Date: Mon, 13 May 1996 13:31:03 +1000

From: <> (Editor - 21C)

earlier version:


Tracing the origin of the psychoactive experience through the development of agriculture, the rise of technology, and out through cyberspace and virtual reality uncovers a history of misery, spiritual bankruptcy and disembodied principles.

by Peter Lamborn Wilson

When virtual reality suddenly appeared on the scene with a big whizbang, Timothy Leary appeared at a conference in New York with Jaron Lanier and a couple of other cybernauts. Leary was wearing the goggles on stage and declared, "Oooh, I have been here before." As that suggests, from the start a connection was established between virtual reality and the LSD experience - or as some of us prefer to call it, 'the entheogenic experience,' which is just a fancy way of not using the word psychedelic because it alerts the police.

Actually, entheogenic means the birth of the Divine Within. While I am not a theist in the strict sense of the word, I don't think you have to believe in God to understand that there can be an experience of the Divine Becoming Within. In fact historically - and, at least for me, experientially and existentially - that has been the most important aspect of the reappearance of psychedelic drugs in my lifetime. I am almost an exact contemporary of LSD: I was born in 1945, as Albert Hofmann was already cooking up various preliminary versions.

Where do psychedelics come from? Terence McKenna believes that human consciousness itself is a function of the psychedelic experience - specifically, of the psilocybin mushroom. He believes that one day an ape took a 'shroom and became a human, because cognition appeared. McKenna claims that what makes us human is the psychedelic experience. Whether or not this is literally the case - I don't believe in any single origin for human consciousness - it's enlightening to think about the possibility that we may owe our difference from the other members of the simian clan to our ability to experience psychedelics in a certain way. If that were the case, it would be true that our entire experience of cognition - which historically belongs in the category of what is known as religion - would have begun with psychedelics. The entire psychedelic experience would be co-existent with human becoming. An interesting hypothesis, we can add it to all theories of human origins.

My own approach to theory is a palimpsestic one: I like to pile up theories one on top of another and hold the whole stack up to the light and see if any light is still coming through. Think of it as animation cells, but with writing, in a stack. Add all those theories, one on top of each other.

The positive way of looking at consciousness is that it is us. The downside is that consciousness itself would seem to be a separation process. Georges Bataille hypothesized that all religion concerns a memory trace of a time in which the human was separate from nature. If you believe in evolution, this is literally true. There was a time when we were apes of some sort. It's at the moment of consciousness that this separation occurs.

Suddenly, life is no longer a question of the animal experience and what Bataille calls the 'original intimacy;' we are taken out of the matrix and plunged into cognition.

Religion, in this view, begins immediately after this moment, because religio means to relink, to link up again. What religion and philosophy attempts is to link up with the original intimacy, which we lost when we began to experience cognition. If McKenna is correct, then cognition begins with drugs, and then the next step would be to take more drugs to try to recover what one has lost. So, in this reading, human consciousness and human religion, which are so closely related, would always have been involved with psychedelic plants. Here we come up against a problem in anthropology; as anthropologists look at the most primitive hunter-gatherer tribal societies that they can find, they rarely find proof of the use of psychedelics.

According to anthropologists, psychedelic plants occur in human history with agriculture - appearing then, at the very most, 12,000 years ago. But why should agriculturalists know more about wild plants than the hunters and gatherers who depend on these plants? They depend at least 70 per cent on gathering, and only 30 per cent on hunting. The gathering, which is usually done by women, is much more important economically than the hunting, which is usually done by men. The men consider hunting much more prestigious, but it is economically less important. The hunters, of course, know about all the plants, but they have not necessarily ritualized this knowledge yet: they have not made a cult of the psychedelic plant. If you go to South America and compare the hunting tribes and the primitive agriculturalists who grow a few subsistence vegetables, do some hunting and fishing - without strong leadership, very egalitarian - it is in these tribes that we begin to see psychedelic plants emerge as a cultural phenomena.

Agriculture is the only truly radical new technology that has appeared in the world; in that it amounts to a cutting into the earth. Most anthropological studies of Native Americans describe the arrival of white Europeans and their attempt to force the tribes into agriculture, with the tribal people's inevitable response: What, you want us to rape our Mother, the Earth? This is perverse. How could you ask human beings to do this? Agriculture immediately appears as a bad deal to these tribes. This technology leads inevitably and fairly quickly to social hierarchies, separation, class structure, property and religion as we understand it - a priest class that tells everybody else what to do and how to think. It leads, in other words, to authoritarianism and, ultimately, to the state itself. Economy, money, all the misery of civilization, we owe to agriculture. Before that, there were two million years of hunting and gathering, beautiful cave art, a world that looks suspiciously utopian - a Golden Age by comparison with a lot of the problems that agriculture brings about. In one sense, agriculture is the fall from grace. In the 1960s, the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins discovered that the hunting and gathering societies that exist today only work an average of four hours a day to get their food, whereas the agricultural societies work an average of 16 hours a day. Hunter-gatherers have over 200 kinds of food in their larder over the course of a year, whereas primitive agriculturalists will only eat an average of 20. From this point of view, Sahlins noted, it is absolutely incomprehensible that anybody would ever give up hunting for agriculture.

Ever since reading Sahlins' book Stone Age Economy I have been trying to figure out why we gave up this Garden of Eden situation? Of course the hunter knows starvation, but the hunter doesn't know scarcity; that only comes into being with economy. The hunter's life can be miserable - too cold, too hot, too naked, wiped out by the polar bear, whatever - but one thing the hunter does not have is the misery of civilization.

When discussing the positive features of civilization, remember that they are only serviceable for 10 per cent of any given population, that is, for the property-owning elite. For everybody else, civilization is an awful deal. It turns you into a serf or a slave - into the human sacrifice.

Acknowledging that agriculture is the most important technology that has been invented calls for a complete re-evaluation of the human relationship to the natural world, the world of plants and animals. As a result of this entire new relationship - of this novelty - there would be an entirely new interpretation of the psychedelic plant. The entheogenic, magic plant would then emerge in a religious context, whereas before it might only have been the individual knowledge of particular gatherers. Suddenly, there had to be a cult of the entheogenic plant. Because agriculture is so traumatic for human society, it necessitates having a living, shamanic, magical relationship with plants. Before, plants were like other beings: After they became strange spirits that grew in the forest. Johannes Wilbert, an anthropologist who wrote a fascinating book about tobacco as a psychedelic plant in South America, hypothesized that the first agriculture might have been the growing of psychoactive plants, and that's why human beings might have become farmers - to ensure a nice supply of tobacco or mushrooms or whatever.

But it is not true that agriculture discovered psychedelics; mythology shows that hunting society knew it very well. All myths concerning psychedelic plants indicate that we learned about the plants from the wild people of the forest. For example, even the Bwiti-cult from north-western Africa, which is based on ibogaine, claims that they obtained the drug from the pygmies. Suddenly, we see the appearance of the psychotropic plant.

Whereas previously it was simply one among many psychoactive things in a world that was entirely psychoactive, it became the one special substance that would allow us to recover that original intimacy. It would make us better than conscious, it would give us a beyond mere consciousness; in a sense, a return to that original intimacy of nature.

It's fairly clear that all the great neolithic societies had some kind of cult of soma - the Sanskrit word for the psychoactive experience. The Rg-Veda, one of humankind's oldest books, is all about the psychedelic experience. (If only Tim Leary had used the Rg-Veda instead of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to introduce LSD, the '60s would have been a different decade. The Tibetan Book is about death, a downer, whereas the Rg-Veda is very much about life and joy and power.) Gordon Wasson, who was the first to discuss whether the soma of the Rg-Veda was a magic mushroom, came to the conclusion that the Eleusinian mysteries, one of the central religious rites of the ancient Greeks, was also fueled by a psychoactive plant. The ancient Persians had something called haoma; it might have been a plant that contains harmoline. The ancient Irish had a similar cult... and of course we know about the Aztecs and the Mayans: they still had an active psychedelic cult when the Conquistadors arrived.

The spread of Christianity seems to have signaled the end of the classical psychedelic world. John Allegro, one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls scholars - he went crazy, according to most people - wrote a book called The Mushroom and the Cross in which he said that Jesus Christ was a mushroom. I've always felt that Jesus Christ can be whatever you want him to be, so why not? Historically, perhaps this anti-psychedelic effect had something to do with wine, the sacrament of Christianity. Wine itself, although it is psychoactive, is not nearly as psychedelic as magic mushrooms. And alcohol has its problems. The West probably lost awareness of the most mind-altering substances in a gradual process parallelling the diffusion of Christianity. Wine is sacramentalized, and its Dionysian potential remains as magic - for example in the Catholic Mass, a magical performance in which bread and wine are turned into a cannibal feast.

But the psychedelic knowledge was not even lost, not even by the time of Rabelais. Rabelais devoted considerable effort to considering what he called the Herb Pantagruelion and it's clear to any modern reader that he is talking here about marijuana. Prior to Rabelais, psychedelic knowledge was handed down on a non-literate level - by wise women, country doctors, witch doctors and peasant mothers who knew about plants. The knowledge had become occult, a secret. Rabelais plays with the fact that he knows something that you don't know. But this knowledge was never entirely lost, because no culture can persist without an opening towards non-ordinary consciousness. You have to have some escape valve, some exit from civilization, even if it is only mass psychosis! There has got to be a way out.

The idea of the transformation through ingestion of entheogens or psychedelic plants was still not quite erased, even in the High Middle Ages, but it was hiding because nobody respected it, nobody needed it. It was not because Wasson brought the spores out on his boots in 1956 that suddenly magic mushrooms were all over the world again; it was because some paradigm shift occurred at the same time. If Wasson hadn't done it, someone else would have made the discovery. As Robert Anton Wilson says "When it is steam engine time, it steam engines."

The rediscovery had already been going on since the 19th century with people like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and De Quincey, or the Romantics, who got into hashish and opium. They learned about it from the Islamic world. Once again, in a very occult and hidden way: These were poetes maudites; this was damned knowledge, known by damned people. Then there was Antonin Artaud, who went to Mexico and took peyote; or Ernst Juenger, Mircea Eliade, Jung, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch - they were all experimenting with drugs. We know about Aldous Huxley because his The Doors of Perception, in 1954, was one of the first books in English on the subject of psychedelic drugs. So when the psychedelic revolution happened in the 1960s, it was already an old story. The invention of LSD, around 1945-47, is somehow emblematic to me. It is the very first synthetic psychedelic drug; and the remarkable thing about it is that you need 200mg or even less. That's nothing! It takes the whole story of the psychedelic experience into a new, much more technical world of modern science.

In the beginning, I have hypothesized, drugs appear as part of human history because they are used in a religious way in agricultural societies, and the use and discovery of psychedelics is somehow a response to a technological development. This technological advance makes more poignant, more violent our separation from that original intimacy, from that experience of pure animal consciousness. So that it is technology itself that causes the recognition, on the part of early agricultural societies, of the cultic and religious aspect of those plants. A good deal later in human history comes the first interesting development in technology since agriculture. It could be that, around 1945, we see things... instead of becoming more and more massive - suddenly more dematerialized. (The atomic bomb dematerializes matter in a very radical way.) And with what is, in a sense, a very spiritual experience, comes the dematerialization of the computer and the information economy that, as we now know, it was destined to bring about. No matter what you think about the liberatory potential of the computer, we must also face up to the fact that there is a disembodiment going on. Suddenly you ain't got no body no more - it's analogous to the disembodiment that the atomic bomb brings about when it hits you. Is it a coincidence, therefore, that in those same two years, LSD is synthesized, mescaline, MDMA, the rediscovery of the mushroom...

There is a very interesting link between technology and the psychedelic experience. Probably the occultation of psychedelics climaxes with industrialization and with the sneaking substitution of machinic space for organic space as a principle of psychic ordering. Even agricultural consciousness is still organic consciousness: it has to do with the earth, with plants and animals. It is a very ordered, gridwork consciousness, but it is still organic. But as industrialization produced the Satanic mills (Blake) and the English working class of Engels, machinic space became the ordering principle. It is not the plow that creates space anymore, it is the production line that creates psychic space.

So Victorian puritanism and imperialism must represent the public repression of the unconscious by a rigid sobriety based on a mind/machine model that is the isolate and commanding cogito. If you wanted to find one period of human history when there really was a complete denial of the psychedelic experience, it would be the 19th century, around 1830-1880, when civilized folks not only forgot that there was something like the psychedelic experience but denied it.

As a culture, we like to laugh at primitive tribes - for example, those who are shown photographs of themselves and cannot recognize them. But Alexander Marshak (in The Roots of Civilization) tells us that in 1876 a French scientist fell by accident into one of the paleolithic caves. Later, in his diary, he wrote that there seemed to be some scribbles on the wall.

He could not see that it was art, he was just as blind as the pygmy who is blind to the photograph. Suddenly, a few decades later, people could see it as art. What allowed T. S. Eliot to say that ever since Lascaux, Western art had taken "a tumble down the staircase"? (dégringolade, a lovely word!). What allowed Picasso suddenly to see African masks, the French expressionists to see Japanese art, the hippies in the '60s to hear Indian music?

For the British colonialists in India, this music was like "the whining of the mosquitoes - how can they stand it?" The Brits could not hear it as music. My parents' generation could never hear Indian music as music: "What's that buzzing noise? Are you kids stoned again?" That is what I call a paradigm shift of cognition. At the very moment when entheogenesis - that is, the birth of the Divine Within - reappears in the West, with the late Romantics as a subculture, as 'occult history,' the conditions were being set up for this paradigm shift, which we are still basically undergoing.

The only thing that could even pretend to suppress this shift of consciousness would be the Law, as in the War on Drugs. But our law is a machine law, a gridwork, clockwork law, and it is obviously unable to contain the fluidity of the organic. That is why the War on Drugs will never ever work. You might as well declare war on every plant, every weed in the ditch. So public discourse is approaching breakdown over the question of consciousness.

The War on Drugs is a war on cognition itself, about thought itself as the human condition. Is thought this dualist cartesian reason? Or is cognition this mysterious, complex, organic, magical thing with little mushrooms elves dancing around. Which is it to be? The War on Drugs is a paradigm war. Each refinement in machinic consciousness will evoke a dialectical response from the organic realm. It is as if the mushroom elves were there; it is as if there were plant consciousness that responds to the machinic consciousness. It is such a beautiful metaphor - you don't have to believe in the elves, it's all human consciousness, ultimately. You don't have to believe in something supernatural to explain this. Around the mid-20th century, technology began to shift away from an imperial-gigantic frame to a more 'inward' dimension, with the splitting of the atom, the virtual space of communications and the computer. And it was around that same time that the really serious psychedelics begin to show up - mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, DMT, ketamine, MDMA and so on. The paradigm war that's now breaking out is one measure of an antagonism between cyberspace and 'neurospace,' a term I learned from the Kiev artist Vladimir Muzehesky, which I interpreted as contrasting that space which is posited as belonging to the computer to the neural space or the inner-body experience, that comes, for most of us, largely through psychedelic drugs - neurospace as the space of hallucinations, for example. But the relation cannot simply be vulgarized as a dichotomy. This brings us up to the so-called second psychedelic revolution - just another battle in the same war.

From one point of view, we lost the War on Drugs in the '60s; we were crushed and driven underground again. What Leary and Huxley dreamed of, a transformation of society through this experience, did not occur. Or did it? Now we know that the CIA was deeply involved in spreading LSD around the world. On Wasson's second trip to Mexico there was a CIA-agent in the group. They all had a wonderful time, except one person - guess who....

They were interested in the bad-trip side of things - certainly also a psychedelic experience. The CIA attempted to monopolize LSD, to control its distribution they funded virtually every research project. The '60s owe just as much to the CIA as they do to the Learys and the hippies. There was this complex web of good and evil, smart and stupid, all mixed into the swirling smoke, like fractal patterns influencing each other, in which every jewel reflects every other jewel. That is the secret history of the '60s. Through the '70s and '80s things looked fairly grim. The 'second psychedelic revolution,' which we now have, involves new drugs like ibogaine and a new, more careful scientific approach. We have all learned to be careful where the funding comes from and cautious about the protocols.

And there is a new generation: Don't worry, the kids are alright. LSD is a dangerous drug, it destroys some people. But if there's one thing I hate, it's the word safety. We live in a civilization of safety, in which we are eventually cocooned from all danger, that is to say, from all experience. What we are left with is a vegetable plugged into a computer, who never leaves the room, like a hideous version of a William Gibson novel.

We would be well advised to rediscover risk. The new round of psychedelic work one can find in the projects of the Albert Hofmann Foundation and in the spread of acid in Eastern Europe - all part of this second psychedelic revolution, which I very much link to the Internet, this dialectic response between the plant world and the machine world.

The antagonism between cyberspace and neurospace is one thing, but there is also an analogy. Somehow, cyberspace is hallucinogenic, or it was thought to be. They both involve a visionary inner space. It is like saying that LSD is like the atomic bomb, it blew your mind. But let us be clear: Cyberspace is happening outside your body, outside the realm of the organic. Has virtual reality already failed? Somebody recently said that virtual reality failed because it was already virtually experienced through the media. Save your money and hear about it on television - that's enough.

It is very conceptual, one of those futures that never happened and perhaps never will. And don't forget that cyberspace is much more than just VR. The really important net is not the Internet, but the international banking network (SwiftNet). There, one trillion dollars is being moved around the globe each day. "Money went to heaven," as a friend of mine likes to say.

Money that refers to money that refers to money - the most abstract concept humanity has ever developed. Compared to this, the Internet is nothing, it is a tiny corner of electrocommunications. Nevertheless, the Internet is interesting because it seems to have a liberatory potential - we want to find out its psychedelic aspect. Pessimistically speaking, the trajectories all seem to end in a reduction of our autonomy. The Internet is either going to be another crisis-solving device for global capitalism, or it will vanish or be relegated to a minor communications medium, a good deal less important than the post office. There are only a few corners left in the Net for beautiful agitation. We can no longer expect to win this particular battle of the paradigm war. I don't think that this technology, any more than any other technology, is going to be the fix that will bring us freedom and glory. It is not the solution; it isn't even the question anymore, much less the answer. I would prefer to see the question enlarged to include neurospace - because cyberspace, conceptually, is a form of disembodiment.

As a historian of religions, I see that the tragedy of the human story is the separation of mind and body. Since Mesopotamian times, religion has always been an attempt to escape the body: It becomes more and more gnostic, in the sense of hatred of the body. If you want to hear some marvelous gnosticism, all you have to do is to listen to some of the enthusiastic advocates of the Internet. The people who really believe that you are going to transcend the body, download consciousness, escape from the corpse. It is immortality through technology, transcendence through machinic consciousness. It is the same old pie in the sky when you die that the old anarchists would use to criticize religion. The Internet, in this aspect, is simply the modern version of religion. Cyberspace is our version of heaven. These myths do not go away. This rationalism turns out to be another irrational cult, just another ideology, another form for class consciousness. The problem of re-embodiment, therefore, is perhaps the only religious, intellectual and technical question we need to ask ourselves. The body is both the mystery and the key to the mystery at the same time. Cyberspace doesn't happen in the body.

The 'Body without Organs' is a phrase from Deleuze and Guattari - and they are strangely ambivalent about the moral aspect of this body. I understand their machinic consciousness that it is not necessarily evil. I could talk about the psychedelic experience as an imaginal machine. My quarrel with machinic consciousness comes when it posits that the body is evil and that the mind is good. Do not forget that the Catholic Church loved Descartes. This Cartesian consciousness we now think of as machinic, modern and scientific was at one time hailed by the Catholic Church as a true religious philosophy.

Neurospace also involves hallucinations. You think you are in the Palace of Memory, but you aren't. You're just sitting in your room, stoned on acid: You're in an imaginal space, just as with cyberspace. And yet, where is this event taking place but in the body? Neurospace is a space of embodiment. Cyberspace is a space of disembodiment. I don't want to sound like a moralist.... We can add terms like complexity, chaos, or the karmic web of jewels. The latest developments in machine consciousness have a Deleuze-Guattarian aspect of subversion, as with Internet activism - with a certain psychedelic flavor. While drugs are produced out of a second nature that is nothing if not machinic. The whole drug crisis is very much a crisis of machinic consciousness - and heroin and cocaine are very much machine products, just like LSD. However, an oppositional aspect also appears, a second psychedelic revolution, a dialectic of re-embodiment (neurospace) as opposed to the tendency toward false transcendence and disembodiment in cyberspace. One of the great rediscoveries of this new entheogenesis is the dialectical nature of ayahuasca or yage - that is, that organic DMT can be realized in combination with an MAO-inhibitor like harmine, and that plant sources for these two substances are globally diffused, widespread to the point of ubiquity, impossible to control, and free. Preparations require only low kitchen tech. Neo-ayahuasca, unlike computer technology, is not a part of capitalism or any other ideological control system. Is it fair to make this comparison? Yes, to the extent that entheogenesis and cybertech are both concerned with information and therefore with epistemology. In fact, we could call both of them gnostic systems - both are implicated in the goal of knowing that emerges from the gulf that seems to separate mind/soul/spirit from body. So the entheogenic version of this knowing, however, implies enlarging the definition of the body to include neurospace, while the cybernetic version implies the disappearance of the body into information, the downloading of the consciousness. These are perhaps both absurd extremes, images rather than political situations; they are also potent myths, powerful images. We need a politique here - not an ideology but an active cognizance of actually persisting situations, as clearly as we can grasp them in our jacked-in or stoned condition. We need a strategic sense of where to apply the nudges of our material art, the little martial Zen moves, whereby even a weak person can win a battle.

Whereby even we, despised marginals, actually have self-empowerment and thereby influence history. All of this leads to a vision of amusingly apocalyptic nonsensical self-importance, like Neuro-hackers vs the New World Order. Well, it's at least a nice idea for a science-fiction novel.

[first published in nettime, lecture at next five minutes conf Amsterdam Jan. 1996, ed. Geert Lovink, Ted Byfield and 21C. - an Australian CyberCultureZine]