Re-enchanted Citizenship: Psychedelic Aesthetics in Structural and Post-Structural Criticism

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

I argue here that an aesthetic desire in recent criticism longs for a conception of life beyond death to solve liberal crises from de-territorialization to the definition of “person.”  We see in what Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” a turn away from transcendent notions of both religion and government, but we also see an enchanted or “re-enchanted” turn in writers who perform mysticism as an overcoming of subjectivity.  But the only gaze that can hold such an overcoming is a new sense of culture – something social and transcendent at the same time.  I see roots of the move in the psychedelic era.

Recent criticism in the discourse of Political Theology expresses a desire for an aesthetic and cultural turn in combating crises in liberalism.  Within the past two years, the work thinkers such as Simon Critchley and Victoria Kahn have also turned toward aesthetic to make sense of the challenges liberalism faces in states of emergency.  While Critchley, echoing Jean Luc Nancy turns to poetics, Kahn suggests a return to culture in her reading of Spinoza, Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt’s concept of Homo Faber: “In Kahn’s account, culture’s central term is the imagination.  That is, culture assumes a version of the imagination that is constitutive and productive, not illusory and false [claiming, as Graham Hammil and Julia Lupton summarize, that] contemporary intellectuals need to rethink their understanding of secular culture not just as the site of hegemony but also as the place of invention” (11).  In a similar move, Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless explicates Rousseau on festivals and civic religion.  Critchley writes: “in order for the internalist laws generated by the general will to have authority, they have to be decreed or ‘statuted’ by a quasi-external lawgiver, who belongs neither to the realm of politics nor nature, but who exists in a ‘no place’ […] It is by occupying this quasi-external, quasi-divine ‘no place’ that the lawgiver gives a fictional majesty to the law” (61).  But Critchley later turns to explications of Wallace Stevens, saying, “in the realms of politics, law, and religion there are only fictions.  Yet I do not see this as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of possible strength.”  Although it is merely a “dim possibility […] the critical task of poetry is to show that the world is what you make of it.  But that does not exhaust the category of fiction.  Paradoxically, a supreme fiction is a fiction we know to be a fiction – there is nothing else – but in which we nevertheless believe” (91).  This paper regards these affective turns in light of psychedelic criticism in the mid twentieth century that redraws subjectivity.  By briefly looking at structural and post-structural criticism, I believe we can trace aesthetic concerns already in the works that inform these recent thinkers.

Critchley and Kahn’s turn resonates strongly here both with Walter Benjamin’s use of aesthetics against politics and also with a similar passage from Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred.  Girard has argued regarding ritual sacrifices that “sacrificial substitution implies a degree of misunderstanding.  Its vitality as an institution depends on its ability to conceal the displacement upon which the rite is based.  It must never lose sight entirely, however, of the original object, or cease to be aware of the act of transference from that object to the surrogate victim” (5).  Fiction becomes especially important to politics in this regard.

A fictional displacement occurs in structural and post-structural and criticism with regard to writing.  Poststructuralism exhibits many qualities of “mind-manifested” or psychedelic criticism, especially if one considers them in terms of re-enchantment and critiques of secularization narratives that claim a separation of religion and politics.  In keeping with Critchley above, I want to situate re-enchantment with this aesthetic and ethical turns in criticism by looking at some writing from the late sixties and seventies with respect to subject-object demarcations.  I begin with approaches to writing.

Two of the most well-known post-structural essays, Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” both frame their arguments as secular critiques of religion.  For Barthes writing is “the neutral space” where identity slips away “starting with the body writing” (142).  Barthes in particular compares this “death” to “ethnographic” societies” in which authority is not assumed or placed on a located subject but rather channeled by a mediator or shaman.  “We know now,” he says, “that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (146).  Foucault, in contrast, presents his author function as the disciplining of subjects with regard to punishments and liabilities enacted on them during the Reformation.  Insofar as both writers critique modern subjectivity as its own fiction they also align themselves with a secularization narrative that desires liberation from religion in its binding sense.  If secularization narratives are at the heart of post-structural thought, how do more recent critiques of secularization help to reread structuralism?

In a dialogue with Judith Butler published last year, Cornel West echoed what many others have been saying when he said that Max Weber’s thesis regarding secularization as the “disenchantment of the world – resulting in fewer commitments to God-talk – is not true” (105). There is a shift towards immanence over transcendence that in turn intensifies an “enchanted” immanence.  In a 2009 essay collection entitled, The Re-Enchantment of the World, editors Joshua Landy and Michael Saler challenge the standard narrative of secularization, along Max Weber’s term, “disenchantment.”  They claim that “the world must be enchanted anew – human flourishing requires it – for those who wish to be consistent in their adoption of secular rationality. It must be enchanted with dignity, which is to say in concord with secular rationality, in full awareness of pluralism and contingency.  And it must be multiply enchanted, so as to satisfy again all pressing demands satisfied by religion” (14).  Yet Landy and Saler’s collection positions itself carefully against what they call “atavism” with regard to re-enchantment, claiming that their version of re-enchantment is not “the periodic resurgence of traditional ideas and practices,” of which they claim exorcism as one (2).

The most recent authority on secularization narratives is Charles Taylor, who in A Secular Age asserts a gradual “taming of nobility.”

the eighteenth century generated new, stadial theories of history, which saw human society developing through a series of stages defined by the form of their economy […] Commerce, “le doux commerce,” was endowed with this power to relegate material values and the military way of life to a subordinate role, ending their age-old dominance of human culture.  Political societies could no longer be understood simply in perennial terms; one had to take account of the epoch in which things happened. (218)

History situated against the perennial here accompanies what Taylor calls the Immanent Frame in which God becomes a choice among others rather than a persistent authority or cosmology.  In this light the call to re-enchantment, to fiction, to culture, remains historicized and in tension with the mythological and perennial.  In comparison to this, poststructuralist attempts to transcend the body of the subject suspiciously dematerialize into the space of myth by de-stabilizing subjectivity and objectivity.  One can see this in experiments in figuration with regard to “khora.”

The aesthetic tension that critically accompanies an overcoming of subject-object distinction, or the dissolution between ontological and epistemological methods, can be characterized with the term “chora,” as it is used in Lacan and Kristeva as a hazy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious.  As James DiCenso summarizes with regard to Jacques Lacan, “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).  In an overlapping metaphor with Deleuze and Guatarri’s de-territorialization and with emerging studies of gender and the body, Kristeva explicitly attaches the term to its Greek origins in Revolution in Poetic Language:

We borrow the term chora from Plato’s Timaeus to denote an essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by movements and their ephemeral stases.  We differentiate from this uncertain and indeterminate articulation from a disposition that already depends on representation, lends itself to phenomenological, spatial intuition, and gives rise to a geometry. (25-6)

For Kristeva, chora precedes symbolic representation.  It is not yet ‘worlded,’ not yet born. Kristeva’s use of the term refers to pre-oedipal life in the womb.  Patricia Huntington notes that the term in Plato’s Timaeus refers “to the notion of the maternal receptacle” and “constitutes the space where subjectivity is generated” (478).  The overtones of a redistribution of metaphors based on female anatomy is of course part of Kristeva’s politics.  The poetic ambiguity, her stress on the not-yet ‘worlded,’ expresses the convoluted politics of “returning” to nature or to the primordial while effectively contributing to the political situation in the early 1970s. Subjectivity is then generated pre-reflexively and pre-politically by the rhythm of the maternal body, but not only that.  Kristeva also emphasizes

the regulated aspects of  chora: its vocal and gestural organization is subject to what we shall call an objective ordering [ordonnancement] which is dictated by natural or socio-historical constraints such as the biological differences between the sexes or family structure.  We may therefore posit that social organization, always already symbolic, imprints its constraint in a mediated form which organizes the chora not according to law (a term we reserve for the symbolic) but through an ordering.” (26-7)

During and after the late sixties, theorists like Kristeva come to see the subject as ordered beyond and prior to the domesticated symbolic space of law.  This is the discursive backdrop to what in Political Theology becomes “the state of exception,” which arises out of critiques of the narrative of secularization.  There is couched in here a desire for a return to the pre-political as well, to the mythological time of Persephone’s daughter.  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 but also between body and world – poesis in its earliest form, yet historicized.  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).  There is an attempt to transcend and re-instantiate history through mergence with the pre-representational.  This is a kind of sacrifice.

We can see this discursively with regard to literary criticism from the late sixties. In Tzvetan Todorov’s 1968 Introduction to Poetics, he 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.”  Todorov’s book gives an account of a widening, “secularization” of professional conceptions of literature since the 1960s characteristic of the “mind-manifesting” of psychedelic aesthetics on a cultural level.  But what is especially important is that he characterizes the move in terms of a sacrifice.  Again, meaning is itself pushed into ambiguous ether.  As a background discourse to the state of exception, psychedelic works perform public sacrifices on both state authority and modern subjectivity, enacting a kind of mystical re-enchantment.

Mystical experiences create stories, overlapping with literary models of journey and return, yet with the benefit of not going anywhere physically. The narration of the experience is at the heart of the literary.  Don Cupitt has argued that mysticism is itself a certain kind of writing poststructuralist thinkers employ, “steeped in paradoxes” of life experience traditionally made “secondary” by the attempt among the Greek political philosophy to locate a “primary” basis for living. Celebrating “postmodern” writers who challenge a fixed center, Cupitt also calls for anarchic mysticism to disrupt fixed religious and governmental institutions.  That is, he calls for worldly action arising from passive, other-worldly experience. Mysticism can therefore be a model for exploring how intentional passivity relates to social action in our society. 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). Yet as Barthes says, the death of the author births the reader, and mystical and divinatory methods are sought when there are no worldly answers to the woes of living. This reading-writing is ritual, ancient ritual.  Can we really claim a secularized re-enchantment?

In Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, he employs structuralist techniques to argue that the development of transcendent religion accompanies the formation of early nation states in what is now referred to as the axial age, thus moving away from “primitive” immanent religion.  Gauchet claims: “Immanence is the result of distance from the instituting period, since which time nothing has happened; thanks to its remoteness, it is actually present in a world that replicates and revitalizes it.  Supernatural beings and gods themselves inhabit a completely formed world, within which they regularly exert an influence, without dictating its course” (51-2).  Immanent religion relies on myth and magic.  The development of state religion alters this significantly by inaugurating transcendent religion which reunites “the original and the actual, the inaugural institution and the actually present forces of the invisible” (52).  With the formation of the State then, “the religious Other actually returns to the human sphere” (35).  Gauchet characterizes this as the birth of a long history of humans moving away from religion itself and even calling Christianity the religion to end all religion (15).  Thus, “transcendence not only separates reason and faith, it also divides subject and object.  The world’s objectivity is the result of a radical separation from God, which moreover frees and institutes the cognitive subject in humans by making it autonomous in relation and withdrawing it from the hierarchy of beings” (53).

In America, however, mysticism has taken on a worldly, do-it-yourself, pragmatic quality which informs mystical political activism, and perhaps this is part of the cultural cache afforded to poststructuralism in the late twentieth century.  In psychedelic aesthetics of, term “psychedelic” 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.  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 therapeutic recovery from a 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 to hold communities together. One sees this clearly when regarding poststructuralism and its debates, the tired claims of the death of theory, etc., in terms of psychedelic aesthetics as sacrificial citizenship re-instantiating liberalism’s values outside of political territories and outside of bodies.

A final example should suffice. In Prisoners of Shangri-la, Donald Lopez tracks the concept of Tibet as a nation over the past two hundred years.  Escaping formal colonialism until China takes it over, Tibet is the conceptual storage space for all that could be sacred – a true mystical state without states. Tracking the influence of Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott (whose anti-colonial activism in Ceylon produced enough development for the country to him a postage stamp), through varying translations of the Tibetan Book’s of the Dead, includingLeary, Alpert and Metzner’s The Psychedelic Experience and Sogyal Rinpoche’s focus on end of life care.  Spiritualism here merges with and informs fictional figurations of Buddhism. Lopez claims, “Tibetan Buddhists are building an empire of individuals” regardless of nation or ethnicity (207).  Lopez remarks about the Dalai Lama’s theosophical universalism, discussing in particular the large Kalachakra ceremonies, initiating people into the religion. According to Lopez’s account of the religion, “world peace” is to be restored by enlightened Buddhists in the year 2425 in the mythical land of Shambhala (206). Such a vision is a psychedelic amplification to Puritans seeking to establish a New Jerusalem.

Simon Critchley’s “dim possibility” for poetry is indeed potentially overly optimistic, and certainly many concerns quickly arise when considering art’s involvement with politics.  Critics may misread Victoria Kahn’s return to culture as archaically conservative instead of progressively liberal. Giorgio Agamben’s tracing of oikonomos as an aesthetic “Archaeology of Glory” as an amplification of Foucault’s “Governmentality” is informed by a disembodied and sacrificial apparatus.  Coupling this with the psychedelic, we see the coding of a “secular” version of the afterlife as a new form of culture.  In one’s answer to the question, “Can culture be cultivated?” is an important convergence of selfhood, state, and history.  The question is not “when does life begin?” or “when does life end?” but “how do the dead continue haunt the living?” and “how do we communicate with them?”  I have traced these questions with regard to various post-structural writers who transformed academic disciplines and genres in the late twentieth century.  To read culturally and aesthetically today is to read humanity’s guts, rather than the entrails of birds, but it remains divination all the same.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Trans. Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text.  Trans. Stephen Heath.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. Print.

Critchley, Simon. Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. New York: Verso, 2012.

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

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Cornell: Cornell UP,1980. Print.

Gauchet, Marcel. The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. Trans. Oscar Burge. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

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

Huntington, Patricia. “Kristeva.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Ed. Robert Audi. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

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

Landy, Joshua and Michael Saler. “Introduction.” The Re-Enchantment of the World. Stanford, Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

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

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

West, Cornel. “Dialogue: Judith Butler and Cornel West.” The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. Ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen.  New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.


Quick recordings

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Quick recordings

December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Down Melancholy’s Rapids

past the bank


there the forty

stripped lifetrees are rafted.


Single counter-

swimmer, you

count them, touch them



Paul Celan


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