‘On Dissociation: An Anesthetic Aesthetic’ by Ethan Gathy


Much has been made of the relation of certain writers and their affinities for drink or for various intoxications. Most often, besides liquor, one is likely to hear of a writer or philosopher partaking in opioids or in psychedelics. A vital strain, I aver however, that is missing in this discourse is that of the class of drugs known as “dissociatives”.

Dissociatives or “dissos” are a class of hallucinogen (the others being psychedelics and deliriants) characterized by antagonism of NMDA receptors. Drugs of this family include: ketamine, dextromethorphan, PCP, and nitrous. Their effects on humans include but are not limited to: a sense of confusion, lack of balance/proprioception, distortions of time and space, increased appreciation of music, closed eye visuals (including geometries as well as roving eye landscapes and immersive dramatic scenes). One has remarked that they feel like “it’s 72 degrees in your head all the time”. Dissos also are known to lack hangovers and instead supply afterglows and antidepressant properties. At higher doses they can induce “k-holes” or “holes” wherein one can lose one’s sense of place and have surreal ego death-like experiences.

The importance of these substances to the arts is perhaps not obvious immediately due to the dissociative family seeming relatively recent as far as drugs go, as well as seemingly never occurring naturally. This would make one think the disso is relegated to the niche, to being a weird class of “designer drugs”. We must remember, however, that LSD was a designer drug at one point.

The figure who looms largest over this legacy is undeniably John C Lilly, the scientist most famous for his development of the sensory deprivation tank and for his experiments on dolphin intelligence. After the illegalization of LSD, Lilly began experimenting with ketamine and later PCP. His work navigated everything from science to philosophy and spirituality and was often inspired by his entheogenic experiments. Tributes to Lilly can be found everywhere from the cult film, Altered States, to Serial Experiments Lain to Ecco the Dolphin.

Ecco the Dolphin was named after Lilly’s belief in the Earth Coincidence Control Office (or ECCO) which was a benevolent organization of computers that is behind all the coincidences people encounter on Earth. This entity was revealed to him during his experiments with dissociatives. According to Lilly, ECCO was opposed by Solid State Entity, an evil computer system of pure rationality seeking to destroy mankind. It reproduces itself endlessly via k-selection to create an artificial superintelligence. This all might seem mighty familiar to anyone who’s spent some time with the work of Nick “I Don’t Understand” Land.

Ecco the Dolphin is also responsible for its own contribution to aesthetics, albeit a minor one tangentially related. Throughout Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Friendster, etc one finds many examples of the so-called “vaporwave aesthetic” in memes, in wallpapers, in blog designs. A staple of these images is the figure of the dolphin either in direct reference to Lilly or secondhand through Ecco the Dolphin or thirdhand through one of the first “vaporwave” albums, Chuck Person’s Eccojams. It has also been remarked by colleagues of mine that the geometric CGI landscapes often found in these images are distinctly similar to the visuals experienced on DXM and ketamine.

HALL OF FAME: William James swore he understood Hegelism after doing nitrous. Rene Daumal reached a mystical revelation after huffing an obscure dissociative inhalant, carbon tetrachloride. David Foster Wallace was known to abuse Romilar during the writing of Infinite Jest. Gibby Haines of Butthole Surfers (of course) has a song called “Cough Syrup”. Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain enjoyed a good bottle of robitussin near as much as a needle of H. Kid Rock spoke frankly in an interview of his love of “tripping balls” on dextromethorphan. Hunter S Thompson mentions DXM in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and had much experience with the substance. Lester Bangs’ affinity for Nyquil was well-known and a foolish drug combination featuring it  unfortunately ended his life all too soon. Stephen King besides his coke problem also took vast amounts of dextromethorphan to inspire his writings. Alfred Jarry huffed ether all throughout his later life until his appearance became corpselike.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Kratom possesses some NMDA antagonism which could result in dissociative states in high doses. In his later years Nietzsche tells of taking a Indonesian plant-based opioid as medicine which gave him hallucinations of endless flowers appearing before his eyes when he would close them. This could be none other than that legal balm: kratom. Alcohol in high enough doses is also a proper dissociative, producing double-vision, hallucinations etc. Ergo all alcoholic writers are, in a sense, disso-heads. A curious coincidence also is that TS Eliot described the aesthetic of the Metaphysical Poets who owe him their reputation as being essentially a “dissociative aesthetic”. Remember also that TS “My Name is Toilets Backwards” Eliot is famous for his Lovesong which begins with the metaphor of the evening sky is compared to a patient etherized upon a table.

(A note of personal interest is that their effect on opioid receptors means that snails could theoretically take dissociatives since they are able to feel morphine and other opioids)

Deleuzo-Guattarian resonances are also hard to ignore with regard to the dissociative state. Often the subject-object distinction and background-foreground distinction are completely erased and deterritorialized. This deterritorialization is similar to the processes that result in schizophrenia according to theories by Laing and Bateson. The similarities extend even to a kind of Capgras Syndrome that has been reported with the use of ketamine. The connection between schizophrenia, Capgras Syndrome and ketamine is deftly illustrated in the 2013 film, Coherence.

In my research I happened upon a story from a case study on schizophrenia that does well to explicate these processes. A schizophrenic man was catatonic in bed in a mental institution and would talk, seemingly inexplicably, of a giant red rib cage. The psychologists and attendants were puzzled or dismissed the repeated utterances as meaningless gibberish. Then one researcher realized that the man had, from where he lay, a clear view out the window to the red-painted bridge across the way. Through a tangle of associations the man had fashioned a kind of private language when referring to the bridge and its similarity to a crimson rib cage.

The vast untapped potential of dissociation will hopefully be this era’s next mine for inspiration. As the psychedelic boom produced a wide paisley tapestry of art and culture and the use of opium earlier fuelled the Romantics and Symbolists, perhaps this widely ignored drug class could have its moment to shine in the darkroom of our collective conscious.

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