Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 4: Gaming, Future’s Pasts, and Childhood’s End

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is well known that drug culture had awful affects in the United States by the end of the 1960s, and common historical accounts of the 1960s narrate the decade itself as a kind of trip. In such accounts, the open possibilities articulated at the end of the 1950s in the United States end with violence and destruction, a breaking down of a national identity center as well as the dispersing of activist movements into different factions that cease to communicate with each other. We hear references to Eisenhower’s appeal to vigilance against the imminent military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961. The end of the 1960s and early 1970s are often characterized as the political inefficacy of progressive movements, government scandals, murderous cults, and the loss of some sort of moral fabric. By and large, no matter the narrative’s location of nostalgia, for many the chaos of the 1960s returns to order – even if it is a morally corrupt one. Flower children or “beautiful people” eventually grow up and in doing so ceased to be that paradoxical western identity refracted against the corruptness of adulthood we call the child. And so another common narrative superimposed on the 1960s in the United States is one of growing up, coming of age, and losing innocence. Woodstock became Altamont.

With regard to psychedelic aesthetics, however, some will claim that the magical time in San Francisco ended well before the decade’s end; for example, with the Diggers’ public funeral for “Hippie – Son of Media” in 1967, with the failed attempts for the Merry Pranksters to make their film and push the country further – the failure of so many to pass the acid test and, as Ken Kesey would have it, “graduate.” The performative of these ideas, often expressed by Artaud-influenced groups like the Living Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, importantly expresses another feature of psychedelic aesthetics which we will focus on today: attention to any performance’s own aesthetic and rhetorical construction by way of the overtones of death and rebirth. The breaking of the fourth wall, the collapse between public and private spheres metaphorically and evangelically invites audience participation in a charged atmosphere. The atmosphere is itself one of play, and so the idea of the game, so present in the first pages of Leary et al.’s manual becomes a code for a conscious or aware existence in the face of the unconscious as it is psychedelically mind-manifested by the art. Therapeautically, psychedelic aesthetics then attempt to rehabilitate a pathological culture of liberal subjects by inviting them to deal with their own shit or put it aside for something bigger, or as The Rolling Stones say, “Why don’t we sing this song all together, open our heads let the pictures come? And if we close our eyes all together, then we will se where we all come from.”

In lecture two I discussed the modern European invention of nostalgia, citing Robert Hemmings’ claim that “nostalgia is a function of the imagination, steeped in temporal and spatial longing, and the illusive object of that longing is childhood.” This temporal and spatial longing, I said, is indicative of a “European Imaginary” in which a citizen-subject is shaped by liberal political and technological forces that construct “modern man” as alienated from nature. In Romantic aesthetics, the alienated subject becomes occupied by an aesthetic binary between the beautiful and the sublime. For Nietszsche’s extensions of this binary into the Apollonian and the Dionysian (in The Birth of Tragedy), these two forces occupy a pre-human space in history. In conceiving of these forces as always already existing in Nature, Nietzsche was able to critique the entire European notion of development, Enlightenment or Bildung, and perhaps surprisingly, re-inscribe the Aristotelian idea put forth in the Poetics that Art is inherently mimetic. Transposed historically, this means that there is no direct access to anything originary. History merely becomes the history of the telling of history, of historiography, which does not mean there is no reason to do history; rather, it validates a genealogical view of history – something we might call in everyday speech ‘intellectual history.’

In The Birth of Tragedy and the Spirit of Music, as I argued earlier, Nietzsche claims that perhaps what history has called the “Golden Age” of Greek civilization – the birth of Art, philosophy, democracy, and so on – was perhaps dusk setting on a nobler previous one. The “noblility” of the prior civilization arose from its ability to fully embrace the terror of the earlier civilization. We might think of Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: “the horror!” We might go on to examine more closely the idea of a “will to power” that emerges out of this; that is, the claiming of something beyond morality itself in order to justify acts that would otherwise be considered atrocity. Nietzsche himself recognized the inherent Romanticism in his words, and said as much in his “Attempt at Self-critique,” written almost 15 years later. Something of this appears in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Backward they always gaze toward dark ages: then, indeed, were delusion and faith something different. Raving of the reason was likeness to God, and doubt was sin.

Too well do I know those godlike ones: they insist on being believed in, and that doubt is sin. Too well, also, do I know what they themselves most believe in. Verily, not in backworlds and redeeming blood-drops: but in the body do they also believe most; and their own body is for them the thing-in-itself. But it is a sickly thing to them, and gladly would they get out of their skin. Therefore hearken they to the preachers of death, and themselves preach backworlds. Hearken rather, my brethren, to the voice of the healthy body; it is a more upright and pure voice. More uprightly and purely speaketh the healthy body, perfect and square-built; and it speaketh of the meaning of the earth.—

Thus spake Zarathustra.

While a detailed account of Nietzsche’s thought is beyond my scope here, we can readily see that what disgusts Nietzsche is a kind of nostalgia to which even he is susceptible. One rather simplistic answer here is obviously to push toward the future, to not look back, to overcome history itself, as fascism and futurism attempted. And that problem of history and attempts to overcome it, I have said, characterize both the twentieth century and psychedelic aesthetics.

We see over and over again this problemof the twentieth-century: a tension between vertical, sacred time (being and essence), and horizontal, secular time – the tension brilliantly pointed to by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane and the foundation of Religious Studies as a discipline separate from theology. Eliade argued 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 claimed, “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). While such binaries oversimplify the matter, Eliade’s claim articulates the European nostalgia for the pre-political and clearly presents what I have called the European Imaginary. Despite its fictional qualities, the European Imaginary has real-world consequences. In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade writes:

Above all, we understand this: the man of primitive societies has sought to conquer death by transforming it into a rite of passage. In other words, for the primitives, men die to something that was not essential; men die to the profane life. In short, death comes to be regarded as the supreme initiation, that is, as the beginning of a new spiritual existence. (196)

In the ego-death experience promoted by classic models of the psychedelic experience, we come to see an attempt at working out of the tension between History and Eternity through the overcoming of life as being-toward-death. One could also posit this view as inherently one of reincarnation or metempsychosis. The enchanted quality of living that knows itself as miraculous performance – that knows itself to be a game or maya – cannot itself be sustained anymore than taking more and more drugs. The trick becomes a problem of maintaining access to a kind of perennial mystical state. Even Aldous Huxley had theorized this with regard to psychedelic experiences: they merely democratize access to states achieved in other ways by mystics. Huxley also theorized, as we saw in last week’s lecture, that young people and students were more likely to benefit from psychedelic experiences. This idea of “youth” of course was historically charged with the youth of the baby boom.

It is important to know, as groups like the San Francisco Diggers certainly did, that the construction of the supreme fiction of the 1960s as an exceptional era was present in criticism before the decade even happened. At the end of the 1950s, across discursive media, people seemed to be looking for something new. Anthologized in Gerald Howard’s The Sixties,an article from Esquire in 1960 by Arthur Schlesinger characterized the “rise of the Beat Generation” as “the result of the failure of our present society to provide ideals capable of inspiring the youth of our nation” (45). In the same year, Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd that “Culture is, first of all, city and patriotic culture” (57). He claims,

I shall try to show that patriotism is the culture of childhood and adolescence. Without this first culture, we come with fatal emptiness to the humane culture of science, art, humanity and God . . . Young people aspire mightily to appearances on television and other kinds of notoriety, but I doubt that many now think of being honored by a statue in the park and winning ‘immortal’ fame, the fame of big culture. (57)

The generation gap was being written into public dialogue. The youth were central, but the youth were also disaffected and alienated by modernity. C. Wright Mills even used the term ‘post-modern’ as early as 1963 to characterize an age where “the ideals of freedom and reason have become moot; [where] increased rationality may not be assumed to make for increased freedom” (74-5).

There are reverberations of what David Riesman articulated in 1950 in The Lonely Crowd and what Herbert Marcuse would extend in One-Dimensional Man a few years later. The irony of the late 1950s, according to cultural historian Lary May’s argument in Recasting America, was that although the United States had actually achieved its utopian dreams expressed earlier in the century, the effect was to bring about a state of extreme anxiety. While the perception of living in crisis was not new, “their concern, particularly in its intensity, was new: it is rare for people to be so self-aware, so self-conscious, so self-concerned” (23). According to May, one of the main reversals in the feeling of relief at America’s newfound power was in “mass participation in government.” Mediated culture had created the “youth” as an identity category to be marketed to, but this “produced” culture. We can even see this in jaded reactions to the 1960s. While Schlesinger, in the article mentioned above, presciently claimed that “national purpose . . . acquires meaning as part of an ongoing process; its certification lies, not in rhetoric, but in performance” (46), in 1971, John Lennon expressed his jadedness surrounding the period by reflecting that “nothing happened. We all dressed up, the same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything. It is exactly the same” (in Wenner). For Lennon in his freshly post-Beatles bitterness, the performance of the 1960s was not effective. It was all show. Such bitter perspectives are just as present as nostalgia for a time when “everyone” had a cause, for a time when the “personal” became “political,” when the fabrication between public and private made a public game of lifestyle. The fact that the personal could become political, however, is merely an articulation of expanded citizenship.

Mediated culture certainly challenged longstanding notions about subjectivity, perhaps especially the idea that subjectivity is a trap. In 1958, Hannah Arendt described with dismay the reactions people exhibited at the success of Russia’s Sputnik satellite. In her prologue to The Human Condition, she says, “when [humans] looked up from the earth toward the skies, [they] could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to earth’” (1). We see in Arendt’s words that just before the psychedelic movement took off there was a culturally expressed desire for something “outside,” something more expansive in terms of situating subjectivity. It is also true that the youth of the affluent societies were growing up having their lives documented and directed in ways previously unknown to humans. This may be because youth of affluent societies grew up less as subjects than previous generations – in the sense that the standard of living afforded a great deal of expendable income to the youth. At the same time, mediated culture located youth itself as a subject. These themes dominate the literature of the late fifties and early sixties. Two especially poignant themes are a return to childhood and a critique of masculinity.

The first of these themes can be seen in a few important books before the introduction of psychedelics to the public. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, Tom Wolfe mentions the importance of Hermann Hesse and Arthur C. Clarke. Wolfe compares Ken Kesey to Leo from Hesse’s Journey to the East: “He was never openly known as the leader: like Kesey, he was the non-navigator of the brotherhood” (266). Earlier in his narrative, Wolfe explains, “For a long time, I couldn’t understand the one Oriental practice the Pranksters liked, the throwing of the I-Ching coins” (142). What the divinatory practice leads him to understand is Jung’s concept of synchronicity in which “the way the coins fall is inevitably tied up with the quality of the entire moment in which they fall.” The synchronous moment of “Now” here invokes the ancient past and ushers in the space of the perennial. It is then that Wolfe has another “ah-ha” moment:

There is another book in the shelf in Kesey’s living room that everybody seems to look at, a little book called Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. Hesse wrote it in 1932 and yet…the synch!…it is a book about…exactly…the Pranksters! and the great bus trip of 1964. (142)

But another book of Hesse’s that perhaps more ideologically prefigures psychedelic aesthetics work: The Glass Bead Game.


Hesse, like Aldous Huxley, was a pacifist. Hesse produced a more through rejection of politics that may also seem overly naïve and even complacently dangerous on the surface. But the The Glass Bead Game centralizes themes of childhood and the transcendence of time that are important to psychedelic aesthetics and in its influence on the psychedelic movement, as an aesthetic object it becomes politically influential. In the book, Joseph Knecht, an aging scholar, decides to leave the distinguished position as Magister Ludi of the Glass Bead Game set in the future, an “academically religious” land called Castalia – the name Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert used for one of their foundations after leaving Harvard in the early 1960s. The Glass Bead Game is, among other things, an aestheticized academic precision par excellence, and Knecht has completely mastered it. Open to the criticism of a few long-time friends, however, he comes to see that Castalia is intellectually over-privileged and thus out of touch with humanity in the rest of the world. According to Knecht’s friend, an aged Catholic priest named Father Jacobus, what Castalia is particularly out of touch with is a deeply critical account of history. In Knecht’s resignation letter as Magister Ludi, he cites the words of his friend in the following post-script:

Times of terror and deepest misery may be in the offing. But if any happiness at all is to be extracted from that misery, it can only be a spiritual happiness, looking backward toward the conservation of the culture of earlier times, looking forward toward serene and stalwart defense of the things of the spirit in an age which otherwise might succumb wholly to material things. (363)

Spirit and history are intertwined for Father Jacobus and Knecht.

Though an old man, Knecht leaves Castalia for a more “secular” territory in order to become a tutor to his friend Plinio’s son, Tito, at a remote house in the mountains. Here, his mission into the secular world seeks to re-enchant the world with a religious conception of the temporal. Rather than a complete rejection of Castalia, the move is a deepening of Knecht’s own spiritualism. On the first morning of his arrival at the families’ vacation home in the mountains, Knecht finds Tito dancing in the dawn’s sunlight:

In this moment the young man seemed to him stronger and more impressive than he had hitherto thought, but also harder, more inaccessible, more remote from culture, more pagan. This ceremonial and sacrificial dance under the sign of Pan meant more than young Plinio’s speeches and versemaking ever had; it raised the boy several stages higher, but also made him seem more alien, more elusive, less obedient to any summons. (422)

In this dance, Tito,

without knowing what he was doing, asking no questions, . . . obeyed the command of this ecstatic moment, danced his worship, prayed to the sun, professed his devout movements and gestures his joy, his faith in life, his piety and reverence, both proudly and submissively offered up in the dance his devout soul as a sacrifice to the sun and the gods, and no less to the man he admired and feared, the sage and musician, the Master of the magic Game who had come to him from mysterious realms, his future teacher and friend. (422)

Knecht, compelled by admiration for the young Pan, follows him swimming into a cold mountain lake. The cold water is too much for the old man though, and Knecht drowns. Tito, sobered by the experience, goes on to reform his recklessness, and so it would seem that Knecht, in the act of dying, fulfills his final task – a teacher till the end. But what of Tito’s sacrificial dance?

The reference to Pan, a demigod, the one who lulls with music and forgetfulness, is an appropriate image that was frequently invoked in early twentieth century children’s literature as a rise in interest in classical and pagan deities accompanied the perception of an end to metaphysics in general. In drowning, Knecht merges into a timeless pre-history. The novel then follows with a legendary account of Knecht’s life and three fictional autobiographies that Knecht had written during his student days, two of which are pre-historical as well, the other an account of a saintly life. Transcendence through a sacrifice that ecstatically disseminates a life outside of lived-time, or what Martin Heidegger might call “care” or “being-toward-death. Hesse’s book itself, as in Knecht’s three fictional past-life accounts, each account for Knecht’s various incarnations over time. The reason for being, in Hesse’s novel, points toward this enlightened transcendence, but it does so through overcoming histories. Knecht’s drowning represents a well-intentioned will that is overcome by the force of fate, and the narrative of the book presents itself as a biography of Knecht, celebrating his acts. The will acts to overcome its intention. In Heidegger’s philosophy, this is the taking up of one’s angst through one’s thrown-ness in the world in order to live the authentic life. The authentic life is to be praised, glory in the destruction of will, transcendent merge with impersonal spirit. But the metempsychosis and the return to the perennial is also crucial in relaying the fact that it is not just one time, modernity, which is to be overcome through some technologizing account of progress. Moreover, the time of one person’s life being collected as a succession of states is not the work of autobiography; it is the work of the anonymous hagiographer writing Knecht’s story. It is Art that gives witness to reincarnation.

In Hesse’s novel, Knecht’s transcendence makes way for Tito’s enlightenment and moral development while he himself achieves a sort of bliss in death. Hesse thus presents the enlightened subject who is reconstituted through an experience that occupies so much of literature, and psychedelic literature in many ways merely continues this. It performs the literary subject as the site of identification. We can now see later works, for example, such as Italo Calvino’s If upon a Winter’s Night a Traveler as psychedelic in the way that the text performs identification with the reader’s gaze. There is also an amplification of the text’s own constructed-ness. Another example to compare, albeit with a less reliable narrator and therefore less optimism, would be Nabakov’s Pale Fire (1962). In all cases, the form of the artwork stages the transcendence of transferable states of being, containing the multiple experiences.

[Break for discussion. The rest of the lecture is below.]

Childhood innocence, another production of European Romanticism, is a device frequently employed by psychedelic works. In contrast to Hesse, in the United States during the emerging psychedelic era, Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, projects a vision of the human race overcoming all subjectivity and ending itself through a kind of mass-scale transmigration of souls. The narrative of the book arrives at the space beyond humans:

There was nothing left of Earth: They [the last generation of children] had leeched away the last atoms of substance. It had nourished them, through their inconceivable metamorphosis, as food stored in a grain of wheat feeds a plant as it climbs toward the sun. (211)

In order for the book’s narrative to proceed from this point in the novel, the reader must adopt the longing gaze of the alien, Karellen, as he contemplates why his race is not allowed to evolve the way humans do. In following Karellen, the reader is invited to transcend humanity itself.

Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, compares Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the children in Clarke’s novel. Here, the “return” to nature is not a mere return but a fulfillment of some sort of evolutionary progress. Wolfe explicitly writes that the entire idea of the psychedelic experience involved in the acid and in the Prankster’s performance antics could be found in a long passage from Clarke’s book describing “total identification,” which was itself the product of constructed media space:

The history of cinema gave the clue to their actions. First sound, then color, then stereoscopy, then Cinerama, had made the old ‘moving pictures’ more and more like reality itself. Where was the end of the story? Surely, the final stage would be reached when the audience forgot it was an audience, and became a part of the action. To achieve this would involve the stimulation of all the senses, and perhaps hypnosis as well…When the goal was attained, there would be an enrichment of human experience. A man could become – for a while, at least, – any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real or imaginary. (in Wolfe 233-34; in Clarke 142)

The Pranksters, through their performances, through LSD, through being aware of their own construction in their movie, “re-enchant” a participatory space. Total identification became the goal of their psychedelic aesthetics, but it was not ideologically a one-dimensional goal.

In Childhood’s End, it is significant that the last human, Jan is a black man. With his characterization, Clarke expands citizenship and inverts the racist primitivism present in the early 1950s. Jan remains curious about space travel, and had wanted to be an astronaut before the Overlords had come and made the innovation useless to humans. His romantic dreams were not, however, destroyed. Jan attends a party where an alien interested in paranormal activity in humans has come. The partygoers decide to play a Ouija Board, and Jan asks it the location of the Overlord’s home planet. The board, powered by Jean Greggson’s latent psychic ability, produces the exact coordinates to the astounded crowd. Jan decides to stowaway on the alien’s ship while Jean and her husband eventually move to the artist colony “New Athens,” where people are suspicious of the Overlords’ true intentions. Clarke describes New Athens as having been founded by a Jewish man, a nod to the recently created Israeli state merged with irenic Greece:

He had been born in Israel, the last independent nation ever to come into existence – and, therefore, the shortest lived. The end of national sovereignty had been felt here perhaps more bitterly than anywhere else, for it is hard to lose a dream which one has just achieved after centuries of striving. (139)

If Wolfe’s connection to the goals of the acid tests being the total identification achieved by the children in Clarke’s novel with the Overmind, the tests also push toward deterritorialization and transcendence of nation-states. In doing so, they appear to have given up transcendent religion altogether; but secularization is also overcome through the enchantment of the psychic mind. Childhood as a theme in the works the Merry Pranksters found important was not just a return to the romantic construction of childhood innocence. Childhood works as a theme in psychedelic aesthetics to invoke the perennial through the nostalgia produced by modernity’s claim to temporal progress and alienation from nature. History is overcome by moving to a pre-political state of nature both before and beyond the nation state. Another important theme in accomplishing this goal was a critique of masculinity and the family.


Although not necessarily a psychedelic work, both the themes of childhood and masculinity are beautifully allegorized in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita (1955). In the novel, Humbert Humbert, the double-named academic tries to reconcile European fantasy structures with American consumerism by fetishizing and attempting to possess his nymphet, Lolita. Humbert embodies the decadent authority of specialists. His attempt to control consumption itself carries to the end of the book. As Humbert awaits his own death, he writes his memoir and elegy, but then refuses to publish it:

When I started, fifty-six days ago, to write Lolita, first in the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heated, albeit tombal, seclusion, I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head of course, but my soul. In mid-composition, however, I realized that I could never parade living Lolita. I still may use parts of her memoir in hermetic sessions, but publication is to be deferred. (308)

Humbert’s narcissism presents as a chivalry, or a parody of chivalry – as if it were not always parody of a sort: “I could never parade living Lolita.” Humbert desires for the book to be published only after Lolita is dead. His final act of control is his own metempsychosis into the transcendental realm of Art: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art,” he writes, addressing the living / dead Lolita (309). From his refuge, Humbert is still able to make threats to Lolita’s husband from beyond the grave: “That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve.” Art effects and enables control, and as Nabokov’s professor John Ray, writes in his “Introduction” to Lolita, claiming the book’s moral lessons “should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world” (6). The book parodies the desire to control, whether it is Humbert, the professor, or the reader. The narratives of the “generation” of youth in the 1960s enact a similar desire. The youth generation’s consumer freedom positions them as hyper-mediated subjects-objects. This realization accompanies a collapse of idealism in the narratives of late sixties and early seventies, as “coming down” from the trip brought baby boomers into adulthood. A liberal generation was normed.

Ian Hacking has eloquently argued in The Taming of Chance that the construction of “normal people” is developed in the late nineteenth century as an outgrowth of Enlightenment thought replaces chance as “superstition of the vulgar” (1). He says, “the cardinal concept of the Enlightenment had been, simply, human nature. By the end of the 19th century it was being replaced by something different: normal people.” Yet chance and indeterminacy came to “subvert” such rational normality in the early twentieth century, according to Hacking, by way of massive amounts of collected data and the rise of probability and statistics to account for such data (3). What arose with indeterminacy in physics and these ways to account for data was a theme of games and the theorization of play:

Games of chance furnished initial illustrations of chance processes, as did birth and mortality data. Those became the object of mathematical scrutiny in the seventeenth century. Without them we would have nothing like our modern idea of probability. But it is easy for the determinist to assume that the fall of the die or the spin of a roulette work out to the simple and immutable laws of mechanics.

One can see both the ludic and the fascination with chance in psychedelic aesthetics with the Merry Pranksters use of the I-Ching for divination and the importance of performance as self-aware. This is perhaps fully realized in late psychedelic works like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973).Pynchon’s main character Slothrop comes to find that German V2 rockets land wherever he has recently had sex. Philip M. Weinstein writes:

Slothrop (thanks to his re-scriptable member) can become ‘organically’ aligned within political organizations utterly alien to his sense of who he is. Engineered to be somatically foreign to himself, but unaware of this, he is, for much of the novel, both Slothrop and not-Slothrop” (202).

What appears in the “both Slothrop and not-Slothrop” is a questioning of liberal subjectivity that marks the trauma of the psychedelic era, and the narrative seeks to overcome this mystery. Pynchon’s work, like Hacking’s, shows normalcy to be a construction, hence marking a well-known postmodern shift. While the narrative construction of Lolita, with its false introduction, also parodies the construction of normalcy and the construction of the book as consumed object through professor Ray’s moralizing message, Pynchon’s work attributes the construction to an almost enchanted interstitial and even international governing forces and conspiracies.

There are two extremes at work here, visible in the doubling of characters. Humbert is a culpable agent who, though consumed with desire, maintains a certain degree of self-identity. Slothrop, on the other hand, in his search for the V2 rocket with the impossible serial number 00000, is completely dissimulated. His character disappears as the novel focuses on the rocket itself. Slothrop’s doubling, in contrast to Humbert Humbert, is much more directly tied to the idea of a nation-State that is being destroyed by the rockets. Slothrop is a bio-political entity whose masculinity has been transfigured by the State itself. He is experimented on both as a child and an adult. Whereas Humbert Humbert’s fetishes become transcendent art, Slothrop’s sexual conduct marks and portends destruction. Whereas the forces that Humbert transgresses are cultural norms, Slothrop’s are political institutions where control and chaos are difficult to distinguish from one another. While a typical modern-versus postmodern theme about agency can be set up here, psychedelic aesthetics exists somewhere in-between the subjective perverted sexual agent, Humbert, and the objectified, dismembered soldier whose story becomes a cypher numbered rocket. The difference is biopolitcal, and psychedelic aesthetics are particularly concerned, not just with overcoming conventional morality, but with the state’s construction of it through subjugation of its citizens.

Psychedelic aesthetics, according to Aldous Huxley’s thinking presented in lecture three, must transcend into “the spiritual” which situates subjectivity and objectivity, and these aesthetics are largely evidenced in works between the late fifties and the early seventies. At the heart of psychedelic therapy is a continued reliance on the return to subjectivity.

While a critique of the European Imaginary of modern subjectivity is at work, a liberal subject remains. Institutional critique, even if it is cartoonish, exists as an earnest part of psychedelic aesthetics. These aesthetics suggest that what institutions need is not to be destroyed, but to be updated through a return to a state of nature accomplished by a psychedelic experience. Figuratively, psychedelic aesthetics accomplish this by a critique of masculinity and through the transfer of narrative perspective.

Between Lolita and Gravity’s Rainbow we can situate another major literary work dealing with masculinity: Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Here, the state institution performs a virtual castration of McMurphy’s masculinity through the normative and generic frigidity of Nurse Ratched. Normalcy conquers by lobotomizing McMurphy’s wildness, his attempts at leadership and his attempts for fraternal organizing. But the narrative perspective belongs to Chief, the sanest of the bunch, whose voice is the text itself, though he remains mute through most of the narrative. And it is only through Chief’s smothering of McMurphy that his lobotomized virility is transferred to the half-Native American, allowing him to escape the hospital. Chief performs euthanasia on the “white man,” taking his symbolic power with him. Chief is also a different kind of subject. He learns and leaves. Power is redistributed through him and re-territorialized.

Tom Wolfe explains that Kesey’s interest in normalcy is driven by his interest in controlling people. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, he writes of Kesey’s antics when asked to come talk to a conference of the Unitarian Church in California:

Kesey was, in fact, now tremendously interested in the phenomenon of…Control. He had discovered that the Paranksters had been able to control the flow of the conference, not by any Machiavellian planning, but simply by drawing the conference into their movie. The conference was on a schedule, but the Pranksters always arrived…Now, and in no time at all everyone had become a part of their movie. (190)

Kesey’s control was electric, affective and aesthetic. At the conference, Kesey lectured the crowd about “symbols we use and the games we’re in and how you can’t really know what an emotion is until you’ve experienced both sides of it” (187). His answer was an affective study. Kesey took an American flag off of the stage and began trampling it. Unitarians, one would think, would be all too aware of iconoclasm, but instead there were gasps and sobs. Wolfe frames Kesey’s intent: “don’t just describe an emotion, but arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion, and sometimes we have to come to an awareness through the back door.” As Kesey tries to explain his action, he refers to singing the song “America the Beautiful” as a child, but one of his Pranksters interrupts him telling him to “do it” or “sing it” and Kesey leads the whole crowd singing the song. Here again is another instance of what Agamben calls glorification over glory. Glorification exists in the affective moves of psychedelic aesthetics as an aesthetic that re-enchants superseding the power of nation-state authority.

Kesey makes essentially the same gesture in the transference of narrative perspective in Sometimes a Great Notion. While the narrative is largely about two brothers, one a weaker, suicidal hipster named Leland Stamper, who seeks revenge on his more manly, older half-brother, Hank, for carrying on a love affair with his mother, their father’s second wife. Part of the revenge plot involves winning the love of his older brother’s wife, Viv. But, as with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the narrative frame allows for a different ending. Despite the fact that character’s shift perspective throughout Sometimes a Great Notion in a fashion reminiscent of William Faulkner, the dramatic situation that holds the novel together is that of Viv Stamper relaying the mythological story of the Stampers to Union Boss, Floyd Evenwrite. While the revenge narrative emphasizes the family struggle, and the failed search for a new masculinity – Leland sets ultimate revenge on “stealing” his brother’s woman – Viv’s narrative ends the novel when she leaves town and both men. Again, the old myths are transferred to the voice of a seemingly marginalized character. Citizenship is expanded. Viv has been on a marriage trip, and on the return she has said, “no thank you.”[1]

Kesey’s novels, like many psychedelic works, valorize a “return” to the un-modern, the pre-modern, and the perennial. In the casting off of modernity the new citizen is ushered in with the consciousness of the failure of modernity. Kesey figures this return in Sometimes a Great Notion with nods to the tradition of American literature and the home. With echoes going back to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, the home flawed at its foundation is a long-standing device for establishing familial and generational conflict.

Nine years before Kesey’s book was published, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) was a best-seller. The book opens with the story of a crack in the wall of Tom and Betsy Rath’s house. After a marriage fight over money, Tom had “heaved” a forty dollar vase Betsy had bought that day against the wall, causing a crack in the plaster to form all the way up the wall in the shape of a question mark (1). Wilson’s heavy-handed figure is completely earnest. Tom and Betsy repair their marriage by eventually moving into Tom’s mother’s home after she dies. The house is on a large plot of land and the couple wins a zoning battle with the local city council to have part of the land turned into a subdivision. They also win a battle with his mother’s corrupt gardener who claims to have rightful inheritance to the land. Throughout the book, Tom’s manhood is in question as he struggles to be ambitious enough to please his wife. He constantly thinks about how many men he killed as a soldier in the war and a lover he left in Europe whom has contacted him for monetary support for a child he did not know he had. The settling of the situation with Tom’s intergenerational home and his commitment to build modest homes for others while stepping out of the corporate world saves his marriage and family and lets him become a stand-up father to his child overseas. Family wins over corporate ambition. Family produces a balanced masculinity, at least when the wife is understanding enough. This is not the case with Kesey’s approach to the home.

Sometimes a Great Notion opens by returning to a mythical time, gesturing toward Beowulf. Outside the Stamper household, a man’s arm hangs for the public to see. The house is on a riverbank in Oregon, was built by Jonas Stamper, who left Kansas in 1898 with his two sons. Jonas, convinced by his “seven-teen-year-old son” that “we can do better than this yere sticker path we got now” (17), acquires Oregon land by homesteading, but he quickly realizes that the land he has built the foundation of his home on is slowly being eaten away by the river: “Watching, it occurs to Jonas that it isn’t the bank that is giving way, as one might naturally assume. No. It is the river that is getting wider” (25). Jonas’s dilemma is characterized as an American generational problem. He is a religious man who has left his wife behind in Kansas.

A stringy-muscled brood of restless and stubborn west-walkers, their scattered history shows. With too much bone and not enough meat, and on the move ever since that first day the first skinny immigrant Stamper took his first step off the boat onto the eastern shore of the continent. On the move with a kind of trancelike dedication. Generation after generation leapfrogging west across wild young America; not as pioneers doing the Lord’s work in a heathen land, not as visionaries blazing a trail for a growing nation . . . but simply as a clan of skinny men inclined always toward itchy feet and idiocy, toward foolish roaming, toward believing in greener grass over the hill and straighter hemlocks down the trail. (16)

Jonas eventually loses hope and leaves his sons and wife to go back to Kansas without telling them. He is a failed father. To get money to live and finish the house, Henry Stokes must join a local co-op against his will and pride. Fighting against the expanding river, Henry builds a bank that requires constant maintenance. This is the result of the flawed foundation of the flawed father at the end of the continent. Nature itself de-territorializes the home, and the flawed father returns in the next generation.

Henry Stamper makes up for what his father lacked by becoming ultra masculine and a shrewd ruler of his house. By the time he has a family, “the domain is an absolute monarchy in which no one dares make a move, not even the crown prince himself, without first consulting the Great Ruler” (78). The “crown prince” is Hank, Henry’s first-born. His mother dies and Henry takes a trip back to New York to get another wife. He returns with a woman less than half his age with whom he has a second son, Leland, but he is too old to please her. Lonely and desperate, she develops a romantic relationship with Hank. Leland sees them together as a boy and develops a hatred for his older brother. Leland is brainy instead of brawny and goes off to college; meanwhile his mother leaves the Stamper house and eventually kills herself. Blaming his brother for his mother’s suicide, Leland returns home after his own failed suicide-attempt to take revenge on his brother.

The typological references to sibling rivalry in the book are themselves a reference to Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), which offers a perspective of individual will overcoming the shadows of history and fate. But the generational struggle is different with Kesey. Before leaving to go back home, the young hipster Leland has a session with his psychiatrist, telling him he thinks he is going mad. His doctor tells him, he is not mad.

“You, and in fact quite a lot of your generation, have in some way been exiled from that particular sanctuary. It’s become almost impossible for you to ‘go mad’ in the classical sense. At one time people conveniently ‘went mad’ and were never heard from again. Like a character in a romantic novel. But now” – And think he even went so far as to yawn – “you are too hip to yourself on a psychological level. You are all too intimate with too many of the symptoms of insanity to be completely off your guard. Another thing: all of you have a talent for releasing frustration through clever fantasy.” (71)

Leland’s entire generation has been so “normed” they do not know where else to go. The psychologist proves to be right in a way, for Leland’s fantasy becomes set on outdoing his overly masculine older brother by stealing his wife, Viv. And through the novel we see him plot with hipster leanings toward paranoid schizophrenia and “sensitive” masculinity. Hank’s masculinity is as much as trap for him as anything. Everyone wants to fight him, including his younger brother. In his ultimate confrontation with Hank, Leland performs his failure at physically overpowering Hank while demonstrating that his plot to disrupt Hank’s marriage worked. But in a characteristically Keseyan twist, the brothers unite together to save their family business in a desperate attempt to fight labor unions, and Viv leaves both of them. Like Chief at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the shift in narrative frame accomplishes an expanded sense of citizenship, even if they are only Kesey’s fantasies of Native-American-ness and femininity.

In disrupting not so much the mythological narratives that Kesey draws on to invoke a literary lineage but the perspective by which myths are told, Kesey challenges both state citizenship and transcendent religion. His use of enchantment occurs partly through his choice of character shifts – in these two examples, a half Native American and a woman from Colorado. Both are associated with a land that becomes re-territorialized through their emerging perspectives. But Kesey enchants at a more subtle level as well.

Sometimes a Great Notion constantly calls attention to its own construction through song and frequent shifts in character’s perspectives. For example, Kesey attempts to one-up William Faulkner by generally using perspective shifts between chapters while occasionally shifting from paragraph to paragraph. In addition, characters interrupt their own narratives to point this out. Leland speaking in first-person, at one point says, “Looking back (I mean now, here, from this particular juncture in time, able to be objective and courageous thanks to the miracle of modern narrative technique), I see the terror clearly” (71). And, in a technical sense, the narrative of the book moves from Viv’s frame on the last page to “Jenny,” a Native American woman, lifting her skirt for a man. These moves mimic camera-like shifts in perspective throughout the novel and point to an “electric” quality of enchantment. In doing so, they gesture outside of the medium of the written word.

Perhaps more overtly, this is accomplished throughout the novel as country song lyrics interrupt scenes from the jukebox in the bar, and even then, more significantly in the title’s allusion to “Goodnight Irene”:

Sometimes I live in the country

Sometimes I live in town,

Sometimes I have a great notion

To jump in the river and drown

Besides being an allusion to suicide by drowning and drugs (the lyrics reference dying of morphine) because a woman left, which seems to unify both Hank and Leland’s situations at the end of the novel, as well as to land and the river in the book, “Goodnight Irene” has a larger cultural significance for Kesey. “Goodnight Irene” was a popular song in the late nineteenth century, but its melody had been forgotten until a Lead Belly performance of it was recorded by John and Alan Lomax. It was then recorded by Pete Seeger and the Weavers in 1950 and became a mega hit. Kesey is directly tapping into not just a hit but also into America’s past. According to John Szwed, between the Weavers’ release of their version in July and October of 1950, the song was heard all over the country in jukeboxes and on the radio “an estimated two million times a day” (249). Although the move is subtle, Kesey uses the texture of recorded music as a way to move into the perennial.

Again, psychedelic aesthetics invoke the perennial as a way to collapse textures into a space beyond time. It is a virtual space in the fact that it is constructed and “produced.” In recorded music, the explosion of folk music during the 1950s was a way to re-territorialize the American landscape in the postwar years. It was also a way to critique state power, and so much of folk music of the time was left-leaning. It hardly needs mentioning that Bob Dylan made this more psychedelic when he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. What made the move so shocking both to the audience and to Dylan was a perceived inauthenticity in Dylan’s use of instrumentation associated with more commercial music. Commodification removed the intellectual “status” of the austere folk aesthetic. But Dylan seemed to already be aware that there was nothing “authentic” about any of it. It was all performance, and there was nothing wrong with that.

In another way, there was nothing particularly revolutionary about Dylan’s move; in his song structure he remained committed to folk and blues forms, but his lyrics became more narrative-driven, associative and textural – and that, combined with electricity (a familiar psychedelic trope) was what made him psychedelic. What folk listeners had yet to understand was that all of it was already mediated, and their aesthetic was based in a commitment to a virtual presentation of landscape from which they could deterritorialize and the re-territorialize the political landscape. They were simply committed to a kind of naturalism they romanticized. In a nostalgia for the land and the “people” of the land, folk music collectors work to preserve territory, whether it be local, national or “world.” In psychedelic aesthetics, “folk texture” becomes one of many ways to invoke the perennial through the gesture of a return to “nature” or the land. The technological innovations in musical production destroyed any sort of claim to naturalism in recorded music. In his brilliant study, Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording 1900-1960, Peter Doyle traces how early uses of reverb were used to convey a kind of naturalism through a sense of vastness of space. However, by the late 1950s, musical production had shifted beyond appealing to naturalism and created entirely virtual space:

Reverberation and echo simply are sonic attributes of physical space. When discussing the nature of the space(s) inferred by the use of echo and reverb on recordings, however, especially when lyrics do not cue us to imagine specific space(s), we move further into connotation; in teasing these meanings out, we run the risk of interpreting idiosyncratically, of over interpreting, or of misreading. (14)

Again, this can be connected to the virtual space alluded to by Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood’s End with regard to the cinema and Lary May’s writings about “produced culture.” The virtual space in psychedelic aesthetics provides another access point to the perennial.

But the perennialism of psychedelic aesthetics also builds out of the modernist avant-garde aesthetics of failure, and that is why my initial chapters linking psychedelic aesthetics to European thought are important. The failure of traditional masculinity was one way to present a critique of the state. While Burroughs accomplished this with surreptitious homosexual encounters with the president in Naked Lunch, Kesey showed it to be a trap. His apathy for the inability to “graduate” from acid tests is already apparent in the fractured ending of Sometimes a Great Notion. Viv does not know where she is going, she is simply going. The only recourse seems to be some “becoming” of other that knows its failure. Of course, this failure is evident in earlier literary figures, and the most famously inspiring figure for both Kesey and Dylan is the figure of the beatnik hipster.

Power is generally redistributed in the literature of the 1950s and 1960s. When Jack Kerouac imposes his white privilege in On the Road calling the “Negro” the essential American, he expresses more than the invisibility of white power and its ability to drain who or what it others by its narrative enthusiasm. The ignorance of the power is indicative of the power itself – a power unrecognized because it is taken for granted. Because power powers, it does not recognize. As such, much of the Beat and post-Beat poetry, like the emerging avant-garde jazz of the period, is fundamentally about the intensity of energy outside of source. Taking away existing harmonic song structures essentially produces the perennial, it moves to a state preceding functional harmony. The convention in avant-garde jazz at the time was to begin a piece with a pre-written melody or “head,” and then to use that as a point of departure into free improvisation. This process dramatically performs the psychedelic experience. But in a narrative medium like fictional literature, getting to the perennial requires associative and allegorical moves. It is these moves that accomplish the transference of power by creating a state of “becoming,” as Deleuze and Guattari would say.

The perennial brings one into contact with one’s desire. Desire here ceases to be a lack. If racial essentialism is present unconsciously, in the perennial it will be overt and part of what Kleps called the “shitstorm” of enlightenment. Kerouac’s essentialism has been noted by many in passages like the following from On the Road: “I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned” (180). If one takes his desire seriously, however, then one has to acknowledge that “true” American citizenship is coded as “non-white.” White power and masculinity, like the European imaginary, fail in the perennial, especially as citizenship expands and new narratives are formed – at least this is how the aesthetics figure it.

The figure of the Beat attempts to shrug off the weight of biology as it exists socially while maintaining a certain naivety concerning the fact that the choice to sacrifice himself is a self-employed consecration. At least part of this had to do with a generation feeling they were inheriting a “utopia” they had never asked for.   It is important to note that Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s narrator, fails to become an essential American. The book itself performs a kind of failure. Sal meets Dean Moriarty just after his marriage has fallen apart. His New York intellectual friends bore him with their “negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced society eager for bread and love; he didn’t care one way or the other” (8). Moriarty’s appeal initially comes to Sal as a kind of feigned or even anti-intellectualism from just as keen a mind as his New York friends. This is what makes Sal take his initial trip out west beginning his life “on the road,” because “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line I knew the pearl would be handed to me.” But the novel ends with Sal reluctantly off to a bourgeois concert with New York friends and Dean romantically off west again.

Kerouac’s personal goals for his work also perform a kind of spiritual failure. Ann Charters has noted that

Kerouac was never able to convince his critics that the Beat Generation was ‘basically a religious generation,’ but his friend [John Clellon] Holmes understood that the characters of On the Road were actually ‘on a quest, and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. (xxix)

It was for Holmes an inward turn despite the outward-ness of the traveling. Even so, Sal and Dean never succeed in finding Dean’s absent father, and by the end Kerouac rests in the cold comfort that “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old” (307). It is deeply Romantic, but more than being optimistic, it is a performance of failure.

Kerouac’s aspirations to mysticism accompany an abdication of the responsibility of privilege. The romantic “holiness” of the artist privileges the self while sacrificing the self’s power. Who it “others” may never have asked for the blood of the self-sacrificing artist. Nevertheless, the sacrifice is there – the blood of privilege that destroys itself in its last attempt to maintain control. But like any such violent act, the demonstration is itself the demonstration of powerlessness. Viv, like the Dean Moriarty at the end of On the Road, simply disappears into the distance.

The difference between On the Road and Sometimes a Great Notion, however,is poignantly revealed in narrative comparison. In the latter, the reader has more freedom to travel with Viv or to recede from the book. A certain “naivety” accompanies the Beat, embedded in the knowing-non-acknowledgment of modernism’s failure, because the enthusiasm of the spiritual quest remains genuine. The Beat believes in his holiness, but the move to self-sacrifice for the sake of holiness is larger than any individual decision to self-sacrifice. The decision to perform sacrifice itself arises from the cultural reconfiguration of power and privilege. Although Kerouac’s narrator is not emasculated in the same way Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert, Kesey’s McMurphy, and Pynchon’s Slothrop are, Sal Paradise can do nothing but go to a boring concert and think of the layered poetic figure of desire that Dean Moriarty has become – a tragic return to one-dimensionality. What keeps Kerouac’s On the Road from really displaying psychedelic aesthetics then, is its fetishization of failure – (he even later came to perform this very failure in his own life). Psychedelic aesthetics, on the other hand, track a certain masculinity that must die and be mythologically disseminated and reborn, but On the Road glorifies its own failure.

However, certainly if anyone bought into the glorification of this failure it was Kerouac’s readers and the emerging displaced affluent youth who had nowhere to turn in a utopic society overcome by its own anxiety, to put it in Lary May’s terms. And Kesey was an avid consumer of Kerouac. Becoming involved at one level requires an act of will and at another level an overcoming of that will. Groups like the Merry Pranksters sought to overcome the will through affective means, but they certainly weren’t the only group to do so. John Gruen, in The New Bohemia (1966) referred to this produced culture as “combine culture”: “The true emblem of this New Bohemia,” he says, “is action – physical, mental, emotional.” He contrasts these youth with Jack Kerouac and the beats in terms of mobility:

[The combine generation’s] highway leads not so much through the Whitmanian wonderment of these United States, as through the currently more relevant Whitmanian social awareness of the development of comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man. (9)

Mobility, process, means over ends, but also means overcoming themselves: these characteristics are present in psychedelic aesthetics, as well as a transcending of geographical place, accomplishing a more hazy distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘world.’ Artifice here ceases to be alienated from nature and instead presents as ‘organic’. As Bob Dylan sings, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” but the weathermen’s terrorism is merely the performance of a return to a pre-political state of nature. There is nothing necessarily in the return to the state of nature that means it must be non-violent. Thomas Hobbes would perhaps laugh and shrug, but he would also be deeply concerned with the complete lack of controlled meaning through associative aesthetics.

If the narrative of the trip itself becomes allegorical, a kind of pilgrimage, the story of the psychedelic experience in many ways can be superimposed onto Sal Paradise. What began as guided trips in the “overly intellectual” east coast psychology became a free for all on the west coast. As Tom Wolfe tells it, the entire trip the Merry Pranksters began with the assumption that they were all already crazy: “The trip, in fact the whole deal, was a risk-all balls-out plunge into the unknown, and it was assumed merely that more and more of what was already inside a person would come out and expand, gloriously or otherwise” (87). Kesey’s prankster was an updated form of Leland the hipster from Sometimes a Great Notion, so familiar with the symptoms of madness, he could not do anything to escape it. In such a situation one might as well recognize the entire metaphysical situation as a game. Once this is recognized, it all becomes performance. The existing social structures in America became the stage for this performance:

Pranksters were out among them, and the citizens of the land were gawking and struggling to summon up the proper emotion for this – what in the name of God are the ninnies doing. But the opposite was happening, too. On those long stretches of American superhighway between performances the bus was like a pressure cooker, a crucible, like one of those chambers in which the early atomic scientists used to compress heavy water, drive the molecules closer and closer together until the very atoms exploded. On the bus all traces of freakiness or competition or bitterness were intensified. (Wolfe 88)


Fiction becomes reality in psychedelic aesthetics.



[1] Both film versions of these novels ignore the dramatic situation implied by the storyteller, hence they miss the point of the transfer of power present in Kesey’s work and a larger thrust in his critique of modern subjectivity.


This Sunday at Deer Pile: Psychedelic Aesthetics, Literature, and Liberal Crises – Lecture 4

June 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

We will be building on previous lectures by discussing Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. We will discuss psychedelic aesthetics in the context of twentieth century attempts to overcome history. This clip from Apocalypse Now – based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – exemplifies an aestheticization of the European Imaginary’s fascination with primitivism as a critique of the European Enlightenment rationality. See previous lectures below. All are welcome, even if you have not had a chance to do the reading.

Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 3: Aldous Huxley and the Questions of Modernity June 22, 2014

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs’s yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run. To understand how this is so, we must first consider some theoretical issues concerning the nature of historical change.

 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” (1989)



In previous lectures, I have bounced around historically with the foundations of liberalism and its relationship to religion, modern subjectivity, and aesthetics. I have made the broad claim that one cannot understand psychedelic aesthetics without understanding these roots. I contrasted the temporality of Romantic aesthetics and their tendency toward paganism as a critique of Christian temporality, which is based on a second coming or parousia. I invoked the medieval concept of the King’s Two Bodies as a way to introduce the notion of sovereignty. While sovereignty certainly works differently in constitutional democracies like the United States, these concepts at the roots of liberalism will help us discursively when talking about liberal crises, which, as I argued in lecture one, tend to erupt increasingly in the 21st century.

Last week, we looked at texts from Baudelaire and Nietzsche. In particular, Nietzsche had tried to overcome the hold of Romanticism by reading the birth of Greek Tragedy not as heralding a new Golden Age, but as the dusk of better days. Nietzsche sees Apollonian form as emerging from the earlier Dionysian ek-static, which is similar to Freud’s unconscious. Dreams, Nietzche says, produce figures and those figures themselves are the Apollonian. Both forces exist in nature before they are apprehended by humans, and for that reason all human art remains essentially mimetic for Nietzsche. In his praising of the Dionysian, however, he inadvertently performs a kind of modern nostalgia. As Nietzsche himself points out in his “attempt at self criticism,” he was not able to transcend Romantic aesthetics in The Birth of Tragedy; he merely exacerbated them with a more radical nostalgia. I have presented nostalgia as indicative of a modern condition where an increasing emphasis is placed on the idea of an individual person or “subject” as a bearer of rights. This idea is fundamental to emerging liberalism as an economic system and to the European imaginary’s fascination with the concept of freedom.

Romanticism, I argued, arises as a critique of this European imaginary insofar as it embraces nostalgia. This move relies on the tendency of the European imaginary to situate humans developmentally: first by way of cultural binding and religion and then by way of science (Darwin) and technology (Industrial Revolution). The Industrial Revolution was accompanied by increasing wealth and middle classes in the western world that helped produce a sense of progress. Max Weber’s 1905 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argues in its 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, not with a precise definition of “spirit,” but by 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.

Building from a long tradition of German historical and philosophical thought, the twentieth century saw numerous political attempts to fulfill the “end” of history. Hegel had argued through his Master-Slave dialectic that history moved toward something that looked like providence. We are well aware in the United States of the term Manifest Destiny, but Hegel’s student, Karl Marx, built on Hegel’s the emphasis on historical materialism, famously saying in the Communist Manifesto that all history is a history of class struggle and predicting that capitalism would lead to first a great accumulation of wealth and then to a revolution that toppled oppressive authority. While narratives of 20th century communism often end with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s Soviet Union in the early 1990s, we saw with The Coming Insurrection in week one that Marxist rhetorical is still in use to predict the future. Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche worked to produce a hermeneutics of suspicion, which amount to non-theological accounts of invisible forces that shape social reality – historical materialism, the unconscious, and the Uber mensch or “Overman” or “Superman.”   Attempts to overcome history in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century were one of the root causes of the most devastating massacres of the twentieth century. We are all familiar with scenes of Nazis burning books, their importation of American eugenics, the transplantation of Nazi scientists to the United States to continue scientific experimentation on unwitting American subjects in the newly formed C.I.A.’s Project MK-ULTRA and the burgeoning space program after WWII. We can see in even popular depictions of the 1950s an attempt to construct a sense of normalcy and to weed-out and pathologies of the abnormal with psychoanalysis. This is the stage for the psychedelic movement.

Aldous Huxley, I will argue, is perhaps the grand theorist for the psychedelic movement, and there are numerous situations in which Huxley seems to causally shape history. This is true especially in his influence on Timothy Leary’s adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead reformulated as a manual for self-discovery in The Psychedelic Experience. Scholars have too easily write off Huxley’s influences because there is not enough serious attention given to aesthetics. He is read as a “science-fiction” author and public intellectual. In the United States, Brave New World is often assigned as high-school reading material, thus shaping a population that regards the writer’s work as immature (if they read him at all, it is likely when they themselves were immature). Occasionally scholars have written concerning bio-politics and Brave New World, but with no account of his later psychedelic work. He is thus often regarded as an “armchair” intellectual from a simpler time when being a generalist was acceptable. In literary study, Huxley has been artistically outshined by his high-modernist peers like Eliot and Joyce, whose attention to language and philology Huxley satirized as archaic and limited. As an attempt to rethink Huxley’s influence, I cast him as not only a theorist of the psychedelic but as a political theologian.

My focus on Huxley aim here will be to show a writer whose work reveals an inter-textual reworking and development of a social philosopher who built his theories, not through armchair speculation, but through truly erudite readings of European and Asian religious and political histories. If his later work is written off as too contrived or merely as “self-help,” it is because his audience lacks the scope worthy of seeing what research he based his opinions on. Huxley is ahead of the discussion with regard to Political Theology and a re-imagination of Enlightenment subjectivity, the same way he was ahead of the game with regard to the notion of human standardization and pharmaceutically-enhanced social-norming and bio-politics in Brave New World. It should go without saying that theories are distorted and must be rethought in practice. Huxley’s theories, like those of his contemporaries such as Herbert Marcuse and predecessors such as Nietzsche – were not necessarily understood by the people they influenced.

It was in a letter in 1957 to Aldous Huxley that the term “psychedelic” was first coined by Humphry Osmond. Following Huxley’s own positive experiences with the Vedantic society and his personal experimentation with drugs, first with mescaline and later with LSD 25, which provided the grounds for The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), Huxley came to see the potential social benefits of drug-use for intentionally expanding consciousness. In their correspondence, Huxley and Osmond tried to find a less pejorative name than the term “psychotomimetic” for the drugs, implying an artificial production of a state of psychosis. This term largely derived from the development of psychoactive drug research into finding a “truth serum” to use on enemy soldiers during World War II in concert with the Office of Strategic Services, which after the war became the CIA. The central theory of psychotomimetic drugs was established in a paper by Dr. Paul Hoch, which “reported that the symptoms produced by LSD, mescaline and related drugs were similar to those of schizophrenia: intensity of color perception, hallucinations, depersonalization, intense anxiety, paranoia, and in some cases catatonic manifestations” (Lee and Shlain 20). Just a year before The Doors of Perception was published, “Allen Dulles, director of CIA, lectured at Princeton that the Soviets had started a ‘sinister’ battle for “men’s minds.” To deal with the problem in the emerging Cold War, Dulles authorized MK-ULTRA, (although it was Richard Helms’s idea) (27). MK-ULTRA became the umbrella project that provided funding for widespread behavioral modification research, often involving unwitting subjects (and sometimes unwitting researchers), surreptitiously tested on all demographics of United States citizens. One cannot explore the psychedelic without excursions into State bio-politics, both at the philosophical and material-historical level.

The term “psychotomimetic” aligns with the research development goals for the State. The CIA was so paranoid about the Soviets developing mind-control techniques before the United States that it “authorized the purchase of 10 kilos of LSD in 1953 for $240,000 from Sandoz Laboratories because ‘a CIA contact in Switzerland mistook a kilogram for a milligram’” (24). Despite the hilarious mistake which probably had a significant role in production and distribution of LSD 25, this reveals CIA’s interest in keeping the drug in their control, which of course did not work. Huxley and Osmond had different research goals.

Although Huxley’s Brave New World had presented a dark view of a drug-induced society in the early 1930s, a view that seems to be explored implicitly by MK-ULTRA, Huxley had changed his mind about the drugs’ potential for social liberation by the early 1950s, as one can read in his 1958 essay “Brave New World Revisited.” Even so, Huxley’s characteristically sardonic take on consumerism remained intact throughout both periods. For example, employing his propaganda slogans made famous in Brave New World in the 1930s, Huxley suggested to Osmond the verb ‘phaneroein’ “to make the visible manifest” compounded with “thymos” for soul as a replacement for psychotomimetic (Moksha 107). Huxley ends his letter: “Phanerothyme – substantive. Phanerothymic – adjective. To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gramme of phanerothyme.” Eventually, Huxley and Osmond settled on “psychedelic,” literally mind-manifesting, as a replacement. And while psychedelic was a less pejorative term, Huxley’s rhetorical agenda was also based on his aesthetic sensibilities.

Huxley saw his role as a “literary man” (he had wanted to become a doctor but his problems with his eyesight prevented it) as being able to keep scientific specialists aware of the ethical concerns surrounding their work. While the bioethical concerns are clear in Brave New World, he also lectured heavily at conferences on psychology and parapsychology, as well as at the Vedanta Center. Ultimately, Huxley believed that giving public access to psychedelics with entheogenic properties could help bring in a new stage of human civilization by giving people the opportunity control their own minds. In this, Huxley is the premiere theorist of psychedelic experience and its political-theological ramifications.

Huxley built his agenda out of scientific, philosophical and psychological thought current at the time. In 1953, trying to obtain the mescaline with which he planned to experiment on himself, Huxley wrote to Osmond:

It looks as though the most satisfactory working hypothesis about the human mind must follow, to some extent, the Bergsonian model, in which the brain with its associated normal self, acts as a utilitarian device for limiting, and making selections from, the enormous possible world of consciousness, and for canalizing experience into biologically profitable channels. Disease, mescaline, emotional shock, aesthetic experience and mystical enlightenment have the power, each in its different way to varying degrees, to inhibit the functions of the normal self and its ordinary brain activity, thus permitting the “other world” to rise to consciousness. The basic problem of education is, How to make the best of both worlds – the world of biological utility and common sense, and the world of unlimited experience underlying. I suspect that the complete solution to the problem can only come to those who have learned to establish themselves in the third and ultimate world of ‘the spirit’, the world which subtends and interpenetrates both of the other worlds. (Moksha 29-30)

Huxley presents a good glimpse at his metaphysics here. Humans, by the nature of their limited consciousness, have limited access to reality. Through a myriad of ways, both good and bad, the limits can be expanded, at least temporarily. However, what is “outside” the limit is not necessarily “more real” than the inside. The “other world” in this passage seems to account for both the physical world and the unconscious. The “ultimate world of ‘the spirit’ fuses both. Optimistically, humans can learn “to establish themselves” in this world. This, it seems, would require a certain degree of self-control, however. One must consider this view of spirit in tandem with the cosmology presented in The Perennial Philosophy.

Huxley’s letter goes on to lament the poor state of learning in the world and especially the United States, where Huxley believes education destroys “openness to inspiration” outside of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue “which constitutes the conventionally ‘real’ world” (Moksha 30). In order for human society to progress in such a state, Huxley believes that people’s minds must be opened, even if by artificial means. Although it was a decade before Herbert Marcuse would publish One Dimensional Man, Huxley, one might say that Huxley thought of drugs as a potential way out of one-dimensional society. He goes on:

In such a system of education it may be that mescaline or some other chemical substance may play a part by making it possible for young people to ‘taste and see’ what they have learned about at second hand, or directly at a lower level of intensity, in the writings of the religious, or the works of poets, painters, or musicians. (Moksha 30)

Young people, students, are particularly situated to benefit from drug use here, but they benefit from aesthetic enhancement that helps them better understand art. For Huxley, consciousness may be expanded both intentionally and unintentionally, internally through self-reflection and externally through drugs, but not to infinity and not for long periods of time. Consciousness is a non-static form, but it is still a form, and the process of limiting it is necessary to survival. Embodiment is necessity because form coincides with the ability to perceive form. A theory of psychedelic experience begins to take shape proceeding from the notion that consciousness is dynamic and expandable, but at the same time a limiting shape of consciousness heuristically establishes itself. It is not necessarily through the willed-act of the individual that consciousness takes shape – that seems to be a ‘natural’ ordering property of the brain – but the will can have an affect on the size and shape of consciousness.

Although Huxley seems optimistic about the will and self-determination in relation to consciousness, he is simultaneously deeply critical of subjectivity. One of the benefits of drugs is the ability to transcend selfish solipsism. In 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. Like many other thinkers at the time, 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 echoing William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience here, in which James argues that

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).   As his burgeoning theory suggests, Huxley’s concerns rest on an evolutionary anthropology in which humans move toward “spirit” as the realm into which an individual may situate him or herself to find a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, where objectivity includes both the physical world and the latent unconscious.   This accounts for Huxley’s interest both in physical science and the paranormal, and he was not alone in this interest.

Although more sinister in both agenda and execution of their agenda, CIA was also experimenting across the board during the 1950s, and it was keeping tabs on Huxley too. Admiral Stansfield Turner’s (then Director of CIA) testimony before the Senate Subcommittees on Intelligence, Health, and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources explaining project MK-ULTRA, Turner mentions research on hypnosis, as well as

aspects of magicians’ art useful in covert operations . . . developing, testing, and maintaining biological agents for use against humans as well as against animals and crops . . . electro-shock, harassment techniques for offensive use, analysis of extrasensory perception, and four subprojects involving crop and material sabatoge. (Project MKULTRA 11-12).

CIA was interested in enchantment at all levels. The paranoia was so great that the American government was willing to transplant and hire many Nazi scientists to break the Nuremberg Treaty it helped set up that prohibited testing on human subjects without consent.

The surreptitious testing by CIA had a direct impact on the dissemination of psychedelic drugs in the three largest artistic centers in the United States during the 1950s: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Lee and Schlain note in Acid Dreams:

George Hunter White “rented an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, and, with funds supplied by the CIA he transformed it into a safehouse complete with two-way mirrors, surveillance equipment and the like. Posing as an artist and a seaman, White lured people back to his pad and slipped them drugs.” Transferred to San Francisco in 1955, White opened two more safehouses and initiated project Midnight Climax, where drug-addicted prostitutes were given $100 a night to bring johns back, have sex with them and drug them while CIA agents secretly observed. (32-33)

There is simply no way to extract the cultural aesthetic developing out of the use of psychedelics from the CIA’s involvement in disseminating and testing the drugs. Science, the paranormal and magician’s art were all areas of exploring enchantment. Further, one cannot extract these scientific and aesthetic studies from Huxley’s inherently political-theological critique of the State from his interest in Vedanta. Huxley himself was being watched by the C.I.A.

In CIA research, agents were at times dosed with drugs so that they could be aware of the effects if captured by an enemy. In addition to testing the effects of drugs on people without their knowing, it was a practice among CIA agents in competing projects within the agency – all of which ultimately came to fall under the MK-ULTRA umbrella – to surreptitiously drug each other. Agents were expected to develop knowledge of the symptoms of having been drugged so they could recognize the symptoms early on and hopefully avoid giving over information to enemies. Some agents, such as Captain Al Hubbard, the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD,” had mystical experiences.

Recent scholarly work in Political Theology has opened a discursive frame for receiving Huxley – and literature in general – in new ways. Scholarship that does connect the political-theological overtones in Huxley’s work instead tends to focus on his more well-known fiction books like Brave New World. For example, Peter Manly Scott in Future Perfect? God, Medicine and Humanity connects Agamben’s Homo Sacer to Brave New World (77) but neglects to account for the ways Huxley updated the ideas in Brave New World in his last novel, Island. Similarly, according to David William Martinez, “The Placeless in No Place: The Deconstructive Identity of Homo Sacer in Brave New World.” Both works point to the importance Huxley had on discussions of biopolitics, but there is less direct discussion about his emerging spirituality that informed his later work. Having explored the implications of psychedelic aesthetics for citizenship in my previous chapter, we can now work backwards into Huxley’s large body of works to explore political-theological questions.

In Neuropsychedelia, Nicolas Langlitznotes that important members of George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, the physician Leon Kass and the political economist Francis Fukuyama, “emphasized the analogies between this historical diagnosis and the dystopian future envisaged in Huxley’s Brave New World” (Kindle Locations 147-150). Langlitz writes of the “peculiarities” of their reading of Huxley within a frame critiquing technological and scientific advances over the religious view that, especially with the developments in anti-depressants over the last half-century, further alienated “modern man” from the conditions of “being.” This leads them to follow philosopher Michael Sandel’s advocating for

the development of a “religious sensibility” resonating “beyond religion” and acknowledging the giftedness of life. “Respect for a being created in God’s image means respecting everything about him, not just his freedom or his reason but also his blood,” Kass . . . wrote. Any attempt to overcome the limits and burdens imposed on the individual by God or nature was supposed to entail a loss of humanity and human dignity. Human nature was to be protected against its biotechnological transgression and deformation. (in Langlitz Kindle Locations 165-169)

Langlitz correctly points out that both Kass and Fukuyama have neglected to account for Huxley’s final novel, Island. Kass and Fukuyama are plain evidence that literary interpretation, wrong or right, has direct political consequences. Kass, Fukuyama, and Sandel believe that a critique of modernity’s extreme alienation of humans from nature should entail a return to the pre-modern of religious enchantment. In this view, neo-conservatives erringly locate their return to a version of transcendent, state-based religion, rather than going back to the anthropological foundations of religion. A return to the perennial, in other words, is not a chance to time travel where you can pick and choose the moment of human history you nostalgically long for to determine the value of human life. What they are correct about, however, is the undeniability of religious enchantment in the post-secular world. A fuller look at Huxley as psychedelic theorist and political theologian helps qualify these views.

Huxley’s scope was wide indeed, and his knowledge of continental and English political history was deep. He constantly presents tongue-in-cheek observations. As early as 1930, in a slight nod to Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” Huxley writes in The Evening Standard:

Human standardisation will become a political necessity . . . ‘Advanced’ people propose that the family system should be abolished altogether and that the professional educator, paid by the State, should take control from earliest infancy. Indeed, this view threatens to become the orthodoxy of the modern democratic State. (“Babies – State Property” 49)

During the mid 1930s, he also predicts serious environmental concerns and wryly mentions a coming “generation war” due to the necessity to embrace new kinds of socialism (“The Next 25 Years” 174). Despite political ramifications, however, Huxley has been received as “anti-political.” In his introduction to a 2012 edition of Ends and Means, sociologist Howard Schneiderman’s descriptions of Huxley’s work on pacifism are particularly backhanded:

Huxley seems to define pacifism either in terms of what it is not, or in terms of what it stands against. Thus, pacifism is not politics, indeed it is anti-politics; it is not nationalism; it is obviously not militarism; it is not imperialism; and it is not about competing for international prestige, wealth and power. On the contrary, Huxley’s pacifism is about brotherly love, reform, peace, cooperation, social justice, and more than less it is about socialism and a leavening of wealth and power. In a word, it is anti-political. It is also, at least in large part, anti-sociological. (Ends and Means xvii)

Schneiderman even goes on to compare Huxley to Max Weber with respect to Huxley calling twentieth-century politics “primitive”: “We might well take this as the utopian atavism of an otherwise brilliant and progressive mind at work. Weber was undoubtedly the more clear-minded and realistic thinker about politics” (xviii). This is because, “the state determines the nature of politics, and for Weber, the state is defined by its aims, which differ from state to state, but always by the means specific to it, namely physical force” (xviii). Schneiderman points George Orwell’s claim against Huxley during the Second World War that “Pacifism is objectively fascist” (xxi). Despite Huxley’s ability to “arouse interest” among current “social scientist intellectuals,” Schneiderman’s indictment of Huxley is clear: “the fact that [Huxley] extolled the virtues of pacifism, in spite of its consequences for the Jews, shows his utopian thinking as an ethic of conviction that is morally and politically distasteful” (xxii). Huxley’s pacifism thus continues to be characterized as anti-political and irresponsible today. Schneiderman has nothing to say about Huxley and religion with reference to his apparent moral vacancy, nor does he have anything to say about the much more politically exigent place that international and even supra-national politics and economic forces have in 2012. If we look at Huxley as a perhaps unwitting political-theologian, citing his influence on psychedelic aesthetics as evidence of real political action, Huxley appears as anything but atavistic. However, this requires a much broader reading of Huxley’s vast amount of work.

Besides Huxley’s overtly political non-fiction, it is important to focus on how Huxley’s fiction, and literature in general, might contribute to discussions concerning Political Theology. In a recent paper by William M. Curtis on Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island,Curtis argues that it should be read alongside Brave New World, the bookRichard Rorty has referred to as “the best introduction to political philosophy” (in Curtis 91). Rorty, as Curtis discusses, is interested in an idea of liberal utopia as “an imaginative extension of our best liberal democratic ideals” where malleability of human nature maintains a kind of optimism. Huxley’s work presents and critiques such utopias.

When we look at Huxley’s politics and their influence on the psychedelic movement, a different conception emerges. The work of Aldous Huxley presents one example of the politically useful nature of literature – an underlying social value of art that psychedelic aesthetics inherit – but this requires that we read Huxley as literature and not merely as philosophy coded in the literary, which is how he is often read, especially in reductive readings of Brave New World. It is necessary to conceive of “the literary” as a discursive space where simultaneous meaning provides an economic way to communicate. Literary trends in the United States over the past fifty years emphasized an intense relationship to the performance of language to convey the dynamic nature of philosophical ideas. This linguistic focus is an extreme pushing of a kind of high-modernism, present in a writer like James Joyce, who Huxley says, “seemed to think words were omnipotent” and had “a magic view of words” (“Huxley Interviewed: Part 1”[1]). Such a linguistic approach is itself indicative of a trend toward material immanence, but Huxley has an altogether different conception of literature. As a writer, Huxley theorizes through the hypothetical space of the literary. He employs many qualities of psychedelic aesthetics, but unlike later psychedelic literature he does not overtly point out the performance of them. Because of this his language is more austere and less radical, which, in the post psychedelic, poststructural world has made him seem less interesting and even snobbish as a writer.

Rather than relying on extraordinary uses of language, Huxley tells one interviewer with his characteristic anaphora:

What interests me in writing, in expression, in thought, is the attempt to coordinate different fields; the attempt to say many things at the same time; the attempt to bring together in a single and coherent meaningful whole a great many disparate events and data. (“Huxley Interviewed”)

Huxley’s works cannot be summed-up as merely thinly disguised philosophical dialogues because of his layering techniques, and if one removes his literary qualities, one misses many of his points. Huxley should rather be read allegorically because his sense of the literary is bound with the idea of figural blending of characters, plot and theme with genre, themes and historical context. While he claims to be uninterested in “bare, bald classical style” which he regards as too simple, for him art should impose “order on a complex number of formal, literary, and emotional elements in the widest sense.” Unsurprisingly then, Huxley regarded New Criticism as “boring,” “trivial,” and “barren,” claiming “elaborate linguistic work is probably useful but to regard it as the be all and end all of criticism seems to me absolutely absurd.” As opposed to scientific, legal, and political language – the kind of fixed meaning Thomas Hobbes longs for in the early chapters of Leviathan – Huxley uses straightforward language to communicate through complex arrays of characters and ideas, performing a kind of “practical mysticism.” He associates elaborate philological attempts with nineteenth-century aesthetics. Yet Huxley’s approach seems both pragmatically useful and allegorically rich. He, like Spinoza, writes simultaneously for philosophers and the vulgar. In Eyeless in Gaza, the character Anthony Beavis claims:

Man, according to Blake (and, after him, according to Proust, according to Lawrence), is simply a succession of states. Good and evil can be predicted only of states, not of individuals, who in fact don’t exist, except as the places where the states occur. It is the end of personality in the old sense of the word. (Parenthetically – for this is quite outside the domain of sociology – is it the beginning of a new type of personality? That of the total man, unbowdlerized, unselected, uncanalized, to change the metaphor, down any one particular drain pipe of Weltenschauung – of the man, in a word, who actually is what he may be. Such a man is the antithesis of any of the variants on the fundamental Christian man of our history. And yet in a certain sense he is also the realization of that ideal personality conceived by the Jesus of the Gospel. (107)

Huxley’s work ought also to be read as a succession of states.

In Brave New World, written just a few years before Eyeless, lacks this emergent intentional behavior modification. Brave New World describes a future where the happiness of civilization is controlled by ingesting soma, the fictional drug that 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 choosing to be banished 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 anaesthetized by soma. The World State determines and maintains moral authority, yet banishment is certainly not death.

Soma ingestion in Brave New World, says Huxley, performs an inversion of 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. Yet Soma also marks Huxley’s use of mythological figuring in his texts, because soma comes from his studying of Sanskrit and The Rig Veda. Operating like the figure of Polycrates in Heodotus to link historical and mystical time, the reference to soma signifies a return to ancients’ religious ritual in society’s future. This perennial state unites east and west while overcoming history. The darkness of Brave New World comes more from the unification of religion and technology in “Fordism” as a blend of totalitarianism and state religion. The social ingestion of the drug makes soma the sacrament of the World State.

While this imagined future is scary for liberalism, it is as much a critique of liberalism as it is totalitarianism. Huxley’s use of soma somewhat ironically creates the space later mythological scholars explore unity beyond nation-states altogether – a unity that does not work with a notion like a ‘world state.’ Later scholarship in mythology and ethnobotany, as we shall see, develops through an awareness of the structure of ritual sacrifice that informs the study of Greek culture. But it often also continues to try to fulfill a kind of European Universalism, an end to history. In order to understand how this works, in the following lectures I will trace (insofar as possible) the concept of soma as it enters Greek and ultimately “western” culture.  Do these Fukuyama’s words from the fall of the Iron curtain still ring try in 2014? Is there yet a third way, like the one Huxley later said he would give John Savage if he could write the book again?

But the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: no to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.





[1] The documentation of this source is flawed on YouTube. It is not Watts interviewing Huxley. I cite is because it is electronically available, easily accessible and clearly Huxley himself speaking.


Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 2: Liberalism, Subjectivity, and Romanticism

June 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Up to this point, we have considered the Apollonian and its opposite, the Dionysian, as artistic forces which break forth out of nature itself, without the mediation of the human artist and in which the human artistic drive is for the time being satisfied directly—on the one hand as a world of dream images, whose perfection has no connection with an individual’s high level of intellect or artistic education, on the other hand, as the intoxicating reality, which once again does not respect the individual, but even seeks to abolish the individual and to restore him through a mystic feeling of collective unity. In comparison to these unmediated artistic states of nature, every artist is an “Imitator,” and, in fact, an artist either of Apollonian dream or Dionysian intoxication or, finally, as in Greek tragedy, for example, simultaneously an artist of intoxication and dreams. As the last, it is possible for us to imagine how he sinks down in the Dionysian drunkenness and mystical obliteration of the self, alone and apart from the rapturous throng, and how through the Apollonian effects of dream his own state now reveals itself to him, that is, his unity with the innermost basis of the world, in a metaphorical dream picture.

 –       Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Spirit of Music

In the 21st century, most of us are not so concerned that being more in touch with nature invokes the eve of destruction, but this must be seen as prevailing romantic values that critiqued European modernity and the idea of civilization. Romanticism binds us in ways we are often unaware of, and even Nietzsche in his attempt at self-critique, written 15 years after The Birth of Tragedy realized he was affirming rather than escaping a dialectic of Romanticism.  Freedom in this context becomes not just the negative freedom from oppression but the positive freedom to thrive, and couched within that is the preservation of liberal subjectivity. Freedom itself relies on and affirms some notion of subjectivity. Insofar as Romanticism critiqued earlier forms of subjectivity and citizenship by an intentional return to nature, they established an aesthetic tradition In the great western political thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau – humans are born “in a state of nature.” Civilization, especially for Rousseau, corrupts this initially innocent state, and in Emile: Treatise on Education, Rousseau suggests that the best way to raise a child is to allow him or her “to experience,” not just haphazardly but through the tutor’s unseen hand setting up learning situations. In this fantasy structure, women and children are inherently closer to nature, more innocent, and less capable of rational decision-making, while men are more corrupted by the evils of civilization and the manufacturing of morality and justice. Any desire for a man to return to a state of nature is an inherent critique of civilization, to become childish and effeminate.

In the post 1950s era, scientific rationality and expertise came to be scrutinized for its cold, instrumental reason. This, along with media inventions and increasing globalization (though that’s not what it was called at the time) created a venue for the radicalization of already existing critiques of liberalism. It is sometimes difficult to remember that Romanticism informs both 19th century Nationalism as well as Art Pour L’Art, and that 20th century critics like the Marxist critic, Walter Benjamin, associate art for art’s sake with futurism, fascism, and the very “aestheticization of politics.”

My aim today is to highlight the connections between liberalism, romanticism, and what I will be calling “the European Imaginary” as it relates to subjectivity and citizenship because psychedelic aesthetics seek to transcend the moral authority of the nation state by expanding the subject’s ego to a point of indistinction between subjects and objects. Such an experience attempts to effect upon the return of the subject beyond such an expansion a moral authority over the liberal nation state. Psychedelic aesthetics often take citizenship as their subject matter. But in order to understand psychedelic aesthetics, one must first understand the idea of subjectivity as it is derived from the European Imaginary. In this imaginary a subject or citizen becomes both identified as a bearer of “rights” and subjected to the rule of law. While the idea of the subject in the European Imaginary must inevitably include Greece and Rome, whenever we think of these grand terms like “liberalism” and “freedom,” we also need to ask ourselves over and over, “liberated from what?” or “Free from what?” The standard, secularist, narrative would claim a freedom from the imposed moral authority of the medieval Catholic church. But such unexamined secularist narratives have distorted our contemporary notions of these concepts in way that obfuscate a deeper historical understanding.

I have contended in an earlier lecture that one cannot properly understand psychedelic aesthetics or much of what happened in the liberal west during the 1960s without some knowledge of the ways major thinkers in the earlier parts of the twentieth century looked to late Medieval and Early Modern texts in order to make sense of current liberal crises. Many important continental thinkers of the twentieth century such as Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, and less discussed, Aldous Huxley all looked to the early modern foundations of liberalism to make sense of liberal crises in their day. Many of these thinkers and their gifted students came to the United States to teach from the 1930s onward and directly effected the psychedelic movement. The direct effects of such thinkers on the psychedelic movement, I will argue, has to do with the way they imagined history; so when I refer to them historically, it is not always an objective historical narrative I am interested in. This is difficult work because it bridges different period specialties among academics. While well-intentioned, academic specializations can at times have de-historicizing effects when it comes to studying the ways important thinkers read earlier thinkers, and it is partly to help address that gap that fuels my work here. We simply don’t experience aesthetic works according to academic disciplines.

The theme of dehistoricization is also particularly important to the 1960s and today. A former professor of mine, the religious studies theorist Carl Raschke, who is veteran of Berkeley in the late sixties, discusses dehistoricization in popular society in his scathing critique of post 1960s New Age Gnosticism and spirituality, The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness. As Raschke argues,gnosticism, or claims to occult and secret knowledge had for a long time worked well with American liberalism, but what changed in the middle of the twentieth century during the postwar years was a generation that had to “come to terms with apocalyptic monsters” (207). The threat of nuclear annihilation, combined with an already limited sense of history, helped to create the “now generation.” The “spiritual” turn of the Beat Generation, with its fascination with its own formulations of Eastern religion, can often look like merely a hodge-podge of hedonistic impulses directing a eudaimonia of the moment. While Raschke’s book is ultimately a warning against the de-historicizing inherent in Gnosticism, my theory of psychedelic aesthetics attempts to take such critiques into account while also providing a more in-depth tracing of the European thinking about subjectivity itself that led up to the ‘psychedelic movement.’ In order to do this we must look at some of the early political-theological foundations of liberalism as well the aesthetics of the Romantic Movement.


In Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), the text so applauded by Charles Baudelaire in Les Paradis artificial (Artificial Paradises) and celebrated as the beginning of what some people call “addiction literature,” De Quincey constructs a powerful, mercurial image in his description of the first druggist to sell him opium:


In spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself. And it confirms me in this way of considering him, that, when I next came to up to London, I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not: and thus to me, who knew not his name (if indeed he had one) he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford-street than to have removed in bodily fashion. The reader may choose to think of him as, possibly, no more than a sublunary druggist: it may be so: but my faith is better: I believe him to have evanesced, or evaporated. (40)


A curious note follows on the word “evanesced.” De Quincey remarks on it being a phenomenon known in the 17th century apparently associated with how people of royal birth leave this world. In particular, as his editor, Barry Milligan, points out, De Quincey misquotes a line of the poet Thomas Flatman on the death of Charles II of England: “Kings should disdain to die, and only disappear.” De Quincey rephrases, “They should abscond, that is, into the other world.”

The Latin etymology of abscondere – meaning ‘to hide,’ but literally ‘to stow away’ – would not likely have been lost on De Quincey, who was an exceptional language scholar; and there appears to be some liberal play of wit in his revision of Flatman, the royalist who wrote that princes “should be free / From Death’s Unbounded Tyranny, / And when their Godlike Race is run, / And nothing glorious left undone, / Never submit to Fate, but only disappear.” In contrast to evanescing royalty, Flatman wrote of more mundane departure in “The Sad Day”:

But — when his next companions say 

‘How does he do? What hopes?’ — shall turn away, 

Answering only, with a lift-up hand– 

‘Who can his fate withstand?’ 


Then shall a gasp or two do more 

Than e’er my rhetoric could before: 

Persuade the world to trouble me no more!

The contrast makes clear that, for Flatman’s speaker, the indecorous death of kings and princes ought to evanesce as a way of forestalling death and “never submit to fate.” The king is thus to maintain immortal qualities, and perhaps even without successors the people would await him like a sort of Arthurian and Christian parousia or second-coming. This is not only the emerging of Gothic fascination with mortality or remnants of plague aesthetics that gives death its central theme in this literature, for in the 17th century the massive devastation in Europe and England was fabricated by the political-theological work of men. To die was increasingly to die as a subject and a citizen. Flatman’s poetry is thus more than a reflection on mortality; it also works to legitimize the properly unheroic death of the located subject. In contrast to Romantics like De Quincey, Flatman’s is a conservative poetry that knows its place.

The idea of the immortal king in this era is more complicated, however, because it is at once tinged with a peculiarly modern nostalgia or homesickness that desires to maintain a very ancient tradition. Nostalgia, like melancholia, as Robert Hemmings has written, first became a medical condition in the era of colonization, the era scholars call modernity. As Hemmings writes,

The psychological, medical origins of nostalgia can be traced to Johannes Hofer, a young Swiss physician who coined the term in 1688: “Greek in origin . . . nostos, return to the native land, and . . . algos, signifies suffering or grief” (381). Likening his newly minted disease to home-sickness, Hofer observed that young Swiss nationals on foreign soil were particularly susceptible to this disorder of “an afflicted imagination” (381), which could be incapacitating and potentially fatal if untreated. Svetlana Boym adds about this Age of Enlightenment condition that “the nostalgic had an amazing capacity for remembering sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, the minutiae and trivia of the lost paradise that those who remained home never noticed” (4). In his reading of Hofer, Jean Starobinski finds proto-psychoanalytic insights in the constellation of symptoms the seventeenth-century physician identifies: the deprivation of and longing for the tastes and smells of thick milk from an Alpine valley, of the traditional breakfast soups that signified no less than “the loss of childhood, of ‘oral satisfactions,’ of motherly coaxing” (87). At its very roots, nostalgia is linked with the trauma of deprivation and loss. By the late eighteenth century, Starobinski argues, the nostalgic yearns not so poignantly to return to the place of one’s childhood-a treatment favored by Hofer-but to childhood itself (94). In other words, nostalgia is a function of the imagination, steeped in temporal and spatial longing, and the illusive object of that longing is childhood.

While we will return to the subject of childhood and psychedelic aesthetics next week with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, it seems clear that nostalgia takes on a particular pathology during modernity, one different than the older pastoral longing for the simpler lives of shepherds. Modernity itself entails a kind of isolation and displacement, even in famous lines like, “I think; therefore, I am.”

To be nostalgic in modernity is to long for one’s homeland, culture, and one’s sovereign. Typically romantic, De Quincey collapses the distinction between king and druggist or king and subject, which amounts to a kind of radical deposing of royal sovereignty. The resonance of such a Promethean heist is too easily forgotten today, when liberal democracy’s own sovereignty casts a dogmatic slumber over those who look at the world’s crises and naively wonder: “why can’t we all just get along?” As I said last week, the end of the Cold War, which led economist Francis Fukuyama to claim in 1992: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The events post 9/11, not only in the United States but around the world have been a series of liberal crises and sovereignty. As questions of human rights concerns spread with globalization, sovereignty, citizenship and borders become central issues for liberal democracies. This has led scholars like myself to re-examine the roots of liberalism and narratives of secularization. Psychedelic aesthetics are both part of and a critique of that tradition, putting a new spin on the modern pathology of nostalgia. In doing so, they intensify existing critiques of modernity that erupted in the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We must see that the development of modern art and aesthetics in general play out the drama at work in constructing the necessary fictions of subjectivity and sovereignty, especially in appeals to transcendent freedom and enchanted citizenship.

To further clarify this point I am making about the radicalism of Romantic era thinkers, permit me then to read to you one of the most famous and over-taught of Romantic poems to examine some cultural resonance for our course: “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by John Keats.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape

       Of deities or mortals, or of both,

               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?


In this first stanza, the speaker apostrophizes more than the urn itself. Silence and slow time have given rise to the urn’s displacement. The “sylvan” or wooded historian appears to collapse with the figure of the urn with the demi-god Pan. The speaker longs for the untold story of the painted figures on the urn, the impossible story from either the Vale of Tempe, where the Olympic games were first held and laurels bestowed from the temple of Apollo, or from the hills of Arcadia to the south where Pan dwells. Pan pipes a song so seductively sweet that one’s life withers away. In “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” the middle chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and inspiration for Pink Floyd’s first album, Ratty begins to hear Pan’s pipes in the distance and says, “for it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!” (122-3). The figure of Pan permeates Psychedelic aesthetics through attention to the forgetfulness of a return to nature and the pre-political.  We also hear this in Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones documenting a Pan festival and goat sacrifice with The Master Musicians of Joujouka and later with Ornette Coleman’s “Moonlight Sunrise” on Dancing in Your Head (1977), a recording during which William Burroughs was present. But back to Keats:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,

       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!


Pan lulls away youth but also immortalizes beauty in a timeless forgetfulness. Indeed, in order to return from Pan’s sweet song and return to life, one must forget the beauty of those unheard melodies because to be absent from such beauty would itself be too much to bear. So when Rat and Mole in Grahame’s book return from seeing the piper, Rat says, “I feel as if I had been through something very exciting and terrible, and it was just over; and yet nothing particular has happened” (129). Romantic aesthetics employ and fetishize modern nostalgic longing.

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,

For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

As is well known, John Keats writing in 1819 enacts a spatio-temporal longing on an ancient urn while also reflecting on the events leading to coming Greek War of Independence against the “Turks” or Ottoman Empire in 1821. Greek art, philosophy, and poetry is immortal in the eyes of English Romantic poets of the 19th century. The poet, Lord Byron, actually died in Greece in 1824, having gone to fight for the liberating cause. The romantically aestheticized fashion for revolution enacted a spectacular power of modern nostalgia on the ancient world by projecting its own fascination on a terribly poor Greece in order to fight Muslim Turks. One might see the liberal cause here as a kind of secularized crusade or anti-jihad, and it becomes easy to see how Romantic aesthetics play a role in disseminating an enthusiasm for nationalism. But what then happened between the late medieval Crusades and the birth of this so-called secular liberalism, where evanescing kings become phantom druggists? Simply invoking the word “secularization” is not enough.

While struggles for the legitimacy of the sovereign are certainly ancient, during the 16th century they saturate the English literature that has remained so important over the past four to five hundred years. One need only think of Hamlet’s dilemma or Shakespeare’s depiction of the deposing of the king in Richard II:

Throw away respect, / Tradition, form and ceremonious duty, / For you have mistook me all this while. / I live with bread, like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus, / How can you say to me I am king? Act 3:2

The legitimacy of the sovereign takes root in the medieval political theological idea of the King’s Two Bodies, an idea thoroughly described by Ernst Kantorowicz in his 1957 classic of the same title. As Kantorowicz notes, “The deposition scene, though performed scores times after the first [secret] performance in 1595, was not printed, or not allowed to be printed, until after the Death of Queen Elizabeth”(40). Kantorowicz also notes that the night before his failed attempt to seize the throne from Elizabeth he had a special performance of the play put on for his supporters. The play was discussed at the trial and at the execution of Essex, Elizabeth said, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”(41). This was the extent to which art and politics were entwined during the formation of liberal values and secularization.

Kantorowicz argues the idea of the King’s Two Bodies “provided an important heuristic fiction which served the lawyers at a certain time ‘to harmonize modern with ancient law,’ or to bring in agreement the personal with the more impersonal concepts of government” (5). He later says:

generally speaking, it is of great interest to notice how in sixteenth-century England, by the efforts of the jurists to define effectively and accurately the King’s Two Bodies, all the Christological problems of the early Church concerning the Two Natures once more were actualized and resuscitated in the early absolute monarchy. (17)

One cannot simply write this off with the concept of secularism. Kantorowicz points to a connection to the king’s two bodies in the deposition scene of Richard II and the Catholic legal theorist, Edmund Plowden. Plowden had stated: “Demise is a word, signifying that there is a Separation of the two Bodies; and that the Body politic is conveyed over from the Body natural, now dead or removed from the Dignity royal, to another Body natural” (40).Kantorowicz’s book was written in 1957 in the United States, where he had come fleeing persecution for his Jewishness under the Nazis. Kantorowicz’s own politics early on were, however, very right wing, and these lines analyzing the King’s Two Bodies strangely resonate with the work of German legal theorist and critic of liberalism, Carl Schmitt, whose 1922 book, Political Theology, contains the oft-quoted passage:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries. (36)

Schmitt also claims that the sovereign is defined as being the one who makes a decision in the state of exception. The historical importance of the King’s Two Bodies exists in the concept’s ability to move from a personal to an impersonal form of government. It is itself a legal fiction, and the idea solves the problem of perpetuity of power by invoking the theories of continuity and legitimacy. The idea is that although the king’s natural body dies, his angelic body lives on. The ongoing transcendent body maintains order in the midst of transition to the next physical monarch. Legitimacy refers to the body of laws that maintain their authority throughout the shift to a new physical leader. Kantorowicz importantly reads Shakespeare’s Richard II as a violent separation of the King’s Two Bodies. Like Carl Schmitt’s book, Hamlet or Hecuba, also written in the late 1950s, Kantorowicz’s conservatism is possibly nostalgic for the older monarchic authority. Read allegorically, The King’s Two Bodies either prepares the way for American constitutionalism or, (as David Norbrook argues), it maintains a right-wing stance because it makes it seem like the English Civil War never happened, leaving true sovereign legitimacy in the hands of a religiously infused head of state. At the end of his chapter on Richard II, Kantorowicz quotes a poem attributed to King Charles I of England, who was deposed and beheaded by Protestants in 1649. He did not exactly “evanesce,” yet the lines claim: “With my own power my majesty they wound, / In the King’s name the king himself uncrowned. / So does the dust destroy the diamond” (41).

Let’s parse this out historically before moving back to the romantics. The shift from Elizabeth I to James I at the beginning of the 17th century unites Scotland and England, creating the idea of Great Britain and allowing a Catholic monarch. Then, Charles I, succeeds James in 1625 and is overthrown and decapitated while wearing the crown by Protestants. Charles II restores the monarch after Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. England is overcome with hedonism after the oppressive religious rule. James II takes over in 1685 but is quickly ousted in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution, partly because of his overly tolerant views on religion. It is during this period that the more famous classic texts on liberalism begin to appear.

I have highlighted the turmoil of English government during the 17th century along religious lines to give the context in which a work like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan emerges and to show an important connection between art and politics. Religious enthusiasm was the main concern for Hobbes, even in his 1642 work On the Citizen (De Cive, 1642), and in Leviathan (1651), Hobbes gives a secular account of the foundations of government (Books 1 & 2). He turns to the subject of scriptural interpretation in order to prove that the sovereign alone has the authority to interpret scripture (Books 3 & 4). Hobbes makes this move in order to disable prophecy and the tendency to fight for a kingdom of God in the present by displacing such a kingdom as the product of the Second Coming. For Hobbes, humans simply do not have access to a kingdom of God, and so humans must in turn emphasize Art. Because there is no immediate access to God, humans must proceed by way of artifice and making. Nature, then, becomes the state of no authority. It is based on fears and passions. For Hobbes, and in turn many western conceptions of power, government arises as a removal from the state of nature by way of covenant and contract. Constitutions, for example, act as a poetic force, binding people in social contract. Essentially, the citizen cedes his or her right to violence to the authority of the state in exchange for protection. Because, for Hobbes, the state of nature is not man as political animal (as Aristotle proposed), humans cannot have an organic notion of the “body politic”; therefore, they must have a mechanistic approach to it based on senses and perception. This is why the imagination and aesthetics become of such concern for the foundations of liberalism, and when we remove aesthetics from politics, we deprive liberalism of an important feature of its history.

For Hobbes, the imagination is equivalent to decaying sense perception as opposed to the idea of phantasy. In chapter 4 of Leviathan, Hobbes develops the idea of the automaton as the movement and economy of words. Language itself becomes indicative of the mechanistic and constructed structure of citizenship. Words make up the substance of the social contract, giving rise to the leviathan and the structure of legitimacy, as western civilization moves toward a document-centered society of census reports, paper money, identification cards, birth and death certificates, etc. The sovereign, however, according to Hobbes, is not a party to the contract. The sovereign, for him, is created by the covenant, which, in its creation establishes the necessary authority to oversee the contract. The contract creates the excessive meaning that must be controlled by the sovereign. But there is a weird temporality here because it is just that excess which precedes language in the first place. If the imagination is decaying sense perception, it is at a remove from reality itself and subject to flaw.

The train of regulated thoughts is itself of two kinds. In one we imagine an effect and look for the causes or means that would produce it; and this is common to man and beast. It is the kind of thinking I focussed on in the preceding paragraph. The other occurs when we imagine something—anything—and look for all the possible effects that could be produced by it; that is, we imagine what we can do with it when we have it. I have never seen any sign of this except in man; for this kind of curiosity, asking ‘What can I do with it?’, has little grip on a living creature that has no passions except sensual ones such as hunger, thirst, lust, and anger. In sum, the discourse of the mind when it is controlled by some aim or plan is nothing but seeking, or the faculty of invention [here = ‘discovery’], which the Latins called sagacitas and solertia [= ‘keenness of scent’ and ‘skill’ or ‘ingenuity’]. It is a hunting out of the causes of some present or past effect, or of the effects of some present or past cause. Sometimes a man seeks something he has lost; and from the place and time where he missed it his mind runs back, from place to place and time to time, to find where and when he had it; that is to say, to find some definite limited time and place in which to start searching. Again, from there his thoughts run over the same places and times, to find what action or other occasion might have made him lose it. We call this ‘remembrance’ or ‘calling to mind’. The Latins call it reminiscentia, as it were scanning again our former actions. (Leviathan 13)

For Hobbes, this emphasis on the work of invention not only distinguishes the necessity to focus on the artificial elements of governance, it also accomplishes for him a distinction between man and animal, one that leaves the animal in the pre-political state of nature. As this passage moves to the subject of loss and remembrance we can see the coming theme of the western man who is alienated from a state of nature by civilization itself. The lament of the forgetting of the state of nature will serve as a foundational element for Romantic thinkers like Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and De Quincey.

Other thinkers, like Emmanuel Kant, focused on the distinguishing between autonomy as constructed from the faculties of thought and the way it formulates the sense of Beauty, as opposed to the Sublime – the two concepts fundamental to modern aesthetics. What is important here is that autonomy, or “self-law” is developed first according to the notion of political entities, and when we too quickly jump to a concept such as “freedom” we gloss over the contractual nature. As J. B. Schneewind points out, Kant claims that humans self-impose morality, constructing a motive to obey:

Kant speaks of agents who are morally self-governed. He took this term from political thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which it was used in discussions of the idea of states as self-governing entities. (483)

While Schneewind points out that self-governance conceptually can be traced back as far as St. Paul, he also argues that Kant’s take in applying it to an autonomous subject is entirely new and original for the late 1700s.[1] Schneewind also claims, however, that “conceptions of morality as self-governance . . . often thought to result from a major effort by Enlightenment thinkers to bring about a secularized society” are highly suspect and overly reductive (8). It is this tendency to reduce history to a progress narrative of secularization that I want to emphasize here so that we can overcome it in our discussion of the assigned texts for this course.

So, now let me return now to part of my earlier discussion. Thomas De Quincey’s “misquoting” of Flatman in Confessions of an English Opium Eater is particularly important to psychedelic aesthetics not just because he happens to be writing about drugs but rather that the ethical attitudes that surround the act are simultaneously political and aesthetic. Insofar as De Quincey’s confessions relate his bohemian existence, his reduction to penniless status also returns him to a state of nature. The actions of the opium eater perform the liberal politics and there is no separation from the book of confessions as an aesthetic and political object. The idea that art or aesthetics can be separated from one another is a flawed idea that is itself post-Romantic that would arrive later with the Art for Art’s Sake movement. That a separation between art and politics is so present to us, especially in the United States, obscures both our thinking about art and political history. Without some basic knowledge of this, we might miss the depth of the critiques and defenses that psychedelic aesthetics give to the notion of liberalism.

De Quincey and the English Romantic poets he associated with display what we now call Liberalism; but the term liberalism in the OED first shows up in English usage in 1816, only five years before De Quincey’s Confessions were published. The term “liberalist” first appears in English in 1795. The movement of the term “liberal” from its native Latin into English accompanies the emergence of the politics of Enlightenment Nation states. The concept of “liberal” has a much older history. In ancient political theology, the state is founded on a claim to revelation. For Romans, to take an easy example, the powers that be are ordained by God, establishing the divine right of kings. The king interprets God’s will and by proxy the legitimacy of the state is founded on the sovereign claim to absolute interpretive power over law and scripture. Legal power is established by hermeneutic or interpretive authority. Indeed, during the 16th century there arose discussion about distinctions between the respective roles of the church and civil authorities. This largely arises as a result of finding ways to punish splintering protestant groups. When we gloss over the Reformation by merely mentioning Luther and Calvin, we forget about people like Thomas Erastus, whose name is wrongly associated with Erastianism. Erastus faced excommunication and exhile for his association with more radical reformers and Anabaptists (think Mennonites or Amish). According to Encyclopedia Britannica,

He opposed excommunication as unscriptural, advocating in its stead punishment by civil authorities. The state, he held, had both the right and the duty to punish all offenses, ecclesiastical as well as civil, wherever all the citizens adhered to a single religion. The power of the state in religious matters was thus limited to a specific area. Erastianism acquired its present meaning from Richard Hooker’s defense of secular supremacy in Of the lawes of ecclesiasticall politie (1593–1662) and as a result of debates held during the Westminster Assembly of 1643.

It is a mistake to read “secular supremacy” here as opposed to the church. As Charles Taylor among others have pointed out, the very term “secular” is religious in origin, relating to the temporal duties of humans. At stake in Hooker and the Westminster Assembly was the structure of the recently formed Anglican church and whether it would be, like the Scottish church, Presbyterian, and based on elders, or Episcopalian and therefore containing a bishopric. The Puritans who helped to depose King Charles I and temporarily eliminate the monarchy felt the hierarchical structure of bishops was politically corrupt. Here, like so much political reform, radicalism is infused with enthusiasm – to be literally god-inspired. Such enthusiasm informs and re-emerges in American colonies and the Great Awakenings, making both political life and spiritual life in America more enchanted than England and Europe. Yet distinctly European educations mark the thinkers like Jonathan Edwards. The German term for enthusiast was Schwarmerei, and this concept is the religious root of political radicalism in a liberal context from the 1960s to the “Muslim extremism” of the 21st century.

In England, the classic foundational liberal text is Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Following an “Erastian” model, Hobbes, as we have seen, ascribes the right to scriptural authority to the sovereign. This civil theology subordinates the use of theology to politics, to the sovereign as a kind of mortal god. For Hobbes, state formation leads humans out of the “state of nature,” which is for him one of war and conflict. Protection from such a state becomes a service the state offers in exchange for obedience. When we combine Hobbes with his contemporary, John Loke’s notion of tabula rasa or “blank slate,” we open up a new anthropology, and new version of human nature. Rather than being born “in sin,” humans are born innocent but in a state of nature. Civilization then cultivates modern citizenship by disciplining humans away from a natural state toward a more “rational” way of being. This is, of course, where we get a term like the “age of reason.” We associate this blank slate with the arrival of inductive logic and scientific method, but we forget that for thinkers like Sir Francis Bacon, scientific method was essentially a way of reading “the book of nature,” of taking nature itself as a text of scriptural interpretation. This kind of thinking draws on an older, Latin use of the term “liberal” in the sense of bookish learning, but it also blends with the emerging print culture of the Renaissance, a shift toward the externally verifiable. As a method of enquiry, it is this critical move that informs so much of what we now critique as “whiteness” or white male perspective – a hermeneutics of disinterested observation, of separation between subject and object, the idea that if we can just isolate and observe action and record repetitions of it that we can divine the future and build an un-superstitious foundation of positive knowledge. This is the “civilized” person, who for romantic thinkers destroyed “natural man.”

While the narrative of secularization that accompanies this is well known, it glosses over the radical enthusiasm that accompanied it. We can see such enthusiasm in the beginnings of the Romantic movement during the 17th century. On the continent, liberal stirrings had been different. I want to briefly contrast Hobbes here with Benedict Spinoza, who like Erastus faced excommunication, not from Christians but from his own Jewish community.

It is difficult for us to imagine today how extreme such a measure would be for a Jew in Europe at that time. Spinoza presents his view in his Theological-Political Treatise, published in Latin in 1670 and translated into English in 1689, twelve years after his death. Because Spinoza, like Erastus, faced excommunication, he turned his attention toward the authority of state as opposed to the religious community. Spinoza has a vexed relationship with politics and theology, especially as it relates to scriptural interpretation. It is important for him that the state have control over interpretation so that it can help adjudicate with respect to people who were in trouble with their religious communities. This of course brings up the trouble of people using theology for strictly political purposes, so Spinoza’s answer is to claim the superiority of reason over that of revelation. He is esoteric in this regard and he couches his own theological view within this claim that at once seems extremely secular and submissive to authority. Spinoza preserves religion by separating it from philosophy, claiming that the freedom to philosophize has to be separate from religion. This brings up the question of whether or not scriptural interpretation can even employ reason.

Spinoza’s anthropology, or his view of human nature, is also different from Hobbes. He is not as concerned as Hobbes is with the inherent violence of humans in a state of nature; he is more Epicurean in the sense that he believes people are motivated by their passions. Because of this they’re ready to believe anything out of superstition. Religion, for him, arises out of fear because of this, but at the same time he does not believe it has to arise out of this. Religion can also be a force of hope. While he believes that it is human nature to have passions, this does not necessarily mean that passions themselves are evil. While Hobbes wants to give interpretive authority of scripture to the sovereign, Spinoza wants to separate the civic and the religious into different spheres where philosophy has the greater civic presence and religion becomes a private affair altogether.

A dogmatic conception of liberalism largely considers the role of religion and governance to be separated by some combination of what I have here presented as either Hobbesian or Spinozan treatments of religion. Even when people have not read these texts, they make similar arguments. Their texts are foundational for liberalism, and the Romantic thinkers will both critique this in their modern nostalgia and amplify it in an enthusiastic version of nationalism, which Aldous Huxley will later refer to as its own religion. In doing so, Huxley will present psychedelic aesthetics as a critique of European-derived notions of subjectivity. Subjectivity is itself informed by the creation of modern citizenship in relationship to emerging nation states founded on the principles of liberalism. Psychedelic aesthetics are also, however, largely informed by Romanticism – at times they echo and at other times they parody such aesthetics. We would do well to question repeatedly: Do psychedelic aesthetics succeed in breaking free from the Romantic tradition or do they merely extend and radicalize it? As liberals, the Romantic poets were politically radical aesthetes.

Therefore, to the extent that Romantic men immersed themselves in “nature” was both a social critique and an advancement of liberalism. On the one hand, one would experience immersion into the sublime as a way to broaden subjectivity and then conquer it through re-integration. Freedom allows for this growth, so greater freedom is an important value as a motivational force. But what gets convoluted here is the temporality of freedom. Two drastically different temporalities are at work: First, there is the Romantic who, like Keats’s speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” desires a return to a timeless unification of truth and beauty. One is lulled by the Pan (or by drugs) back into a kind of immortal youthful innocence beyond memory. Second, a linear, ‘modern’ temporality of progress that orients itself toward the end of history arises structured by rationality and epistemologies based on modern scientific methods. Both of these temporalities are theologically informed. It is well known that Christian Protestant narratives of progress worked well with what Max Weber called “the spirit of capitalism.” The theology of Pan is more ancient and has to do with sacrifice, and insofar as the Romantics incorporate it, they critique Judeo-Christian notions of original sin by idealizes childhood as innocence and closer to God. On the other hand, a strange kind of psychology is at work in the desire to merge with effeminate constructions of nature and childhood, a kind of Freudian womb-envy.

This psychology plays out in travel and colonization. One is tempted to “go native.” As colonization began to flourish, and nostalgia along with it, a perceived lack of civilized political structures by European colonists made indigenous people who tended to live in “natural” environments seem to be “primitive people” for Europeans. In the confusing metaphor of the European imaginary, autochthonous “others” were generally seen by Europeans as childish, necessitating the moral responsibility for colonization. The religious traditions of such people had no place for cultural relevance in the European Imaginary, and so you had Catholic priests outlawing psychedelic substances as early as the 1520s.

In the European Imaginary, land, women, children and “primitives” all become commodities in this structure, not just as property but also as a perceived as wards for moral responsibility in a cultured lineage. This is a weird tweaking of an older Roman idea. Take, for example, the desire for the pastoral setting, the country house, which English men of the Enlightenment inherited from their own nostalgia for the Roman Empire, acquired part of its relaxed status from its ability to reconcile control with comfort. Interestingly, as Quentin Skinner has argued in Liberty Before Liberalism, the Roman pastoral balance is disrupted by commercialism and growing liberal markets:

With the extension of the manners of the court to the bourgeoisie in the early eighteenth century, the virtues of the independent gentleman began to look irrelevant and even inimical to a polite and commercial age. The hero of the neo-roman writers came to be viewed not as plain-hearted but as rude and boorish; not as uptight but as obstinate and quarrelsome; not as a man of fortitude but one of mere insensibility. (97)

It is possible to see many literary examples of this figure in the ineffective landlord, Arthur Brooke, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch,or the prodigal son more lovingly portrayed by Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows.

The “insensibility” that Skinner refers to aligns with the emergence of moral “sensibility” pervasive in the nineteenth century, largely explored in the bulky novels of the period. More recent critics like Michel Foucault and Alasdair MacIntyre have shown the emergence of morality as the product of a dissemination of values in a public and secular sphere. In their view, the rise of moralism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries accompanied liberalism and emergent “secular” nation-states. This “sensibility” was to be accomplished by the individual capable of self-transcendence. In the European imaginary then, the return to nature is often a return to the pre-political. Such desire is figured in twentieth-century states of political exception as a return to enchanted, pre-transcendent theology, as well as “back to nature” social experiments of the 19th and 20th centuries. Deterritorialization and depoliticizatin throughout the twentieth century in particular, however, creates the religious conditions for a return to immanent spirituality – a return to the miraculous.[2] And that is partly why magic, enchantment, and the miraculous remain so present even in our present culture.

In this context, commerce and consumption appear to perform the inherent ability to produce sacrificial rites through the force of the economy. But according to a secularist narrative, this dissemination of traditional religiosity into “secular” morality would logically eradicate the necessity for religion in any institutional sense or religio as binding. The very nature of “freedom” and “liberalism” is to unbind, but the frame in which these terms make sense must simultaneously reinforce something that acts as an oppressive force from which to inscribe subjectivity. Again, freedom from what? Whom? Without that oppressive force, the values, as Herbert Marcuse argued, lose all revolutionary potential. However, if critics of liberalism like Carl Schmitt (and perhaps Ernst Kantorowicz) were right, and at their roots all significant political concepts are really religious, then secularization never really completed itself as a project and a political theological mess is at hand. Something exceeds what modern political governance is capable of signifying.

What frightened Schmitt about twentieth century liberalism was the easy slippage away from political entities that could be defined internationally in terms of friend-enemy distinction into an amorphous and uncontrollable global economy. He was concerned that the absence of a sovereign to make a decision during states of exception or the miraculous would lead toward chaos and the undoing of civilization.

In my final excursion into European history today, I want to focus on an older notion of Liberalism and its entanglement with humanism or human flourishing during the Renaissance because I believe that if we think about freedom not in its negative sense of “freedom from” but in its positive sense of “freedom to,” we can add that element of flourishing that is so complex in the pursuit of happiness.

To be liberal, in Latin is not just to be free, or even to be generous, as the French connotation and Early Modern instances in English attest. Liber in Latin is also a book, and so we might have older, Proto-Indo-European uses of the word that relate to “the people,” after the Roman Empire, to be “liberated” means also to be educated. In the Renaissance, to be educated meant you were trained by a humaniste or Latin teacher. As the rebirth of classical knowledge spread from Italy into northern Europe and England, a kind of historicism accompanied it. Along with this historicism came the necessity to distinguish between Christian and pre-Christian knowledge, but also ancient and modern knowledge. Scholars now refer to the period as “Early Modern” because the individuating and relativizing knowledge of humanistes came to clash with medieval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas. As the all-too-familiar secularization narrative goes, soon after erupted Protestantism, a personal relationship with the Divine informed by emerging modern humanism and individual and civil rights. Governmental authorities “broke” from the Catholic Church, guilds were founded, and eventually the emerges of modern, secular nation-states based on the principles of Enlightenment rationality and secular science. It is really just a slippery slope, then, in this kind of narrative to the rational elimination of religion from modern existence, and as soon as all those irrational religious people get educated by the much more stable, rationally-based public school systems built on the best principles of progress, Bildung, and science, then we can really create the ideal human civilization. The German sociologist Max Weber, author of the enormously influential Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism had a term for this (though not from that book): disenchantment.

What is seductive about this narrative is a lot of it is true, but as many a medievalist will tell you, it is our modern sensibilities that get in the way of what life was like before the European Renaissance. As with a lot of things, history is not so simple, but such social constructions come to frame all sorts of situations in our lives. The brilliant historian and philosopher, Charles Taylor, appropriately reminds us that while constructions are constructed, they do not necessarily come from a clear design or blueprint. I mentioned earlier that psychedelic aesthetics perform what Taylor calls a more porous self!

Liberalism. Freedom from what? Catholicism? Not exactly. For the roots of Liberalism, I want to turn to a more contested character: Machiavelli. He was writing in Italy right around the same time that Martin Luther was penning his 95 theses, and though not officially published until the 1530s, Machiavelli’s The Prince and his history of Rome or Discourses on Livy were circulating. Not all Machiavelli scholars will agree that he is a founder of liberalism, but I am following my own teacher, Victoria Kahn in this respect.

When we think of Machiavelli and the emerging modern world, individualism is more than just a separation from Catholic culture. There are much more ancient forces at work. Particularly, we need to think about the distinctions between the concepts of virtue (virtu in Latin) and Fortune, or the pagan Goddess Fortuna. As is well known, Rome officially accepted Christianity under Constantine, and much work in medieval studies deals with distinguishing older, pagan culture from the Christian culture that was superimposing itself on the older traditions. But in Machiavelli’s Discourses, he travels back to the foundations of Rome in the 8th century BCE and particularly to Numa. Because secularization narratives mask the complex political theology of medieval thought there is often a tendency to heuristically discount the period. In the twentieth century, as liberal crises began to unfold in places like Weimar Germany, we see scholars like the controversial German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt claim, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts” (36).

During liberal crises, exceptionalism erupts in not just challenges to grand narratives of secularization or modern commitments to rationality, but also in the political-theological concepts still present in law and notions of sovereignty. While archaic on the surface, these are the very concepts at the heart of the psychedelic aesthetics and the psychedelic movement in the 1960s. And, as we shall see in our upcoming readings of Aldous Huxley in particular, it is this larger historical picture of political theology in Europe that frames the discussion of psychedelics in the 1960s. My interest is ultimately to highlight those frames, but this means parsing out some of the workings of early liberalism with Machiavelli.

While we know that Puritan radicals sought to form a “New Jerusalem” in the English colonies that would become the United States, less well known is the Florentine Republic, which ran from 1494-1512, initially with the help of the enthusiastic religious reformer, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola prophesized religious awakening and church reform and encouraged the overthrow of the Medici’s in Florence to establish his “New Jerusalem.” After such political intriguing got him in trouble with the Pope for the Florentine Republic’s refusal to align with Rome against the invading French, Savonarola’s claims to divine prophesy became increasingly challenged, ending with his being burnt at the stake in 1498. This prompted Machiavelli to write of Savonarola during his own exile after the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1513, that Savonarola “was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”

Machiavelli’s The Prince has had a long history of reception, but the view that he is a proto liberal is uncommon. Mostly he’s seen as a practical thinker of republicanism (Victoria Kahn). Christians in particular picked up on his practical, ends-means rationale for the state. But couched in this practical approach is more ancient religion as well, particularly the distinction between Fortuna and virtu. Briefly, we could parse them out in this way:


Fortuna: Figured as feminine, Contingency, The “swirl” of atoms, Wild, Luck, Fortune, Unexpected, Circumstance, Chance occasions, Chaos.

Virtu: Figured as masculine (vir = man), Potency, Strength, Capability, Practical wisdom, Courage, Adaptability, Talent, Autonomy, Imposing one’s will or form on the matter, Domesticating, Ruthless, Cunning, Virtue

Machiavelli’s unapologetic emphases on practical means often appear vacant of particularly Christian morals, especially to people today, but he is also reaching back to an older, pagan sensibility. In his historical look back to Rome’s foundation in The Discourses there arises a tension with respect to his republicanism and The Prince. How twentieth century thinkers read Machiavelli tell us a lot about liberal crises. (For example, Louis Althusser and Antonio Negri see him as a founder of modern democratic theory.)

We will get to the twentieth century in later classes, but the more pertinent questions for us right now are: What does liberalism want to be free from? And: How do secular narratives gloss over this with modern conceptions of morality and religiosity?

In “Book I” of the Discourses, Machiavelli gives us his view of religion. Religion (religio in Latin, to bind or perhaps to reread) allows occasion to fortune by which the statesman uses his art or techne to maintain justice and social unity over time. This allows for dynasties and legacies. Religion binds and cultivates over time. It also works through terror and fear to stage spectacles and oath-taking. This leads to the tension: Is religion itself a structuring technique to bind society or is it an ideology that itself needs to be demystified? In The Prince, Machiavelli discusses the role of effective truths (verita effetuale) as a kind of material-ideal that establishes not effects but pragmatic works. They need not necessarily be successful; an effective truth can still be admired even when it is not achieved (see Agothocles vs. Borgia in ch. 7; ch. 18 Centaur).

We see with this idea of an “effective truth” the kind of goal setting that becomes typical with the invention of liberalism. It is not only in Machiavelli; we can also importantly see it in Thomas More’s Utopia, literally “no place,” published in 1516. These fictive, fabricated ideas and spaces will become foundational for emerging modernity, and I think it is important to see them as historically relativistic, not just the opening of secular “space” or a disenchanted rational kind of thinking informed by inductive scientific method. Scientific method is itself the art of fabricating a spatialized reality through the use of experimentation with repeated outcomes. As a “new” religion it binds and creates its own dynasties and legacies. But it is important also that this form of liberalism is also hermeneutically based in the “book of Nature,” as can be seen in Sir Francis Bacon’s New Organon, where “man is but the servant and interpreter of nature” (243). The concept in interpretive authority is essential to the emerging liberalism, and interpretive judgment, particularly as it relates to religious texts, remains important for legality and legitimacy. It is here that so much religious iconography and iconoclasm become essential to psychedelic aesthetics.

Psychedelic aesthetics democratize the interpretation of morality in a way that exceeds the res publica, the republic, and the nation-state. They are liberal in the sense that they seek freedom from the binding qualities of such Enlightenment institutions; but that does not mean that psychedelic aesthetics are themselves secular, unless one means secularizing the secular through a more extreme form of liberalism. At once, psychedelic aesthetics may affirm the nationalism inherent in Romantic aesthetics while also espousing a kind of globalized neo-liberalism. Two-party systems with agonistic categories do not work here. The aesthetics focus not so much on the thing made or the person-maker but in a mediation that dislocates or deterritorializes that person and then, importantly reconstitutes him or her with greater moral authority. What occurs in this deterritorialization and then reterritorialization is a kind of mystical and enthusiastic process. This process itself is at the very core of modernity and the foundations of liberalism; it occurs in the fabrication of modern subjectivity. In order to get at this subjectivity, we can focus on the problem of mysticism.

Mysticism itself is a modern phenomenon. All invocations of Eleusinian mysterious, tarocchi decks, masonic and Rosicrucian orders have foundations in the Renaissance nostalgia for the occult. The Rosicrucians, founded by a quasi-historical personages like Christian Rosenkreuz, illustrate an early example of a westerner receiving esoteric knowledge from the east. Occultism and mysticism create counter-narratives to political foundations that intentionally obfuscate meaning, and secret societies build elaborate esoteric systems to preserve identities in lineages well into the twentieth century with Aleister Crowley, who undoubtedly influenced psychedelic aesthetics. Mysticism occurs as a rhetorical mode with which to critique modernity’s emphasis on production by adhering to pseudo-archaic notions of channeling and divination, of an ability to converse in subtle ways with the divine. In a sense it invokes an older office, that of the ancient augur or reader of bird entrails; but like so much of modern occultism, it is not so much an adherence to the ancient traditions as it is an alternate fabrication of modernity itself. The rhetoric of modern mysticism, like romanticism, rests on nostalgia for a lost and ancient past. An inattentive adherence to mysticism potentially confuses the progressive liberalism of freedom with a longing for a conservative “no-place” because it performs its own historicism. This is the root of all “back-to-nature” / “back-to-the-pre-political” rhetoric as a critique of liberalism. What mysticism obfuscates in its gesture toward the ancient is its own clever invention and fabrication, indeed its own modernity. It longs for the seductive idea of the trans-human, and this is why it can connect with the rhetoric of post-humanism and science fiction. To point out such fabrication, however, is not the same as delegitimizing mysticism’s political critique; it is merely to see enchantment – or to be more accurate, re-enchantment – as a device to further a particular kind of subjectivity that is aware of its own porousness. But it is not enough to merely “realize” one’s own inauthenticity, one’s own “construction” – to give up one’s self in its particular iteration of being.

“Enough?!” one might ask. “And how are we to determine just exactly what is ‘enough’?” This delimiting of Self, this concretization of being cannot escape its own history. Hans Joas, in an echo of Carl Schmitt, recently declares that the contemporary notion of Self is merely the secularized notion of the soul. To highlight such processes of secularization is not the same thing as adhering to either secular or non-secular perspectives. Religious studies scholar, Amy Hollywood, has argued that no such thing a s ‘mysticism’ as a substantive entity existed from the 3rd century to the 16th century. Hollywood argues that with the eruption of modernity, what we now think of as mysticism gets called “enthusiasm,” which is to be literally infused with God. She believes that enthusiasm might be a useful category for thinking about secularism / the secular by claiming that enthusiasm was the term debated during the 16th and 17th centuries, as opposed to enchantment or disenchantment. Hollywood argues that the term “mystic” relates to early adjectival uses and that “mystical reading” is an allegorical mode that seeks to recreate the experience of Jesus. She goes on to say the from the 17th century on that the term ‘mysticism’ has a tendency to emphasize transcendence over immanence and ‘inner’ versus ‘outer.’ As a practice, in what people now call mysticism, the notions of habit and spontaneity were not opposed to one another. How are we to conceive of this?

One way, perhaps, is to note the ability that emerging liberal morality tended to “break open” subjectivity. Michel Foucault among others has certainly attested to the emergence of subjectivity and citizenship with modernity as a product of accountability for heresy. There is no way, in his narrative to separate the idea of the author from the idea that to be located as an author also subjected one to the force of law. To put one’s name on something, to provide a “signature” was to also subject one’s self to prosecution, for the material produced to be “liable” or responsible to law. Such subjection of people emerges with the modern notion of citizen subjects. The emergence of the confession as a Christian performance of testifying, as Foucault notes, is but one example of this. So let me end here with De Quincey’s secularized version of a confession, where he collapses kings and druggistwith mythological figures, and let us see just how entrenched in the political and aesthetic fabric of liberalism drugs and expanded consciousness are when they begin to mind manifest western civilization itself. As De Quincey lauds,

Oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure from blood; and to the proud man a brief oblivion for wrongs undress’d and insults unavenged; that summonest to the chancery of dreams, for the triumphs of suffering innocence, false witnesses; and confoundest perjury, and dost reverse the sentences of unrighteous judges;— thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles—beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos, and “from the anarchy of dreaming sleep” callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties and the blessed household countenances cleansed from the “dishonours of the grave.” Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium! (55)


Scholarship, like art, is of the historical moment. When it is potent, it reacts to the same forces that drive art and politics, and distinctions between any of the three categories are often blurry when one examines them closely. I offer this observation not simply to be aphoristic (as if aphorisms were themselves simple) but partly to qualify some of the methods I have employed in this lecture. I at times have perhaps seemed extremely general and at others seem overly specific. I may have jumped around historically, sometimes using genealogies and etymologies in true Nietzschean and poststructural fashion, but also in the ways an LSD trip, Gestalt, or a magic eye picture can simultaneously present perceived images and atomistic nonsense. This is partly a tactical device because we only have so much time, but I also mean it to mirror states of exception and liberal crises we have seen so often in more recent history, what Anthropologist, Michael Wesch has aptly called “context collapse.” Such states are themselves psychedelic insofar as they are mind manifesting and transpersonal, and as my analysis of “Homage to William and Catherine Blake” by The Fugs last week illustrated, psychedelic works channel a variety of temporalities and figures into a ceremonial moment in polysemus ways, oversaturating a moment with various simultaneous associations.

Next week we enter into the more traditionally literary material from the course with Aldous Huixley’s Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited.  Aldous Huxley is the psychedelic theorist par excellence, but often times his readers are unaware of the larger historical forces he is battling in his books.  Our foray into European history early on will serve us well in reading Huxley.


[1] Thus, in Political-Theological discourse there has been a massive return to examinations of St. Paul’s writing.


[2] The work of Hent De Vries on miracles has significance here.


Psychedelic Aesthetics, Literature and Liberal Crises, week 2: Sunday at Deer Pile, 4pm

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

The ending of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriski Point, as Slavoj Zizek argues, signifies the de-authentification of the “hippie” movement by the end of the 1960s, as a revolutionary idea becomes merely another aspect of the hegemony of consumer culture. this is an example of a reduction to One-Dimensionality, as Herbert Marcuse described. Zizek challenges Antonioni’s intention to depict Transcendence with his scene of mass orgy in the desert. For me, embedded in the film’s rhetoric of transcendence is psychedelic aesthetics use of a return to Nature or the Pre-political to obfuscate the temporality of modernity and the progressive narratives that accompany it. If there is transcendence, it is already within what historian Charles Taylor calls “The Immanent Frame.” In class this Sunday we will look at the the Political Theological conflicts at the root of Liberalism as an economic cosmology. We will discuss Charles Baudelaire’s “Artificial Paradises,” William Blake’s “Heaven and Hell,” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy.” Come on down. (See other posts on this blog for more details and course syllabus).

Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 1: Postsecularism, Political Theology, and Enchantment. June 8, 2014

June 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

Psychedelic aesthetics are literally mind manifestations of the senses. Today’s talk is meant to be introductory for many basic concepts we will be dealing with this summer. I will begin by discussing what I mean by Literature, liberalism, and subjectivity, drawing on the structural/poststructural theory of French psychologist, Jacques Lacan. It is important to note, however, that much of poststructural theory is already psychedelic as I use the term, and in so far as the word means “to make manifest the psyche” we are immediately within the realm of questioning what self and subjectivity are. It makes sense that psychoanalytic theory and psychology are deeply entrenched with how we understand the psychedelic, but we could also take an anthropological thinker like Claude Levi Strauss or a religious studies scholar like Mircea Eliade and get similar results with different nuances. What I’m after in my conception of Literature for this course (rather than visual art) is a particular version of western subjectivity, a social construction that many of us will recognize, whether or not we choose as individuals to buy into the notion. Once I’ve established what I mean by Literature and subjectivity, I will move on to the idea of liberal crises with The Coming Insurrection; I will talk a little bit about Political Theology as my method, and ultimately introduce the texts for the day with some brief historical context.

My goal is not to lecture on the readings for the day but rather to save that for group discussion. Anyone who wants to may refer to my notes on the texts on my blog. I want to ground the course in a discussion of western subjectivity, mention some of the historical forces that shape that subjectivity, and begin to see how psychedelic aesthetics ultimately critique that subjectivity. To the extent that Liberalism as an economic order relies on subjects as citizens, any critique of subjectivity and self has economic consequences for us. I will begin with Lacan’s “Mirror Stage.”

This idea of “I” will be referred to rather loosely here, as either the subjective “I” or just plain subjectivity. What psychedelic aesthetics tell us rather quickly is that distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity become blurry and individuality as the economic concept that liberalism promotes is nowhere near something reliably stable. My conjecture is that at least some of this will be familiar to you, whether or not you have spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of self. My sense is also that many of you may be able to point out flaws with Lacan’s narrative as well, for he himself is influenced by the development of a kind of “western” subjectivity. He inhabits a kind of European imaginary.

(Please feel free to contact the author for his “Mirror Stage PowerPoint,” which does not work in this blog format)

What kind of assumptions do we make about subjectivity when we think about our selves? When we think about those we love? This is different than merely questioning what it means “to be” or exist because it occurs from after we are already “thrown” into being, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger says in Being and Time. Here, I am not trying to get so much at the structure of Self but at the fashioning of an object of thought. Here, I am not. Again as Jacques Lacan says, “What one ought to say is: I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think” (Lacan, “The Mirror Stage” 1058). This dislocation of Self, followed by the inability to locate Self is what is at stake with all things considered psychedelic.

Listen to “The Onion Chant” from Alan Watts’s This is It (1962)

Alan Watts and many of the thinkers from the 1960s associated with psychedelic aesthetics focused very much on an attention to now. Unlike them,in these lectures, I am particularly interested in the question of the force of history insofar as historical factors come to shape notions of subjectivity. I am interested in this because the very idea of the psychedelic, literally meaning “mind-manifesting” and coined in a letter from Dr. Humphry Osmond to Aldous Huxley in 1957 implies a narrative moving from the latent to the manifest. But “mind” without attachment to an individual subjectivity is broader than any single individual. The mind-manifestation of psychedelic aesthetics manifests a shit-show of Western liberalism. In other words, I am interested in the forces that shaped the 1960s and how they continue to play out today in 2014. I mean more than just saying we are shaped environmentally or even culturally. What is at work here is both a genealogy of ideas and a human genealogy, of reincarnation of both self and spirit.

By invoking the concept of reincarnation, I am not simply referring to eastern philosophy or religion, but also to a lineage of ideas crossing the Atlantic Ocean and informing the psychedelic movement. The “self” or “person” acts, according to Hans Joas in his book, The Sacredness of the Person as the secular version of the theological idea of a soul. Joas articulates this through an American pragmatist lineage. Pragmatism as a philosophy is especially concerned with the idea of action, and so is literature. It requires, to a certain extent, the agency of a subject capable of action. Recently, the great scholar of Hegel and Pragmatism, Mitchell Aboulafia, in his book Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism, shows the problem of subjectivity to crisscross the Atlantic Ocean during the twentieth century. He does this by comparing the work of Jean-Paul Sartre to the pragmatism of John Dewey – two philosophers not regularly thought of together. “The ‘trick’ to addressing the similarity between Dewey and Sartre,” Aboulafia says,

is to see that they both assume that experience entails prereflective and reflective relationships to the future . . . Even though Sartre’s account of how the anticipatory is possible is different from Dewey’s more naturalistic account, their theories of action both depend on a practical orientation toward the future. (37)

Building on Aboulafia’s work here, then, I am suggesting that this strange thing we call the Self is not merely a question of nature versus nurture, since both only conceive a forensic articulation, one based on a past. Nor does either perspective rely on a consciousness or an individual will for what they call “prereflective.” An intersubjectivity that hovers above individual being appears to be at work here, and it is more than the traditional category of ‘human’ can signify. We must makes sparks to fill in the gap. Or, to say it metaphorically, to be human in 2014 is to be an infected and pregnant, to be a latent signifier waiting to manifest. Something is in us, and we don’t know what it is. To be is to be both host and hostage simultaneously.

Psychedelic research often appeals to sciences of biology and brain chemistry. Ethnobotany and Shamanism rely heavily on blurring humans and other organisms. Biologists can tell us our bodies are host to many organisms, but I want to push beyond living bodies of Homo sapiens while being attentive to the human invention of history too. Jacques Derrida claims:

One could say, first, that in the end such a bellicose hatred in the name of human rights, far from rescuing man from the animality that he claims to rise above, confirms the waging of a kind of species war and confirms the man of practical reason remains bestial in his defensive and repressive aggressivity, in his exploiting the animal to death.[1]

Derrida does not, however, limit himself to a critique of “modern” humans either. For him (and Joas too), the critique of a lineage going back through western monotheism is necessary:

I think that Cartesianism belongs, beneath its mechanist indifference, to the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic tradition of a war against the animal, of a sacrificial war that is as old as Genesis. And that war is not just one means of applying technoscience to the animal in the absence of another possible or foreseeable means; no, that violence or war has until now been constitutive of the project or of the very possibility of technoscientific knowledge within the process of humanization or of the appropriation of man by man, including its most highly developed ethical or religious forms.

No matter how perennial the question of what it means to be human seems, historical contingencies have recently widened the definition of human amid liberal democracy’s reliance on, and privileging of, self. If we are to take the claims of Hans Joas to heart, that the emergence of the modern notion of ‘self’ is a secularized theological version of soul, we might ask: Is the Self / Soul human?

While we will not likely answer that question today, this widening definition of human, this critique of subjectivity, has accompanied what many have seen as a growing number of crises in liberalism in recent years. From 9/11 to economic crashes to the Arab spring to Crimea, the beginning of the twenty-first century has been a time of massive upheaval, of legal systems unable to keep pace with technology and globalization, of a diminishing of the concept of privacy and with it the very nineteenth century notion of “the public sphere.” What happened? Didn’t liberalism win with the end of the Cold War?

By liberalism here, I certainly do not mean the politics of the current Democratic Party. I mean the liberal economic and political theories that have come to dominate the western world and underwrite our assumptions about individual and human rights in an increasingly “globalized” world. Liberalism, as most of us know it, is one of the products of modernity, that period emerging after the Renaissance in European history. When I speak of modernity, the modern self, or modern “subjectivity,” I am referring to something from the late 1500s, a way of thinking so beautifully depicted when Hamlet says, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” – not the latest iPhone update. What happens when the dreams of modernity become manifest? Hamlet’s bad dreams are of course informed by something rotten in the state of Denmark. Either his father’s ghost or the devil himself haunts him, depending on whether or not Hamlet is a Catholic or a Protestant, so he is in a crisis of faith. He cannot decide what course of action to take. This crisis of action characterizes much of modernity. It is interspersed with violently enthusiastic revolutions – those times when, overcome with some spirit, people take to the streets. In more recent calls for revolution, texts like The Coming Insurrection or Slavoj Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, readers are meant to note the latent and pregnant state of the new revolution. This is not Abbie Hoffman’s revolution for the hell of it, but I suggest that it perhaps informed by the psychedelic movement in the 1960s.

For many people during the 1960s in the liberal West, action seemed to be essential; if you were not part of a solution you were part of the problem, but what exactly was the problem? What was rotten and in need of fixing? What ghosts haunted that period? Is it that the answers people posed then were inadequate, or the fact that the questions themselves were unanswerable and largely given up that informs current calls for revolt? Is there not a kind of strange nostalgia in both The Coming Insurrection as well as in the Occupy movements, especially in the United States where rigorous communist critique is merely something some people are exposed to in literary or aesthetic theory courses? These are questions that I think studying psychedelic aesthetics and literature address.

While it may not have seemed so from an economic standpoint in the booming postwar US economy, there were certainly liberal crises all over the world during the 1960s as decolonization efforts erupted around the globe. Crises showed up in civil rights struggles and reactions to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There had been since European powers increasingly lost their hold on their colonies around the world. One could easily characterize the twentieth century as one liberal crisis after another from the years after the First World War to 9/1l and the rapid succession of crises since then. Crises produce states of exception, and in the years after 9/11, Giorgio Agamben characterized the United States as being in a constant state of exception. Drawing on the controversial German legal theorist (and later Nazi), Carl Schmitt, whose 1922 book, Political Theology defines the sovereign as “the one who makes a decision in a state of exception,” Agamben notes the increasing moments of authoritative decisions that affect civil liberties from the Patriot Act to the prison in Guantanamo Bay. This is no banal finger-pointing at the Bush administration, for we have seen the continuance of liberal crises under the Obama administration: The constant need for decisions in times of crisis work to, as Schmitt wrote, establish the norm from a position of authority that exceeds the norm – an increasing need for what the psychedelic poet (and my friend) Anne Waldman calls “deciders.” Insofar as these decision establish and regulate subjectivity, most crises in liberalism manifest as a crisis of self or subjectivity.

My task today, and over the next several weeks, will be to trace a lineage of aesthetic tendencies that give a theme to these liberal crises in literature and philosophy in order to help us find ways to orient ourselves in current states of exception. Following my opening lectures, we will discuss select books for the day. What I hope we can get at is a deeper sense of psychedelic aesthetics than we may be familiar with from popular media or our own drug experiences. I want to read psychedelic aesthetics as a reaction to, and critique of, liberal crises and states of exception – a reaction to the social construction of subjectivity. It is not, then, a course on the literature or social movements of the1960s so much as it is a project to tease out the roots of modern, liberal subjectivity so that we can see how psychedelic aesthetics attempt to produce a new kind of subjectivity which displays an “awareness of what is missing,” to quote the title of a recent and relevant book by the social theorist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas. I am building here on the work of my former professor, Victoria Kahn, who in her most recent book, The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts, argues that in current liberal crises we need to attend more conscientiously to the role of aesthetics and making or “poiesis.” Kahn claims the following:

According to the usual story, we can trace the origins of modernity to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Europe, and its resolution of a theological-political crisis. The religious wars of this period prompted Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke to develop a religiously neutral discourse of rights that helped to found the modern liberal state on a distinctively secular foundation. If political theology refers to the theological legitimation of the state or a state founded on revelation, then political theology is the problem that the new secular language of rights was intended to solve. It did so by bracketing the question of religion in the state of nature and subordinating religion to the secular power of the sovereign once the commonwealth has been founded. Instead of being guided by religious principles, individuals according to the new, secular idiom of political theory are motivated by the desire for self-preservation. The contract that founds the state is simply a contract of protection for obedience. In suspending the question of a substantive common good or end of human action, the new state also removes the occasion for disagreement. Everyone is entitled to practice his religion in private, as long as his actions do not impinge on the liberties of others. Or, as modern parlance has it, we agree to disagree. This, we might say, is the self-congratulatory narrative of modern liberalism. (13)

Building off of Kahn’s work, what I believe to be missing from discussions of liberal democratic crises is also what I believe psychedelic aesthetics attempt to achieve: namely, an enchanted citizenship that addresses the cognitive and affective needs of people. While I agree whole-heartedly on Kahn’s commitment to the importance of aesthetics and fabrication, to poiesis, I also want to stress both pre-modern aspects of poetics, as well as a tradition of mystical poetics that have long been critiquing modernism – throughout the Enlightenment and into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This critique is often convoluted with a rhetoric that appeals to so-called primitive peoples and cultures, a rhetoric entrenched within the framework of European subjectivity. My position differs from Kahn’s in degree because a tradition of critique emerges so heavily in the psychedelic aesthetics of the 1960s as itself a critique of European-derived liberal subjectivity. It is an attempt to take a more nuanced approach to a traditionally difficult period. To get at psychedelic critiques this European tradition, I will use the term “enchantment” here as a counter to the great sociologist of modernity, Max Weber, who famously characterized modernity as disenchanted.  Weber generally meant this to describe how modern people committed themselves to a kind of rationality that gives lie to and explains away all superstition and religion. My use of the term ‘enchantment’ is not to say the Weber was entirely wrong; rather, he was speaking of a particularly western and European subjectivity that was traditionally alienated from nature and thoroughly “modern.” In this alienation, this disenchantment, religion ceases being even the opiate, the “drug” of the masses to which Karl Marx pointed, not as a way to dismiss religion but rather to say that religion medicates and seeks to heal people alienated from their own labor, from their own selves.

In both psychedelic aesthetics and the earlier critiques of modernity that accompany them, enchantment and enthusiasm are employed tactically to reject authority.  To get at what makes the psychedelic different then earlier critiques, take an excerpt from the song, “Homage to Catherine and William Blake” by the psychedelic folk group, The Fugs. The song begins with images of Blake and his wife playing out the Genesis story naked in their garden:

William Blake, won’t you come into our brain, brain, brain, brain, brain apertures.

Tell us, tell us about a nation gone nuts with nuts-nuts, //

with the eating blood, Egyptian priests gaze the harvest by watching a stick in the river Nile, while galaxies are spinning in the sullen quasar spew.

Demeter wants to tell her lovers all the Eleusinian secrets.

Ooh William Blake lay down in the Rosicrucian coffin.

The apostrophe invokes Blake, channeling him into the present situation (the Vietnam War protest, to which there are other references in the song). The channeling occurs as a homophonic ambiguity between the organ of the “brain” with the aperture of the seventh chakra at the top of the skull and ‘brane,’ short for membrane, which in physics can embody any number of dimensions. The vocals occur over the harmonic structure of a blues progression with a heavily cadenced ‘turnaround’ (which even a listener with no musical background can recognize). A break in the music at the turn in the blues form establishes a new cycle through the form, but the vocal phrasing carries over the two cycles, thus suturing the harmonic form and effecting enjambment of the line (signified above by //). The enjambment and the break accompany the shift to imagery of ancient Egypt and specifically to the Demeter myth. As the musical form builds in tension toward another turn, Blake is addressed in the imperative: “lay down in the Rosicrucian coffin.” This coffin invokes the mythological, occult and masonic tradition of the resurrection of the king. According to images in Alexander Roob’s Hermetic Museum of Alchemy and Mysticism, the image of the coffin doubles as a floor plan for masonic orders and maps the path of an initiate from the foot of the coffin up to the head or position of Grand Master, symbolized by a throne (222). In an allegorical piece entitled Work-table for the 3rd degree (master) c.1780, the throne is replaced with a budding palm freshly sprouting, with the coffin / floor plan under the earth (223).


In this context, we can return to the song’s reference to Demeter wishing to release her secrets. Blake, being told to “lay down in the coffin,” disseminates with the help of Demeter into the mysteries and infuses the aperture of the speaker’s brain / brane with the answer to the nation’s crisis. The psychedelic aesthetics here obscure temporality by invoking mythological tropes and contextualizing them in a given historical situation in an epideictic fashion of the ceremonious moment of the channeling.

The psychedelic aspects of “Homage to Catherine and William Blake” perform something similar to Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” – Artaud’s answer to the “plague” in European culture. In the late 1930s, describing this new theatre, he writes:

This very difficult and complex poetry assumes many aspects: especially the aspects of all the means of expression utilizable on the stage, such as music, dance, plastic art, pantomime, mimicry, gesticulation, intonation, architecture, lighting, and scenery. (39)

As the break in the music (marked by // above) that establishes the enjambment of the line also takes on the transcendence into mythological time above, polysemus gestures are layered on top of each other, creating a saturated metaphor. This is characteristic of psychedelic aesthetics in both themes of death and resurrection, as well as gestural punning. Jesting, invoking the occult or the mysterious obfuscates and de-temporalizes meaning, invoking the perennial and ultimately creating a space where ironic distance overcomes itself. This jesting, however, is enchanted, and exists in the representation of closure: “The movement is the movement of the world as play,” as Derrida says (“The Theater” 250).

Now, I want to suggest that it is in the ludic presentation of irony overcoming itself that that psychedelic aesthetics has something to offer more current critiques of subjectivity and liberal citizenship. To get at this, I will use another example by the Fugs, this time accompanied by Allen Ginsberg, as they perform an “Exorcism on the Grave of Senator Joseph McCarthy.”

The exorcism has about eight parts: mixed parts of Tibetan and Zen chants to clear the air, a channeling of the senator’s spirit, a woman who has offered to have sex with the spirit followed by a performance of “My Country ‘tis of Thee.” All of this seems quite tongue-in-cheek, and on the recording one can hear giggles from people in the group. The giggles interrupt Ginsberg as he begins the ceremony, and he stops to say, “Can we have quiet, like formal, religious, ceremonial thing? For seriousness it will work.” The posturing is completely self-aware, but at the same time, this is more than a joke. It takes a certain degree of dedication to do it, and the recording of the event makes the gesture a performance for a broad and unknown audience. Over and over in psychedelic works, the elaborate jesting performs exhaustion and saturation. Moreover, the profane humor is overcome by cleansing the deeds of the Senator who persecuted leftists in the 1950s (including Erwin Piscator, who was responsible for introducing Artaud’s theories of performance in America). As the performers overcome time, they invoke the perennial through their ceremonial or epideictic rhetoric so as to have access to the spirit. Invoking the spiritual here has implications for the historical moment of the performance.[2]

The saturated psychedelic aesthetic overcoming irony performs a critique of modern subjectivity as derived from European culture. Access to this critique involves some sort of initiation into an experience. This notion of experience is also deeply rooted in the European Romantic tradition, and it offers both justifications and critiques of liberalism upon return from the experience itself. Such a tradition is of course not static. It depends on what information an individual has and with which to figure he or she invokes the tradition. It operates as a cultural imaginary and individuals’ levels of engagement will differ in accuracy according to their respective performances. Nevertheless, the ability to recognize the shared experience of “the Romantic tradition” or to William Blake points to a site of cultural binding. A ritualized experience of Blake reinforces that bond. Being critical does not come at the expense of traditional culture.

The return from the ecstatic experience produces the “truth” and the inclination to tell others about it. The one who is properly ‘experienced’ becomes a special individual, not only because of participation in the ritual act, but because the experience affords access to a special truth, to a commitment that is capable of binding. These themes occur over a broad swath of aesthetic material and mediums during the 1960s. Many popular psychedelic works – from Timothy Leary’s manual, The Psychedelic Experience, toJimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? and The Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers of America, to Ken Kesey’s acid tests – overtly perform such initiations. In their early account, Psychedelic Art (1968), Robert E. L. Masters and Jean Houston write of the broad range of psychedelic works,

These different works of art do have a unity, common meanings and intentions that keep them within the framework of psychedelic art. However, the unity may not in every case be apparent to the viewer who has no first-hand experience of altered states of consciousness and who is not otherwise knowledgeable about psychedelics. (87)

The first-hand experience offers exclusivity here, and the rhetoric is alluring. The aesthetics are evangelical. Psychedelic experience here gives access, not just to a special understanding, but the ability to differentiate critically among a variety of works, to see connections where others cannot, essentially to have gnosis following initiation.

Part of that gnosis critiques an existing social European imaginary (and politically of course its American descendants). With regard to the psychedelic era, the fantasy structure of psychedelic experience must be situated historically as a critique of the European Enlightenment and the notion that immersion into “nature” and a return from it not only brings truth but a kind of purification. The hope or expectation for such purification is present in psychedelic works, and ideologically those works attempt to reform liberalism. Representationally, this reform took place through refiguring subjectivity and governance. During the psychedelic movement and the years since Nixon’s formulation of the War on Drugs and the creation of drug schedules in the early 1970s, this drama has played itself out to the extent that illegal drug use became a ritualized defiance that attempted to assert a self with more moral authority than the State.

Drugs and religion. Psychedelics and entheogens. What is medicine and is it restorative or merely addictive? Do we eat God? Is God what we consume? Another more contemporary thinker dealing with these issues is Giorgio Agamben in his reading of Marcel Mauss on gift-giving in The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Agamben’s work shows an important relationship between the divine and sacrificial rites. He notes that Mauss was deeply influenced by the anthropologist Sylvain Levi, whose work on early Brahmin religion and sacrifice in The Rig Veda (which is the soma sacrifice) suggests that, “Indian sacrifice is not simply an effective action, as are all rites; it does not limit itself to merely influencing the gods; it creates them” (226). Rites are essentially poetic in the sense of making.

Through ingesting the divine one not only becomes divine, the act determines and makes the divine. It is a relationship similar to the economy Burroughs suggests as cooperative. Agamben says that “both sacrifice and prayer present us with a theurgical aspect in which men, by performing a series of rituals – more gestural in the case of sacrifice, more oral in that of prayer – act on the gods in a more or less effective manner.” This leads Agamben to an aesthetic notion that has been de-emphasized in politics – a fundamental relationship to “glorification over glory”:

Perhaps glorification is not only that which best fits the glory of God but is itself, as effective rite, what produces glory; and if glory is the very substance of God and the true sense of his economy, then it depends upon glorification in an essential manner and, therefore, has good reason to demand it through reproaches and injunctions.

We begin to see here the importance of understanding psychedelic aesthetics in relationship to not only citizenship but to a citizenship of re-enchantment. It is not merely nostalgia for religion or spirituality left behind by narratives of secularization, but the very substance of economic process itself. The affective qualities of poetic works are at the heart of politics and the economy.

Narratives of secularization, of modernity leaving religion behind, mask the questions at the core of liberalism and political commitment. Narratives of secularization are themselves powerfully addictive. I contend that psychedelic aesthetics break open the core of liberalism. They make manifest the psyche not just of one individual at one time but also of a subjectivity informed by cultural narratives. At that core of liberalism is a political-theological struggle. As it turns out, when western liberal subjectivity’s mind is manifested, it is a shit show.

That is to say, contemporary culture – the impregnated and infected signifier that holds its own ghost, that foresees and apprehends its own death and erases itself as a being-beyond-death – is impregnated and infected by the repression of the critiques that erupted in the 1960s and which with have not been adequately dealt. To be clear, I am not being nostalgic about the 1960s, nor do I read the era as some sort of moral decline. I believe that with regard to the 1960s, we are like Ishmael on Melville’s Pequod,

Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

Melville’s political-theological appropriation of the Old Testament here is figured onto the Leviathan itself in the state of nature. An idea of infinity is at work here that psychedelic aesthetics do not invent so much as they highlight or enhance. Perhaps an exodus occurred in the 1960s and the leaders of it were not allowed to see the Promised Land; or perhaps there never was any Promised Land. In any case, new spaces were sought, and we can see this both in literature of the period and experimentation with lifestyle (see Adam Lerner and Elissa Auther: West of Center).

So far as literature is concerned we see virtual lands recurring. We can even see this with The Psychedelic Experience and growing fascinations with the Far East among the New Age Movement. This continues today. In Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald Lopez tracks the concept of Tibet as a nation over the past two hundred years.  Escaping formal colonialism until China took it over in the late fifties, deterritorializing the Dalai Lama, according to Lopez, Tibet becomes the conceptual storage space for all that could be sacred – a true mystical State without states – the leaderless imaginary required for the making of law. Lopez tracks the influence of Theosophists, 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 of the Dead, including the Evans-Wendtz edition that Aldous Huxley referred to when he suggested to Timothy Leary that he and his colleagues produce a manual to guide people through a “psychedelic experience.” Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner’s The Psychedelic Experience and Sogyal Rinpoche’s both focus on end of life care in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.[3] Nineteenth-century spiritualism here merges with and informs fictional western figurations of Buddhism. Lopez claims, “Tibetan Buddhists are building an empire of individuals” regardless of nation or ethnicity (207). Lopez also goes so far as to note the Dalai Lama’s theosophical universalism, discussing in particular 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. While more recent claims by the Dalai Lama seem to reject the west on the very basis of unavoidably ethnocentrism – the kind that cannot be overcome by rejecting a culture for a “greener side”- the point that Lopez makes is still resonant: much of the western liberal fascination with Buddhism has more to do with what Max Weber called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism than it does with the various forms of Buddhism in the far east. What has been infused with the western conception of Buddhism is a mystical tradition critiquing the European Enlightenment, which is not to claim that people in the US or other countries who identify as Buddhist have misconceived everything. As the Dalai Lama himself will often claim, it is better to seek enlightenment from within the cultural matrix one grows up in. He tells hilarious and charming stories of people born Buddhist who have supposedly “converted” the Christianity that come to him and tell him, “It’s okay, I will be a Buddhist in my next life” as well as Christians-turned-Buddhist conflating enlightenment with heaven.

All of this makes reading The Psychedelic Experience in 2014 a rather complex matter. This is because, willy-nilly, the text implies a critique of western liberal subjectivity. Let me then present the structure of the psychedelic experience itself. At least initially, a safe place and setting is chosen; one usually has a guide; the sacrament is eaten and then the individual goes through a process of mind expansion and ego “death”; thenre-entry. The psychedelic experience implies a journey and a return. As Leary et al.’s book emphasizes, re-entry is the most essential part of the journey, for it is there than one can decide to use the information from the trip. At the cultural level, the psychedelic experience involves a consciousness expansion and ego-death into an enchanted space where information is gathered or “experienced” that exceeds the governing capabilities of the modern Nation State. Upon re-entry, depending on how one chooses to deal with the enchanted material, one’s moral authority comes to exceed the regulating power of the State. Psychedelic experiences are not so much about destroying ego or subjectivity, they are rather about re-situating that subjectivity or establishing a “new” subjectivity. They are postmodern extensions of progress narrative that are non-linear.

Indeed, some luminary writers were able to articulate the difficulties of the return to the perennial and psychedelics during the1960s. Herbert Marcuse himself had said earlier in the decade that nothing indicated that a revolution had to happen. As a literary example, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests recounts Ken Kesey’s unwelcomed reception at an anti-war rally in Berkeley where he tried to tell the crowd that activism only affirmed the authority of the existing powers-that-be. This incident evidences a different approach to the use of psychedelics, the perennial, and 1960s activism in contrast to my earlier examples. At the rally, Kesey told the crowd of demonstrators:

We’ve all heard all this and seen all this before, but we keep on doing it…I went to see the Beatles last month…And I heard 20,000 girls screaming together at the Beatles…and I couldn’t hear what they were screaming, either…But you don’t have to…They’re screaming Me! Me! Me! Me!…I’m Me!…That’s the cry of the ego, and that’s the cry of this rally!… Me! Me! Me! Me!…And that’s why wars get fought…ego…because enough people want to scream Pay attention to Me…Yep, you’re playing their game . . .

There’s only one thing to do…there’s only one thing’s gonna do any good at all…and that’s everybody just look at it, look at the war, and turn your backs and say…Fuck it…(224)[Wolfe’s italics]

What sets psychedelic aesthetics here apart from other examples of social activism in the 1960s is that the theory of the psychedelic experience aspires toparticipate by situating a new subjectivity or citizenship, not in a state of expanded consciousness, but rather in their return from that state. Whereas The Fugs and activists like Abbie Hoffman and attempts to levitate the Pentagon invoked ludic ceremonies for public crises, Kesey at this point had given up on exigency as determined by existing politics. Whereas general civil rights protests may have been about more inclusivity for citizenship, the formulaic nature of the psychedelic ultimately had to impose a limit. Not everyone could be a prankster. The bus was not big enough, at least not so long as it inhabited real space.

In other words, the psychedelic is not just an argument for more inclusivity into a larger social frame; it is also a tactic for exclusivity. Because, it employs enchantment to achieve the redrawing of citizenship, the psychedelic enacts political theology. The ego-broadening experience collects more, accounts for more, and often gets what it asks for – an overcoming of individuality, of ego, of self, etc. But then what? The psychedelic experience does not remain in Dionysian ecstasy or in Beatlemania. Such overcoming of ego is an inherent critique of European notions of selfhood and a therapeutic rehabilitation of the concept, but only in the return from the psychedelic experience can the newly (re)-incarnated ‘self’ account for the trip. Kesey’s recommendation to say ‘fuck it’ is socially motivated by an ethical perspective that has transcended the authority of the nation-state. In this sense it is different than Timothy Leary’s more evangelical invocation to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” For Kesey, all one needs to do is reject the entire frame of states, nationality, or an ego. He has no answers.

The problem of accounting for this transcendence beyond nation states manifests as an aesthetic concern with process and the difficulty of presenting works as open or transcending historical facticity. As seen with the Fugs’ song above, Kesey’s performance at the Vietnam Day rally, and the Merry Pranksters’ trip across the United States in the legendary bus “Further,” psychedelic aesthetics perform polysemus layering at the level of poetics and story. It is a collapse that cannot be easily parsed out by a hermeneutic system distinguishing between gradated levels of reality – literal, allegorical, etc. since part of the point is to create the collapse of distinction. The collapse of distinction overcomes the ego while simultaneously invoking a failure. As The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests exemplifies, Ken Kesey fails at being an outlaw as well as at his Tom Sawyer-like attempt to fake his own death, as Tom Wolfe recounts. Kesey and the pranksters also importantly fail in their attempt to make a movie documenting their trip across the country. Nevertheless, what the film attempted to track is the progress itself. Once the trip was over, the attempt to edit dissipated as the pranksters lost the momentum of the trip.[4]

Because of the importance of failure and limit-experiences, the notion of reincarnation as an aesthetic quality is perhaps a better way to analyze psychedelic works. Inherent in failure is a refusal of immortality and a recognition of presence. Within the notion of reincarnation, we account for the return from the “death” of the perennial. We can also overcome the linear trajectory of narratives based only on causality. The ‘progress’ of the psychedelic experience is accomplished by an intentional redrawing of the border between self and world, perhaps with a deeper sense of one’s place in the world or connection to other things; nevertheless, the recovered self is an embodied self verified in aesthetic works. This is no appeal to pure transcendence. The failure remains essential because the Clear Light of the Void was not achieved. One is here on earth, in a body – not with Atman, not with Oversoul, not with God, but separate and different from, like any good liberal subject. Re-embodiment is failure itself, not just because the emergence of consciousness is simultaneously the emergence of consciousness-as-different-from the divine, but because such a consciousness wills a kind of bodhisattva-like compassion. Failure broadens a definition of death. It becomes the “great equalizer.”

The problem of the perennial and dehistoricization arises from a conception of being-toward death where responsibility cannot easily account for what comes before. One could certainly claim: “this is pure fiction!” But as political theology shows, we have many fictions already – it is a matter of whether or not it is good fiction. (The end of any substantive rhetoric, as Socrates tells Gorgias, is to use myth for directing toward the Good).

The trope of death and rebirth permeates psychedelic works, but taken seriously we come up against a wall here. One does not will re-integration; reintegration happens. Not everyone is a bodhisattva who “chooses” to come back. Art struggles historically with relationship to religion because art appears to be consumed with corpses. With regard to a fiction of reincarnation, we remain here precisely because of the fact that true enlightenment was not achieved. The ego-death experience affords a temporary vantage-point, the ability to “hear behind the music,” so to speak, while an immersion takes place with nature in the raw. It is this aspect that affords psychedelic critiques with the ability to cover wide swaths of time and culture, to merge with the perennial. We never get the whole picture, but with the psychedelic experience we certainly get more of it.

Despite the ethical concerns one may have of such a method – for example, the seductive tendency for psychonauts of privileged means to superimpose their subjective experience onto “humanity” – it is important to see these critical affordances as part of a structured social critique of liberal subjectivity and not just naïve sentiment. Certainly lots of people during the 1960s and since have uncritically used psychedelics and made psychedelic art, but people have also uncritically gone to church, voted, etc. Early pioneers of the psychedelic movement, as we shall see, did indeed have theories and plans to change the human condition.

Perennialism manifests in psychedelic works, but the critical problem remains, especially if we are considering how psychedelic works might give a context for deliberating about subjectivity currently. How can we trust such works? What disclaimers should we make from the outset so as to not seem naïve? Where does this paranoia about who to trust come from? Paranoia is the doubling of the mind – superficiality, above the face: the decentering of subjectivity already occurring in these states establishes an appeal to truth, to justice, and to the sacred. It is helpful here to turn to attempts to critically analyze and even theorize the psychedelic experience.  My next lecture will look at the liberal roots of psychedelic aesthetics, but for now let’s discuss the texts for the day.

See the post below on “Theorizing the Psychedelic Experience.”



[1] Ibid.

[2] An oddly similar “forgiveness” occurred later between Timothy Leary and Gordon Liddy. Liddy had persecuted Leary at the Millbrook estate in the late 1960s only to find himself later the subject of public scorn with his involvement in the Watergate scandal. The two men gave public appearances that were a kind of shoulder-shrugging about morality and law during the late sixties and early seventies.


[3] Lopez’s book precedes the most recent and thorough translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.


[4] While a movie version, The Magic Bus, was released in 2011, ten years after Kesey’s actual death, it seems to miss the point of the original failure – all of which culminated in Kesey’s idea of a graduation from acid, which many people failed to do.


Naropa University, Thursday June 5th with Eleni Sikelianos

June 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

I’ll be accompanying Eleni Sikelianos as she reads from her wonderful new book, You Animal Machine, Thursday at 7:00pm at Naropa University for their Summer Writing Program.

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