/ Lisa Rein and Michael Horowitz / 4 pm Tue, Jun 3 2014
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  • Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan, turned on and tuned in

    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    Michael Horowitz and Lisa Rein tell the fascinating tale of McLuhan and Leary's friendship, and present an unpublished letter from the Leary Archives.

    “Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries
    around in his skull”

    –Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, 1963

    “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 alternative 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.”

    –Marshall McLuhan, June 1974 (From a previously unpublished letter, full
    text below.)

    INTRODUCTION

    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.
    Learymc

    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.

    7-McLuhan-on-Leary782-with-outline

    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.”

    Best wishes,

    Marshall McLuhan

    To follow the thread of McLuhan's influence on Leary, visit the Timothy Leary Archives online and read: "McLuhan on Leary, Psychedelics and Electronic Technology"

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