Articulations: On the Utilization and Meanings of Psychedelics by Julian Palmer
Julian Palmer’s Articulations (2014) is a personal treatise on psychedelic plants and substances based largely on the author’s 15 years of “profound research”. Taking into account both natural and synthetic substances, the author outlines the lessons he has gleaned from his experimentation, bolstered by personal trip reports, and discusses much of the culture surrounding contemporary psychedelia. The title of course invokes one of the cruxes of psychedelic writing; how and why to articulate the experience? Intrinsically, words are not only an attempt to communicate what one has experienced, they are also wedded to the world in which the articulation takes place. For Palmer,
Articulations is a written effort to comprehend the meaning of psychedelic states, how these states can be practically interpreted, and ultimately how we can effectively and intelligently utilise these psychedelic plants and compounds. (Palmer 2014: 9)
The author himself is credited with the creation and naming of the mixture of DMT-containing herbs known as changa which is detailed in two appendices: Changa: Smoking DMT infused into Ayahuasca and other Herbs and The Origin and Utilisation of Changa. Both of these are fascinating additions to the book. Not only do they offer practical information, but also the history for the emergence of what has since become one of the favoured psychonautical tools for exploration. Moreover, part of the cultural background to changa is the great variety of acacia trees in Australia, from which plucky investigators have been extracting DMT since the early 1990s. Palmer’s discussion on acacia, largely in chapter 2, offers an invaluable insight into Australia’s psychedelic flora and the psychedelic inquisitiveness of humanity.
Aside from the substance-by-substance discussion, what the book is articulating is a critique of the psychedelic territory; of the various methods, ideas and approaches that create its topography. Indeed, Palmer’s self-assured narrative voice is more often than not defined through its criticisms. Interestingly, the articulation of the voice is particularly heavy in attempts to be authoritative. For the reader, this sense of narrative authority is at its best in the very real business of tripping, however it woefully undermines itself when it attempts to carve out that authority through its relationship and understanding of the general culture of ideas.
Articulations is decidedly anti-intellectual in places, in discussing Benny Shanon, for instance, he refers to the “self-appointed superior methodologies of the Western intellectual world, which clearly does not like to be challenged to see the limits of its systemised understanding” (Palmer 2014: 91). Of course, this type of mentality can be rife within academic communities, however it is not some sort of statute of position that numerous individuals, groups, disciplines and institutions work according to. There is, it feels, a case for this attitude resulting in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. One may not agree with particular methodologies of certain disciplines (after all, each discipline has its own variety of approaches), but there is no need to throw out the general project of critical thinking as well.
The ‘Western mind-set’ comes to be the catchall term for atheistic rational thinking and acts as the symbolic whipping boy. It is described as being “culturally insecure and will seek other traditions that have an apparent understanding of life’s spiritual dimensions” (Palmer 2014: 118). If this is the case, however, then Palmer is regularly guilty of the same thing. For instance, “In the psychedelic movement, there can be, at times, quite a juvenile element, which prioritises the ‘mind candy’ in psychedelic experiences. In traditional Eastern religions, the initiate is typically told to go beyond all phenomena” (Palmer 2014: 159). Later, he talks about the “comparatively unsophisticated Middle Eastern monotheistic religions” compared to the sophistication of Eastern forms of religion. What is a Western mind to do?
Palmer introduces an idea from arguably the arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche; the Apollonian and Dionysian: “Much of Western culture is conservative and practically Apollonian […] Dionysianism has been marginalized and devalued in Western culture as being below Apollonism, so having fun is often not taken very seriously” (Palmer 2014: 142-143). In many respects this is true, not only through dogmatic Church teachings about the nature of sin, but in the mind-set of temperance and rationality that arose in Protestant thinking – a thinking that has been imported into what I assume Palmer would call the ‘Western mind-set’.
What is intriguing here, though, is that the author often undermines Dionysian elements of psychedelic culture through a governing ideology located in the function of psychedelic substances in the mind. He does this by, firstly, denigrating the Dionysian escape from the everyday, the ecstasy, and secondly by his application of a system I would term ‘psychedelic folk psychology’.
He writes: “The prevailing paradigm of the masses is one of escape and of simply being entertained by the pretty sparkling things” (Palmer 2014: 100). He then, quite rightly, states that it is challenging to use these compounds in self-healing work. However this leads Palmer into contextualising ‘healing’ or ‘self-healing’ as being the correct use. There is a mix-up here. The healing that Dionysus offers is through the very process of temporary escape into a world of hedonism, sparkling otherness, and the frenzy of lost identity. Palmer’s ‘healing’ is quite clearly Apollonian.
This articulation centralises ‘healing’ – not ecstasy – and the text is peppered with psychological and psychoanalytic terminology such as ‘integration’, ‘process’, ‘ego’ and ‘shadow’: “To reveal the raw truth about yourself, and release the identity of the ego and mind, you must face many fears and be prepared to change, be prepared to die, be prepared to face the unknown and be prepared for a challenging journey” (Palmer 2014: 124). At this point, the Dionysian has been sucked right out of the experience, as the rationale for tripping becomes a search and revelation on “the raw truth about yourself”. Indeed, the Greek idea ‘care of self’ had very little to do with Dionysian ecstasy, although Palmer – and many other psychedelic commentators it should be added – conflate the two.
What’s more, in the beginning Palmer states that Articulations is explicitly not a scientific book, but seems singularly unaware that the psychological discourse on psychedelics which he uses is firmly rooted in the psycholytic and psychedelic therapies of the 1950s and 1960s: therapies and theories that at least purported to be scientific. He writes, “This approach differs from the way that, say, LSD was often used in the 1960s, whereby many were taking it to experience higher or expanded states of consciousness” (Palmer 2014: 100). Yet even a cursory glance at the literature of the period reveals the metaphors of ‘expanded’ and ‘higher’ to be intrinsically linked to questions of self, not simply ‘enlightenment’ as he moots.
It is a shame there is so much broad-stroke uncritical comment in Articulations. When Palmer is employing his knowledge of psychedelic flora, recounting historical episodes, and even discussing his personal relationships with a vast array of plants and substances, the book is very engaging. However, the uncritical nature of his assertions really undermines the whole authority of the book and, as a reader, it has a slightly alienating effect.
Note: This review was based on the 2nd edition. Just before going to print the author informed us a smoothed out 3rd edition is now available.