I just had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing longtime friend and fellow-traveler Richard Doyle give a talk at Rice called “Just Say Yes to the Noosphere.” Rich is the author of On Beyond Living and Wetwares; we met at MIT; his advisor at Berkeley had been Evelyn Fox Keller who had moved to MIT. Rich is a rarity in academia: a kind of contemporary Bateson who insinuates himself into all kinds of interesting research projects; he’s just as willing to run a composition and rhetoric program as he is willing to be the American representative to the International Electrotechnical Commission’s Joint Standards Committee on Bio-Telemetrics. Rich’s talk was about the 20th century history of psychadelics research, and especially, research in unlikely places: like AMPEX, for instance (the inventor of magnetic video-tape), whose engineers experimented with LSD. It’s no secret how widespread the experimentation and research on psychadelics was from about the 1930s into the 1960s. After that, however, hysteria served to associate the research and on psychadelics with 1) drugs 2) bad graphics and 3) pseudo-science and new age mysticism.
Rich said a couple of things that made sense to me (and I am, of course, tripping so incredibly hard right now that this might not come through): one was that the research on psychadelics intitially assumed that it was useful for treating madness, but that through experimentation it became clear just how “tunable” psychadelics are–how “dependent on initial rhetorical conditions they are” was how Rich put it. The fact that they figure in ritual and ceremony makes perfect sense: because ritual and ceremony are the context and fuel for the experience induced by the medicine. The fact that people don’t use them, or have bad experiences also makes sense: in a context of paranoia, fear, criminalization and hatred, it’s hard to imagine psychdelics not amplifying that.
Because of this, Rich suggests that they are (not ‘are like’ but ‘are’) information technologies: tools for hooking up the tubes in new ways, to put it in terms Senator Stevens would clearly understand. The claim is a curious one–Rich defends it by pointing to research at UC Berkeley on the “amount” of information in the world: if we’ve produced double the amount of information in the last 4-5 years that we had in the previous 800,000 years, then one might expect there to be, at the very least, some “interesting” effects. One of those interesting effects is precisely, and simply, the effect of enormous amounts of information on consciousness–and that interest somehow… connects to psychadelics… I kind of lost Rich there. But in any case I have to stop here because if I keep talking about how “tunability” is a way of exploring the role of context and language as it shapes the consumption/ingestion/permeation of human bodies with information, then I am in danger of being dismissed as a kooky mystic.
But this made me think: as with so many areas of anthropology, I don’t really know much about the status of research into ritually consumed psychadelics, or whether it even gets much of a hearing in mainstream anthropology, but as Rich also pointed out, psychadelics are an excellent candidate for multi-sited ethnography. But seriously, folks… I’m curious about the line in anthropology between acceptable research into psychadelics, anthropology of conciousness, medical anthropology etc. and the unacceptable associations with mysticism, transcendance etc. that inevitably invoke folks like Eliade and Castaneda? What’s the state of the art in psychadelic anthropology?