Tightly bound up with contemporary culture’s celebration of youthful novelty is a kind of collective amnesia. Nearly every facile liberation dreamed of in the hearts of the young is a false awakening, a recurrence of the same themes with similar characters playing out familiar roles. The copycat suicides sparked by The Sorrows of Young Werther, for instance, are seen echoed in mimetic suicidal longings associated with Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and recent teenage suicide clusters. The intemperance of the young is often painted with a romantically lurid rhetorical brush, giving it the appearance of a depth and originality that it actually lacks. Sometimes the brush can be laid down so heavily that these fads are mistaken for revolutions.
The LSD consciousness-expansion movement of the late sixties and the campus gender-identity fixation of today are two examples of these counterfeit revolutions. The two might initially appear very different, but they share similar intellectual assumptions and therefore make analogous mistakes. Most significantly, both take rationality and physical fact as limitations to freedom, impediments to be transcended, instead of appropriate cornerstones of political freedom itself. They’re too incoherent to be rationally communicated and too individualistic to resist anomie. And so, denuded of genuine revolutionary potential, these children’s crusades cycle through failures.
Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a seminal text of sixties campus mind expansion, considers the human body itself to be a limitation to human potential. He writes,
Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large.
The concept of total recall has a prestigious Romantic literary pedigree (read Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria), but Mind at Large is a relatively recent concept. According to this notion, the brain is a closed door. Mind-altering drugs pry open that door and allow us to experience . . . what? According to Huxley, “an ‘obscure knowledge’ that All is in all—that All is actually each.” Obscure indeed. The gnostic wisdom of Huxley’s expanded mind can’t be communicated using language. This is, as they say, a feature, not a bug. Huxley’s goal, and the goal of all the quasi-mystical seekers, was to abandon physicality and coherence in one fell swoop. Shorn of specificity, history, society, and scientific fact, the psychedelic experience of the bourgeois seeker collapses into an infinite regression of incommunicable and cryptic desires that have conveniently “transcended” the field on which they can be attacked, defended, or analyzed.
The defrocked Harvard professor Timothy Leary probably did more than anyone to popularize consciousness expansion on college campuses across America. He wrote in The Psychedelic Experience,
A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of spacetime dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key—it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.
Here we recognize the vague and ineffable transcendence, but drugs themselves are described as a “physical key” which don’t actually produce but merely enable the experience. Leary’s new realms of consciousness require a physical launchpad—a hit of acid—but are somehow supposed to transcend the mundane physicality of the drug itself. It’s not very convincing, because there is no mechanism with which to convince.
Gender Fluidity is Today’s "Mind Expansion"
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with gender politics today will find this very familiar. Of course, the parallels aren’t perfect. The consciousness-expansion movement of the sixties took on the language of Jungian depth psychology and donned beatnik fashions, while the campus gender politics of today are a kind of dogmatic postmodern anti-essentialism lovingly studded with therapy jargon. But there’s enough of what Wittgenstein called “family resemblance” to put them side by side.
Standing in the role of consciousness is gender itself, a term that has become so fluid as to mean everything and nothing all at once. To become “gender-fluid” is a kind of contemporary “mind expansion,” a subjective experience elevated to the achievement of a higher ontological state. What does it mean to experience the universe all at once? Is it similar to what it feels like to be “genderqueer”? Both seem to exist in an ineffable space beyond communication and, conveniently, critical analysis.
As Andrew T. Walker and Denny Burk recently wrote here at Public Discourse,
Indeed, this is the crux of the matter that plagues the transgender movement. It is based not on evidence, but on the ideology of expressive individualism—the idea
that one’s identity is self-determined, that one should live out that identity, and that everyone else must respect and affirm that identity, no matter what it is. Expressive individualism requires no moral argument or empirical justification for its claims, no matter how absurd or controverted they may be.
Correct. But it does require expression, the “physical key” that unlocks the infinite self. In the case of gender, it would be “presentation”—the expression of physical appearances that have typically belonged to one gender in very recent Western history. If experiencing all the knowledge of the universe at once requires a hit of acid, then experiencing womanhood requires a dress. But, of course, we must take people at their word that both experiences are more than the sum of their purchases.
Experiences of mind expansion, ego death, or internal fluctuations of gender have nothing to say of our obligations to coherence, much less our moral obligations to each other. They are examples of Foucault’s “personal insurrection,” which is premised on a fathomless and ambiguous critique of power (here we see the postmodern pedigree in full force) that does less to revolutionize social relations than to institutionalize social outcasts within the current power structure. By keeping its focus on “problematizing” the metaphysical foundations of reality, such a critique leaves vital political questions unanswered. In this reach beyond the material world, the au courant language of subjectivity has been, as much as anything else, a kind of evasion.
Ideal Consumers, Not Revolutionaries
This “bold reach beyond,” in both mind expansion and gender fluidity, finds an interesting common forefather in Max Stirner. Social and intellectual genealogies can be messy, but the nineteenth century German philosopher seems as obvious an ancestor as any. His work attempts to undermine both traditional religious piety and nascent radical communitarian politics by identifying the ego as the source of all meaning. Stirner writes in The Ego and His Own, “Truth cannot step forward as you do, cannot move, change, develop; truth awaits and recruits everything from you, and itself is only through you; for it exists only—in your head.” The subjective self is made the source of all reality, shedding all vestiges of anything resembling objectivity or fact—elements fundamental to any meaningful social change or ethical categories beyond self-satisfaction.
This lineage, traced from Stirner through Nietzsche and Foucault to modern-day emotivism, can be seen in full flower in the “otherkin” movement, which is the next logical step of identity solipsism. A VICE article describes otherkin as “people who identify as partially or entirely nonhuman. A dragon, a lion, a fox—you name it—there is probably someone out there who feels like they are more these things than they are human.” Of course, such persons can only assert that they “feel like a fox.” Such feelings can’t be verified or described. As Wittgenstein said, if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t be able to understand him. Neither can people who claim to be otherkin understand what a fox feels like. Nor can “voidkin,” who literally identify as void, understand what nothingness feels like or know if absence indeed has any consciousness at all. These emotivist reveries, the “cloudkin” who thinks he’s a cloud and the acid seeker who, ironically enough, also imagines herself as a cloud, engage in the furthest thing from political action. They’re abdicating the common objective world that binds us together, in favor of fantastical reveries.
Terry Eagleton writes that postmodernism’s “nervousness of such concepts as truth has alarmed the bishops and charmed the business executives, just as its compulsion to place words like ‘reality’ in scare quotes unsettles the pious Bürger in the bosom of his family but is music to his ears in the advertising agency.” To entertain the illusions of a completely malleable self makes one into an ideal consumer, not a revolutionary. Long faded are the echoes of the cry of the First International, “No rights without duties, no duties without rights.” They are traded instead for the petulant Situationist motto, “Workers of all countries, enjoy!”
Elliot Neaman, commenting on the failures of last century’s campus revolutionaries, writes:
There were actually at least two countercultures in 1968. The street mutineers dreamed of a political revolution, which was acted out as theater, using old scripts. In the second, politics became personal; emancipation came in the form of consumer choices. The first was collectivist and failed, the second was libertarian, individualistic, futuristic, and carried the day.
Esoteric and incommunicable experiences of the individual that have been elevated to a pseudo-political platform can be easily co-opted by an economy eager to sell disposable identities. The monetization of the gender movement is all around us. Think, for example, of the dating app Tinder’s thirty-seven gender options.
Marx notoriously said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. But how do we categorize the third, fourth, and fifth reiterations?
Thinking that you’re a cloud isn’t a bold revolutionary move. It’s dangerously delusional.
Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer who lives in Maine. His work has appeared in The American Conservative, the Paris Review, and Rolling Stone, among other places.