My dissertation, “Altered States: The American Psychedelic Aesthetic,” focuses on an understudied, but richly influential tradition in American literature and film from 1954 to 1969. My project traces the development of literary, cinematic, and visual representations of psychedelic drug experiences, considering how the psychedelic aesthetic spread virally across American culture and contributed to postmodernism and the social justice movements of the 1960s.
The representative texts I’ve chosen range from early exemplars of the psychedelic aesthetic, as in the case of Aldous Huxley’s early landmark text The Doors of Perception (1954), forgotten pioneers like Jane Dunlap’s Exploring Inner Space (1961), Constance Newland’s Myself and I (1962), and Storm de Hirsch’s Peyote Queen (1965), cult classics like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), to the psychedelic aesthetics’ popularization in commercial films like Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), and its continued underground survival as imagined by Tobe Hooper’s Eggshells (1969). In their thematic concern with ontological questions of consciousness, being and reality, these texts make visible the central tensions of an American culture in the throes of dramatic societal and technological change. Formally, psychedelic aesthetics helped develop American postmodern representational practices, and thematically, these psychedelic subjects inspired substantial philosophical inquiry into the nature of the subjectivity and reality. Postmodern in its mixture of modes, genres, and traditions and its critical foregrounding of themes of relativity, synchronicity, and subjectivity, the American psychedelic aesthetic drew from the phenomenological and existentialist traditions of Henri Bergson, William James, Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, and later influenced the critical discourse on perception, subjectivity and reality explored in the work of Gilles Deleuze, Pierre-Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, R. D. Laing and Marshall McLuhan.