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.


Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 1: Postsecularism, Political Theology, and Enchantment. June 8, 2014 at


%d bloggers like this: