Michael James: On Lunatic Philosophy?

Michael James on Synthetic Zero wrote a post Lunatic Philosophy? where he asks I wonder, though, in the kind of ecosystems we exist if we are all just lunatics put randomly in-charge of the asylum that is hyper-modern capitalism? And, in a comment to a query says: “Philosophy as “productive” experiments in lunacy for hallucinatory coping as a form of life? Tool for bridging, tool.. supplement.. like a pharmakon!”

Of course there are works that explicate this heritage of the pharmakon: Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens, which examines the emerging concern for controlling states of psychological ecstasy in the history of western thought, focusing on ancient Greece (c. 750-146 BCE), particularly the Classical Period (c. 500-336 BCE) and especially the dialogues of the Athenian philosopher Plato (427-347 BCE). Employing a diverse array of materials ranging from literature, philosophy, medicine, botany, pharmacology, religion, magic, and law, Pharmakon fundamentally reframes the conceptual context of how we read and interpret Plato’s dialogues. Michael A. Rinella demonstrates how the power and truth claims of philosophy, repeatedly likened to a pharmakon, opposes itself to the cultural authority of a host of other occupations in ancient Greek society who derived their powers from, or likened their authority to, some pharmakon. These included Dionysian and Eleusinian religion, physicians and other healers, magicians and other magic workers, poets, sophists, rhetoricians, as well as others.

Or, works by Bernard Stiegler who expands on Derrida in What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology where he says our modern madness and malaise can be cured through what he calls a ‘pharmacology of the spirit’. Here, pharmacology has nothing to do with the chemical supplements developed by the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmakon, defined as both cure and poison, refers to the technical objects through which we open ourselves to new futures, and thereby create the spirit that makes us human. By reference to a range of figures, from Socrates, Simondon and Derrida to the child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, Stiegler shows that technics are both the cause of our suffering and also what makes life worth living.

Then there is Slavoj Zizek on Hegel, telling us that what this philosopher says about habits thus has to be applied to zombies: at the most elementary level of human identity, we are all zombies; our “higher” and “free” human activities are dependent on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits— in this sense, being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, humanity’s inhuman or mechanical core. The shock of meeting a zombie is thus not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own humanity.  And, Hegel’s conception of habit is unexpectedly close to the logic of what Derrida called pharmakon, the ambiguous supplement which is simultaneously a force of death and a force of life. Habit is, on the one hand, the dulling of life, its mechanization (Hegel characterizes it as a “mechanism of self-feeling”): when something turns into a habit, it means that its vitality is lost, we just mechanically repeat it without being aware of it. Habit thus appears to be the very opposite of freedom: freedom means making creative choices, inventing something new, in short, precisely breaking with (old) habits. Think about language, whose “habitual” aspect is best exemplified by standard ritualized greetings: “Hello, how are you? Nice to see you!”— we do not really mean it, there is no living intention in it, it is just a “habit.” On the other hand, Hegel emphasizes again and again that there is no freedom without habit: habit provides the background and foundation for every exercise of freedom. Take language again: in order for us to exercise freedom in using language, we have to get fully accustomed to it, habituated (in) to it, we have to learn to practice it, to apply its rules “blindly,” mechanically, as a habit: only when a subject externalizes what he learns in mechanized habits is he “open to be otherwise occupied and engaged.” Not only language, but a much more complex set of spiritual and bodily activities have to be turned into a habit in order for a human subject to be able to exert his “higher” functions of creative thinking and working— all the operations we perform all the time mindlessly, such as walking, eating, holding things, and so on and so forth, have to be learned and turned into mindless habits. Through habits, a human being transforms his body into a mobile and fluid means, the soul’s instrument, which serves us without our having to focus consciously on it. In short, through habits, the subject appropriates his body.1

Ha, ha… the madness! Yes, I’ve written of my own early involvement in mind-altering substances in Visionary Materialism: Entheogens, Magic, and the Sciences. Here I followed the science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke whose third law stated: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Where 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. Before I ever turned to philosophy I was immersed in the obscurantism and sub-cultures of the sixties like a psychonaut wondering in a sea of strangeness. Only afterward would I find my way back through academic schooling, philosophy, science, and other forms of accepted and imposed Symbolic registers of our current cultural logic. In this sense the use of psychotropic drugs allowed for a breakout of those zombie habits and perceptual control mechanisms that had been internalized and manifest through the Symbolic Order, capturing and filtering desire and forcing us into the repetition compulsions of the death drive that seems to revolve in the realm of the undead and lifeless.

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. Some called these plants “technologies of the sacred,” but I wonder if they are ways back into the Real? If we follow Zizek and the German Idealists, Lacan and other philosophies of the Real and Gap we begin to reread these earlier traditions in a new light. We realize that early humans had already developed complex relations with the Real through incorporation of natural substances, learned from these unlocked powers of transformation new forms of consciousness and reason. Who are we to fear and belittle this ancient world of theory and practice codified in countless indigenous cultures around the planet (some still living and working these same pathways)?

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)

Tell the truth, for me experience came first, philosophy after the deluge… Between Viet Nam, its aftermath, my wandering in the sub-cultures of hippy-dom and traveling through indigenous and tribal cultures from Sioux, Navajo, and South American realms with friends who were adept at biochemistry and Entheogenic studies I, too, affirm that what poets like Rimbaud, Blake and others were seeking in the subtraction from the prison of organized consciousness (Zizek’s Symbolic Order of the Big Other), by way of a short-circuiting of reason is true of certain visionary drugs. The Real as the pre-ontologized or organized imposition of our Symbolic Codes is quite expansive and different than this little box of perceptive reason we’ve built to defend ourselves from the flow of things… I think William Blake said it best:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

In fact what Blake sought was not a return to the pre-Ontological forms of consciousness, which is impossible anyway, but rather to attain a higher organization of innocence: a new form of reason unbounded by the finitude of our limited prison-worlds of the present Symbolic Order. He felt in his age it was Newton’s mathematical and geometricized world of Enlightenment Reason that had closed us off in a false cave of reason. That there was a possible exit from this false form into a higher stage of reason and imagination. In some ways that old cogitator Zizek is close, but is still stuck in the traps of philosophical returns to German idealism that keep him from breaking out… maybe that’s where we’re at: the point we need to let the dead philosophers bury the dead and create something new…

What if in our time we are bringing the current Enlightenment world-view to an end? What if the forms of reason that have bound us to the current Symbolic Order of logic, language, and the prison house of Kantian correlationism, etc. were suddenly to fall away? What then? Are we in process of re-framing the very foundations of our approach to the Real? To our own subjectivity and subjectivation? To the very notion of what a Subject is? Could it be that we are even now “traversing the fantasy” of our madnesses across the planet, working through the very real political and social upheavals that are causing the current Symbolic Ideological constructs to break down and fail? That it is this time-between-times, an interregnum between two Symbolic registers that we are caught in the use of such boundary terms as post-human, post-rational, post-intentional… post – whatever? Will we make a breakthrough or breakdown and collapse, implode into further forms of tyranny and devolutions? Or discover that form of organized innocence the poets of philosophers, scientists and technologists of the sacred seek in such strange territories of the non-human?

Is this Lunatic Philosophy or What? When my friend Scott Bakker tells us we’re in the midst of a Semantic Apocalypse, or Zizek’s speaks of the chink in the armor of the Symbolic Order’s failure, and the slow devolution or collapse of our ideological filters bounded by Enlightenment Reason and traditions stemming from Kant onward, etc. We’re realize we are living it! The Lunacy, the madness! Yet, during this process we’re seeing that it could go either way: toward war, chaos, and climatological collapse and planetary implosion of civilization; or, the other, better, path of a reorganization of our planetary civilization onto a higher organized plane of innocence and development, a breakthrough rather than a breakdown. Either way we are faced with the need to “traverse the fantasies” of our current mad enterprise of late capitalism and its false imposition of the cultural logic of death upon us, its broken and breaking, failed Symbolic Order of compulsive consumerism and repetition in the stuck mode of present accelerating lunacy. Otherwise we’ll truly, not fantasy-wise – turn into those actual, not virtual, zombies of habit and mindless indifference (psychopaths, one and all), affectless agents of apathy and despair, colluding in our own traumatic demise and annihilation.

Against those who would bring “thinking and being” together as some unified harmonious relational philosophy or Idealism, etc., that would lead us once again into the utopian tyrannies of yesteryear. What we need is rather to accept the gap between thinking and being, let this rift open up in things themselves so that we can focus on the antagonisms at the core of the Reals rather than trying to fill the gap with one more fantasy to escape or exit the truth of our ontological and catastrophic universe of being. One aspect of this higher organization of innocence is not some reconciliation of the Symbolic and the Real, but rather of an acceptance that there can never be a reconciliation, that the Real is open and incomplete, and that the cultural logic of the new Symbolic Order will need to build on this notion that the Universe is open and dynamic, incomplete. The point being that we need our conflicts, antagonisms, obstacles – our problems and conundrums to drive us forward, to lure us out of our zombiefied habitual ways of thinking and being, shift us into more creative and dynamic, open modes of existence that cannot be totalized, shut-down, or closed off in some systematic description of reality. Some things will always remain unknown, which is what drives exploration, science, philosophy, and the socio-cultural dynamics of creativity.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 7895-7916). Norton. Kindle Edition.

4 thoughts on “Michael James: On Lunatic Philosophy?

  1. Reblogged this on synthetic zero and commented:
    brer noir brings to light the vital lure of what exceeds our grasps, see also:
    http://rauli.cbs.dk/index.php/foucault-studies/article/view/3202
    This article explicates a valuable but undernoticed point of contact between John Dewey and Michel Foucault. Both agreed that thinking arose in the context of problems such that the work of thought for both proceeds by way of working through and working over problems. Both affirmed that thinking arose in problematic situations; that it was about clarifying those situations, and that ultimately it was directed towards achieving a degree of resolution of what was problematic in the situation. Both agreed that thinking—or inquiry—was not fundamentally about the representations of a situation; either those produced by a contemporary thinker or as an exercise directed at historical materials. Both agreed that a history of ideas as autonomous entities, distorted not only the process of thinking as a practice, but also the reasons for which it had been engaged in, often with a certain seriousness and urgency, the first place: that is to say, such approaches covered over the stakes. Both agreed that the stakes involved something experiential and entailed a form of logic (or in Foucault’s later vocabulary a mode of ‘veridiction’), in which the thinker could not help but be involved.
    paul rabinow

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  2. Excellent. Thanks for that. In no sarcastic tone, I do say. I read his post also. My question concerns an admitting of use, of how such use may be ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ in the sense of such a ubiquity not having to be admitted, or, not admitted because it would discredit. My question has to do with what is going on here, but more : It is always about some ‘higher’ business; always . But the thing is, I think, is such ‘higher’ aim is always invested by and toward the high itself, that this high is indicating indeed something significant. But it is because the high is ‘stopped’ before the actual business of the high reveals itself; which is to say, the effect of the high is an investment of faith , and a faith that does not wish to be exposed as merely that.

    What I move to investigate is how the high is actually nothing, actually shows nothing, enacts nothing but faith. And How philosophers use this faith.

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  3. … The ‘zombie’ of Zizek mention is thus not what truly occurs ‘on the other side’ of faith, but faith coming upon its virility, or lack there of, the prohibitive aspect of the ‘faith of the high intuition’. Whereas, once such a high is encountered of itself, that is, not if its zombie reflection, then we have the position from which Zizek makes his points.

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  4. …I think I would have to disagree with your concluding remark though: It is exactly Real, but not that there is no reconciliation in an absolute sense; only as one finds oneself as encompassed by what is Real, with No Exit, as what is real shows the entirety to and for that one the Truth of every matter, the One and only route for knowing oneself — only there does one find no reconciliation. For after the Real (a priori) then we find Zizeks ideological state. If we never exit,then there is no ideology, but Only Reality.

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