Psychedelics and the Legacy of Transgression
by Alan Piper
This article by historian Alan Piper is an adapted extract from the first essay in his new book Bicycle Day and other Psychedelic Essays which is published today.
LSD and other psychedelic substances currently occupy a curious position. While their proponents once revelled in their transgressive status, they now wish for these drugs ‘to come in from the cold’ and return from a period of isolation, concealment and exile to circles of deserved esteem. Ironically, for drugs that were once the touchstone of alterity, when being hip meant ‘have you been turned on?’, their advocates now seek the legitimacy of medical and scientific authority, along with a legally recognised sacramental status.
I presented a paper at Breaking Convention in 2015 with this situation in mind. Against the background of a burgeoning ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’, I asked the audience if the medicalisation of psychedelics, necessarily provided by Big Pharma and regulated by medical authorities, and the approval of psychedelics for spiritual purposes in limited legally recognised circumstances, will mean they ‘lose their mojo?’ Meaning, will they lose the radically enlightening quality often ascribed them, in which psychedelics de-programme the user from the meta-narratives of Church, State and consumer society that condition us to accept the status quo?
This question has continued to preoccupy me as an aspect of my ponderings on the territory of psychedelics and their associated counterculture ever since. I’ve been greatly assisted in this consideration by my discovery of Isernhagen’s Acid against Established Realities and Leung’s Ecstasy and Transcendence in the Postmodern State. Isernhagen, for instance, supported a belief I had already reached, which was that when psychedelics emerged in the mid-20th century they were co-opted by a pre-existing culture of resistance to modernity. He writes:
One might begin by asking why drugs acquired such cultural significance in the 1960s and 1970s at all. In my view this was because there already existed a well-established cultural tradition - that of aesthetic modernism (ca. 1900/1910 -?) which was searching for what one might term alternate realities: there also existed a well-established language to express this search and its results.
Both Isernhagen and Leung focus on the transgressive nature of psychedelics, but Isernhagen takes a negative view of psychedelic culture. He sees it as part of a perpetual subculture; an ‘underbelly’ that struggles against the surplus repression demanded by everyday life. A subculture in which ‘there is only the attempt, after the transgression of boundaries, or the recognition that they have become permeable, to keep them fluid, uncertain and shifting, but all the same real.’In other words, a permanent state of liminality, an endless immersion without intent or conclusion.
On the other hand, Leung argues for the legitimisation of the religious aspects of psychedelic experience and does this partly by reference to the transgressive nature of the psychedelic experience as a route to the sacred. For Leung, it promotes transcendent perspectives and values which transgress the dominant ideology of consumer capitalism, which places the highest value on rationality, logic, efficiency and productivity. She references Taussig’s essay on transgression, which argues that by an inverted logic in modernity, sacrilege becomes the place where the sacred is most likely to be experienced.
As early as 1948, with LSD still hardly known even in the scientific community, the prominent German author and drug adventurer Ernst Jünger wrote to Albert Hofmann about the latter’s own reports to him on LSD, suggesting to Hofmann that this was perilous territory. ‘It seems indeed that you have entered a field that contains so many tempting mysteries’ he wrote. ‘These are experiments in which one sooner or later embarks on truly dangerous paths and may be considered lucky to escape with only a black eye.’
Later, in 1961, Hofmann expressed his own concern to Jünger about the possible transgressive nature of psychedelics:
I must admit that the fundamental question very much occupies me, whether the use of these types of drugs, namely of substances that so deeply affect our minds, could not indeed represent a forbidden transgression of limits.
It is striking that the two friends should be discussing the LSD experience in transgressive terms well before the counterculture and associated moral panics of the 1960s and ’70s concerning psychedelics. However, the modern sense of the words ‘drug’ and ‘literature’ date to the Romantic period of Keats, Coleridge and de Quincey. Indeed, it is in the late 18th and early 19th century in which a literature of intoxication and addiction first emerged, investing both with the glamour of the transgressive and forbidden. What though is transgression or transgressive behaviour?
Transgression can be defined as the violation of a law, a duty or moral principle, or otherwise the action of going beyond or overstepping some boundary or limit. In terms of society, it means socially disruptive acts, breaking local laws, customs or taboos. In terms of the natural order of being, it means the abnormal, the artificial or deviant and, in terms of the sacred order of being, it includes the blasphemous or sacrilegious. A transgressive action can be one of neglect or omission, but when deliberately employed by a counterculture it often assumes the deliberate intention to shock or offend.
The decadents and aesthetes of the fin de siècle wanted to shock the comfortable middle classes out of their self-righteous complacency, to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’. It was a battle cry that resonated from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (1857) to the Italian artist Piero Manzoni’s merda d'artista (1961)—an artwork consisting of his own tinned shit, and well beyond.
Acts of transgression tend to be those that damage or violate the integrity of a structure. In terms of people it includes acts that expose oneself or others to shocking or dangerous experiences with the possibility of physical or psychological harm. For the body it can mean acts such as self-mutilation, tattooing or scarification, or for the mind methods of disrupting normal mental processes through fasting, self-isolation or, crucially here, the use of drugs.
The concern expressed by Hofmann in 1961, given the then legal status of LSD, lay not merely in the profound alteration of the senses, but significantly in overstepping a boundary, something of the character of accessing arcane knowledge or experiences. There is a familiar aspect of psychedelic experience that is hard to pin down but is, regardless of initial confidence, a ‘what on earth have I done to myself?’ conviction, as it kicks in. It is a sense that you have entered a dangerous zone of forbidden experience, from which you may not return as the same person, or perhaps not at all.
The psychedelic culture of the 1960s and ’70s was intimately associated with counter-cultural political radicalism, opposition to the war in Vietnam, as well as exciting developments in the arts, which psychedelics are considered to have helped catalyse. Social histories of psychedelic culture tend to focus on psychedelics’ role in fuelling a revolt against the post war conservative culture of the 1950s.
However, long before the psychedelic Sixties, there existed a counterculture that rejected the same aspects of 20th century Western culture that characterised the countercultural revolutionaries of the 1960s. That opposition, termed modernism, was a reaction against the characteristics of modernity in Western industrialised nations. Namely, against enlightenment rationalism (considered as essential for the provision of social and scientific progress) and to the materialism of consumer culture (as supported by capitalism, industrialisation and mass production). It also opposed the strictures of institutionalised religion and the enmity of nation states, which was expressed through acts of conscientious objection.
Bicycle Day and other Psychedelic Essays deals with the role of psychoactive drugs in the rich diversity of resistance to and orientation to the experience of modernity. This includes the recreational use of peyote at Harvard by tutors and students in the 1930s. In a fantasy novel reflecting the intersection of drugs and Parisian sapphic culture of the ’20s, wherein altered states are a covert symbol of a divergent sexual orientation. Plus an early science fiction novel, with a significant narrative role for the ingestion of psychoactive substances, which ends in a gnostic battle between the life force and the glamour of the material world.
Elsewhere, the book explores the veiled use of LSD in the healing of trauma, experienced as what German war veteran and litterateur Ernst Junger called simply “the catastrophe”. Lastly, in the title essay on Bicycle Day, there is transgression of a different order. The discovery of LSD is historically framed against the destructive role of anti-Semitism in the scientific establishment, the corporate compromises made in the Aryanisation of Swiss pharmaceutical companies in Germany, occult networks, and Switzerland as a centre of the sale and distribution of modernist ‘degenerate’ art looted by the Nazis in Europe.
The limited edition hardback of Bicycle Day and other Psychedelic Essays is out today, and is exclusively available from the Psychedelic Press:
Isernhagen, H (1993) ‘Acid Against Established Realities: A transcultural and transdisciplinary view of LSD and related hallucinogens’ in Pletscher and Ladewig [Eds.] 50 Years of LSD. New York: Parthenon Publishing Group
Taussigm M (2006) ‘Transgression’ in Walter Benjamin’s Grave. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 171
Hofmann, A (1979) LSD—Mein Sorgenkind. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 156-157
Hofmann, A (2009) LSD: My Problem Child. Santa Cruz: MAPS. 164