Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan, turned on and tuned in
Michael Horowitz and Lisa Rein tell the fascinating tale of McLuhan and Leary's friendship, and present an unpublished letter from the Leary Archives.
There is no other 1960s intellectual figure whom Timothy Leary came to admire more than Marshall McLuhan. He considered McLuhan’s famous statement – “The medium is the message" -- the most important cultural insight of the ‘60s, a decade saturated with insightful and lasting one-liners, some of the most famous coming from Leary’s own brain. Leary has even credited the world’s foremost media theorist with giving him the pep talk that resulted in his own famous mantra: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.”
In 1964, when LSD was fast becoming a national issue on a trajectory that eventually made it the most vilified drug of the decade, McLuhan’s treatise Understanding Media became (alongside The Tibetan Book of the Dead) the latest roadmap for Leary’s positioning on the subject that had increasingly preoccupied him since he and Richard Alpert had been forced out of Harvard, where they had been doing groundbreaking research on psilocybin, LSD and DMT during the early 1960s.
McLuhan argued that all media are “extensions” of our human senses, bodies and minds, that “amplify and accelerate existing processes.” It was the medium itself, regardless of the content, that was the message.
He could have been speaking of LSD as much as a television screen.
In McLuhan’s estimation, the “only sure disaster would be a society not perceiving a technology’s effects on their world, especially the chasms and tensions between generations.” During the culture wars of the ‘60s, this became known as the “Generation Gap” and led to a suppression of youth protest culture by the ruling class. The new medium of television broadcast it to every living room, from civil right protestors being attacked by sheriffs’ dogs to hippies being busted for smoking pot to anti-war demonstrators being beaten by cops to the rows of body bags in the jungles of Vietnam.
During the spring of 1963, as they were being excommunicated from Harvard, Leary and Alpert’s parting shot was the publication, in the Harvard Review, of their manifesto, “The Politics of Consciousness Expansion,” in which they claimed:
“The effects of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed . . . . Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull . . . . Prepare your intellectual craft to flow with the current.”
It was around this time that Leary and McLuhan met, a pivotal meeting Leary wrote about in his autobiography Flashbacks. They had lunch at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan in the spring of 1966, following Tim’s appearance at the U.S. Senate Hearings on the psychedelic drug “crisis,” and shortly before he gave a talk on “The Molecular Revolution” at the first non-academic LSD conference in San Francisco. Leary commented that there was no need to turn on McLuhan to LSD since the professor got high on the yoga of his art form: talk. “He talks in circles, and spirals, and flower forms and mandala forms,” Leary said.
McLuhan urged Leary to promote LSD the way advertisers promoted a product: “The new and improved accelerated brain.” He advised him to “associate LSD with all that the brain can produce—beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance.” But above all, he should stress the religious aspect. “Find the god within.” He encouraged Leary to come up with a winning jingle or catch-phrase along the lines of: “Lysergic Acid hits the spot/Forty billion neurons, that’s a lot.”
McLuhan told Tim to “always smile” and radiate confidence, never appear angry. He predicted that while Leary would “lose some major battles on the way,” he would eventually win the war. “Drugs that accelerate the brain won’t be accepted until the population is geared to computers.”
Leary wrote: “The conversation with Marshall McLuhan got me thinking [that] the successful philosophers were also advertisers who could sell their new models to large numbers of others, thus converting thought to action, mind to matter.”
Inspired by McLuhan, Leary took LSD and devoted several days to creating a slogan. He claims he was in the shower when he came up with “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” By the end of the summer he was also telling readers of Playboy that “LSD is the greatest aphrodisiac ever discovered.”
Psychedelic and empathogenic plants and drugs are historically entwined with electronic and digital technology. The lysergamides, tryptamines, beta-carbolines, phenethylamines and cannabinoids -- “tools of enlightenment and transcendental communication” in the words of Sasha Shulgin -- are chemical compounds that act as alternative media.
The molecule is the message.
McLuhan’s Unpublished Letter In Support of Prisoner Leary
In the spring of 1974, Leary archivist Michael Horowitz was gathering texts from notable writers, scientists, and cultural figures in support of Leary, who since a year earlier had been incarcerated in the California State Prison at Folsom, facing what amounted to a life sentence, officially for cannabis possession and escape, unofficially for his psychedelic drug research and for broadcasting widely, as McLuhan had suggested, the benefits of LSD and marijuana. The plan, which was hatched with Leary during a prison visit, was to publish a festschrift (a collection of essays written in honor of a scholar by his peers) to bring attention to his achievements, his draconian treatment by the law enforcement arm of the U. S. government, and current plight. In the days before internet petitions, one hoped to kickstart a movement that would grow into protest rallies, bring media attention to the injustice of jailing a philosopher for publically expressing his thoughts, and eventually free Leary from prison.
Nixon’s downfall as a result of the Watergate scandal seemed to open a crack in the door, and the verdict that sent G. Gordon Liddy, Leary’s longtime nemesis, to prison for his role in masterminding the failed Watergate break-in was another positive sign. Nixon and Liddy had been among Leary’s most outspoken public enemies.
Tributes were solicited from the ”usual suspects,” including the Beat writers: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, and Ken Kesey, psychedelic luminaries like Alan Watts, Ralph Metzner, Laura Huxley, and Anais Nin, and most importantly, the American PEN Club, headed by Arthur Miller.
“Be sure to contact Marshall McLuhan,” Tim told Michael on a prison visit. “We’ve had some friendly interactions over the years. He’s also the most intelligent man on the planet. I’m sure he’ll give us something to use.”
McLuhan responded right away with the letter published here for the first time.
Dear Dr. Horowitz:
How about Tim as the Ulysses of the inner trip? Or the Homer of the electric age? Electric technology, by virtue of its immediate relation to our nervous system, is itself a sort of inner trip, with drugs playing the role of sub-plot or alternate mode. It may well appear a few years hence that the panic about psychedelic drugs relates less to the chemistry than to the hidden terrors which people feel in the presence of electric technology. It was the same with the onset of the radio age in the twenties which inspired a booze panic.
Acoustic men are inclined to be alcohol addictive . . . that is, all pre-literate societies, and also the post-literate, ourselves. It was in the TV Guide for September 15, 1973 that an article appeared, explaining the experimental discovery of the addictive character of TV as medium. Nothing to do with programs. Tim may be a martyr of this hidden addictive power of TV. Tony Schwartz in The Responsive Chord (Doubleday, Anchor book, 1973) points out that ”TV uses the eye as an ear.”
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