Syllabus: Psychedelic Aesthetics, Literature, and the Crisis in Liberalism: A Public Service Course

May 12, 2014 § Leave a comment



Psychedelic Aesthetics, Literature, and the Crisis in Liberalism: A Public Service Course

Sundays June 8-July 20, 4:00pm-6:00pm, at Deer Pile (above City O’ City) summer 2014 with Dr. Roger K. Green

FREE / $10 suggested donation appreciated per class but certainly not necessary.


This course is designed to communicate theoretical discourse that often seems esoteric to a serious-minded adult audience. There are no prerequisites, no exams, and no grades. You do not need a degree of any kind. You may attend as many sessions as you want. While the classes will build off of one another, each one will be a separate lecture presentation with separate readings, so you can miss a class if necessary. After each class, lectures will be posted at for those interested in reviewing or catching up.


Background Rationale

Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the 9/11 attacks, scholars and theorists have increasingly attempted to make sense of increasing crises in liberal democratic societies – from human rights issues related to citizenship to war, economic, technological, and legal crises. Didn’t liberalism win? WTF?

The scholarship informing this course involves multiple critiques of “narratives of secularization” that have played a deep role in the foundations of liberalism and nation state projects leading up to the European Enlightenment. Briefly, by “narrative of secularization” I mean a common and broad view of western history that sees the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century as inspiring an increasing turn toward individualism, citizenship, or modern subjectivity. By ‘modern’ then, I am not referring to the latest iPhone update but rather a cultural moment in the west where the perspective of “I” becomes essential to the involvement in maintaining civic life. Accompanying this shift toward the ‘I’ is also the restructuring of authority away from the Early Modern Roman Catholic Church and toward more “secular” Nation States, eventually leading to ideas about separations between theological and governmental authority. Often accompanying this is a notion of a progressive increase in rational, scientific thought. This notion of progress, not entirely out of line with Judeo-Christian worldviews and temporalities, takes on a moral character where more is better and history itself is pushing toward a fulfillment of human potential.


To be sure, especially since the end of the Second World War and the development of nuclear weapons that allow humans the potential to destroy the entire world, there have been plenty of critiques of scientific rationality or “Instrumental Reason.” There are often appeals to post-Newtonian physics that give lie to unexamined adherence to an “objective world,” but even those are radicalized appeals for more subjectivity and individuality. In this relativized world, the very concept of history becomes ever more fragmented while at the same time being diluted because it matters less. History becomes merely another fiction we tell ourselves in a world where “Reality TV” is the most unreal or surreal thing. We praise and blame technology. We feel optimistic about TED Talks and the latest discoveries in physics channeled through shared Facebook posts. We lament humanitarian horrors around the world and use guilt to fuel an economy of lifestyle that is sustainable amid the perpetual desire for more that drives our longing for the right kind of infinite to situate ourselves against – for infinite justice, for enduring freedom. We lament the emptiness of crass consumerism while clinging to notions of human rights and civil liberties. Questions of order, behavior modification, and discipline permeate our lives in sometimes abstract and sometimes very real ways.

Central to the discussions of emergent liberal crises, especially since 9/11, has been the role of religion in public spheres. Under a typical narrative of secularization, radical fundamentalists are unreasonable and irrational to the point that the only way to deal with them is special operations forces and contradictions in the civil liberties traditionally held by to be of intrinsic value. They are seen, whether Christian or Muslim or any other religion, as somehow cognitively deficient. Insofar as extremism accompanies crises in liberal democracies, scholars like myself have been looking to the foundations of liberal society to try to gain what sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, terms “an awareness of what is missing.”


Religion, as we all know, is a difficult subject that many simply choose not to deal with, often as an appeal to a rational, secular social ideal. There is an especially large gap in the wider public understanding of why this is a discussion going on among scholars in universities increasingly geared toward more practical and measurable knowledge. As universities continue to adapt to the ever-quickening pace of the globalized world, necessary discussions about policies and procedure overshadow these questions. Students coming into classes often have kneejerk reactions to the question of religiosity and public spheres. To understand the problem at all requires more historical knowledge than they often have coming in. They are easily offended and at once easily offend others once they reveal their thoughts. It is a discussion that while remaining timely and important for broader society (not just graduate students) yet it is difficult to find the venues and spaces for such discussions.

As an effort to bridge divides and to give historical context to these issues, this interdisciplinary course will look at the aesthetic issues surrounding subjectivity as it emerged in what I call the ‘European social imaginary’ and how the use of narcotics, eventually called psychedelics, came to thematize liberal crises in the mid twentieth century and set the stage for states of emergency and exception in the early twenty-first century. Use of psychedelics or “entheogens” (god-infused substances) have ancient origins among human civilization as it negotiates the balance between the divine, religion, and politics. In more recent history, the psychedelic movement foregrounded these issues in ways that directly inform current liberal-democratic crises. Psychedelic aesthetics can offer a topic that can operate as an intersection to talk about these issues.


We will begin by looking at Political Theology and The Coming Insurrection, a manifesto written in 2007 and associated with French intellectuals of the Tarnac Nine, arrested on charges of “criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity.” We will then move to political foundations of liberalism narratives of secularization, with particular focus on Romantic aesthetics in the poetry of Blake, Wordsworth, Baudelaire, & co. We will cross the Atlantic Ocean and look at theosophy, spiritualism and enchantment in the United States and how that comes to interact with the European imaginary in surrealism, Antonin Artaud and Martin Heidegger. We will look at how English and European Continental Philosophy came to shape the psychedelic explosions of the 1950s and 1960s in the work of Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse. We will look at the CIA’s help in creating the psychedelic movement and create a commercial spread of liberalism through rock and roll, psychedelic music and avant-garde jazz. We will see how American scholars have used psychedelic research to advance both the good and bad aspects of liberalism, how American aesthetics code a theology of what Simon Critchley calls a “faith of the faithless.”


Course Goals

The goal of this course is to create a venue for people from the Denver community to explore a timely issue in a rigorous way, informed by a scholarly perspective to help frame and situate intellectually potent discussion. We use texts to ground our discussions, offering us content to mediate the overflowing thoughts we may have about these issues. It is a public effort to offer our community a way to cheaply and easily have an informed discussion. While I will indeed lecture to frame discussion, my role will be more of a facilitator than an “expert.” The experience I bring is as a reader and translator of academic knowledge and interpretive methods. In a sense, I am also attempting to defend what academics like myself potentially do for a wider public to understand why bulky institutions and historical knowledge remains relevant even if it is often seen as overly esoteric.   I hope to give my audience a way to feel the ways historical forces shape our worlds through literature and the arts and to provide a theoretical point of departure for their own continuing education and discussion. I hope to create a venue for intellectual discussion amid often anti-intellectual surroundings. All the while we shall participate in our own fellowship of artificial paradises offered by wine and drink to induce lively conversations.


About the Course

Class will meet on Sundays from 4:00pm until 6:00pm (or until discssion ends) at Deer Pile, the community space above the restaurant, City O’ City at 13th and Sherman in Denver. The entrance is on Sherman street near the back of the building.

Individual courses are Free (or a $10 suggested donation to the professor to help toward his student loan payment — larger donations as well). Deer Pile may also offer drinks for purchase depending on enrollment. Potluck food and drink is welcome, but we may also retire to City O’ City for further fellowshipping.

Classes will generally be one 40-60 minute talk by the professor followed by one hour of group discussion on the reading for the week. Lectures will not always directly address the reading for the day so much as they will provide more historical material and references to other sources. Audience members are encouraged to write down questions during the lecture and to email them to me if we don’t get to them in question and answer time or larger discussion.

There will be limited assigned readings (about a novel or two a week) and loads of suggested readings per week. The suggested readings will likely grow throughout the course, so look for updates on my blog:


You may certainly still attend if they did not get the reading for the week done, and you can attend any or every class in the sequence.


Class Etiquette

Please give conversational space in discussion to those who were able to read for the week.

 Please keep comments pointed to the text and specific conversation at hand. Many people have plenty of personal experiences and feelings about drugs and religion. Keep personal anecdotes to a minimum.

This is an academically informed course, not a book club. What I mean by this is it is not the place for consumer criticism about whether or not you liked the book or what that authors should have done differently to suit your taste. It is not a space to reflect heavily on your experiences reading the book so much as it is to discuss the ideas and content in the reading with others.

Don’t play the “have you read?” game in larger discussion. Rather than asking others, “Have you read…?” give a brief summary of your reference and move on with conversation.

Please commit to being present and minimizing disruptions during class. Texting is fine, recording devices are also fine, but please keep cell phones on silent so others can hear and continue larger discussion.

While I will direct conversation, I am not in charge of telling other people what to do. We as a group need to work to prevent know-it-alls who monopolize conversationand to encourage focused discourse. An hour goes by fast.

At times I may use “foul” language for rhetorical effect in my lectures. Expect to hear about activist groups called “The New York Motherfuckers.” This is not meant to be offensive and will not be directed at individuals in the room. While there is no age requirement for the course, please be advised that the content can get gritty if you bring kids, etc.

Since there is no age requirement, and it is a community space, please do not attempt to drink or use pot if you are under age. Remember that we are in a public setting.



I try to be transparent with my methods of enquiry. Please feel free to ask me about them. There are lots of different ways to study aesthetics, literature and history. Two methods I often use are etymology (word history) and genealogy (conceptual lineages). When I use Greek or Latin word histories, it is to highlight conceptual and intellectual history. They are for rhetorical and heuristic purposes, not to “sound smart” or appeal to elite educations. For those interested, some of my presentations will use poststructural methods. For a brief overview, see Wikipedia:

Many entry level literature courses deal with what is called the “Intentional Fallacy” or the “Author Fallacy,” which has to do with separating the idea of the author or authorship from the text at hand. Basically, we rarely have access to what authors intended in their work, so we don’t always want to treat the writer as aligned with characters and narrators in their books, for more on this see the Wikipedia article on “Authorial Intent”:


Course Schedule and Assigned Texts

Students must get their own copy or download a free one from the links below. Readings should be completed before class so we may disuss them on the day listed.


June 8: Postsecularism, Political Theology, and Enchantment


Readings for Discussion: The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee (semiotext(e), 2008).



Leary, Timothy et al. The Psychedelic Experience.


Suggested Readings and Video Lectures:

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception.

Huxley, Aldous. Heaven and Hell.

Critchley, Simon. “The Faith of the Faithless.”

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception.

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology.

O’Hara, Frank. “Meditations in a State of Emergency.”


June 15: Liberalism, Subjectivity, and Romanticism


Texts for discussion:

Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradises.,%20Charles%20-%20The%20Poem%20of%20Hashish.pdf


Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and the Spirit of Music.


Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.”


Suggested Reading:


Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painting of Everyday Life.”

DeQuincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Kahn.”

Kant, Immanuel. Selections from Critique of Judgment:

First Book. Analytic of the Beautiful (sections 1-20).

Second Book. Analytic of The Sublime (sections 23-28 & section 49)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet”

“Opium and the Victorian Imagination.” Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience. Ed. Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz. Rochester: Park Street P, 2000.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Rise of Historical Criticism.”

Greaney, Patrick. Untimely Beggar: Poverty and Power from Baudelaire to Benjamin

Kandinsky, Wassily. “On the Spiritual in Art.”

Benjamin, Walter. Selections from On Hashish.

Washington, Peter. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon.


June 22: Primitivism, Utopianism and Perennialism: Aldous Huxley and the Questions of Modernity


Texts for discussion:

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited


Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game, or Magister Ludi  (Try to have read the Introduciton chapter and the first couple of chapters for this week. We will be dealing with this text the following week as well, but it is long and so we’re breaking it up).


June 29: Gaming, Future’s Pasts, and Childhood’s End


Texts for discussion:

Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End

Suggested Reading:

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests

Hesse, Hermann. Journey to the East and Steppenwolf


July 6: Junk, Soma, and States of Exception

Texts for discussion:

Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl


Suggested Reading

            Burroughs, William. The Yage Letters.


July 13: Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, and Antonin Artaud: European Influences


Texts for discussion:

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man.

Arendt, Hannah. “The Crisis in Culture” and “On Authority.”


Suggested Reading:

Artaud, Antonin. The Peyote Dance and The Theater and Its Double

Hoffman, Abbie. Woodstock Nation.

Hoffman, Abbie. Revolution for the Hell of It!


July 20: Joyous Cosmologies and the Invention of Psychedelia: From Soma to Moksha


Texts for discussion:

Huxley, Aldous. Island.


Suggested Reading:

Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology.


July 27: Fast Speaking Women: Maria Sabina and Anne Waldman


Texts for discussion:

Sabina, Maria: Selections edited by Jerome Rothenberg

Waldman, Anne. Fast Speaking Woman





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