- The LSD-Event: Badiou Not on Acid
What is real? Who am I? Where do I belong? What’s the real level of energy? Can I go back? Should I go back? Should I go on? How many of you can answer those questions?(Timothy Leary1)
The nexus between hallucinogenic drugs and the geography of modernity has hardly been explored in academic writing. To the political theorist, it is the quest for a universal community expressed by psychedelic gurus such as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna that springs out within this nexus. In this paper I will treat psychedelic practices in a decidedly Spinozist manner, as an ethical question of what bodies can do, and where this brings them. The psychedelic body is not suspended in empty space and time. Precisely through the exploration of its own capacities, the psychedelic body inevitably folds in geographies of race, sex, exoticism, science, state surveillance and media technologies. The precise status of this folding-in – in what way it is inevitable – forms the focus of this paper. Drawing on Félix Guattari’s notion of “microfascism,” I try to understand the LSD cult of the sixties as a simultaneous breaking-open and closing-off of modernity. In fact, the arrival of LSD in human history and evolution can be provocatively termed an “event” in the sense of Alain Badiou’s militant philosophy. This would beg the question of how the psychedelic practices of self that developed in its wake remain truthful to it, and more fundamentally, how it is possible to politically evaluate postevental fidelity at all. The four universalizing “truth procedures” – science, art, politics, love – turn out to contain their particular dangers, which Guattari is well-positioned to analyze.
1 The LSD-event
“Over the last 100 years, mankind did not step forward; but rather leapt forward. Sandoz, with its long tradition of discovering new substances, expanding in new industry fields and forming new alliances, is a perfect reflection of this unprecedented human drive towards progress”.
Websites of big companies are cautious about the facts they present. It was at Sandoz, now a pharmaceutical giant, that the LSD-event took place. The production of this new substance radically expanded fields, it demanded new alliances and procedures and went to the heart of what it means to be human. In the 1930s Sandoz Pharmaceuticals was interested in isolating various derivatives of d-lyseric acid for medical purposes. Some ergoline alkaloids were already marketed in the thirties, and the tiny but agile Swiss company wanted to remain ahead of its American competitors. If we want to speak of an LSD-event, we first need to trace the sociochemical conditions which made it possible.
Lysergic acid is obtained from ergot, Claviceps purpurae, a dark purple fungus that grows on rye. Ergot had been used for many centuries in obstetrics from Western Europe to China, stopping bleeding and aiding both abortion and childbirth. The Claviceps family of about fifty parasitic fungi affects many grasses in Europe. Ergot doesn’t kill the plant, but on animals, excessive consumption can have serious gangrenous and convulsive effects. The sufferer also hallucinates because the fungus blocks the blood circulation to the brain. It is probable that the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, secret annual initiation rites performed over two millennia near Athens, were triggered by ergotized beer.2 In medieval times, ergot regularly infected whole families and villages when the baker hadn’t taken care in selecting his grain. The blackening, then falling off of limbs, convulsions, awful burning sensations as if on the stake, progressive insanity, and finally death: as if life in the Dark Ages weren’t hard enough. Ergotism was widely dreaded, but the connection between fungus and disease wasn’t medically documented until the seventeenth century.
The monks of the St. Anthony order in southern Europe were famous for the treatment of those affected by ergotism, or St Anthony’s Fire. Victims would travel as pilgrims, with St Anthony as their patron. Anthony (c. 251-356), the Egyptian founder of Christian monasticism, is especially remembered for the vivid visits Satan paid him. Flying around as hybrid demons, offering women and food while the...