Neuropolitics
         

 

Unlike more overtly political forms of self-expression in the 1960s, declaring an interest in LSD could imply one’s personal politics without necessarily specifying an alignment with existing doctrines. To take LSD was to assert a right over one's subjectivity and body as undetermined by social conventions and their corresponding mental states, even the norms of protest and political resistance. It was a declaration of autonomy – a desire, as Timothy Leary said, to operate one’s own brain. The political dimension of LSD use lies in this productive refusal to submit to command, to experimentally pursue a mental life that was incompatible with the regulations of the workplace, the nuclear family, educational institutions or the military. LSD was a means of ‘reprogramming’, as Leary would say, a process of creating a radically different relation between the mind and the social order.

Leary called this relation ‘Neuropolitics’, a term that expressed his belief that political problems could be traced to collective psychological troubles, which had their basis in brain chemistry. Altering that chemistry was a step toward changing political relations. LSD use was a different kind of ideological protest, one that deliberately eschewed conventional political movements, which Leary saw as yet another form of ‘social game’ and too authoritarian to offer an alternative to the establishment. The only alternative was a process of inner transformation that would inevitably lead to an external expression of political change. Leary writes that for fellow psychedelic advocate Alan Watts, the inner workings of the self were inherently partisan, describing Watts’ work as ‘the politics of the nervous system – certainly as complicated and certainly as important as external politics’. (1) Leary’s assessment of Watts’ work posits an unorthodox politics of psychedelic use, in which the reprogramming of subjectivity was the precondition for political activity.

That such a reprogramming would be seen as necessary speaks to the increasingly pervasive management of subjectivity and sociality effected by the economic restructuring of the decades following the Second World War. As Paolo Virno has observed, the mental and communicative capacities of workers assumed a new value in relation to an economy based on creativity and cooperation (2) The minds of employees were rendered productive through the advent of new forms of labor (think of what today we call ‘creatives’), as well as the expansion of corporate management and, with it, the rise of communication as a dominant mode of productivity. Leary understood LSD as an antidote to the mind control exercised by these new economic logics, and to the routinization of social relations in a system in which all of life is potentially coded as labor.

LSD was a means of deconditioning the subject, and of chemically resisting the instrumentalization of the mind as the control center for the body. For Alan Watts, the mind-body duality was understood as a mechanism of control that could be loosened through psychedelics. In The Joyous Cosmology,Watts describes the emergence of the duality of mind and body in Western thought as resulting from an attempt to describe the self-control of intelligent beings. For him, psychedelics resist the hegemony of the intellect by altering patterns of thought, introducing new possibilities of experience and perception that could counter the ordering of the mind by established doctrines and political agendas. LSD was a way to rework the neurochemistry of consciousness, and to renegotiate the relation between mind and body in order to establish the autonomy of the subject.

To withdraw from the games of power, to ‘drop out’, in Leary’s terms, was to refuse the external command of the mind and body, and to enact a willful detachment from the machinations of authority – not only those of ‘the establishment’, but also those of supposedly radical political movements. All authority, regardless of political orientation, was seen as repressive. Leary’s chosen persona, which he called a ‘standup philosopher’, was a self-conscious effort to evade the trappings of authority by refusing to legitimate his position through adherence to conventions of serious intellectual discussions. Leary’s preference for buffoonery could be read as an attempt to undermine his position as an expert; to question his own authority. Leary’s distrust of power was consistent with his vision of psychedelic use as an assertion of self-rule and a loosening of the effects of social control through adjustments to neurochemistry. LSD, along with sexuality, alternative spiritualities and previously taboo forms of self-exploration, was a form of countercultural resistance. While not avowedly political, this calculated hedonism was an act of defiance confronting the ordering of life under a new system of domination.

1 Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry
of Consciousness (New York: Vintage 1965), p. 2.

2 Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (New York:
Semiotext(e) 2003).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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