October 14, 2011
A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies
By: Nese Lisa Senol
Nese Senol presents an elegant essay about new options for students interested in pursuing academic careers in psychedelic research and education. A condensed version of this essay also appeared in the Winter 2011 MAPS Bulletin.
At this inertial juncture in history, I propose the inauguration of Psychedelic Studies as an interdisciplinary academic field. I would like to do this by tapping Queer Studies as a justificatory precedent.
Psychedelia is, properly speaking, queer. David M. Halperin writes that
Unlike gay identity, which, though deliberately proclaimed in an act of affirmation, is nonetheless rooted in the positive fact of homosexual object-choice, queer identity need not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality. As the very word implies, “queer” does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object; it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. “Queer,” then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative…. “Queer”...describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance. It is from the eccentric positionality occupied by the queer subject that it may become possible to envision a variety of possibilities for reordering the relations among…forms of knowledge, regimes of enunciation, logics of representation, modes of self-constitution, and practices of community-for restructuring, that is, the relations among power, truth, and desire. (Halperin 62)
Recently, the proximity of queer and psychedelic studies surfaced in reference to the Horizons Psychedelics Conference in New York City. An undergraduate administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, responding to my request to bring my students to the conference on a field trip, wrote:
I’m afraid I have to decline to provide funding for this activity. What I had imagined was an academic conference on hallucinogens or on the psychedelic movement seems from the website to be more advocacy than critical reflection…. Although I do not want to impede the critical work you want to lead your students to undertake on a fraught subject, it’s not evident to me how the conference supports it. (“Conference field trip,” italics added)
I was initially taken aback by this response—not for the denial of funding, but for the specific rationale. When I attended Horizons the previous year, its hallmark was a focus on legitimate, academic discourse. This was explicitly invoked as of primary significance. Pondering on the disjuncture, it occurred to me that the author might have responded the same way-“advocacy rather than critical reflection”—if he were out of touch with queer studies and received an analogous request. Just because a queer studies conference might focus on the legitimacy of the field, rather than featuring speakers that questioned its right to exist, would that mean that the conference was “advocating” a queer lifestyle?
When I made this connection public, one respondent’s protest echoed many of the detractions I have heard before: “a queer studies conference would have a strong focus on state and social repression and the specific oppression suffered by queer people, which is hardly glorifying, and queer identity is not a lifestyle by choice in the same way that psychedelics are.” But this common reaction embarks on a slippery slope. To essentialize a queer identity or culture as of somehow primary importance to a psychedelic identity or culture, especially grounded in the tenuous concept of free will, undermines the very rights that queer theorists and activists promote:
A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons and an extension or reinterpretation of the basic moral principle of equality…. If we wish to avoid being numbered amongst the oppressors, we must be prepared to re-think even our most fundamental attitudes. We need to consider them from the point of view of those most disadvantaged by our attitudes, and the practices that follow. (Singer 116)
It is counterproductive to argue that some forms of oppression are more egregious than others. How, for instance, is there not strong state and social repression against the use of or interest in psychedelics? How can one be certain that a psychedelic lifestyle is less of an identitarian issue than a queer lifestyle? Many view their psychedelic identities, interests, or religious views as inherent to who they are. Since queer studies is largely about the “queering” of identity and consciousness relative to the normative, we could work collectively to support the validity of all forms of performative identification.
The parallels do not end there. Although I now publicly study Visionary Art and Psychedelic Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, this was not always the case. When I was a freshman undergraduate at Bard College in 2006, I had an experience that changed my life, although it nearly cost me my career. Due in part to lack of information and improper set and setting, I was temporarily kicked out of school after I was introduced to LSD. Graciously, since my school worked on a case-by-case basis rather than with a zero-tolerance policy, I was granted amnesty in exchange for a research paper and a righting of my ways. Although the event receded into the past, it was impossible to forget one of the most enlightening, awe-inspiring experiences of my life. As Jeremy Narby explains in The Spirit Molecule documentary, “there is a growing number of…intellectuals, scientists, artists, movers and shakers, filmmakers…who realize that this stuff is all too interesting…to go on keeping it swept under the rug…. At this point there is no good reason, apart from bad habit, to keep up these barriers” (The Spirit Molecule).
But due to the pervasive cultural and legal taboos, I thought my intellectual interests had to remain implicit, unspoken. I applied to graduate school with a paper reading the philosophies of Friedrich Hegel and Jacques Lacan through the lens of fractal mathematics, with a personal statement directed at mystical and visionary poetry. The ideas were there, but my rationale was absent. It was only after I found out about the scientific psychedelic renaissance—via a New York Times article on the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’ conference “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century”—and after I attended Horizons for the first time that I realized there was a community of scholars working openly on these subjects. I decided to plug in, and come out of the closet. This is a common experience among those who, for the first time, find a community where they can speak openly about their interests.
Precedents and rationales aside, the time is ripe for a genuinely interdisciplinary field on psychedelics and their attendant societal repercussions to come to fruition.
At the fourth annual Horizons psychedelics conference in New York City last September, data surfaced from a 2006 psilocybin study at Johns Hopkins University demonstrating that roughly two-thirds of study participants had a mystical experience. Reacting to this cross-circuiting of secular and mystical discourses, author Erik Davis responded by asserting, flatly: “We already knew that.” The study, he claimed, was a secularization and materialization of a spiritual experience-rather than a discovery of a genuinely novel content. Davis continued, “The research model is not sufficient…. Neurology is on a collision course with the full-on [psychedelic] experience” (qtd. in Traveler). While serving a distinct and timely purpose, scientific discourse is by nature unable to exhaust the psychedelic question.
That same weekend, at Alex and Allyson Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors upstate, Rick Strassman, MD, participated in a panel discussion for the premier screening of The Spirit Molecule, where he remarked:
How to explicate the full meaning…of the psychedelic experience in this current wave of interest in studying these drugs again? ... I don’t think that we can solely depend on psychiatry to be the leader in discussing how these drugs work and their effect and their application to everyday life. I think it has to be as multidisciplinary a pursuit as possible, because the full psychedelic experience impacts on everything—it impacts on art, anthropology, music, religion, cosmology, physics, psychology, cognitive sciences, chemistry, everything…. We don’t want to overextend one discipline at the expense of the other[s]. (DMT: The Spirit Molecule - CoSM Premiere)
As Alex Grey expressed during the same event, “Now with the gifts of science and scientific research, serious interest is again making it legally possible to discuss these matters” (ibid), but this fortuitous resurgence of activity and attention demands a chorus of new voices, new models and approaches. In part because of these recent conferences and the movements they represent, it is finally an appropriate time to address the question of psychedelics and their continuing impact on culture from multiple critical, academic perspectives—and to confront the issues that have impeded these conversations during the past century.
There is a growing community of younger scholars who are actively focusing their academic work on this field. In mid-January, MAPS announced to attendees of their recent “Catalysts” conference that they would be sponsoring a new listserv for graduate students actively working or writing on some aspect of “psychedelic culture, use, practice, or theory.” Jim Fadiman wrote—in response to students like myself, who found it difficult to locate support and mentorship for psychedelic research—“It’s time to build [an international] graduate student research support network” (Burge and Fadiman). This event is significant both for psychedelic studies-since every major academic subject has networks of a similar kind-and for academia at large, which aspires to but frequently falls short of realizing genuinely interdisciplinary work.
My personal contribution to this movement lies at the cross-sections of literature, philosophy, comparative religion, and art history, and I cite psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna as my immediate forebear.
In April 2011, I presented a paper at the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual conference in Vancouver, Canada on the concept of “hyperspace” in the context of DMT, or dimethyltryptamine. I explained that since the DMT experience is notoriously difficult to integrate into the terms of “consensus reality,” the concept of hyperspace has emerged as a framing mechanism that enables participants in this field to articulate and co-create an alternative worldview. My thesis was that even if we leave the “real,” ontological status of hyperspace suspended, it functions as a Kantian “as-if” that pertains to a communicable, phenomenological experience.
In researching the term “hyperspace,” I discovered that its etymology is multi-faceted and complex, the result of a rich history with definite relevance to the fields of literature and art history. While the concept of fourth dimensionality extends back to Pythagoras, hyperspace began its heyday in the late nineteenth century, when the concept circled extensively amongst avant-garde and spiritualist circles. The term “hyperspace” proper emerged out of the specialized context of mid-19th-century analytic geometry, satisfying the need for a new word to designate a space of more than three dimensions. But as Jason Chernosky, an English PhD working on literature and hyperspace philosophy, explains, “A change in geometrical theory which carried with it such important philosophical ramifications…gave writers and thinkers a new metaphor…. [H]yperspace mediates between realms of discourse that otherwise would not communicate” (qtd. in Pacchioli). Consequently, Linda Dalrymple Henderson pointed out the tremendous impact of hyperspace philosophy on art history in her 1984 book The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Paradigm shifts propagate indiscriminately across multiple domains, and the impact of hyperspace on culture and its means of representation have been both tangible and under-scrutinized.
In the humanities, establishing a historical canon of hyperspatial, interdimensional artists and philosophers creates a concrete discursive context for further investigations. It establishes an aesthetic tradition within which one can include artists ranging from William Blake to the cubists to the interdimensional and visionary painters of the modern day.
This is just one example of the manifold ways that psychedelic discourse pertains and responds to questions of philosophy, creativity, imagination, religion, culture, and language. The crucial step now is to bring these conversations into the open.
One necessary component of this involves developing critical rationales and precedents for investigating issues like hyperspace entities within a mainstream academic conversation. Thought experiments, acknowledged as such, could be encouraged rather than taboo. Rick Strassman, MD writes in Inner Paths to Outerspace:
The only explanatory model that held itself out as the most intuitively satisfying, yet the most theoretically treacherous, involved assigning a parallel level of reality to these experiences. In other words, I engaged in a thought experiment…. I had to accept their reports as descriptions of things that were “real.” I allowed myself, at least theoretically, to accept that under the influence of DMT, these things do happen-in reality, although not in a reality we usually inhabit. (Strassman 75)
If we are able to remain unattached to the particularities of such thought experiments, they can help us to overcome the anachronistic privileging of the seen over the unseen. In the words of Terence McKenna, “I would prefer a kind of intellectual anarchy where whatever was pragmatically applicable was brought to bear on any situation; where belief was understood as a self-limiting function” (McKenna 39).
Literary studies can make a significant contribution to psychedelic studies by providing the infrastructure for creative explorations within this domain. As an extension of the “absurdist philosophy” known as ‘pataphysics, “pataphor” is a term referring to a metaphor gone cataclysmic, seeking to “describe a new [and] separate world, in which an idea or aspect has taken on a life of its own” (”‘Pataphysics”). Using the concept of pataphor, we can explore the internal potentials for a concept like hyperspace without committing ourselves to limiting beliefs. Similarly, “psychotic knowledge” is described as the result of “ripping apart the fabric of consensual reality.” It is only psychotic “from the perspective of the hegemonic paradigm that cannot permit multiple realities” (Shunyamurti), encouraging the retention of sanity while remaining open to new horizons of possibility. Thus, alien intelligence, vine spirits, and eschatologies are ideas that can be played with, in ways that don’t depend on absolute truth values for intellectual significance.
In addition to what literary and cultural studies can do for psychedelia, the latter needs to be accounted for by the former in any comprehensive description of modernity. The term “visionary culture” references a network of interrelated movements that are growing exponentially beyond the purview of academia and the mainstream media. Considering their scope-hundreds of thousands of people around the world are actively involved—and the intellectual, aesthetic, and political significance of these movements in relation to many of the most pressing issues of our time, they have received extraordinarily limited scholarly attention.
The rise of visionary culture is a landmark event within the history of aesthetics and philosophy. At the most fundamental level, it offers an alternative to the postmodern discourse that still preoccupies many scholars of the humanities across disciplines, despite a search for new alternatives. Notably, a Google Books search for “after postmodernism” produces over 8,500 results. Although a definition of postmodernism is difficult to pin down, due in part to an emphasis on difference and the rejection of its label by many of its most influential thinkers, it is often predicated on an absence of perspectival view and an ironic coexistence of temporalities.
According to the editors of After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism, “A buzzword which began as an emerging, radical critique became, by the 20th Century’s end, a buzzword for fracture, eclecticism, political apathy and intellectual exhaustion.” They continue, “[A] new and different intellectual direction must come after postmodernism…because [it] is inadequate as an intellectual response to the times we live in. The realization of this has been growing for some time now without it yet being clear just what this new perspective will be” (López and Potter 4).
My work at the university has centered on developing an alternative to the outdated notion of a secular, ironic postmodernism within which the academy is still entrenched. “Performatism” is a word coined by German scholar Raoul Eshelman in his book Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism, and I have expanded his definition: although heterogeneous, performatism is antithetical to the ironic conception of postmodernism described here. Performative works create their own temporalities and perspectives. They create worlds and ways of seeing: performances in and of context. As an important instance, visionary art and culture is a performative approach to the conscious construction of a sustainable, aesthetically-inspired worldview. In opposition to secular irony, the visionary art of Alex Grey, Amanda Sage, Michael Divine, Adam Scott Miller and others is spiritual, optimistic, and performative-which is to say it aims to do something, to introduce new symbolic frames and create ritualistic spaces wherein personal and collective identities can be consciously shaped and refashioned.
Finally, there is a long list of “buzzwords” associated with psychedelic discourse that leads to immediate disqualification from being taken seriously in an academic setting, including “spirit,” “destiny,” “prophecy,” “psychic,” “aliens,” “channels,” et cetera. This is a large reason why Terence McKenna, possibly the greatest psychedelic philosopher of our time, is completely absent from university syllabi, where he definitely belongs. The ideas that he champions have consequences reaching far beyond the psychedelic community, which has ultimately been his sole audience. The media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whom McKenna greatly admired and who championed very similar ideas, has nearly been relegated to the same fate.
In his essay, “The Humanities in the Electronic Age,” McLuhan highlighted the radical character of the epochal shift facing humanity, arguing that the transition from the “mechanical” to the “electric age” requires a corresponding transformation in the nature and function of the humanities. He writes:
[T]he discovery of the twentieth century [is]...the discovery of the process of insight itself, the technique of avoiding the automatic closure of involuntary fixing of attitudes that so easily results from any given cultural situation. The technique of open field perception…is a method of organized ignorance[,]...the means of abstracting oneself from the bias and consequences of one’s own culture…. [T]he technique of the suspended judgment…means, not the willingness to admit other points of view, but the technique of how not to have a point of view. (McLuhan 8; 10; 11)
McLuhan, who saw the university’s potential to promote and explore this capacity, is explaining a notion similar to McKenna’s description of “resetting your operating system,” a function that McKenna associates with psychedelic use. These two figures—along with Jacques Derrida, who is also disparaged but highly regarded in the academy—are aware of the inability of existing constructions to account for future developments or even contemporaneous alternatives, and they are interested in how the knowledge of ideological contingency influences existing ideological structures.
There is much to be learned from a conversation blending absolute alterity with boundless creativity, and the future of the humanities depends on the uninhibited cooperation of these different strands of thought. In Inner Paths to Outer Space, Rick Strassman, MD writes:
Within traditional Western academic settings, anthropology is the field that has focused attention on psychedelic plant use and the role of these plants in the societies that use them. More than any other field, it has maintained the flame of interest in these plants and drugs over several hundred years of Western suppression of all information about them. Within the last sixty to seventy years, however, it has been within the medical-scientific framework, primarily psychiatry, psychology, and the neurosciences, that our culture has viewed and understood psychedelic drugs. (Strassman 13)
It is now time for the false iron curtain to fall. I hereby inaugurate Psychedelic Studies as a post-disciplinary field. Let the games begin.
Burge, Brad, and Jim Fadiman. “Message to Attendees of Catalysts: The Impact of Psychedelics on Culture…” Message to the author. 19 Jan. 2011. Email.
“Conference field trip.” Message to the author. 23 Sept. 2011. Email.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule - CoSM Premiere. Dir. Richard Grove. Prod. The Tragedy and Hope Online Community. Perf. Mitch Schultz, Rick Strassman, Alex Grey, and Allyson Grey. YouTube. 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.
Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
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Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. Ed. Hugh LaFollette. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997. 107-16. Print. Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies.
The Spirit Molecule. Dir. Mitch Schultz. 2010. DVD.
Strassman, Rick, Slawek Wojtowicz, Luis Eduardo Luna, and Ede Frecska. Inner Paths to Outer Space: Journeys to Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies. Rochester, VT: Park Street, 2008. Print.
Traveler, Jedi Mind. “Psychedelics and Human Destiny: Notes from the Horizons Conference.” Reality Sandwich. 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.
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