Breaking Convention

Just back from an exciting weekend at the Breaking Convention conference, which covered all aspects of psychedelic drugs: scientific, therapeutic, anthropological, phenomenological, legal, historical and cultural. The flywheels of my brain were cranked to the max, leaving me sleepless with ideas.

My highlights included: Skype presentations from Ram Dass and Stan Grof; a showing of the film DMT: The Spirit Molecule; some ethnographic films of shamanism in Siberia; a panel on ayahuasca and ayahuasca religions in South America; and, of course, the chance to network with some extraordinary people, all experts in their field.

My own paper, 'Notes towards a minimal theory of psychedelic consciousness', seemed to go down well and generated helpful feedback - a great relief.

Mike Jay gave an excellent paper on the history of nitrous oxide and mescaline use in Britain. I was captivated by William Rowlandson's comparisons of McKenna and Borges, by Charlotte Walsh's legal arguments for cognitive liberty, and by Roland Griffiths' research into psilocybin and mysticism. Ras Binghi Congo-Nyah gave the most cogent explanation I've heard for why Rastafarianism honours the Emperor Haile Selassie, while Cameron Adams drew our attention to the way certain psychonauts describe their experiences through the language of healing.

What I found most exciting was the sense that the psychedelic movement is starting to reflect back on itself, to question its assumptions and to unsettle old certainties. In other words, it is coming of age. Of course there are tensions between the old-guard modernists and the newer, more critically informed, generation of post-modernist scholars, but the willingness of all sides to engage in dialogue is heartening.

Thinking or writing about psychedelics can feel a lonely business but to be in an environment where the subject can be talked about openly, without the usual titters, discomfort or embarrassed glances, is simply invigorating. Whatever the politicians and media would want to be the case, psychedelics haven't gone away. In fact, psychedelic use has become normalised. There is therefore a pressing need for the subject to be addressed openly by the academy. In that, the conference could not have been more timely. My only complaint: that I couldn't be in two places at once and consequently missed out on many enticing papers. Ho hum.

There were some nice artistic touches too: the posters were all beautifully designed, our name badges were printed on acid blotters (fake, I hasten to add), and we were all given flowers as we arrived on the Saturday morning. It gave the conference an almost festival feel.

Another highlight for me was an invitation to play pipes with ambient doom drone raag terrorists, Raagnagrok. I've played with them once before, at the Green Man festival a few years ago - one of my all time top gigs. As then, our Saturday night set was entirely improvised: electric sitar jamming over analogue synth drones and textures, with me adding pipe shenanigans over the top. No idea what the audience made of it, but it was liberating to play without the worry of falling off a tune or making unfortunate reed-squawk. Deeply psychedelic, and apparently our gig marked the fortieth anniversary of Soft Machine playing the same building. Nice.

I'm playing with them again on April 15th at London's ICA, so do come along. Folk it ain't. Here's a vid of what they do.

Then, after all that excitement, we retired to Matthew Watkins' gaff, a caravan just ten minutes walk away, where we sat round his wood burner drinking tea and chewing the fat. A perfect weekend.


  1. Sounds like a really interesting conference. I read McKenna's 'Food of the Gods' a few years ago, I don't know what the latest expert opinion on it would be (and I don't really know anything else about the subject) but I found it a fascinating and thought provoking read.

  2. It is a shame you couldn't attend to the philosophy of mind tract due to your obligations to the panel you were part of, as some of them already took your call for critical theory in the philosophy of psychedelics to heart. Especially Nese Senol's 'Psychedemia: The discursive Boundaries of the "psychedelic Rennaissance"', Alexander Beiner 'The Panoptic-Demiurgic Model: Incorporating the Mystical Experience into Modern Politics', and my own (Thomas Meijer) 'The Semantic Pharmacy and the Magic of Symbols'.

    Soon I'll write up a more extensive version of my talk on my blog. I also just downloaded your Mad Thoughts on Mushrooms and give it a critical reading!

  3. For those who are interested, I've put up a transcript of my talk at Breaking Convention on my blog.

  4. The conference was superb,my only complaint being the same as yours,I couldn't be in 2 places at once,we need more of this type of event going on in the UK,It was great to meet up with the other members of the tribe.
    Eventually this prohibition will end,as the "System" realises it is a pointless battle that they will never win,it struck me during Charlotte Walsh's lecture,that we should be following the money,who's being paid to keep things as they are,£320 billion is a lot of money,without that money being legitimised & included in the legitimate economy the whole system would come crashing down around our ears,so it begs the question who is being paid.
    We have known about the CIA's involvement for some time,but I'll bet it's a lot more pervasive than that

  5. Great to see you there Andy.
    Lets keep the momentum of UK psychedelic research flowing.
    Best Wishes

    Ben Sessa



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