Pit Schultz on Mon, 19 Feb 96 00:49 MET

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nettime: PL Wilson N5M lecture

From: Geert Lovink <geert@xs4all.nl
Subject: PL Wilson N5M lecture

Cybernetics & Entheogenics: From Cyberspace to Neurospace
Lecture by Peter Lamborn Wilson
Held during the "Next Five Minutes" Conference on Tactical Media
Amsterdam, January 19, 1996

The term "Neurospace" I learned from the Kiev artist Vladimir
Muzehesky, through Geert Lovink. What I immediately thought he meant
by it was a comparison of that space which is posited as belonging to
the computer with 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. I would like to compare and
contrast, as they used to say in school, cyberspace and neurospace.
There are similarities and differences.
    I remember some years ago, when virtual reality suddenly appeared
with a big whizbang on the scene, going to a conference in New York
where Timothy Leary, God bless him, appeared with Jaron Lanier and
couple of other cybernauts. Tim was wearing the goggles, he was on
stage and he said, "Oooh, I have been here before." So right from the
start there was this connection set up between virtual reality and the
LSD experience--or as some 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." I am able to use this term that is
meaningful for me even though 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, and Albert Hofmann was already
cooking up various preliminary versions. Last summer I got to meet
Hofmann, and he is a wonderful advertisement for the psychedelic
experience. He is well over 80, and he is hale and hearty--got all his
brain cells and is still working, eats like a horse, drinks like a
fish. This is my lifetime we are talking about.
    There is a historical question, in the history of religions per se,
and that is: 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. Terence says that what makes us human is the psychedelic
experience. I don't know if I literally believe this; in any case, I
don't believe in any single origin for human consciousness. But 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 in time with human becoming. An
interesting hypothesis; we can add it to all theories of human origins.
    I like to think of palimpsests. In the Middle Ages they didn't have
much paper, so they would write one way on the paper and then would
write another way on the same paper. Sometimes they would even write a
third way. They were used to reading it this way. My approach to theory
is a palimpsestic one: I like to pile up theories one on top of another
and hold up the whole stack up to the light and see if still any light
is coming through. Think of it as animation gels, 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 is "us." The
bad aspect of it is that consciousness itself would seem to be a
separation process. Georges Bataille spoke about this in an interesting
way: he hypothesized that all religion concerns a memory trace of a
time in which the human was separate from nature--from the animal,
let's say. And if you believe in evolution, this is just 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 it's no
longer a question of the animal experience and what Bataille calls the
"original intimacy." We are now 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 we're
trying to do with all these religious and philosophical forms is to try
to link up with the original intimacy, which we lost when we began to
experience cognition.
    If Terence is right, than cognition begins with drugs, and then the
next step would be to take more drugs to try to recover what one had
lost. So, in this reading, human consciousness and human religion,
which are so closely related, would have always been involved with
psychedelic plants. Here we come up against a problem in anthropology,
which I have only recently become aware of. As anthropologists look at
the most "primitive" societies that we can find--that is to say hunter-
gatherer tribal societies--these societies don't seem to have much to
do with psychedelics. According to anthropologists, psychedelic plants
occur in human history with agriculture-- so, at the very most, 12000
years ago.
    Agriculture, the age we are still in, is at most 1% of the whole
human story. But if you go to South America and compare the hunting
tribes and the primitive agriculturalists, who grow a bit of
subsistence vegetables, do some hunting and fishing--without strong
leadership, very egalitarian--it is in these groups that we begin to
see the psychedelic plants emerge as a cultural phenomena. It
immediately struck me that there is something wrong here. Why should
agriculturalists know more about wild plants than the hunters and
gatherers, who in fact depend on the wild plants? They depend at least
70% on gathering, and only 30% 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 think that hunting is
much more prestigious, but it is economically less important. The
hunters of course know about all the plants, but they have not
necessarily ritualized it yet: they have not made a cult of the
psychedelic plant.
   Agriculture is the only radical new technology that ever appeared in
the world; what it amounts to is a cutting into the earth. If you read
any anthropology about Native Americans, you will find that when the
white Europeans arrived and tried to force the tribes into
agriculture, the tribal people always say the same thing: "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. There is no doubt that 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, you have two million years of hunting and
gathering, the 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 some sense, agriculture is fall from
grace. I don't want to be a reactionary, a luddite--I am just simply
pointing out something that is very true and obvious, but it took a
long time for civilized human beings to realize this. 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 sixteen hours a day. Hunter-gatherers have over 200 kinds
of food in their larder over the course of a year, whereas the
primitive agriculturalists will only eat an average of twenty. From
this point of view, Sahlins pointed out, it is absolutely
incomprehensible that anybody would ever give up hunting for
agriculture. Ever since I read that book *Stone Age Economy* I have
been figuring out why--why did we give up this Garden of Eden kind of
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-- it can be too cold, too hot, too
naked, he can be wiped out by the polar bear, whatever--but the one
thing the hunter does not have anything of is the miseries of
    If we are going to talk about the positive features of
civilization, let's remember that they are only serviceable for 10% of
any given population, in other words, the property-owning elite. For
everybody else, civilization is a fucking awful deal. It turns you into
a serf or a slave, into the human sacrifice. We know that cannibalism
belongs to agriculture, not to the hunting tribes. I like bread--I'm
not about to give up bread. What I am trying to point out to you with
this exaggerated attack on agriculture, is that agriculture is a very
severe technological break. It is as if you drew a line: on that side
there is wild forest, and on this side there is culture, humanity and,
ultimately, civilization. On the clear side, we cut into the earth, we
make straight lines, we know the technology of seeds. The calendar is
the first ideology, in the sense of false consciousness, because only
farmers could invent it. Industry is a minor epiphenomenon of
agriculture, from this point of view. Agriculture is the one and only
important technology that has ever been invented and that calls for a
complete reevaluation of the human relation vis-a-vis the natural
world, the world of plants and animals.
    As a result of this entire new relationship, of this novelty, there
will be an entirely new interpretation of the psychedelic plant. The
entheogenic, magic plant will now emerge in a religious
context--whereas before it might only have been a question of the
individual knowledge of an individual gatherer. Now, suddenly, there
has 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, now they are strange spirits that grow in the forest. Actually,
one anthropologist wrote a fascinating book on tobacco as a psychedelic
plant in South America: the very first agriculture would have been the
growing of psychoactive plants, and that's why human beings might even
become farmers, to ensure a nice supply of tobacco or mushrooms or
whatever. A friend of mine once said, "Yeah, everything is
psychotropic." Any substance that you can take into your body will
bring about a transmutation. I don't care if it's water, food,
air--it's all transformation through substance.
    It is not true that agriculture discovered psychedelics. I can
prove, on the basis of mythology, that hunting society knew it very
well. All myths concerning psychedelic plants always say that we
learned about the plants from the wild people from the forest. One
example: the Buiti-cult from northwestern Africa, which is based on
ibogaine. They claim that they got it from the pygmies. Suddenly we
seem to see for the first time the appearance of the psychotropic
plant, whereas before it was simply one among many psychoactive things
in a world that was entirely psychoactive, it's now the one special
substance that will allow us to recover that original intimacy. It will
make us better than conscious, it will give us a beyond mere
consciousness, which in a sense will be 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 the oldest books of humanity, is all
about the psychedelic experience. If only Tim Leary had used the
Rg-Veda instead of the Tibetan Book of the Death to introduce LSD, the
sixties 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. Anyway, all neolithic and classical societies had some
variety of this. We owe these discoveries to the great Gordon Wasson,
who was the first to discuss whether the soma of the Rg-Veda was in
fact a magic mushroom. He also came to the conclusion that the
Eleusinian mysteries, one of the central religious rights of the
ancient Greeks, was also fueled by a psychoactive plant. The ancient
Persians had something called "helma," it might have been a plant that
contains harmoline. I claim to have discovered that the ancient Irish
had a similar cult... and of course we know about the Aztecs and the
Mayans: they still ha an active psychedelic cult when the conquistadors
arrived. In some of the old Spanish chronicles you can actually read
about magic mushrooms. But somehow these texts were lost, or no one
read them, or if they read them they did not believe them, or they were
horrified by them.
    It is the spread of Christianity which seems to signal the end of
the classical psychedelic world. John Allegro, one of the original
Death Sea Scroll 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 always felt that Jesus Christ
can be whatever you want him to be, so why not? Historically, perhaps
this antipsychedelic 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 it's
problems. Terence McKenna has taken a very puritanical stand--
antialcohol, coffee, sugar, tea, any of those modern psychotropics.
    The West probably lost awareness of the most mind-altering
substances in a gradual process parallel to 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,
And in the "soma function," which means that everything is
psychotropics. As one of the Sufi poets said: "A drunkard will never
become wise, even after a hundred bottles of wine, but a wise man will
become intoxicated one a glass of water."
    Think about Rabelais, for example. He devoted his last chapter of
his book to what he called the "Herb Pantagruelion" and it's clear to
any modern reader that he is talking here about marijuana. So the
psychedelic knowledge was not even lost, not even by the time of
Rabelais. It was handed down on a nonliterate level--by wise women,
country doctors, witch doctors, and peasant mothers who knew about
plants. The knowledge has become occult, it's a secret. Rabelais is
playing with the fact that he is knowing something that you don't know.
The knowledge was never lost because no culture can persist without an
some opening towards non-ordinary consciousness. You have to have some
escape valve to some civilization, even if it is mass psychosis. There
has got to be a way out.
    The idea of the transformation through ingestion of entheogens or
psychedelic plants still was not quite erased even in the High Middle
Ages. The knowledge has been condemned to hell. The psilocybin mushroom
was always here, it never went away, but it was hiding--I am talking
like Terence now, let's just take it as a metaphor--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's steam engines."
   The rediscovery had already been going on since the nineteenth
century when people like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and DeQuincy, 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*--damned knowledge, known by damned people. Then