Culture is a Drug [Trenchant Edges]

Because esoteric definitions for common words are the most fun

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 9 seconds. Contains 1231 words

Welcome back to The Trenchant Edges, the newsletter about fringe culture and what we can take away from it. Yesterday I did a smart thing and wrote two emails. Which I hope to keep up a bit. That was I’ll have more of a cushion.

I’m your host, Stephen, and today we’re not talking about anyone else. So, fun.

A few years ago, during the height of my reading the [White, euroamerican] psychedelic canon, I set out to define psychedelic for myself. It’s a tricky task because psychedelics induce such a broad range of reactions in people.

I still think the best comes from Humphery Osmond in the couplet he coined the word in:

“To Fathom hell or soar angelic,

Just take a pinch of psychedelic”

They were trying to come up with an alternative to the word psychotomimetic, or psychosis mimicking. Where Huxley’s couplet of phanerothyme tries to paint a positive spin on the new substance and gives, uh, maybe irresponsible dosage suggestions, Osmond defines the bounds of the psychedelic experience: The worst thing you can imagine (actually worse than that) and the best thing you can imagine (actually better than that). Your imagination does not extend to the ends of imagination.

“To make this mundane world sublime,

Take half a gram of phanerothyme “

Basically, I mean that Osmond rules and Huxley drools. Anyway.

I think my own working definition comes in a modest second place: Conscious shifting of perspective of mind, like moving a camera around in space.

Where Osmond focuses on the boundary conditions at the ends of the imagination, should such a place exist, I wanted to spotlight the mechanism.

Moving one’s point of view around within mental space or between ideas allows one to see new connections and develop a fresh relationship with previously exhausted material. Give that tired old default mode network a reboot.

It also defines one of the great risks of psychedelic drug usage as inherently anti-psychedelic: If doing a psychedelic drug causes you to double down on your assumptions and worldview, you’re turning the power of the drug against it’s main use and leading yourself into delusions.

That can be used as an edge to work against your own toxic ideation. Which if you’re gonna be on the fringe a long time you better have an edge to work against. Otherwise, you’ll probably end up in a cult or a nazi.

Like many people who have dabbled in mind-altering techniques, I’ve had visions of absolute omnipotence and visions of crazed paranoia.

Beware the flowery trappings of the path, the Dao wisely warns us.

But wait, what does that have to do with culture?

All my work defining the mechanism of psychedelic was built towards a simple end: dissolving the boundary between drug-as-substance and drug-as-tool.

I absolutely hate the argument between non-drug users and drug users about which method is more “pure.”

It’s often wrongly claimed that psychedelics offer a shortcut to spiritual development, but this is a lie you can only believe if you’ve not been using them very long and uncritically listen to so-called gurus.

Psychedelics can open many new doors in the mind very quickly. Their increased access to otherwise repressed or obscured psychoemotional content is what makes them such good psychiatric medicine. But you still have to deal with the shit behind those doors and that’s not any easier than it would otherwise be.

Sure, you *can* open the door which is a huge hurdle, but you still need to look at yourself and the world more honestly and that forces you to change and grow and it’s always uncomfortable.

Culture, or more accurately, every piece of culture, acts as a mind-directing drug. These aren’t necessarily psychedelic but enable relatively rapid growth along mostly established lines.

One might argue that being culturally bound is a bad thing, and a younger me would be among the loudest in that group. But that’s a lie.

Significant neurodivergence can create a more complicated development path than those within a few standard deviations of neurotypical.

Many so-called “mentally handicapped” people can have satisfying, thriving lives if they get enough personal attention catering to their needs. My cousin Graham, who’s my age and mentally in 5th or 6th grade has a better employment and dating history than I do. He’s not always easy to talk to, but he’s consistently one of the sweetest and happiest people I know.

At the far extreme are feral children, which probably also should have some scare quotes, who are separated entirely from human communities and often have extreme difficulty reintegrating through what’s likely a mix of missed developmental milestones and complex trauma.

It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve really thought about feral children so I don’t want to say too much about them here, but it seems clear being excluded from human society isn’t anything like a cure-all for cultural programming.

Actually, bringing up feral children makes me think of the first time I found any kind of developmental model that accurately mapped to my experience. None of the usual childhood development models really seemed to fit me, thanks to a mix of being unusually self-directed and my boatload of trauma.

I don’t remember how I found Polish Psychologist Kameriez Dabrowski’s theory of Positive Disintegration. But it felt like being seen for the first time.

But I think that’s gonna have to be another post since we’re about at 800 words today.


Cultural products, including technology, bend and shape our experience in obvious and subtle ways. They direct us to develop along specific lines, which can be good but can also blind us to other paths with different dependencies.

Getting to skip the uncountable manhours that went into, say, developing agriculture or writing is an enormous and dangerous gift. It’s honestly not surprising we’ve made such a mess of it. Cue that Einstein quote about our technical skill far surpassing our wisdom of what to do with it.

Disclaimer: The more I read the next couple paragraphs, the less comfortable with them I am with this kind of binary. Please read this stuff as *very* tentative.

Broadly, it seems like we’ve got at least two overall styles here: High-abstraction “civilizations” and traditional tribal societies. The former can build to much greater scales, at the cost of vastly intensified violence. The latter seems to at least be neurologically what we’re hard-wired to expect.

I don’t want to fall into any of the tropes involved in this distinction, so I don’t think this is the best way to frame the discussion. Coming up with value neutral terms that don’t fetishize or glorify either side may even be impossible. This sense of there being a difference between nomads and sedentary farmers/city builders is among the oldest tropes on record, embodied in the 4000 year old epic of Gilgamesh in the conflict and friendship between King Gilgamesh and Wild Man Enkidu.

This is all complicated by my staggering lack of depth in understanding even the ethnographic record, anthropology, and so on. You can’t really trust civilization’s commentary on those living outside it, which includes my own mind.

So, tricky.

Anyway, I tend to think the fairly poor job we’ve done as a civilization managing, uh, everything, is a pretty good sign we should be looking for alternative development pathways.

The Rest of the Week

Tomorrow’s Moby Dick Day. Hell yeah. Thursday will be another McLuhan newsletter, and Friday I’ll finally share the results of my going through both editions of Terence' McKenna’s The Invisible Landscape.

See you then.