Ongoing Thoughts on Psychedelics and Liberalism

July 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

My thinking about psychedelics and psychedelic aesthetics is often clouded and frustrated by the way the subjects appear in consumer-oriented discourse.  Over and over, well-intentioned articles like Michael Pollan’s “The Trip Treatment” in the February issue of The New Yorker continue to rehearse won-out narratives about the therapeutic uses of psychedelics.  My concern here, however, is not just with the banality of popular media and its weak affirmations for the multitudes of seekers produced in large part by  the privileges liberal democratic culture.  Even the scholarly discourse with, again, well-intentioned organizations like MAPS producing valuable research, a polished veneer of “smart,” “capable,” “responsible,”and “healthy” glosses the online presence in the ongoing rhetoric to dismantle the hypocritical and destructive nature of drug scheduling.  End-of-life care has long been associated with psychedelic treatment, yet with little attention to the complexities of cultural domination and exploitation that allowed for the arrival of Leary, Alpert, and Metzner’s “translation” of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as The Psychedelic Experience.


Another recent article, this time in the journal, European Neuropsychopharmacology, “Long-term use of Psychedelic Drugs is Associated with Differences in Brain Structure and Personality in Humans”, titillates feelings of human potentiality.  It’s hard not to ascribe a longing for potential to this otherwise merely descriptive observation.  Working with long-term Ayahausca users, researchers conclude: “Neural changes in brain areas associated with attention, internal thought processes and the sense of self could underlie previously described personality changes following long-term psychedelic use” (490).  Again, there are no valuations in this statement, merely description.  A more highly charged observation appears in the internal discussion of the article, where the researchers note:

Personality assessment showed that the two samples also differed with respect to scores on ST [Self-Transcendence], a character dimension of the TCI-R [Temperament and Character Inventory-Revised questionnaire]  that measures certain aspects of spirituality (Cloninger et al., 1993) and is closely related to openness (McCrae, 2009). (485)

Indeed, the research is promising, and there is more and more of it.  Just check out the videos from the 2013 Psychedelic Conference.  Who in the crises-ridden (but rarely felt) liberal democratic United States wouldn’t think some more self-transcendence, “certain aspects of spirituality,” and openness could be a really good thing.  Maybe the folks working out the negotiations with Iran (on both sides) could use some psychedelic therapy.

While I want more research and deregulation of psychedelic substances, and I applaud the ongoing work being done to do so, I have long seen the regulated role of psychedelics as a particularly politically-theological question.  Regulation and deregulation, the theme of borders both physical and psychological, self-subject-citizen-other-Other saturates our culture like a storm god in the Old Testament collecting earlier water-gods and land-gods and instituting the Law.  While I have come to disagree with important legal theorists and critics of liberalism like Carl Schmitt, who thought that all significant political concepts are, at their root, theological concepts, I do agree that metaphysical assumptions permeate what some people are referring to in the past tense as “western civilization.”  For me, it is not so much a question of whether or not a liberal society succeeded in the poetic instantiation of an automaton, dispositif, or apparatus capable of sustaining liberal flourishing — although I’m always intrigued and compelled by thinkers like Victoria Kahn who deal directly and elegantly with that issue.  More and more, for me has been the allergies associated with spirituality in liberal democratic society since Hobbes and Spinoza.  The worn-out line that religiosity has been so diluted that our buffered selves, as Charles Taylor calls them, make the question of faith or between different faiths merely one choice among many obscures that the notion of faith in its relation to decision-making and ceding responsibility to authority.  Aldous Huxley was fond of historicizing the transference of God-based religion to Nationalism, as he was fond of poking fun at the religiosity of scientific figures such “our Freud / our Ford.” He was also fond of referring to authoritarian leaders as “Peter Pans” and “Savonarolas.”  Recently, in a Children’s Literature class I teach, a student informed me that she had been raised a conservative Christian and went to a strict Christian school where the “correct” interpretation of Barrie’s Peter Pan was that Peter was God.  The superficiality of consumer culture, the hypocrisies of “conscious capitalism,” the threats of leaky wikis, perpetuate perennial indecision by way of lack of response-ability –to whom? for whom? — when  all one feels is an expanded sack self-(gratifying)-transcendence.

Hobbes and Spinoza (Spinoza more so if you ask me) were both right to bracket authoritative scriptural interpretation in a way that de-authorized the lesser Peter Pan’s and Savonarlolas of westernized Christian tyranny.  Carl Schmitt’s political-theology notion of history was limited by a shadow text of western religion informed by 19th century linearity, although he correctly observed and lamented depoliticization in liberal society.

So, what does this have to do with psychedelics? When we consider the benefits of psychedelics through a rhetoric of health research alone, we  pay tribute to an outmoded positivism that assumes we are democratic “subjects,” willing and capable of ceding through collective decision-making to a working state apparatus.  In doing so, certainly more people may have access to the good kinds of experiences psychedelics offer.  But such bio-political rhetoric affirms a nefarious specter of state control as it habituates spiritual “health” to medical discourse.  Folks like Art Kleps, who saw the “bullshit” of Timothy Leary’s later  Millbrook, giving up set and setting, or McKenna, who advised taking large enough doses to scare you and get the work done — are important thinkers when it comes to psychedelics, spirituality, and the politics surrounding them.  It took the false-need for an earthly kingdom as the Israelites who became Jews saw their temple fall while bequeathing important aspects of state politics and history to western civilization; it took the further human hubris of universalizing Christianity coupled with mostly non-Jewish interpreters of Jewish scripture to help erect and unleash the horrors of modern statecraft.  As George E. Tinker has described in Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation, the western emphasis on temporality (over space) has been part of an enormous amount of devastation.  While I like the idea of keeping discussions of psychedelic substances away from what Tinker describes as the New Age community’s perpetuation of colonial genocide, a strictly rationalized biopolitical program also does not work.  Simultaneously, a neoliberal desire to transcend representation itself, like Peter Pan resisting to enter the symbolic order or “grow up,” evades responsibility and beckons the wrath of a storm-god.           I am not compelled with only secularly aestheticized answers to this dilemma such as Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless.  I want more direct and rigorous discussion of what we mean by spirituality as opposed to religion outside of New Age colonizing regimes and yoga studio theaters of fetishistic scopophilia.  I believe that the political-theological nature of psychedelics, especially since MK-ULTRA, as well as the recent research on them, makes them still worthy of contributing to a worthwhile discussion of spirituality, but I don’t need it justified by appeals to morally vacant politics.

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