Review: Xenolinguistics by Diana Reed Slattery

XenolinguisticsThere are many indications of the advent of a new era for psychedelics, at least in a medical context. Many scientists, academics and researchers anticipate a “mainstreaming” of these mind-altering substances in the near future. However, it is easy to see how some aspects of altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelics could be perceived as being too weird, if not downright freaky, by mainstream society. For example, what will the average Joe make of seemingly fringe subjects such as the one discussed in this review, namely the “downloading” of alien languages?

Published in early 2015, Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness by American author, scholar and video performance artist Diana Reed Slattery is a book that stands out from much of what has been released so far in psychedelic literature in the twenty-first century. In 1999, Slattery acquired an alien script while in a psychedelically induced altered state of consciousness. Using internet terminology, she describes the event as a “download”. The original download was unpacked during a great number of psychedelic sessions. In total, Slattery explored psychedelics and language on more than 400 occasions over a ten-year period. The mind-altering drugs that were used include MDMA (defined by the author as a psychedelic), psilocybin mushrooms, cannabis, LSD, DMT, 2C-B and Salvia divinorum. A true solo explorer, all her trips except one took place alone and were meticulously documented by hand in notebooks.

Psychedelic states of consciousness can produce novel languages in some explorers. Slattery calls the study of these languages xenolinguistics. She has adopted the term from science fiction, where it is generally defined as the study of the language of alien species. By bringing the term into a psychedelic context, Slattery introduces and defines a fascinating field that is certainly worthy of further research, and hopefully, the release of her book will inspire psychedelic researchers to publish more works relating to the subject.

The script Slattery discovered was given the name Glide. She describes it as a language of waves: “Glide forms follow the waveform… Glide waviness, and all that implies metaphorically, is the most fundamental formal quality of Glide” (Slattery, 2015: 72). In her book she introduces 27 glyphs and their core meanings (in English and Chinese). While most people find it challenging to learn a new language, let alone an alien one, Glide has a poetic and visually attractive quality that makes it fascinating to look at, regardless of what the glyphs actually mean. In a sense, Glide could also be viewed as a work of art. Interestingly, many psychedelic xenolinguists are visual artists, and some of these, as will be discussed below, are featured in Slattery’s book.

Xenolinguistics includes a foreword by American visionary artist Allyson Grey. Not a typical foreword, Grey’s piece consists of several images of her art that feature her own symbol system generally known as Secret Writing. The piece is actually a very good introduction to the art of Grey and makes for a strong opening of Slattery’s book. Grey’s script was acquired in the early 1970s during an LSD trip in her tiny Cambridge college room. Consisting of 20 letters, Secret Writing became her signature work. Also discussed in Xenolinguistics are French artist duo Caroline and Gaetan Cottereau-Meurée aka art collaborative Artifist. As part of their artistic process, the artists took Peganum harmala six days per week for a whole year. During this time Caroline tattooed Gaetan’s back “using neuromediators such as pinoline and ayahuasca under the pigments” (Slattery, 2015: 232). Besides language, the design includes a temple floor plan, a bird and a serpentine form. Admittedly, the piece on Artifist could have been much longer. For instance, it would be interesting to read an analysis on the highly detailed and complex motif. That said, the piece on the French artist duo is certainly an invitation to make further research on one’s own.

The reader will soon discover that Xenolinguistics is a reference-heavy book packed with quotes, some would perhaps argue too many, from numerous sources. If anything, this becomes evident when one considers its bibliography, which is unusually rich, so much so that it is printed in a smaller font size than the rest of the book. The bibliography is clearly a source for new discoveries, and any psychedelic bibliophile should find Slattery’s bibliography worth exploring. Strangely though, the book does not include an index. This is an unfortunate omission in an otherwise very well-structured and accessible work.

One of the strong points of Slattery’s book is her personal tone. Besides generously quoting her own trip reports, the author doesn’t mind sharing a few details from her private life. For instance, after 9/11 Slattery made two major life changes that reduced the stress following this gruesome event: “I separated from my husband, and sent the TV with him” (Slattery, 2015: 50). Incidentally, it appears that numerous psychonauts have been firmly set against watching TV, Terence McKenna perhaps being the most well-known example, presumably also influencing many of his fans and readers to ditch their TVs (the present writer being one of them).

Xenolinguistics is a remarkable and highly fascinating book that deserves to be widely read by anyone even remotely interested in the interface between psychedelics and language. Slattery has written a book that was clearly missing from literature on psychedelics, and it would only be fair to call Xenolinguistics a pioneering work.

Henrik Dahl

Henrik Dahl is an arts journalist, critic and editor specialising in psychedelic culture and art.

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