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Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness
by Diana Reed Slattery
Publisher:
North Atlantic Books 
Year:
2015 
ISBN:
9781583945995 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 3/16/2016

Ever since humans started using language, some among them have experienced the uneasy feeling that the language they were employing was not exactly a perfect fit with the world they were describing. Many of the great philosophical questions of all time involve trying to make sense of the role language plays in experience: Where does language come from? Does our encounter with the world come first, with language picking out categories and objects that exist objectively in the world? Or does language itself come first, conditioning the nature of how we make meaning out of all that sense data out there? Is it possible to deduce a universal grammar common to all languages and reflective of the invariant features of human reason? Or, conversely, do people who speak different languages literally inhabit different, and incommensurable, private universes?

For some motivated souls of an earlier era, questions such as these inspired the search for the perfect language, or a magical language, where even the punctuation marks would express visionary truths. Centuries later, the beating of clever heads against these same philosophical-linguistic conundrums yielded the development of fields such as scientific taxonomy, modern linguistics, mathematical logic, cognitive science and the advent of artificial intelligence. In recent times, emerging weirder voices have begun to assert that in order to truly get to the bottom of things language-slash-reality-wise, it is the role of the researcher to get well and preposterously high, and add that experience to their methods and results. This camp contributes to the conversation on the question of what roles psychedelics may have played in the development of language, and what roles they may yet play in language’s further elaboration.

Joining at the forefront of this latter category is Diana Reed Slattery with her 2015 publication Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness. When it comes to the experience of language in human brains, many features long thought to be absolute constants turn out under conditions of specialized chemistry to have been variables all along, and remarkable new vistas open up as a result. For this reason, among many, in the words of the author, “Psychedelics make philosophers of us all.”

“Xenolinguistics” is a term borrowed from science fiction, referring to the study of alien languages. The “alien” contact and communication strategies expounded upon in this volume, however, are less of the sort to be encountered across the frontiers of outer space and more of the kind abundantly reported by spelunkers of inner space. For Slattery, xenolinguistics is the study of the encounter between language and psychedelics. In her own words: “Psychedelic states of consciousness produce novel forms of language in some psychonauts, especially visual languages, and novel ideas about language.” The book is both a consideration of general topics in psychedelic-influenced language studies, as well as an account of the author’s own “outrageous twelve year adventure” of largely solitary psychedelic exploration, inspired in large part by her experiments with Glide, a visual language system she developed in the course of her researches.

Slattery’s personal journey is both remarkable and inspirational. Xenolinguistics is no “Confessions of a Young Psychonaut”––instead, Slattery reports that she did not begin her psychedelic practice until she was already in her late fifties, a grandmother, with a solid middle-class job in academia and software development, and a fundamentalist 12-step spouse from whom she had to conceal her activities. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that when she did begin her serious and self-directed engagement with psychedelics, she brought a formidable clarity and discipline to the work of documenting and processing her experiences. What follows then could be thought of as being like an experience report into which the author has put about a Ph.D. dissertation’s worth of work. Indeed, anyone looking for a powerful role model for sustained critical engagement with one’s ongoing psychedelic autobiography has come to the right spot.

In this capacity Diana Slattery brings a lot to the table. Combining a broad range of resources including philosophy, critical theory, anthropology, archeology, biology, neuro-phenomenology, and the literature of psychedelic exploration, there is academic cross-fertilization here that’s rare, and exciting to see. Xenolinguistics boasts a formidable bibliography that a person could throw darts at blind and not fail to hit an interesting book. One notable feature of the book is the depth of its engagement with the works and thought of Terence McKenna. Quotes from McKenna predominate in the book, to the extent that Xenolinguistics could be said to engage with three main “texts” or registers: quotes from McKenna, Slattery’s own psychonautic self-documentation, and the body of academic and critical thought she brings to bear on questions of psychedelics and language.

At the center of Xenolinguistics is the visual language system Glide. Created in the course of writing her science fiction novel The Maze Runner, elaborated through her psychonautic log books, and extended in its functionality by a suite of software programs, Glide is Slattery’s showcase example of a xenolinguistic phenomenon. The Glide script, a form composed exclusively of linked curves, is both evocative and beautiful. The curves combine in groups of three into sets of glyphs that recombine further into a style reminiscent of and inspired by the trigram/hexagram structure of the I Ching. Unlike the I Ching, or any other quasi-earthly symbol system, the waves and circles of Glide are not bound by linear order, but can spread out both vertically and horizontally to create a two dimensional surface, or “maze” which can then be read in any direction and with any grouping frame (thus even macro-structures of the Glide maze can suggest meaning, as can the negative spaces between Glide shapes). Moreover, in its software incarnation, the Glide maze gains both three-dimensional spatial extension, as well as the ability to morph and evolve in time.

The act of interpreting Glide would seem to be a fairly personal affair, closer to the use of a synchronicity-based divination system than a strict semantic code. By her own admission, Slattery’s Glide system is not a vector for precise meaning. It would not be possible, for instance, to use Glide to pass notes in class, sketch out a shopping list, or perform any of the functions for which written language is commonly used. Even without the transformations made possible by the software version, Slattery reports that the meaning of the various glyph clusters has changed for her over time, and that translations or interpretations she had made for a given Glide sequence in the past might be different when considered again in the present. Normally, this fact would torpedo the idea of Glide as being a formal linguistic system, at least in so far as the chief aim of written language is understood as making one’s thoughts comprehensible to others via the use of symbols which produce in the reader the same ideas as they do in the mind of the writer.

But the point of Glide, for Slattery, does not seem to be inter-human communication. Rather, Glide seems intended to function as a kind of visual environment that tickles the brain’s language-seeking and meaning-making functions in curious and uncanny ways––especially in conjunction with psychedelic exploration. Our brains, hardwired for language, seek meaning in any plausibly meaning-bearing shape or form. Thus visual environments such as Glide––as well as numerous other psychedelically inspired constructed languages such as Allyson Grey’s secret writing, Jason Tucker’s “actual contact” illustrations, or any of the number of intriguing conlangs (as constructed languages are known to their devotees) catalogued by Slattery––all function, under psychedelic conditions, as what John Lilly might call a “display screen,” a sensory manifold onto which unconscious contents can be projected.

Another major component of Slattery’s experiences with Glide, as well as with other constructed languages, is these languages’ ability under psychedelic conditions to open the door for experiences of contact with what Slattery refers to as “the Other”–– The feeling that there is a palpable mind just on the other side of the surface plane of alien letters. Considered this way, the Glide maze becomes a kind of scrying surface, a magic mirror into which one gazes in hopes of glimpsing a flash of contact with an intelligence within or perhaps beyond one’s own mind.

Overall, Slattery’s work connects to those ancient traditions holding the notion that created universe is a fundamentally linguistic phenomenon. It shares in the hypothesis that the ultimate constituent particles forming our universe are units of symbolic code, be they a kabbalistic play of primal letters, a Pythagorean continuum composed of pure numbers, coiled strings of biochemical base-code, or the ghostly green rain of glittering crypto-font which the enlightened perceive in The Matrix.

Another major theme in Xenolinguistics is the nature of the “download” experience––those visionary core-dumps of high intensity information often occurring in altered states of consciousness––and what happens when you take the download ball and run with it. The McKenna brothers’ famous “experiment at La Chorrea” is held as a prime example, with the thread running from download experience to fully developed conceptual system, as followed by the McKennas from their Colombian experience to the creation of the time-wave zero software providing a model for the course followed by Slattery in the development of Glide. 2012 has come and gone, and with it a lot of the eschatological cache of McKenna’s theory. Be that as it may, it left behind a generation of fans who’ve found in it inspiration to propel their own endeavors, of which Slattery’s story is one.

It is notable that the historical search for magic languages, both old and new, has consistently evinced a strong moral component––often amounting to nothing less than a visionary quest for world peace. Many of the early searchers for a lost sacred language were motivated by the hope its recovery could usher in an era of universal peace and harmony, made possible by a more perfect form of communication. Later attempts at rationally designed “philosophical” languages were also constructed in the hopes they could be used to unite peoples of all nations, and even paved the way for utopian auxiliary languages such as Esperanto. (*These pursuits have a colorful and compelling history, about which interested readers are enthusiastically directed to one of Slattery’s best bibliography entries: The Search for the Perfect Language, by Umberto Eco––one of the world’s great scholars of secrets and symbols, who died during the time this review was being written.*)

In line with these traditions, Slattery’s own linguistic explorations express a strong moral component as well. The upshot of her experiences “beyond the veil of natural language”––and thus beyond the divisions, distinctions, barriers and separations imposed on the world by conventional language––resulted for her in profound healing experiences as well as the transformation of personal values. Indeed, Slattery’s best articulated take-home message speaks to the power of psychedelics to forever alter our perception of the nature of the relation between language and reality––and for this to change how we treat and judge ourselves and others, as well as the regard we have for all living things.

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