Andy Letcher at Horizons 2009
I looked forward to hearing Andy Letcher speak at Horizons. I hadn’t heard of his work or his book “Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom,” but the synopsis for his presentation sounded interesting:
For those who have encountered the sacred mushroom, the psilocybin experience is like an ancient codex whose glyphs are at once baffling and clear. To make sense of it, each must perform an act of translation or interpretation by which the strange is rendered familiar. But how should this be done? In the post-war period alone an original psychological framework has given way to mysticism, itself replaced in turn by the language of shamanism.
Here, I want to draw attention away from the mushroom experience itself – the usual province of trip-lit – to a consideration of the ways it has been interpreted throughout history. For, contrary to received wisdom, very few cultures have decoded the mushroom as we do. I shall ask a fundamental question: does the mushroom bring genuine transcendence, or are the experiences it occasions forever bound by culture?
(Horizons Conference Program, 2009)
Letcher began by situating himself in academia and describing how he arrived at religious studies. He had started with an interest in ecology and direct action and was then invited to pursue a PhD in religion. He explained that he was looking critically at the beliefs of the psychedelic community and we might not like his findings. He discussed hermeneutics and told the audience that they to, even if they didn’t know what it meant, were hermeneuticists.
He made it clear that his is a scholarly approach, and he won’t give a pass to any of the myth making that is going on in the psychedelic community. In fact, he wants to debunk those myths. He expressed his intent to “debunk” the UFO cults, the 2012 movement, the valorization of R. Gordon Wasson, and other mythologies constructed within the psychedelic community. He discussed the problem of ‘seeing’ mushrooms in ancient art when they aren’t there – and suggested that this can be debunked because they are not in fact mushrooms. Why? Because they don’t look like mushrooms.
I agreed with his main point that our interpretations of experience are based (to some degree) in culture, and that we are always engaging in a process of meaning making when we interpret, describe, recount and mythologize experience. But what wasn’t clear to me is why he seemed to be so hostile toward the mythologies that were being constructed within the psychedelic community. So I asked:
“I understand why you would like to see a more rigorous academic discourse on psychedelics, but aren’t the myths being constructed around Terence McKenna and the 2012 communities not something to be debunked, but something we should look at using that same academic rigor?”
He took this question (which I realize now I should have phrased more precisely) as an opportunity to discuss why he didn’t like the 2012 movement – an answer that boiled down to two things: because it’s millenarian, and that it doesn’t leave room for free will (this answer seemed to exclude the Daniel Pinchbeck brand of 2012ism/mayanism). If I’d had a chance for a follow up, I would have been more specific and a little more forceful in my critique, asking:
“Why would a scholar of religion be interested in debunking ANY myths? Isn’t myth the object of our study? Are you also, for example, interested in debunking the myth systems of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam or is your interest in debunking restricted to these specific new religious movements and myths developing around the psychedelic community?”