Aspects of Alien Art II
In my usage, Xenolinguistics is the study of language and linguistic phenomena in the psychedelic sphere. Xenolinguistics gives a word to this effort to create a first assemblage of local knowledges, gathered from first person reports, as from the logbooks of early navigators, about these phenomena. The local knowledges I am interested in are those of the xenolinguists, where the focus, fascination, and subsequent interpretations circle around language—different capacities of language from what we call “natural” language. Xenolinguistics reveals forms of language and theories about language itself, and its functioning in the brain/mind, in culture, and in evolutionary processes, both genetic and cultural.
Krippner reports in 1970 on a variety of distortions of natural language use under the influence of psychedelics, with instances given of both increased and decreased functioning.1 Roland Fisher studied the effects of psilocybin on handwriting; his experiments had the participants copying passages of writing while under the influence; the writing becomes larger, rounder, more fluid.2 Henry Munn in his writings on curandera Maria Sabina speaks of heightened eloquence, and of the evolution of writing under the influence of psilocybin.
This vision of language as a universal ecstatic form of signification, of its source in the Other (“automatic” writing; the mythologies of language origin), and of eloquence that expresses itself visually in a bootstrapping move into new forms of language is a particular feature of the psilocybin trance. Munn describes this process as it is experienced in Mexican cultures:
One of the major themes of Terence McKenna’s lifework is the explication of the linguistic phenomena released in the tryptamine trance, and his speculations on the relationship of this phenomena to the cultural evolution of the human species. For McKenna, language is fundamental to reality and its construction.
The specific connection of new language and psilocybin is made:
Observing the varied effects of tryptamines on language, McKenna developed a theory that it was the encounter of early humans with the mushroom that potentiated the development of language. Plant knowledge would be one of our earliest forms of expertise as hunter-gatherers, discovering not only foods from every part of plants (roots, stems, leaves, berries, nuts) but also their medicinal and mind-altering properties. The merit of this speculation is more easily accessed from within the experience itself. From this perspective, the development of computer graphics and animation raise the possibility that new forms of language, particularly visual language, are emerging in our culture.
A Few Aspects of Alien Art
The perceptual events which I am calling alien art forms occur, by definition, under conditions of extended perception, a sliding scale of alterations from the commonly observed enhancement of music heard or produced under cannabis intoxication7 to the high-speed, multidimensional visual linguistic constructions morphing at warp-speed in the DMT flash, and the unfolding of epic historic tableau under ayahuasca.8 They are characterized by a sense of high information content in a high-speed “download.” Simon Powell describes this high information content as a function of moving to “higher” forms of language, especially symbolic language.
The “unspeakability” or “ineffability” of psychedelic experience appears to be not only an expression of the inadequacy of natural language to express certain experiences, but basic to the nature of the specific linguistic vehicle. Natural language is simply too slow a software to carry the complexity, the simultaneity of multiple meanings, and the speed and quantity of cognitive connections among ideas and images flooding into a psychedelic mindbody state. These perceptions of increased velocity–of thought and of sensory data–seem related to the experience of time dilation in the psychedelic sphere. Time dilation is a function of cognitive and sensory speed and the quantity of information per unit of time: hyperconnectivity, hyperconductivity, and processor speed. When novelty approaches infinity, realities fly apart. Hence: xenolinguistics.
This passage points to the experience where psychedelically potentiated language and communicating Other appear to merge into a living language. McKenna’s many descriptions of “self-transforming machine-elves” and my own perception in altered states of Glide as a living language that teaches about itself as well as many other things seem to belong to similar narratives of experience. This perception of living language in motion and constant transformation takes the self-reflexive activity of using language to describe itself to a meta-level of function, where the language gains the self-reflective quality of consciousness, in communicating about itself—and just about anything else in the universe one may be wondering about.
This alien art of hallucinatory presentation of information is often accompanied by a set of qualities that extend baseline perception. These qualities can include deeper, richer, more varied, more subtle, and in some cases new colors that make up the visual palette. The complexity and density of the informational field is in part accompanied by an increased amount of very fine cognitive detail and a concomitant shift in the amount of detail from the sensory systems. Attention, a primary function of consciousness, presents a panoply of aesthetic choices, shifting its qualities, in some cases toward an increased slipperiness (a hyper-conductivity), sliding frictionlessly from one point of focus to another. At other times, attention becomes the ability to focus in stillness, to hold an awareness not only of the object(s) of contemplation but of the awareness itself, a kind of ‘witness consciousness’ or mindfulness that allows direct perception of the goings-on in one’s mind. One becomes aware that attention can partake of qualities like touch—rough, focused, gentle, smooth, and/or erotic and applied with various admixtures of emotion.
Layering, Transparency, Iridescence
Another visual/cognitive quality that emerges is the layering of visual imagery. This can appear accompanied by subtle and shifting degrees of transparency and iridescence, of soft flows combined with extremely precise fine filamental structures and a sense of having X-ray vision and microscopic vision as controllable aspects of the visual field. Macroscopic visions of the structure of the cosmos at astronomical scales can also be presented to consciousness. Transparency becomes a metaphor for all manner of seeing-through, revealing in the combined sense of seductive veils and of revelation of a truth, a hide-and seek God game of gnosis—now you see Me now you don’t—of quest and question, a noetic dance in realms wholly outside our natural language’s labels and cognitive ordering schemes.
The high-information content aspect of alien art is not a matter merely of quantity of information but can be imbued with qualities such as fecundity, a sense of an abundance of creativity in the flood of images and ideas, and often a prevailing mood, of playfulness, or numinosity, or strange juxtapositions of mood, such as sacred silliness or a combined cathedral and carnivalesque architecture, each mood generating a seemingly endless fount of aesthetic styles.
Patchworking describes a complex collage-like cognitive-visual process by which different, sometimes drastically diverse, bits of vision-knowledge begin to collect and arrange themselves into larger patterns that incorporate, recombine, and transform the meanings of the individual pieces.
Quilt-making is such a process. The illustrated quilt brings together hundreds of diamond and triangular patches from discarded clothing, carefully re-cycled into a design that incorporates two and three-dimensional visual aspects. The design shifts depending on whether you view the material within the hexagons as flat six-pointed stars, or as baby blocks (Necker cubes). In the baby-blocks view, one can see two different perspectives. Each perspective in turn recombines the order of the available patches. The surface, playing with these illusions, shifts and moves dynamically among dimensions, as the different views pop in and out of the visual field. A kaleidoscope, containing a handful of irregular bits and pieces of colored glass and other materials, constructs a complex, shifting, symmetrical, non-repeating stained glass window of colored light. In my own session reports I describe patchworking as making “harmonious compositions out of impossibly disparate items without breaking the narrative dream but rather expanding its inclusiveness.”11 Patchworking in altered states assists in “layering realities,” and is “a practice to acclimate you to staying in multiple spaces that are incongruous, non-contiguous, seemingly dissonant.” McKenna describes this patchworking aspect in True Hallucinations, which is the detailed account of the “experiment at La Chorrera,” and the mutual inhabitation by Dennis and Terence McKenna of an interpenetrating altered state of consciousness that lasted several weeks brought on by the ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms.
Patchworking appears to be an aesthetic strategy whereby the Other, using the stored personal information, emotions, and memories of the individual, constructs new forms and configurations of knowledge about our existing reality, its past and future, and about other worlds and other realities with profoundly alien—different from baseline reality—content. This alien content: vast machineries, strange energies, different time-space schemata, whole worlds operating on different physical principles, or our own world viewed from a profoundly different consciousness, reveals other rules of organization of worlds, such as underlying structures of reality based on games. Patchworking ecstatically rejoins that which has been dismembered, fragmented, or never connected in the first place in meaningful patterns. As such it shares a functional pattern with the shamanic initiatory experience of dismemberment and rebirth in a new recombinatory body which can travel between worlds and hold consciousness of multiple worlds at once.
Glide and LiveGlide
My own work, the core of which was developed before the encounter with the McKennas’ work, has the shape of an adjacent mythology: a narrative of language origin in psychedelic experience. Glide is an experiment in modeling a visual language whose signs move and morph. It originated in a work of speculative fiction, The Maze Game, (Deep Listening Press, 2003) as an evolutionary form of writing from 4000 years in the future. Its myth of origin speaks of a transmission of the language to the Glides from the hallucinogenic pollen of giant blue water lilies which they tended. I followed the traditional Glide path for learning the language: study and practice both at baseline mind-body states and cognitively and sensorially enhanced psychedelic states. Part of the learning involved building electronic writing instruments. The colors and patterns applied to the transforming glyphs come from drawings, photos, and video by myself and others. LiveGlide is most at home in live performance in a domed environment, such as planetarium, but can be shown as recordings on a flat-screen format as well.
Interacting with the visual language, Glide—designing the software, then reading and writing with it, especially in altered states, as a noetic practice, has led to a constellation of ideas about the relationship between language, consciousness, and our perception and conception of reality. One cluster of ideas begins with the notion of the hallucination as alien art. It is in part a rhetorical notion, that aesthetics is part of the impact of these novel states of consciousness and their contents. The communication with the Other, the entire noetic enterprise, is baited with beauty as part of its persuasive force. This led to the observation and delineation of techniques deployed by the Other in the communicative process in altered states, often hallucinatory.
As to the shifting faces and perceived identity of the Other, many notions have been forwarded. SF writer Philip K. Dick called the Other V.A.L.I.S.—Vast Active Living Intelligent System. John Lilly called it E.C.C.O.—Earth Coincidence Control Center. Terence McKenna called them self-transforming machine elves, and has also experienced the alien Other as insect-like. I call them the Glides, and they are shape-shifters as well. But within these experiences, these definitions shift as explanations are sought. Are these others actually another aspect of the Self, buried in the unconscious? This may be more comforting than scenarios of actual alien contact, and is an assumption upon which arguments for mental disorder can be built, but has little explanatory power, other than to reveal the grab-bag nature of the way the term “unconscious” is used to contain any number of mysteries of human nature. An open mind and a sense of humor may be the best provisional approach to such questions. As the Sundance Kid repeats the plaintive question, “Who are those guys anyway?” and Walt Kelly offers through Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” we can contain the cosmic giggle bubbling up through such speculations at baseline. Yet in the experience itself, it can seem as Simon Powell puts it:
- Krippner, Stanley. “The Effects of Psychedelic Experience on Language Functioning,” in Aaronson and Osmond, eds., Psychedelics: the Uses and Implication of Hallucinogenic Drugs. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1970. [↩]
- R. Fischer, T. Kappeler, P. Wisecup, K. Thatcher, Dis. Nerv. Syst. 31,91 (1970). [↩]
- Munn, Henry. “The Mushrooms of Language,” in Hallucinogens and Shamanism, Michael J. Harner, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. [↩]
- Munn, Henry. “Writing in the Imagination of an Oral Poet.” [↩]
- Noffke, Will (1989): A conversation over saucers. ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation 11 (3, Winter, Angels, aliens, and archetypes: Part one), 23-30. [↩]
- McKenna, Terence. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. [↩]
- Tart, Charles T. On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books, 1971. [↩]
- McKenna, Archaic Revival, 1992. [↩]
- Powell, Simon. The Psilocybin Solution. From an early draft. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- AD_05.03.27. This is the filenaming convention I established for the research sessions. The AD stands for—playfully of course—Alien Downloads. [↩]
- McKenna, Terence. True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. [↩]