Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Arthur C. Clarke
Actually the quote above was the last of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous three laws of “prediction”:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Long ago my quest into philosophy, materialism, and the worlds of the sciences emerged from life experiences that converged in the late 1960’s era of Viet Nam, Psychodelia, and street activism in the United States. Having been raised in an isolated conclave of security and cultural conservatism in Odessa, Texas, where the world of Oil and country music were King (although Buddy Holly, Elvis, and other southerners managed to keep to the air waves) I lived in a bubble world of ideological ignorance. Can I blame my parents, grandparents, etc.? Not really. Part of the general ideological passivity of the era that was still in the aftermath of WWII, the 50’s fear mongering, and the culture of religion ( West Texas being on the edge of the notorious Bible Belt). Luckily for me my Dad was pretty much an agnostic, my mother a reserved Methodist who’d abandoned her Church because of its new turn toward apocalypticism. All part of the fare of that world. Hell for me it was all about sports, football in particular. If you’ve ever seen the movie Friday Nights Live or the tv series by that name you’ll know that it was based on a specific High School in Odessa, Permian High School. I admit that I never got to play there because my family just on my cusp of entering that institution moved to Houston (another tale). But I grew up in its culture having had cousins, second cousins, etc. who did go there. Odessa was still a bubble community where everyone new about, of, or personally everyone else. It was a racist town with segregation that took a while to change – if it ever did?
Sadly it was from this closed ideological village of stupidity and ignorance that I emerged during the Viet Nam draft era. Realizing I had two options: 1) run away to Canada; or, 2) join the Air Force or Navy rather than allow the Army to enslave me. Being a Son of the South and engrained with all its ideological colorings I chose the supposed honorable path of joining the Navy. What a mistake! Not that the Navy isn’t a great way to escape the tedium of that West Texas desert of mesquite, sulphurous oil fumes, clichy, tumbleweeds, etc., but I had no real idea what I was getting into at all. (Another tale… )
You may be wondering: Why the hell is this guy baring his personal bullshit online? It’s not some confessional believe me, it’s actually to show how each of us are the fruit of certain epigenetic environmental pressures. Our lives are not whole cloth as some of us would like to assume. I think it was Emerson who once spoke of the long shadow: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”. For me life itself is that shadow in the personal. We are born in ignorance with brains that have evolved over eons to meet the pressures of our external environments, to grapple with the materiality of existence, to be selective toward all things in our environment for certain reproductive and survival reasons. Yet, over time something happened, something changed in the animal called humanity: we developed that ability to speak and to reflect upon our speech thereby producing strange anomalies in our brain that evolved into what many unknowing philosophers now want to call the Mind. They talk of the Mind as if it were something different, unique, separate from the brain itself. There are so many notions concerning the mind and its child, consciousness, that it might fill an encyclopedia like Britannica many times over.
That is not my subject.
My subject is the three laws of Clarke and what they actually imply.
Take the first one: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
The Emergence of Science and the Enlightenment Project
What’s implied here is a notion of what the sciences entail, as well as what scientists in their rigid legalisms and ideological straight-jackets try to limit. Between the two poles of experimentalism and the limits of the rational Mind is situated the lives of the scientists themselves. Stepping back a bit when we move into the Middle Ages man was in every sense the centre of the universe. The whole world of nature was believed to be teleologically subordinate to him and his eternal destiny. Toward this conviction the two great movements which had become united in the medieval synthesis, Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology, had irresistibly led. The prevailing world-view of the period was marked by a deep and persistent assurance that man, with his hopes and ideals, was the all-important, even controlling fact in the universe.
Then something changed all that. We like to typify this change by pointing to a particular man: Nicolaus Copernicus. Scholars always like to reflect back and pigeon hole specific events, people, and places to simply their narratives about change. Usually there were so many underlying aspects to this change that to center it on specific entities is most of the time to lose the story amid the simplifications. Be that as it may I too will for the moment (do to space – ah the great catch phrase that means time, the time of reading and filling in the details that go unsaid, left out of the major cultural tales, etc.) just that and simplify the tale. What was it Copernicus represents? (Don’t you love that: represents – the notion of re presenting the presence of ideas, things, events – as if we could really do that, as if we’d been there in the presence of these eventful moments to speak about them as distant seers…) I wander.
The tale of Copernicus goes something like this: The publication of Copernicus’ book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), just before his death in 1543, is considered a major event in the history of science. It began the Copernican Revolution and contributed importantly to the scientific revolution. What really does that tell us? Well in his book we discover what caused all the ruckus: he introduced what has come down to us a the heliocentric view of the solar system. This force all those churchmen who relied on the Medieval conception of the solar system wherein the earth was the center rather than the sun to stand back and think. What they concluded was simple: if this is true then the very foundations of our knowledge is wrong, we’ve been mistaken for centuries and will have to rethink everything. Ah! What a problem that would be… but, that’s what would over the next few centuries lead to the struggle of an event we call the Enlightenment project. Not so to speak a particular historical event, although it would lead to one – one we call the American and French Revolutions that produced variations on a theme toward modernity and ultimately democracy (so to speak). No. The Enlightenment project is the focal point of the emergence of the sciences out of the world of medieval naturalistic notions of man and the universe.
Fast forward…. Darwin. Now Darwin was a naturalist at heart. Few Victorians are as well-remembered today as Charles Robert Darwin. Born into a wealthy Shropshire gentry family, Darwin grew up amidst wealth, comfort and country sports. An unimpressive student, Darwin vacillated between the prospect of becoming a country physician, like his father, or a clergyman. The advantage to becoming a country parson, as Darwin saw it, would be the freedom to pursue his growing interest in natural history. However, an unforeseen opportunity precluded Darwin’s plan of becoming a clergyman. After his student days in Edinburgh and Cambridge, Darwin’s connections in 1831 offered him the opportunity of travelling on a survey ship, H.M.S. Beagle, as the captain’s gentleman dining companion and as naturalist. The round-the-world journey lasted almost five years. Darwin spent most of these years investigating the geology and life of the lands he visited, especially South America, the Galapagos islands, and pacific coral reefs. Darwin also read the works of men of science like Alexander von Humboldt and the geologist Charles Lyell. Lyell’s new book, Principles of Geology, was particularly interesting for Darwin. Lyell argued that the world had been shaped not by great catastrophes like floods but by the processes we see active today: wind, erosion, volcanoes, earthquakes etc. Lyell offered not just a new geology but a new philosophy of science. Slow gradual cumulative change over a long period of time could produce great effects. Visible non-miraculous causes should be preferred when seeking explanations. Darwin had the opportunity to witness all of these forces himself during the Beagle voyage and he became convinced that something like Lyell’s method was correct. Darwin also collected organisms of all sorts, as well as unearthing many fossils. He began to speculate on why it was that the species he found as fossils were often extinct in the same region today, but sometimes not. The evidence clearly showed that the environment had sometimes changed. Where had new species come from? (see Victorian Web)
All this would lead to a theory of evolution that would like Copernicus’s displacement of the earth for the sun as the center of our solar system, would displace man from his primal place at the top of the food chain and situate him in the lineage of other hominids as a near cousin of the Chimpanzee. Oh, dear, that would cause another ruckus that is still with us between those who affirm evolutionary theory and those who see it as godless and believe in a pseudo-scientific theory of design (God being the Grand Designer of the Universe).
Fast forward… Freud. Why should a pseudo-scientistic purveyor of something he termed psychoanalysis be so important to this story? Simple. Freud would from the Romantic poets and certain scientists and philosophers of the 19th Century take over a particular metaphor of the unknown aspects of the Mind he termed the Unconscious. Inside of this zone of unknowing he would develop a new scientific mythology which if you have delved into his collected works is couched in the older forms of scientism and rationalism of his age. Yet, even if Freud’s theories and the metaphors in which they were couched, as well as the scientistic framework he developed have moved on into newer technologies and sciences of the brain such a the neurosciences, etc., what Freud’s insight brought about was the displacement of man’s identity, his subjectivity, his sense of self and reason as the center of our Mind. Instead we are through the new neurosciences coming to understand the brain and its processes in an ongoing relationship of technology and explanatory frameworks built out of these emerging interactions that are rewriting the narratives of what it means to be human as well as our relationship to the environment surrounding us.
There is as of yet no monolithic statement one can point to describing this multiplicity of sciences that are moving into all areas of knowledge and materiality to understand and convey a new truth of what it means to be human. But one thing is for sure: it is describing something outside of the Enlightenment project that we’ve been wrapped in for a few hundred years now. We are again in the midst of a reworking of our basic mental frameworks and world views in both Mind and Cosmos. Where it will lead is something yet to be decided, but the sciences are now at the forefront of this project that is no longer bound to the ideologies of an older world view (or, at least there is now a contestation of it going on). We are seeing on many fronts a requestioning of the Enlightenment Project of Reason in religion, philosophy, and the sciences. Time will only tell where that will lead.
The Impossible is Possible
This brings me to Clarke’s second law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
That we’ve been in a bubble world, a sphere of influence, an ideological realm of culture, myth, religion, politics, and global immeseration for the past century is without doubt. In the 19th Century European culture ruled the West and fairly well imposed its imperial authority upon all aspects of thought and life. But over the 20th Century and after two world-wars and many other regional conflicts, genocides, epidemics, and deliberate financial and military interventionism the great culture of the West began to fall apart into chaos, it was like many other things we’ve mentioned: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud…. having to face the fact that it, too, was no longer the be all know all center of the earthly cultural world view. It had to face the fact (which it hasn’t truly done yet) that other cultures on this planet with their own unique world views have the right to coexist in earth spacetime along side the West. The West is but one among many cultures and can no longer impose its monoculture on the rest of the world. This is a good thing. One that is taking time to set in across the globe. And it is one of the great issues we are still in the midst of… the slow methodical transformation of planetary culture into a Global Culture that is multicultural and polyvalent – or, as many keep pointing out: pluralistic. What this is entailing is a slow deconstruction and creative destruction of the global commons no longer as the Wests playground or economic toy to care for, dominate, protect, and impose upon their militaristic security states. Caput! That time is over.
A new age begins…
Is this the a litmus test, a sort of movement beyond the limits of the possible and into the impossible. Back in 2007 Ray Brassier brought together a group of philosophers for a meeting of the minds to discuss this change. At the time they hung a particular name upon a sort of agreed metaphorics for their talk: Speculative Realism. It’s all history now and as things go the term for better or worse stuck. There are even now new books coming out that will explain both the people, events, philosophies, etc. surrounding this term (see Peter Gratton’s upcoming Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects; Steven Shaviro’s upcoming The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism; and, Tom Sparrow’s upcoming The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism).
The main players as many might know were Quinton Meillasoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Ian Hamilton Smith. Out of this emerged many papers, interviews, books, and continued dialogue both controversial and challenging. I think it was probably Quintin Meillasoux’s book After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency with its call to arms:
For it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere.1
It was this sense of that somewhere along the way philosophers since the Enlightenment project began had lost their way, lost their connection to the ‘great outdoors’, the site of things, objects, entities as having a right to their own lives, thoughts, existence unconnected for us humans. It was a call to explore the impossibility of possibly entering the life of the world around us from within its immanent lived sense of existence. To see things as the know rather than continue the idea that everything is given for us. It was this sense of escape, of being elsewhere, outside the confines of our own prison worlds of thought and language which had devolved over the 20th Century into ever deeper turns toward the inner circles of linguistic hell. People wanted out, away. They needed to reconnect to something real. Our turn toward nihilism in the postmodern and linguistic turn had brought us face to face with our own fantasias of virtuality and exposed us a impossible mirrors of inanity, boredom, and repetitive – even, trivial ideas that had ultimately spawned a whole consumer academic research world of self-reflecting imbecility turning and turning in ever so difficult jargon the complexities of semiotics and the simulated information processing worlds of the impossible.
Probably the best historian of Speculative Realism is still Graham Harman who offers us a simplified version of its meaning:
“Speculative realism” is an extremely broad term. All it takes to be a speculative realist is to be opposed to “correlationism,” Meillassoux’s term for the sort of philosophy (still dominant today) that bases all philosophy on the mutual interplay of human and world.2
But as to what that term, “correlationism”, means, even Graham admits its impossible to tell because it means something different for each of the original philosophers:
Please note that the speculative realists don’t even agree about what is wrong with correlationism! For example, what Meillassoux hates about correlationism is its commitment to “finitude,” the notion that absolute knowledge of any sort is impossible. But he doesn’t mind the correlationist view that “we can’t think an X outside of thought without thinking it, and thereby we cannot escape the circle of thought.” (He simply wants to radicalize this predicament and extract absolute knowledge from it. Meillassoux is not a traditional realist; German Idealism is his true homeland , just as it is for Žižek and to a slightly lesser extent Badiou.) … By contrast, I see the problem with correlationism as the exact opposite. I don’t mind the finitude part, which seems inevitable to me. What I hate instead is the idea that the correlational circle (“ can’t think an unthought X without turning it into an X that is thought”) is valid. I see it as flimsy.(Harman, 5-6)
There are a 1001 blog posts for / against this whole mess, and one wonders in the end what it was all about. My guess is that it is the beginning of something new that has as yet to find and connect the framework of metonyms and metaphors that will stamp it on our time. Yet, it is alive, it is contested, it lives in peoples minds and explores aspects of thought and world that for the most part were put to sleep by Kant almost two hundred years ago when he closed off the noumenal realm from possible thought:
Much of modern philosophy has generally been skeptical of the possibility of knowledge independent of the senses, and Immanuel Kant gave this point of view its classical version, saying that the noumenal world may exist, but it is completely unknowable to humans. In Kantian philosophy the unknowable noumenon is often linked to the unknowable “thing-in-itself” (Ding an sich, which could also be rendered as “thing-as-such” or “thing per se“), although how to characterize the nature of the relationship is a question yet open to some controversy.(see Wiki)
The Realm of the Noumenal
It’s to this external realm beyond the Enlightenment projects stamp of reason, the realm of the noumenal that Clarke’s third rule applies: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
This is where things begin to get tricky. Such philosophers as Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, Rosi Braddotti, Levi R. Bryant, Elizabeth Groz, Manuel Delenda and a multitude of others are working within this area of both post-human and technological crossovers trying to discovers ways beyond the Enlightenment project and its circle of reason and the for us syndrome. Not all agree on the details – some leaning toward Deleuzian vitalism, others toward transformations within materialism itself – or a radicalization of its tenets in unforeseen modes and ways. But the central thing that they all agree on is that we need to get outside that limited world of phenomenalism – a move toward a post-intentional philosophy. One no longer center in humans, but rather in the external non-human world as it is for itself. They obviously do not leave off the older phenomenalism as if it were barred beyond the gates, instead they study it and understand its uses but then explore what is beyond its limited domain. This is the difference.
But what is in this noumenal realm and how do we expose its riches? This is where things begin to enter that strange territory where science, technology, and magic collide and things go fuzzy. There are many explorers wandering tentatively into this new territory and like the psychonauts of the sixties and seventies they are coming upon realities difficult to describe with language.
For a long while I’ve wondered around the edges of this SR world, reading authors in SR, New materialisms, old speculators like Badiou and Zizek of another era, leftover postmodern and deconstruction or post-structural stars, neo-Marxists, old school Marxists, broken New Lefter’s, New Media, Ant, Panic, Information Philosophy etc. all aspects of something happening in our midst. And even such one time ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) specialists like Jean-Piere Dupuy who in his The Mechanization of the Mind and The Mark of the Sacred seem to be crossing over toward an impossible thought of the noumenal realm. All these authors, philosophers, scientists, etc. from neuroscientists to cosmologists to academic outsiders or independents are pushing us forward beyond the limited world of Reason through a combination of technology and thought that is shifting the ground below us toward new possibilities.
Visionary Materialism: The Psychopharmacology of Reality and Magic
This is where the personal story meets the world of scholars. I am one of those that in the sixties and seventies wandered into the realm of psychedelic plants – from mushrooms to Peyote to Ayahuasca and a number of other supposed mind altering substances. Even at this time in my life being ignorant of the history of these natural substances and not understanding their use in the cultural worlds of the aboriginal worlds across our planet I, like many of those unknowing teenagers of the era exploded on this world of psychedelics like troubadours entering a new age of exploration and music.
Then laws were passed, substances were outlawed, the culture of exploration was deemed madness, dangerous, criminal. The world of psychedelia went underground, vanished from mainstream thought and ideology, film and tv, and along with it the knowledge that maybe, just maybe we’d opened a door into the noumenal without knowing it. Instead the official culture blanketed the academic and media worlds with statements of harm, fear, and shame. But for those who know and have watched this world over the years, certain drugs remained: amphetamines, opiates, marijuana, etc.
Amphetamines or Uppers: Cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamine, all uppers, produce wide ranging effects by enhancing the activity of the central and peripheral nervous system. Effects vary according to the type of substance. While some can reduce anxiety and elevate moods, others lead to euphoria. At the same time, these can also cause anxiety and other psychological disorders, conditions that they are meant to treat. The primary effect of uppers is due to the interference they create with levels of neurotransmitters that carry signals from and to the brain.
Opiates and Downers: Opium, Morphine, Codeine, etc. The major psychoactive opiates are morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Papaverine, noscapine, and approximately 24 other alkaloids are also present in opium but have little to no effect on the human central nervous system, and as such are not considered to be opiates. Semi-synthetic opioids such as hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone, while derived from opiates, are not opiates themselves. Barbiturates, Benzodiazepines, Heroin, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Methadone, etc. Depressants are widely used throughout the world as prescription medicines and as illicit substances. When these are used, effects often include ataxia, anxiolysis, pain relief, sedation or somnolence, and cognitive/memory impairment, as well as in some instances euphoria, dissociation, muscle relaxation, lowered blood pressure or heart rate, respiratory depression, and anticonvulsant effects, and even complete anesthesia or death at high doses.
Marijuana or Maryjane: Cannabis is often consumed for its psychoactive and physiological effects, which can include heightened mood or euphoria, relaxation, and an increase in appetite. Unwanted side-effects can sometimes include a decrease in short-term memory, dry mouth, impaired motor skills, reddening of the eyes, and feelings of paranoia or anxiety
Now many of the above have been legalized in a number of countries or states within those countries for use in sacred ritual or for medicinal purposes. But the other substances that I’m speaking of – the psychedelics have remained for the most part in Outlaw cultures and sub-cultures off the grid and separated out from the main cultures of the planet in small pockets of resistance: indigenous societies and psychopharmacological explorers across the globe. Why? Why did society shut down the psychedelic world of the sixties and seventies with such merciless closure using the full extent of the law and police. On the surface they built up a whole surround of ideological media driven reasons: a situationists nightmare of spectacle of fear, danger, death, and madness. As if these drugs alone were the ultimate threat to the current capitalist world view.
I’ll leave off recounting my own experiences with psychedelics for another time, what’s more interesting for me now is to discover what the global capitalist order feared in this psychedelic awakening during the sixties and seventies that it need to erase it from cultural memory the best it could, while at the same time pursuing it to the extreme limits of the law and criminalizing both the manufacture, distribution, and use of these substances. I also want to explore both the scholarship and its connection to animistic societies, religious practices from Greece, Rome, and other cultures to now, and its new revival in what can only be termed the new wave of medicine and health arising around the globe.
R. Gordon Wassan
Wassan was one of the first individuals in the West to awaken to the notion that maybe older cultures had been connected to the sacred through the use of certain very material substances and that from Shamanism to Voodooist ceremonies, rituals, and practices these entheogens were the unique key to an understanding of a new form of visionary materialism. The notion that spirituality was connected to earth and very much connected to our own inner processes, the brain and its natural interaction to certain biochemical substances. This put the sacred into a material context, one that would suddenly see spirituality as something natural rather than supernatural as many would presume. That intrigued me for personal reasons, because the culture around me in my old Bible Belt land of Texas had only one script: the message of Jesus Christ as Savior that locked you into a repetitive tale of belief based on pure blind faith beyond which there was no recourse. For whatever reason this limit script brought me to the paradox of reality: it did not explain what needed explaining about the noumenal, the realm the great outdoors of life. It was locked into a narrative that disallowed one’s ability to question it’s basic tenets. That for me was just plain madness in itself. What finally made me become an atheist was actually seeing a film at a local church in Odessa where the notion of the rapture ( a concept in which all the faithful Christians will be swooped up into heave at the endtime, while all the unbelievers would be left behind to suffer under the tutelage of tyranny of some Anti-Christ). In the movie the victims are left behind in a world devoid of the spirit, to suffer at the hands of the devil’s minions as slaves in a merciless system of hate and fear. After the film I looked around at the people in this church and I saw fear and trepidation in their eyes. At that moment I realized that if this is the truth of Christianity then I’d have nothing to do with it from that point on. Anything that could install such fear and personal anguish in people as to try to scare them into believing in Christ was to me an inversion of that singular peasant carpenter’s teachings. So I walked away.
From that point forward I began a quest that would take me through literature, philosophy, history, and what many termed the outlaw realms of thought, the occult or underground world of magic, drugs, and rock and roll. That was, of course, the culture of the sixties full blown of which I was in the hot seat. It was at that time that I discovered within myself a fearlessness in the face of the unknown. To me books were tools, doorways into other realms, databases (although I had no word for it at the time) that crossed and flowed through the eons from the earliest channels of writing to now. Authors as singular creatures didn’t really interest me beyond their place in the network of ideas and events that flowed through their texts. As I began reading through text after text I began seeing no individuals but a network of interrelated knowledge that traveled from book to book like small bands of explorers, setting down in one zone after another leaving trails and crumbs along the way for the discerning seeker. And that is how it was… when one realizes for the first time that books are gateways to unknown worlds, one then comes to the conclusion that those unknown worlds are really after all our own world seen through the prismatic filters of a thousand-thousand agents. None of them hold the complete truth or vision, no singular or monolitich image of the reality surrounding us. But each passes on the flows that have entered their machinic minds like driftwood on the edge of a vast sea. Each sculpts the flotsam and jetsam of this edgeworld into certain fragments of insight that leave us calling cards from the impossible unknown unknowns. We follow it book by book, word by word, until we leave both books and words behind and begin to enter the great outdoors ourselves.
Coming back to Wasson I remember his fascination with mushrooms and his wife who being from Russia came upon them in the Catskills where he and his wife were living at the time:
Back in 1921 I fell in love with a Russian girl, Valentina Pavlovna, in London, where she was studying medicine. We got married at the end of 1926 in England and carne to America where she requalified as a physician. I was a newspaper man covering the Wall Street hank-run for the old Herald Tribune. We took our delayed honeymoon late in August 1927 in Big Indian, the Catskills, in a chalet lent to us by Adam Dingwall, a publisher. On our first day, after lunch, we went for a walk, down a path that led by a pond and then a clearing on the right, and, on the left, the upward slope of a forested mountain. We were hand in hand and a picture of bliss. Suddenly, before I knew it, my bride threw down my hand roughly and ran up into the forest, with cries of ecstasy. She had seen toadstools growing, many kinds of toadstools. She had not seen the like since Russia, since 1917. She was in a delirium of excitement and began gathering them right and left in her skirt. From the path I called to her, admonished her not to gather them: they were toadstools, I said, they were poisonous. `Come back, come back to me!’, I pleaded. She laughed the merrier and continued picking, as it seemed to me indiscriminately. To make a long story short, we had our first marital crisis. During our five year engagement mushrooms had never come up between us and here she was possessed by the mushrooms! Our walk ended then and there, she with her skirt full of mushrooms of various kinds. Some she put into the soup when she prepared our supper, others with the steak, others she strung together carefully by the stipes and hung out to dry in the sun, for use in winter, she said. I was beside myself. I acted the perfect Anglo-Saxon oaf confronting a wood nymph I had never before laid eyes on. I would eat nothing with mushrooms in it. Later she said I had predicted I should wake up the next day a widower, but I have always denied this allegation.3
For Wasson watching his wife immersed in mushrooms, seeing her knowledge of their types and uses, and exploring his own fear and emotions toward her and them brought him to a critical juncture in their marriage. Why? For hundreds of years humans have been taught (wisely) to fear mushrooms, because some are very poisonous and could kill one while others are edible but should be handled by experts. After realizing he had a fear of mushrooms he began to study the causes of it. Why this phobia? As he says:
Each of us had harbored a nascent thought that we had been too shy to express even to each other: religion possibly underlay the myco-, phobia contrast that marked the peoples of Europe. This religious twist struck us as absurd, yet we agreed that the evidence pointed in that direction. If religion it was, it had to date back to prehistory, and as for us, we had to try and write a book.(Wasson, KL 79)
In a section called The Age of Entheogens Wasson would remark:
My prime candidate for the earliest religion in the world is the cult that became known to us, much much later, as the cult of Soma. In our woodlands, Soma is one of the commonest of mushrooms, growing wherever conifers and birches grow, as well as with certain other trees. Sonia is found also in the Tropics, at an elevation in the forested mountains. In the tundra of the north, it has been reported as living with dwarf birches. Soma is breathtaking in its beauty, both at a distance and close up, and it is fortunately not to he confused with an) other mushroom. Sonia is the supreme mushroom, and while all mushrooms seem mysterious, Soria is the most mysterious of all. Before mankind existed, our bestial ancestors must have known it: gathering herbs for food, they would have tried it and found it good, and they must have seen other herhiyorous fellow creatures do likewise.(Wasson, KL 795)
Of course those who have studied the history of entheogens will also know that the SOMA that he speaks of was a term used in the oldest of Sanskrit texts of the Rig Veda. Even during his time Veda Scholars around the world lambasted Wasson for his presumption that SOMA was a mushroom:
The prejudice against A. rmtscaria is so powerful that it has led many writers of mushroom manuals, mostly by mycologists, to say it is toxic, and even sometimes to cast anathemas on it – the distant rumblings of ancient religious disputes. Anyone who undertakes to study soberly its properties is inviting disaster to his career – a strange aberration in the scientific realm, really derived in all likelihood from the religious world.(Wasson, KL 824)
One final extract on his short history and discovery that it was a specific mushroom Amanita muscaria that became the central tool of shamanic cultures around the world:
Amanita muscaria, a mushroom, as I have said, that carries no name today in English, though it is one of the commonest and perhaps the most beautiful in our woodlands. It must have been the victim of a religious tabu. We have been accumulating proofs of its identity for more than half a century. It is the plant that pervades the Rig Veda, the plant that the Aryans were worshipping until shortly after BC Loco, the plant that the I lindus still venerate nostalgically, though it does not grow there commonly. It is the plant that the Maya worshipped in antiquity as they made clear in their pre-Conquest poem the Popol Vuh, the plant that the Nahua worshipped, and also the Algonkians in North America, the ancient Paleosiberian tribesmen in Siberia, and the Ob Ugrian and Samoved, and some of the Finnic peoples, the Lapps too and probably many many other peoples whose traditions and languages we have lacked the opportunity to examine. In fact, among the entheogens, Sonia seems to have been in prehistory the focus for the awe and reverence of our ancestors for countless millennia. It heightened their powers, physical and mental, and people referred to it with many evasive terms that would not he understood by the uninitiated, such as One-Leg, Single-F,ye, Tongue-in-Belly. It stepped up the physical endurance of one who took it and also endowed him often with what the Scots call second sight.(Wasson, KL 299)
All the rest is history. In their Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers the scholars Albert Hofman, Richard Evans Schultes, and Christian Rätsch detail out the history, culture, and ritual and sacred practices of indigenous peoples of the earth who still use these entheogens in their daily lives. In our culture of commoditized realities where the sacred itself is the ultimate commodity shaping our religious ideologies toward progressive or reactionary conservative ideals we have lost touch with the older worlds of the earth and its material connections to the sacred in plants. Why?
Dr. Albert A. Hofman: The Age of Acid
As tells us their sociological study Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond of that era:
Dr. Hofmann first synthesized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938 while investigating the chemical and pharmacological properties of ergot, a rye fungus rich in medicinal alkaloids, for Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. At the time he was searching for an analeptic compound (a circulatory stimulant), and LSD was the twenty-fifth in a series of ergot derivatives he concocted ; hence the designation LSD-25. Preliminary studies on laboratory animals did not prove significant, and scientists at Sandoz quickly lost interest in the drug. For the next five years the vial of LSD gathered dust on the shelf, until the afternoon of April 16, 1943.4
It was on that day in 1943 that Hofman made a surprise discovery which gave birth to the psychedelic age of the sixties and seventies:
“I had a strange feeling,” Hofmann told the assembled masses, “that it would be worthwhile to carry out more profound studies with this compound.” In the course of preparing a fresh batch of LSD he accidentally absorbed a small dose through his fingertips, and soon he was overcome by “a remarkable but not unpleasant state of intoxication . . . characterized by an intense stimulation of the imagination and an altered state of awareness of the world.” A knowing chorus of laughter emanated from the audience as Hofmann continued to read from his diary notes. “As I lay in a dazed condition with eyes closed there surged up from me a succession of fantastic, rapidly changing imagery of a striking reality and depth, alternating with a vivid, kaleidoscopic play of colors. This condition gradually passed off after about three hours.”(Lee and Shlain, KL 166-177)
Lee and Shlain cover the intriguing history of this whole era and I find it fascination but its irrelevant to the post which is already stretching readable limits. The main thing is that it was this strange ‘altered state of awareness of the world’ that would spark a revolution in consciousness during the early years of the sixties. The central tale of drugs in the fifties, sixties, seventies and even up to now in the West has been the double-edged sword that it presents us. On the one hand there is the deep connection to the earth and plants of the indigenous worlds of tribal cultures who still use these sacred plants in their daily lives, while on the other hand there is the manufacture, distribution, and criminalization of all the myriad drugs from uppers, downers, marijuana, and the entheogens that find their way into the first world by devious means and migrations, transformations, in a world wide drug trade carried on by powerful cartels that care not one iota for human life. There is even the first world governments themselves who are for the most part in collusion with these private cartels. The U.S. CIA has a long history of intervening in and actually contributing to the very illegal world of drug and arms trading while presenting a legal face to its citizens. All of this has been documented time and again. Nothing new here.
Yet, in this history the truth of what’s going on in the brain gets lost. What are these sacred plants doing to our brains that trigger such altered states of awareness of the world? Well, that’s the crux, isn’t it. And, yet, there are new ventures rising up within the sciences themselves that seem to be again merging both capitalism and entheogens in a new medical movement. Rick Doblin tells us:
In 1986 , I founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit research and educational organization with a mission to develop medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful use of psychedelics, especially our top priority, MDMA (which was criminalized in 1985). In essence, MAPS is a nonprofit pharmaceutical company sponsoring research with psychedelics and marijuana, seeking to develop them into legally approved prescription treatments. Despite the potential of these substances, the pharmaceutical industry has abandoned them since their patents have expired. Major foundations and government agencies have not yet funded their development due to ongoing yet diminishing controversy over how our society should deal with them. As a result, MAPS has taken it as our responsibility to conduct careful scientific research and to educate the public honestly about the results of that research.5
Anytime I hear nonprofit I have to suddenly take a step back and wonder who actually funds this, what is really behind this beyond the surface texture of these advert statements. We know that large pharma combines, the CIA, secret agencies above top secret termed Black Ops Agencies, etc. still exist, as well as the larger Foundations like the Rockefellers, and other funds, etc. We know the CIA and other agencies and military were funding LSD in the fifties as a part of their own interrogation and brain washing programs. Even now DARPA has programs in their Biological Technologies Office for stress resistance and other types of use for soldiers. In other words these drugs if brought into the consumerist world would become politicized and controlled, manipulated, and marketed as other than what they are in the original sacred plant cultures. They would be synthesized and repurposed in forms that would no longer be living plant and human interactions, but would be impersonal substances devoid of their original designs as living plants. So I’m leery of this.
It’s only lately that we’ve discovered that scientists, innovators, artists, academics, etc. were also part of this entheogen world. People like Sir Francis Crick, who reportedly often took small amounts of LSD to increase his mental abilities, while discovering the structure of DNA.(Doblin, 270) Or Steve Jobs, who called taking LSD “one of the two or three most important things” he had done in his life. Mitch Kapor (Lotus, spreadsheets), Mark Pesce (Virtual Reality Markup Language), and Kary Mullis (polymerase chain reaction) claimed that psychedelics played an instrumental role in their creation of breakthrough technologies.(Doblin, 270)
Even now there are those that are seeing these initiatives toward Smart Cites, cities of learning and creativity will incorporate new entheogen centers where pharmkon will become a part of the natural cycle of daily life in these future technocapitalist societies. One entrepreneur has even developed a prospectus:
Community Psychedelic Centers International, Inc. (“ CPC” or “the company”) anticipates offering 50,000,000 shares of common stock on or about (date forthcoming). This will be the initial public offering for the company and may represent special risks. The company expects to provide two types of services: (1) psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and (2) and psychedelic-assisted professional development. With the proceeds of this offering, the company expects to establish therapeutic centers and professional development centers. The therapeutic centers will consist of (1) free-standing, self-contained centers for referral patients and (2) on-grounds, in-house centers located at existing major mental health hospitals and centers. The professional development centers will provide service for clients who wish to enhance religious experience, creativity, personal growth, academic and scholarly research, and similar non-therapeutic purposes.6
There will be therapy centers that will provide services only to clients who are referred by mental health professionals who are certified or licensed in the jurisdictions where the centers are located. In the United States, these will vary from state to state. Internationally, these will vary from country to country. Officially recognized competent authorities are likely to include psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and others similarly licensed or certified.(Roberts, KL 4066) As well as professional development centers will provide services for professional and vocational development in business, religion, education, scholarship , science, law, mental health, the arts, and related fields. Instead of being undertaken for the purpose of curing an existing mental health condition, sessions of the professional development centers will be undertaken to work in the fields listed above. CPC believes the proposed services have been shown to be safe and efficacious, but CPC makes no assurance that regulatory agencies will interpret the existing studies this way. A major barrier to regulatory approval is the assumption that psychoactive substances have appropriate use only in medicine and psychotherapy. CPC may have to undertake, or cause to be undertaken, additional studies to provide evidence of the usefulness of psychedelic sessions for non-medical purposes.(Roberts, KL 4087)
One can imagine J.G. Ballard taking this and inventing a complete psychopathological novel based upon the perfect capitalist city full of innovation, creativity, and, of course, a new technologized form of violence. Ballard was one of those who saw violence as central to our late capitalism with the loss of affective relations in the overtly competitive systems of capital and finance the cognitariat were the new workers and need reentry modules back into the physical truth through participatory rituals of violence that could only be seen as madness from the outside but as perfectly logical from within the corporate world itself. In The Atrocity Exhibition one character states: “Their violence (the jungle wars of the ’70s), and all violence for that matter, reflects the neutral exploration of sensation that is taking place, within sex as elsewhere and the sense that the perversions are valuable precisely because they provide a readily accessible anthology of exploratory techniques.” This approach to sex and violence through a meticulous and scientific logic of inverted perversion fits late capitalism to a tee.
One remembers Super-Cannes a novel about a corporate city enclave name Eden-Olympia – telling names, where the European elite have gathered in this business-park, creating a closed society that offers its privileged residents luxury homes, private doctors, private security forces, their own psychiatrists, and other conveniences for the perfect world of an efficient rational society of free-market capitalism. The book’s protagonist, Paul, quits his job as an editor in England and moves to Eden-Olympia with his wife Jane when she is offered a job there as a pediatrician. At first glance, Eden-Olympia seems the ideal workers’ paradise, but beneath its glittering, glass-wall surface, all is not well. What they discover on entry is that the very home they will be living in was the site of a suicide. In fact, it was Jane’s predecessor, Dr. David Greenwood who seems to have one day run amok with and assault rifle and murdered friends, co-workers, and other park residents before putting a bullet in his own head.
Crippled and healing himself, Paul, bored with his life in the empty villa, decides to investigate the events that led to Greenwood’s death, and begins walking in his footsteps. He soon discovers that just beneath the calm, well-mannered surface of his new home lies an underworld of crime, deviant sex, and drugs that seems to be prospering and growing. And all the residents at Eden-Olympia seem not only to be aware of this, but to encourage and welcome this underworld, as it provides them with a means to relate to something other than their jobs, and — by entering that world — to let go of the social restraints and etiquette that define their lives. Paul meets psychiatrist Wilder Penrose refers to Eden-Olympia as: ‘an ideas factory for the new millennium’.
At one point Penrose insists to Paul: ‘Here at Eden-Olympia we’re setting out the blueprint for an infinitely more enlightened community. A controlled psychopathy is a way of resocializing people and tribalizing them into mutually supportive groups’ ( 264– 5). The smooth management speak makes this all sound like role-play, but the key point is, rather, that everyone is in on the act.” This notion of a controlled psychopathy for the elite seems like technocapitalist experimentalism taken to the next level. Yet, this affectless culture of the elite and the underbelly crowds in such novels as Millennium People shift us into that intensive derangement of the senses that one could see being aligned with a pharmkon health system. Thinking of Deleuze and Guattari and their notions of assemblage as ‘machinic’ organizing flows’: ‘The assemblages are in constant variation, are in themselves constantly subject to transformations.’ 7
Paul also comes to view his investigation into Greenwood’s rampage in Super-Cannes as deciphering a trail of signs or a signifying assemblage replete with breaks: ‘It’s as if someone is flashing a torch in the dark, sending a message we should try to decode’ (105 ). This series of bursts (or perhaps jolts) is a constitutive aspect of the functioning of the assemblage, where the flow is brought to attention and made apparent through interruption (the flickering of the torch-beam), or the meeting of associative flows (the rail-flow suspended by the traffic-flow at a level crossing). As Deleuze and Guattari observe: ‘A machine may be defined as a system of interruptions or breaks (coupures).’ An early warning of the problems to come is in the propensity of these social and cultural (that is, machinic) assemblages towards dramatic, violent or explosive expression.8
As Levi R. Bryant in his new work Onto-Cartography describes it because “machines are composed of other machines, every machine is haunted by machine problems” (Bryant, 70).8 Bryant extends D&G’s assemblage as follows:
There is no such thing as a simple machine. Rather, every machine is simultaneously a unit or individual entity in its own right and a complex or assemblage of other machines. In short, machines are composed of machines. (Bryant, 75)
Bryant talks about the “affect” of machinic assemblages as the powers or capacities of a machine. Influenced by Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of affect he tells us that there are two types: active and passive. When a machine is open to the world it is in a selectively passive mode, allowing certain flows into it while not others. In the active mode the affects “refer to a machine’s capacity to engage in particular sorts of operations or actions”. The point he makes is that machines should be classified according to their powers and capacities rather than in some taxonomic fashion of genus and species.
It’s this sense of powers and capacities that haunts Ballard’s fictions. In Ballard’s cities of the elite we see certain assemblages on the verge of total affective loss, of apathy and disinterestedness, as if they were all zombies in a grey world of living death. So in each of these novels we see psychopathy introduced as the agent of negentropy, of the power to switch these machines back on so that capital can squeeze more out of them. As Bryant tells us:
The concept of entropy reminds us that machines, as low entropy entities, are improbable and that they require energy and work to continue to exist. … Far from being static lumps that just sit there, machines must instead engage in constant operations to continue their existence from moment to moment. Where those operations cease, the machine also ceases. (Bryant, 107)
So one can see the different tricksters in each of his latter novels as so to speak interventionists in these affectless societies who teach the inhabitants how to stave off entropy. As Bryant tells us of his own project one of the “central tasks of onto-cartography is thus the investigation of those operations by which machines stave off entropy and forestall dissolution” (107). He goes on to says remark that “an understanding of the negentropic operations of a machine can allow us to devise strategies for demolishing those machines” (Bryant, 108). The point of this is that as always there is a two-edged sword to this knowledge of humans and non-human entities: one can control them either way through manipulation to stave off entropy, or by means of negentropic therapies to slowly demolish them.
The exploration of affects in the latter novels of Ballard show us the truth of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of assemblage not as signifying but as production. As with much of Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking, it facilitates their account of the perpetual flow of desire, the circulatory system of their philosophy: ‘Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows.’ 9 The desire to awake to a more passionate world, revivifying existence, restoring vitalism in place of banal routine is the central premise of Ballard’s texts. The prescription for this – such as the doses of ‘structured violence’ (147) dished out in Millennium People – can in its turn be read as ‘symptomal’, in Fredric Jameson’s phrase, exposing ‘discontinuities, rifts, actions at a distance’. 10 The instances of violence, ratissages, bombings or ‘games’ of sexual assault, serve as fault lines where desire surfaces, erupting through the breaks in social-machines and emerging like pressured lava.(Baxter, KL 5076)
In the future worlds of Smart Cities when humans will merge with their machinic systems we may see new forms of pharmkon therapy emerge. The notion of psychotehcnologies seems to be one of those terms making the rounds these days.
Psychotechnologies are ways of using psychological processes for a desired outcome and/ or to select psychological processes such as perception, cognition, emotion, and their biological substrates. They include the mostly nonmaterial psychotechnologies such as hypnosis, meditation, contemplative prayer, sleep deprivation, and dreamwork; they include psychotechnologies that blend the nonmaterial with material including body-oriented techniques such as yogas, the martial arts, and breathing techniques; and they extend to psychotechnologies that are largely material such as sensory overload, sensory isolation, and psychoactive drugs.(Doblin, 255)
Instead of some tribal elder in the jungles of the Amazon guiding a new novitiate through the intricate process of hunting, processing, cleansing, and ritually appropriating the sacred plant as a living substance of the earth to be used as a way of opening the flows toward the noumenal in ways that our rational minds have closed off in their everyday evolutionary programming, we will have new professionals much like Ballard’s doctors who perform psychotechnics that bring about the effect of controlling the behavior of the new cognitariats lives in ways even they might never understand. As the deadly knowledge that is being gathered by DARPA and other government and non-governmental agencies in the new fields of NBIC technologies we may see a society that will erase its own cultural memory and forget that the sacred earth ever existed. These societies will have become so naturalized to the artificial that the notion of an external world or reality different from the command and control modules that will define their limited possibilities will have encompassed them in a visible tyranny of sex and violence they will assume is normal. Any deviation from that will be seen as abnormal behavior and corrected through psychotechnolgies that would have made your grandparents blush.
So do we have options that will obviate this? Can we find other means and ends toward which to promote a more egalitarian and empowered emancipated society that is still in touch with the natural roots of the earth. All you have to do is look around you and begin to know all those aboriginal peoples of the planet that have for far too long been relegated to the invisibility of our present system. Open your machinic eyes and let the flow of that animistic earthy material culture awaken you to another way of seeing and affectively knowing both yourself and the earth. What else is there?
Maybe as Arthur C. Clarke once envisioned the truth when it is out is just that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Are we entering that strange world where the sciences and magic are begging to blend and merge, while at the same time redefining what it is to be human and/or post-human? AS for me I have already developed my own notions toward a visionary materialism that seeks to efface those artificial barriers we’ve put up between us and our environments for so long with all the philosophical bricolage of the past few centuries. I’ll let the sciences investigate the tools and apparatuses that expose the workings of our brain and selves, our environments and cosmologies. But for that segment that touches the workings of our lived lives I’ll seek out those teachers of the poison path who have already for thousands of years learned the secrets of the gods through material substances. Because in the end much like William Blake admitted two hundred years ago all the gods reside within the human breast, or, was that brain? Maybe as Jean-Pierre Dupuy in his The Mark of the Sacred once said ”
One must not come too near to the sacred, for fear of causing violence to be unleashed; nor should one stand too far away from it, however, for it protects us from violence. I repeat, once again: the sacred contains violence, in the two senses of the word.
We who know know… no more be said.
1. After Finitude: An Easy on the Necessity of Contingency (Kindle Locations 130-132). Kindle Edition.
2. Harman, Graham (2013-11-29). Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (p. 5). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
3. R. Gordon Wasson;Stella Kramrisch;Carl Ruck;Jonathan Ott. Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion (Kindle Locations 62-74). Kindle Edition.
4. Lee, Martin A.; Shlain, Bruce (2007-12-01). Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond (Kindle Locations 161-166). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
5. Doblin Phd., Rick (2014-01-07). Manifesting Minds: A Review of Psychedelics in Science, Medicine, Sex, and Spirituality . North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
6. Roberts Ph.D., Thomas B. (2013-01-23). The Psychedelic Future of the Mind: How Entheogens Are Enhancing Cognition, Boosting Intelligence, and Raising Values (Kindle Locations 3984-3990). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.
7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis 1991), p. 82.
8. Baxter, Jeannette; Wymer, Rowland (2011-11-08). J. G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions (Kindle Locations 5021-5028). Palgrave Macmillan Monographs. Kindle Edition.
9.Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane (Athlone Press: London, 1984), p. 5. 37 .
10. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative As A Socially Symbolic Act (Cornell University Press: New York, (1981), p. 57.
Baxter, Jeannette; Wymer, Rowland (2011-11-08). J. G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions (Kindle Locations 5148-5151). Palgrave Macmillan Monographs. Kindle Edition.