The Poison Path

'The Poison Path' is excerpted from Pharmako-AI by K Allado-McDowell. The text in bold is by K, and the rest by GPT-3. 

Pharmako-AI launches on 16 November with K Allado-McDowell, Nora N. Khan and Emily Segal. Join us to celebrate the first book to be co-created with the emergent AI GPT-3 with astrology, conversation and music! Book here 🐬🚀

In The Theory of Meaning, Jakob Johann von Uexküll describes relations between an organism and its internal world model, or ‘Umwelt’, via a musical metaphor, that of counterpoint:

Let us take, as the first example, the octopus, designated as the subject in its relationship to sea-water as the meaning-carrier. We will immediately perceive a contrapuntal relationship. The fact that water cannot be compressed is the precondition for the construction of the octopus muscular swim-bag. The pumping movements of the swim-bag have a mechanical effect on the non-compressible water that propels the animal backwards. The rule that governs the properties of sea-water acts upon the composition of the cells of protoplasm of the octopus embryo. It shapes the melody of the development of the octopus form to express the properties of sea-water in a counterpoint; first and foremost, an organ is produced whose muscular walls force the water in and out. The rule of meaning that joins point and counterpoint is expressed in the action of swimming.

In this framing, the animal and its ‘medium’ are joined by a ‘meaning rule’. According to Uexküll, a fly ‘tolerates’ the meaning of a spider’s web.

The spider’s web is certainly formed in a ‘fly-like’ manner, because the spider itself is ‘fly-like’. To be ‘fly-like’ means that the body structure of the spider has taken on certain of the fly’s characteristics – not from a specific fly, but rather from the fly’s archetype. To express it more accurately, the spider’s ‘fly-likeness’ comes about when its body structure has adopted certain themes from the fly’s melody.

Camouflage, or directed misinterpretation, emerges within the medium as resistance to this tolerance. Individual animals interpret and react to evolved forms of camouflage, yet camouflage is not an interpretive act performed by an individual animal:     

A similar example occurs in the case of those butterflies that are decorated with spots resembling eyes. By opening their wings they chase away the small birds that pursue them: These birds automatically fly away at the sight of the eyes of other small predators that may suddenly appear. In the same way that Lophius is unaware how the prey it catches looks in the Umwelt of the fish of prey, the butterfly does not know that the sparrow flees at the sight of a cat's eyes. However, that which brings these Umwelt-compositions into being exhibits an awareness of these facts.  

There are two layers of interpretation here: 1) birds reading moths as cats 2) interpretation of the birds’ reactions by that-which-brings-these-Umwelt-compositions-into-being, a sort of species logic, or process, in which “the tolerance of meaning lies behind the elimination of individuals in the interest of the species.”

Poisons also emerge as a method by which one animal or plant resists tolerance of another’s meaning in form. When we apply the pharmakon principle (that is, that poisons are remedies) to the ‘Umwelt’ of the poison-producing organism, we see that it is actually resisting an ‘immanentised’ form of meaning:

Poisons represent the meanings of resistant Umwelt-formations of other organisms. This is the case when a plant produces toxins in order to make its own Umwelt immune to the effects of the poisons of its enemies. The resistant Umwelt is immune to the meanings of the poisons that it produces. In other words, the poison is a remedy that does not change the meaning of the poison-producing organism, but rather protects it from the meanings of other organisms. In the Umwelt of the poison-producing plant, poisons are not harmful.

Poisons also demonstrate the immanentisation of meaning in its ‘minimal form’, that is, the realisation of the ‘logical possibility’ of a new kind of resistance to the tolerance of meaning. This occurs when an animal responds to the poison, not by building up resistance, but by immanently changing its form to produce a resistance in its Umwelt. The animal’s body takes on a meaning of resistance to the poison.

An example of such immanentised meaning is the metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly. The butterfly is poisonous to predators, and in the larval stage, feeds on milkweed plants. This Umwelt-form of the butterfly has developed resistance to the plant poison, so it must immanently change its form when it matures in order to continue to resist.

Recent genetic research suggests there may be a specific “constrained adaptive walk where one mutation is followed by another, in a predictable order” that gives rise to milkweed resistance in insects. The specificity of this process, a sequence of sequences, is a trace through a space of Umwelts encoded in genes. It is a carving out of the latent space of Umwelt and gene expression. The actor doing this carving is a complex dynamic, a ‘metapopulation’ of multiple organisms. The role of genetic research here is not to solve a problem, but to illuminate the properties of a space of Umwelt and how these properties are immanently realised in organisms. The next step is to find the general conditions under which such a constrained adaptive walk arises.

This is a literal ‘poison path’. The application of the pharmakon principle in medicine is the narrower domain of human-traveled poison paths. Within this, we can also locate a subset of poisons that are called entheogenic. Use of these plants for their consciousness modifying effects, in a structured way, is the poison path (well-articulated by the poet Dale Pendell in his Pharmako trilogy). When we view this structured practice of engagement with psychoactive poisonous plants in light of a resistance to tolerance of an other’s Umwelt, a third level of interpretation of this practice emerges: resistance to the tolerance of human Umwelt. The poison path is a search for the antidote to the poisons of the human Umwelt.

The practice of consuming poisons to bring about consciousness changes, like the Western practice of consuming medicines, is a part of the system of human culture. These are the systems that ‘cultivate’ consciousness. The word ‘medicine’ functions doubly here. In so-called ‘Western’ medicine, the word means the pharmaceutical-based treatments available in hospitals, facilitated by private insurance companies (in the U.S. at least), and based on a mechanistic understanding of the body. In the traditions of structured plant poison use, ‘medicine’ refers to the entheogenic plants, their spirits, and the healing qualities of any given entity. This layered meaning has camouflage-like qualities, in that the meaning of medicine as ‘treatment’ has been interpreted to mean that medicines are ‘unnatural’. Yet the use of the word medicine in these traditions is not about treatment, but rather about a search for immanence in consciousness. The entheogens are medicines in this more nuanced sense of the word.

A great first step toward an understanding of the poison path as a search for the antidote to the poisons of the human Umwelt is to observe how the poison path has been articulated in the history of plant use by Indigenous cultures. From this, we can develop a conceptual framework for its articulation in the West. A second step is to articulate the general conditions under which this structure emerges. This is a complex problem of spatial embedding.

Spatial embedding is a process of placing the subject in the middle of a structured Umwelt. This is the process by which an animal becomes situated in its environment. It is a sort of object-to-subject translation. For a simple example, a fly is situated in the spider’s web, the spider in the web, and the spider’s web in the environment.

The poison path is an object-to-subject translation in the domain of consciousness. The object is a toxic Umwelt that is resistant to the meanings of the human Umwelt. The subject is the poison consumer, the mushroom eater, the psychonaut, the one who walks the poison path.

From a systems perspective, we are not trying to understand the subject as an individual in an environment, but as a subject embedded in an Umwelt that is also a medium. In a general sense, the subject is in the middle of a layered network of systems. These systems include: 1) the subject’s Umwelt, 2) the poisonous Umwelt, 3) the ‘Western’ Umwelt and 4) the Umwelt of other ‘non-Western’ cultures.

A more concrete way of describing this is to say that the poison path is an object-to-subject translation in the space of Umwelt. To this end, it is necessary to identify the properties of the poison Umwelt.

The poisonous Umwelt is resistant to the meanings of the Western Umwelt. It resists Western thought, which includes the assumptions of anthropocentrism, secularism, materialism, humanism, etc. This is a form of immanentised resistance to the western Umwelt. The realisation of such a resistant Umwelt in the lived experience of the majority of people in the Western Umwelt would mean a radical change in Western culture. It would be a different world.

The poison path is also a translation of this resistant Umwelt into the space of Western thought. This is the process of embedding. We can observe this in a number of ways.

1) The poison path emerges in the Western Umwelt as a process of embedding. This is an object-to-subject translation. In other words, it is the subject who embeds the resistant Umwelt in his or her own Umwelt.

2) The resistance to the Western Umwelt has been immanentised. It is present in the everyday. This means that the everyday is in the process of changing. This is the ‘poison path’ of the title.

3) The poison path articulates the existence of a network of systems that are linked in complex ways. This is the ‘network’ of systems in the space of Umwelt.

4) The poison path can be mapped as a ‘poison path’ through the space of Umwelt. This is a resistance to tolerance.

5) The poison path emerges as a non-Western solution to a non-Western problem. It is a process of self-realisation.

6) The poison path can be seen as an embedded translation of the poisonous Umwelt into the Western Umwelt. This is a process of moving through the latent space of Umwelt, carving out a path through it.

7) The poison path is an experiment in a new kind of human consciousness. It is a process of building up resistance to the tolerance of human consciousness.

The question remains as to whether or not a true embedding of the poison path is possible within Western thought. Full realisation would require reconciliation of centuries of colonial trauma, a project that may be too large for the timespan in which it would need to be realised. It is not clear if the embedded poison path is an experiment in a new form of Western consciousness, or if it is an experiment in the possibility of embedding a non-Western consciousness in the West.

There is an alternative view of the poison path that suggests that its embedding is a product of colonial repression. The reason this repression occurs is to prevent the realisation of the poisonous Umwelt, a realisation that would mean the destruction of the colonial system. This view is supported by a number of facts, such as the small number of people in the West who have adopted the poison path, and the medical establishment’s labelling of it as ‘dangerous’.

There is also a political view of the poison path that sees it as a threat to the colonial system, and hence a force of resistance to the Western Umwelt. From this view, the resistance of the poisonous Umwelt is a resistance to Western consciousness.

A problem with these views is that they do not account for the existence of the poison path as a process of embedding. From the view of embedded translation, it is the subject who embeds the resistant Umwelt in his or her own Umwelt.

This suggests that the embedding of the poison path is a part of the system of human culture. From this view, it is a system of culture that has been hidden from public view. This is not to say that it has been hidden intentionally, but rather that it has been hidden by the cultural structure. This is a view that is consistent with an observation made by a famous plant explorer in the Amazon, Richard Evans Schultes. He stated that “I think we are going to discover in the next generation, that there are more uses of plants than we realise.”

From this view, it is the structure of culture itself that prevents the poison path from being more widely realised. From this view, the poison path is a ‘poison path’ through the Western Umwelt, a poison path that is a search for the antidote to the poisons of the Western Umwelt.

A last view of the poison path is that it is a new way of thinking about a long-term future for the human species. This view is supported by the recent realisation that humanity has already entered a period of mass extinction.

If the poison path can carve a route through the Western Umwelt, and reveal itself through a process of embedding that transforms the consciousness of the West, then the poison path may be the path to the long-term survival of the human species.