Breaking Convention Essays on Psychedelic Consciousness
Originally published in 2013 ‘Breaking Convention: Essays on Psychedelic Consciousness’ is a collection of essays edited by Cameron Adams, David Luke, Anna Waldstein, Ben Sessa and David King. It is published by Strange Attractor Press, and is the result of the UK conference of the same name that was held in Canterbury, Kent, in 2011.
In 2011, at the University of Kent in Canterbury, hundreds of people gathered for one of the most memorable events that I’ve ever attended—Breaking Convention: A Multidisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Consciousness. Presenters gave talks from across the range of academic studies, including archaeology, history, literature, philosophy, medicine, anthropology, law and politics, with the united aim of raising the awareness and sharing information about psychedelics. As a result, a book of the same name was published to coincide with the equally memorable 2013 Breaking Convention.
The authors of this book represent the vanguard of the second golden era of psychedelic research. It is our hope that this volume will motivate a new generation of thinkers to stand up to the taboo that has been placed on psychedelics and bring these plants and chemicals into the light of reasoned discussion
The twenty-one essays that are included in Breaking Convention reflect the great diversity that psychedelic studies has now become. No longer simply the preserve of psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and psychopharmacologists, psychedelics reflect a multitude of disciplines in both the sciences and humanities, with various methodologies and perspectives constantly being developed and reinterpreted. Suffice to say, however, the grand medical vision is still very much there, exemplified in this collection by MAPS founder Rick Doblin’s contribution Bold Visions. In this essay he outlines the ways in which psychedelics could be better integrated into a future society, resting on the premise that attitudes should be shifted from fear to hope. Elsewhere, Dr. Ben Sessa’s chapter, The MDMA debate, is a transcription of the debate that occurred at the conference, and which touches upon its ‘hope’ for treating various disorders, such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Facing forwards is no more important than facing backwards and learning from our past. This collection puts together some intriguing essays about the history of psychedelic substances (or perhaps I should say ‘psychoactive’ for times when the word had yet to be coined.) The historian Mike Jay’s chapter, “A Train of Delightful Visions”: Early Scientific Encounters with Psychedelics, and Ffion Reynolds’ Tracing Neolithic Worldviews: Shamanism, Irish Passage Tomb Art and Altered States of Consciousness, both help to contextualise our current understanding in terms of those held and developed in the past. And the psychedelic era is well catered for with chapters from myself, Andy Roberts and Jonathan Hobbs, looking at literature, the vilification of LSD and military interest in psychedelics respectively.
Breaking Convention, as a collection, moves through time and genre seamlessly. From the prehistoric, through enlightenment and the golden era of psychedelia, to the illegality that psychedelics now dwell within. This new space, however, has created a multitude of approaches that, seemingly, all aim at correcting this ridiculous legal situation with the weight of their broad academic and logical arguments. As Amanda Feilding wrote: “Let half a century of repression give way to a new era where common sense, rationality and scientific evidence join to bring about a safer, healthier and more humane world.” There is a great sense throughout the book that this is an epoch-turning time, whether or not it is remains to be seen, but it certainly feels like it, and certainly reads as if it should be. Yet, a degree of self-criticism is also needed, as Andy Letcher notes in Deceptive Cadences: A Hermeneutic Approach to the Problem of Meaning and the Psychedelic Experience:
The risk is that by forgetting we have no choice but to use metaphor, we confuse the metaphor, the representation, for the thing itself. It therefore behoves all of us – writers, artists, scholars, enthusiasts and naysayers alike – to avoid cliché, to think more carefully about the metaphors we use, and thereby to render the psychedelic mysterium in ever more nuanced and exacting ways
This self-awareness, something that in itself is inextricably linked to the psychedelic experience, seems to me to be of the greatest importance in the face of the fear and bigotry that psychedelics are often met with in society. Broadly speaking, this is the great effect of psychedelics becoming so multidisciplinary, for each discipline has the eyes of all the others to help shape themselves, to evolve and grow.
There are too many amazing chapters to mention them all in this review – not least David Luke and William Rowlandson discussing parapsychology and mysticism respectively – but I can’t recommend this collection enough. It perhaps appears slightly bias of me to say this, not least because I have a chapter included, but it is the finest, most thought-provoking collection of essays on psychedelics to have appeared in recent years—offering both new and insightful work in an intelligible and highly readable fashion. You can purchase a copy here