Erik Davis on 4 Jan 2001 18:56:44 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Posthuman Condition Number 3

[The following is the third installment of my Posthuman Condition column on
FEED. It ran in November.]


By Erik Davis

LET'S SAY YOU'RE a buttoned-down organic-chemistry jockey at Merck. One day
you tweak a molecule ripped off from a Peruvian native medicine, and you
wind up with a powerfully psychoactive compound. Instead of squelching
anxiety, instilling a reliable boner, or giving young minds that magic
amphetamine edge, the drug helps you touch the hem of God -- or at least
something a lot like the hem of God. At times it hurtles you into a blazing
hieroglyphic phantasmagoria more sublime and gorgeously bizarre than
anything on the demo reels of Hollywood FX shops. On other occasions it
leads you to the lip of a fundamental insight into the dance of form and
emptiness. And though later attempts to communicate your insight founder on
the shoals of coherence, the experience still leaves you centered and
convinced that ordinary life is fed by deeper springs.

Now, you think you'd zero in on this molecule, not only as a potential
vector into the enigma of consciousness but as the basis for some really
interesting commercial drugs. In other words, you'd be psyched. Right?

No way! It's common knowledge that such molecules have been recognized and
consumed by people for millennia, but have been effectively banished from
the scientific mindscape of the West. Despite their mighty psycho-spiritual
effects, the potential insight they might provide into the mind, and the
largely non-addictive behaviors they elicit, psychedelic drugs like LSD,
psilocybin, mescaline, ketamine, and DMT have been crudely lumped into the
same legal and socio-cultural categories as speedballs and crank. And one
result of this social policy is a withering of the research strategies that
a rational civilization is supposed to bring to bear on the conundrums it

DESPITE THE CONTINUED ferocity of the "war on drugs" and the largely
foolish ideas about psychoactive substances it pushes, the last decade has
seen a small renaissance in psychedelic research, both above and
underground. On the official stage, advocacy groups like MAPS (Rick
Doblin's Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and the
Heffter Reseach Institute (headed up by Dave Nichols), as well as
individual researchers like Rick Strassman and the U.K.'s Karl Jansen, have
done their homework, balancing loopy subjective accounts with the dry,
methodical language of protocols, pharmacology, and action studies.
Hopefully, these modest research reports are laying the groundwork for a
resumption of the kind of official in-depth psychological studies squelched
over thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, in the far margins of legality, small crews of brave,
compulsive, and sometimes wacked individuals continue to compile and share
fact, anecdote, and lore about exotic and new-fangled psychoactives and the
even more exotic combinations they allow. Think of these so-called
"psychonauts" as hobbyists of neural R&D. They like to plunge as far as any
hippie into the bejeweled halls of hyperspace, but they also bring an
almost geeky spirit of investigation to their exploits. They know their
chemistry, and understand that the envelope of psychedelic pharmacology is
pushed by recombining existing molecular Tinkertoys. They also take this
recombinant logic a step further by mixing and matching different drugs
from an ever-widening pharmacopoeia in order to craft new highs.

Even Burning Man veterans may not have heard of many of the esoteric
compounds that float around the scene: AMT, 5-MEO-DMT, 2C-T-2, 2C-T-7,
5-MEO-DIPT, 4-Acetoxy-DiPT, DPT, DOB, 2-CB. With a few exceptions, these
white powders have largely resisted being branded with cool names. Some
have been known for decades, others are relatively new; a few have been
scheduled, but many have so far been overlooked by the Feds and remain
uncontrolled. However, because the vast majority of these substances are
chemically similar to illegal drugs, people gobbling them technically can
be snagged under the Federal Analog Act, which allows individuals to be
prosecuted for recreational use of drugs that are "substantially similar"
to scheduled drugs. But this rarely seems to happen, especially given the
obscurity of many of these drugs and the difficulties involved in proving
"substantial" similarity.

It's impossible to say how many grams of these compounds are being
synthesized and consumed annually, but there's probably morsels of intrigue
all over Europe and America. Though some demand complex procedures and
elusive precursors to synthesize, the lion's share can be cooked up by most
anyone with undergrad training in chemistry and access to a lab. There's
really nothing to stop curious amateur organic chemists from brewing up a
small batch of AMT or 2-CB in a weekend to share with a small circle of
friends, and anecdotal evidence indicates that many do. Some of these
modern alchemists even exploit the gray-market status of these compounds by
marketing them for nonhuman "research purposes" over the Internet.

THE BACK-ROOM CIRCULATION of these drugs has engendered a loose-knit and
rather hermetic psychedelic scene devoted less to partying or cosmic
communion than to a kind of weird science, where the purple haze is
filtered through a knowledge and respect for methyl groups, monoamine
oxidase inhibitors, and the value of keeping your eye on the clock. The
godfather of this particular psychedelic style is Sasha Shulgin, a cheery,
eccentric Bay Area chemist best known for the rediscovery of MDMA. With his
wife, Ann, he wrote PiHKAL and TiHKAL, two phone-book-size tomes devoted,
respectively, to phenethylamines and tryptamines, the two pillars of
psychedelic pharmacology. Though Shulgin once had a license to study
scheduled drugs, an irritated DEA responded to the publication of PiHKAL by
swooping down on Shulgin's grubby lab and slapping him with 51 violations
they then effectively swapped for his license. In reaction, Shulgin simply
continued to devote himself to the art of recombination that characterizes
the synthesis of novel molecules. "Once they schedule something, I throw
away my samples and continue my research in another direction," he says.

The creator of 2C-B and 2C-T-7, two drugs popular among psychonauts,
Shulgin has described, synthesized, and analyzed scores of substances whose
potential for thrills and profit remain untapped. Many of the hundreds of
compounds described in PiHKAL and TiHKAL are duds; others are actively
unfun. 2C-B, on the other hand, has gained quite a following for its
electric visuals and mescaline-like effects, while the more esoteric 2C-T-7
can unleash a hyperactive barrage of 3-D psychedelic imagery that can take
some users to the edge of delirium. Dosage, of course, matters greatly, but
dosages are by nature provisional in this scene -- a psychonaut recently
died after snorting an ungodly amount of 2C-T-7. Still, even at the right
amounts, it could turn out that nothing in the Shulgin universe will ever
match the depth of LSD, mushrooms, or DMT. But the genie is out of the
bottle. "I find postings about compounds that are slipped away in little
corners of my books," says Shulgin. "And all of a sudden they are
commercially available and people are talking about them. The seeds are all
in there."

To no one's surprise, the weird scientists have embraced the Internet,
which links the gossamer strands of data and debate necessary to support a
shadowy and fragmented community that needs to stay informed. Sites like
the Vaults of Erowid and the Lyceum provide loads of information on dosage,
chemistry, legal status, effects, and, perhaps most importantly,
experiential feedback. The problem is that such public information also
runs the risk of killing the scene, especially when kids get into the act.
"The more people know about what's going on, the more likely somebody is to
come in and try to squash it," explains Scotto, one of the more balls-out
contributors to Erowid's growing vault of reports. At the same time, the
persistent curiosity of psychonauts and the endless potential for
pharmacological novelty may have created a perpetually expanding zone of
gray-market psychedelia. "Humans are going to keep inventing these things
faster than the government's going to make them illegal," says Scotto,
pointing out that the efflorescence of esoteric synthetic compounds mocks
the "logic" of the war on drugs. "Are we going to reach the point where I
can be imprisoned for doing twenty milligrams of 4-acetoxy
diisopropyltryptamine in my bathtub, when nobody even knows what that
fucking is? What kind of culture is that?"

I'll tell you what kind of culture that is: a posthuman one.

THIS MIGHT SEEM like a tall claim. After all, if you take a random slice of
human history, you can pretty much bank on the existence of some popular
and dependable pharmacological route toward altered states of
consciousness, whether through snuff, brews, bark, or herbs. What makes the
coming drug culture posthuman is the historically novel conjunction of our
exploding knowledge of psycho-pharmacology, the growing dominance of
reductionist accounts of the mind, and a consumer culture increasingly
focused on what some have called the "experience economy."

According to Earth, who runs the Vaults of Erowid with his also
pseudonymous partner Fire, we ain't seen nothin' yet. "In the next fifty
years, virtually everyone in developed countries will be faced with daily
decisions about their psychoactive drug use," he says. He argues that the
number of psychoactive chemicals in our midst is about to explode, the work
not so much of underground drug designers as of pharmaceutical companies.
"Imagine a thousand caffeine replacements," says Earth. "Myriad
amphetamines, though less fun than ones today. Or, like Viagra, a coming
class of pseudo-medicinal recreational drugs."

The signs of this emerging culture are around us. Just ask subway and train
riders across the land what time it is, and they'll tell you: "It's
Prilosec time!" The garish $50-million direct-to-consumer ad campaign for
the "little purple pill" is a remarkable indication of the shift toward a
mainstream embrace of psychoactive enhancement. Though you can't generally
tell from the ads, the drug itself is indicated for nothing more
interesting than heartburn. But the marketing machine presents Prilosec as
a lifestyle drug, a kind of luxurious soma, floating against azure skies.
Look at the connotations: the "little pill" is a microdot, the color a
purple haze, and the image of the witchy New Age blonde exulting before the
clock an ambiguous symbol of the slice of eternity that the greatest
psychoactives promise -- Eliot's "intersection of the timeless with time,"
hovering over hasty commuters.

Ordinary drugs can promise such magic in part because we have so thoroughly
adopted the notion that our subjective experience is largely, if not
exclusively, a product of the activity of neural tissue. It's a
nineteenth-century idea, of course, but now we have twenty-first-century
tools to back it up, not to mention a twenty-first-century identity crisis
for marketeers to exploit. The thing is, if you push this reductionist
paradigm far enough, then we are always on drugs. In other words, once you
start aligning the subcomponents of selfhood with different rafts of
neurotransmitters, you are already on the way toward reconceiving your
experience as the product of a tumultuous cocktail of chemical triggers.
When you hit the treadmill or string a full-spectrum light above your desk
in order to ward off depression, not to mention pop a Prozac, you are in
some sense treating your own neural juices as internal drugs whose flows
you want to regulate. And this makes perfect sense. After all, the brain
already makes its own equivalent of opium, cocaine, and psychedelics.

So we're all druggies now. The problem is that we also live at a time when
the official lies and obfuscations about psychoactives, which are necessary
to justify the drug war and the multibillion-dollar industries it breeds,
have the additional effect of eroding the personal responsibility necessary
to weigh costs and benefits and make choices about how we dose ourselves.
"Prohibition has broken people's ability to manage their own psychoactive
use," says Earth. "We've created a culture that can't choose." Instead, we
are offered a simpleminded and historically insupportable view of "bad"
psychoactive drugs as malefic invaders whose presence in human brains and
human societies is somehow aberrant. At the same time, people are being
encouraged to take socially approved psychoactives (or, in the case of
Ritalin, force them on their children). Rather than calling a spade a
spade, however, the medical-industrial establishment coats these pills in
"objective" rhetoric that elides the irreducibly subjective dimension of
the drug encounter. From industry's perspective, psychoactives are not
presented as avenues for modifying your own subjectivity, giving you the
opportunity to explore pleasure or insight or calm, but as technical
solutions to "syndromes" within the fixed machinery of the bodymind.

THE PARADOX of psychedelics -- which is partly a source of their continued
subversive power, despite the fact that pop culture has already become so
thoroughly trippy -- is that they simultaneously materialize and
spiritualize the problem of drugs and consciousness. On the surface level,
they seem to support a reductive model, especially against traditional
religious accounts of subjectivity. That is, psychedelics seem to prove
that some of the most exalted states of the human spirit -- cosmic
communion, profound aesthetic appreciation for nature, the integration of
self and other, the perception of primary pattern, the visionary eruption
of archetypal phantasms, the illumination of memory -- can be triggered
with a pill or a plant. But from the inside, so to speak, these very same
states often seem to unambiguously support a profoundly spiritual, or at
least consciousness-centered point of view, over and against a mere
biological reductionism. In other words, they bring us to the edge of a
spiritual materialism.

Even if you discount this subjective "evidence" as untrustworthy (a
perfectly acceptable move in my book), the profound reflexivity of
psychedelic drugs still makes itself known through the famed role that "set
and setting" play in the phenomenology of the trip. Forty years ago, long
before he went Sci-Fi, Timothy Leary was already talking about the
programmability of psychedelic experience, arguing that the individual's
frame of mind and the surrounding mise-en-scène contribute substantially to
the experience -- a point that most later researchers only further
underline. This acknowledgment profoundly changes the model of mind that
emerges from the drug, because the attempt to purely mechanize the molecule
-- to see it as producing a small range of dependable perceptions and
behaviors -- founders on the enormous role that both culture and the psyche
play in shaping the trip.

The dominant drug paradigm, in the rhetoric of drug warriors and industry
pushers alike, depends on a very literalist model that ascribes agency to
the drug itself. Psychoactive drugs challenge this model, functioning more
like keys that open doors that you walk through. "The psychedelic drug
doesn't do anything," says Shulgin. "The drug allows you to do something."
At the same time, of course, the drug definitely has its own say in the
matter of what gets done. But the act of introducing the thing to your
synapses, and hence your life, is more like initiating a relationship than
simply jacking into cyberspace through a video-game deck. Many psychonauts
naturally think of drugs as allies -- even approaching traditional organic
psychedelics like mushrooms and ayahuasca as if they were ensouled by
ancient spirits. Many of these more explicitly "shamanic" trippers in turn
denigrate synthetic, lab-produced compounds as soulless industrial

But as the weird scientists point out, this is just mainstream literalism
in reverse. The point is not the material; it's the dialogic relationship,
the loop of meaning, that ties together mind and molecule. Indeed, much of
the appeal of novel chemicals is that they deliver one to zones that have
yet to be mapped by cultural consensus, underground or not. "I start with
bottles that have no personality at all," says Shulgin. "You make a white
crystal solid that you don't know and it doesn't know you. And so you begin
to meet each other." In some sense, this structure of relationship, which
is open to meaning and communication, applies to all psychoactives, even
the most mainstream. Like all relationships, they can go terribly, terribly
wrong; like most, they are mixed bags. And yet, to experience yourself as a
mind arising from a brain means that you are already constantly in relation
with neurochemistry. And in the years to come, when the expanding range of
molecular modification may wrap our hands ever tighter around the tiller of
the self, it might serve us well to keep in touch with the mind that moves
through realms far outside that anxious simian serotonin buzz we experience
as ordinary reality.



Erik Davis       +1-415-541-5016 vox
Contributing editor, Wired magazine
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