Friday August 1, Roger plays for Heads of Hydra Photo Opening

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ll be playing music tomorrow evening for the opening of a Heads of Hydra photography show anti-curated by Richard Peterson. 6pm-12:00am.


Roger Green performs for Heads of Hydra Opening

Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 8: Soma Sacrifice, Maria Sabina, Anne Waldman

July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

For a time there came young people of one and the other sex, long-haired, with strange clothes. They wore shirts of many colors and used necklaces. A lot came. Some of these young people sought me out for me to stay up with the Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. “We come in search of God,” they said. It was difficult for me to explain to them that the vigils weren’t done from the simple desire to find God, but were done for the sole purpose of curing the sicknesses that our people suffer from. (63)

— Maria Sabina, Selections

In last week’s discussion, I talked about the ways that psychedelic discourse has continued to come from perspectives that often times cannot acknowledge their own investments in white privilege. Even the tendency to treat illegal drugs as “entheogens” with the potential worth “experimenting” assumes the privilege of experimentation. In the United States, the heritage of slavery continues in our prison systems where men and women who are not white continue to be sacrificed on the altar of the European Imaginary. Psychedelic discourse has often also privileged the perspectives of men, and to a certain extent this has been a flaw of the reading lists this summer. The flaw, however, has been necessary to articulate what I have been calling the European Imaginary. The laudable efforts toward the inclusion of women’s perspectives within academic culture continue. Much recent gender critique is enmeshed within the insights and theories that drove the psychedelic movement and broader civil rights movements in the 1960s. A recent statement by Nese Devenot claims that “Psychedelia is, properly speaking, queer” ( While I tend to agree with Devenot, even such a claim relies on the academic privileges that allow us to contemplate queer theory, poststructuralism, and much of what informs my own work this summer. I should take this moment in my last lecture to remind that this has been an introductory course. I will not, in the two hours we have today, be able to do justice to the exclusion of women from this discourse overtime. To the extent that women have been included, they are often aligned with qualities of enchantment, an enchantment that critiques the European Imaginary. But what we risk by appealing to inherent “enchanted” qualities among women is an essentialism of the variety critiques by the third wave feminism in reaction to their second wave predecessors. It is difficult for me to address these issues without explaining an already privileged discursive situation. In relatively non-academic discussions, like this course, the risk we commonly run into is to essentialize. This is old hat for feminist and postcolonial scholars, but even in academia there is a constant need to address these issues. My purpose in today’s lecture is to parse out, in the psychedelic terms I have presented this summer, how psychedelic scholarship of good intentions produces troublesome critical positions. We will discuss Sabina and Waldman in part two. For those interested in my explication of both of the poetics of both of these women, I will be presenting a paper on them in Boise, Idaho in October, and will be happy to circulate that work as it get closer to completion. As a final course, let me simply say that beyond texts like Sisters of the Extreme, little work has been devoted to women, gender in general, and ethnocentric power within psychedelic studies. Rather, there is often an appeal to sciences steeped in masculinist rhetoric. To make such a claim is not to devalue that work but to simply point out where we could do better. I especially invite women present here today to speak from a gendered perspective I cannot pretend to know, particularly in your responses to Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman and her extensions of Maria Sabina’s poetics. The rest of my lecture will aim at a much more male-centered body of scholarship. My question at the end will be: What can women’s perspectives add to this? In psychedelic rhetoric there is always the tendency to disintegrate into more essential modes of being and thereby appeal to universal experiences, even plant consciousnesses. But how can gender not be part of our mind manifestations?    



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

In order to attempt understanding the ancient meaning of soma, it must be linked to the part it plays as oblation in the sacrifice, and that part is to be a unifying aspect of the mortal and the divine. Thomas Oberlies argues “that access to the divine draft soma signifies political power and legitimizes rule” (in Whitaker 417). Those who took the soma became a political elite. Jarrod Whitaker, however, disagrees with Oberlies’ assertion that “the terms ‘presser’ (susvi) and ‘non-presser’ (asusvi) represent a separation of Vedic society into two halves; one that participates in the soma cult and one excluded from it.”   In either case, it appears that access to soma was still meant for those who were privileged and those who were “non-pressers” were looked down upon for not participating in the cult (425). While it is unclear to what extent soma pressing determined Aryan citizenship, it is certainly a term that distinguished an identity group, even if that was only a group of priests. Partaking in the sacrifice determines citizenship.

If Mukhopadhyay is right in relating soma to the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, then it appears that the conception of divine inspiration and merge transcend the sacrificial ritual and eventually relate to dharma, or upholding the natural order of things. If ingested, soma would inspire one to act rightly. In acting rightly, one performs a kind of citizenship in the soma cult. To press and drink soma was part of ritual sacrifice, which seems to have traveled from India to ancient Greece, where the word’s meaning changed to represent “body.” Many scholars find similarities in the Eleusinian mysteries, but hasty references to the mysteries, such as Wasson’s famous claims in the 1950s cited by Leary in his perennial returns to the pre-political, mask the anthropological complexities and unsubstantial evidence present in the field.

In linguistic terms, it is tough to track the word from Sanskrit into Greek, the meaning of soma, as it seems to have moved from Aryan culture into Greek culture. While anthropological evidence is emergent and encouraging, it can only be roughly traced both through mythology, etymology, and philosophy. The scholarly literature then, inadvertently codes the desires of the scholars working in the field. For example, in The Apples of Apollo: Pagan Mysteries of the Eucharist, Carl A. P. Ruck, Blaise Daniel Staples and Clark Heinrich discuss soma by focusing on entheogens, particularly the hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria, which they trace from its usage in the Rig Veda through the Indo Aryan and Indo European nomadic cultures which transported both entheogens and ideas about sacrifice to ancient Greece. Ruck et al. discuss the myth of Perseus, the “mushroom picker.” They read what other scholars have read as a tiny detail – Perseus’ picking of a mushroom on the site of the city of Mycenae – as “the culmination of his career,” for plucking the mushroom and decapitating Medusa appear to be “one and the same.” They base their findings on analyses of artistic depictions on a Greek vase from the fourth century BC. Moreover, they note that in the Garden of the Hesperid sisters, Medusa’s head “is equated to the Golden Apples of the tree – and with a pair of mushrooms” (43). This group of scholars has a long history of trying to identify Amanita muscaria as soma.

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

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

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

That Huston Smith chose to reprint the article defending Wasson in his self-selected anthology of his own work, Cleansing the Doors of Perception, in 2000, attests the author’s continuing acceptance of Wasson’s claim, despite numerous other hypotheses about the nature of the original soma plant. It is now, for example, generally understood that soma was not a single plant, and as far back as 1978, Mukhopadhyay has asserted this (“On the Significance” 7). Soma, then, in ethnobotanic and religious discourse since the late fifties has broadened in meaning as it has joined a larger discussion about entheogens in general and their relationship to human civilization, and this broadened meaning has itself affected ancient scholarship.

This is evidenced by Huston Smith, who in the same article discussed above, credits Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) with “introducing entheogens to the contemporary west” (63). It is strange that Smith, a famous professor of Religious History, would so quickly gloss over William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience – a text that is recurring even in Huxley’s own writings, in which the subject is addressed. Therefore, Smith’s statement should be read as referring to the popular nature of Huxley’s audience and to the perception that the discourse changed in the 1950s. That change is, of course, the nascent psychedelic movement. And it is not surprising, therefore, that Huxley’s work also finds resonance in Ruck’s The Apples of Apollo.

Huxley’s Heaven and Hell (1956) characterizes the experience of entheogenic drugs and visionary experience as both producing mystic ecstasy and horror. This too can be found in the account Ruck et al. give to soma in The Apples of Apollo, and it is this version of soma that is the more conceptual one, developed by scholars since the late fifties. So, along with Perseus, Ruck et al. claim that Prometheus stole soma in the form of spiritual fire (23). They also cite Euripides’ Ion, which tells the story of Creusa, the Queen of Athens, who receives two drops of Medusa’s blood, one which “was intended as the consecrating anointment for the city’s dynastic sovereign. The other sprang from the Gorgon’s serpents and was a lethal poison” (43). In doing so, these scholars both amplify and transcend the romantic tradition of William Blake within which Huxley has placed his lineage.

Ruck et al. build their definition of soma from the following epithets they attribute to it: “golden apples, an eye, a multiplicity of eyes, golden water, honey, lightning bolts, golden urine, golden semen, golden rain, golden snow, estrual cows, bellowing bulls, golden hides, pelts, phallus, vulva, wings, etc.” (41). They also suggest that tracing soma occurs etymologically, and not just as a collection of epithets: “‘It rains’ in Greek is the impersonal verb huei, and if there is a subject, it is Zeus; but the verb is cognate with Sanskrit sunoti, which means “to press out the juice.” In Herodotus’ account of Polycrates’ daughter’s premonition of his death, Zeus also brings rain on Polycrates’ impaled body. The Vedic entheogen Soma is named as ‘the pressed one’” (69). According to Ruck, this concept carries all the way into Christianity with the story of Gethsemane. Gethsemane, in Aramaic, means oil press:

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

We can also see the sus / swine root in the suovetaurilia sacrifice, which is described by Circe to Odysseus in books ten and eleven of Homer’s Odyssey as a sacrifice to Demeter in the underworld.

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

Sacrificial ceremonies differ according to culture, and contemporary scholarship surrounding soma has often glossed over those differences in ways that concern scholars committed to multiculturalism. One brief way to conceive of this is to consider ancient Mesopotamian sacrifice in relation to Semitic and Greek notions. Walter Burkert has written extensively concerning a bias in mythological criticism against “oriental” or “eastern” influence on early Greek culture in The Orientalizing Revolution and Ancient Mystery Cults. Tzvi Abusch has argued that sacrifice “may serve to maintain a group that is drawn together by, or whose identity is based on, some common characteristic” (46), but also that a comparison between Semitic sacrifice and Mesopotamian sacrifice reveals an important difference. For Mesopotamians, according to Abusch, sacrifices had to do with the temple, which was a storehouse of food. Food was offered to gods as a part of a relationship where the gods created humans to serve and feed them. After the prepared food was offered to the gods, it was distributed to the members of the cult. The Semites, on the other hand, organized their sacrifices around kinship and blood ties:

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

As part of the cultural assimilation then, the Semites introduced blood and liquid aspects of sacrifice, which related to kinship relations and the transference of governance by family lineage. Political theology in its western sense is burgeoning here. It is well known that this appears to have replaced the Mesopotamian, female-centered fertility social structure, but Marvin W. Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries discusses fertility cults surviving in Eleusinian mysteries. Meyer writes that “the mystai participated in rites that performed three types of sacred observances: legomena, “things recited,” deiknymena, “things shown,” and dromena, “things performed” (10). There are similar distinctions between the different Vedas. In contrast to this, however, Tzvi discusses the Mesopotamian creation myths where human bodies were formed out of clay and covered in flesh and blood of a sacrificed god. The god’s flesh gives life to the clay. As Tzvi argues,

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

Still, the liquid aspects of the blood sacrifice are reminiscent of Vedic soma, and it would be worthwhile to more precisely track down the historical diaspora of Aryan and Semitic cultures to see cross-cultural contact. But, as I have said, debates over soma are not settled.

What we can glean from what I have presented here is the possibility that the blood and liquid aspects, which Tzvi claims are the roots of intelligence, merge with the liquid aspects of the Aryan soma, and that the liquid and material aspects begin to divurge in Western culture, eventually becoming the distinction between soma and psyche. Hebraic political theology of course shapes western political theology. One can see this with respect to the Yom Kippur festival and the idea of the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat. One goat was offered to the god while the other bore the sins of the people and was taken out of town by a “prepared man” and thrown off a cliff (Stokl 209). Daniel Johannes Stokl argues, “with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the Temple ritual lost its natural geography. The centre of Jewish worship shifted from the destroyed temple to the synagogues, and its ritual was transformed into a bloodless service of liturgical memory” (210). So, while Tzvi sees a connection between the personal god and blood sacrifice, Stokl sees a decentralization of the sacrifice in Jewish and eventually early Christian cultures. While I certainly cannot trace a direct lineage of the western meaning for soma back to Aryan ritual, knowledge of how Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultural mixtures does help to understand how in the West a separation was developing between body and soul. However, that separation, as Tzvi suggests, is in relation to a personalized deity that maintains a unified identity structure for particular groups of people through the development of transcendent religion, which Marcel Gauchet aligns with the idea of the State. But in order to continue the discussion about soma, it is necessary to touch on one of soma’s Greek counterparts: psyche.

According to John P. Wright and Paul Potter, the editors of : Physicians and Metaphysicians on the mind-body problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment, in the western tradition the concept of soma can be traced historically in the following way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even as far back as Homer, then, soma designates body or corpse for the Greeks, losing its liquid qualities and becoming static and taking on the physical aspects of sacrifice. It is a body that is sacrificed, and we can see this easily with the pharmakon and human sacrifice. Soma in western culture thereafter takes on more nominative (subjective) or accusative (objective) fixed linguistic meaning, and the linguistic interchange between subjectivity and objectivity as it relates to mysticism and psychedelic writing should be sought here. In contrast, the development of the concept of psyche, while never completely separate from soma, often relates to the capacity for feeling, for sense, and perception.

This capacity for what one “may be” is expressed by Anthony Beavis in Eyeless in Gaza. Before he encounters Miller, the character loosely based on Gerald Heard and F.M. Alexander, the body for Anthony is merely what holds one’s place in time. In Anthony’s ultimate acceptance of pacifism, however, the possible death of the body loses its significance as merely a placeholder for being-toward-death.

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

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

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

The excess aspects of soma, particularly those related to ritual and sacrifice, public and State, thus became an abstract “morality” with the rise of the modern, liberal subject. Morality became synonymous with a version of society with which the liberal subject was always in tension. God’s laws were replaced with civic apparatuses and social contract philosophy. The development of the social sciences, particularly the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, evidence this shift, as does Nietzsche’s genealogical approach to enquiry, which valorized ancient views of the good over and against modern views and influenced both Huxley the writer and his characters. All of this deep political theology is behind the concept that Huxley uses with respect to entheogenic ingestion and citizenship; and while messy, it is a clear rivalry with respect to thinkers like Carl Schmitt. But both early political theologians did not have the benefit of religious studies or more recent archaeology as disciplines to draw from.

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

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

Raschke sees modernism’s myth of transfiguration as culminating in personal transcendence through an attack on structuralism’s centrality. Poststructuralism and the work of Jacques Derrida thus become especially important for religious studies as they focus on the deconstruction of the state and the body politic. Raschke and poststructuralist thinkers like Derrida and Michel Foucault then evidence an examination of the entrails of the sacrificed body of the state in the wake of psychedelic aesthetics. But the state is not just a somatic body; it is a psychic one as well, because psyche is what is inside the body politic.

Rene Girard’s classic Violence and the Sacred argues for a view of sacrifice via Freud’s Oedipal complex. Raschke echoes this saying, “the sacrifice of the god was the recapitulation historically of, as well as the mythical token of the Oedipal wish for, the murder of god” (156). Freudian psychology continues a long-standing parallel in western medicine between psyche and soma. The Western concept of soma is deeply attached to the concept of the State and bodies of power; thus, a sacrifice on the State itself cannot only occur in terms of institutional bodies – and politics cannot either. In order for the sacrifice to be complete in the west, psyche must be sacrificed along with soma, and that is what the psychedelic aesthetics have attempted and continue to attempt.

“Psychedelic,” the word coined in 1957 in a letter to Aldous Huxley, literally means “mind-manifesting.” The search for soma and entheogenic religion thus arises out of this historical situation in which individuals radically assert themselves over and above the out-moded authority of the State. This happened in the 1960s as a performance of aesthetics as the psychic manifestation of exactly what transcended state power determined in the Weberian sense Schneiderman asserted above by means of physical force. Huxley’s pacifistic transcendence of such a worldview seems anything but politically complacent in this view. Consciousness changes and paradigm shifts can be understood as the psychic counterpart to the somatic sacrifice of institutional bodies. In searching for the mythical soma and entheogens then, scholars ideologically attempt to usher in the new age of religion. In experimenting with psychedelic drugs in the 1960s, populaces partook in the sacrifice of the state by reorganizing the notion of citizenship. They did not have to believe they were doing this as individuals.

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

Soma, in the scholarly discourse I have discussed, is often metonymic for a return to the perennial. As such, it ideologically performs the same criticism of European subjectivity that I claimed psychedelic aesthetics employed in earlier chapters. It is also, however, highly suspect to scholars interested in maintaining distinct cultural identities. What is at stake is the possibility of conceiving a broader definition of humanity that is global. What is at stake is the possibility of human rights and international legal legitimacy.

Insofar as soma, or more recent studies of molecules like DMT relate to post-1960s consciousness studies of Stanislav Groff, which try to produce psychedelic experiences without the use of drugs, a fundamental structure for human consciousness may indeed be biologically determined. This discourse, if proven, could perhaps take away from the stigma of essentialism inherent in cross-cultural ethnobotanic work as well as help in legal discussions about human rights. The issue quickly becomes biopolitical and theological in nature. But what we learn from psychedelic aesthetics is a growing tradition that criticizes liberal subjectivity from within western cultural frames and habitus. If western notions of subjectivity in terms of law and human rights could be more historically informed, that is, in ways that precede the development of nation-state discourse, we might be better able to create working definitions of human rights and citizenship than current ethnocentric ones. I am suggesting this as a development on notions of “The Archaic Revival” or The Myth of the Eternal Return as presented by undoubtedly great thinkers like Terrence McKenna and Mircea Eliade respectively.

It is within this tendency toward essentialism that I want to open our discussion of Maria Sabina and Anne Waldman today. I do so with a particular emphasis on the potentially masculinist tendencies of the discourse so far. Many of us have perhaps heard that matriarchal cultures precede patriarchal ones as well as continue alongside them. But rhetorically this appeals to origins; and what so much poststructural thinking coming out of the psychedelic movement – as well as thinkers like Nietzsche presented earlier in the course – have challenged is the notion of origins. Literary study of aesthetics helps to do this.

Jerome Rothenberg writes in his introduction to Maria Sabina: Selections that to bring Maria Sabina into an “ensemble” of poets of the new millennium is “to question the boundaries of poetry as a matter of literature, at least in the way in which those words – ‘poetry’ and ‘literature’ – are commonly understood. Maria Sabina says in her autobiography repeatedly that she could not work as a wise woman while with a man: “in accordance with our beliefs the woman who takes mushrooms should not have relations with men. Those who are going to stay up shouldn’t have sexual relations for four days before and after the vigil. Those who want to can complete five and five. I didn’t take the saint children [while married] because I was afraid that my man wouldn’t understand it. This condition should be fulfilled faithfully” (18-19). She also refers repeatedly to mushrooms as “children” and “the blood of Christ.” Taking mushrooms allowed her to come into contact with “the Principal Ones” who gave her a Book of Wisdom that taught her the Language she used to heal. She is adamant that it is Language that does the work, not the medicine:

And since I receive the Book I have become one of the Principal Ones. If they appear, I sit down with them and we drink beer or aguardiente, I have been among them since the time when, gathered together behind a table with important papers, they gave me wisdom, the perfect word: the Language of God.

Language makes the dying return to life. The sick recover their health when they hear the words taught by the saint children. There is no mortal who can teach the language. (25)

She says, “I cure with Language, the Language of the saint children. When they advise me to sacrifice chickens, they are placed on the part where it hurts. The rest is Language.”

With respect to your reading of Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman and Maria Sabina’s clear statements about gender exclusion for practice, what is the significance of the psychedelic woman?

Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 7: Aldous Huxley’s Island

July 15, 2014 § Leave a comment



Over the course of my lectures this summer, I have often pointed to Aldous Huxley as a kind of grand theorist of psychedelic aesthetics.  One need not dig too far into psychedelic literature to see that by the end of the 1960s, many had left behind the notion of controlled setting and medical supervision promoted by Huxley.  In last week’s lecture I suggested that Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man describes an ahistorical and ever “present” society perpetuated by false needs – a present that in some ways slows down History.  I suggested that this ahistorical moment also invokes the perennial in psychedelic aesthetics and that the conflation of perennialism and one-dimensionality perhaps blocked the social progress of the psychedelic movement.  On the other hand, however, because they are also entrenched within secularist narratives, psychedelic critiques have been deprived of the quality of enchantment that was truly liberating because that enchantment itself was coded as play and the inability to be serious. In Marcuse’s terms, the narrative of secularization lost its own potential to liberate and has become a force of oppression.  Marcuse’s turn to at the end of his book to Maurice Blanchot’s “Great Refusal” in order to find what may be left of enchantment.  This enchantment, according to Blanchot appears in poetics and writing.  As Blanchot says with respect to the “victory” of modernity over Gods: “There is, however, defeat in this victory; in this truth of forms, of notions and of names, there is a lie, and in this hope that commits us to an illusory bond, to a future without death or to a logic without chance, there is, perhaps, the betrayal of a more profound hope that poetry (writing) must teach us to affirm” (33-34).  Blanchot’s appeal to fabrication, to making, appears on one hand to hyper-extend the manufactured nature of modernity, the automatic – that is, if we read the passage in a secularist frame. In this frame we see the opening to a kind of nostalgia for the enchanted era of gods. If we read it in a postsecular frame, however, there appears to be an enchanted quality to the process of writing and making to which he attaches hope.  On one hand we could see this as an appeal to a kind of infinite liberalism, of artifice as the appropriation of the power of gods to itself propel the economy and the world.  On the other, the hope is mercurial rather than Promethean.  It is hermeneutic rather than appropriated or stolen.  As hermeneutic, a kind of enchantment prevails in the anagogical process of interpretation and writing as translation.  As such, the process exceeds the action and the form of the aesthetic work.  That it comes to exist in form, in time, only anchors a kind of access point to another resonance.  In this week’s lecture I want to focus on Aldous Huxley’s later work to suggest first that it attempts to perform such resonance; and second, that in that performance Huxley is acting as a political theologian.


Aldous Huxley’s growing interest in psychedelics worried some of his intellectual peers early on.  When considering Huxley as not just a theorist of the psychedelic experience but also as a political theologian, it is worth comparing him briefly to the most well known aesthete and political theologian of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin. Huxley was one of many intellectuals from abroad, who arrived in the United States as the result of political strife during and between the wars and had tremendous cultural impact on the 1960s.  Walter Benjamin, who died trying to get to the U.S. in the late 1930s, has a somewhat surprising affinity with Huxley when we consider Huxley as a political theologian.  It is easy to forget that Aldous Huxley and Walter Benjamin were born only two years apart in countries that became political rivals during the first decades of the twentieth century.  They were not only contemporaries, but shared similar interests – aesthetic and politico-theological –as well as mutual acquaintances (Murray 402).  While one can only speculate, as Scott J. Thompson does in “From ‘Rausch’ to Rebellion,” as to whether Benjamin and Huxley would have likely met had Benjamin been able to cross the Atlantic, Benjamin was certainly interested in hashish and aesthetic experience.  The interest in psychedelics perhaps makes Benjamin’s work less rigidly dialectical than his Eastern European Marxist contemporaries like Gyorgy Lukacs and Thomas Mann.  Mann, who succeeded in emigrating the United States in the late 1930s, had received a copy of The Doors of Perception in the 1950s from Ida Herz, was critical of Huxley.  Thomas Mann writes Herz in response,

Thank you very much for TheDoors of Perception, though the book does not excite me with the enthusiasm which it has you. It presents the latest, and, I might add, most audacious form of Huxley’s escapism, which I could never appreciate in this author. Mysticism as a means to that escapism was, nonetheless, reasonably honorable. But that he now has arrived at drugs I find rather scandalous.” (qtd in Thompson)

Clearly, Mann is familiar with Huxley’s recent work on mysticism, The Devils of Loudun (1952) and perhaps Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy (1945) as well.  Mann’s concerns about drugs were informed by the Nazi regime’s human subject testing, which he was able to escape.  What he calls Huxley’s escapism is a human rights issue.  However, as Thompson argues: “Both Huxley and Benjamin were attempting to recover a concept of experience which had become entirely alien to the neoclassicist thinkers of the Enlightenment.”  While I am unsure that “recovery” is the right term here (it may have remained present), Thompson is onto something.  It is clear, however, that throughout the Enlightenment there are plenty of examples of Enlightenment critiques, and as I have argued, enchantment never disappears completely, and Max Weber’s idea of “disenchantment has been challenged.”  What thinkers like Thomas Mann were unable to see was a significant shift in Huxley’s approach to drugs, the State, and religion between Brave New World and his works on psychedelics in the 1950s.

The often-made claim against Huxley is his utopianism.  William M. Curtis’s notes the affinity between Aldous Huxley and Richard Rorty, perhaps the most important theorist of liberal utopia in the latter twentieth century (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. Building off Curtis, I suggest that not only is Huxley’s work prescient of the world crises occurring fifty years after his death, but that, through allegory and dialogue, Huxley’s literary works provide important venues for deliberations in states of exception.  In starkly pragmatic terms, literature can help to deliberate in times of political crisis.

Aldous Huxley has not been given enough credit as a thinker in these matters, however, partly because literary works are often perceived as inefficacious in political matters in the United States and partly because the psychedelic aesthetics suggested in Huxley’s work (and those he has influenced) takes an approach to character and citizenship that blends private and public spaces with mystic traditions in ways that may make proponents of secularism squeamish in traditional public deliberations.  The excessive psychic attributes made present in psychedelic aesthetics afford artistic works a more overt presence in terms of politics.

Island is a particularly useful choice of study because it presents Huxley’s most mature presentation of a working society.  Huxley scholars often read his work as a progression between the earlier, satirical English works and the more overtly “spiritual” American novels.  Brave New World, Huxley’s most well known book, sits at the center between the phases of Huxley’s writing.  Less well known than Brave New World, Island is sometimes wrongly considered the lesser artistic achievement.  In an initial review in The Nation (1962), Arthur Herzog wrote of Island: “It is a curious book, more successful as a vehicle of ideas than as a novel.  It is written heavily and without the incisiveness of Brave New World.  The characters are weak and poorly drawn” (74).  In contrast, Gorman Beauchamp has argued,

if by novelistic criteria Island appears thin and didactic, by utopian criteria it has more than usual complexity of character and plot […] the extensive attention paid to the process of spiritual enlightenment among the Palanese and the demonstration of its effects on the soul of the cynical Farnaby tip the balance of Island more toward the personal than the systemic, the eupsychic than the eutopic.

Island is an example of Huxley’s “third option,” from the essay “Brave New World Revisited.”  Huxley had suggested in later introductions to Brave New World he would offer John the savage an option beyond madness and death.  This option moves toward an emphasis on self-transcendence by way of an immanent view of the spiritual that accompanies the collapse of Pala’s (the island in the novel) government.  This immanent view is also embodied in Huxley’s theories of the perennial and mysticism.  In presenting this option, Huxley helped to shape psychedelic aesthetics as a politically theological motivating force, where a mystical or psychedelic experience obliterates and then re-norms an individual’s sense of civic morality and allegiance beyond traditional ideas of the nation state.  But it requires that we take a kind of postsecular enchantment seriously – an enchantment that is itself historical rather than perennial and fabricated in the sense that fiction constructs narratives.

Island is Huxley’s vision of the possibility of social progress.  Like Marcuse’s claims that the possibility of revolution remained that – a possibility – Huxley’s plan remains just that: an option.  The plan is performed in his writing, which unifies his characters as different aspects of one Self existing in their own times.  I want to suggest that Huxley’s psychedelic aesthetics perform metempsychosis within the characters in Island, but to do this it requires more sophisticated reading of Huxley than those normally performed (something closer to Leo Strauss’s readings of Machiavelli)

While Huxley began formally experimenting with this in Eyeless in Gaza, it is his critique of high modernist aesthetics like Proust, Eliot and Joyce that informs his less overtly experimental and certainly less elite style.  This comes as a product of his belief in mysticism, which blossomed in him during the 1930s and 1940s.  In Ends and Means (1937), which can be considered Huxley’s non-fiction follow-up to Eyeless in Gaza, Huxley says the only way to peace is through the time-proven mystical ideals of non-attachment and charity.  He identifies thinkers in various traditions, East and West, as having espoused this.  He says,

charity cannot progress toward universality unless the prevailing cosmology is either monotheistic or pantheistic – unless there is a general belief that all men are “the sons of God” or, in Indian phrase, that “thou art that,” tat tvam asi.  The last fifty years have witnessed a great retreat from monotheism toward idolatry.  The worship of one God has been abandoned in favor of the worship of such local divinities as the nation, the class and even the deified individual. (8-9)

Either way it goes, monotheistic or pantheistic, Huxley’s answer is enchanted.  In his literary work of the period, Huxley tries to perform this charity by writing very simply with multiple simultaneous meanings.  He consciously rejects high modernist literary aesthetics as elitist, and while his work seems simpler, what he is really up to is critiquing the self of the European Imaginary, just as his contemporaries like Artaud, Benjamin, and Marcuse were doing.

Understanding Huxley’s psychedelic aesthetics requires a literary approach to allegorical reading that I believe constitutes a necessary skill-set for understanding the dynamics of figuration in political discourse in the twenty-first century – hence my attempt to build a bridge between Huxley’s work and Political Theology.  I want to give context to current discussions of Political Theology that have difficulty relating spiritual discussions to public discourse, offering a model of cosmopolitanism for discourse concerning spiritual and civic life.  This again requires a reading Huxley’s Island in light of Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism and liberal utopia; that is, as “an imaginative extension of our best liberal democratic ideals” (Curtis 91).  This draws upon Rorty’s distinction between “ironist” intellectual elites who utilize the liberal value of free thinking and speech to promote revolutionary ideas to the general public discourse which “will be reformist and pragmatic.”  This distinction between the “elite” and the “normal” recalls Huxley’s advisory conditions for the uses of psychedelic drugs.  Importantly, Huxley’s turn toward compassion does not mean the creation of a platitude between smart people and stupid people, or some kind of land where people are heavily normed.  In Brave New World the intellectual elites choose a different life outside the World State; in Island both must learn to cohabitate.

The social use of psychedelic drugs, for Huxley, was to allow people who could not see a bigger picture access to it.  But the spread of drugs – both controlled and uncontrolled – into society since the late fifties captures Rorty’s “ironist” who is “experienced” and the “naïve” or unreflective “normal” person (who may perhaps still be on some sort of prescribed antidepressant).  One can see this in visions of the hipster or the beat, whose drug-using edginess keeps him or her on the “edge” of society.  While Huxley was certainly a social critic of mass society in the United States, he chose to engage with the public and its problems rather than drop out.  Controlled use of psychedelics could help even the overly intellectual elite commit to a bigger view of what humanity is.

In Island, Dr. Robert says that he and his dying wife, Lakshmi, with whom he has recently tripped, have taken moksha-medicine – a fictional variation on psilocybin – “once or twice each year for the past thirty-seven years” (169).  While this is a more frequent use of psychedelics than Huxley himself took part in, it both blends the experience of reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead to his dying wife, Maria (in 1955), and it precedes his own death in 1963 in which he famously took LSD and slipped away as Laura Huxley describes “like a piece of music just finishing” (266).  Huxley, unlike the later Timothy Leary and Art Kleps, thought that psychedelics should be used in controlled situations with guides to encourage the embracing of the “pure light.”  Such is the way that Island’s protagonist, Will Farnaby, takes the moksha-medicinewith Susila as guide during the climax of the book. It is here that Farnaby comes to actualize his belief in the political ideals of Pala, which he has learned about through characters who act as travel-guides and the Old Raja’s Notes on What’s What.  The book lays out Pala’s philosophical ideals blending the best of East and West.  At the climax of his trip, Will has an intense awareness of his subjectivity:

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

Yet despite this eternal isolation, Will’s trip is a participatory ritual that convinces him that the ideals of Pala are right just as Pala is being invaded by an army that will bring western industrialization and commerce to the island.

Will trips just as Murugan, the young Raja who has been raised and corrupted in the West, allied with the neighboring dictator, Colonel Dipa, invade Pala with plans to use island’s rich oil supply to build a military and “modernize.”  Will’s consciousness expansion during his trip both destroys his pre-existing metaphysics and reinstates him into a new moral perspective as he comes down and a new and much scarier reality sets in – a reality that Will as a political intriguer has helped to bring about.  Huxley’s destruction of the utopia accompanies Farnaby’s enlightenment.  His new perspective allows him to navigate himself according to an authority that transcends both religion and State.  Nicolas Langlitz correctly notes, with reference to an essay by Reinhardt Koselleck (on Carl Schmitt’s utopia, “Buribunks: A Historico-Philosophical Meditation”) (1918), that in contrast to Schmitt’s temporalized utopia, Island is spatialized.  But if we connect Island to psychedelic aesthetics’ use of the perennial, it is not spatialized in a territorialized way.

If Huxley is being ironic in Rorty’s sense, then it is only in showing that modernization, ruling royalty and colonization are all archaic and destructive and that enlightened individuals must find ways to proceed amid idiotic rulers.  But such a clear distinction between the “ironic” elite and the stupid masses is too easy a way of putting things because in Island Huxley presents intellectualism as its own sort of handicap.  This is the compassion from Ends and Means coming in here.  It is precisely the subjectivity of the ego that must be transcended, no matter how smart or stupid one is: as Mrs. Rao tells Farnaby, “Pala’s the place for stupid people.  The greatest happiness for the greatest number – and we stupid ones are the greatest number” (228).  Will’s moksha-experience is a transcendence of western transcendence, just as Walter Benjamin’s court of the Trauerspiel in Origins of German Tragic Drama transcends the very idea of sovereignty as transcendent.  The sovereign decision here is not in the sovereign as ruler, but in the personal commitment of the individual to come to terms with his or her own state of consciousness by merging with the transcendent and recognizing a different kind of citizenship.  A term like “personalism” is not quite adequate to deal with the psychedelic experience.

If one considers the process of ego death as described by Huxley along with thinkers like Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, it is clear that in the psychedelic and mystical experience there is a blurring of subject-object distinction, and irony cannot work without an audience for such a distinction.  The dialectic between irony and naïve earnestness – the faith of the innocent – Nietzche’s child after the camel and the lion in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – moves between the characters in Huxley’s work.  Island begins with the one liberation of Will Farnaby, the death of his fear of Evil.  This process begins with a young Palanese girl using mesmeric first-aid to help Will get over his encounter with a snake at the beginning of the book.  As late as the summer of 1963, Huxley writes to Leary who with Richard Alpert had “left” Harvard and started IFIF (International Foundation for Internal Freedom) in Millbrook, New York, that

the idea of a school is excellent . . . one should make use of all the available resources – the best methods of formal teaching and LSD, hypnosis (used, among other things to help people re-enter the LSD state without having recourse to a chemical), time distortion (to speed up the learning process, auto-conditioning for the control of autonomic processes and heightening of physical and psychological resistance to disease and trauma, etc. etc….  (Moksha 246)

Will’s time on Pala may culminate in his moksha experience, but he is set up by hypnosis, dialogue with the islanders, and the reading of the treatise, Notes on What’s What, which summarizes Spinoza:

The more a man knows about individual objects, the more he knows about God.  Translating Spinoza’s language into ours, we can say: the more a man knows about himself in relation to every kind of experience, the greater his chance of suddenly, one fine morning, realizing who in fact he is. (43)

This passage analogously situates the subject’s experience with God while nodding to the history of Political Theology.  While moksha-medicine democratizes mystical experience, it does not end there.  The expectation is that the liberation the medicine provides helps the society as a whole.  The individual subject, “Will,” is always part of a larger whole, and the moksha experience is a limit-experience, which, like the state of exception defines the norm – the distinction with Carl Schmitt being that for Schmitt, this is the sovereign decision whereas in Island, the beautiful young warlord sovereign Murugan is the very person who refuses and is disgusted by the moksha-experience.  Huxley’s narrative thus ideologically deposes the sovereign by reoccupying the decision in the enlightened subject, characterized by his participation in a ritual that democratizes the mystical through a sacrifice of the nation-state.  Rather than Schmitt’s concept of the sovereign who makes a decision in the state of exception, the psychedelically informed citizen communicates with the divine for moral guidance.

Huxley’s work is more than a utopia; it is an allegory for disparate character-incarnations that are present throughout much of Huxley’s works.  It does not project a future imagined space but more of an alternate possible reality.  A “midrashic” and typological interpretation of Huxley, like that of Walter Benjamin employs in The Origins of German Tragic Drama and Leo Strauss in How to Read Spinoza,[1] helps evidence this.  Will is a character we see replicated in various ways through Huxley’s work.  He’s the satirist of the early Huxley novels like Antic Hay and Chrome Yellow, the outsider of Bernard Marx in Brave New World, the English script-writer narrator who presents William Tallis’s masterpiece in Ape and Essence, the internal thoughts of Sebastian Barnack in Time Must Have a Stop.  Similarly, Dr. Robert can be seen as Bruno Rotini from Time Must Have a Stop blended with the worldly wisdom of John Rivers in The Genius and the Goddess.  Huxley’s characters age throughout his novels, as the author himself ages, but he retains atavistic versions of himself in his characters.  One sees obvious parallels between Lakshmi and Dr. Robert’s marriage and that of Huxley and Maria.  But the cynical outsider remains in the form of the flawed character, even if it is also a younger version of Huxley himself.  So, for example, in Time Must Have a Stop we get the story of a brilliant but bratty youth who gains wisdom through the mentorship of quasi-mystic, Bruno Rotini, and who tells his overly-political father: “‘peace can’t exist where there’s a metaphysic, which all accept and a few actually succeed in realizing [unless it is through] direct intuition’ he went on; ‘the way you realize the beauty of a poem or a woman’” (276).  Romantic conceptions are held within “post-Romantic” conceptions.  Much of the narrative, we find out later in the story, has been the memory of Sebastian as he’s looked back on his foolish youth and romantic misadventures.  A certain perspective or way of being – call it wisdom or enlightenment – takes narrative precedence over both romantic and political action of the linear unfolding of time.  This is metempsychosis or reincarnation expressed as psychedelic aesthetics.

Instead of presenting ego expansion through a narrative return to the perennial, as the later 1960s fiction writers discussed earlier did, Huxley solves the problem of linearity in the medium of text and plot by casting a variety of similar characters in dialogical situations.  While some have found this stylistically overly transparent, it is the blending and tweaking of characters throughout Huxley’s works that displays a reincarnated dynamic between characters that might otherwise seem stock.  Keith May, for example, compares Will Farnaby’s experience of Bach while taking moksha – one that parallels Huxley’s own experience on mescaline – with Spandrell listening to Beethoven in Point Counter Point and argues that Island is Huxley solving a longstanding problem with Plato and idealism:

If Huxley at the time of the earlier novel was tempted by Spandrell’s view that the purest music proves the existence of another world, a God who stands apart from His universe, by the time of Island he was sure that such music proves the occasional heavenliness of earth itself.  Likewise, the purity of the music is no longer regarded as the antithesis of evil (the “Essential Horror”) but as the quality that somehow flows into evil.  Good and evil are not finally separable. (423)

Huxley’s characters are ideas existing on a spectrum, but never just one idea, and that is why he is not just writing thinly disguised philosophy.

Even minor Huxleyan characters are revised in Island.  Will’s impression of Mrs. Rao parallels Sebastian Barnack’s relationship with the homely but nurturing librarian, Mrs. Ockham in Time Must Have a Stop.  The English matron who is a bit thick but so nurturing as to make the sharper youth feel guilty for despising them transforms in Island.  To Will, Mrs. Rao at first

seemed like a browner version of one of those gentle but inexhaustibly energetic English ladies who, when their children are grown, go in for good works or organized culture.  Not too intelligent, poor dears; but how selfless, how devoted, how genuinely good – and, alas, how boring! (216)

His perception changes a bit when he finds that Mrs. Rao teaches young adults maithuna, “the yoga of love,” which is not just safe sex and preventative measures but a how-to guide for “doing it” (219).

The older Huxley is softer in his approach to non-intellectuals.  They have important things to teach.  Both Will and Dr. Robert are aspects of Huxley, just as Murugan, the beautiful young despot-in-the-making is also an incarnation of Murugan the fierce and beautiful Vedic deity.  The drama that plays out with the island is Shiva dancing, creating and destroying; and Will’s experience is Huxley’s suggestion for us in the face of that, more than it is a warning of the problems of a society that lets technology get the best of it.  Though a deity, Shiva is pure immanence, and recognition of this is what provides the groundwork for tolerance among the Palanese.

Dialogue between both characters and texts maintains underlying social value throughout Huxley’s works.  Huxley’s characters are always expressing opinions as if they are manifestos, even despicable characters like Colonel Dipa or the Rani desire to explain themselves to Will, to convince him that their way is best.  The underlying foundation for the text is perhaps a liberal-democratic one.  Language serves deliberative political ends.  But dialogue and tolerance are also temporal qualities that change, progress and digress over time, like Shiva dancing.  A whole approach to society manifests in a whole citizen who instantiates citizenship in a variety of ways.  In the end, Will is convinced through the summing up experience of liberation catalyzed by the medicine he takes that temporarily destroys his ego, literally destroying “Will,” the character Huxley referred to as “the serpent in the garden” (in Watt 169).  The medicine is both scientific and spiritual – and his trip is sponsored and guided by citizens of a dying nation state.  Like Spinoza’s subject, Will recognizes, even if belatedly, evidenced by his choice in taking the “sacrament” moksha, the continuance of his own power in the interest of the community.  Insofar as the moksha experience is state-sponsored, the psychedelic experience disseminates sovereignty into the liberated citizens.

This is also similar to Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise, who has a vexed relationship between theology and politics, especially concerning scriptural interpretation, which he does not separate from politics.  Religion in Pala is neither separate from the State nor controlled by the State.  The society is regulated by a philosophy that has recognized the necessity for symbolic spiritual activity but has done away with what Huxley identifies as the perverse contradictions of European religion and embraced a kind of Mahayana Buddhism.  The society of Pala, again like Spinoza, recognizes the usefulness in religion for social commitment, especially with the “less rational” among the citizens, but also with the overly intellectual characters like Will Farnaby.  There is a spectrum of modes of worship for all.

But the thing about Pala is that most of the citizens tend to “naturally” choose a subordination of religion to philosophy, following an almost Epicurean notion that religion need not be based on fear – that it provides something functional.  Instead it can be a motivating force for hope, and that having passions is not the same as being evil or corrupt.  The citizens of Pala have thereby chosen a post-secular society.  This is partly why Will has to overcome the binary of the evil snake as his first initiation to the island.  This is again tempered and fulfilled through the state-sponsored moksha-medicine, through which Huxley is very deliberate about unifying the material and the spiritual.  He had been exploring the idea for at least thirty years.

Will, who has injured himself while infiltrating the island for the business prospects of a rich oil man, is cared for by locals who, in pure Huxleyan curatorial fashion explain the intricacies of their post-industrial society.  As in Brave New World, the society helps maintain emotional balance by having liberated views of sexuality and drug usage.  The binding nature of religion here is tempered by the liberating moksha-medicine.  Huxley’s views on drugs had indeed changed significantly since Brave New World.

Huxley’s civic religion in Island is immanent, and he is quick to criticize transcendent religion.  He seems to have come to a more firm decision since Ends and Means.  Dr. Robert tells Will,

I have a theory that, wherever little boys and girls are systematically flagellated, the victims grow up to think of God as ‘Wholly Other’ – isn’t that the fashionable argot in your part of the world?  Wherever, on the contrary, children are brought up without being subjected to physical violence, God is immanent. (139)

Will is quick to point out that child-beating has gone out of fashion in the 1950s to which Dr. Robert responds with a short lecture on Humanism’s positive effects on Christianity, resulting in the birth of New Thought and New Age religion “gathering momentum ever since” William James (140).  This is also apparent in The Perennial Philosophy, where Huxley claims that

rites, sacraments and ceremonials are valuable only to the extent that they remind those who take part in them of the true Nature of Things, remind them of what ought to be and (if only they would be docile to the immanent and transcendent Spirit) of what actually might be their relation to the world and its divine Ground. (262)

Huxley’s thought is radically materialist and follows a trajectory of immanent religion that develops in Enlightenment and especially in American thought.  While Huxley’s non-fiction, especially The Perennial Philosophy discusses this directly, Huxley thought that, rather than abstract philosophy, ideas should be grounded in “case studies” such as The Devils of Loudon.  In an interview from the early 1960s in which Huxley refers to Island as a “utopian fantasy” he has just written, Huxley is asked about his thoughts on the supernatural and says, “What people call the natural in our western tradition is in fact our projection of concepts on the world.  The genuinely natural world . . . is the world of immediate experience without all these concepts imposed upon it” (“Huxley Interviewed”).  Huxley thus moves from a disenchanted view of religion toward a religious view of culture and art as binding forces.  Culture’s fabrication itself produces enchantment.

This interpretive approach to culture can be seen in Island with the public performance of Oedipus in Pala.  In the Palanese version, Oedipus is talked out of blinding himself and Jocasta talked out of hanging herself by a boy and girl from the island.  The young Mary Sarojini explains to Will that both the play and Freud’s interpretations of it do not work well in Pala because their family relationships, strikingly similar to Margaret Mead’s interpretations of Samoan women’s sexuality in Coming of Age in Samoa, do not allow for strict biological relationships of authority between parents and children.  However awkward it may seem, the performance maintains a didactic quality for Palanese society and suggests a different aesthetic sensibility.  The category of ‘literature’ itself is in question in Pala, but it is also clear that young children are familiar with both Freud and Sophocles.  But Mrs. Rao tells Will earlier on in the book, “what trouble we have with books in this climate!  The paper rots, the glue liquefies, the bindings disintegrate, the insects devour.  Literature and the tropics are really incompatible” (217).  Aesthetics in Pala lose a sense of the tragic but maintain a participatory role.  Performance-based drama replaces physical books.  (One wonders if they would have Kindles in an updated version.)  In any case, Huxley’s move emphasizes an immediate experience that overlaps with the island-culture’s immanent sense of religion. It is with this trend that Huxley offers something to discussions of Political Theology and the role of religion in current liberal democracies.

If we speculate cursorily on religion in the United States, even since Huxley’s death, during the generations after the permissive society of the 1960s we see a trend toward immanence, a moving away from transcendence.  This is characterized by a return to “natural” religion, which distorts a linear view of history of civilization as “evolving” away from religion and New Agism.  Of course, the ‘Wholly Other’ view is still with us, as Marcel Gauchet’s work attests, as well as Kass and Fukuyama’s views as Langlitz presents them.  But Huxley’s Pala is essentially an inversion of transcendent religion.  If modern states rely on document-centered laws and constitutions, Pala abides by the Old Raja’s more colloquial Notes on What’s What, which Will reads as he becomes acculturated to the island.  Island implicitly asks: is transcendent religion necessary for postmodern states? And it answers, No!  The implication is not that transcendent religions should go away but that the civic sphere of the post-secular must negotiate both transcendent and immanent religion.

Even so, western culture, for Huxley, cannot escape Catholicism and Calvinism – the religion of the punished, according to him.  Again, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra seems just behind the scene asking, “Don’t [they] know God is dead?”  The Overman is the maker, the poet who has companions instead of followers.  Yet unlike Nietzsche’s Overman, Huxley’s man is not a “bridge” between beast and Overman.  It is not such a linear progression.  He knows his evolutionary theory well enough to know it is not as simple as having one Pithecanthropus Erectus.  Instead of a linear trajectory away from religion, Huxley’s State is comfortable with mysticism and faith over belief.  Ironically, it is presented as the evolution of mixing East and West, a kind of globalization.  This “evolution” occurs in the liberal subject who is able to transcend subjectivity and then return to self informed by religious metaphysics.  There is nothing atavistic about religion for Huxley – though he might declare that unreflective attachment is dangerous.  This is performed by the Palanese children who go rock-climbing before being initiated by moksha:

Danger deliberately and yet lightly accepted.  Shared consciously, shared to the limits of awareness so that the sharing and the danger become a yoga. Two friends roped together on a rock face.  Sometimes three or four.  Each totally aware of his own straining muscles, his own skill, his own fear, and his own transcending of the fear. (202)

Huxley leaves us with the idea that consciousness change may be the only way for humanity to survive itself.  The change involves inter-subjectivity.  But how does this happen?

Huxley’s transcendence does not move only in one direction.  It is dynamic and it strikes a balance between form and formless.  Huxley relates this again to the image of Shiva dancing.  Dr. Robert explains to Will:

“Dancing in all the worlds at once,” he repeated.  “In all the worlds.  And first of all in the world of matter.  Look at the great round halo, fringed with symbols of fire, within which the god is dancing.  It stands for Nature, for the world of mass and energy.  Within it Shiva-Nataraja dances the endless dance of becoming and passing away.  It is his lila, his cosmic play.” (205)

Because it moves in more than one direction, Huxley’s transcendence is timeless, the perennial.  Explaining the effects of moksha-medicine to Will, Dr. Robert says,

you will know in fact what it’s like to be what you are, what you have always been.  What a timeless bliss! But, like everything else, this timelessness is transient.  Like everything else, it will pass.  And when it has passed, what will you do with the experience? (208)

Dr. Robert here sounds like Ken Kesey appealing to a graduation from acid tests.  Clearly informed by Vedic sciences where the human mind is a microcosm of the same design of the universe, Dr. Robert continues to discuss the State’s role:

all that Pala can do for you with its social arrangements is to provide you with techniques and opportunities.  And all that the moksha-medicine can do is to give you a succession of beatific glimpses, an hour or two, every now and then, of enlightening and liberating grace.

But it is within those couple of hours of grace that the subject seems to merge with the divine and then reemerge as self in the world, and it is from this fundamental psychedelic experience that one learns to navigate in the world.  In this transcendence, one must overcome all cynicism and sense of irony.  Rather than Rorty’s elite ironist then, it seems that Huxley’s vision calls for a different kind of political action.  In order to understand it, We must now move to integrating Huxley’s version of transcendence and his social planning with the more current discussions in Political Theology and the challenges surrounding secularization in times of liberal crisis.  In other words, if Huxley is giving us something like an enchanted “psychedelic citizenship,” what does that look like in 2014?


(For specific source information on citations, please feel free to email me)



Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 6: Marcuse and One-Dimensional Man

July 12, 2014 § 1 Comment

Once the gods, once God, helped us not to belong to the earth where everything passes away, and helped us, our eyes fixed upon the unperishing that is the superterrestrial, to organize meanwhile this earth as a dwelling place. Today, lacking gods, we turn still more from passing presence in order to affirm ourselves in a universe constructed according to the measure of knowledge and free from the randomness that always frightens us because it conceals an obscure decision. There is, however, defeat in this victory; in this truth of forms, of notions and of names, there is a lie, and in this hope that commits us to an illusory bond, to a future without death or to a logic without chance, there is, perhaps, the betrayal of a more profound hope that poetry (writing) must teach us to affirm. (33-34)

– Maurice Blanchot, “The Great Refusal,” The Infinite Conversation


After writing his Habilitation on Hegel under Martin Heidegger Herbert Marcuse emigrated Germany to the United States in 1934 to escape the Third Reich. Although he distanced himself from Heidegger when Heidegger joined the Nazi part, Jurgen Habermas (among others) has claimed that one cannot fully appreciate Marcuse’s early work without understanding Heidegger’s influence on ontology interacting with history. Marcuse became a U. S. citizen in 1940, and he worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War. He later came to be known as the “father” of the New Left in the United States, a title that he disavowed. As a member of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse and others helped to shape countercultural thought in the 1960s. Though their thought was in many ways misinterpreted by the youth movement in the 1960s, this does not diminish the importance of their influence on psychedelic aesthetics.

In conjunction with my other lectures this summer, I want to emphasize the temporal elements of Marcuse’s thought as it relates to concepts of history and what we may think of in 21st century as the “virtuality” of history. In doing so, I am thinking not only of German philosophy in the Hegelian tradition but also a French thinker like Henri Bergson, whose thinking regarding temporality was so influential in the early 20th century. For Henri Bergson, temporal relationships cannot be reduced to spatial geometry.  In Time and Free Will, Bergson describes the difference between duration or “lived experience” and reflective consciousness, particularly with the inability to reduce qualitative sensation to quantifiable descriptions.  The mind must step away from the lived experience in order to account for it.  The concept of duration is famously and concisely described in the following passage from Creative Evolution:

Though our reasoning on isolated systems may imply that their history, past, present, and future, might be instantly unfurled like a fan, this history, in point and fact, unfolds itself gradually, as if it occupied a duration like our own.  If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, wily nilly, wait until the sugar melts.  This little fact is big with meaning.  For here the time I have to wait is not that mathematical time which would apply equally well to the entire history of the world, even if that history were spread out instantaneously in space.  It coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like.  It is no longer something thought, it is something lived. (7)

Affect and emotion generally work in terms of duration. When we represent time spatially, we disrupt the continuity that life is always emerging in.  Our moments of reflection, our critical gaze, brackets our life experience just as the lens of a camera or a microscope bracket their subjects.  And even as our consciousness brackets, we go on living, changing, unable to repeat a past.  We endure constant change.  We know now that our cells in our bodies die but our consciousnesses and memories remain. (Bergson’s constant flux can also be seen in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s combining of intuition and “Spontaneity” – see my blogpost on Emerson and phenomenology below) (27).

Subjective consciousness – intuition – becomes the way of getting at experience, but consciousness for Bergson is not simply “awareness.”  For Bergson, consciousness has two modalities: first is lived experience, or duration; second is reflective awareness, constituted by our ability to bracket our attention by disrupting the constant flow of lived experience.  Memory, scientific method, and analytical thinking all belong to reflective consciousness.  We cannot access our experience of the world without intuiting the world.  Duration, for Bergson, like intuition for Husserl, precedes consciousness but can only be discussed from the hither side of consciousness and is for that reason problematic.  While Bergson believes the world exists outside of human consciousness, we move toward it as if it were virtual.  The world is not a product of consciousness, but phenomenologists in the early 20th century began to “bracket off” the world in order to reduce their study to the interiority of consciousness itself because the structure of consciousness and intuition affects and always already filters any sort of experience of the world.  We can only get at the world by way of intuition.

Psychedelic drugs certainly expand perception and ego, creating indistinction between self and world. As stated in a previous lecture, Aldous Huxley’s theory of psychedelics and the psychedelic experience are based on a Bergsonian notion of consciousness as filter. To a certain extent this thinking survives in brain science today in terms of the ways we understand the right and left hemispheres of our brains, the way the right side collapses time and the left side requires linear thinking for language and a sense of isolated being to maneuver in the world (Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk is a nice description of this, describing her stroke). In an emphasis on internal experience and an indistinction of self from world, psychedelic aesthetics, as I have argued, emphasize the perennial. In doing so, they seem on the surface to be at odds with history, even while psychedelic researchers appeal to positivistic science in order to fight legislation blocking research. As Nicolas Langlitz has argued in Neuropsychedelia, even in laboratory settings in the 21st century employing the “hardest” of scientific methods, questions of spirituality arise. Langlitz’s own answer is to do what he calls “field work in the perennial,” where traditional distinctions between philosophy, science, and religion no longer apply. Over the summer, I have been using literary study of psychedelic aesthetics to accomplish a similar kind of fieldwork, but I have used the backdrop of Political Theology and the idea of the postsecular to arrive at a similar place to Langlitz. I have argued that studying psychedelic aesthetics necessitates a postsecular approach to spirituality, citizenship, and the State. I have argued that psychedelic aesthetics challenge notions of liberal citizenship buffered by modernity and what I have called the European Imaginary. I have also argued that one cannot understand what is at stake in psychedelic aesthetics if one does not understand the historical forces that shape the European Imaginary being critiqued. Today I want to point to Herbert Marcuse’s undeniable influence from Europe on the psychedelic aesthetic movement and larger social movements of the 1960s.


In a famous essay written in the early 1960s and entitled “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse points out in relation to dialectical processes that much “pseudo-art” becomes the instrument of oppression. He is drawing on a long tradition of modern Art in Europe as a critique of the Bourgeoisie to do so. This is an avant-gardist frame. Art is dialogical in the sense that it speaks to a particular moment, ceasing to resound as it becomes commodity. For the avant-gardist, the critique of consumer culture does not mean that aesthetics and poetics are not seen as valuable to political deliberation. Even the work of Theodor Adorno, Marcuse’s companion from the Frankfurt School, which casts an entirely bleak view on consumerism, still longs to find an aesthetic answer. In Minima Moralia (1951), Adorno claims, responding to the emerging nuclear age and the holocaust,

what is decisive is the absorption of biological destruction by conscious social will.  Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people.  Rilke’s prayer for ‘one’s own death’ is a piteous attempt to conceal the fact that nowadays people merely snuff out. (233)

Death itself has ceased to have meaning, and Adorno radically critiques subjectivity and poetry in a Romantic tradition that would look to a subject for the potential to find liberation. That subject has – at for these twentieth-century aesthetic theorists – ceased to matter, despite the fact that they are still informed by that Romantic tradition. Theirs is a critique of liberalism, a liberalism that relies on a certain version of subjectivity.

But this critical theory itself, in its attempt to look at dialectical processes and to claim the ability to theorize at all, also risks continued reliance on subject-object relations that characterizes the European Imaginary a relation where modern humans are alienated from nature an in that alienation come to exist for themselves in terms of intellectual abstractions. Hegel was aware of this in his Philosophy of History, characterizing the work of historical study in the 19th century as being necessarily abstracted narrative that also, at least for him, plays out universal Reason in History. Hegel is often uncritically reduced to being an advocate for European ethnocentricism, and even Aldous Huxley distances himself from Hegelian thought in Island (which we are reading for next week).

But it is important to understand the theological nature of Hegel’s arguments about history that have been neglected by secularist approaches that want to divide philosophy from religion. Hegel argues:

That development of the thinking spirit which has resulted from the revelation of the Divine Being as its original basis must ultimately advance to the intellectual comprehension of what was presented in the first instance, to feeling and imagination. The time must eventually come for understanding that rich product of active Reason, which the History of the World offers to us. It was for awhile the fashion to profess admiration for the wisdom of God as displayed in animals, plants, and isolated occurrences. But, if it be allowed that Providence manifests itself in such objects and forms of existence, why not also in Universal History? This is deemed too great a matter to be thus regarded. But Divine Wisdom, i.e., Reason, is one and the same in the great as in the little; and we must not imagine God to be too weak to exercise his wisdom on the grand scale. Our intellectual striving aims at realizing the conviction that what was intended by eternal wisdom, is actually accomplished in the domain of existent, active Spirit, as well as in that of mere Nature. Our mode of treating the subject is, in this aspect, a Theodicaea — a justification of the ways of God — which Leibnitz attempted metaphysically, in his method, i.e., in indefinite abstract categories — so that the ill that is found in the World may be comprehended, and the thinking Spirit reconciled with the fact of the existence of evil. Indeed, nowhere is such a harmonizing view more pressingly demanded than in Universal History; and it can be attained only by recognizing the positive existence, in which that negative element is a subordinate, and vanquished nullity. On the one hand, the ultimate design of the World must be perceived; and, on the other hand, the fact that this design has been actually realized in it, and that evil has not been able permanently to assert a competing position. But this superintending vows, or in “Providence.” “Reason,” whose sovereignty over the World has been maintained, is as indefinite a term as “Providence,” supposing the term to be used by those who are unable to characterize it distinctly — to show wherein it consists, so as to enable us to decide whether a thing is rational or irrational. An adequate definition of Reason is the first desideratum; and whatever boast may be made of strict adherence to it in explaining phenomena — without such a definition we get no farther than mere words.

Hegel negotiates his own thought with regard to an emerging secular sphere, but he also interestingly argues against a notion of God as wholly “Other.” His study of Reason takes on a kind of immanence here that we cannot dismiss easily.

Hegel’s most famous pupil, Karl Marx, took this immanence to a greater extreme in what became known as dialectical materialism. Herbert Marcuse and the majority of the Frankfurt school employed Marxist critiques of society, even though critics of Marcuse argue about whether or not his philosophy was truly Marxist or inherently Liberal. This question must take into account how Marcuse critiques the notion of subjectivity. egel’s approach to HistoryWhat one must keep in mind is that his critique is a critique, and not an erasure, of subjectivity itself.   The fact that it is a critique of historically constructed subjectivity makes it also an aesthetic critique. As I have said, Marcuse’s critiques particularly inform psychedelic aesthetics in the United States, and most notably in the political activism of his student from Brandeis University, Abbie Hoffman. It is within this complex process of critique that psychedelic aesthetics informed by critical theory does its work.

In One Dimensional Man (1964), perhaps his most famous work, Marcuse theorizes that, originally, rights and liberties were defined in opposition to existing political structures during the Early Modern era. He seems at first, then, to adhere to a Weberian secularization narrative. Over the course of history, however, Marcuse says those rights and liberties lost their revolutionary power because they became institutionalized. As a result, advocating for freedom, which was once considered critical, has, by the early 1960s, become purely dogmatic. The possibility of freedom from basic needs that modern industrialized society enables creates the need for a different more realized freedom. But because independent thought has been stripped of its critical position, society becomes complacent and accepts the status quo. In this system, non-conformity seems useless and irrational. Marcuse goes on to claim that the ‘freedom’ prized for individuals to become actors in a market that thrives on business has not necessarily always been good:

If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject, the disappearance of this kind of freedom would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization. The technological processes of mechanization and standardization might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity. (2)

Such freedom beyond necessity would, for Marcuse, truly liberate autonomous subjectivity, and it is for him well within the possibilities of modern society. But he says that rather than liberation occurring, the opposite happens because of increasing demands on material and intellectual culture. He argues, “Contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests” (3). Bleak as this may seem, Marcuse believes that the situation can be reversed and that machines are merely stored human potential. Here he is directly echoing Heidegger in “The Question Concerning Technology.” Following Heidegger’s view of enframing and human engagement with nature as standing reserve, the presence of mind necessary must be one of the processes of poetics as bringing forth. This is a mode of being in a process and not necessarily concerned with product; however, Marcuse’s attention to Heidegger’s enframing [Ge-stell] implies a future-orientation that would take environmental and resource concerns into account. The aesthetics necessary would be inherently politically deliberative.

What becomes necessary for Marcuse are new modes to realize liberation, modes beyond the economic, the political, and the intellectual. This is not the older liberation necessary for the growth of the liberal subject articulated by Kantian aesthetics, which inherently rely on a subject – not because Kant was wrong but because that kind of freedom is no longer revolutionary; it no longer liberates. According to Marcuse there must be a new kind of liberation that moves beyond the autonomous subject. These modes must be realized in “negative” ways:

Economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy – from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no control. (4)

He is quick to point out that “the most effective and enduring warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” For Marcuse, human needs are historical and shaped by society, and we must learn to distinguish between “true” and “false” needs: “Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to the category of false needs” (5). True needs, on the other hand, consist of nourishment, clothing, lodging at the attainable level of the culture. Beyond these needs, no tribunal can judge what freedom is or how it can be satisfied; it’s up to the individual. In modern industrial society, “the social controls exact the overwhelming need for the production and consumption of waste” (7). The social controls manifest in a “one-dimensional” society. Marcuse implies that one must think beyond juridical decisions concerning subjectivity. This would also imply a movement beyond a conception of the nation-state based on sovereignty and decision-making, or at least a re-oriented view as to what subjectivity would look like outside of the subjectivity determined by liberal society. One can undoubtedly hear echoes of Marx beneath this, however, in that freedom from Liberalism would be the result of prior efforts to liberate in the same way that for Marx, the revolution would come only after the industrial accumulation of wealth necessary to sustain society.

However, it is also not a matter of liberalism versus communism or economic enframing. We cannot just say he is reacting to the Cold War. Marcuse wants something beyond that altogether, and that is what eventually leads him to end his book with the passage from Blanchot quoted above. Marcuse says with regard to Blanchot’s “Great Refusal,”

The struggle for the solution has outgrown the traditional forms. The totalitarian tendencies of the one-dimensional society render the traditional means of protest ineffective – perhaps even dangerous because they preserve the illusion of popular sovereignty. This illusion contains some truth: “the people,” previously the ferment of social change, have “moved up” to become the ferment of social cohesion. Here rather than the distribution of wealth and equalization of classes is the new stratification characteristic of advanced industrial society. (256) 

Marcuse is saying, with the same expression of negativity discussed above, that the concept of a “people” must be transcended as much as a concept of economics or state. Again: “Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no control” (4). Implicit here is an overcoming of European subjectivity and an overcoming of the liberal nation-state that relies on that subjectivity. But Marcuse points to Blanchot’s “Great Refusal,” and for Blanchot that task is accomplished by a return to “poetics” or “writing”; thus, it is an aesthetics informed by Heidegger’s return to ancient philosophy pre-Kant. In the same way, Antonin Artaud – another major European influence on psychedelic aesthetics – called for an acknowledgment of the motivating forces beneath culture, “growing within us like a new organ, a sort of second breath” (The Theater 8): both moves are nostalgic returns to enchantment through an overcoming of subject-object relationships.

If one misses this deep critique of European subjectivity in these works, as many people who read Marcuse superficially in the 1960s did, they are likely to have a very different take on Marcuse’s closing words with regard to “The Great Refusal.” Consider how the following words might read to a person unaware of the historical conversation Marcuse is engaged in:

Underneath the conservative popular base is a substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals that it is a rigged game. When they get together and go out into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive of civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death. Their force is behind every political demonstration for the victims of law and order. The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period. (256-57)


One could superficially believe that Marcuse here is speaking to the civil rights protests occurring in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and he is certainly speaking to that on one level, but it is with a much longer historical critique in mind. It is helpful to see how he is drawing on the same criticism as Artaud.

Marcuse takes Artaud’s (and others like Camus) criticism of plague-infested, bourgeois European culture and applies it to American consumerism. He claims, “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters and slaves. Free choice among a variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain cultural controls over a life of fear and toil” (8). The illusion of choice is a manifestation of false needs. Such illusions mask class differences and nullify class struggle.

If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population. (8)

In modern industrial society, people “find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split level home, kitchen equipment” (9). American consumerism for Marcuse becomes the ultimate manifestation of Weber’s instrumental rationality: “In the contemporary period, the technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all groups and interests – to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible.”Preceding Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of habitus (see lectures 1 & 2), Marcuse believes that historical-social forces shape the subject in a way that denies the existence of the individual self, and the result of this is an immediate identification with society. Identities are shaped to “buy in” to a particular notion of progress. This identification is not an illusion; it actually shapes perceptions of reality, even if the form is false. The numbing qualities of one-dimensional society can feel good:

It is a good way of life – much better than before – and as a good way of life it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior in which ideas, aspirations, and behaviors that, by their content transcend the established universe of discourse and actions are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe. (12)


This is quite similar to Marx’s conception of religion as the “opiate of the masses.” Such an opiate for Marx numbs the pain of class inequality. Marcuse sees these trends in particular with the growth of positivism and “operational” conduct, and even religion – traditional or bohemian – serves the status quo as just another codified behaviorism. He says this is true both in capitalism and in communism. In both cases, progress is determined by the powers that be. So, “the industrial society which makes technology and science its own is organized for the ever-more-effective utilization of its resources” (17). Where is there room for enchantment in Marcuse’s bleak outlook?

Marcuse clearly builds his theory out of the German tradition, and particularly his habilitation on Hegel and his master-slave dialectic, which he wrote under Martin Heidegger. In the dialectic, the master, by enslaving his subject, creates a relationship based on need. The master (or the master’s children) forgets how to perform deeds for himself, creating dependency on the slave. Eventually, the slave realizes this and becomes the new master. Similarly, over time (not instantly) people lose sight of their ability to perceive their own freedom as human potential. They begin to see freedom in terms of something like money, which is contractually earned but ultimately invisible. Money is a real thing, but it exists invisibly and through a social agreement that that’s the way things are going to be. Even though this system is very real in the sense that it controls people’s actions, it is a false consciousness. It is false in the sense that it exists in the imaginary and is maintained by a social belief system built over time. It is real but false. The image of this system is ideology.An ideology, in Marcuse and the Marxist tradition, is a social concept, and one does not simply “break free” from the social concept by simply “thinking outside the box.”

Marxist thinking implies that the belief in an ideology is tacit and unconscious. It is not something people think about on a daily basis. People’s actions and deeds, nevertheless, contribute to the social manifestation of the ideology. Like a religion, an ideology shapes a perspective for the way the world naturally exists. But it is the very idea of nature that is in question here. One’s “natural” view becomes shaped by ideological forces that get replayed and socially construct reality. This process of making the imaginary real is called reification in critical theory. Marcuse builds on Hegel’s dialectic and Marx’s idea that in capitalist society there exists something between the ruling class (master) and the working class (slave): the middle class or bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is made up of people who have benefited from the capitalistic society. In the United States in the early 1960s, Marcuse implies that individualism is so seamlessly built into the cultural ideology that people are fed by an economic machine which sells them their very identity and sense of meaning. To not have buying power is to not exist or be whole. At the same time, the idea of a middle class with a limited version of buying power supported by a belief in false needs essentially slows down Hegel’s dialectic, preventing both synthesis and progress. The result is an ahistorical and ever “present” society perpetuated by false needs. I want to suggest that this ahistorical moment also invokes the perennial in psychedelic aesthetics and that the conflation of perennialism and one-dimensionality blocked the social progress of the psychedelic movement. Entrenched within secularist narratives, psychedelic critiques have been deprived of the quality of enchantment that was truly liberating because that enchantment itself was coded as play and the inability to be serious. It is with this idea that I now want to return to Marcuse’s turn to Maurice Blanchot’s “Great Refusal” at the end of his book to find what may be left of enchantment.

One-dimensional society is based on the crisis of imagination that cannot think its way out of that very system. Given Marcuse’s suspicion of consumerism, what may seem surprising is that, as in Artaud, the basis for Blanchot’s argument is aesthetic, and Marcuse had to have been aware of this. For Blanchot, it is about poetry, not just as something merely “made” or constructed, but poetry as a possibility for a different way of being. Blanchot’s sentiment is strikingly similar to that which Artaud articulates – that it is not so much about a move toward transcendence, but a return to the materiality of presence and “presence of mind,” occupied by an aesthetic practice. Both Artaud and Blanchot acknowledge the function of poetry as a presence that understands writing not as the creation of immortality and memory but as the death that refuses immortality in favor of life punctuated and ended and formed. It is a double refusal: a refusal of life in death and also a refusal of immortality after death – a favoring and acknowledgement of the form. This is the heritage inherited by psychedelic aesthetics from European thought. It is the “great refusal” re-characterized by Leary’s famous phrase, “tune-in, turn-on, drop-out.” And while it is easy to see the refusal in “drop-out,” the enigmatic and aesthetic qualities of the first two imperatives are hazier without this background.

Artaud writes with respect to the poetry performed by the theater of cruelty that language must cover every sense and gesture:

To give objective examples of this poetry that follows upon the way gesture, a sonority, an intonation presses with more or less insistence upon this or that segment of space at such and such a time appears to me as difficult as to communicate in words the feeling of a particular sound or the degree and quality of a physical pain. It depends upon the production and can be determined only on the stage. (46) 

For Artaud, such poetry must be embodied in performance. Like Blanchot’s “Great Refusal,” however, and informed by his peyote experiences, such performances invoke primeval states and put the performer in touch with his or her spiritual “double.” It is not in the physical performance alone, but in the performance’s gesture toward a re-enchanted spirit.

In our course discussions, we have recently been taking the notions of enchantment and magic seriously as critique. Some of you have also mentioned that enchantment seems to be “in” right now. We see an explosion in practical approaches to healthcare that may once have been deemed “New Age.” A few students here are involved with the school of Gnosticism in town. In popular culture there is certainly no shortage of fantasy and enchantment in various media. Is this merely the appropriation of once-liberating gestures into one-dimensionality, or is something else at work?

Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 5: Junk, Soma, and States of Exception

July 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Perhaps nothing seems so mundane and so simultaneously sacred as that which we ingest and put into our bodies. During the 1960s, the United States Food and Drug Administration had attempted to keep one version of American citizenship safe while psychedelic citizenship attempted something different. This tension appears in William Burroughs’ writing as the binary between the junky state and the soma state. The Drug Enforcement Administration was created in 1973 by Richard Nixon, “in order to establish a single unified command to combat ‘an all-out global war on the drug menace’” (United States Department of Justice).

In a way, this was a heavy blow to aspirations of a soma state, but perhaps the true nature of the conflict inspiring the war on drugs – which still continues today – is that the spiritual qualities underpinning the lifestyle choices that motivated performance culture are unable to be discussed within the public frame of a secularization narrative. Ironically, Nixon’s “unified command” occurred just before the public became widely aware of CIA’s MK-ULTRA projects.

In 1978, discussing ways to solve the problem of addiction, William Burroughs told Victor Bockris and Raymond Foye, referencing Gordon Taylor’s The Biological Time Bomb, “Any sort of selective distribution of a medication to prolong life would run into, uh, social difficulties . . . our creaky old social system cannot absorb the biologic discoveries that are on the way” (106). When Bockris points out that this “points toward a much more controlled society,” Burroughs counters, saying he agrees with Timothy Leary, “Washington is no longer the center of power.” Because the government cannot compete with private wealth, Burroughs believes the government will have no “monopoly on scientific discovery.” He predicts, “they’re going to legalize marijuana, and sooner or later they’re going to come around to some sort of heroin maintenance” (107). He points to growing feelings of futility within drug enforcement and says, that the sooner there are less restrictions, the necessity for the DEA will be eliminated. But how does this fit into arguments appealing to religion?

In “Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” an addendum to Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs says,
I have heard that there was once a beneficent non-habit-forming junk in India. It was called ‘soma’ and is pictured as a beautiful blue tide. If ‘soma’ ever existed the Pusher was there to bottle it and monopolize it and sell it and it turned into plain old time JUNK.

Burroughs associates junk with the crassest of globalized consumerism, and his characters, William Lee and Clem Snide move through differing personas in and out of being agents of the State and deliriously high junkies…his narratives move geographically around the world, broken and cut-up spatially and temporally. Junkies clearly detorritorialize the world. Yet toward the end of the book, Naked Lunch is itself referred to as a “blueprint, a How-To Book” (203). The reader “can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” essentially becoming a manual for divination in deterritorialized space:

Black insect lusts open into vast, other planet landscapes….Abstract concepts, bare as algebra, narrow down to a black turd or a pair of aging cajones….
How-To extend all levels of experience by opening the door at the end of a long hall….Doors that only open in Silence…. Naked Lunch demands Silence from The Reader. Otherwise he is taking his own pulse….

Appearing in ficto-poetic form years before either Leary’s version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Kleps’s catechism, or Ram Dass’s Remember Be Here Now, Burroughs presents his own avant-garde psychedelic guide. Like Artaud, Burroughs had traveled to South America to experience Yage and Ayahuasca. He describes the drugs as producing “blue flashes” in the appendix to Naked Lunch (230). Earlier in the novel, Burroughs, in a rare moment of almost reverence strews images:

Pictures of men and women, boys and girls, animals, fish, birds, the copulating rhythm of the universe flows through the room, a great blue tide of life. Vibrating, soundless hum of deep forest – sudden quiet of cities when the junky copes. A moment of stillness and wonder. Even the Commuter buzzes the clogged lines of cholesterol for contact. (74)

The list avoids the syntactic completion by avoiding “be” verbs. Here Burroughs aligns the silence of “The Reader” with the experience of “Blue Tide” through a collapsed, perennial space of humans, animals and cities and the “Commuter” – Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  This associative performance, like Kleps’s performance in The Boo Hoo Bible, is psychedelic aesthetics in action. Collapsing identities of reader and author and character and State, Burroughs pushes toward a new citizenship beyond geography, time and space, but he masks his Soma state well with seedy digressions and soupy plotlines. As a narrator explains:

The President is a junky but can’t take it direct because of his position. So he gets his fix through me….From time to time we make contact and I recharge him. These contacts look, to the casual observer, like homosexual practices, but the actual excitement is not primarily sexual, and the climax is the separation when the charge is completed. (66)

The necessity for the sexual encounter is because, if it were done by “Osmosis Recharge, . . . it will put the President in a bad mood for weeks, and might well precipitate an atomic shambles.” The president has formed “an Oblique” habit. He has sacrificed all control, and is dependent as an unborn child ”(66). As a result, the “Oblique Addict” ingests and consumes and “suffers a whole spectrum of subjective horror, silent protoplasmic fury, hideous agony of the bones.” The bones of the skeleton, the inside kills the addict, “straining to climb out of his unendurable flesh.” The State at this point is preserved by the sacrifice of the junky in communion with the President.

Burroughs’s narrative performs a collapse of subjectivity and objectivity typical to mysticism and psychedelic aesthetics. Like Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it is presented through a polysemus extreme materiality of biology, sex, bones and junk. Later in the novel, a narrator recalls a trip saying,
And I don’t know what I am doing there nor who I am. I decide to play it cool and maybe I will get the orientation before the Owner shows….So instead of yelling “Where Am I?” cool it and look around and you will find out approximately….You were not there for The Beginning. You will not be there for The End….Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative….(199)

Here Burroughs pushes to a state of exception: to life, death and knowledge. But he also converges the first and second persons, establishing the evangelical effect typical of psychedelic aesthetics. This state of exception where boundaries between personas collapse is the state that produces the writer or poet:

There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his eyes at the moment of writing….I am a recording instrument….I do not presume to impose “story” “plot” “continuity.”… Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function….I am not an entertainer….(200)

Here the writer becomes an object, an instrument – a machine. But this quickly establishes a different communion.

“Possession” they call it….Sometimes an entity jumps in the body – outlines waver in yellow orange jelly – and hands move to disembowel the passing whore or strangle the neighbor child in hope of alleviating a chronic housing shortage. As if I was usually there but subject to goof now and then….Wrong! I am never here….Never that is fully in possession, but somehow in a position to forestall ill-advised moves….

The narrator turned reader turned writer turned machine turned possessed body is repositioned as an advisor…as a new subject. That subject enacts interstitially with the State, but is positioned outside:

Patrolling is, in fact, my principle occupation….No matter how tight Security, I am always somewhere Outside giving orders and Inside this straitjacket of jelly that gives and stretches but always reforms ahead of every movement, thought, impulse, stamped with the seal of alien inspection….

The passage moves on to distinguish writers from junkies over the smell / lack of smell of death: “the death smell is unmistakably a smell and complete absence of smell.” The absence of smell is the death of organic life (201). What is the end of all of this associative transfer?

Burroughs has described what critics of liberalism (like the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt) see as a democratic nightmare, where public and State are completely indecipherable and left with no sovereign decision-maker. Rather than a decider, which conservatives pine for, liberalism brings an orgy of consumption at every level. Burroughs describes this in perhaps the most well-known image and story from Naked Lunch: The man who taught his asshole to talk. The talking asshole develops its own personality and teeth, eventually consuming the rest of the body from the bottom up and the inside out. This becomes Burroughs’ figure for bureaucratic democracy, and we get a slight glimpse of another way he’d like to be. The character Dr. Benway, to whom agent Lee has been assigned in Mexico, lectures the younger Schaeffer, justifying their work as “Pure scientists” (119). Benway says, “Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised” (121). As an aside, Benway then throws in:

A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of people who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its own existence. (122)

Not throwing democracy completely out the window, Burroughs’s character suddenly sounds quite a bit like Herbert Marcuse with perhaps a tinge of Edward Abbey. In any case, the vision requires a more balanced and shared reciprocity, as well as a rejection of false needs. The question becomes, how does one determine between true and false needs with this new citizenship? Burroughs’s work suggests more implicitly (but also more powerfully) that this would be a poetics that disrupts existing narratives, that in doing so a new poetics moves beyond the birth-death or being-toward-death narrative.

As a public icon, Burroughs often seems so irreverent that it is difficult to see anything like religion or spirituality in his work. This is partly because, for him, drawing on Artaud and the perennial, he presents the world of spirit as being closer to immanence than transcendence. It is necessary for both Artaud and Burroughs to intensify the grotesque and the body as their spiritual practice. This is easiest to see in Burroughs’s invocation and critique of the European imaginary, which he does in Naked Lunch by way of reference to the anthropologist, Franz Boas. Occurring through a globalized montage of non-industrialized societies that Burroughs calls the “Yage state” (99) and sounding much like Artaud, he writes:

“All medicine men use [yage] in their practice to foretell the future, locate lost or stolen objects, to diagnose and treat illness, to name the perpetrator of a crime.” Since the Indian (straitjacket for Herr Boas – trade joke – nothing so maddens an anthropologist as Primitive Man) does not regard any death as accidental, and they are acquainted with their own self-destructive trends referring to them contemptuously as “our naked cousins,” or perhaps that these trends above all are subject to the manipulation of alien and hostile wills, any death is murder. The medicine man takes Yage and the identity of the murderer is revealed to him. As you may imagine, the deliberations of the medicine man during one of these jungle inquests give rise to certain feelings of uneasiness among his constituents. (100)

And so similarly, as Burroughs seems to suggest, the yage ingestion or psychedelic trip creates in its perennial and deterritorialized state the possibility for determining social justice. In the matrix of Naked Lunch, the perpetrator has been identified by the bureaucratic state through a sacrificial and excessive consumption of junk.

At least so far as psychedelic aesthetics are concerned, it makes sense to put Burroughs into more current anthropological findings. Michael Taussig, professor at Columbia University, devoted his early work to shamanism in South America. His book, The Magic of the State, employs what he calls ficto-criticism and uses a genre collapse as participant-observational writing method that transcends subject-object distinction. He describes a quasi-magical relationship between a colonial state enchanted by and inextricable from native religion. In more recent work, such as What Color is the Sacred and Beauty and the Beast, Taussig connects drugs, consumption, color and global commerce, pointing out hidden enchanted aspects of things typically thought of as completely mundane. Taussig notes that drugs and dyes were for years commercially equivalent:

If historically color has been categorized as a spice, as in the phrase, “the spice of life,” a phrase suggestive of a “rush” that takes us out of ourselves, like a drug, it is exceedingly curious that this association with color should have been forgotten in our usual understandings of the rise of the West to economic and military prominence. Color was every bit as important as so-called spices, if not a great deal more so, and indeed could be as highly valued as gold and silver. (What Color is the Sacred? 146)

Methodologically, Taussig has an implicit debt to psychedelic aesthetics and writers like Burroughs. His associative figuring allows him to see global economic relationships in strikingly new ways, ones the complicate more traditional readings of colonial and post-colonial. Without the lineage of psychedelic aesthetics’ playing on critiques of the European imaginary, Taussig may seem pretty far out there. Within it, he makes good sense.

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 postsecular 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. Insufficient attention to them is what creates Simon Critchley’s call for a return to poetry as a new foundation of “supreme fiction” in his recent book, Faith of the Faithless. Because of their re-enchanted qualities, works like Naked Lunch and The Boo Hoo Bible that display psychedelic aesthetics are fundamentally political-theological in nature and useful to Critchley’s call. Besides Burroughs and Kleps, a similar process was present, although to a lesser extent, in other writers’ work dealing symbolically with different aspects of the economy.

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