What is Psychedelia?

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How would you define psychedelic? If I draw a representative image of a person or object, and then colour it in flat shaded colours (especially purples) which are not necessarily representative of the object, then there’s a good chance that someone will say it looks “psychedelic”.

It literally means “mind-manifesting”, as in the content’s of someone’s mind breaking out into the real world. That’s true of all art and writing though. The word “psychedelic” has connotations of altered states of consciousness, drugs, and the 60s and 70s, when a lot of ground-breaking drug experimentation and art took place. I suppose it’s an attempt to manifest the slippery world of the inner mind into a form we can share with other people, and which they’ll recognise.

With a little bit of research, I learned today that the word was coined by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond in correspondence with Aldous Huxley. They were looking for a word to describe the experiences under the newly discovered hallucinogen LSD. The term then spread out to describe psychedelic art like the lurid posters of Jan Sawka, and music like the underwater wibbly-wobbly sound of early Pink Floyd.

I’ve been describing Universe Gun as psychedelic all this time, and decided it was time to figure out what that means. The art style I’ve developed certainly owes something to guys like Sawka, which in turns owes a lot to solarisation, one of the few video effects available at the time of the original psychedelic art movement. I’m more interested in the story though, and how that could be called psychedelic.

From a very early age I’ve been drawn to surrealism and psychedelia. I was 8 or so when Tom Baker as Doctor Who entered a virtual reality where the Master was hunting him through a swamp in a beekeeper outfit. All the while the Doctor was lying on a Gallifreyan bed asleep with a high tech cloth over his face. The idea that he was in one place, and yet the other, and that reality could have multiple layers, blew my tender mind. It seemed so much cooler than just fighting killer monsters like Daleks or Zygons. Around the same time I was reading comics like Adam Warlock and Guardians of the Galaxy which involved ideas like astral travel, virtual realities, alternate futures and different selves. It was brilliant!

I’d get the same feeling when I discovered Salvador Dali, Patrick Woodroffe and Donald Roller Wilson in my teens, this awesome feeling that I was looking at “mind manifesting”. I’d get a similar feeling studying physics, and trying to conceptualise a universe that didn’t quite share my human perspective of time, space or matter. But why does this feel so good?

I have two theories.

We all spend much of our lives in an altered state of consciousness, even the most straight-edged and pragmatic of us, in that we dream every night. The brain needs to shut down and sluice out some toxins and de-frag, and puts us into a hallucinogenic state where we experience stories and events with a weird logic and style all of their own. If we’re lucky, we spend roughly 1/3 of our lives like this, punctuating our pragmatic spells in the dry material world in this liquid place. Surrealist and psychedelic art is somewhat familiar then. When we look at it we think we’ve been there. We remember doing that before, hang on..? It’s on the tip of my tongue. Just like a dream often will be when we wake up. I believe that our brains have evolved to operate in different modes. There’s the practical narrowed down state that we need to get the job done, to hunt, to survive, to plan for winter. And there’s a more disjointed mode of thought that we experience when we’re flushing out old data and other maintenance tasks. We have inbetween states, like daydreams, or the clear-headed wonder we feel when looking at a night sky, or trying to conceptualise something big in a story or a scientific theory. Living a life in one state of consciousness would be as satisfying as assuming one physical position like standing or sitting. To live fully you have to experience them all, because that’s what we’ve evolved to do.

My second theory is that surrealism and psychedelia is nostalgic. Specifically it’s nostalgic for childhood, when the most commonplace things didn’t make sense, and the world was full of strangeness. Several artists have employed false languages and text to this effect. Australian comic creator Tim Molloy regularly uses a made up alphabet. The Codex Seraphinius is specifically designed to replicate that feeling of looking at a book when you’re a kid. I had the pleasure of seeing a physical copy at my recent birthday party, which was a totally unexpected pleasure. I’ve experienced this nostalgia in miniature with computer games, remembering fondly my first steps stumbling around Diablo II before I read all the websites and played multiple characters and mastered the game. So it is in real life – those first few years when we’re trying to make sense of the basics are quite special. Our art often tries to recreate those feelings.

This brings me to slippage. If I was telling you this in person, I’d put my palms together and push, and try to slide one along the other. It wouldn’t give at first but then it would jerk and move. Like tectonic plates in an earthquake. Like your internal model of reality does when it is sufficiently challenged. I love that feeling. This can be brought about by a twist in a story, where someone you assumed was the new kid on the block is actually the wise old master, albeit amnesiac. When you discover that the villain’s plan has already been executed 35 minutes ago, and you thought he was just another ineffectual hero. Slippage is also important in humour. Most jokes rely on this sudden shift of perspective, whether its a worldplay on the two meanings of “smell” as a verb, or the snap realisation that there is no deeper meaning to the teller’s tale of a chicken perambulating across a highway. There’s a whole school of psychedelia associated strongly with silliness, from early Floyd’s songnames to the wacky antics of the Beatles in “I Am the Walrus” and “Yellow Submarine”. (This silliness is characteristic of the British end of psychedelia as opposed to say Jim Morrison’s far more serious images of lizards and fire and raw sexuality.) Psychedelia often has links with childishness too. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones literally lived (and died) in the House at Pooh Corner, where A.A. Milne wrote his books. Alice in Wonderland is a routine part of any tripper’s repertoire, partly for its sheer strangeness, but also I think due to its childishness.

So will Universe Gun be a psychedelic superhero sci-fi strip as advertised?

Despite the titular premise of a gun that shoots people between universes, it will actually be quite buttoned down. The reality of the 37th C solar system, while full of nanotechnology and orgone and tesseracts, will be quite concrete. It won’t turn out to be a dream, or a hallucination or hologram presented by a deeper layer of reality, or anything like that. I’m a physicist, so I’ll try to hit you with some technical-sounding slippage-inducing ideas here and there. I will be indulging myself in exploring questions of identity, and what it would be like to be an altered human. What if there were two or more of you sharing a mind? What would the upload of your mind into a different computational substrate be like? What would it be like to experience super-intelligence, and how do I communicate that to you in a 2D image while we’re both still just human? And along the way I’ll try to make it as strange and dizzying as I can. I’ll probably indulge my silly side a little bit too, because I am British by birth.

Beyond all that it will be hopeful, which is the other side of psychedelia (at least bright psychedelia). I’m aiming for a sense of wonder here rather than horror. The 60’s and 70’s, when the psychedelic movement was in full swing, were a period of optimism, and filled with this woolly feeling that everything would work out in the end.

Maybe the best way to put it is that I want to make something Amazing.

See you in seven, strictly scientific psychonauts!

Dr Mike 2000 March 28 2014

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