High Weirdness: Visionary Experience in the Seventies Counterculture
Doctor of Philosophy
This project interweaves two critical investigations into the history of religions in America, one theoretical and one historical. The theoretical investigation concerns the question of religious experience, and particularly how scholars of religion understand this category once we recognize that to label any experience “religious” already prejudices the phenomenon in question. Developing the work of Ann Taves, I call for a more fine-grained account of how forms of extraordinary experience come to be constructed as religious (or mystical, occult, etc.) through the creative assemblage of existing scripts and templates. However, using the ontological theories of Bruno Latour and Felix Guattari, this project argues that the constructionist account of religious experience does not necessarily negate the phenomenological and pragmatic dimensions of such experiences. In this sense, the project brings an ontologically rich understanding of constructionism into productive dialogue with the current of American religious experience initiated by William James. The scripts and templates associated with well-bounded religious traditions are relatively easy to identify. However, within the countercultural period, a wide variety of discourses—religious, psychological, occult, fictional, aesthetic, technological—compete and commingle as ways of shaping and understanding the myriad of intense, sublime, and profoundly weird experiences that, through psychedelics and the pursuit of a wide variety of “altered states of consciousness,” characterize so much countercultural life. Though most studies of the counterculture focus on the sixties proper, I am interested in tracking the construction of extraordinary experience into the seventies, when disappointed revolutionaries turned in droves towards gurus, self-help regimens, and proto-New Age spirituality. While analyzing some of the sociological dimensions of this influential cultural shift, the project principally investigates three symptomatic but singular intellectuals: the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, the underground author Robert Anton Wilson, and the future psychedelic raconteur Terence McKenna. Employing their own unique mix of esotericism, social science, irony and fiction, all three men wrestle with their own extreme bouts of “high weirdness” in ways that reflect critical mutations in American religious experience.
counterculture; psychedelics; religious experience; science fiction; neoshamanism