Reimagining the world: A Psychedelic Psychogeography

by antiel eldar

When you flick through the history of psychedelic pharmacography (drug writing), particularly since the 1950s, there is largely a concern for the invisible landscape; a concern for mapping and investigating imaginal territories through the psychiatric axioms of ego, Self, and the structure of one’s psyche. There are two important reasons for this: medical and social

Firstly, the dominant paradigm for understanding the psychedelic experience is in the theories and practices of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, which in order to function require you to be in a pathological state-of-being in the first place, in order for therapy to be applicable. Whether this be a personal neurosis or a more general social, cultural and spiritual alienation, it is a retreat into the recesses of the mind in order to mine for memory or, indeed, a mystical reality that can supersede the supposed humdrum of everyday existence.

Secondly, and which is in-built within the more popular writings, is a dislike, or perhaps even fear, of the ordinary social; of its politics, its economics and its organisation. This state-of-affairs is most clearly typified by the works of English author Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s three psychedelic books The Doors of Perception (1954), Heaven and Hell (1956) and Island (1962) have dominated popular psychedelic writing since they were published. Broadly speaking, he has provided the ontological groundwork that can be found in the works of Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna and hundreds of other lesser writers in the genre. Huxley wrote:

A man consists of what I may call an Old World of personal consciousness and, beyond a dividing sea, a series of New Worlds – the not too distant Virginias and Carolinas of the personal sub-conscious and the vegetative soul; the Far West of the collective unconscious, with its flora of symbols, its tribes of aboriginal archetypes; and, across another, vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday consciousness, the world of Visionary Experience (Huxley 1994, 62)

The above cartographical metaphor for the mind is a particularly interesting passage from Heaven and Hell. According to literary critic Lindsey Banco: “[Huxley] provides one of the vital metaphors through which the altered state of consciousness comes to be understood, disciplined, and sometimes defused” (Banco 2010, 35). Banco’s analysis understands the geographical metaphor to be an indication of a wider conservative, imperial response to the effects of mescaline. However, while recognising the value of Banco’s colonial traveller in the metaphor, he completely ignores the psychiatric sphere of influence. Huxley’s traveller is more pilgrim than explorer; walking pre-ordained, psychiatric roads. In this sense, Huxley’s metaphor is the articulation of various psychiatric and medical researches that have already been partially articulated by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and William James. Huxley was the catalyst of a new formulation.

The Doors of Perception & Heaven and HellThe cartographical metaphor postulates that hallucinogens are vehicles that a user could employ to explore the various segments of their mind—according to models developed within psychiatry. In this case, therapeutically speaking, the drugs remain relevant for examining pathologies in the personal sub-conscious, and Jung’s collective unconscious, but can also take one beyond into the transpersonal. Huxley has created a path to visionary, mystical and, moreover, epistemological revelation—a path that inevitably, as it goes deeper into the mind, retreats further and further away from the everyday world. In fact, escaping the ordinary world is very much part of Huxley’s discourse. According to the Huxley critic Robert Charles Zaehner,  Huxley wanted a “release from the everyday, humdrum existence of subject-object relationship and of what, for lack of a better word, we must continue to call the ‘ego’” (Zaehner 1957, 15). Huxley’s attitude, it must be stated, was particularly presumptuous, if not a little condescending, about the nature of people’s personal experience of the everyday, and indeed reveals more about his own particular understanding of the world than that of others. For instance, Huxley also wrote:

Familiarity breeds contempt, and how to survive is a problem in urgency from the chronically tedious to the excruciating. The outer world is what we wake up to every morning of our lives, is the place where, willy-nilly, we must try to make our living. In the inner world there is neither work nor monotony (Huxley 1994, 30)

So, it is true to say, that Huxley did not see the world in a healthy light. Coupled with the psychiatric context, we will call Huxley’s observation the ‘social pathology’ and psychedelics were being used to overcome this pathology; quite literally to position oneself within a universal context, as opposed a social or cultural one, in the hope of curing an alienation. Indeed, this social pathology found itself further formulated in Island. Having written the dystopian novel Brave New World, with its population-controlling drug soma, Huxley’s final novel explored the very opposite and describes the island utopia of Pala, in which the state employs a fictional toadstool called the moksha-medicine as part of its efforts to ensure personal, social and spiritual well-being.

The protagonist of the novel is called Will Farnaby; a journalist who is secretly in search of oil reserves on Pala. After a shipwreck, in which he finds himself washed-up on a beach of the island, he discovers a utopian oasis that has crafted itself into an idealistic culture that has based its structure on a synthesis of Western science and Eastern philosophy and which, at the beginning of the novel, he is very cynical about. However, as Farnaby is slowly shown the structural workings of the society he begins to fall for its idealism, which puts him at odds with his secret, oil-laden reasons for visiting Pala.

Island by Aldous HuxleySadly, the novel is ultimately pessimistic as the surrounding capitalistic, oil-hungry world eventually invades the utopia. In the final chapter, Farnaby experiences the moksha-medicine for himself just at the same time that Pala is invaded. For the reader, two realizations occur concurrently in the text; the revelation of Farnaby’s spiritual self, in which his cynicism is cast out, freed from the Western social pathology and of the unstoppable march of the material world. This mirrors Huxley’s attitude in his two mescaline texts, which, as Zaehner pointed out in his rebuke, revolved around a distrust and dislike of the ordinary world and an escape into the sanctuary of Self. Therefore, what Huxley is demonstrating is, in a political world that will never allow the type of utopia he describes, one is still able to achieve a spiritual enlightenment regardless of the imposition of a cynical, materialistic society.

Farnaby, who begins the novel as a cynic from this world, is able, through the moksha-medicine, to perceive the idealistic, enlightened self, even as the island utopia is invaded. However, while this may be a wonderful defensive tactic, it leaves the social pathology at work. Neither Huxley’s belief that psychedelics should be given to the elite so their lessons could trickle down into society, nor Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg’s that a wholesale introduction of psychedelics into the social would bring about an end to the pathology, worked. Psychedelics themselves were always the escape, the retreat and the defence—and this was imbued through the surfacing of scientific research into the popular imagination.

What was needed was an institutionally unmediated psychedelic experience that sought to empower the individual to not only critique modern society, but also paint and reimagine it actively and artistically. Interestingly, while Huxley was tripping in the United States in the 1950s, there was a rising of radical politics in France, and it is to this that we shall now look in order to find the potential for activating a radical psychedelic critique.

The Situationist International (SI) was formed in 1957 from a number of other European avant-garde groups. While it essentially began as an artistic movement, over the following ten years they developed an increasingly coherent critique of modern society and its bureaucratic opposition, led by their notorious leader Guy Debord. Indeed, Debord’s most famous work The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, remains an important and fascinating critical document for activists. In many respects their political aspirations culminated in the infamous, yet decided failure, of the French riots of May 1968. After this pivotal moment, the SI began to disintegrate and was eventually disbanded in 1972.

As far back as 1953, however, a new discipline was being developed, a tool within the SI’s armoury if you will, that was called psychogeography and it is to this technique specifically that we will now focus. The question of our urban existence came into focus in 1953 in the article Formulary for a New Urbanism by Ivan Chtcheglov. In the article, Chtcheglov noted that a city could be reimagined along different lines—a Useful Quarter, a Sinister Quarter, or a Historical Quarter, for example. Two years later, however, Debord took this idea a step further and coined the term psychogeography, along with the following oft quoted definition:

Psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographical can be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery (Knabb 2006, 8)

Essentially, this is an artistic technique with radical political leanings and attempts to return the power of imagination to the individual and away from the mechanisms of modern society. It not only seeks to identify the interfering relationship between human consciousness and urban environment, understanding how mechanisms impinge and dictate our movement, but also seeks to discover underlying effects that arrange our understanding, or assemblage, of the environment:

The production of psychogeographical maps, or even the introduction of alterations such as more or less arbitrarily transposing maps of two different regions, can contribute to clarifying certain wanderings that express no subordination to randomness but total insubordination to habitual influences (influences generally categorized as tourism, that popular drug as repugnant as sports or buying on credit) (Knabb 2006, 11)

Bearing in mind Huxley’s cartographical metaphor and the ability of psychedelics to ignite the imaginal realms, there appears to be, occurring concurrently, two particularly suitable tools for social-political reimagination through setting. Two techniques that became important components of psychogeography were ‘detournement’ and ‘derive’. In A User’s Guide to Détournement by Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman, written in 1957, the authors make the following observation:

Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can be used to make new contributions. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the juxtaposition of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used. (Knabb 2006, 15)

In terms of psychedelic pharmacographies, this is vital for breaking out of the self-referential nature of the psychiatric experience with hallucinogens perpetuated by Huxley: the constant recourse to folding back on the purity of an imaginal realm or, in other words, the construction of a psychiatrically-mediated imaginal space that seeks to acutely focus on the self though exploration of the set, while acutely-controlling the setting. Let the setting – the social – be reimagined! Psychedelics offer a way to reimagine our environment a new—to discover different unconscious flows that weave beneath and through the daily flowering of a city—or indeed a festival or the countryside. In fact, the pharmacography tradition has already used this to great effect. Specifically in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and, more recently, Julian Vayne’s Deep Magic Begins Here…

De Quincey wanders London in an opium haze, watching the city as a revelation of his memory—his palimpsest mind—that works as a critique, and a romance, of the down and outs of the city. For Thompson, a cacophony of drug taking is employed to critique the passing counter-culture and modern, capitalist, consumer society, while Julian Vayne imbues magic into the countryside. All of them use the detournement of drugs and place to create a reimagined socio-political landscape; attempting to reveal otherwise unknown components. Interestingly, at the heart of the adventures are their wanderings—or what the Situationists would called the derive. Debord writes:

In a derive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a derive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones. But the derive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data (Knabb 2006, 62)

Immediately, one is struck by the similarity with the ‘set and setting’ mantra of psychedelia and the combination of psychology and geography, only with one important distinction; the lack of a mediator (or therapist) to manage the setting in order to produce a set that is specifically contingent to their techniques, whereby their own theoretical mechanisms remove the powers or will of the individual to interpret their experience. Political transformation is difficult when setting is highly controlled and set is dictated and guided Sometimes we are told we are slaves of our unconscious desires, at other times that are individuated self is in fact an illusion, and we are part of a universal self. Either way, our ability to act on our own will is dismantled by the theories of these practices even before we have sat down to get high. For psychogeography, the business is everyday life—that very uncontrolled setting that therapists fear. There is no institutional mediation, just an examination of the flows and effects of this relationship, coupled with the psychedelic power of imagination.

Psychedelic pharmacographies should not be limited to a simple dislike of the social and a retreat to the mind; a place to create esoteric bodies of knowledge. They should explode outwards and destroy the distinctions of inner and outer and, by doing so, perhaps have a more thorough-bred effect within the social. Moreover, in reverse of Terence McKenna’s idea of creating a multitude of maps detailing the inner universe, a psychedelic psychogeography can build a more multifaceted cartography of the social, cultural, and political world: effectively building a richer tapestry of exoteric knowledge.

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Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. London. Flamingo. 1994, Print

Knabb, Ken [ed]. Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded edition. Berkeley. Bureau of Public Secrets. 2006. Print

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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4 Responses

  1. cabrogal says:

    Really interesting ideas really well espoused.

    I don’t buy into the entirety of your thesis but admire your ability to present it.

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