Monday, November 16, 2009

Happy Birthday LSD.

LSD is old enough to be your grandfather today. On this day, November 16, 1938, Albert Hofmann was lead by a "peculiar presentiment" to synthesize LSD for the first time in Sandoz laboratories, Basel, Switzerland. (As a historical moment, it is as good a candidate for the Also Sprach Zarathrustra treatment as any I can think of.) Whether a molecular door into a Higher Reality, or a aimless game of neurochemical pin-ball with your brain as the board, acid is a pivotal part of the cultural matrix that has made us the multi-media mutants we are today.

Acid has a complex cultural legacy. One of its great condtradictions lies in the fact that it provided the youth of the West with a Door into a re-animated cosmos - a world of mystical rather than rational connections and significances. Yet there is no purer product of the rational scientific edifice - LSD came from a laboratory, not an ashram. As Mark Dery points out in his book Escape Velocity, the hippie appropriation of the slogan Better Living Through Chemicals was layered with irony - the notion of enlightenment in a pill was as much a product of technocratic capitalism as it was a reaction against it. In tandem with this, LSD produced a kitsch iconography of kaleidoscopes and sitars, much of which had very little to do with the actual experience itself. (In more recent times, what the trobbing bargain bin techno of psytrance has to with the psychedelic experience will always be a mystery to me.)

But if LSD didn't, contrary to popular expections, make everything beautiful overnight in any kind of lasting way, it crept slowly into the collective bloodstream, mutating twenieth century culture in a variety of subtle, incremental ways. LSD re-invigorated a notion of William James - that everyday consciousness was not the totality of reality, but rather a form of reductive valve that simply made that reality easier to navigate and survive in. For a variety of musicians, writers, artists, and future Silicone Valley visionaries, acid opened up a variety of other channels that the brain could be tuned to - a multiplicity of exotic frequencies that differed in every regard to the base-level signals of survival, status, and compeition that normally predominate in our civilisation. So this day, 71 years ago, can be envisioned as a mutation of the medium of consciousness, as something akin to the movies becoming talkies - or, more aptly, the monochrome of Kansas giving way to the technicolour of Oz.

Boing Boing celebrated the birthday with a wonderful audio visual piece by Larry Carlson, which can be seen here. Linked to that was another Carlson piece, which, in the interests of synchronisity, I feel compelled to post here. The Great One gets around:

Jackie Gleason Manipulating Space and Time from Larry Carlson on Vimeo.

1 comment:

IO1011 said...

Thanks for being relatively sane, it's getting rarer