Psychedelic Virality: The Aesthetic Contagion of Altered States
The psychedelic properties of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) were discovered in Switzerland in 1943. As reports of its hallucinogenic qualities spread, researchers began to study the effects of LSD on trauma, addiction, and social behavior. While these studies were at first contained in hospitals, university researchers found the clinical setting did not suit the visual nature of the drug experience, and they soon began conducting trials in private homes. Researchers began to blur the lines of standard scientific practice by giving the drug out to friends. Word of the drug spread out from Boston and L.A., two of the hotspots for psychedelic research. Underground chemists began to replicate the drug to meet the rising public demand. Talk travelled of visions, spiritual awakening, sublime terror and joy; talk of the universe unfolding in a pill. As one can imagine, news of LSD spread quick.
Psychedelics would greatly inspire 1960s culture, inaugurating a new aesthetic of film, art, fashion, and lifestyle that would become synonymous with the counterculture. Despite its deep cultural influence, the psychedelic aesthetic has not been adequately examined. My project categorizes the psychedelic aesthetic to demonstrate the importance of this tradition to our American cultural history. Over the course of this fellowship year, psychedelic culture has served as my test case for theories of virality. Interest in psychedelics appears to have spread rapidly across the American landscape in the 1960s. The virality model helps capture the speed of that spread, the massive distribution and transnational scope of psychedelic culture during the mid-twentieth century. In their recent book, Going Viral, Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley help us understand the infrastructural conditions required to accelerate the rate and scope of diffuse viral spread. Yet many questions for me remain as I apply the virality model to psychedelic cultural history. What is the cut off of virality? How many people? How short of time? How sharp of acceleration? The next major stage in this project is to mine the enormous, yet only partially digitalized corpus of mid- twentieth century media to map out psychedelic references across time and space. My attention this year has been on the authors and artists in those social networks, considering how their art serves as viral vehicles and nodes for the richly affective messages and meanings passed along during this turbulent decade. My research focuses on a narrow slice of United States psychedelic history that characterized the ‘sixties generation’ as we know it.
Individual works in the psychedelic aesthetic are linked by their shared thematic and formal concern with psychedelic drug use and altered states of consciousness. Writers, filmmakers, and artists in the 1960s attempted to formally represent the psychedelic experience, a difficult task given that many users describe the drug state as non-verbal and resistant to conceptualization. My project traces the formation of the psychedelic aesthetic in American literature and cinema from 1954 to 1969. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid AcidTest (1968), and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) remain cult classics, but there is a rich archive of art, literature, and film about psychedelics that remains unstudied. My project contributes to the recovery of minor texts and films like Jane Dunlap’s Exploring Inner Space (1961), Constance Newland’s Myself and I (1962), and Tobe Hopper’s Eggshells(1969), by considering their place in mid-20th century American art and the postmodern intellectual tradition.
Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary form two central nodes of the first phase of psychedelic virality. Americans read The Doors of Perception and news coverage on Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s research scandal, heard interviews of the two over the radio and TV, sparking curiosity and conversation across the nation. Amidst this growing noise, there emerged the work of some of the nearly forgotten figures in psychedelic history, like Adelle Davis and Thelma Moss. Under the influence of LSD, lying on a therapists couch with an eyeshade blocking their vision and music playing, Adelle Davis transformed into a glowing silkworm. Thelma Moss became a clam at the bottom of the sea. They recorded their therapeutic LSD experiences for psychiatric research studies. And later published their accounts under pseudonym. Adelle Davis’ Exploring Inner Space by Jane Dunlap was published in 1961. Thelma Moss’ My Self and I by Constance Newland appeared the following year. They were best sellers of their time, reviewed by major papers and journals, but have curiously dropped out of our historical picture. One reviewer in the New York Times may have warned off readers. These books were “not for the kiddies, especially the sweet girl graduates.” The back cover of the 1962 copy of My Self and I prophesizes the viral spread to come. “This book is the true story of one women’s experiences with LSD, the new, experimental and dangerous mind drug that is exploding into use across America.”
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters ramped up the psychedelic spread with their psychedelic spectacles across the country on a magic painted school bus named Furthur. As Tom Wolfe recounts in his classic 1967 new journalist novel, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, the Merry Pranksters took a roadtrip across America, turning people on to the psychedelic aesthetic and sometimes even the drug itself. The use of Day-Glo color schemes, cosmic, indigenous and otherworldly imagery, optical art and abstract expressionist techniques developed alongside new technological advancements in light and sound projectors. Strobes and kaleidoscopic liquid light projections were used to disrupt audience’s perceptual sense of space, and early digital experimentation with sound allowed producers to play with audience’s sense of time and duration through mixed, overlapping tracks and programmed lags and delays. Light shows become a ubiquitous part of the underground club scenes of San Francisco and New York. The “Vortex Concerts” at Golden Gate Park’s Morrison Planetarium introduced expressionistic light shows to audiences in San Francisco.
Though changing one’s consciousness became a major cultural imperative in the 1960s, many remained uneasy with the drug, and critics of LSD cited numerous cases of psychological damage and criminal activity. Though declared an illegal substance in 1966, the circulation of LSD and other psychedelics persists, as new generations synthesize their own pharmaceutical combinations and grow secret gardens of hallucinogenic plants. Interdisciplinary research on psychedelic drugs is currently undergoing a renaissance as new university studies report the benefits of psychedelic use for coping with PTSD, terminal illness, and end-of-life.
So how and why did psychedelic use spread in the 1960s? Answering the how, Terrence McKenna makes the provocative connection between LSD’s physical materiality, measured in micrograms, and its rapid spread, “LSD was the drug of choice in the ‘60s because you could produce enough of it quickly to make social change.” The surge in media coverage produced acid panic and psychedelic curiosity, perhaps inspiring more people to try the drug than would have otherwise. To answer the why question, it seems that a generation was looking for alternative modes of consciousness that went beyond the constrictive race, gender and class relations of suburban American life. In the haunting shadow of World War II and the holocaust, in the still looming Cold War threat of nuclear attack and crippling censorship of the McCarthy era, is it any wonder that people were searching not only for an escape, but also for new ways of relating to one other on a personal and societal basis? Do these same imperatives persist with us today?
Viral Culture Lecture
Lana Cook is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English. Her research focuses on twentieth century American literature, film and popular culture. Her dissertation traces the emergence of the psychedelic aesthetic in 1960’s literature and film, suggesting the viral spread of psychedelics in the mid-twentieth century helped popularize postmodern theories of perception, subjectivity and reality. She has a forthcoming article in Configurations from John Hopkins University Press, “Empathetic Reform and the Psychedelic Aesthetic: Women’s Accounts of LSD Therapy.” You can view more of her work at lanacook.net.
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