Sheila Finch, Founding Mother of Xenolinguistics.
Science fiction writer Sheila Finch is credited with the first use of the term xenolinguistics in sci-fi in the 70’s. The “lingsters” in her Guild of Xenolinguists, are the human translators, trained both by dolphins and humans, to communicate with newly contacted sentient races.
The lingsters use a kit of psychedelic substances and an AI splice to create the interface necessary to understand the alien’s thought and linguistic strategies from the inside.
A Guild of Xenolinguists is a perfect metaphor for the group of adventurers experiencing and experimenting with linguistic phenomena in altered states of consciousness.
detail of Silence, Odilon Redon, 1911.
I begin with the unspeakable, because the possibility of its communication is the task of this research, and because the unspeakable has many dimensions.
We are a medicine community, a community of practice. A survey of a variety of psychonautic practices, both social and solo, displays a wide range of protocols, from Lilly’s tank, to McKenna’s five grams dried psilocybin in silent darkness, from desert vision quests, to the cheerful sailor costumes of Barquina ceremonies. Psychonautics, now dignified by a decent Wikipedia article
, represents a large set of practices. How we get to the altered state, what we do while we’re there, and how the experience is integrated into the default world we return to are practical questions every psychonaut and medicine circle deals with.
Psychedelic plants, animals, and fungi, and their synthetic analogues are ancient methods of knowledge acquisition, newly deployed. One might think of them as the original search engines. These substances bring us into contact with the Other. We clothe the naked, numinous presence of the Other in our cultural symbols. We contain, in form, the luminosity of the encounter, whether we call the Other God, the voice of the Logos, V.A.L.I.S. (Phillip K. Dick’s Vast Active Living Intelligent System), E.C.C.O. (John Lilly’s Earth Coincidence Control Office), an ancestor or a spirit guide, or the Mothership herself, all are masks, archetypes, names for the Unspeakable and unexplainable presence sensed. Whatever the mask, the Other speaks with authority. This is dialogue, even if you are too tongue-tied with amazement to say much. And knowledge happens, whether characterized as divine revelation, technology transfer, a scientific idea, artistic vision, or “Niagaras of beauty.”
To argue about what reality is or isn’t, when reality is the standard by which we decide what is and what isn’t, is a slippery proposition, as circular and self-referential as consciousness attempting to study itself. And who is the Authority on what is real? Is it a fundamental right of a conscious being to say—this is what is real for me, at this moment in time, subject to future revision? I expose my position as a cognitive libertarian by posing these questions.
The final determination of what is real and what is myth for the individual psychonaut is a matter of personal experience, epistemological preference, and relative commitment to the proprieties of consensus reality.
Perception, reflection, and projection are intertwined faculties of consciousness that are implicated in reality-formation. Extensions of perception are described as features of the psychedelic landscape.
The dimensions of dimension, and especially the search for the ability to visualize the 4th dimension, were topics of keen interest in a short period from the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s when scientists, theosophists, avante garde artists, mathematicians and spiritualists of all stripes cross-fertilized a radical new set of ideas about the 4th dimension. Psychedelics have broken through this seeming limitation of visualization of dimensions; a multidimensional viewpoint beyond our customary three is almost a commonplace. Fractal visuals, and a perception of the fractal construction of the universe are frequent psychedelic experiences. The idea of language and consciousness progressing by dimensional leaps, is a central idea in Terence Mckenna’s world of novel notions.
Xenolinguistics takes the viewpoint that language is a much broader concept than natural language, the mouth noises and symbolic systems of homo sapiens that have propelled culture into being across the planet. Natural language undergoes distortions under the influence of psychedelics, but there is little conformity as to effect. Psychedelics can promote eloquence—or blithering—or silence. Glossolalic productions of language-like sounds out of altered states range in the degree of consciousness and control experienced by the person speaking in tongues.
Visionary Origin of Language, by Alex Grey
Encounters with the Other are sometimes involved with bringing of language to humans, and are preserved in the narratives of mythology and religion world-wide: God’s injunction to Adam in the Garden of Eden to name the inhabitants; the Babel text of the multiplication and scattering of tongues; Odin’s nine nights hanging upside down in the world tree, Yggdrasil, to return with the runes.
The symbolic systems discovered in altered states can be understood as means of communication with the Other, and as a navigational tool in alternate realities.
The punch line of Terence McKenna’s “shaggy primate story” comes in putting together the fact of the radically novel forms of language phenomena catalyzed by psilocybin in the experience of contemporary psychonauts with the supposition that something similar happened in a wetter savannah ecosystem as we moved down from the trees, and sampled the mushroom, along with all other potential edibles available.
If we are now propelled into new forms of language, why not then?
The experience of connectedness suffuses much psychedelic experience. We reconnect with ourselves, with others, through all our senses, and a few new ones. We experience the dense interconnections by which all of nature interacts, flows, evolves into greater forms of complexity, involving great levels of connectedness. At high doses, connectedness becomes the unitive, non-dual perception of reality as One. In these perceptions, shared among many psychonauts, lies the psychedelic optimism—that our current estrangement from ourselves, from each other, from the Other, and from the Gaian entity that brought us forth, and on whom we wholly depend—can be transformed.
Terence McKenna states, “We need to create a meta-linguistic, meta-mathematical, meta-metaphorical language.” Throughout the psychedelic literature, one finds a call for a form of language adequate to the task of communicating the psychedelic experience. It’s more than a matter of trippy images, McKenna says, new language involves a radical shifting from the verbal “small mouth noises” referring to a common lexicon, to a visual, presentational mode which McKenna, referencing Philo Judaeus, sees as “a more perfect Logos.”
Divination is a system of understanding, as is science, but the methods by which knowledge is sought and the levels of reality probed vary profoundly. Both methods share a utilitarian measure of success: the ability to forecast the future and use the knowledge in the service of human goals. While science abjures the spirit, and any worlds that spirits may frequent, an oracle opens a gate between worlds so that dialogue can occur. And divination is an integral part of the shaman’s repertoire: knowledge of things unseen.
Biologist and Tibetan Buddhist, Francisco Varela, saw language in a broad sense as characteristic of living forms, their nested, transcalar component systems, and their structural organization “all the way down.” His view complements Terence McKenna’s views of the linguistic structure of reality, and Simon Powell’s living, intelligent, linguistic reality process, “the fantastic hypothesis.”