Savage and Tripping Minds

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?


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

11 thoughts on “Savage and Tripping Minds

  1. After a year of serving lattes to one of the more elderly and genteel professors at the cafe where I used to work as an undergraduate, someone told me that he has been a member of Castaneda’s dissertation committee! After giving him his drink one day I asked him about it. He was a professor of religion and had no idea I was an anthro major. His big comment on trying to get Castaneda through the defence and Ph.D. was the anthropologists on the committe just thought it was ridiculuous that Castaneda could possibly learn anything Don Juan. This idea that informants were meant to be picked apart rather than learned from clearly riled him, even decades after the event.

  2. re ckelty: At CASCA 06 there was an anthropologist presenting fieldwork that had been conducted in San Francisco among psychedelic drug users, probably mostly LSD users. I didn t attend the session and missed to later inform myself about it, but the abstract should find in the printed program. I can check that out if u r interested in the subject.

  3. Richard Chaney (at the University of Oregon until his untimely passing in 1998) dedicated his career to theorizing consciousness from an anthropological perspective (and vice versa). Psychoactive substances were an important part of this research, growing as it did out of his field work among peyote-using native americans. I here paste an abstract from one of his papers that gives a pretty good suggestion of how he thought about what he was doing.

    “The Critical Hermeneutics of the Conceptual-Emotive Silicone of Consciousness


    The “hard problem” of working toward a science of consciousness has been characterized as an explanatory gap between discussions of the nature of the CNS and discussions of everyday life. The problem of consciousness in the West has been dominated by merely the problem of the intentionality of consciousness. The fundamental wonderment about consciousness is the human resistance to dealing with the paramount “reality” for each one of us: one’s own interiority. The present discussion treats both the plurality of intentionality and the fluctuations of interiority as conclusions about consciousness that are in search of a premiss.

    Interiority embraces what a person thinks and feels about their own life as it has unfolded. Lived-through experience is intimately intertwined with both the cultural transmits that one has come into contact with and the specific events of one’s own life. The paramount reality of consciousness is the gradient of feelings of fulfillment-frustration. Traditional religions have been intertwined with what is topically referred to as “healing and curing.” A profound indigenous insight is that “emotional weather” can hit the strongest man or woman. The crisis of modernity is the nihilistic threat of loss of hope, absence of meaning, and lovelessness.

    Much more esoteric than the native categories that shape the intentionality of what people take as reality are the first-person “I feel” comments about one’s lived experience of harmony or conflict, good fortune or misfortune, health or illness. The unique referential dimension of interiority in the study of consciousness raises the most fundamental hermeneutical problem of application. All the tribal and supranational religions of the world have attempted to decipher the subjectively felt flux of interiority. Although the traditional contexts of the decipherment of fluctuations are now seen to be entangled with many “unbelievables”, the subjective reality of the fluctuation in well being is a paramount experience in the past and in the present. The potential narrative function of the literature of consciousness for contemporary life is presented in terms of the interplay of the three leading kinds of perspectives which articulate ourselves with culture as a proposed world: The reactualization of the Same, the recognition of Otherness, and the expansion of the Analogous. The potentiality of the present is guided by imaginative variation under the sign of the analogous.

    The relationship of one’s own consciousness to the altered states of archaic ecstasy has been discussed in terms of the metaphors of “Doors of Perception” and “Separate Reality”. Turner has helped us to better understand the illusion of the “thing” in terms of a double-bubble framework of the highly charged sensory pole and the polysemy of the interpretive ideological pole. Paradoxically, deeper scandals surrounding self-consciousness linger in the illusion of interpreting the distentio animi, the physiology of the subjective inner swelling, as leading to a mental douche. Rather, distentio animi is itself the most profound sensory pole. The threefold space of the Same, the Other and the Analogous leads to the temporality and multivocality of our own progressive self-liberation. The analogous frees us to re-present in our own consciousness beyond the confinements of the original author and audience . . . even when the original author and audience is allegorically oneself.

  4. Here you go. Sry for the delay, I ve had a severe hardwarecrash at home yesterday that unplugs me again and am hijacking someone else’s line.
    Disclaimer: As I said I have not attended said presentation for it having been parallel to mine and may well have memorized wrongly about said location of fieldwork–as well the abstract reads slightly different than a focus on only LSD would suggest:

    Ariel Fuenzalida (University of Western Ontario): Psychedelic Anthropology. Theoretical musings from the field.*

    “Within the last four decades, anthropology has become one of the main sites engaged in the attempt to understand how mind-altering substances function within and affect the socio-cultural matrix. Hallucinogens from non-Western societies have been of particular interest to anthropologists, who have shown how cultural variables structure the subjective experience of the drug. The recent flood of new pharmaceutical designer drugs offers a novel object of study since they have no social history until they leave the lab. This paper expores the effects of these substances within the psychedelic sub-culture and the theoretical implications to the concept of human nature.”

    *Presentation given at CASCA 06 panel 127: Human Nature and the Brain; quoted from the official conference program, p. 230.

  5. I have no idea about the state of the anthropological art, but there’s tons of quasi-systematic stuff on the web, a lot of it more on the Castenada end of things. I’ve got two book reviews that might interest you. One reviews an extensive participant-observer investigation of ayahuasca by an Israeli psychologiest, Benny Shannon:

    That book, published by Oxford UP, may well be the single most extensive phenomonology we’ve got for a major psychedelic.

    The other is a double-review of DS Wilson’s evolutionary take on religion and a book that argues that rock art depicts psychedelic visions:

  6. Chris,

    Let’s face it, come on, you’re a kooky Creative Commons mystic. You can’t pay attention during talks because you are so very busy wondering over the epistemological and ontological meanings of a remix of Whitley Strieber’s “fake but accurate” picture of an alien…

    And while you, my tripping friend, were noticing that I pointed meaningfully to studies, (as all of us should), you stopped paying attention ( in a beautifully performative actualization of Herbert Simon’s “hence” filled observation that “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”) and missed my discussion of Roland Fisher’s studies of psilocybin that concluded said psilocybin increased some human subjects’ capacity to process information such as that contained herein. This was the prima facie evidence for psychedelics functioning as information technology. And we went, well, henceforth.

    Based on my comversations with the IT support for the talk, I think the psychedelics = information technologies claim is on interesting – curiouser and curiouser? – and ecodelic ground: It turns out that said IT professional was responsible for bringing Timothy Leary to Houston three times in the 1980s and is a good friend of psychonaut and exopsychology writer Robert Anton Wilson, whose books are about the ways everything is connected…..

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