A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics by Roger K Green

A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (2019) is by Roger K Green, a lecturer in English at the Metropolitan State University in Denver. Earlier versions of the material appeared in the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, Psychedelic Press, Aldous Huxley Annual and Political Theology Today. The book is a literary and political analysis examining the influence of European thought on the post-war cultural and political milieu of the United States through the emergence of psychedelic aesthetics.

Psychedelic aesthetics are understood through the literal meaning of the former term as ‘mind manifesting.’ Green distinguishes it from the emergence of ‘psychedelia’ over the 1960s as a ‘recognizable style or attitude […] that lost its revolutionary potential and became reduced to “one-dimensionality”’ (Green 2019: 122). This is a crucial distinction that explicitly relates contemporary radical approaches to politics. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse and his book One-Dimensional Man (1964), for instance, plays an axiomatic role in this analysis.

The first 4 chapters delve into both the theoretical underpinnings of the book, and the ‘European social imaginary’ during the early-to-mid twentieth century. They explore both its nature and influence on alternative American politics and countercultures. Such diverse figures as Jürgen Habermas and the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Marcuse, Antonin Artaud and Martin Heidegger are discussed as providing a cultural and critical framework for psychedelic aesthetics—one used to critique the liberal subject.

Psychedelic aesthetics reimagine the boundaries of liberal subjectivity through consciousness expansion and then a return from that expansion, “enchanting” the individual with a gnostic transcendence of nation-state authority. (Green 2019: 11)

The psychedelic experience and its aesthetics are described as a negotiation of ‘rights-based, liberal culture.’ This entails, Green argues, a ‘political theology’ that in psychedelic aesthetics has an ‘underlying faith’ in liberalism, but that results in an interrogation and development of citizenship. It is used in two ways: to analytically unpick a variety of political narratives (liberal secularists, conservative Christians, or New Age re-enchanters), and to define how spirituality and LSD combined as a method of critiquing the state.

Deriving from European ideas around the romantic imagination, enchantment and biopolitical rhetoric, the aesthetic is a method of temporarily standing aside from liberal subjectivity prescribed by state authority (and this links with critiques of the Weimer Republic in 1920s Germany.) A particularly fascinating analysis is developed in Green’s discussion of the dramatist Artaud, who sought a return to a primeval religion to challenge ‘autonomous subjectivity’. This influenced American counterculture through a spiritualized drama.

Countercultural figures such as the co-founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies) Abbie Hoffman, and the author and Prankster Ken Kesey, are discussed in this context (albeit the latter largely through Tom Wolfe’s depiction). Both employed dramatic techniques, but differed in regard to how they politically negotiated the post-trip LSD enchantment. Hoffman preferring a direct action approach, while the Prankster a non-engagement with authority.

Psychedelic aesthetics […] emerged as a critique of scientific expertise and perform a resistance to the subjectification that occurs when governments decide what substance we can and cannot ingest in our bodies or research. The place of psychedelic is thus wrapped up in a political-theological drama with the state (Green 2019: 67).

With the variety of critiques in mind, Green argues that American psychedelic aesthetics ‘open up a political vortex between left and right because they employ enchantment to achieve the redrawing of citizenship’ (Green 2019: 145). For instance, he notes that in the film Easy Rider (1969) there is a melding of American iconography with the liberal critique. This form of aesthetic was thus ‘situating a new subjectivity or citizenship’ (his italics), which implicitly challenged liberal notions of secularization.

At the crux of Green’s analysis, however, is the British expatriate writer Aldous Huxley who he emphasises as a political theologian. Huxley moved to the United States in the late 1930s, and this coincided with his increasing interest in mystical traditions, notably The Perennial Philosophy (1945). After his famous mescaline experience in 1953, and subsequent writings, Huxley was at the forefront of discussions about the socio-cultural potential of psychedelics, and this was tied up with his immanent view of spirituality.

Paying particular attention to Huxley’s final novel Island (1962), Green argues it helped,

shape psychedelic aesthetics as a politically theological motivating force, where a mystical or psychedelic experience obliterates and then re-norms an individual’s sense of civic morality and allegiance beyond traditional ideas of the nation-state (Green 2019: 245).

Huxley was not of course alive to see the emergence of psychedelia in the late 1960s, at which point Green believes it began to lose its critical edge, reified in a rigid form. This process is neatly summed up by two oft made comments that are leveled at the period: that it became increasingly liberal and secular, but that the spirit of the age was lost.

Green arguably misses a trick when discussing psychotomimetic (psychosis-mimicking)  readings by early biomedical researchers of LSD and mescaline, which he contextualizes with the covert funding provided by the CIA through their MK-ULTRA program. This psychiatric reading also had roots in 1920s Germany through the mescaline researches of Kurt Beringer and others. However there is a great deal of information to imbibe in the book, and a lot of ground covered, but it does represent an interesting avenue for further research.

In conclusion, A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics is a timely book that seeks to shed light not only on the 1960s, but also the political machinations of today. While its theoretical approaches are certainly fascinating, they are at times a little overwhelming, and could be more succinctly delineated. The book, however, really comes alive with the literary analyses, which are original and insightful, and no doubt an important contribution to the field.

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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