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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hegel on Acid part two

Hegel on Acid part two: Barefoot in the Head.

Barefoot in the Head is a novel by Brian Aldiss published in 1969 and set in a post-war Europe. The war was fought with psychedelic weapons which had blown the minds of the participants. As a result civilisation is slowly collapsing.

Albion Dreaming is a popular history of LSD in Britain by Andy Roberts published in 2008. In Albion Dreaming, Andy discusses the secret experiments with LSD in the 1950s which inspired Brian’s fiction. When soldiers were exposed to LSD, military discipline broke down. However, the unpredictability of acid meant it was never used as a weapon.

Although never used as a weapon, the fear that exposure of the civilian population to LSD might lead to a break down of respect for authority/ discipline and hence of civilisation remained. When it became apparent that LSD was working its way into pop(ular) culture in the early sixties, the drug was banned in 1966.

Unfortunately for the British state, after taking acid some people became convinced that the intense reality it revealed could ‘immanentize the eschaton’- that is bring about an end to original sin and overcome the alienation of humanity from the divine. Eric Voegelin connected this originally religious belief, held by the Gnostics; with the philosophy of Hegel and the politics of Marx- but also threw in Nazism. [See The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 5 -Modernity Without Restraint, 1952/ 2000, 234 and 240-1].

The latter-day acid gnostics were determined to manifest the Absolute and so began producing huge quantities of LSD, which was then distributed through free-festivals. The British State reacted to this threat to obedience its authority by instigating Operation Julie in 1976/7 in an attempt to de-immanentize the eschaton. The doors of perception may have been slammed shut, but the gnostic horse had already bolted.

Voegelin’s anti-gnosticism was constructed in the infancy (crica 1950) of acid so was not originally directed against the pyschedelic prophets. However, as popularised by USA conservative William Buckley, Voegelin’s work later was - thus becoming part of Robert Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus Trilogy.

That Voegelin’s theories could be applied to the acid inspired counterculture suggests that it had a pre-history. In such a context the acid visionaries become revolutionary mystics- or mystical revolutionaries. Such figures and the movements they inspire tend to emerge in times of crisis- for example during the English (and Scottish and Irish) civil war which unleashed a host of religious and political revolutionaries.

One of Andy Roberts’ themes in Albion Dreaming is the conscious parallels that were made between LSD and the (atom) Bomb. So just as the political crises of the 1640s led some participants to believe they were living through the ’end times’ of biblical prophecy, awareness of a potential nuclear war gave an apocalyptic edge to the acid visionaries gnosis. Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head neatly reversed this fear, so that the book’s survivors were living through a world suffused with psychedelic rather than nuclear fallout.

If a parallel can be drawn with the 1640s, then there was also a similar movement from revolution to reaction and the suppression of the Levellers and the Diggers- followed by the end of the Republic and the ultimate Restoration of Charles II…followed 28 years later by a further Revolution. But it still took nearly 300 years for the democratic ideals of the Levellers to be achieved.

Will it take that long to realise the creative visions of the acid inspired counterculture? Perhaps. The problem is that, as Hegel explained, ideas have to work themselves out- exhaust all their possibilities- before they can negate themselves.

One way of understanding what has happened and is happening is to interpret recent history as following on from the breakdown of the ‘post-war consensus’. In the UK, the need to fight WW2 as a ‘total war’ -involving the mobilisation of the civilian population- led to the post-war creation of the welfare state, the end of empire and the nationalisation of key industries. The counterculture emerged out of the first generation to grow up in the relative security of the post-war consensus. Their urge was to try to expand the boundaries of the possible, to be optimistic about the future.

Then in the seventies, the advances being made by the counterculture encounter its negation. This negation was neoliberalism, which used the rhetoric of ‘freedom from state control’ to start reversing the ‘socialism’ of the post-war consensus. Almost as soon as they had begun, the advances made by the counterculture were first checked and then slowly reversed. Over the past thirty years of the neoliberal counter-revolution/ reaction, even the preceding advances of the post-war consensus have been negated.

It is only now, as the neoliberal project begins to unravel, that the damage it has inflicted can no longer be denied. The problem is that the social and environmental damage which has been done over the past thirty years is so profound that the optimistic visions of the future embraced by the counterculture seem like delusions. They may have been possible then but they seem impossible now.

Possible. Impossible. Real. Unreal. Finity. Infinity. Understanding. Incomprehension. As with Voegelin and his gnostics, there is always the temptation to look for and find some bold explanatory principle which can make sense out of the otherwise inexplicable. After the immediacy of the experience/ text comes the memory. So with Albion Dreaming acid becomes the bold explanatory principle, inducing gnosis and creating a new wave of gnostics who mistake their visions for reality and thus set in motion a cycle of delusionary events which crash upon the rocks of the world as it really is.

Which is also (see Hegel on acid part one) Marx’s criticism of Hegel. Marx, with the benefit of Engel’s experience of industrial Manchester, could see that material forces - those of steam-powered industrial capitalism- rather than ideas, shaped and were shaping the world. Against the physicality, the solidity of a world hewn out of coal, cast in iron and dripping with the sweat and blood of human labour, the insubstantial poverty of Hegel’s philosophical speculations appeared obvious.

What was obvious then is less so now. The materiality of science has melted the solid world into emptiness and the physical has become the insubstantial play of strong and weak forces fluctuating in a vacuum. Even our conscious awareness of being selves in the world can be questioned. The ‘world’, the reality of space/time/energy has become an afterthought, a mental reconstruction generated by brain activity as a from of waking dream.

From this perspective, the confusions and contradictions of Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head are a realistic description of the world as it is before it has been processed and interpreted. The psychedelic experience which Aldiss’ text represents is the world as it is. The interplay of Hegel’s pure being and pure nothing.

The randomness of this chaotic reality resolves itself into meaning through memory, through history. The recalled pattern of events assume/become a structure which then builds upon itself, reflects upon itself. It is a necessarily circular and evolutionary process. For the world as universe to exist it must be observed but for the observer to come into being there must be a world as universe. Evolutionary theory is essential since it allows for random fluctuations to achieve relative permanence and become more complex.

Except that evolutionary changes are tested for survival within an already existing environment. So what is being proposed here is the evolution of a universe through hindsight. The only universe we can observe is one in which successive random fluctuations cohere into the conditions suitable for observers to exist.

But if our observations of the world are brain activity which creates a seemingly realistic representation of the world…it all gets very confusing. Is there a point where physicists descriptions of reality will collide with neurologists descriptions of brain activity? My vague expectation is there will be such a collision and that A better understanding of Hegel may emerge/ be required.

In the meantime, since most people don’t worry much about problems with reality and haven’t experienced acid, they/ we accept the world as it appears to be/ is. Which is fine unless, for example, we really are living through a crisis of capitalism and/or are approaching peak oil and/or there is global warming. Even then, they are structural problems which get ignored until/ unless we are directly affected by which time they have become a crisis of survival.

To bring this meander back to Albion Dreaming, one of the practical outcomes of the acid inspired counterculture was the belief ’we are what we eat’- which led onto vegetarianism and organic farming. Related to this were ideas about self-sufficiency and alternative/ radical technologies. The UK magazine Undercurrents which ran from 1974 to 1981 explored these possibilities.

If these possibilities had made the shift from minority to majority acceptance and implementation, the threat of global warming would have been diminished. But it didn’t happen and the unsustainable fossil fuel economy prevailed.

Could there have been a different outcome? It is difficult to see how. Forty years later on, such a profound change still seems a distant prospect. The science of climate change may be solid, but the economic, social and political will is lacking. The status quo has an overpowering inertia such that only once the consequences are so disruptive that the necessity for change becomes overwhelming will a shift happen. But by then it is likely to be too late.

So that even if the counterculture was Hegel on acid, Marx’s materialist critique still remained. Hegel had expected / hoped that the French revolution (the breakthrough of Reason into history) would be the last revolution. Now that history had achieved consciousness/ consciousness had realised itself through history, the bloody nightmare of unconscious historical struggle was over. Guided by an enlightened elite, an era of liberation through peaceful progress was about to begin.

Marx was less optimistic. The French and British (industrial) revolutions had advanced the ‘consciousness of history’, but the bourgeoisie who had emerged as victors were only partly enlightened. They were an elite only interested in progress so far as it liberated them from the feudal past. A further struggle for liberation would be required. This would only be achieved once the bourgeoisie’s revolution had exhausted itself and revealed its limits and contradictions.

Marx assumed that there would be something left for the workers of the world to inherit at the end of this process. That the proletariat would be able to take over a going concern, not a burnt out wasteland. Marx’s assumption was based on his belief that the limits to capitalism would be internal, not external.

From the current (early 21st century) perspective, it seems more likely that it will be external rather than internal limits which will bring capitalism to its end. Marx developed his theories when coal was the main energy source of industrial capitalism. Coal required a large workforce to extract it and miners (at least in the UK) were militant Marxists. The shift to oil came after Marx. Extracting oil does not require a large labour force and so the balance of power shifted from labour to capital. Oil is also a more concentrated energy source than coal.

The twentieth century shift from coal to oil as the power source for industrial capitalism may therefore explain why it is only now - as we approach or are at peak oil- that capitalism is running out of steam. It may also explain the apparent failure of Marx’s analysis. The shift to oil has taken us past the point where the internal contradictions of coal based capitalism would have become critical. Beyond the point where a rational steady state economy and society could have been established.

To conclude with a nice line of wild speculation- about the time that the UK was shifting from a steam powered (trains, homes and industry) to an oil powered (motorways, plastics and jet planes) economy the acid revolution was beginning. Without oil, this would also have been the moment of a Marxist revolution.

Marx plus acid would have created a Hegelian transformation of historical consciousness…and we would all have lived happily ever after in a world without history.


Anonymous History is Made at Night said...

Must admit I didn't realize that Barefoot in the Head was a sci-fi novel. For me it was just a great Ibiza chill out tune by A Man called Adam:


As a radical historian with an interest in politics, there's a paradox in the call for a world without history or a world without politics. Whilst poetically it appeals to me, every human society, even in 'full communism' or whatever you want to call it will still have to deal with the remains of the past (history) and the difficulties of making decisions amongst conflicting options (politics).

9:15 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I guess the song [listening to it now]came from the book- which reads like an sf version of Finnegan's Wake.

There is 'history' in Barefoot in the Head - the war fought with acid bombs- but it is slipping away into myth and the present is becoming an endless waking dream where what really happens and what is imagined to be happening blur together.

We are still in history, the nightmare from which [like James Joyce who coined the phrase] we are still trying to awaken. It is as difficult for us to imagine a world 'after history' as it is for a dreamer to imagine what it is like to be awake. Except that the nightmares we have dreamt will be still be there when we wake up.

2:05 pm  
Blogger Sean said...

Really pleased to come across your work on this website.
Fascinating article, and in line with other work that mines similar histories. The Wise Brothers have written a history of King Mob - those Notting Hell rebels who might have been on the more Puritan wing of the English Acid Revolution if it had been taken to its' logical conclusion...
You speak of 'the collapse' hinging on the more efficient aspects to profit extraction via oil and its' technologies. This is spoken of by Robert Kurz but he specifies what he calls 'the third micro electronic revolution' as the signal of the collapse in capitalist valorisation, an undermining of the system from within. He and some others (cf. Anselm Jappe) also speak of 'two' Marxs - the exoteric and the esoteric. The esoteric Marx is present whenever a less enthusiastic attitude towards industry and technology can be found, a Marx that fears the unleashed Prometheus brings with it a bigger, more efficient prison for humanity.

10:28 am  

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