claimed,

A transformed ideology would require a transformed subject (not a dissolving of subjectivity).  Such a transformation requires ideological and rhetorical work.  This can proceed at two levels: (1) it can proceed at the level of the constitutive narrative itself, providing stories that through identificatory principle shift and rework the subject and its motives; (2) it can also proceed at the aesthetic level of what Williams terms the “structure of feeling” and Grossberg describes as the affective apparatus.”  Since, as Fisher observes, the truth of a narrative resides in its “fidelity,” which is an aesthetic quality, new true narratives become possible as new modes of aesthetic experience emerge and gain social meaning. (148) 

Understanding Ornette Coleman and his aesthetics in a new way would be to articulate a social meaning.  The method would then be to consider the fidelity of his aesthetics.  However, while Charland refers to fidelity as an aesthetic quality, it is also very much an ethical quality.  It is not only necessary to consider Ornette Coleman’s rhetorical / artistic stance as aesthetic, but also as an ethical stance.  Such a stance cannot be considered from outside of historical (scenic) forces at work in Coleman’s own life; it would be critically irresponsible to consider Coleman a fixed subject. 

Therefore, in order to avoid fixing Coleman as a static subject, it is necessary to consider his stance in fluid terms, which Burke’s criticism again provides, namely ambiguity and identification.  If we accept Coleman’s subjectivity as unfixed, we accept a certain amount of ambiguity.  Ambiguity, for Burke, is not to be avoided, but embraced as something naturally present, since it is the very controlling gaze which defines an entity as if it were apart from the world which fixes a subject as an object.  Critically, this means we can discuss Coleman the man as well as Coleman the legend, myth, or ethos.  This is not difficult to do with Coleman since he has already achieved a certain legendary status as both artist and scapegoat for critical opinions.  However, it is these very representational readings of Coleman that have helped to fix a cultural identity for him which this essay argues against.  How then do we get at Coleman the agent without using a positivistic lens that brackets him from the world?  Perhaps we can start with his agency.

By agency, Burke means how the agent accomplishes his or her act.  For Ornette Coleman, this is his theory of Harmolodics.  The problem (or perhaps the virtue?) in discussing Coleman’s Harmolodic theory it that is famously vague.  Indeed, when Coleman is asked to explain it, it seems like he starts from scratch every time.  To reiterate: in the early 1980s Coleman says,

Harmolodics is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.  Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position in the groups that come from the placing and spacing of ideas.   

 And then in 2007 in an interview for the Bonnaroo Festival, when asked to explain Harmolodics, Coleman says,

Well, between language, what we call electronic words that go through different frequencies to express thoughts and moods and most of all look at the amount of instrumentation that sound is involved with if you count all the instruments people use for sound it’s almost impossible to stop counting I mean from a whistle to a big tuba to a violin to a sax to there’s many things that contribute like make a contribution to sound to sound and the most eternal thing that makes a contribution to sound is your voice, the mouth. Isn’t it?

Later in the interview, Coleman comes to a cadence: “I mean I guess what I’m trying to say is human is more important than technology.”  While these two explanations seem quite different at first glance, the common thread is “one’s own” voice.  Harmolodics seems to be a theory of subjectivity.  In this sense, it is a Burkean act.

How can a theory of subjectivity be an act?  One answer to this is that musicians who have performed with Coleman claim to have learned what it is, so there is some amount of transfer being claimed.  Another answer is that it is something willed by a subject.  The location of Coleman’s Harmolodics as a theory implies that it is not merely his own personal style.  It also means that it is, at least in part, persuasive.  The implication here is that the purpose of the act is that it be communicated.  It does not necessarily work for Coleman to perform the way he does alone (with a band, not solo).  It seems necessary that other musicians listen and follow.  There is a sort of communication at work.  This communication, in Burkean terms, is identification.

Identification in the Harmolodic sense seems to be about recognition, which is what Amiri Baraka claims is necessary for the critic.  Identification is somewhere between will and recognition.  It is a shared space.  James L. Golden summarizes:

Identification, at its simplest level, may be a deliberate device, or a means, as when a speaker identifies his audience.  But identification can also be an “end,” as when people earnestly yearn to identify themselves with some group or other.” They are thus not acted upon by a conscious external agent, but may act upon themselves to this end. Identification “includes the realm of transcendence. (250)

Identification is not necessarily willed.  It is not persuasion in any normal sense of the term.  From this point of view it may be easier to guess at Coleman’s purpose for his harmolodic act, which would be to create a space for human transcendence of the existential confines of subjectivity. Again…

COLEMAN: So for me, making music is like a form of religion for me because it soothes the heart and increases the pleasure of the brain and most of all it’s very enjoyable to express something that you can hear and can’t see, which is not bad you know and everyone gets the same benefit.  That’s a pretty good equalization there you know plus I’ve been playing so long it’s not ummm…my real concern.  It’s my real concern for the things that I would uh like to perfect in music is to uh heal the suffering, the pain and the uh and the uh what is it called when you’re…when you’re lonely?


COLEMAN: Yeah solitude, and when you are depressed music seems to be a very good dose of light that cause people to feel lots better. And I think improvising is even freer because everyone gets a different feeling from improvising.  It’s not different where everyone’s hearing the same movements because in the music I do I write out the music but I write everyone a different part so they can make a contribution to the whole. For me I mean it’s, I don’t call it composing, I’ve been calling it sound grammar and for a better technical part I call it Harmolodics.

In Burkean terms, Ornette Coleman’s gesture of Harmolodics is both a rhetorical gesture and an ethical gesture.  It is difficult to separate the gesture from his ethos, yet it is meant to be communicated.  In a real sense, Coleman, who views his work as a “religion,” something spiritual that you can hear but not see, presents aesthetics at a fundamentally ethical level where, through identification, a sort of transcendence of personal self occurs. 

            The implication of art working in this way is fundamentally ethical, and if it is ideological, it is not necessarily in tune with current American values.  This is not to say that it is not fundamentally civic; it is very civic. But it is civic with a view of subjectivity that is fluid.  If it is progressive, it is toward a worldview which assumes cooperation, space for the other, and communication.  If it is cathartic, it purges a view of isolated identity that current American ideology touts as fundamentally valuable – the individual. In Coleman’s system the individual is valued but not praised, just as the individual’s transcendence through identification is not considered a goal.  The ethical act for him remains on the part of the rhetor, it is not something that can be prescribed to the audience, only something suggested to the audience.  Identification becomes the method of connecting with the audiences while simultaneously avoiding being fixed by that critical audience.  Coleman’s aesthetics are not sacrificial.  He does not promote the artist as a Christ-like figure (this would be a more romantic view).  He does, however, suggest an ethical teaching and communication through art to relieve suffering.  His “poetics,” then serves to delight and teach, in the Aristotelian sense.  Take, for example, an open letter to Down Beat Magazine by Coleman in 1967.  Coleman asks, “What should be the goal of a musician who must suffer the results of the music business attitude that musicians should be starving artists who must never feel that the music business is merely another market in which the goals are only social for those whom the business approves?”  He then asks:

What about the value of that musician’s work to the less social, who have no way of knowing what the musician’s value is to other musicians or to an audience – on all levels of music outlets and intakes? How does one play or write music today, since there is a vast number of nonwriters and nonperformers who might not like music and whose only contribution to it is to make money and gain social prestige from it?  Example: I was once told by a very social record producer that a musician shouldn’t expect to make a living from his records.  Yet as he told me this, he was making a good living from records musicians had made for him. (19)

Coleman’s use of the word “social” in these passages is interesting.  It does not seem to be used in the sense of socially good, but rather as a critique of those who use music for personal gain or prestige.  Because economics come into play here, there is almost an inversion of socialism and capitalistic avarice.  He is pointing to something beyond the Cold War binary:

I do wish, though, to speak of my own experience, since critics, record companies, booking agents, magazines, and the press in general have caused me to investigate my goals as a human, because my life is in part a living that allows all to attack or praise that which has as its title the word “art” and as its heart, love.


Whatever it is that makes some of us smarter or more fortunate than our fellow human brothers, I don’t believe God wants one human to destroy his brother because that brother is less fortunate.  That is why I’m writing this to my musical brothers and audience, so we will learn the meaning of living with all without trying to get away from those who feel only socially connected to us so they can use us.

Coleman interestingly does not fight directly against the “social” critic or businessman, instead he suggests that musicians and audiences understand instead of try to escape the way things are.  He then ends his letter on a much more critical note, one that speaks to the academic world of postmodernism and post-colonialism as well as calling on a civic audience – America.  Coleman is anything but complacent.

One who is suffering from an imperfection of any music expression has only his own conviction to accuse.  But when that music expression has had an outsider decide its value, and that outsider uses that musical expression to condemn a social thought, the result is only hate, cheating and loss of music value.  So why don’t we Americans, who have a duty to our neighbor and to our mother country, get off this war-jazz, race-jazz, poverty-jazz, and b.s. and let the country truly become what it is known as (GOD country) – unless we fear God has left and we must make everyone pay for His leaving? I am sure if we prayed, He’d at least give the place back to the Indians because it isn’t going to mean anything to us anymore if we find that we are hating each other.  Maybe God will let us all go back home.

In this passage, the use of the word “social” describes the communicative potential of music.  This potential is undermined by a culture which locates it as something it is not, in this case, having a quantified value in a market system.  True musical value, for Coleman, cannot be determined by an outsider.  This conception is in line with Baraka’s assertion that critics of avant-garde musicians must seek to understand the musicians as well as the music.

In a broader sense, Coleman’s thoughts resound with the intellectual struggles of the twentieth century, especially as they have played out in the academic world.  When Coleman moves to a collective voice, “we Americans,” he aligns himself with an enlightenment project that Native Americans do not, according to him, participate in.  It is unclear how much the cultural myth of manifest destiny play’s into Coleman’s conception of America as “GOD-country,” but he clearly feels ambivalent about the whole project.  In certain ways, Coleman’s question about God’s absence resounds with Nietzsche’s philosophy and French post-humanism and post-structuralism.  What is particularly intriguing is a longing for something pre-modern, the return home.  This move is more similar to Maurice Blanchot’s discussions describing Heraclitus as having a kind of language that doesn’t quite separate the word from the physical world, and suggesting it may be more of a project of recovering the old rather than making something new.  Blanchot influences the post-structuralists directly here, and when connected to Coleman’s aesthetics, opens a possibility to consider an ethical aesthetics that performs a critique of traditional western thought.

Ornette Coleman’s aesthetic conception of Harmolodics as an ethical move which situates a relationship to being through a creative act (instantiation of self) as a performance or enactment or gesture similar to postmodern and post-structural critiques of modernism and western or occidental reason.  In saying this, I certainly don’t mean to claim that Coleman’s project is “post-structuralist.”  If anything, his work acts as a counterpoint to post-structuralism and implies a gesture or an action, however vague, toward a reality that moves beyond the dialectical framing which situates much of western culture and though in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. 

Occidental reason is traditionally a version of reason which dominates through knowledge, a gaze, or nominative usage of language framing.  In order to clarify this rather large critique briefly, I will point to Jurgen Habermas’s The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, particularly “Lecture VII: Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins,” in which Habermas sets up differences and similarities between Derrida and Heidegger.  In the academic world, Derrida’s work both extends and radically critiques the enlightenment project by showing the unfixed nature of binaries, particularly through language.  Heidegger’s work is most often aligned with the dangers of Nazism, which Benjamin among others has characterized as a combination of aesthetics and politics.  While it is certainly an oversimplification to characterize Heidegger’s work only in terms of his Nazism, the role of aesthetic critique is often located as evidence of ideological patterns, which in some ways is true; however, to only see aesthetics on a macro-level obscures the work of artists like Ornette Coleman and art like avant-garde music, which makes it a point to create space for subjectivity and civic life.  It is important then for criticism to find better ways to discuss the connections between ethics and aesthetics. 

By briefly alluding to Habermas’s critique of Heidegger and Derrida’s work in the relationship Habermas thematizes between these thinkers, I hope to point toward a space where twentieth century philosophical work points to a pre-modern approach similar to Coleman’s wish “to go back home.”   Habermas argues:

Even Derrida does not does not extricate himself from the constraints of the paradigm of the philosophy of the subject.  His attempt to go beyond Heidegger does not escape the aporetic structure of a truth-occurrence eviscerated of all truth-as-validity.  Derrida passes beyond Heidegger’s inverted foundationalism, but remains in its path.  As a result, the temporalized Ursprungphilosophie takes on clearer contours.  The remembrance of the messianism of Jewish mysticism and the abandoned but well-circumscribed place once assumed by the God of the Old Testament preserves Derrida, so to speak,  from the political-moral insensitivity and aesthetic tastelessness of a New Paganism spiced up with Holderlin. (166-7)

Here Habermas praises Derrida’s work both for its clarity and its avoidance of the moral problems associated with Heidegger’s work.  The “remembrance” of messianism is fundamental to Derrida’s hermeneutics, and as Habermas asserts, they are clearly influenced by Emmanuel Levinas, Heidegger’s student and critic.  Messianism is important in understanding Derrida’s argument in Of Grammatology that grammatology, or writing, must replace speech if one is to understand the essence of language (164).  Habermas claims that a messianic relationship informs Derrida’s hermeneutics, not because he is religious (Derrida asserts that that is not his interest here), but because of the metaphor of “the book of nature or the book of the world, which points to the hard-to-read, painstakingly to be deciphered handwriting of God.”  Derrida claims that we never had God’s original text, only fragments of it, which were then lost.  Habermas concludes: “Modernity is in search of the traces of a writing that no longer holds out the prospect of a meaningful whole as the book of nature or Holy Scripture had done. […] the signification remains upon even unintelligible texts, the signs last – matter survives as the trace of a spirit that has vanished” (165).

            What this amounts to, for Derrida, is a critique of a kind of western logocentrism.  It is not simply that the sign differs from the signified, that the word (logos) is different than the sound, but that the word inscribes and preserves signification.  This is a preservation of a process, not of an isolated or fixed artifact, and so while difference must be noted, the connection should never be forgotten or extinguished, hence Derrida’s famous neologism differance – a difference which maintains.  Derrida is optimistic about the potential for writing to preserve the trace: “Because writing mortifies the living connections proper to the spoken word, it promises salvation for its semantic content even beyond the day on which all who can speak and listen have fallen prey to the holocaust” (166).  Derrida’s gesture is ethically informed in the sense that it imagines writing as potential for later meaning, later deciphering, and later communication.  The writer is lost in that deciphering – he or she only remains through a trace of a signifying process. 

Post-colonialism and gender studies have made much of this critique, but it is important to emphasize Derrida’s elenchus, or refutation, of western logocentrism as Socratic and not sophistic.  That is, the point of the refutation for Socrates is to move toward further inquiry, whereas Aristotle “calls fallacies that only appear to be refutations ‘sophistic elenchi’” (Halper 257).  The “aporetic structure,” – or mystifying puzzle which raises questions without offering solutions, which Habermas above says Derrida does not escape from, under Socratic elenchi implies edification and a move toward understanding being in terms of the Good, where morality is not separate from the Greek sense of beauty.  In any case, Derrida’s project at this point is a critique of a version of western reason, but certainly not a complete rejection of the tradition.

Characterized along side this, Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory, as well as avant-garde jazz aesthetics, has much in common with the post-structural move.  Perhaps most importantly, Coleman makes ambiguous the relationship between composing and being – which for him is improvising.  He does this by moving beyond ritualized formal harmonic structures which would rhetorically situate or, in a sense, colonize the improviser.  In the Bonnaroo interview, Coleman states:

I think improvising is even freer because everyone gets a different feeling from improvising.  It’s not different where everyone’s hearing the same movements because in the music I do I write out the music, but I write everyone a different part so they can make a contribution to the whole. For me I mean it’s, I don’t call it composing, I’ve been calling it sound grammar and for a better technical part I call it Harmolodics.

Coleman does not want to leave his music conceptualized merely as free improvisation, which might imply a kind of anarchy.  Harmolodics is clearly something in between traditional composing and improvising.  However, Coleman is more interested in creating a space for individual improvisers to work together than in presenting a rigidly defined composition.  In a sense here, he seems to be in line with Duke Ellington’s sensibility of writing specifically for performers in his group. Thus, while I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize Coleman’s music as being radically different than the jazz tradition, his conception is innovative.  Much like the distinction between modern and postmodern, it is wrong to see the post as a negation, and we must look to the earlier figures to understand the later figures.

Many of the innovations in bebop during the 1940s and 1950s centered around superimposing complex harmonic and melodic structures on pre-existing song forms, most notably, the AABA, 32 bar pattern popular with Tin Pan Alley composers.  Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” alone serves as a pattern for hundreds of songs.  Philosophically then, Bebop performs a sort of cultural one-upmanship.  It competes and beats the western musical tradition at its own game.  For that reason, technical virtuosity is a distinguishing feature for late fifties Hard bop.

Hard bop was not the only style present on the jazz scene.  Cool jazz (and later Bossa Nova), eventually associated with the west coast, became a signifier for a white middle class sophisticated leisure and is sometimes framed as an antithesis to Hard bop and Soul Jazz, associated with the east coast and a more “authentically” black experience.  Such framing is a gross oversimplification, and the racializing of the frames, standard in the music industry from the race records of the 1920s and 30s made matters worse.  

While liberal and progressive jazz critics saw progressive and virtuosic jazz performances as proof that the civil rights battle was being fought and won and while the U.S. government was sending Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong on diplomatic missions to advertise capitalism and promote a “non-racist” face for America, free jazz was a rejection of this entire system.  By taking away the formal structure, Coleman takes away the context in which people prove their abilities in the face of an ideological phantasm.  It disrupts all framing mechanisms except the obvious dichotomy between form and free.  It locates the emphasis on the individual musician subject and emphasizes a different kind of virtuosity.  Like Derrida, there is an intimate connection to the subject that does not go away.  There is a move toward a greater account for subjectivity, but it is always a subject in a community for Coleman, just as differance maintains difference by preceding and un-situating subject-object dichotomies.

Coleman’s aesthetics, while definitely favoring the position of a subject, does so from the position of one who has been situated, and so it is also a critique of dichotomies and nominative framing.  The dichotomy between formal and free frames Coleman’s aesthetics as anarchic, which simply inaccurate.  This may be one reason why Coleman throughout the 1960s and 1970s develops his seemingly mystical theory of Harmolodics.  It is a theory which intentionally evades definition.  He seems to be rearticulating it all the time, even as he shifts the name Harmolodics to Sound Grammar.  What gets read as evasiveness is perhaps Harmolodics itself performing its dynamism. 

At the risk of sounding essentialist or traditionally structuralist, it is worth noting that Coleman’s aesthetic aligns with the blues tradition and trickster figures such as Esu / Legba, the master linguist, whom one meets at the crossroads, one who’s very being gives lie to the myth of binaries between traditional western concepts of good and evil.  If Harmolodics is a method, it performs trickster qualities.  Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Signifying Monkey lays out literary descriptions of the crossroads trickster, and yet in the essay “Writing, “Race,” and the Difference it Makes,” Gates argues that

No critical theory – be that Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, Nkrumah’s consciencism, or whatever – escapes the specificity of value and ideology no matter how mediated these may be. To attempt to appropriate our own discourses using Western critical theory “uncritically” is to substitute one form of neocolonialism for another. To begin to do this in my own tradition, theorists have turned to black vernacular tradition […] to isolate the signifying black difference through which to theorize about the so-called Discourse of the Other. (1588)

Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics offer something between black vernacular culture and contemporary theoretical discourse.  To situate him within the blues tradition in a sense seems appropriate.  However, it is also worth considering works like Timothy S. Murphy’s “Composition, Improvisation, Constitution: Forms of Life in the Music of Pierre Boulez and Ornette Coleman,” in which Murphy points to Jacques Attali who “suggests that music not only reflects the society in which it is made but also predicts the structural metamorphoses that society will undergo in the future” (75).  Using Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories, Murphy attempts

a demonstration of the fact that the temporality of the music, its prophetic tense, is the paradoxical future perfect, the “it will have been” which is also the tense of the revolution, as Marxist philosophers from Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch to Toni Negri have realized.  In the future perfect the speaker’s future is not conditional but already established, already in the past while still in the future.  The future perfect is no more a tense of objective necessity, however, than is the music the fulfillment of any promise other than its own.  Neither merely happens, though neither is merely the result of subjective intention, will or choice either. Both must be realized, enacted, performed, but this cannot be done in circumstances entirely chosen by their performers.  Music and revolution are only objective inasmuch as they are both material, rather than ideal, forms of hope. (97)

It is clear then, that Coleman’s musical aesthetics have implications for western cultural critiques.  His elenchus, like Derrida’s is a progressive one, and though I find Murphy’s demonstration compelling, I am not sure that the revolutionary enactment of Harmolodics is the same task as that of those Marxist critics.  In fact, I find Coleman’s critique bigger. 

            This paper has argued that Ornette Coleman’s theory of Harmolodics enacts a critique of western culture similar to post-structural and postmodern critiques of enlightenment rationality.  Rather than equating Coleman’s thinking with twentieth-century philosophers, Coleman’s status outside of the academic tradition, and his parallel arguments speak to cultural forces outside of academia which are highly intellectualized within academic circles.  Insofar as Harmolodics is a theory that others besides Coleman enact, it is also a social method for critiquing nominalist framing tendencies among critics and arbiters of culture who locate and define otherness.  In its dynamic performance of trickster-like qualities Harmolodics offers an aesthetic vision that is highly ethical and highly civic, without being prescriptive, and yet still implying individual actions.  This particularly has implications for the field of rhetorical criticism in that Coleman’s Harmolodics attempt a fusion of method, attitude, and being that is transferable through identification.  This implies that more attention should be given toward criticism which focuses on close relationships between an individual’s ethics and aesthetic style. 


Works Cited

Anderson, Iain. This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Baraka, Amiri. “Jazz and the White Critic.” The Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader.

Ed. William J. Harris.  New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.

Biesecker, B. “Rethinking the rhetorical situation within the thematic of differance.Philosophy & Rhetoric. 22. EBSCO, 1989. 110-130.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Charland, Maurice.  “Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the Peuple Quebecois.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 73. EBSCO, 1987. 133-151. 

Coleman, Ornette. “An Interview with Ornette Coleman –Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival 2007.” Youtube. October 29, 2009.

———————– “An Open Letter.” Down Beat Magazine. 34: 11 (1 June 1967): 19.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Writing, “Race,” and the Difference it Makes.” The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998.

Habermas, Jurgen.  The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Trans. Fredrick G. Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.

Halper, Edward C. “Elenchus.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.  2nd ed. Ed. Robert Audi.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.    

Golden, James L. The Rhetoric of Western Thought. 9th ed. Iowa: Kendall / Hunt, 2007.

Jost, Ekkehard. Free Jazz. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981.

Kofsky, Fank.  Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.

Litweiler, John.  The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958.  New York: Da Capo, 1984.

Murphy, Timothy S. “Composition, Improvisation, Constitution: Forms of Life in the Music of Pierre Boulez and Ornette Coleman.” Angelaki: journal of the theoretical humanities. Vol. 3:2, 1998.

Tynan, John. “Take Five.” Down Beat Magazine. 28 (March 23, 1961): 40.

Woideck, Carl.  Charlie Parker: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP,


[1] The term “anti-jazz” was coined by John Tynan a few years later during a review of a John Coltrane set at the Village Vanguard.  That stint of shows is documented as the now classic Live at the Village Vanguard.  The term referred to a “growing trend” which was incorporating Coleman’s style.  I use Tynan as an example here because, though he was an early supporter of Coleman, his later work would give voice to those frustrated with new music; however, Coltrane’s album does not sound as far out as the label implies.  They play with form, though the improvisations are long.  Who knows what exactly was happening the night Tynan chose to review?

I’m not the best either.

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Soma Toughts (in progress)

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment


Draft of the Introduction to Beware of Mad John: Psychedelic Aesthetics in Literature and Music


This restless Soma – you try to grab him but he breaks away and overpowers everything.  He is a sage and a seer inspired by poetry. 


King Soma, do not enrage us; do not terrify us; do not wound our heart with dazzling light.

(Rig Veda 8.79)

In this introduction I will discuss soma – a Vedic deity and entheogenic plant – and the scholarly concerns surrounding its study, as a way to frame a discussion about psychedelic aesthetics insofar as those aesthetics exhibit notions of citizenship often via the significance of drug usage.  Beginning with word meanings, I will be creating a conceptual model which allows me to shift registers of meaning with fluidity.  In doing so, I hope to transcend mere wordplay and produce conceptual overlap simultaneously by invoking a polysemous term to create a texture to think through, allowing topics which typically evade discussion by seeming vacuous or peripheral be more central. 

What is organized historically and etymologically is not meant to provide a thorough history of the subject.  It is rather to display a web of meanings and associations that will help clarify my approach to psychedelic aesthetics in the twentieth century.  Polysemy is part of the nature of mythological criticism.  Myths operate in a trans-historical literary space; hence, the historical usefulness of structural approaches to mythology.  My method should not be confused with structural or poststructural criticism, though it will have elements of both structural and post-structural terms.  The historical necessity for adding “post” is itself part of the historical period I am terming “psychedelic,” and I use this term – convoluted as it may seem at first – partly in order to avoid a jargon-filled discourse which currently alienates both academic and non-academic audiences from the issues I want to discuss. 

In the following I will create a web based on trans-historical concepts of soma and sacrifice in order to ground my discussion of psychedelic aesthetics.  As the argument gets more complex and historically laden, I will move to talk about how the themes relating to soma occur in twentieth-century criticism generally and  psychedelic aesthetics specifically eventually, coming to an understanding of the term “psychedelic” itself.  

Soma, in The Rig Veda, has multiple meanings.  In “On the Significance of Soma,” Sanskrit scholar Biswanath Mukhopadhyay historicizes the development of the term as follows: “soma first meant the inebriating juice of plants, secondly, the plants bearing soma, thirdly, the elixir of life and delight and lastly the god” (6).  It is unclear what Mukhopadhyay’s rationale is for this specific temporal placement, other than the fact that he generally moves toward the more abstract concept.  He does mention that it is derived from the Proto Indo European root, su, meaning “to press” (7).  Soma is also related to music, along with the deities Agni and Savitr, and it is particularly associated with the Anustubh meter in the creation of the sacrifice (Rig Veda 10.130).  In a related article, “The Song Celestial,” Mukhopadhyay discusses the distinction between divine and mortal soma, saying, “it is through the power and inspiration of this drink alone that the victorious god Indra accepted the task of killing the fearful demon, Vritra” (28).  Soma is also associated with Srikrsna’s celestial singing and the Samaveda, which along with the Rig Veda date as far back as 1700 B.C.E. Soma persists through later Indian literature; Srikrsna tells Arjunn “that Krsna is Arjuna himself” (Mukhopadhyay 29). 

In order to attempt understanding the ancient meaning of soma, it must also be linked to the part it plays as oblation in the sacrifice, and that part is to be a unifying aspect of the mortal and the divine.  Jarrod L. Whitaker notes that Thomas Oberlies “argues that access to the divine draft soma signifies political power and legitimizes rule” (417).  Whitaker disagrees with Oberlies’ assertion that “the terms ‘presser’ (susvi) and ‘non-presser’ (asusvi) represent a separation of Vedic society into two halves; one that participates in the soma cult and one excluded from it.”  Nevertheless, access to soma was still meant for those who were privileged and those who were “non-pressers” were looked down upon for not participating in the cult (425).  While it is unclear to what extent soma pressing determined Aryan citizenship, it is certainly a term that distinguished an identity group, even if that was only a group of priests.  If Mukhopadhyay is right in relating soma to the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (a much later text than the Vedas), then it appears that the conception of divine inspiration and merge transcend the sacrificial ritual and eventually relate to dharma, or upholding the natural order of things.  If ingested, soma would then inspire one to act rightly.  In acting rightly, one performs a kind of citizenship in the cult.  To press and drink soma was part of a ritual sacrifice which traveled from India to ancient Greece, where the word’s meaning changed to represent “body.”

It is necessary to point out, however, before moving into soma’s Greek meaning that in the past sixty years there has been much debate concerning the identification of the soma plant.  Mushrooms, water-lilies, tall grass, and even the mandrake have all been contenders.  These recent debates occur within larger discussions concerning entheogens in general, and because of that, they play a large part the psychedelic movement.  Awkward as it may seem at first, the ancient concept of soma which I have described above takes on special importance during the psychedelic era – especially insofar as the concept relates to citizenship and controlled substances.   Therefore, one must read the scholarly political agendas at work in many of the sources I cite as transcending a “disinterested” representation of ancient history.  To be involved in the study of entheogens is itself a civic gesture.

Of course, intentionality will often filter and skew subject-matter, and people often have agendas.  The experimenter’s gaze is always part of the experiment.  There is nothing wrong with that; but there is something in the intensity to “find” soma which drives scholars to recast Western history in terms of esoteric knowledge.  On the one hand, this has allowed an opening in scholarship to more creative ways of thinking about alchemy, magic, and non-institutional or unofficial religious experience through the ages.  On the other hand, it continues a reductionist gaze that has maintained a fixed notion of knowledge as hidden truth – that all we need is the missing link.  This approach performs a longing similar to Mr. Casaubon, the aged professor in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, who believes he is on the verge of finding “the key to all mythologies.”  That is certainly not my intention here. Rather, I am interested in how these recastings of ancient history display a concern with citizenship particular to Western nations in the mid to late twentieth century.  For example, most scholars and theorists in recent years have tended to move away from structuralist approaches to world religions because those scholars have become aware of the problems of inherent ethnocentrism in methods that gloss over difference in favor of universals.  Causubon’s lock and key metaphor is a frame that does not hold for contemporary scholarship, yet most of the research surrounding entheogens has continued with a universalist agenda that is currently unpopular in the academy.  The problem is not that there are not valid aims in looking at similarities between religious experience and aesthetic perception; it is that the official nature of institutional knowledge often becomes unethical in practice, when it comes to both religious experience and citizenship.  Enacting discernment concerning difference becomes a political act.  In difference there is recognition, and therefore less of a tendency to speak arrogantly for the voices of the invisible.  Yet the very employing of a gaze, the gathering of a perspective or theoria itself commits an act of violence in which the speaker’s presence silences others.  There arises a civic responsibility for the speaking.  Like the privilege of taking the soma described above, citizenship implies an act of substitution.   

In the late sixties, the mantra “the personal is political” – often attributed to Carol Hanisch’s essay of the same title – evidenced a particular concern with citizenship.  Similarly, reading the concern with entheogens and mystical experience in the twentieth century reveals ultimately religious and spiritual concerns that play out in seemingly secular notions of citizenship.  As we shall see, the discourse of Religious Studies evidences that very fact.  The word soma in its Aryan sense does not appear in the English language until nineteenth-century scholars began to study Vedic texts.  Up until then, soma in the West would imply the material aspects of the body.  The history of the study of soma already operates within a western discourse with European and American centered ideologies. 

Much of the use of soma in its modern sense derives from Aldous Huxley’s use of it in his 1931 utopia, Brave New World, which I will return to in the second half of this chapter as well as in Chapter 1.  Many of the scholars I cite below owe much to Huxley’s work, and in many ways Huxley frames the late twentieth-century of entheogens.  This does not, however, discredit the scholars, and Huxley himself was extremely well-educated.  I point out the framing because this book is a work about psychedelic aesthetics in the 1960s which develop from a Western enquiry into entheogens and mysticism rooted in the nineteenth century and a European longing to narrate the history of the human race.  With that, I turn to the soma of the Greeks.

The meaning of soma, as it moved from Aryan culture into Greek culture, can be roughly traced both through mythology, etymology, and philosophy.  In The Apples of Apollo: Pagan Mysteries of the Eucharist, Carl A. P. Ruck, Blaise Daniel Staples and Clark Heinrich discuss soma by focusing on entheogens, particularly the hallucinogenic mushroom, amanita muscarita, which they trace from its usage in the Rig Veda through the Indo Aryan and Indo European nomadic cultures which transported both entheogens and ideas about sacrifice to ancient Greece.  Ruck et al. discuss the myth of Perseus, the “mushroom picker.”  They read what other scholars have read as a tiny detail – Perseus’ picking of a mushroom on the site of the city of Mycenae – as “the culmination of his career” for plucking the mushroom and decapitating Medusa appear to be “one and the same” through analysis of artistic depictions on a Greek vase from the fourth century BC.  Moreover, they note that in the Garden of the Hesperid sisters, Medusa’s head “is equated to the Golden Apples of the tree – and with a pair of mushrooms” (43).

Ruck et al. base much of their research on the ethnobotanical work of R. Gordon Wasson, a banker turned ethnomycologist whose  article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in a 1957 issue of Life Magazine, brought the subject to a wide public.  Wasson and his Russian wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, were obsessed with different cultural attitudes to mushrooms between Russians and Anglos, developing theses concerning how cultural attitudes toward vegetation parallel other developments in civilization, especially religious practice.  In the article Wasson recounts a trip to the Catskills with his wife in 1929:

In ecstasy she called each kind of by an endearing Russian name. She caressed the toadstools, savored their earthy perfume. Like all good Anglo-Saxons, I knew nothing about the fungal world and felt that the less I knew about those putrid, treacherous excrescences the better. For her they were things of grace, infinitely inviting to the perceptive mind. She insisted on gathering them, laughing at my protests, mocking my horror.

Wasson’s research led him from Mexico to India and Southeast Asia during the 1960s, after he heard about soma myths.  He believed he could prove the soma plant was a mushroom.  In 1969 he published, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.  However, Wasson’s work did not go unchallenged.  In “Historical Evidence: India’s Sacred Soma,” a 1972 article by Huston Smith, Smith defends the validity of Gordon Wasson’s claim to have identified the soma plant as an hallucinogenic mushroom against those who deemed Wasson an amateur, citing the approval of a variety of famous scholars, including Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson, who was a close friend of Wasson and Pavlovna.  Wasson’s 1986 collaboration with Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott and A. P. Ruck, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, mentions that entheogens “are extraordinarily rare in the Eurasian botanical world, and Amanita muscaria was the entheogen of the ancient world.  The citations of Soma in the Rig Veda are all consistent with this reading” (33).  Wasson sees challenges to his theory as evidence of a Eurocentric aversion to mushrooms.  He is so sure of his work by 1986 that he claims, “We are well beyond the stage of hypotheses” (16).  It is unclear if Wasson is referring to Amanita muscaria or if he is referring to the thesis he and his wife first developed about cultural attitudes toward plant life.  In any case, a large body of literature now surrounds Wasson and his intellectual peers like Carl A. P. Ruck, Huston Smith, Jonathan Ott, and Albert Hoffman – the discoverer of LSD 25.  This group of intellectuals, beginning in the late fifties and continuing today have made a large impact both on Religious Studies and broader culture as well.  

That Huston Smith chose to reprint the article in his self-selected anthology of his work, Cleansing the Doors of Perception, in 2000, attests the author’s continuing acceptance of Wasson’s claim, despite numerous other hypotheses about the nature of the original soma plant.  It is now generally understood that soma was not a single plant, and as far back as 1978, Mukhopadhyay has asserted this (“On the Significance” 7).  Soma, then, in ethnobotanic and religious discourse since the late fifties has broadened in meaning as it has joined a larger discussion about entheogens in general and their relationship to human civilization, and this broadened meaning has itself affected ancient scholarship.  This is evidenced by Huston Smith, who in the same article discussed above, credits Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) with “introducing entheogens to the contemporary west” (63).  It is strange that Smith, a famous professor of Religious History, would so quickly gloss over William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience – a text that is recurring even in Huxley’s own writings, in which the subject is addressed.  Therefore, Smith’s statement should be read as referring to the popular nature of Huxley’s audience and to the perception that the discourse changed in the 1950s.  That change is the nascent psychedelic movement.  And it is not surprising, therefore, that Huxley’s work also finds resonance in Ruck’s The Apples of Apollo.         

Huxley’s Heaven and Hell (1956) characterizes the experience of entheogenic drugs and visionary experience as both producing mystic ecstasy and horror.  This too can be found in the account Ruck et al. give to soma in The Apples of Apollo, and this soma is the more conceptual one, developed by scholars since the late fifties.  So, along with Perseus, Ruck et al. claim

Prometheus stole soma in the form of spiritual fire (23).  They also cite Euripides’ Ion, which tells the story of Creusa, the Queen of Athens, who receives two drops of Medusa’s blood, one which “was intended as the consecrating anointment for the city’s dynastic sovereign.  The other sprang from the Gorgon’s serpents and was a lethal poison” (43).  Ruck et al. build their definition of soma from the following epithets they attribute to it: “golden apples, an eye, a multiplicity of eyes, golden water, honey, lightning bolts, golden urine, golden semen, golden rain, golden snow, estrual cows, bellowing bulls, golden hides, pelts, phallus, vulva, wings, etc” (41).  But they also suggest that tracing soma occurs etymologically, and not just as a collection of epithets: “‘It rains’ in Greek is the impersonal verb huei, and if there is a subject, it is Zeus; but the verb is cognate with Sanskrit sunoti, which means “to press out the juice.”  The Vedic entheogen Soma is named as ‘the pressed one’” (69).  According to Ruck, this concept carries all the way into Christianity with the story of Gethsemane.  Gethsemane, in Aramaic, means oil press. Thus,

The agony of Gethsemane took place at the Oil-Press, perhaps an element of the mythologizing: for Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, anointed, as it would now appear, with the same amber feverish pharmakon that Apollonius discovered amongst the Brachmanes.  This act of pressing is significant, since not only does it yield the oil of chrismation, but also the juice of the grape, the wine that will be transubstantiated into the blood of Jesus.  The Soma of the Brahmans was named with the epithet the “Pressed One,” pressed in sacrifice from dried mushrooms soaked in water, to produce the drink of blood.  In the Hellenistic age of religious syncretism, it would have been inevitable that Soma be confused with the Greek word for “body,” soma (although its cognates are probably to be found in Greek sus, and English “swine,” the boar being a common metaphor of fly-agaric).  The communion experience of the Eucharist was real and profound. (211)

Ruck et al. suggest a confusion of meaning between the Greek soma as body and the juice / deity in Sanskrit.  Rather than confusion, it seems to me that the term went through linguistic narrowing between Homer and Christ, and that this narrowing parallels the burgeoning philosophical discussion of the western state and the citizen’s relationship to governing bodies. While the narrowed term of soma as “body” may have had a more fixed meaning linguistically, it also had philosophical counterparts in Greek culture that maintained some of it the contextual aspects of its original meaning, those relating to sacrifice. 

            Sacrificial ceremonies differ according to culture, and contemporary scholarship surrounding soma has often glossed over those differences.  One brief way to conceive of this is to consider ancient Mesopotamian sacrifice in relation to Semitic and Greek notions.  Tzvi Abusch has argued both that sacrifice “may serve to maintain a group that is drawn together by, or whose identity is based on, some common characteristic” (46), and that a comparison between Semitic sacrifice and Mesopotamian sacrifice reveals an important difference.  For Mesopotamians, according to Tzvi, sacrifices had to do with the temple, which was a storehouse of food.  Food was offered to gods as a part of a relationship where the gods created humans to serve and feed them.  After the prepared food was offered to the gods, it was distributed to the members of the cult.  The Semites, on the other hand, organized their sacrifices around kinship and blood ties. 

For the Semites, then, it was the family, the tribe, and the wider tribal territory that defined identity and power.  This remained true even of the Semites of northern Babylonia and northeastern Syria.  For while they absorbed the culture of the urban Mesopotamians of the south, they did not give up their own identities; rather, they transformed the culture that they had assimilated, introducing new images into it that were consonant with their own background and social situation – images such as the blood that they introduced into the Mesopotamian mythological tradition of the creation of man. (45)    

As part of the cultural assimilation, the Semites introduced blood and liquid aspects of sacrifice, which related to kinship relations and the transference of governance by family lineage.  This ultimately replaced the Mesopotamian, female-centered fertility social structure.  Tzvi discusses the Mesopotamian creation myths where human bodies were formed out of clay and covered in flesh and blood of a sacrificed god.  The god’s flesh gives life to the clay.  As Tzvi argues,

The addition of flesh and blood reflects a new point of view.  While the flesh is the source of the human ghost, the blood, […] is the origin of the ability to plan, that is, of human intelligence, and is, ultimately, the source and etiology of the personal god or, rather, the family god who is passed down from generation to generation by a male progenitor.  The personal god is not simply the god of an isolated individual; rather, he is the god of the individual as a social being. (45)  

The liquid aspects of the blood sacrifice are reminiscent of Vedic soma, and it would be worthwhile to track down the historical diaspora of Aryan and Semitic cultures to see cross-cultural contact.  However, that would be its own book-length study.  What we can glean from what I have presented here is the possibility that the blood and liquid aspects, which Tzvi claims are the roots of intelligence, merge with the liquid aspects of the Aryan soma, and that the liquid and material aspects begin to divurge in Western culture, eventually becoming the distinction between soma and psyche.  One can see this with respect to the Yom Kippur festival and the idea of the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat.  One goat was offered to the god while the other bore the sins of the people and was taken out of town by a “prepared man” and thrown off a cliff (Stokl 209).  Daniel Johannes Stokl argues that “with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the Temple ritual lost its natural geography.  The centre of Jewish worship shifted from the destroyed temple to the synagogues, and its ritual was transformed into a bloodless service of liturgical memory” (210).  So, while Tzvi sees a connection between the personal god and blood sacrifice, Stokl sees a decentralization of the sacrifice in Jewish and early Christian cultures.  While I cannot, at this point, trace a direct lineage of the western meaning for soma back to Aryan ritual, knowledge of how Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultural mixtures helps to understand that a separation was occurring between body and soul, but that separation, as Tzvi suggests, is in relation to a personalized deity which maintains a unified identity structure for particular groups of people.  In order to continue the discussion about soma, it is then necessary to touch on one of soma’s Greek counterparts: psyche.

Religious scholars and classicists are not the only scholars to have been interested in soma.  Historians of western medicine and philosophy have studied it as well.  According to John P. Wright and Paul Potter, the editors of Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the mind-body problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment, in the western tradition the concept of soma can be traced historically in the following way.

The soma, which is contrasted is with psyche, is seen variously as the shell of a real person, a kind of counter-self with desires and goals of its own, the sensible and affective part of ourselves, the unactualized potentiality of a living being, the ‘nature’ of the organism which carries out the operations of life the community of Christian believers, a mechanical automaton, a mechanism which is in a state of constant corruption. (7)      

While Ruck et al. have connected soma to Gethsemane and the Eucharist, Wright and Potter trace it to Christian conceptions of corrupted flesh.  This is an inversion of the Mesopotamian idea that it was the fleshy parts of the sacrificed god which gave clay men life.  So as the word “soma” changed meaning from Sanskrit to Greek, entering a western discourse based on tensions between mind and body, its meaning narrowed to signify something seemingly more materialistic.  In Greek discourse, tension arises between soma (body) and psyche (breath, life, soul).  As a result, psyche takes on some abstract, liquid, and vaporous qualities of soma (which, as we shall see, are especially important insofar as western aesthetics are concerned).  One cannot understand the concept of soma in the west without understanding the meaning of psyche. Wright and Potter claim that psyche, like soma, means a variety of things.

the life principle of the body, the principle of sensation and purposeful movement, the morally significant part of the human being, the principle of a being which has self-movement, the intellectual part of the self, the ‘form’ of a natural body possessing the potentiality of life, the inner person who can reflect on himself, an intellectual being constantly required for the maintenance of the body, a force that represents the teleological and integrative processes of the living organism. (7)     

Yet Beate Gundert discusses how the usage of the word psyche changes throughout the Hippocratic corpus, saying among other meanings “it refers to the male and female seed as the vehicle of life” (33).  So, it does retain material qualities.  Gundert asserts that

for the Hippocratic physician mind and body are two distinct, yet related aspects of human nature.  According to Regimen, both soma and psyche consist of the same substances.  The characteristics of both are shaped in a similar fashion by external influences and inheritance […] the division is not absolute: symptoms change from mental to somatic, and vice versa, as a disease moves from one part of the body to another. (31-32)

This concept had, according to Gundert, changed since Homer, and here again the division between body and soul gets thematized.

For Homer, psyche is the life principle that leaves the body [soma] after death and persists as image in Hades […] Between Homer and Plato […] psyche, while originally meaning ‘life’ – albeit now the living person – comes through a fusion with the many specific expressions for perception, thought, and the emotions to denote in addition the mental correlate to soma: the pair psyche and soma stands for the living person in his totality. (13-14) 

Even as far back as Homer, then, soma designates body or corpse for the Greeks, losing its liquid qualities and becoming static and taking on the physical aspects of sacrifice, for it is a body that is sacrificed, and we can see this easily with the pharmakon and human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of Iphigenia – who was the real one to launch a thousand ships.  Soma in western culture thereafter takes on more nominative and / or accusatively-fixed linguistic meaning.  In contrast, the development of the concept of psyche, while never completely separate from soma, often relates to the capacity for feeling, for sense, and perception. 

Soma as characterized by Wright and Potter as “unactualized potential” needs psyche to activate itself.  In this capacity, then, are the notions of mind, intellect, and thought (nous, dianoia, gnome) (33).  While the totality of the human body is an aggregate of soma and psyche, aisthesis (sense, perception) “provides a paradigmatic case-study in relations between soul [psyche] and body: sentience becomes possible only through the interaction of the mutually dependent body and soul, yet it is necessary to both” (von Staden 86).  This is especially important for ancient Greek thinkers’ notions of aesthetics, and it has important implications in the twentieth century philosophy and psychedelic aesthetics.  

The beautiful was for ancient Greeks, in a very real sense, attunement of body to soul. It is not until after Christ, when Galen discovered nerves, that sense began to be more associated with body than psyche, and major Greek philosophers’ – Plato and Aristotle’s – conceptions of the soul driving the body, while still influential, began to change (von Staden 116), eventually becoming much more codified in the modern era after Descartes, when the body became viewed much more mechanistically (Wright and Potter 9).  The European Enlightenment can, especially when we consider the concept of soma, indeed be characterized as codifying rather strict relationships between subjects and objects, a result of emerging liberal societies as well.  The secularization that occurred in the Renaissance is in some ways a recapitulation of the separation in the ancient world between polytheism and monotheism.  As Tzvi argued, the blood sacrifice was derivative of Semitic kinship relations and transference of power through patriarchal lineage.  This form of governance continued through Europe’s conceptions of royalty, corporation, and the body politic.  Yet even in medical discourse, Francois Aznouvi has argued that the enlightenment distinction between body and soul became a distinction between the moral and the physical. This was then refined in the nineteenth century,

when, as a result of the Cartesian revolution, soul became synonymous with thought and body with movement, the need arose to develop a new term to designate the opposite of material reality, to designate the realm to which we refer to today with the word psychique – in English, ‘psychological’ – a new term as indispensable as it is vague.  Moral, then, would be the ancestor of psychique, referring to something non-material, which is nevertheless not pure thought.  (270)        

The excess aspects of soma, particularly those related to ritual and sacrifice, public and state, thus became an abstract “morality” with the rise of the modern, liberal subject.  Morality became synonymous with a version of society with which the liberal subject was always in tension. God’s laws were replaced with civic apparatuses and social contract philosophy.  The development of the social sciences, particularly the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, evidence this shift, as does Nietzsche’s genealogical approach to enquiry, which valorized ancient views of the good over and against modern views. 

Carl Raschke argues in Fire and Roses: Postmodernity and the Thought of the Body that “It is not historically coincidental that the advent of the discipline known as religious studies in the 1960s coincided both with the Nietzschean “murder of God” and the liberation of body throughout Western culture” (120).  Characterizing modernism as a kind of faith, Raschke argues that its founding myth is a myth of “the transformative.”  Raschke is part of a younger generation of scholars who criticize – while not discarding – structuralist approaches to mythology and religion.  Rascke sees Nietzsche’s “death of God” as a sacrifice itself.  Discussing regicide and the Greek idea of the Pharmakon (scapegoat and sacrificial victim) Raschke returns to Vedic ideas of sacrifice.  Building from the work of James Frazier, Rene Girard, and Bruce Lincoln, Raschke notes

The priest slays the king to let lose the transformative energies that he possesses.  To put the matter in nonmythological language, we can say that “humanity” as priest sacrifices a vital aspect of itself (i.e. the “king”) to attain a higher state of existence, to be reunited with the three quarters that are “immortal in heaven.” (130)

Thus, Raschke sees modernism’s myth of transfiguration as culminating in personal transcendence through an attack structuralism’s centrality.  Poststructuralism and the work of Jacques Derrida thus become especially important for religious studies as they focus on the deconstruction of the state and the body politic.  Both Raschke and poststructuralist thinkers like Derrida and Michel Foucault then evidence an examination of the entrails of the sacrificed body of the state.  But it is not just a somatic body; it is a psychic one as well, because psyche is what is inside the body politic.  Of course, Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred argues for a view of sacrifice via Freud’s Oedipal complex.  Raschke echoes this saying, “the sacrifice of the god was the recapitulation historically of, as well as the mythical token of the Oedipal wish for, the murder of god” (156).  In my view, Freudian psychology continues a long-standing parallel in western medicine between psyche and soma.  The Western concept of soma is deeply attached to the concept of the State and bodies of power; thus, a sacrifice on the state itself cannot only occur in terms of institutional bodies – even if those bodies are in some Marshall McLuhan-esque or Foucauldian way a social extension of a popular body.  In order for the sacrifice to be complete in the west, psyche must be sacrificed along with soma, and that is what the psychedelic revolution has attempted and continues to attempt.  “Psychedelic,” a word coined in 1958, literally means “mind-manifesting.”  The search for soma and entheogenic religion thus arises out of this historical situation in which individuals radically assert themselves over and above the out-moded authority of the state.  One can see evidence of this throughout the Protestant Reformation, but more specifically the development of the New Thought movements and New Age religion which influenced the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s.  Consciousness changes and paradigm shifts can be understood as the psychic counterpart to the somatic sacrifice of institutional bodies.  In searching for the mythical soma and entheogens, scholars attempt to usher in the new age of religion.  In experimenting with drugs in the 1960s, populaces partook in the sacrifice of the state by reorganizing the notion of citizenship. 

This reorganization is evidenced in extremist religious groups today in surprising ways.  For example, Olivier Roy has argued in Globalized Islam that the same forces of globalized secularism which produced neo-fundamentalism in discussions of “Islam” post 9/11 are the same forces which have produced conservative Christian fundamentalists with their intensified interest in affective and personal relationships with God.  John Caputo, in The Weakness of God, has turned even evangelicals on to Derrida and postmodern thought while arguing for an uninstitutionalized reading of God.  Don Cupitt has argued for an anarchic reversal of European universalism in Mysticism after Modernity; he believes that postmodern writing is itself a form of mysticism and writers like Derrida perform it.  In our current era, faith has become increasingly more subjective and based on charismatic gnosis which, like the counterculture in the 1960s, challenged traditionally authoritative institutions.  Neo-fundamentalism has roots in New Age thought and strategies of the 1960s; neo-fundamentalism is therefore largely “psychedelic.”  Inherent in all of this thought is the dissemination of individually-oriented, mystical experiences and deep concerns about citizenship and dynamic approaches to identity, which I have been trying to understand in terms of soma and psyche.

Soma, in western discourse, becomes dualistic but it also becomes secularized.  An early secularization happens with the emergence of the Greek polis and later the Roman res publica.  Greek citizenship was controlled and select.  The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1475 text on English government as the first instance of the term “body politic.” A second secularization occurs during the Renaissance, and a third has been occurring since the middle of the nineteenth century as characterized by Nietzsche.  It is more complex than merely using the terms “modern” or “post-modern” or “paradigm shift” will allow, because the writers of those texts impose those shifts for political ends driven by large historical forces.  For example, Alasdair MacIntyre characterizes this shift in his intellectual history, Three Rival Conceptions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition.  According to MacIntyre , the “traditional” moral enquiry of Aquinas and Augustine develops in tension with encyclopedic enquiry and the genealogical enquiry during the Enlightenment.  It builds, not from just an authority of God, but that there is an implicit agreement to external authority before a subject begins to learn.  The pupil is already enculturated.  For the traditional Thomist, the text reads the pupil as much as the pupil reads – and ultimately transforms – with the text.  Encyclopedic knowledge, in the Kantian tradition sees traditional enquiry as dogmatic.  Similarly, “the genealogical accusation [in both Nietzsche and Foucault] is not just that theism is false because it requires the truth of realism, but that realism is inherently theistic” (67).  Each version of moral enquiry is at odds with the other two, making purely linear approaches to history impossible, and especially complicating narratives of human progress. 

Twentieth century European scholars often begin their historical reflections by glossing over western history since the Renaissance in an attempt to trace the arrival of modernism with the development of nation states.  Michel Foucault’s work evidences this, but so does the work of Max Weber and more recently, Reinhardt Koselleck.  Discussions of postmodernism, in their radicalization of subjectivity or their break from the modern, most often tend to stem from an historical perspective.  What I have tried to do thus far in this essay is to add to that conception because, as I will argue, western concepts of the state and citizenship are very often characterized in terms of sacrifice.  But we must understand what is to be sacrificed.  Postmodern theory has had much to say about body, psyche, and identity boundaries; and theories about these three issues drive much of twentieth-century discourse on art and politics.  I have chosen the term psychedelic as a different approach to the reasons behind twentieth-century theoretical shifts, and indeed the critique of the very possibility of theory in the early twentieth century.

The term “psychedelic” applied to aesthetics signifies a collection of common tendencies among artistic works which each exhibit an attempt to represent either something metaphysical in a unique form, or an expansion in consciousness – in other words, artistic attempts to represent the outside, exterior, and the infinite in necessarily finite circumstances.  It is a kind of chora, in the sense that Lacan, Kristeva, and Derrida use the term, as a hazy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious.  As James DiCenso summarizes, “The chora represents a psychical condition referred to retrospectively but never known as a subjective position as such ‘in which the linguistic sign is not yet articulated as the absence of an object and as the distinction between the real and the symbolic’” (71).  The psychedelic, in this sense, relates to a cultural condition where consciousness, which has been rapidly expanded and destabilized, begins to re-orient itself in light of what it has seen.  It is a recovery from trauma which may not be so much final as necessary for discursive continuity in a community that is looking for what its sacrifice is; that is, what holds communities together in the posthumanist and postmodern age.  

The concept of sacrifice itself is ancient, but nevertheless remains constant even through secularization and the rise of modern states.  Because modern states and modern academic discourse has privileged “secular views,” concepts related to sacrifice get relegated to the superstitious, unintellectual, and the “anti-modern.”  In terms of academic study, sacrifice arises in religious studies which, at least since Eliade, have taken on structuralist narratives.  Structuralist narratives either “transcend history” by claiming universalism or they attach themselves to modern narratives – as when Freud claims in Civilization and its Discontents that he has no longing for the “oceanic” feelings accompanying religious people, presumably because he is a more rationally evolved specimen of the human race, or when Eliade praises primitive man’s ability to maintain contact with nature and laments modern man’s alienation from such primordial urges.  Both of these views implicitly historicize.  And yet, even a poststructuralist critic like Foucault, who was mentored by structural mythologist Georges Dumezil, implicitly maintains elements of sacrifice in his own thinking and activism.  Thus, concepts such as Foucault’s “governmentality” can themselves be thought of as evidencing psychedelic aesthetics.  The western concept of self is informed by more than modern subjectivity – no matter how radical.

As a secular manifestation of ultimately religious concerns, psychedelic aesthetics should not merely be perceived as part of the deinstitutionalization and moving away from church authority characteristic of Enlightenment thought.  That the “secular” manifestation common to New Thought and New Age thought is part of an historical process is undeniable, but the social function or “need” for religion should not only be read as a breaking away from European-derived cultural forces.  The forces are much older.  But even to discuss such forces risks reinstituting a kind of European Universalism through a kind of theorizing.  As a result, scholars like R. Gordon Wasson and Huston Smith may seem merely popular, “armchair academic” material which continues to send an Enlightenment-fueled message that human knowledge will overcome all adversaries, like one of Joseph Campbell’s heroes, while poststructural scholars will dissect the possibility of knowledge itself. 

Take, for example, a more recent book entitled Soma: the Divine Hallucinogen, by the ethnobotanist David L. Spess, which argues that soma is based on Indo-Aryan magic, where cosmology overlaps with human soul (breath, prana) and the “inner man.”  This leads him to claim soma’s influence on the Greek conception of logos and the mystical beginning to The Book of John.  Spess claims: “The entheogenic soma drink’s inner formation of this body coupled with the soma ritual, not only influenced all Indian religions, but it appears to be the original source of influence upon later Western conceptions of the subtle body” (92).  This leads Spess to the grand claim that the soma ritual informs not only all western alchemy and hermeticism, but also Chinese, Greco-Egpytian and Islamic alchemy (161).  If he is right, then soma may indeed be the “key to all mythologies.”  But for my purposes, it is more important to see Spess as continuing a tradition of scholarship into entheogens that is fueled by the psychedelic movement in the 1960s.

During the 1960s, drug usage and the discourse surrounding it center on behavior control and become central to citizenship.  Of course this can be traced to earlier sources, especially various governments’ enquiries into a “truth serum” during World War II, as Lee and Shlain’s social history of LSD and projects like the CIA’s MKULTRA during the 1950s and early 1960s attest.  Suffice it to say that drugs and entheogens are the meeting place between psyche and soma in the west.  Psychedelic aesthetics enacts this citizenship by asking people to participate in the sacrifice of the state through both self-reflection and ecstatic mystical experience.  The artwork of the liberal democratic countries, especially the United States and England in the 1960s evidences the complex playing-out of soma and sacrifice as they relate to notions of citizenship.  And as the two following examples show, much of the orientation of western artists derives from the willing inclusion of the mysterious through a complex kind of orientalism which exalts as it others.  This study’s aim will be to centralize and ground these sacrificial aspects of psyche and soma through close analysis of literature and music during the psychedelic era – roughly the period from about 1958-1975.  Below are some brief examples of psychedelically aesthetic works.


Alan Watts’ This is It exemplifies psychedelic aesthetics both in form and content.  Originally released in 1962, it is a sound recording of Watts talking about the self mixed with various “tribal” and ritualistic ambience.  On the second track, entitled  “Onion Chant,” Watts speaks the following.

“Be unself-conscious.” “Be natural.”  The student tries everything, to act in the master’s presence without guile, with total sincerity.  But he realizes, the more he does it, that in trying to be genuine he is split from himself. He’s standing aside from himself, looking at himself, criticizing himself.  And then he begins to stand aside from the one that looks and criticizes and criticize that and so on and so on and so on. Eventually he reaches the point where he sees that he’s absolutely incapable of doing anything natural.  He is artifice, insincerity, through and through and through, but that is a great discovery.  Because in discovering that you are a fake, in discovering that the more you know about yourself, the more you’re just a big act, you’re something like an onion, and you peel off skin after skin after skin with nothing left under…

At this point in the monologue, as indecipherable chanting and drumming drown out Watts’ voice, performing the very dissolution of self Watts was just discussing.  What replaces his voice is the western manifestation of “otherness” embodied by tribalism and the east, a classic example of Said’s Orientalism.  Watts’ album exemplifies psychedelic aesthetics, however, partly because it performs its content, and partly because it directs itself toward its audience.  Watts begins his sermon in the third person, but then he switches to the second person abruptly: “you are a fake.”  Watts invokes the listener’s participation as the drumming and chanting begin to overpower his own voice.  The listener merges identity with Watts and then they both dissolve into the collective goings-on.  On the opening and closing tracks of the album, human voices repeating “love you” are expanded through the early use of tape echo, a recording technique that would become popular in 1960s music.  Watts’ recording evidences an early example of consciousness expansion and psyche sacrifice through a manifestation of the psychedelic.    

The same year that This is It was released, Aldous Huxley’s final novel, Island, was released.  Island reads as much like a philosophical dialogue as a novel.  In some ways, it seems stylistically archaic for 1962.  Conceptually, however, it goes much further than his more famous Brave New World in terms of its analysis of modern society.  It in many ways predicts a future that came true, just as Brave New World did.  The novel’s main character, Will, finds himself a stranger on the island of Pala, a kind of intentional community both informed by modern science and anti-modern at the same time.  The society is regulated by a New Age philosophy which has recognized the necessity for symbolic spiritual activity but has done away with the perverse contradictions of European religion and embraced a kind of Mahayana Buddhism.  Will, who injures himself while infiltrating the island for the business prospects of a rich oil man, is cared for by locals who explain the intricacies of their post-industrial society.  As in Brave New World, the society helps maintain emotional balance by having liberated views of sexuality and drug usage.

Huxley’s views on drugs change significantly between Brave New World and IslandBrave New World describes a dystopian future where the happiness of civilization is controlled by ingesting Soma, a fictional drug based Huxley invents by invoking the substance described in the Rig Veda.  Unhappy with his place in the “World State,” Bernard Marx searches for self-determination by limiting his Soma intake and exploring “primitive” life on a southwestern Indian reservation.  Marx and his friend Helmholtz’s dissatisfaction with a “doped-up” existence eventually results in their banishment from society; they choose the authenticity of an existence that includes unhappiness and pain.  In Brave New World, the banishment of intellectuals like Marx and Helmholtz helps maintain a society of status quo individuals.  The state determines and maintains moral authority, yet banishment is certainly not death.  Soma ingestion, in Brave New World, performs Karl Marx’s oft quoted remark about religion being the “opiate of the masses,” thus solving the problem of modern humanity’s alienation from meaningful labor.

This is at least partly as a result of his growing interest in mysticism and entheogens, drugs ingested for religious purposes.  “Heaven and Hell,” “The Doors of Perception,” and “Brave New World Revisited,” all extremely influential on the psychedelic movement, document his concerns about drugs and civilized behavior.

In Island, Will comes to actualize his believe in the ideals of Pala through a trip on “moksha,” a drug Huxley invents reminiscent of mescaline, LSD 25 and psylocobin.  At the climax of his trip, Will has an intense awareness of his subjectivity.   

This dark little inspissated clot that one called “I” was capable of suffering to infinity and, in spite of death, the suffering would go on forever.  The pains of living and the pains of dying, the routine of successive agonies in the bargain basement and the final crucifixion in a blaze of tin and plastic vulgarity – reverberating, continuously amplified, they would always be there.  And the pains were incommunicable, the isolation complete.  The awareness that one existed was an awareness that one was always alone. (341)   

Will’s trip convinces him that the ideals of Pala are right just as Pala is being invaded by an army that will bring western industrialization and commerce to the island.  Thus, Will’s consciousness expansion during his trip reinstates him into a new moral perspective as he comes down and a new and much scarier reality sets in.

In his personal life, Huxley developed an interest in entheogens, substances which, when ingested, effected mystical experiences as a way of coping with the alienation of modern life, estranged from “deeper” meaning.  Echoing Huxley in the late 1950s was Eliade, who argues in The Sacred and the Profane that modern man is out of touch with “sacred” space, living in the world of the profane and forgetting the centering potential of “primitive” religious thought.  He claims, “the sacred reveals absolute reality and at the same time makes orientation possible; hence it founds the world  in the sense that it fixes the limits and establishes the order of the world” (30).  Wishing to escape the confines of modern colonial thought and its alienating conditions, thinkers like Huxley and Eliade represent a tendency to fetishize exotic “otherness” in search of “essential” meaning, a process that redraws the distinction between same and other, ego and id, and also sacred and profane.  Process, a pre-existing modern theme, becomes intensified in 1960s literature, especially in groups like the New York School poets and the members of the French literary group, Oulipo.  “Redrawing” identity boundaries works on both social and individual levels as a form of authentication and insulation of identity, maintaining a certain necessary violent representation. 

The social concerns of the 1950s, especially the civil rights movement, redrew public notions of citizenship.  While one could go back to (and many have) important thinkers like W.E.B. Dubois on race, it is sufficient here to note that the cultural context produced in the twentieth century different reasons for exploring the human tendency “to other.”  And African American History itself is in many ways a history of otherness and citizenship.  The civil rights movements must also be contextualized within the political aftermath of World War II.  For example, Iain Anderson has documented the political use of jazz music by the U.S. government on diplomatic visits to counter critiques from Russia about America’s treatment of blacks during the 1950s.  More than well-intentioned social progress, the successes of civil rights movements owed much to rethinking what counted as the American identity.  Europe and the Soviet Union saw the United States’ treatment of blacks as hypocritical.  Similarly, psychedelic aesthetics proceed from the notion that consciousness is dynamic and expandable and that one gain’s moral authority by seeking mystical experience outside the confines of subjectivity.  Like the civil rights movements, it was a critique of hypocritical governance.  But psychedelic aesthetics were in some ways a more radical critique insofar as they superseded the state’s legitimacy to govern, and with this critique that one can understand why a radical group like the Weather Underground would seek to break Timothy Leary out of prison and transport him to a Black Panther refuge in Africa.  And Leary himself was greatly influenced by the much more politically neutral Aldous Huxley, who played a part in coining the term “psychedelic.”

In Aldous Huxley’s 1958 essay, “Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds,” an article commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post (Horowitz 146), he claims that human society is moving closer to the one he described in Brave New World faster than he ever could have imagined.  Huxley begins by lamenting the trap of modern subjectivity, going on to say,

Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshipped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge to self-transcendence.  It is to this urge that we owe mystical theology, spiritual exercises, and yoga – to this, too, that we owe alcoholism and drug addiction. (9)

Huxley is partly echoing William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience here.  James claims,

the sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. (387)

Later in the article, Huxley takes his discussion to the level of the state, particularly addressing Cold War issues and Russia.  He predicts the availability of drugs to help men find happiness and the complex relationship between drugs and personal liberty.  He says, “it may soon be for us to do something better in the way of chemical self-transcendence than what we have been doing so ineptly for the last seventy or eighty centuries” (10).  Thus, Huxley’s writing sets the tensions for the entire debate surrounding the term “psychedelic.”  Only Island, however, evidences psychedelic aesthetics as it asks the reader to identify with the allegorical “Will” as he trips and comes to a new moral sensibility.

The word “psychedelic,” literally meaning mind-manifesting, or making the mind visible, was coined in 1956 by Dr. Humphry Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley and then later used in a research paper entitled, “A Review of the Clinical Effects of Psychotomimetic Agents” (“Psychedelic”).  It came into wide use within a decade of its introduction to the language.   While it was originally a name given to certain kinds of drugs – almost always with relation to LSD in particular – it later became a term for the experiences of a drug-induced state, and finally a catch-all term for a cultural style.  By 1967, “psychedelia” enters the language (“Psychedelia”).  Why, one might ask, would a synthetic drug become metonymic for cultural products and attitudes? 

Because of Huxley’s public intellectual status, his influence spread far and wide.  Huxley’s 1954 Doors of Perception profoundly impacted new age gurus like Alan Watts, as well as Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner, who would build off Huxley in their reworking of Evans-Wentz’s Theosophically-influenced translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Lopez), which they titled The Psychedelic Experience.  This book tapped into a cultural longing that Huxley had already identified.  Religious Scholars like Huston Smith (and eventually Eliade too) were also influenced by Huxley, but also popular bands like The Doors in the mid 1960s.  Leary’s book is especially significant because it is a “how to” manual for achieving a psychedelic or mystical experience.  For Leary, “A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness,” and although drugs are not necessary for such an experience LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT have the democratic importance of “making such an experience available to anyone” (11). It also reveals the influence of psychoanalysis in its descriptions of a guru, or guide, through the experience. 

While many people are aware that the monks’ role in the death experience as described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead is to guide the dead person to enlightenment, less emphasized is the coupling of this with therapeutic methods used by psychologists in the late 1950s which combined administering LSD with many hours of psychoanalysis before the acid trip. In his 1958 article, “Psychotomimetic Drugs,” Henry K. Beecher uses the term “psychedelic” in a list of a “new class” of drugs used to treat – incredible as it may sound now – schizophrenia (254).  He particularly associates “psychedelic” with LSD, asserting that LSD has had “more profound changes in the results of Rorschach testing than any other drug studied in this laboratory,” and it was more useful treating alcoholism than schizophrenia (280).  If the literal definition of psychedelic means to manifest the psyche, the early usage of the term may seem accurate on the surface, but it is philosophically convoluted in its assumptions about what the psyche is.  As LSD was used in psychoanalysis with the Rorschach test, the “latent” psyche made “manifest” reveals a Freudian influence.  It is only one step away to say psychedelic drugs make the unconscious manifest. One need not look as far back as Theosophy to see an example of the western influence on Leary’s manual.  The neologism “psychedelic” is itself a cultural product with metaphysical assumptions inherent in it.

Looking at psychotherapy, it becomes clear that the “psychedelic” experience refers to only one part of a larger process, or “trip.” In “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD 25) and Behaviour Therapy,” C. G. Costello uses “psychedelic” in reference to only later stages of an LSD experience. He says, “the psychedelic experience [occurs when] the experience is stabilized and the patient establishes ‘order and organization to the unhabitual perceptions’ (Blewett Chwelos, 1959)” (119). To return then to aesthetic examples such as Huxley’s Island and Watts’ This is It, as well as the American “claiming” of jazz music as evidencing democracy, we can read into the term “psychedelic” a cultural tendency to intentionally produce consciousness expansion, but also the inherent representational process of making artistic works.  That is, works attempt to understand and codify understanding, even if the works attempt to code something ineffable. 

Interestingly, during the administered LSD trips, psychoanalytic suggestions and affective music were also used during controlled sessions.  Costello’s studies document the use of “soothing music” in LSD sessions.  Offenbach and Mahalia Jackson apparently qualify – although in one case the patient was “agitated” by Jackson’s music, and the therapist “suggested” the psychedelic stage to her saying, “to face whatever ideas, thoughts or pictures were presenting themselves to her.  She was told that life was a beautiful though sometimes awesome pattern which we spoiled by turning away from it” (119).  The use of psychoanalytic suggestion, itself arising from mesmerism and trance therapies, has not been emphasized enough in popular conceptions of the psychedelic experience, even with the “guide” taken from role monks traditionally played in the Bardo Thotol.  Costello’s work reads like a direct application of Leary, Alpert, and Metzner’s Psychedelic Experience, yet he is critical of using LSD in certain environments: “The effects have apparently been harmful when LSD has been administered in a party atmosphere embellished with beatnik and occultist jargon” (128).  Unfortunately, he offers no citation for such circumstances. Still, Costello is optimistic about LSD’s therapeutic uses, a sentiment generally echoed in much of the literature in professional psychological journals in the 1960s, even when it is antagonistic toward Leary and his crew.        

In “The LSD Controversy” (1964), Jerome Levine and Arnold Ludwig emphasize benefits of LSD in therapy for alcoholics, addressing the LSD controversy by noting journalists’ interest in Leary and the Harvard school. The authors are quite critical though, claiming that Leary and his cohorts helped create “an aura of sensationalism”: “neither critical scientists nor laymen could see very much therapeutic or scientific value in the ‘educational’ hallucinatory flights or voyages taken by the mental astronauts of IFIF [International Federation for Internal Freedom, the organization Leary and Alpert formed after leaving / being fired from Harvard]” (316).  Remaining positive about the therapeutic value of LSD, Levine and Ludwig provide a balanced approach while relying, perhaps naively, on the power of scientific method to sort out the controversy. 

But by 1966, the meaning of “psychedelic” broadens.  In “Some Psychological Aspects of Privacy,” Sidney M. Jourard, using Freudian language, describes the social dangers of pressures to conform and argue that repressed desires help maintain the individual in society: He attaches “psychedelic” to transformative experiences and healing.

Each time a man reveals himself to another, a secret society springs into being.  If the healer sees himself in the role of teacher or guru rather than as a further agent of socialization, he will aim at helping the sufferer gain a perspective on the social determiners in his existence and how he might transcend them.  Just as drugs, like lysergic acid and marijuana, have a kind of releasing effect upon the consciousness of the user, so teachers and gurus have a “psychedelic” (mind-manifesting) effect upon those who consult with them.  True consciousness-expansion (education) yields a transcultural perspective from which to view one’s usual roles and the society within which one enacts them. (313) 

Jourard evidences a kind of logic: psychedelic drugs are like teachers; they help people distinguish their roles in society by liberating them from the repressive social structures blocking their potential.  

Many psychologists and psychiatrists appear to have had great hopes for the use of psychedelic drugs in controlled environments in conjunction with psychoanalysis, it is necessary to understand the term conceptually as it comes to mean more than merely “mind-manifesting.” It becomes “consciousness-expansion,” “mystical experience,” certain drugs, and eventually an aesthetic style.  The term occupies an ambiguous semantic space between the sciences and the humanities.  It also carries with it political concerns relating to citizenship and personal liberty in tension with governmental control.  This is present both in Huxley’s writings as well as in government operations such as MK-ULTRA. 

The term “psychedelic” applied to aesthetics signifies a collection of common tendencies among artistic works which each exhibit an attempt to represent either something metaphysical in a unique form, or an expansion in consciousness – in other words, artistic attempts to represent the outside, exterior, and the infinite in necessarily finite circumstances.  It is a kind of chora, in the sense that Lacan, Kristeva, and Derrida use the term, as a hazy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious.  As James DiCenso summarizes, “The chora represents a psychical condition referred to retrospectively but never known as a subjective position as such ‘in which the linguistic sign is not yet articulated as the absence of an object and as the distinction between the real and the symbolic’” (71).  The psychedelic, in this sense, relates to a cultural condition where consciousness, which has been rapidly expanded and destabilized, begins to re-orient itself in light of what it has seen.  It is a recovery from trauma which may not be so much final as necessary for discursive continuity.  

The few articles presented here exhibit the tension in the public air at the time.  With them, one may speculate that, with the illegalization of LSD in 1966, illicitly taking psychedelic drugs became seen as an assertion of self against governmental control, and that such an assertion was coupled with an intention to seek out a mystical experience.  Works of art displaying psychedelic aesthetics ideologically express the notion that seeking an “inner experience” promotes both individual freedom as well as social action.  The mystical experience creates a “better” citizen than the “conformist,” while subjective interiority (or privacy) out-moralizes the state; communion with the divine both transcends state control while making a “better” state, full of “enlightened” citizens.  Communion with the divine in ancient rituals was done through the use of the entheogens soma, which entered and influenced western society’s earliest roots.  Are the affective responses of the individual who intentionally seeks mystical and psychedelic experiences more useful than the Enlightenment rationality which founds the modern state?  Perhaps looking at the artistic productions of such experiences can help answer the question, for it is seems to be a cultural answer, not an individual one.  By analyzing works of literature and music, Beware of Mad John, which takes its name from a song by the British psychedelic rock band, the Small Faces, seeks to ground in discussions of artistic works, discussions central to the way western society is conceived today.

Works Cited

Abusch, Tzvi. “Sacrifice in Mesopotamia.” Sacrifice in Religious Experience. Ed. Albert I. Baumgarten. Boston: Brill, 2002.

Anderson, Iain. This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Azouvi, Francois. “Physique and Moral.” Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind-Body Problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment. Ed. John P. Wright and Paul Potter. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.

Beecher, Henry K. “Psychotomimetic Drugs.” Journal of Chronic Diseases 8.2 (1958): Science Direct. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.

Costello, C. G.Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD 25) and Behaviour Therapy.” Behaviour Research and Therapy 2.2-4 (1964): 117-129. Science Direct. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.

Cupitt, Don. Mysticism after Modernity. Malden: Blackwell, 1998.

DiCenso, James. The Other Freud: Religion, Culture and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. Harper Torchbooks. 1961.

Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Gundert, Beate. “Soma and Psyche in Hippocratic Medicine.” Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind-Body Problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment. Ed. John P. Wright and Paul Potter. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Bantam, 1966.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Huxley, Aldous. “Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds.” The Doors of Perception. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. 1-14.

Huxley, Aldous. “Heaven and Hell.” The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Huxley, Aldous. Island. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Huxley, Aldous. Moksha: Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience. Ed. Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer.  Rochester: Park Street P, 1977.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Dover, 2002.

Jourard, Sidney M. “Some Psychological Aspects of Privacy.” Law and Contemporary Problems 31.2 (1966): 307-318. JSTOR.  Web. 8 Oct. 2010. 

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Leary, Timothy, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  New York: Citadel, 1964.

Lee, Martin and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond.  New York: Grove Press, 1985.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Mukhopadhyay, Biswanath. “Gita: The Song Celestial.” Journal of the Oriental Institute 41.1-2 (1991): 27-29. Print.

—.“On the Significance of Soma.” Vishveshvarnand Indological Journal 16 (1978): 6-9. Print.

“Psychedelic.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2011. Web. 31 Jan. 2011.

“Psychedelia.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2011 Web. 31 Jan. 2011.

Rascke, Carl. Fire and Roses: Postmodernity and the Thought of the Body. New York: SUNY P, 1996.

Roy, Olivier.  Globalized Islam: The Search for the New Ummah. New York, Columbia UP, 2004.

Ruck, Carl A. P., Blaise Daniel Staples and Clark Heinrich. The Apples of Apollo: Pagan Mysteries of the Eucharist. Durham: Carolina Academic P, 2001.

Smith, Huston. “Historical Evidence: India’s Sacred Soma.” Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. Ed. Huston Smith. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000. 45-63. Print.

Stokl, Daniel Johannes. “The Christian Exegesis of the Scapegoat between Jews and Pagans.” Sacrifice in Religious Experience. Ed. Albert I. Baumgarten. Boston: Brill, 2002.

von Staden, Heinrich. Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind-Body Problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment. Ed. John P. Wright and Paul Potter. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.

Whitaker, Jarrod L. “Does Pressing Soma Make You and Aryan? A Brief Review of susvi and asuvsi in the Rgveda.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft. 157.2 (2007): 417-426. Print.

Wright, John P. and Paul Potter, Eds. Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind-Body Problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.

Subjectivity and Sacrifice

March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tzvetan Todorov, in his 1968 Introduction to Poetics, writes:

there is not one science of literature, since, apprehended from different points of view, literature becomes the object of every other human science […] on the other hand, there is not a science of literature exclusively, for the features characterizing literature are to be found outside it, even if they form different combinations.  The first impossibility relates to the laws of the discourse of knowledge; the second, to the particularities of the object studied. (71)

 Todorov then goes on to say, “today there is no longer any reason to confine to literature alone the type of studies crystallized in poetics: we must know ‘as such’ not only literary texts but all texts, not only verbal production but all symbolism.”  Poetics unattached to the study of “literary works” alone thus takes on a “transitional role” which then requires “the investigation of the reasons that caused us to consider certain texts, at certain periods, as ‘literature’” (72).  Poetics is called upon “to sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge.”  

That Todorov chose to end his Introduction to Poetics with a statement about the contemporary nature of poetics itself speaks to a temporal engagement with discourse, as well as implying a stance for the student of his book to occupy.  How does a discourse sacrifice itself?  It must be through a kind of dissemination, otherwise it would merely be suicide.  Can a discourse perform seppuku?  Does it not need accolades and altar servers – adhvaryu, hotr and udgatr?  Who performs the initiation for those servers and priests? And would not the “altar of general knowledge” be a kind of secularization?  With hindsight, Todorov’s arguments were prescient for both poetics and literary study in the late twentieth century.  Time has shown through the rise of Cultural Studies and the historical turn in Literary Studies that Todorov was on to something.  In the disciplinary sphere of American universities, one wonders if English departments might do better to call themselves departments of poetics.  For, increasingly, national literatures are not taught as such, and semiotics transcends traditional notions of language.  This is highlighted by the increase in studies of visual rhetoric.  In Communication Studies departments, graduate students teach “Performance Literature” courses, where students read and act out their interpretations of literary works – something perceived as being in-between Theatre Studies and drama classes in English Departments.  This is, at least partly, a reaction to a page-based conception of literature that has dominated literature departments. 

However, I tend to see this also as a move ignoring and discrediting professional knowledge too subtle for the politics of intellectual fads.  While Todorov says, “it is not certain that this fate [of poetics] is to be regretted” (27) – and indeed the broadened conception of what is regarded as literature has accompanied more complex and diverse discursive ideologies – I believe there is something to be regretted by the view that literature has no “essence,” at least insofar as this relates to the study of literature.  This is an apparently conservative statement; but it is a statement I make in political opposition to powers that would dismantle literature departments because of a perceived lack of an object of study, not because I disagree with the turns literary study has taken since Todorov.  Without bemoaning the perpetual “crisis in the humanities,” I would like here to speculate on what I perceive to be larger issues which inform even Todorov’s study. 

Todorov is one of many mid-twentieth century thinkers who articulate opinions on these issues.  More than the content of his work, I am interested in the way he thinks.  With this I would like to meditate on Todorov’s idea that poetics must “sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge” as a general questioning of subject-object relationships that is a recurring theme in twentieth-century theory.  I am avoiding the term “nominalism” for the moment, but I at least want to invoke it.  Instead of speculating on the origins of this tension here, I want to discuss key ways the tension appears and is challenged through a discussion of the disappearing ‘subject.’  The “sacrifice” of poetics which Todorov refers to is merely part of an ongoing sacrifice of the subject which accompanies the difficult problem of addressing theory and criticism outside the authority of any ‘subject.’ 

Continental thought has played a significant role in both the development and documentation of the disappearance of the subject.  The “modern subject” is itself a figure within the western conception of history, occupying a certain role in cultural imaginary space.  The term “modern” implies an historical shift, yet to make any claim about a shift in the “nature” of subjectivity implies a container for the concept of “subject,” as well as the ability to theoretically arrive at a vantage point for perceiving such a container.  It implies an instantiation, which becomes documented in the Enlightenment.  It implies a metaphysical understanding.  And it is through the various Enlightenment projects’ documentation that the metaphysical stance apparently lost its invisibility.  The positivistic claim for the “end” of metaphysics marks its own philosophical demise.  The awakening from dogmatic slumber produces a neurotic insomnia.  This led to the return to the question of first philosophy, as attempted by Heidegger.

How can one discuss the subject? What is “thrust-under”?  How does one speak of the “ground” of being?  The ontological argument gives way to an epistemological argument. What does it mean to be unless one “knows” one is?  Yet even to discuss the knowing that one is evidences the dogma of modernism.  For what is “thrust-under” the modern subject is the state, the estate, the status of the subject, and thus it may be that the disappearing subject coincides with the disappearing state.  

Robert B. Pippin has argued that modernism is distinguished by a shift from the classical notion of “the peaceful contemplation of the order of the cosmos, and the human being within such a cosmos” to when, “starting roughly with Machiavelli, this notion was rejected in favor of a different conception of the end of human life – ‘lower,’ but given the right techne, achievable – the satisfaction of the passions” (5). Thus, for Pippin, the modern subject relies on autonomous self-determination, and the post-modern suggests the failure of freedom, self-determination, and autonomy – or, at least a more complex approach to that narrative.  

The difficulty of even referring to something like a subject illustrates the current ‘state’ of theory that is radically bound to an historical narrative.  “How does one think?” becomes an important question, not just as a method but as a possibility.  Poetics remains useful given this ‘state of the subject’ because it is more useful to discuss the subject as a literary figure produced by a culturally imaginative space, rather than the essential container for being, which does not mean that the subject as a figure does not diminish its ability to produce effects in the world.  The subject is itself a fiction, but fiction remains important.  The modern subject is an extremely neurotic character.  In contrast, the postmodern subject borderlines on psychotic behavior; it is a matter of locating reality.

Alasdair MacIntyre has characterized this problematic state in his Gifford Lectures: Three Rival Conceptions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition.  Stepping aside from the jargon of postmodernism, MacIntyre says that these three modes of discourse in contest with each other must be addressed in order to deliberate on what might be salvageable in terms of theory.  He discusses the Enlightenment-driven epistemology of the Encyclopedia Britannica as an outdated commitment to a narrow definition of rationality.  Genealogy, beginning with Nietzsche, according to MacIntyre, “proposed an abandonment of theory” (49), for the gaze of theory relies on a centered perspective which is itself an impossibility.

The problem then for the genealogist is how to combine the fixity of particular stances, exhibited in the use of standard genres of speech and writing, with the mobility of transition from stance to stance, how to assume the contours of a given mask and then to discard it for another, without ever assenting to the metaphysical fiction of a face which has its own finally true and undiscardable representation, whether by Rembrandt or in a shaving-mirror. Can it be done? (47)

Certainly not with a fixed subject.  Michel Foucault, MacIntyre says, takes up this task.  But even in his counter-memory, there is a reliance on the “official” memory with which to counter.  Countering displays the constructed nature of the “official” narrative, unfixing its central hold.  Yet implied is the allegiance to some sort of liberated subject, itself oxymoronic.

According to MacIntyre, the “traditional” moral enquiry of Aquinas and Augustine is in tension with the encyclopedic and the genealogical.  It builds, not from just an authority of God, but that there is an implicit agreement to external authority before a subject begins to learn.  The pupil is already enculturated.  The text reads the pupil as much as the pupil reads – and ultimately transforms – with the text.  Encyclopedic knowledge, in the Kantian tradition sees the traditional enquiry as dogmatic.  Similarly, “the genealogical accusation is not just that theism is false because it requires the truth of realism, but that realism is inherently theistic” (67).  Thus, each version of moral enquiry is at odds with the other two.

MacIntyre reads the tree rival positions in terms of narrative and suggests Dante may have had an answer: “narrative prevails over its rivals which is able to include its rivals within it, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its story, but to tell the story of the telling of the stories as episodes” (81).  Thus again, temporality and its relationship to narrative becomes quite important.  Not only is the question “How does one think?” but that ‘how’ suggests something temporal. 

I, however, see the simultaneity of all three enquiries’ narratives, along with Todorov’s claims, as evidencing a disembodying of subjectivity itself, unfolding through history.  It is not just that poetics must “sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge” (Todorov 72), but that the situating of literature as “the object of every other human science” (71) is itself a critical and theoretical disavowing of positionality to begin with.  I do not claim that Todorov is wrong to disavow a critical stance; but that time ‘has shown’ he was right to do so – perhaps even fated to do so – in terms of the narrative of the disappearing subject.

A tension arises between a conception of narrative as a completed form versus narrative as an ongoing dialectic deliberating on fate.  That is, narrative as politically motivated.  The rapid growth in serial television shows and novels – especially Young Adult Novels – illustrates the cultural tendency to move toward the tales reminiscent of Scheherazade.  Are these serializations attempts to preserve the life of the subject, as Scheherazade preserves her own life?  Yet even Scheherazade is a sacrifice as she puts herself in the place of the last virgin. 

In the western tradition, the subject sacrifices itself as well.  One might go back to the public demands that Dickens rewrite the end to Great Expectations, and the author’s acquiescence as a political concession, itself a sacrifice of authority and subjectivity.  Or one could read the radical empiricism of the phenomenologists similarly.  Here, modernist aesthetics appear to be the aesthetics of failure.  So, attributing the failure of an autonomous subject as a postmodern critique of modernism appears a bit unfounded, hence the claims similar to Bruno Latour’s that modernity itself never existed.  Another way to think of this using Todorov’s terms would be to ask: Is the sacrifice of poetics the result of an aesthetics based on the un-makeable, or is it rather the failed attempt “to make”?  For whether Latour is right to claim that nature, society and discourse are all intertwined, there is a fairly clear aesthetic documentation of modern works which should be understood even if only as misconceptions.  What we would need is a history of the aesthetics of failure.

Artistic failure appears to be ‘product’ of liberalism.  Bourgeois failure is present in European criticism, art, and literature as the disappearing subject.  Bourdieu’s lectures on Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education argue that “in the universe from which the author has deleted himself but remains, like Spinoza’s god, immanent and co-extensive with his creation – it is here that we find Flaubert’s point of view” (211).  Blanchot on Kafka in The Space of Literature, evidence this.  

For art is linked, precisely as Kafka is, to what is “outside the world, and it expresses the profundity of this outside bereft of intimacy and of repose – this outside which appears even with ourselves, even with our death, we no longer have relations of possibility.  Art is conscious of “this misfortune.”  It describes the situation of one who has lost himself, who can no longer say “me,” who in the same movement has lost the world, the truth of the world, and belongs to exile, to the time of distress when, as Holderlin says, the gods are no longer and are not yet.” (75)

Gregor Samsa, no longer human, no longer able to care for his family, scurries away.  Adorno’s Minima Moralia is similar: “what is decisive is the absorption of biological destruction by conscious social will.  Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people.  Rilke’s prayer for ‘one’s own death’ is a piteous attempt to conceal the fact that nowadays people merely snuff out” (233).  The subject ceases to matter.

Adorno shows his critical theory roots here, as he echoes Max Weber’s warning at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Weber argues in his final chapter that a Protestant, and particularly Puritan mode of being, “favored the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important part, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life.  It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man” (117).  From this he argues that one of the most fundamental aspects of “the spirit of modern capitalism” and modern culture is “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, [which] was born […] from the spirit of Christian asceticism” (122-123).  He ends his book lamenting “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” saying,

this order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born in this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. (123) 

The technical rationality, or to use the term of his critical theorist descendants, instrumental reason, out-reasons the modern rational subject.  But it also predicts the necessity for environmental conservation, which in 2011 is touted as the savior of the economically failing enlightenment project: The United States.

Critical theory after Weber thus attempted to refuse a kind of rationality and positivism that, in the theorist’s terms, erased the human subject.  With the failure of critical theory is the failure of humanism.  If the larger biological organism of the earth is then to determine the fate of humanity, indeed to survive humans must become superhuman.  Humanity must, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, expand into the body of technology itself, where the wheels of the car become one’s feet.  Critical theorists’ attempts parallel MacIntyre’s account of a genealogical enquiry into morals, with which Nietzsche had claimed the death of God.  However, embracing irrationality here is a deliberative political move (even for Nietzsche), with its own consideration of human freedom.  This grappling with the possibility of doing theory continued throughout the twentieth century.  By the late 1960s, Adorno had become quite pessimistic about the ability to do critical theory; in 1963, Marcuse still had a little hope.  In One Dimensional Man, he cites the following passage by Maurice Blanchot as he describes the Great Refusal against one-dimensional society.

What we refuse is not without value or importance. Precisely because of that, the refusal is necessary. There is a reason which we no longer accept, there is an appearance of wisdom that horrifies us, there is a plea for agreement and conciliation we will no longer heed. A break has occurred. (Blanchot in Marcuse 256)

Marcuse’s optimism comes from his belief in the power of a collective refusal, the “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” of Paddy Chayefski’s Network.  The tension here pulls between refusal and failure, but it is still a rational refusal as well.  There is a way that Blanchot’s statement as framed by Marcuse enacts something like Freud’s reality principle.

Read in this way, the refusal is a willed failure, or the will to power is perhaps its own sacrifice – the ingestion of the soma.  The willed failure is the failure of Art pour l’art.  For Flaubert, failure is a kind of refusal.  Bourdieu argues:

During this period, the opposition between art and money, which structures the field of power, is reproduced in the literary field in the opposition between ‘pure’ art, symbolically dominant but economically dominated – poetry, that exemplary incarnation of ‘pure’ art is not saleable – and commercial art. (185)

In Bourdieu’s analysis, art inverts the economy, creating symbolic capital in opposition to material capital.  The modern artist is at once ultimately alienated from labor and disseminated through the work to the point of invisibility.  It is this self-deletion of perspective that criticism itself follows with Todorov’s idea of the necessity for poetics to sacrifice poetics. 

There is a narrative of erasure in modern art from the flaneur’s privileged and invisible position to the crumbling of European society which appears both in Artaud’s discussions of plague in The Theatre and Its Double and Camus’ Plague.  European civilization is for them infested, and the plague brings with it an earlier, medieval worldview.  This is especially true with Camus, whose plague anonymously brings an unconcerned fate to its characters.  The device of the plague increases the characters’ anxiety and in a way situates the characters through a Heideggerrean existential care (Sorge). Homer’s gods are absurd to Heidegger because they care and desire, which for him is only a characteristic of a mortal who is being toward death.  The device of the plague allows Camus to produce a cosmology where nature is the anonymous and unappeasable god, and human action must be taken up for other than religious reasons.  In a sense this emphasis on action embodies French existentialism’s “last gasp” of humanism, the subject matters to Camus, and it’s possible to see this in his calling Mersault from The Stranger, “the only Christ we deserve.”  This would appear then to be an instantiation of the subject rather than its erasure.  However, in the larger narrative I am constructing, the French existential subjectivity merely attempts to disqualify religion as a governing force, which says more about French society in the twentieth century than anything else.  Camus’ humanism is just the attempt to secularize politics.

French existentialists maintain a Cartesian subject-object duality both in their philosophy and their literature.  Sartre’s Nausea disseminates the subject into the landscape, melts the prison of the body but absurdly keeps subjectivity throughout the melting.  Still, he goes further than Camus in erasing subjectivity – and closer to Heidegger and Levinas.  For Heidegger, the impossibility of subject-object splits is the crux of ontology.  Heidegger developed this view from his early work on Duns Scotus, where he found that for people writing before the Renaissance, there was an inversion of meaning between subject and object.  It was the exact opposite of the moderns’ characteristic of the duality.  What this evidences is the internalizing of the world by modern humans.  It is the development of a subjectivity where perception is a prison-house.  This perception is itself built from humanism and then radicalized by liberalism during the Enlightenment.  It is also a product of the sacrifice of the monotheistic deity.  

The modern state was early on conceived as a body, and the first use of “the body politic” appears in late medieval English writing.  Foucault has famously accounted for the way decentralized government structures are replaced by civic institutions which then govern liberal subjectivity through dynamic and discursive disciplinary power.  Foucault’s lesson is partly that subjectivity is itself a sham if one is thinking of it in terms of the possibility of freedom.  Subjectivity has rather been a device developed by certain societies to negotiate and channel power.  Another example of this would be Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, in which he describes in detail the history of mathematical statistics during the 19th century, and how through the use of census techniques and statistics a behavioral normalcy was produced for western society for the first time, thus eroding an earlier sense of determinism.  The social construct of behavioral normalcy now enforces a governing power over liberal subjects who see tamed indeterminacy as human freedom.  Foucault’s late lectures produce the term “governmentality.”  This term itself evidences a kind or erasing of subjectivity, and because Foucault’s thinking has been so influential in terms of how we study in the university, I will go into detail describing these lectures.

Foucault begins “Governmentality” by asserting that between the 16th century and the 18th century, a discourse developed on the art of governing.  This discourse reveals tensions as state governments gradually began to replace monarchies, or, to use Foucault’s terms, the prince’s principality. The problem of how to govern oneself, children, a state, and how to be governed, both by state and by religious beliefs and institutions is complex.  Foucault locates the problem of government

at the crossroads of two processes: the one which, shattering the structures of feudalism, leads to the establishment of the great territorial, administrative and colonial states; and that totally different movement which, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, raises the issue of how one must be spiritually ruled and led on this earth in order to achieve eternal salvation. (87-88)

As a way to simplify his explanation, Foucault focuses on the centrality of a text, Machiavelli’s The Prince, in the discourse on the art of governing up to the beginning of the 19th century.  He notes that initial reception of the work was positive.  There was then criticism of it in multiple ways: some criticizing the impossibility of an art of governing or a rationalized state, some completely rejected Machiavelli, others were able to validate parts of the work.  Foucault then claims, “the essential thing is that they attempted to articulate a kind of rationality which was intrinsic to the art of government, without subordinating it to the problematic of the prince and of his relationship to the principality of which he is lord and master (89).  This problematic of the prince’s relationship to his principality is partly the fact that, for Machiavelli, the prince transcends his own governance. He is above the law, and his role is to maintain his sovereignty against numerous outside threats at any cost.  The knowledge of how to maintain this power is the “art” of governance. 

Foucault then moves on to analyze some the works that react to The Prince.  First, he discusses Guillame de La Perriere’s Miroir Politique, which defines governing not just in terms of politics, but also in terms of governing “a household, souls, children, a province, a convent, a religious order, a family” (90).  There are thus multiple “lower” forms of government at play within the prince’s sovereignty that are different than the prince because of the prince’s ability to transcend his own sovereignty.  Foucault then goes on to cite La Mothe Le Vayer in order to boil down these multiple forms of government into three essential categories: “the art of self-government, connected with morality; the art of properly governing a family, which belongs to economy; and finally the science of ruling the state, which concerns politics” (91).  Politics represents a special place in this triad, again because of the prince’s ability to transcend principality. 

Foucault uses the evidence he has provided to make a distinct claim between a juridical theory of sovereignty, where the prince must maintain an essential difference between all of his subjects, and the newly emerging art of governing which sought to create continuity rather than difference between the political and other forms of government.  This continuity takes both an upwards and downwards direction.  The upward continuity says an individual must be capable of self-governance and family economy before being able to govern well politically.  Thus, there is a tradition (actually preceding the Renaissance in writers like Horace) of educating the prince in moral and artistic refinement.  These pedagogies, essentially humanist – though Foucault doesn’t use this term – are important for the period.  The downward continuity is characterized by the notion that an effectively run state will provide a stable familial hierarchy.  A well run family is indicative of a well run state, and the essential term here is economy, with its Greek roots in the running of the household.

Foucault pivots on the term “economy” here toward a more developed argument.  The art of government then, “is essentially concerned with answering the question of how to introduce economy – that is to say, the correct manner of managing individuals, goods and wealth within the family […] how to introduce the meticulous attention of the father towards his family into the management of the state” (92).  Foucault then takes this idea of economy as related to family governance, which he traces to Rousseau, and then applies it to the state / political level, saying the art of government is “introduction of economy into political practice […] which means exercising toward its inhabitants, and the wealth and behavior of each and all, a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and goods.”  The term economy becomes intimately tied to government over the next couple of hundred years.  Foucault claims that while in the sixteenth century, economy was a type of government, by the eighteenth century it designated a “level of reality, a field of intervention, through a series of complex processes that I regard as absolutely fundamental to our history” (93). 

Foucault then returns to La Perriere to discuss government as “the right disposition of things” (93).  While for Machiavelli it is the prince’s control of the land and everything in it that precedes his sovereignty over his subjects, for La Pierre, “one governs things. But what does this mean? I do not think this is a matter of opposing things to men, but rather of showing that what government has to do with is not territory but rather a sort of complex composed of men and things.”  Foucault uses a metaphor of a ship and the captain responsible for both the crew and cargo as well as for avoiding catastrophes such as weather and storms.  Call Foucault Ishmael. Essentially, territory or property becomes one of many things to be governed, rather than the thing that is governed which makes everything in it subject to governance. 

This leads Foucault to make a distinction between sovereignty and government.  Whereas sovereignty is circular – the common good is maintained by obeying the law – government is defined in terms of a common good which “is ‘convenient’ for each of the things that are to be governed” (95).  Laws lose precedence to tactics.  Effective governance is done through management rather than force.  He goes on to synthesize:

In the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, the art of government first finds its form of crystallization, organized around the theme of reason of state, understood not in the negative and pejorative sense we give it today […] but in a full and positive sense: the state is governed according to the rational principles which are intrinsic to it and which cannot be derived solely from natural or divine laws or the principles of wisdom and prudence; the state, like nature, has its own proper form of rationality, albeit of a different sort. Conversely, the art of government, instead of seeking to found itself in transcendental rules, a cosmological model or a philosophic-moral ideal, must find the principles of its rationality in that which constitutes the specific reality of the state. (97)

He then claims that this “reason of state” was a problem in the development of the state until the eighteenth century, for many different reasons, mainly military, political and economic tensions during the seventeenth century.  He also cites the development of “mental or institutional structures” developing during that century, simultaneously connecting his present work to works he was famous for such as Madness and Civilization.  Mercantilism contained the seeds of the new art of government, but it was still controlled by the sovereign and acted by way of the sovereign’s laws, thus reinforcing the sovereign’s power and wealth rather than distributing “convenience.”  Contract theory, i.e. Hobbes and Rousseau, was also an important step in moving away from strict sovereignty toward an art of government by emphasizing an agreement between sovereign and subjects, but according to Foucault the formulation of an art of government was still in its rudimentary stages (99).

The art of government was able to emerge through a combination of factors during the eighteenth century.  Essential are the factors of agricultural expansion and population growth, both which contributed to the shift of the notion of economy away from its ties to family structure alone.  In combination with the “rationality of the state” as determined by “statistics,” mercantilism moved away from financial support for the sovereign and upholding the sovereign’s law, merged with the science of economics in the broadened sense of the term, and eventually replaced juridical sovereignty.  The notion of population replaced the notion of family as the model for economy.  Family becomes an instrument of the state rather than a model (100).  It is the elimination of family as model that solidifies the move toward an art of government.  This is the birth of the science of Political Economy, and the role of the government becomes in all aspects the regulation of population, territory, and wealth – essentially economy.

At this point in his lecture, Foucault retouches on a previous lecture where he had mentioned that his next lecture would touch on the importance of the concept of population.  Thus, while he started this lecture with the prince and government, we now see he has fulfilled an earlier promise.  He also mentions that following lectures will more fully explore early forms of state rationality (99).  He also emphasizes that sovereignty continues to play a significant role throughout the process of the emerging art of government.  He claims “in reality, one has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government, which has as its primary target the population and its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security” (102). 

Foucault concludes his lecture by asserting the wish to rename his entire lecture series with the term “governmentality,” which he goes on to define as an “ensemble” of “institutions, procedures, analyses, and reflections, the calculations and tactics which allow exercise of this very explicit albeit complex form of power,” the general tendency in the West to move toward this type of power over time, and the result of moving from the state of justice to an administrative state since the fifteenth century (103). 

Foucault then moves on to comment on his own kairotic moment, saying that people have a tendency to think of the idea of a state as a unified structure which is essentially a myth: “the state is no more than a composite reality and a mythicized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think.  Maybe what is really important for our modernity – that is, for our present – is not so much the etatisation of society, as the ‘governmentalization’ of the state” (103).  Foucault calls for more explication of the formation of governmentality and leaves off by mentioning that further lectures will explore foundations in Christian pastoral life, diplomatic-military techniques, and the police. 

Foucault’s work itself complicates the subject-object split I characterized earlier as Cartesian with the French existentialists.  It also complicates the sovereign-subject, ruler-ruled disvision, and with it the notion that consciousness can be deterministic.  After  the trap of subjectivity here is the inescapable sociality.  One cannot but be civic.  This is an erasure of the myth of subjectivity.  It is also a sacrifice of subjectivity.

There are two narratives at work here.  There is the narrative of the sacrifice of the God, then King, then sovereign which disseminates into a populace of liberal individuals who set up social structures to govern themselves, allowing for the greatest pursuit of individual freedom.  The social institutions themselves disseminate the centralized power of government, replacing it with a complex apparatus which completes the sacrifice of the government and ushers in deinstitutionalization.  On the flipside, the liberal subject becomes objectified by the deinstitutionalized apparatus and governed by a rationalized normalcy imposed by a culture of statistics.  Thus, Ian Hacking claims:

Ethics is in part the study of what we do.  Probability cannot dictate values, but it now lies at the basis of all reasonable choice made by officials. No public decision, no risk analysis, no environmental impact, no military strategy can be conducted without decision theory couched in terms of probabilities.  By covering opinion with a veneer of objectivity, we replace judgment by computation. (4)  

The hypocrisy of liberal politics is the appeal to an outmoded myth of subjectivity: “Joe the plumber,” who must be reified as an “actual person” who is then disseminated into media culture like the women of the Real Housewives series.  Or the construction of “main street” urban living spaces and Home Depots to reconstruct suburbia in the image of the myth of private property.  These are not just pejorative myths, and I am not just descrying crass commercialism; they are the fables of our times and they speak to a resurgence of need for literary criticism and poetics – thus both the making of and the reception of literary works should be the business of literature departments.

Todorov was right that poetics sacrifices itself on the altar of general knowledge, but that discursive sacrifice is part of the sacrifice of subjectivity itself, and the character of the modern subject must be studied as a fictional character.  Modern aesthetics, as I have argued, tell a narrative of failure, first with characters such as Frederick in A Sentimental Education or Pip in the first ending of Great Expectations; but later through the sacrifice of the author in Foucault and Barthes’ criticism.  The death of the author, like the death of God, is merely the documentation of a poetics of failure.  One does not “make” anymore; one attempts alchemy. 

The avant-garde literature of the twentieth century performs the sacrifice of the subject.  Consider the shift from Eliot’s deferential Prufrock to Zukofsky’s A, to Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and the processual nature of the New York School.  Consider the rise of what is (stupidly) called “creative non-fiction” and memoir which positions the subject amid its kairotic moment to amplify a connection to culture, land, or history.  Consider the growth of mythical and supernatural space in fiction during the latter half of the twentieth century, the replacement of the male hero with the female or in some way “other.”  The politics of a feminism or gender theory that seeks to see a greater representation of females or “people of color” is the politics of the sacrifice of the modern subject, and thus those politics should recognize the reverence they inherently give to that sacrificial subject and that the substitution of the other in the narrative center is the substitution of Scheherazade for other virgins.  Or, in another way, the sacrifice of the nuclear family accompanies the sacrifice of the state.  That “civil unions” become a transitional epithet for same-sex marriage is laughable for its polite adherence to a nostalgia for a patriarchal state which has long-since been sacrificed and disseminated into a state of perpetual violence.  Terrorism and infinite war are the perfect answer for a society hell-bent on sacrifice.  The cutter, the anorexic and the suicidal perform the irony of violence toward an outmoded conception of subjectivity.  Ghosts committing suicide.

Perhaps only a bit less hyperbolic is the French idea that writing itself is death.  The writer or poet, imposing measure, performs his or her own death (Derrida 25; Blanchot 37) – at least in a liberal society.  Writers such as Don Cupitt, in Mysticism after Modernity exalt French poststructural writers as the mystics of our time, claiming that intentionally passive mysticism is a postmodern answer to a corrupt and unjust society, invoking an anarchism of mysticism against outmoded liberal institutions.  He claims that “in terms of the classic binary oppositions around which our culture was formerly constructed, the word spirituality is the opposite of temporality” (27).  Cupitt’s reliance on text as writing perhaps displays a limited and essentially modern hermeneutics:

Mysticism is protest, female eroticism, and piety, all at once, in writing. Writing, I say, and not ‘immediate experience,’ that Modern fiction. Many or most mystics have been persecuted by the orthodox, but whoever heard of someone being persecuted for having heretical experiences? To get yourself persecuted, you have to publish heretical views; and at your trial for them your judges will need evidence of them in writing. Indeed, unless mysticism were a literary tradition of veiled protest, we’d never have heard of it. (62-3)

Cupitt’s reliance on writing as a visual text locates him in the modernist conception of document-based identity.  He has not sufficiently considered Todorov’s claim that today “we must know ‘as such’ not only literary texts but all texts, not only verbal production but all symbolism” (71).  If death is the result of signification, if the author erases self as he or she creates, then the author goes the way of the Judeo-Christian God.

This has become the western conception through its own hubris.  The authentic gesture of the rational subject demands justice in the witnessing of its own birth, for the one who kills one’s father creates himself.  As meaning-maker, the person of action, like Zeus replaces Chronos, God as time.  Modernity claims the “death of god,” but closely following is the “death of humanism.”  These phrases annihilate the author of the action, resulting in the death of the subject; we all become others, authors.  We reify ourselves through writing ourselves online, in photographs, through the merging of plain people and celebrity.  In becoming master creator, assuming God’s throne, the western human continues to follow the traces of the God who recedes from the world in the Old Testament.  Post-colonial studies is itself a furthering of this sense of depravity, and as such has held a position in western universities.  Even if we consider Derrida’s treatment of Rousseau’s rational writing in Of Grammatology or Foucault’s discussion in Madness and Civilization of madness replacing Death in the Renaissance, we see the same tendency.

Secularization maintains the necessity for sacrifice by disseminating the sacrifice of the goat to each civic individual.  Contemporary society is perpetually violent because there is nothing sufficiently violent to ward-off violence, except maybe a nuclear attack or a “natural disaster.”  It becomes increasingly hard to tell what the difference between a natural disaster and an unnatural one would be, as the recent tsunami in northern Japan has shown.  Heidegger’s claim that “only a God can save us” is empty when human and God are the same and creative potential canceled out.  This is the current state of the university.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition argues for a new kind of university lecture, where rival versions are placed alongside each other.  He claims the only way for the university to defend itself against the claim by outsiders that it is itself a failure is to present the university as a space for conflict (234).  Ian Hacking has claimed, “Probability cannot dictate values, but it now lies at the basis of all reasonable choice made by officials” (4).  It is the external gaze of these “officials,” themselves the product of a socially constructed gaze of normalcy which sees the incommensurable moral debates of the university as evidencing the institution’s failure.  Failure, as I have discussed, has in some ways been the goal of modern aesthetics and therefore also of the study of those aesthetics and so the critics too.  But failure need not be characterized as the end, but as the transference of energy and power itself; it is the transference of sacrifice.  The necessity for the continued study of literature and the humanities is not necessarily to find the one intrinsic value, but to find ways of examining and documenting value itself, which after Foucault is conceived as inherently dynamic.  So, while Todorov was certainly onto something when he suggested the sacrifice of poetics itself, we now have the opportunity to follow the blood and entrails of that sacrifice through a new form of divination.  It is this divinatory aspect of hermeneutics, itself ancient, which has recently been neglected in literary study in favor of historicism, but it is birthed from that historicism itself.  The difficulty will be one of coherency.  It is not that theory is undoable or irrelevant.  Theory can no longer be located by sight alone, nor is its object anything but the imaginary.       

 Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. New York: Verso, 1951.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln, U of Nebraska P, 1982.

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Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992.

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