The Psychedelic Eucharist: Is there an Alchemical Solution to the Ecological Crisis?

Some notes toward a talk I’m giving at Burning Man next week. I’ll be at camp Cosmicopia (located at 3:45 and Ephesus). The talk is on Wednesday at 4pm.

http://playaevents.burningman.com/playa_event/13197/

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The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter exchanged with the famed author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Osmond had recently supplied Huxley with a dose of mescaline. Huxley later sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested neologism: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (phanero meaning ‘to show’ or ‘make visible’ and thymos meaning ‘spiritedness’ in Greek). Osmond countered with the lines “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” The word means “soul manifesting” (from ψυχή, meaning psyche or soul in Latin), and δήλος, delos, meaning ‘manifest’). Osmond was among the first medical scientists to study the effects of Albert Hoffman’s recently invented chemical compound LSD-25. He was convinced that the psychedelic state could help psychiatrists understand and treat schizophrenia.

Many burners would probably agree that psychedelics offer treatments for a whole variety of individual ailments, whether alcoholism or addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety due to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, etc. I want to suggest that psychedelics may also provide us with at least part of the solution to wider social, economic, and ecological problems. They are not a cure all, but given the short time-frame human civilization has to fundamentally transform itself before cascading catastrophe drives our species and many others beside into extinction, I think our only hope comes in the form of a drastic chemical—or better, alchemical—intervention. Only the re-birth of a psychedelic religion can save us now.

The global religion of consumer capitalism is predicated upon the belief that consciousness is fundamentally atomic and individualistic, that it is produced by the brain and contained within the skull. The word capital derives from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head,” and originally referred to the number of cattle a rich person owned. Today, as always, rich people also own human heads. One of the principle lessons of psychedelics as far as I can tell is that, as Daniel Pinchbeck put it, they “break open the head,” revealing the cosmological ground of consciousness. Richard Doyle, author of Darwin’s Pharmacy, goes so far as to rename psychedelics “ecodelics” because of the way they dissolve the skin-thin boundary between human beings and their earthly habitats. What does it mean that so many plants and fungi contain psychoactive analogs of the human brain’s endogenous neurochemicals? Banisteriopsis caapi, psilocybin mushrooms, ergot fungus, cannabis—even our front lawns contain trace amounts of DMT! The nervous system is an ecologically extended network of chemical interactions. The human brain has been co-evolving with these other organisms for tens of thousands of years. Consciousness is not in the head. Consciousness is an emergent, symbiotic process that is planetary in extent.

It’s no mistake that religion of consumer capitalism requires that these substances be illegal. In order for the global economy to function, we have to continue to believe that we are skin-encapsulated egos (as Alan Watts put it) and that the meaning of life is determined by how much we own. We are raised to believe that human nature is basically selfish, that nature is basically cruel, and death is the end, so we may as well push others out of the way to get as much as we can while we’re still alive. We have to continue to commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by attributing more value to paper or plastic money than to human relationships, human lives, or the lives of other species. Our civilization is willing to destroy the entire planetary ecosystem to maintain corporate profit margins.

Have you ever taken a look at a $20 bill while tripping? Try it next time. I can’t help but laugh in astonishment whenever I do. This is the lifeblood of our civilization? We forget so easily that money is merely symbolic. You can’t eat it, drink it, or make love to it. When we put a bill on the counter or swipe our credit card at Starbucks, we act as though some metaphysical law forces the barista to make us our latte. In fact, we are entering into a social agreement. Capitalism does everything in its power to background this agreement, to background the alienating social relations that are required for the system to function. Capitalism tricks us into thinking that money is the only real measure of value and that this value necessarily determines the course of our lives. I’d wager that American money is green because this leads us to unconsciously associate it with photosynthesizing plants—which by the way are the only truly energy producing organisms on the planet. All the energy on earth enters into the food chain because plants have learned to transform sunlight into carbs. Not to mention the fact that most of the energy driving the global economy comes from fossilized plants.

Capitalism is a form of black magic. It is a dark, soul- and earth-destroying religion. Like all religions, it’s founded on certain rituals: shopping, working, watching TV or otherwise being inundated by advertisements, etc. It has its holy sites: malls, movie theaters, car dealerships. And it has its crusades: wars in the Middle East on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy” (code words for capitalism). Most modern industrial people think of themselves as entirely secular, but no religious believer ever considers their own religion to be just another religious belief system. No, our capitalist civilization, like all prior civilizations, thinks it has found the one true rational way to do things.

The reason I think psychedelics provide part of the solution to our crisis is that they allow our cultural conditioning to fall away, permitting us to re-imagine our values, our symbols, and our stories. They reveal the deeper connections between all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They allow us to rediscover the mystery of existence that has always been hidden in plain site. Psychedelic chemicals catalyze the formation of new rituals. Normally, ritualization is an unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot fundamentally transform itself within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival are slim. Don’t get me wrong, these substances are extremely dangerous. They come with huge risks. Anyone ingesting them risks losing their mind. Of course, the default mind is suffering from a disease. Maybe losing it isn’t such a bad idea.

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12 thoughts on “The Psychedelic Eucharist: Is there an Alchemical Solution to the Ecological Crisis?

  1. Wonderful reflections, Matt! I’m sorry I’m going to miss your talk. Your concluding point reminds me of one of Leary’s phrases about how you need to lose your mind to use your head (I’m paraphrasing).. Along with solutions, I’m sure a certain kind of resolution or resoluteness could be an important contribution of psychedelic technologies to the kind of psychopolitical transformation you’re talking about. It could also be worth considering that psychedelics sometimes reinforce consumerism and capitalism (perhaps especially in reactionary gestures of anti-consumerism or anti-capitalism). Historically, psychedelic self-exploration and consumer self-satisfaction are pretty close companions. Nonetheless, what amazing potential to subvert, pervert, and transform the capitalist norm!

    1. I think Burning Man is itself another good example of the sort of paradox you’re getting at here. Is it anti-capitalist, or hyper-capitalist? Seems like a mixed bag.

      At least some of the effects of psychedelics have been absorbed into the capitalist mindset. They certainly appear to fit the consumerist need for instant gratification. This potential is the reason I want to focus on the need for the communal ritualization of their use.

  2. Along the lines of Sam’s suggestion that psychedelics and consumer self-satisfaction might be close companions, I’m wondering if capitalism isn’t in itself a very dramatic manifestation of both the psychedelic and the alchemical vision: commodifying ideas into intellectual property that become physical products (making soul manifest) and the transformation of any commodity into any another through money (alchemy). In this sense I think contemporary cultural is already widely psychedelic and alchemical, and it doesn’t seem to be helping much. (An aside: I have no problem with the idea that these agents have therapeutic benefit, but I sort of churn at the idea that we need them to transform civilization, which makes it sound like these substances aren’t already widely used.)

    1. http://m.f1000research.com/articles/2-98/v1 According to that meta-analysis, about 17% of American adults have tried a psychedelic. That’s 22% of men and 11% of women. A pretty good number, yes. And I think you’re right about capitalism having alchemical resonances. Perhaps this is the reason for its widespread “success”: consumer capitalism taps deeply into the erotic roots of the human imagination, siphoning off its most important ideological fuel. Maybe the only resistance to its black magic comes from a lighter form of magic? 17% is a lot, but its even less than the percentage of Americans with a college degree. And as I said, they aren’t a cure all; the set and setting are as important as the substance. It’s really the context within which these substances are ingested that I’m wanting to talk about here. Their transformative potential is severely hampered by their illegality and recreational use.

      1. 17% is a pretty good number. It would be interesting to know if there are issues with self-reporting here (i.e., people unwilling to admit to committing criminal acts). That’s very hard to test and correct for, though. (The study also doesn’t tell us which part of the population is doing these drugs—my bet is that it’s mostly privileged, educated folks working in high tech, hollywood, the university, and the creative industries, and that they come from mostly urban / metropolitan areas; but that’s just my assumption.) And I totally agree that most drugs should be decriminalized and people should be allowed to take them as they wish (especially the psychedelics, which we know are relatively safe from a physiological standpoint and have, as we’ve already agreed, numerous psychological and spiritual benefits).

        My concern is more with the way that they play into neoliberalism. Here I’m persuaded by Steven Shaviro who makes the I think excellent point that neoliberalism thrives on excess, transgression / subversion, self-realization / self-modification, hedonism, etc. So, in many ways, I think the 60s counter-culture—at least in its white, middle-class variant—won the culture war, but it had the unfortunate effect of producing Silicon Valley-style neoliberalism (and hence the obvious and close ties between Burning Man, neoliberalism, the high tech world, and so on; they’re all basically products of the same culture—or the same “religion,” as you phrase the alternatives above—that used to be revolutionary but are now little more than exotic sites for the continuation of business-as-usual ).

        I’m not saying don’t go to Burning Man, or that we should resolve to some sort of puritan conservatism, but I am saying that things are much more complicated, and that many “responses” to the ecological crises, including Californian psychedelic culture, are saturated with the kind of ideology they want to overthrow and are in that sense not very helpful. BTW, I feel like we have a variant of this debate every year, no?

        (The Shaviro essay is here: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/accelerationist-aesthetics-necessary-inefficiency-in-times-of-real-subsumption/)

      2. I believe the data was collected via a combination of phone and internet polling. 78% of those called did participate, so there’s that 22% that perhaps partially falls into the “too worried to report use” category.

        I’ll read the Shaviro essay before I head out there. Probably will work its way into my talk. I definitely do plan on thematizing the paradox of Burning Man being ambiguously hyper- and anti-capitalist. The Atlantic has an interesting article out this week speaking to this very paradox: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/08/the-wonderful-weird-economics-of-burning-man/376108/

      3. Thanks, I’ll check these out. It seems like there’s a larger-than-usual number of articles coming out this year dealing in the contradictions of Burning Man—perhaps spurred on by the increasing presence of the techies or the attendance of Grover Norquist (which I don’t think is that significant of an event, actually). My stake in these debates is to highlight that there’s nothing particularly contradictory about Burning Man, i.e., it’s not a unique site of contradiction, but is rather just one more example of the dialectic of excess and incorporation that drives neoliberal capital in general. I don’t fault the burners for reproducing this dynamic—we all do it in various ways—but I do wish they would stop thinking of their festival as some kind of alternative to the dominant political order. (In this context, we could also talk about how “gift economies,” when translated into actual modes of economic relations, play right into the hands of the neoliberal privatization of labor and the generation of an always-precarious work force, but that’s another topic.) In the end, the whole thing sort of reminds me of that brand “Tom’s shoes”—you know, buy a pair, send a pair to a homeless kid in Africa—or that ethical brand of bottled water you can buy at Starbucks that sends another bottle of water to someone else in the world. This to me is the ultimate fantasy: not just hedonism and consumerism, but a morally just hedonism and consumerism that leaves all the structural elements of the political order exactly as they are. OK, end rant.

  3. hey MDS this “The global religion of consumer capitalism is predicated upon the belief that consciousness is fundamentally atomic and individualistic, that it is produced by the brain and contained within the skull” isn’t true in terms of the developmental psychology of individuals or the sociology/anthropology of the related organizations, only academics who confuse their potted histories of ideas with the lived histories of peoples fall into these traps and even academic economists are starting to realize that cognitive-behavioral theories don’t capture the actual doings of human-beings. If you get a chance check out some of Bert Dreyfus’ attempts to correct such fundamental confusions:
    http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/html/papers.html

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