Set and Setting for Society’s 21st Century Trip
If you told anyone from the year 2000 where psychedelics would be in 2020, they would have laughed at you and told you to get out of the room.
In 2020, after decades of derision and persecution, psychedelics are well on the way to becoming mainstream. Psychedelic research is enjoying a renaissance, and the volume of published research on psychedelics increases exponentially, overhauling the golden days of the sixties. A growing number of public figures and celebrities openly confess their personal debt to psychedelics, and books on the topic land at the top of international best-seller lists. In 2020, Westerns in search of healing are flocking to the amazon to seek shamans, and medicine men are becoming celebrated figures in a burgeoning international entheogenic scene. Meanwhile, decriminalization and legalization initiatives are winning ballots across the globe, and drug-war type opposition to psychedelics is quickly evaporating as government agencies, drug companies and mental health professionals all join the growing furor, hailing psychedelics as paradigm-breaking, revolutionary tools for healthcare.
But there is a poignant contradiction to observe. As psychedelics become ever more popular and mainstream, the world is becoming increasingly destabilized, demoralized and desperate. Anti-democratic authoritarian leadership has taken root across many parts of the globe, and a severe climate crisis is approaching. All the while, humanity is seemingly unable to settle on any appropriate response. Old economic and political paradigms are going bankrupt with no alternative on the horizon, and on top of it all, a new pandemic is raging across the globe, wreaking havoc on societies and their ways of life.
Observing this psychedelic efflorescence accompanying a rapidly deteriorating world, one can’t help but be reminded of psychedelic chemist Sasha Shulgin’s theory about the roles of Eros and Thanatos in the history of psychedelics and humanity. History, Shulgin believed firmly, is defined by a delicate balance between Eros, the drive to life, and Thanatos, the drive to death. Whenever movement occurs in one direction, Shulgin argued, it will soon be compensated by a pull to the other side. Thus, for instance, the 1896 discovery of uranium was soon followed by the 1897 discovery of mescaline by Arthur Heffter, and the 1942 discoveries that led to nuclear weapons were quickly followed by the discovery of LSD in 1943.
Shulgin’s eschatological musings are not an outlier in the history of psychedelic thought. Similar notions about the prophetic role of psychedelics at times of crisis have been central to the writing of countless psychedelic authors, from Terence McKenna to Daniel Pinchbeck. In other words, the sudden rise of psychedelics at a historical moment in which humanity is facing its gravest dangers since many decades appears like the realization of one of the most deeply entrenched motifs of messianic psychedelic lore.
And yet, as psychedelics finally make their entry at the scene, the mood on the ground does not appear as celebratory as one might expect. And part of the reason, expectedly perhaps, has to do with the new challenges that emerge as psychedelics migrate from the fantastic land of Oz and become real-world objects with complex sociological, cultural, and political dimensions.
Psychedelics Society at a Crossroads
After decades of blessed obscurity at the caring hands of a select group of sworn, trusted idealists, psychedelics are now entering a wider arena and attracting interest from businesses. This in itself is expected, and arguably a positive development. However, it also signifies the intrusion of the norms of extractive capitalism into the world of psychedelia, and an attempt for the co-optation of psychedelia by big-pharma. In a grander sense, this also creates a puncture at the countercultural heart of psychedelia. For years, the world of psychedelics understood itself as centered around certain types of ideas and values of community, sharing and cooperation. All of these seem compromised once ruthless businessmen like Peter Theil begin intervening in the future of psychedelic medicine.
The response to these developments by (what in former, innocent times was referred to as) the psychedelic community has been enraged in parts, but also patchy and schismatic, evincing the presence of a fragmentation happening within the community.
With psychedelic mainstreaming came an abundance of psychedelic initiatives, organizations, groups and communities, so that what once seemed like one happy, cozy marriage of heterogenous groups with an interest in mind transforming substances is quickly finding that it is really a breeding ground for a spectacular variety of approaches and perspectives on the subject of psychedelics, from business type entrepreneurs to science nerds, medicine seekers, psychonauts, cultural cats and radical activists of many colors.
True, these groups often overlap and many of them meet together at the same conferences, but even that is changing. When it does happen, one is confronted with highly heterogeneous perspectives and world views.
This apparent plurality of psychedelic perspectives isn’t really new, nor is it surprising. This plurality is a corollary of the most fundamental and crucial concept in the psychedelic toolbox: set and setting. What this concept basically means is that context matters. Psychedelics are not a simple work tool that does the same thing whenever you put it to use. It matters how these drugs are used.
This, after all, is the first lesson in psychonautics 101. The context we create for a psychedelic experience matters. The kind of preparation we do, the kind of intention we set, the kind of environment we choose – all these are essential to whatever we hope to achieve from a psychedelic experience.
Crucially, what is true on the individual level tends to also be true at the level of entire societies and communities. For instance, it is sometimes said that the psychedelic 1960s were like a trip that the entirety of American society took. And, in fact, when one studies psychedelic culture and psychedelic experiences of the 1960s, it becomes evident that the 1960s psychedelic experience was distinctly shaped by the broader historical, social and cultural set and setting of that period, similar to the way in which a personal experience with psychedelics gets shaped by its more immediate factors.
In my book American Trip: Set, Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the 20th Century, I show how the psychedelic experience of mid-twentieth-century America was a product of its time; how historical and cultural forces worked to add distinct flavors to the psychedelic experiences of Americans at the time, shaping how these experiences were lived and understood. Among other things, I follow seven distinct scientific and cultural schools that existed in the mid-twentieth-century world of psychedelia. Each of these schools delivered its own interpretation of the meaning of psychedelics. Each created a microclimate of set and setting, and so produced extremely dissimilar results in its experiments with the drugs.
Psychotomimetic researchers, who worked under the assumption that LSD and other psychedelics basically produce psychosis and disrupt cognition, inadvertently created the kind of set and setting that ended up producing exactly the kinds of results they were expecting to see. And in a psychedelic turn of the Pygmalion effect, researchers interested in LSD as a tool for psychotherapy, for artistic creativity, or for spiritual enlightenment, each constructed the kinds of expectations, intentions and settings that ended up confirming their ideas about the stuff and reproducing their biases. When these researchers met at conventions, vehement discussions erupted, since each group reported completely different results. It was as if researchers were discussing completely different types of drugs. Psychedelic molecules, it turned out, were like chameleons, reflecting whatever is around them.
Similarly, when psychedelics broke out into the general culture, their effects ended up reflecting the cultural trends and preoccupations of 1960s American society. Their 1960s association with enhanced sexuality, non-conformist individualism, and liberal, universalist sentiments turns out in retrospect to be a result of their appearance in the context of a sexual revolution, a rebellious counterculture, and a strong anti-war movement.
One of the lessons that could be drawn from the story of mid-twentieth-century psychedelic history is that the psychedelic experience is not a given. It is always crucially shaped by the set and setting of the culture and the society in which it is embedded.
Building the Set and Setting For a 21st Century Psychedelic Renaissance
As psychedelics enter the scene in 2020, the broader cultural setting of this new trip is something we need to be acutely aware of. Older narratives of Western psychedelia had it playing the part of the countercultural rebel suffering at the hands of a pharmacological inquisition. But what happens when these repressive forces change their tune and psychedelics suddenly get invited into the cultural happening? What happens when psychedelics, far from forbidden, become a consumer product pampered from all sides like another magic pill in a grander cornucopia of consumer capitalism?
In Amused to Death cultural critic Neil Postman suggested a useful distinction between the type of 1984 Orwellian style dystopia based on repression and fear, and the hedonic, consumer-oriented dystopia of Huxley’s masterpiece Brave New World.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
Psychedelic society in 2020 suddenly finds itself closer to Huxlian models of consumerist dystopia than to those of Orwellian oppression. The transformative potential of psychedelics is increasingly obscured and dissolved by banality and commercialism of consumerist culture, and it is in this context that the lesson of collective set and setting becomes ever more crucial.
For decades, psychedelic society was busy defending itself from nefarious effects of the war on drugs. Now, it finds itself sobering up to a reality where market capitalism is intruding into the countercultural psychedelic bastion and digesting it from the inside.
When psychedelics get sucked into a market dynamic, this has the potential of fracturing a fragile ecosystem of trust-based relationships and ideals that was established over decades. When psychedelics become medicalized, corporatized and capitalized this creates a fundamental shift in the ways that individuals and societies approach these tools, and in the narratives and frameworks that decide the outcomes of these new encounters.
If the story of 1960s psychedelic cultures teaches us anything about today’s psychedelic dilemmas, it would be that, much in the spirit of Nietzsche’s concept of will to power, it matters who gets to interpret the psychedelic experience. Interpretation is powerful and resonates across the spectrum. The social and cultural constructs getting erected around the world of psychedelics are crucial to deciding the fate of these culture-wide encounters between societies and drugs.
Current investigations into the medical potential of psychedelics have bestowed a new air of respectability and legitimacy on psychedelic medicine. Nevertheless, they run the risk of affixing them to corporatized models of production and expert control, and of disempowering individuals from accessing them autonomously, under their own terms. This is important, because an over-emphasis on the medical model could subvert the infinitely creative plurality of promises these tools make.
We need to be aware of the potential dangers of medicalization. However, adopting a laissez-faire approach to psychedelics also presents us with a whole other set of confounding challenges. Does leaving psychedelics at the hands of the current consumer culture not risk voiding their more radically transformative social and cultural potentials at the hands of a voracious wellness and lifestyle industry keen to ingest and digest them in the same way it has done to so many alternative trends in the past? Psychedelics have long been spared the crushing cultural pressures of mainstream society – ironically, on account of the drug war driving them into the underground. Allowing them to unceremoniously enter into the blinding spotlights of mainstream society runs the risk of forfeiting so much of the weird, puzzling and alluring aspects that made them so meaningful in the past.
For decades, the psychedelic community has been focused on just achieving a degree of legitimacy and legality for its precious sacraments. Now that these earlier goals seem closer than ever, it is time to think closely on the set and the setting we want to have going into this new stage.
Are medicalized models of psychedelia productive or counterproductive? Should the return of psychedelics be mediated by medical, spiritual, or cultural frameworks? And how do these different frameworks complement or contradict each other? Does the intrusion of market interests into the world of psychedelia represent a welcome sign of the social and cultural ascendency of these drugs, or is it rather a worrying sign for capitalist takeover and co-optation of the psychedelic experience in the service of an exploitative system? As psychedelics become closer than ever to achieving cultural mainstreaming, what do we really hope to achieve by their integration into culture, and how do we set about achieving that?
I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but they need to be discussed closely and honestly by all those who care passionately about the fate of these powerful medicines in the 21st century. History is giving us a second chance at integrating psychedelics into society and culture, and the decisions we make now will determine the fate of psychedelics for years to come. It matters what kind of intention we’re setting as a culture. The frames and intentions we set as we go into this new period of psychedelic resurgence will determine the trajectory of the 21st psychedelic trip and the types of fruits it will produce.
We’ve already taken the trip. Now is the time to set our intention.
Image: Nicki Adams using adapted images from Thomas Angus, Archives Foundation, and Klaus Berdiin Jensen