Review: American Trip by Ido Hartogsohn

book psychedelic review

American Trip: Set, Setting, and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century by Ido Hartogsohn | MIT Press | 2020

Psychedelics in mid-20th century North America began to be properly historicized in the 1980s, beginning with Acid Dreams (1985) by Martin A Lee and Bruce Schlain, and Storming Heaven (1987) by Jay Stevens. These books narrated a complicated web of medical, intellectual, religious and cultural threads that shaped the emergence of psychedelic discourse in the post-war era. More recently, scholars have looked at particular trends and deepened this story, notably in Psychedelic Psychiatry (2010) by Erika Dyck (Saskatchewan research group), Acid Hype (2015) by Stephen Siff (media theory), and The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy (2018) by Matthew Oram (medico-legal).

In the midst of a newly growing fascination with psychedelic substances in culture today, Ido Hartogsohn’s new book American Trip: Set, Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century (2020) is a well-timed reappraisal and exploration of the period. Not only does it take into account recent research, but it attempts to uncover the role of psychedelics as social and cultural agents through the evolution of ideas around set and setting. More particularly, how and what they are able to teach us about this particular historical moment, and moreover what, if anything, the era can teach us about psychedelics. As such, it serves as a decent expansion and thought-provoking historical narrative.

The first seven chapters are dedicated to particular trends: the psychotomimetic, military, psychotherapeutic, spiritual, creative, technoscientific, and political. In many respects, both in regard to structure and information, this is well-trodden ground, and picks out well-established threads in the literature, although is neatly supplemented by recent humanities research. A more thorough discussion around the extraordinary work of psychologist Betty Eisner, the engineer and psychedelic researcher Myron Stolaroff and the effect of LSD on Silicon Valley and the tech industry are all very welcome and illuminating additions to the overall story.

The final three chapters of American Trip delve into the socio-cultural effect of psychedelics. ‘LSD’, Hartogsohn convincingly argues, ‘is a psychopharmacological chameleon, one that changes its psychoactive pigmentation in relation to the cultural set and setting into which it is introduced’. At the heart of this is the role of LSD suggestibility, which is frequently referred to in the literature, and has received several studies. Arguably, for example, it is why different, conflicting schools of psychotherapy separately find validation for their theories in LSD subjects. Through this mechanism, a cultural feedback loop is created.

Hartogsohn’s argument speaks to the necessity of the historical project of thoroughly contextualising events, which of course is the endeavour of American Trip itself. ‘LSD was shaped by its diverse user groups, but it also shaped and transformed America’s sociocultural landscape’. This form of analysis, however, does borrow perspective from the period itself. Following Marcuse and Weber, there is an overarching centering of ‘society’, which like the LSD experience becomes a blank slate upon which researchers narrate their particular bias. In this sense, society is a simplification that masks individual and subcultural complexity.

Another example of this is the ‘struggle between conformity and individuality’—in the end, some people conform to individuality, some choose to conform for selfish or altruistic reasons. In truth, conformity and individuality are terms often used by subcultures to differentiate themselves—they are part of the heretic’s armament of language. Hartogsohn picks up on this in places, like when he describes Ken Kesey’s anti-activist speech to the 1965 Berkeley Vietnam Day Parade. American Trip is at its strongest recalling LSD’s role in the cultural fluidity of the period; but such fluidity was not unique to the 1960s, and it remains to be seen how unique LSD is as an agent of such change.

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