Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan

from boingboing.net: There is no other 1960s intellectual figure whom Timothy Leary came to admire more than Marshall McLuhan. He considered McLuhan’s famous statement – “The medium is the message” — the most important cultural insight of the ‘60s, a decade saturated with insightful and lasting one-liners, some of the most famous coming from Leary’s own brain. Leary has even credited the world’s foremost media theorist with giving him the pep talk that resulted in his own famous mantra: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.”

In 1964, when LSD was fast becoming a national issue on a trajectory that eventually made it the most vilified drug of the decade, McLuhan’s treatise Understanding Media became (alongside The Tibetan Book of the Dead) the latest roadmap for Leary’s positioning on the subject that had increasingly preoccupied him since he and Richard Alpert had been forced out of Harvard, where they had been doing groundbreaking research on psilocybin, LSD and DMT during the early 1960s. McLuhan argued that all media are “extensions” of our human senses, bodies and minds, that “amplify and accelerate existing processes.” It was the medium itself, regardless of the content, that was the message.


He could have been speaking of LSD as much as a television screen.

In McLuhan’s estimation, the “only sure disaster would be a society not perceiving a technology’s effects on their world, especially the chasms and tensions between generations.” During the culture wars of the ‘60s, this became known as the “Generation Gap” and led to a suppression of youth protest culture by the ruling class. The new medium of television broadcast it to every living room, from civil right protestors being attacked by sheriffs’ dogs to hippies being busted for smoking pot to anti-war demonstrators being beaten by cops to the rows of body bags in the jungles of Vietnam.
During the spring of 1963, as they were being excommunicated from Harvard, Leary and Alpert’s parting shot was the publication, in the Harvard Review, of their manifesto, “The Politics of Consciousness Expansion,” in which they claimed:

“The effects of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed . . . . Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull . . . . Prepare your intellectual craft to flow with the current.”


It was around this time that Leary and McLuhan met, a pivotal meeting Leary wrote about in his autobiography Flashbacks. They had lunch at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan in the spring of 1966, following Tim’s appearance at the U.S. Senate Hearings on the psychedelic drug “crisis,” and shortly before he gave a talk on “The Molecular Revolution” at the first non-academic LSD conference in San Francisco. Leary commented that there was no need to turn on McLuhan to LSD since the professor got high on the yoga of his art form: talk. “He talks in circles, and spirals, and flower forms and mandala forms,” Leary said.

McLuhan urged Leary to promote LSD the way advertisers promoted a product: “The new and improved accelerated brain.” He advised him to “associate LSD with all that the brain can produce—beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance.” But above all, he should stress the religious aspect. “Find the god within.” He encouraged Leary to come up with a winning jingle or catch-phrase along the lines of: “Lysergic Acid hits the spot/Forty billion neurons, that’s a lot.”

McLuhan told Tim to “always smile” and radiate confidence, never appear angry. He predicted that while Leary would “lose some major battles on the way,” he would eventually win the war. “Drugs that accelerate the brain won’t be accepted until the population is geared to computers.”
Leary wrote: “The conversation with Marshall McLuhan got me thinking [that] the successful philosophers were also advertisers who could sell their new models to large numbers of others, thus converting thought to action, mind to matter.”

Inspired by McLuhan, Leary took LSD and devoted several days to creating a slogan. He claims he was in the shower when he came up with “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” By the end of the summer he was also telling readers of Playboy that “LSD is the greatest aphrodisiac ever discovered.”
Psychedelic and empathogenic plants and drugs are historically entwined with electronic and digital technology. The lysergamides, tryptamines, beta-carbolines, phenethylamines and cannabinoids — “tools of enlightenment and transcendental communication” in the words of Sasha Shulgin — are chemical compounds that act as alternative media.

The molecule is the message.

To read the full article, click here.