E-PRESCRIPTION FOR CULTURAL RENAISSANCE
Every culture and subculture get the drugs that they deserve. In
fact, almost every major cultural movement in history can be traced
back to the chemicals they did or didn't have.
While ancient nomadic tribes experienced regular psychedelic excursions
by eating the mushrooms that grew on the dung of the cattle herds
they followed, early agrarian cultures were denied the privilege
(and spared the hazards) of such a drug-inspired social system.
Historians tracing the shift in value systems towards property ownership
and in psychology towards the development and maintenance of ego
too often ignore the impact that these natural psychedelics must
have had on these early cultures.
Similarly, the coffee beans imported from Morocco to Europe in
the 14th and 15th century gave rise to the late night discussions
and midnight-oil-burning artistic reverie that launched what we
now think of as the Renaissance. Young coffee-drinkers, empowered
by the stimulant beverage to stay awake after normal working hours,
embarked on a reconsideration of the foundations of their reality.
They developed everything from calculus to perspective painting
as their apprehension of our world's dimensionality took a leap
That's a renaissance is, really: a rebirth of old ideas in a new
context. We gain the ability to reframe many facets of our existence
with a greater sense of dimensionality. Whether it's understanding
that the globe itself is a sphere instead of a plane, or that paintings
can have depth and vanishing points, the renaissance insight marks
an increase in understanding of dimension. It is a moment when we
Just such a renaissance moment has been underway in the popular
culture of the West since the 1960's. Foreshadowed by breakthroughs
in relativity and quantum physics, this leap in dimensionality finally
hit public consciousness with the escape of the CIA brainwashing
drug LSD into academic and subcultural circles.
The psychedelics revolution, though quickly limited to an underground
phenomenon, led to a rebirth of ancient ideas in a new, scientific
context. Psychologists like Timothy Leary, eager to comprehend the
nature of the LSD trance, turned to spiritual systems from the East
like the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which chronicled the process
by which the insights acquired on the transdimensional visionquest
could be incorporated into one's daily existence through a "conscious
rebirth" at trip's end.
Just as participants of the earlier renaissance had come to grips
with the three-dimensional reality of the sphere on which they walked,
psychedelics pioneers began to perceive of the planet as a living
system, interconnected and interdependent. Biologist-philosophers
like James Lovelock developed new theories to explain this phenomenon,
such as the Gaia Hypothesis that credits the planet with the properties
of a self-regulating form of life.
Meanwhile, mathematicians emerged from their psychedelics experiences
with a new appreciation for the dimensionality of the numbers with
which they worked. Systems theory posited a new set of dynamic mathematical
relationships between the members of natural systems and large populations.
People began working with long-detested non-linear equations, discovering "fractional dimensionality," or fractals, which allowed
for the mathematical comprehension of formerly unfathomable systems.
By granting a cloud its fractional dimensionality, rather than reducing
it to a simple sphere, mathematicians were finally able to reckon
with its previously untenable surface area.
Just as the 16th Century brought with it a new technique for depicting
our newfound perspective, the 1970's saw the emergence of holographic
technologies, which went even further to add dimensionality to our
representations. In addition to depicting depth, the holograph can
represent the passage of time. As the viewer moves across the holographic
image, the image itself can move -- a woman can blink her eyes,
and a bird can flap its wings.
More remarkably, the holographic plate itself stores information
in a way that forces us to re-evaluate the nature of matter. If
a holographic plate depicting a flying bird is smashed into thousands
of pieces, each piece will contain an image of the entire bird,
albeit blurry. When the image is left intact, the separate images
are resolved into a single image with all the necessary information.
The implication, which is currently under scrutiny in fields as
diverse as brain anatomy and cultural anthropology, is that each
part of a system somehow contains a faint representation of the
whole. When properly networked together, the total picture of reality
The original renaissance was also inspired, in part, by a new communications
technology: the printing press. Thanks to Gutenberg, the masses
became literate. The Bible and other texts were no longer to be
read only by the upper classes and religious elite. This led to
an increasingly level playing field as far as the dissemination
of information, and eventually provoked a religious reformation
known as Protestantism.
By the 1980's, our current renaissance found its technological
equivalent to the printing press: the personal computer. Now, individuals
were empowered not merely with information but with the ability
to self-publish across global networks. This marked a clear dimensional
upscaling of the relationship of the individual to society at large.
Each human being with a computer linked to the Internet became a
node in a dynamical system, capable of feedback and iteration. We
are still only beginning to reckon with the social impact of this
new human interactivity.
But our computer networks give us the best clue as to the nature
of our latest increase in dimensional thinking, as well as the reason
why MDMA, in particular, became the drug of choice among the newly
Much of early cyberculture was founded by people with psychedelic
experience. It seemed that those who already had experience navigating
the hallucinatory realm of the LSD trip were most comfortable learning
the languages and confronting the as-yet uninvented worlds of cyberspace.
As fledgling Silicon Alley firms became dependent on Grateful Deadheads
and other psychedelics users as programmers, cyberculture became
known as a "cyberdelic" movement. The values of the 1960's
psychedelic subculture were revivified by its participants involvement
in what was soon to become America's leading industry.
As if in an effort to physically and experientially actualize the
networked culture they were building in cyberspace, young, hi-tech
San Franciscans developed their own version of the electronic music
parties they heard about from friends who had traveled to Britain
and Ibeza. In Europe, the huge parties called "raves"
were already commonplace. Thousands of revelers would gather in
abandoned warehouses or on remote fields to dance until dawn to
the throbbing beat of "acid house" music recorded originally
by Detroit-based African-Americans. When the first imported raves
were held in the Bay Area, however, they took on a more self-consciously
San Francisco raves were designed to be like the famous "Acid
Tests" thrown by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. The music,
lighting, and ambience were all fine-tuned to elicit and augment
altered states of consciousness. The rhythm of the music was a precise
120 beats-per-minute, the frequency of the fetal heart rate, and
the same beat used by South American shaman to bring their tribes
into a trance state. Through dancing together, without prescribed
movements or even partners, rave dancers sought to reach group consciousness
on a level they had never experienced it before. The object of a
rave was to experience a reality that went beyond the self. Ravers
aspired to an awareness of group organism. Inspired by the holograms
and fractals on their computers, they sought to create a dynamic
system in which each member could experience the essence of the
The drug they chose to assist them in this quest was MDMA.
Most of them had already experienced LSD. But the LSD trip was
a personal, introspective experience. Although most individuals
report a sensation of "connectedness" with the universe
at the peak of an LSD experience, this realization of the oneness
of reality is a largely intellectual revelation, on the order of
an intense spiritual insight. For the LSD trip is epic in structure,
like the Aristotelian arc of heroic journey. A rising euphoria climaxes
in an ego-shattering epiphany of self-realization. Ego is destroyed,
at least temporarily, and the foundations of ego and self are revealed
as artificial constructs of mind. But the trip itself is spent challenging
and destroying these constructs. Eventually, the tripper takes the
long journey back to waking state consciousness, clutching to the
insights he has garnered as he is rebirthed back into his ego-defined
MDMA, which gained notoriety as an empathogen through its use by
psychotherapists prior to its reclassification as an illegal substance
in the 1980's, offered a trip more appropriate to the purposes of
the rave. Unlike LSD, Ecstasy -- which most ravers simply called "E" -- provided an even plateau of duration than the highly
arced LSD trip. Users took the drug and experienced its full effects
in less time. Instead of rising to a crescendo and then releasing
users into freefall, Ecstasy came on more subtly, gently coaxing
its users into a mild and communicative euphoria. Instead of journeying
inward, E users found themselves venturing outward.
Ecstasy's flatter and correspondingly more predictable onset and
duration made it a much more practical enhancement to an eight-hour
party. Its amphetamine-like side effects helped its users to dance
longer and with greater energy than they might otherwise have, guaranteeing
that they would be out on the floor with their newfound friends
during the group's peak moments. No one wanted to be left out.
For the climax of a group E experience is not individual but collective.
Where LSD subjected its users to the harsh crucible of self-analysis,
E immediately proved itself a carefree, social drug. Rather than
burning through an individuals obstacles to self-awareness,
it melted away a groups obstacles to intimacy. Although MDMA
became notorious for fostering "inappropriate bonding in a romantic setting, it was also just as celebrated for developing
group cohesion at a larger gathering.
Like alcohol, E served as a social lubricant, dissolving inhibitions
and catalyzing an almost tribal sensibility. But instead of doing
this by amplifying an individuals sense of power and invincibility,
Es effect was to generate a sense of identification between
people. It was as if a group of people taking E together was empowered
collectively. The sense of individualism and personal gain one strove
for in the workaday reality suddenly seemed a hollow illusion, promoted
by economics, marketing, and ones own fear of exposure. Competition
between individuals, and even the notion of individuated personhood
seemed a farce. On MDMA, users came to regard such personal strivings
and associated anguish as laughable distractions from the real business
at hand: forging intimate relationships on a level previously unimaginable.
Nothing could have been more aligned with the raves stated
purpose. Though not mandatory, dosing with E was deemed extremely
beneficial to a group of several thousand strangers hoping to shift
itself into the headspace and heart-space of collective awareness.
The rave gathering offered experiential evidence of the dimensional
leap that had been calculated and depicted by holograms and fractals.
It physicalized the sorts of social networking that had only been
practiced on a virtual level through the Internet. Stripped of personal
ambition and provoked to form emotional bonds, the revelers at a
rave gathering were enabled to push their experiments in group dynamics
beyond what their egos and inhibitions would have permitted otherwise.
The E seemed to serve almost as a fuel. While some believed that
the MDMA molecule had an almost conscious agenda of its own, more
users tended to identify their new sensibility as coming directly
from the heart, uncovered and activated at last by the drugs
It was a three-part process. First, Ecstasy stripped away the users
inhibitions to self-expression. On E, lies are inefficient, and
the peculiarities or weaknesses they are meant to obscure no longer
seem like offenses against nature. Young men who had long repressed
their feminine sides felt an irrepressible urge to express their
"anima, or female spirit. While a few experimented with
homosexuality, it usually had less to do with defining sexual identity
than eradicating over-determined and intimacy-restricting social
roles. In this first stage of the Ecstasy trip, users experience
themselves in full spectrum and without reservation. Old or young,
gay or straight, muscular or nerd everyone is okay and beautiful
just exactly as he or she is.
This first stage is also the time when psychological discomfort if it is to occur generally will. Though extremely
minor compared with the harrowing, hallucinatory nightmare of a
bad LSD trip, a difficult E experience usually results from the
users resistance to the emotional needs or personality traits
he or she has been repressing all along. The reason why negative
experiences are so rare is that MDMA does not parade peoples
hidden traits before them, demanding that they give voice to them
or else. Rather, E makes people feel so open and accepting that
these orphaned personality constructs finally rise to the surface
where they can be manifest without shame. The user is so open-minded
and emotionally giving that he or she welcomes the formerly eschewed
sentiments with open arms. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, the user
generally feels consolidated and whole for the first time.
Once this process of self-acceptance is completed, the user still
feels a burning need to accept more. This is when the second stage
begins in earnest, and the user seeks to recognize and embrace the
emotional needs and personality traits of others. With the same
openness and judgment-free enthusiasm with which they embraced themselves,
the users strive to accept the hearts, minds, and bodies of those
around them. They understand that their friends are also experiencing
and expressing new parts of themselves, and seeing the world through
the same non-prejudicial eyes. The overwhelming need to empathize
with one another outweighs every other consideration. This is why
almost no one on Ecstasy looks to score sexual conquests or increase
his or her social status. People are too busy accepting and embracing
each other to care about themselves.
This is when the third stage, the action of E most important to
the group as a whole, finally takes effect. The majority of the
crowd soon realizes that speech and one-to-one contact is no longer
a sufficient means of reaching out and accepting the thousands of
other people present. Thats why they turn to the dance. As
part of the collective, ten-thousand-armed, dancing mass, everyone
gains the ability to accept and embrace the totality of the group
simultaneously. Everyone has liberated personally, accepted one
another individually, and must now accept the totality of the group
itself into their hearts. In a sense, they go "meta. Like the quantum physicist who realizes he cannot make an observation
without finding himself under the magnifying glass, the raver realizes
he is a part of the very thing he is trying to accept.
This is "magic moment of the rave that so many people
talk about for months or even years afterwards. Unlike a rock concert,
which unites its audience in mutual adoration for the sexy singers
on stage, the rave unites its audience in mutual adoration for one
another. The DJ providing the rhythm is more of an anonymous shaman
than a performer, mixing records from a remote corner of the room.
The stage is the dance floor, and the stars are the revelers themselves.
The group celebrates itself.
The peak of the E-xperience is when the drug and dance ritual brings
the revelers into a state of collective consciousness. Descriptions
of these extended moments of group awareness often fall into cliché,
but they are profound, life-changing events for those who have experienced
them. The dancers achieve what can only be called "group organism. That is, the individuals form a dynamical system like a coral reef,
where each living individual experiences itself more as member of
the collective entity than as an individuated cell.
But in lower-order hive minds, the individual members, be they
bees or plankton, have little or no awareness of their own participation
in the collective. Their service is instinctual, the collective
to which they belong has no purpose other than mutual survival.
The collective formed purposefully by E-charged ravers is the result
of a ritual self-consciously performed for no purpose other than
the sensibility of group mind itself.
The mass spectacle results in a fleeting but undeniable rush of
collective awareness or an excellent simulation that is indistinguishable
from reality. Dancers move about freely on the floor, making eye
contact that feels as though one were looking in the mirror: a single
being with thousands of pairs of eyes, using people who formerly
thought of themselves as individuals to look at itself.
The collective awareness achieved through mass MDMA use perfectly
matched the social agenda of the subculture it came to serve. In
their quest to find a drug capable of forging new social bonds,
the rave underground happened upon a chemical that exceeded their
original expectations. Ecstasy broke social inhibitions while engendering
an empathic imperative that fostered new levels of emotional bonding.
But the intensity of these bonds, augmented by the self-consciously
inclusive and egalitarian environment that the users had engineered
for themselves, led to an entirely new and unexpected way of understanding
the relationship of individuals to the larger groups they form.
Like a hologram, the human project itself is understood as a collective
enterprise. Each individual contains the entire process albeit
a fuzzy, unresolved picture of that process within him or
herself. The only way to resolve the picture is to bring those individuals
together into a single, coordinated, and multi-dimensional being.
For those keen on enacting a renaissance of this magnitude and hoping to do so before human beings had the ability to accept
themselves, much less one another -- MDMA served as a crucial social
Ironically, perhaps, just as the hi-tech Internet tended to encourage
what media theorist Marshall McLuhan predicted would be "tribal"
affiliations and a sense of electronic Global Village, the laboratory-born
MDMA molecule spawned a similar network of tribal communities. Like
"primitive" tribal people who, after ingesting various
combinations of rainforest psychotropics, would dance in group trance
around the shaman's fire, young, techno-savvy ravers find their
newfound tribal imperative actualized on the dancefloor, and catalyzed
by a chemical.
Though ingested by individuals, this powerful molecules greatest
action might be on the group.
Used with permission. Thanks to Douglas Rushkoff.