Winter 2011 Vol. 21, No. 3 2011 Annual Report
AT THIS MOMENT IN HISTORY, the social sciences and humanities need to work in concert with recent medical advances to address a subject that defies standard disciplinary boundaries. I propose the inauguration of Psychedelic Studies as an interdisciplinary academic field, and I would like to do this by building on lessons learned from the earlier academic revolution known as “queer studies.”
Due to pervasive cultural and legal taboos against psychedelics, I thought my intellectual interests had to remain unspoken. It was only after I found out about the scientific psychedelic renaissance that I realized there was a community of scholars working openly on these subjects. I decided to plug in, and to come out of the closet. This is a common experience among those who for the first time find a community where they can speak openly about their interests.
Scholar David M. Halperin defines queer as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” Psychedelic culture is, properly speaking, queer. Some may take issue with this connection, arguing that while queer or alternative sexuality is an essential or natural state the use of psychedelics for personal or therapeutic purposes is a choice. Some may also claim that queer culture is more demonized by society and the state than psychedelic culture, and that therefore queerness and psychedelics require distinct scholarly approaches.
But these common reactions reveal a slippery slope: To claim that queer identity or culture are somehow deeper or more essential to our humanity than psychedelic identity or culture undermines the very rights that queer theorists and activists want to promote. It is counterproductive to argue that some forms of oppression are more egregious than others. Is there not strong state and social repression against the use of or interest in psychedelics? Many view their psychedelic identities, interests, or religious views as inherent to who they are. Queer studies is largely about the “queering” of identity and consciousness relative to the norm, suggesting the importance of working collectively to support the validity of all forms of identification.
The time is ripe for a genuinely interdisciplinary field of investigation into psychedelics and their correlative cultural roles to come to fruition. Scientific discourse, while serving a distinct and timely purpose, is by nature unable to exhaust the psychedelic question. The findings of multiple fields and methodologies can be mutually informative, enriching the overall possibilities for the production of knowledge. At a premier screening of DMT: The Spirit Molecule, pioneering psychedelic researcher Dr. Rick Strassman remarked: “How to explicate the full meaning…of the psychedelic experience…? I think it has to be as multidisciplinary a pursuit as possible, because the full psychedelic experience impacts on everything—it impacts on art, anthropology, music, religion, cosmology, physics, psychology, cognitive sciences, chemistry, everything…We don’t want to overextend one discipline at the expense of the other[s].”
As visionary artist Alex Grey expressed during the same event, “Now, with the gifts of science and scientific research, serious interest is again making it legally possible to discuss these matters.” But this fortuitous resurgence of activity and attention demands a chorus of new voices, new models, and new approaches.
There is a growing community of younger scholars who are actively focusing their academic work on this field. In January 2011, MAPS announced to attendees of their April 2010 conference “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century” that they would be sponsoring a new listserv for graduate students actively working or writing on some aspect of psychedelic culture, use, practice, or theory. This announcement was significant both for psychedelic studies in particular and for academia at large, which aspires to but frequently falls short of realizing genuinely interdisciplinary work.
My personal contribution to this movement lies at the intersection of literature, philosophy, comparative religion, and art history, and I cite psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna as my immediate forebear.
In April 2011, I presented a paper on the concept of “hyperspace” in the context of the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) experience. Since the DMT experience is notoriously difficult to integrate into the terms of mainstream “consensus reality,” the emergent concept of hyperspace has enabled participants in the field to articulate and cocreate an alternative worldview. In addition to its sociological function, I discovered in researching the term that its etymology has a rich and interdisciplinary history. The term “hyperspace” emerged out of the specialized context of mid-19th-century analytic geometry, and would subsequently circulate extensively amongst avant-garde artistic and spiritualist circles.
In the humanities and social sciences, establishing a historical canon of artists who define their work as hyperspatial or interdimensional creates a concrete context for further investigations. It establishes and defines an aesthetic tradition within which one can include artists ranging from William Blake to the cubists to the visionary painters of the modern day. It also provides a venue for discussing experiences that are related but external to the current reaches of direct scientific inquiry. The concept of hyperspatial art and experience is just one example of the manifold ways that psychedelic discourse pertains and responds to questions of philosophy, creativity, imagination, religion, culture, and language. The crucial step now is to bring these conversations into the open.
One necessary component of this opening-up process involves developing critical rationales and precedents for investigating issues like multidimensionality within a mainstream academic conversation. Thought experiments, acknowledged as such, could be encouraged rather than taboo. Dr. Strassman himself has recognized how such experiments can be deeply intellectually valuable: “The only explanatory model that held itself out as the most intuitively satisfying, yet the most theoretically treacherous, involved assigning a parallel level of reality to these [DMT] experiences. In other words, I engaged in a thought experiment.”
If we are able to remain unattached to the particularities (and eccentricities) of such thought experiments, they can help us to overcome the anachronistic privileging of what we can see over what we cannot see. In the words of Terence McKenna, “I would prefer a kind of intellectual anarchy where whatever was pragmatically applicable was brought to bear on any situation; where belief was understood as a self-limiting function.” Alien intelligence and vine spirits are ideas that can be played with in ways that don’t need to be universally agreed upon as “true” or “real” to have intellectual significance.
Anthropology may be the key to opening up a space for psychedelic studies in the university, and may even be partly responsible for the resurgence of scientific interest in these substances. Strassman has pointed this out with exceptional clarity: “Within traditional Western academic settings, anthropology is the field that has focused attention on psychedelic plant use and the role of these plants in the societies that use them. More than any other field, it has maintained the flame of interest in these plants and drugs over several hundred years of Western suppression of all information about them.”
The fields of psychiatry, clinical psychology, and the neurosciences are bringing psyche
delics back into the modern Western imagination, and the social sciences can play a powerful role in this ongoing evolution. It is time for the academic iron curtain to fall. I hereby inaugurate Psychedelic Studies as a post-disciplinary field. Let the games begin.
Garansuay, C. (Producer) & Schultz, M. (Director). (2010). DMT: The Spirit Molecule [DVD]. United States: Warner Bros. Available at http://www.thespiritmolecule.com.
Halperin, D. M. (1997). Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Strassman, R.W. Slawek, W. Luna, L. E. & Frecska, E. (2008). Inner Paths to Outer Space: Journeys to Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies. Park Street: Rochester, VT.