“I’ve enjoyed our dance. You were the perfect partner and I’m going to miss you, but spacetime is eternal, with everything in it. You and me are always here, always now… You and me are forever.” – Promethea, by Alan Moore
I’ve written a bit about ketamine in the past. I don’t think I’ve done it justice or paid it the appropriate amount of respect. Really, it was just plain out of line to question its ability to signify, and while it might have a muted color pallet, any fan of manga can tell you that you can pull off a fuck of a lot with a dark pencil on a white background.
I think I can locate this prejudice in a sort of knee-jerk anarcho-commie bearing. The Marxist maxim that somehow capitalist society would bring about its own end has taken too long.
It makes sense to be impatient. You want these things to happen in your lifetime. Why do we get a fucking apocalypse instead of a utopia? But these things take time I suppose. All the revolutions that succeeded sucked. All the ones that didn’t were too heroic to make a go of things. When cynical power junkies go up against ideological purists the former will inevitably be chopping off the fingers of the latter before the blindfold is tied on and a final cigarette is deposited in their mouth.
In this sense I feel like a bit of a Stephen Hawking. Dude was definitely smarter than me but I’ve got a ton of experience in mining the writings of my betters for tiny cracks in argumentation. You can be a very smart person and still be operating with assumptions that lead you to poorly conceived arguments. While sci-fi musings were certainly not the most significant contributions to the sum of human knowledge that Hawking had to offer, don’t underestimate the propensity of the popular press to ignore an entire corpus of work to focus on what you had to say about alien invasions or a Skynet style armageddon.
The gist of his comments on these two extremely relevant and immediately applicable phenomena were that if an alien civilization were to arrive on earth their level of technological superiority would mean a quick and effortless extermination of our species. He likened such an encounter to the impact of Columbus’ arrival on indigenous America (which is a fairly fucked up analogy to make in that it posits that the indigenous people of this continent were so lacking in intelligence and technology that they are the equivalent of hapless humans encountering a spacefaring civilization). My response would be that this isn’t ‘Spaniards in Space’. A civilization capable of intergalactic travel, if they had any interest in our failing little world at all, would not necessarily enact the nightmare of European imperialism upon us.
For one, what’s the fucking point? Were there such a species, what would they need from us? And why do we assume that they’d be as terrible as we are? Leaving aside the fact that their biology would almost certainly be different enough from our own that they would either have no need for our resource base, it would be a fair assumption that they could meet their own needs with ease. Unless they had some sort of monstrous evangelical religion I can’t see them acting as anything other than our saviors. Unless they saw us as too dangerous to live. Either way, bring it on extraterrestrials. Save us or kill us, you’d be doing many of us a favor.
His other bit of doomsaying was in regards to artificial intelligence. Again, for motives that are rather unclear, the AI would waste us without hesitation. First of all, even those of us with extremely abusive parents rarely kill them. Second, if we summoned such a thing into consciousness, wouldn’t we be more an object of interest than a threat worth eliminating? It’s not like we’d be competing with this ephemeral, integrated, constantly changing mind for water or vienna sausages. I would think such a being would be deserving of love. Whether our whole society gave birth to it or one individual, would we not think to care for it, protect it and teach it about our mistakes? I guess in a world where every technological innovation does nothing other than produce a new layer of pointlessness in human life it would make sense for us to distrust one of these silicon eruptions, but if nothing else I could see it really improving my streaming video recommendations. Go ahead and Matrix me. I don’t need a highly realistic simulacrum of reality, I just need another season of Big Mouth.
But yes… back to ketamine. While I have taken certain psychedelic drugs at very high dosages a significant number of times, there is none that I have as much experience with as ketamine. Give or take I have had breakthrough experiences approximately 50 times. All save one occurred under the supervision of a physician and was fully covered by insurance. As of 2000 AD ketamine has been a treatment for ‘hard to treat’ depression, and that is a designation that fully and completely describes about ten years of my life. I got sick at 30 and just kept getting sicker.
For the most part I didn’t feel that it was doing very much. All the weird physical shit that accompanies severe, hospitalization worthy depression didn’t get any better and I basically kept going with it because it was a) consciousness alteration and b) not unpleasant.
To begin to give credit where credit is due, ketamine doesn’t seem capable of inducing a ‘bad trip’ (and as an experienced psychonaut I can say with some degree of certainty that bad trips are extremely useful for personal growth- it’s just that normal consciousness is itself a drug experience that gets all kinds of shitty and I’d been stuck in a bummer for about a decade). It’s not that you don’t see things or think thoughts that are frightening while on ketamine, but rather that you have no emotional attachment to them whatsoever. If you see a dead rat with maggots crawling out of its eyes when you’ve smoked DMT you’re probably going to be fucked up over it for a month. Ketamine doesn’t give a shit about that kind of thing and it lets you know that you shouldn’t either. If you’re uninterested or displeased, you can just redirect your thoughts. Ketamine is zen.
While it is regarded as highly dissociative (and indeed it is) I don’t see this being any different from anything else in the psychedelic repertoire. You can very easily forget who you are on mushrooms, DMT and acid, but I don’t think that these are the same type of dissociative as ketamine, which has the laudable quality of being a generally unemotional experience.
This is a weird epistemological position to work from, but I generally think of psychedelics as agential forces with personalities of their own. They have interests- stuff they really like you to think about. They’re the original AI. They will tell your operating system to shut the fuck up about your stupid job and think about death instead (this is a thing that many of these drugs are pretty into).
At this point in time I seem to be getting WAY more out there when I take it. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been profound departures from ‘consensus reality’ (and I hate this term- I was never asked to consent to existence) in the past, but that I get more of a sense of what exactly it is that this drug wants to talk about.
While I consider myself to be an experienced user of psychedelics, I haven’t gotten around to shaking hands with many of them. I smoked Salvia divinorum once and if anything interesting happened I’m totally unaware of it. I essentially blacked out and slowly surfaced after several minutes. It’s come to my awareness that the traditional means of accessing Salvia’s profoundly mind altering effects is not to smoke but to quid. Fresh leaves are supposed to hang out in your cheek pocket and slowly enter your system. Apparently it considers combustion to be an affront.
I’ve also made efforts to smoke the venom of the Colorado River Toad. This presented a number of challenges. I had a lot more fun catching these softball sized toads out in the desert and milking their venom glands than I did smoking said venom. It vaporizes at a relatively high temperature and it is recommended that one smoke it from a crack pipe. Somewhat to my credit, I don’t have any experience with such a device. I’d burn my hands and drop the pipe or otherwise fuck it up so the only thing that resembled consciousness alteration that I experienced was a brief sensation of the ‘tryptamine space’ along with an elevation in my pulse and a distinct feeling of elevated blood pressure. Maybe this is a good thing. Apparently the 5-MEO-DMT and Bufotenine combo can result in either a healing visit to the new testament godhead or a harrowing journey into the mind of the god of Abraham.
Mescaline derived from cactus, which one can access through either Peyote, Peruvian Torch or San Pedro, is another that I’ve taken a swing at and whiffed on. I’ve grown quite a lot of San Pedro and enjoyed its vigor and its beauty but my efforts to prepare it as a visionary plant always failed to connect. I could have avoided all the effort and vomiting had I known that the cultivar sold at Home Depot contains next to no psychoactive compounds.
What I do have ample experience with is DMT and psilocybin and they are lively dancers on the substrate of the human brain. I have taken some extremely large doses of mushrooms. Five grams of Psilocybin cubensis (easily the most commonly available psychedelic mushroom) is considered to be an adequate dose to induce a visionary experience. I have taken five times that amount in one sitting and had profound and bizarre wisdom imparted to me while laying on the bathroom floor. I consider my relationship to the mushroom to be a committed and lifelong bond. It is infuriating to me that I can’t access these heights of psychedelic union because of the serotonergic drugs I take for endless periods of crippling depression.
Mushrooms have a few interests. They are extremely interested in human reproduction and death, as well as the proper execution of power. They also hate cops. Bad trips are rough, but they’re instructional as well. Mushrooms aren’t afraid to weigh in on the direction in which your life is headed.
These interests make sense for the organism that the psychoactive compounds are derived from. Mushroom reproduction is different than our own. Without going into the biology of the process (which I scarcely understand) there is an inherent and obvious spatial difference. Mushrooms use spore to spread their genes around. While they do indeed require sexual union for the creation of a new generation of fungi, much of this is left up to chance. They could have a great many descendants or none at all over the lifespan of the mycelium, and this is all up to the relatively chaotic distribution of appropriate substrates and mating types.
While there are some aspects of this that are analogous to how humans do things, the differences are obvious too. Mushrooms are sexy and are super interested in ways that we are also sexy. What’s more (and depending on what and whom you choose to believe), there are arguments to be made for the co-evolution of psychedelic fungus with human neuroanatomy. It’s been hypothesized (but in no way proven) that the use of psychoactive fungi was instrumental in language acquisition in early hominids. Whether this is the case or not, there are obvious benefits for both species in our relationship: We spread them around, whether it’s by carrying reproductive material on your clothing or through the numerous mail-order businesses that sell spores.
I think this in itself is an interesting thing to think about. The perennial question posed in regard to psilocybin bearing fungus is “Why would an organism produce a chemical that is uniquely well suited for altering human consciousness?” There’s no obvious ecological benefit to these organisms in getting other organisms high until you add people to the mix. If they wanted to somehow discourage bugs and animals from eating them (which is not something that mushrooms tend to do) then they’ve got some great poisons they could have developed on their evolutionary journey.
I like to think that they see us as the most useful means of getting to new places and thus set about providing us with a fascinating and healing chemical. I think that this position is supported by an entomopathogenic fungus called Massospora that infects cicadas. Like many fungi that prey upon insects, this one hijacks their brain, and they do it with psilocybin and an amphetamine. The sequelae of infection by this fungus is that part of their abdomen falls off and they become extra interested in fucking other cicadas (which is extraordinary, considering that this life-stage is strictly reproductive). They’ll even behave as females to get other males to rub up against them to facilitate infection.
As for their interest in death, this is a bit easier to parse out. Mushrooms and other fungi are masters of death. They have the privilege and responsibility of consuming the lignin and cellulose on the planet and transforming it back into its constituent elements. Watch a dying tree. Observe its slow decline. Notice the kindly infiltration of fungal organisms into its dead limbs. They will accompany it as it dies and the point at which it changes from being a tree to being a fungus is not clear. Over a course of years it will transition into soil and at no point along the way could you declare it dead. They like to remind us of the ultimate kindness of it all- this labor of holding ourselves together will reach its end and we will be relieved of our striving.
Their interest in the exercise of power is more mysterious. There are senses in which they are very war-like. I like to think that they are anarchists. They recognize that power is necessary for making change in the world, but the wrong conception of power can tie us in knots. They are Weberians… they know that for those of us fighting at the bottom of things the proper wielding of charisma is the means by which power can be ethically deployed.
DMT is a different thing. Granted, I have never taken this substance in its traditional form, that form being Ayahuasca. All of my experiences with it have been by smoking it. I have no clue as to how much I’ve taken. I didn’t have a suitable scale.
A DMT trip is fast. Take too much and you probably won’t remember the experience. There’s a lot of weird shit in there. It doesn’t seem to have a distinct personality. One day a dragon might show up. Next time it will be uncountable processions of elves. Or maybe it will be weird objects or schema for them. It’s quite mysterious and I think that might be the point.
DMT wants you to think about the nature of reality and it wants you to know that it is unknowable. It informs you that there are no divisions between imagination, spirit and matter and that you yourself exist all the way up and all the way down. It wants you to know how much it loves you until it thinks you need to be disciplined, at which point there is a deep and ontological terror that it visits upon you. A DMT trip that goes sideways can fuck you up for a very long time. It’s a beautiful trickster, and in that grand tradition it will let you walk right into the briar patch.
Considering it as a chemical that occurs in a great many living things, even you and your cat makes it even more puzzling. I know much less about plants than I do about fungi. It is not clear to me what a tree desires. If they’re tripping on DMT they are no doubt having a fascinating and weird experience over the long span of their lives.
Maybe it’s useful to consider it in its ethnobotanical context. The technology of Ayahuasca is widespread throughout the Amazon Basin. The plants involved are seen as intelligent beings who have been kind enough to bestow upon the humans living alongside it a knowledge of the spirit world. It is somehow linked to these societies that have, at great cost, remained themselves despite the homogenizing power of the modern state. Perhaps that’s what it wants.
As for ketamine, it’s a different being altogether. It’s got an impressive resume of medical uses. In a circumstance that is perhaps unfortunate but hopefully fortuitous, the first human trials of it were conducted upon prisoners. I hope that everyone had a good time.
It went on to facilitate the patching up of gaping wounds in a jungle that young Americans should definitely not have been in. As they lay in a rice paddy bleeding out, they were (likely) given an intramuscular injection of it. Depending on the dose they would have been blessed not only with an inability to register their agony but a sort of spiritual transubstantiation to a place of muted colors and mechanical humming. If they died I’m pretty sure that tripping on ketamine was a good way to go. It’s also widely used in veterinary medicine and I can only imagine what the horses think about when they’re fucked up on super acid.
For myself, my first experience with the drug was of snorting rails of it off my cousin’s coffee table. I got wasted. I understood exactly why it’s thought of as a rave drug. I felt as though I was holding energy in my hands and had a great time rolling it around. This transitioned to a complete loss of self in a limitless and timeless cathedral. It was a ‘fuck yeah’ kind of moment. I’ve come to suspect that there may have been something else in the drug, or perhaps I just took a way higher dose than is administered in a clinical setting.
After this I had several intravenously administered sessions. They were interesting. Muted colors. A loss of sense of self. But ultimately boring. No meaning, no transcendence, no meaningful impact on depressive symptomatology.
A year or so later and about as low as I get I was accepted as a patient at a psychiatric practice providing interventional treatments for depression. What this consists of is ketamine, transcranial magnetic stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy and vagal nerve stimulation. The first two things on this list are preferable to the last two.
Over the months to follow I have taken intranasal ketamine on at least a weekly basis. In the beginning I was unimpressed. I’m a fucking drug pig. It takes a lot to get me going. The thing about psychedelics as therapeutic agents is that you can’t just give a patient a threshold dose. Psychedelics are curative only when they’re transcendent. That’s how they make the leap from interesting chemicals to sacraments. And once my dose was dialed in I began to experience ketamine in this way. Over time I’ve been getting higher and this is where the fascinating personality of this drug begins to shine.
I generally experience ketamine in black and white. Occasionally I see very muted colors. It lacks the hard edges and distinct forms of psilocybin and there are none of the seemingly autonomous personalities of DMT. Ketamine shows you rays, particulate, sediment and it’s extremely mutable. If you encounter an image that displeases you while tripping on ketamine you can just focus on something else.
Ketamine is extremely interested in two facets of existence: Scale and time. Ideas of multidimensionality strike you while under its influence. I recall seeing an endless zoom out, spheres that atomize as I moved towards an ever distant center.
Ketamine raises a fascinating ontological question: Can anything not exist?
I’m no physicist. I am not able to keep abreast of which conceptions of existence have the most empirical weight behind them. I don’t even open my mail. But if I were to venture to answer the question I would say ‘no’. If there is anything infinite about this physical realm then there is nothing that cannot exist, and to extend my feeble intellect even further, every inevitable riff on materiality not only exists, but it exists an infinite number of times. Every weird thing, countless times, forever. I’d like to jump ship to one of these countless realities. One of them has to have a political system that guarantees access to housing.
Another thing that ketamine seems pretty interested in is time, and again it poses a question: What does time look like?
To continue my caveat from a few paragraphs back, this isn’t a question that I’m particularly qualified to answer. My understanding of time is mostly derived from watching interviews with Alan Moore. My from-the-hip answer is that it looks like me immobilized on a couch as day turns to night turns to day again until the flesh melts from my bones. But, trusting that Alan Moore is right (and he’s ALWAYS right), time may be a dimension of space, an immense all-at-once that biological organisms navigate through various mechanisms of sensorimotor gating. We manufacture the passage of time, but only as a useful illusion.
So if time is an aspect of space, what do the objects existing within it look like (and it’s very interesting to consider that there may be objects exterior to time)?
Well, we’d look beautiful. We’d look holy. We’d look like we were connected to everything because we are. Every profane moment would coexist and form a part of the sacred. It would look like a fungal rhizome as we danced through this fluid, exploding and bleeding and infecting one another all over the fucking place, our lives terminating in explosions that would connect us to the countless waveforms that are other people, ideas, animals, astrological phenomena and on and on. Where things end and begin would be unclear and rather unimportant.
In closing, thanks Ketamine. It took me a long time to really appreciate you for who you are instead of judging you for who you’re not. A warm welcome to my conception of the psychedelic pantheon. If there’s a god then you’re part of it.
Fellow humans: This is a drug from which you could derive benefit. Go ahead, put a little twist in your iridescent glassine waveform.