Advertisement is Psychedelic Art is Advertisement
Originally written for the MAPS Journal in 2012 and published at SolPurpose in 2014, this essay makes a point I’m not sure I agree with anymore…but is also timelier than ever. Perhaps it will provoke you in the right direction.
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“By creating a new interface between the self, the other, and the world beyond, media technologies become part of the self, the other, and the world beyond. They form the building blocks, and even in some sense the foundation, for what we now increasingly think of as ‘the social construction of reality.’”
– Erik Davis
At the base of matter, beneath the layers of thought, an ecosystem of probable realities is competing for your attention, cooperating through innumerable quantum acts of consensus to exist in an exalted form as “human.” The ego is a collection of impressions, perspectives, assertions; each of us is possessed by ideas that came to us in dreams, that nourished us through the long daydream of childhood, that we copied from the performed dreams of those who came before us. We were raised in the living dream of every prior good idea, and a few clever bad ones. And every social action is a kind of mission-work to further seed our own specific mind states in others as these patterns work in concert to create a concept, an ideal, a religion.
“Psychedelic” is a word ordinarily restricted to the ghetto of “drug culture,” but in a species archeologically defined by ubiquitous art and psychoactive plant use, the word deserves a much wider jurisdiction. It is the essential and characteristic human instinct to express what we see in “non-ordinary” states of perception — to report back to the tribe on our travels, and sometimes to encourage pioneers, or tourists. “Mind manifesting” behaviors are the medium and message of human existence. Our entire human environment, from sharp rocks to twitter, is thought-taking-form through our deliberate engineering of nature and culture as well as our reflexive parroting of other people’s habits and colloquialisms.
It is also and equally, symmetrically true that all human behaviors are an invitation to join in the sexual congress of ideas. Every act of communication is an act of seduction, an attempt (conscious or not) to get the walls down so we can share and spread some part of ourselves (conscious or not), to expand and perpetuate an enduring but dynamic pattern we sometimes mistake as selfhood. With the emergent science of biosemiotics, we study the meaning of “signals” in the natural world — and viewing humankind as continuous with and embedded in Life-as-a-Whole, there is no big difference between the flower that “sells” its pollen to captivated bees and the “visionary art” that invites us to pollinate other minds with its esoteric insights.
Just as every tool is an extension of its user, every sentence is a vesicle of mind on its way to infecting new hosts — and this is not a bad thing, as we have come to understand that our cells’ organelles were once “free-living,” “independent” parasites. Close living in association tends to blur boundaries, and now — several evolutionary transformations later — we have trouble telling our own ideas from someone else’s. That’s how much we’ve been seduced: over and over again, into ever-deeper symbiosis, the DNA of innumerable viruses and other microbes now living in our own. (Whose mind are we manifesting?)
In other words, everything we do is an advertisement. And everything we do is psychedelic art. Therefore: all advertisement is psychedelic art; all psychedelic art is advertisement.
Don’t believe me? Just consult your television for proof. Trippy flowers once reserved for concert posters and face-paint are now digitally arranged from petals made of hybrid cars. The pendulum swing from mass-produced suburban anonymity into Tim Leary™ brand self-discovery finally came to rest in the dubious “choices” between five-dollar lattes and personalized e-greeting cards evolved to cater to exacting Boomer egos. Once we came back from the 70s high on our new individuation, the 80s were waiting ready to sell ourselves back to us. Just as climate changes led to the flowering plants that catalyzed an evolutionary explosion of pollinating birds and insects, a torrential precipitation of psychedelic chemicals turned Suburbia’s cultural desert into a rainforest of “niche markets,” teeming with newly-evolved “affinity groups.”
And just like in a rainforest, it is not always easy to tell the difference between “nutritious” and “deadly”: poisonous butterflies, or the delicious species that mimic them; dappled light, or a jaguar? Seduction can lead to marriage, or STDs. “Click this link” can take you to your new favorite band, or crash your computer. “Confirm your information” can save you from, or hand you over to, identity theft.
(“Identity theft” is only possible in a world where the complex and multidimensional self has been substituted with quantifiable bits of information. If we can upload ourselves into computers, we may escape physical death, but stride right into the existential horror of getting “hacked.”)
As the new technologies of the mind proliferate through society, it is increasingly important that we learn to wield the double-edged sword of language’s magical power to conduct and instantiate the mind. We are social creatures, synchronized by the empathy hardwired into our mirror neurons. The Light: watching a rapturous orator, we swoon into their poetic mystery. The Dark: without a strong psychic immune system, the glowing halo around a McDonald’s hamburger on TV triggers our “spirituality” receptors, and we confuse fulfillment with factory farming. Genuine mass mystical experiences like the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima inspired holographic weapons capable of projecting a fake Second Coming into the skies. LSD birthed both MK Ultra and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Learning to decode the brain is shaping a radical new landscape where we can learn new skills by direct induction of “expert” neural pathways — while the same technology allows “neuromarketing” soda machines to beam us with the desire for sugary drinks. The Matrix both liberates instant knowledge (“I know kung fu!”) and enslaves unwitting people-as-products. When we visit Disneyland (or Burning Man), are we there to fulfill our inborn curiosity and the drive to embrace our lives, or have we “bought into” the consumerist rhetoric of escape? Whose ideas are we feeding?
(Poet William Irwin Thompson cites Fantasia as his first legitimate spiritual experience. I’ve seen plenty of addict-spectators at purportedly “conscious” and “participatory” events. The very nature of a psychedelic substance — be it acid or a good book — is that it exists in a mutual and co-evolutionary dynamic, a “food web.” What is toxic for one species is essential to another. Set and setting.)
It’s no surprise that some of us flee the forest for our forty days in the desert. Constant bombardment by ads creates a new layer of commerce, services that shut them out: ad-blocking software unimaginable to the 17th Century mind; a bloom of salons selling time in sensory deprivation tanks. A piece of software cleverly named “Freedom” allows you to lock yourself out of the internet entirely for up to eight hours at a time…and it’s a huge success, because only a thin layer of recently evolved brain separates the meditator’s perfect peace from the cocaine-addicted lab rat I feel like while checking Facebook status updates.
So I live here with you in the rainforest of the collective human mind. Every prophecy is an ad for someone’s favorite future, every history an ad for someone’s favorite past. Every commercial is a ritual for the incarnation of an idea already strong enough to possess a crowd. Every work of “fantastic realism” defines a hyperspace trying to edge into this one. Angels and demons watch us make love and try to slip between us, eager to be born. Our words, our art, our music, actualize these potentials in the flesh of a receptive and ringing audience. The spirits appear between us, as us.
“Tell me a story” means “sell me a world.” I just did both.
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PS – Three videos that challenge the art-artifice divide: