Liminality and Altered States of Mind in Cyberspace


Toni Sant*

The advent of psychedelic (mind-opening) drugs produced a widespread fascination with consciousness alteration, mind exploration, inner searching, brain-stimulation gadgets, oriental yoga – all based on quantum principles. The advent of personal and interpersonal computers, digital editors, and audio-video gear turned the average American home into an electronic information center. At the same time neurologists were publishing their discoveries about how neurotransmitter chemicals and electrical nets move information around the brain (Leary 1994:7).

Timothy Leary spent the last 15 years before his death in 1996 pointing out the importance that cyberspace will have to the future of humankind. In his book Chaos and Cyberculture Leary states that “if the brain is like a computer then the trick is to know how to format your brain – to set up an operating systems to run your brain.” He relates this analogy to the psychedelic experience, which he popularized during the 1960s, and claims that “to activate the brain is called yogic or psychedelic. To transmit what’s in the brain is cybernetic” (1994:35). In Leary's view, traveling through the constantly growing and changing World Wide Web and the Internet gives a "psychedelic" quality to the new realities metamorphosing on the computer screen and beyond. The "psychedelic" experience is a rite of passage from everyday consciousness to a different level of consciousness heightened by an altered state of mind. And just like the best rites of passage, what the "psychedelic" experience celebrates above all is the passage itself.

The term “cyberspace” is attributed to William Gibson who in his novel Neuromancer speculated about the role of computers and hackers in the future:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. [...] A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity (1984:51).

I prefer to simplify the “unthinkable complexity” of “cyberspace” by limiting the term to refer to the “consensual hallucination” of Internet users. Since the Internet is steadily assimilating all mediating technology (telephony, broadcasting, etc.), “cyberspace” now implies communication over the Internet more than through any other medium.[1] It seems that the meaning, if not the structure, of cyberspace has somewhat evolved since Gibson first outlined it. Over time the term has come to signify a particular experience. As Gibson explains in a conversation with Leary, “with this equipment, you agree to share the same hallucinations. In effect [you’re] creating a [new] world” (Leary 1994:25). In spite of all the media attention that cybercommunication has received in the last few years – ranging from utopian hype to apocalyptic warnings – it is now clear to many, albeit not to all, that the Internet is not simply another mass medium. It is a medium that can empower individuals. “The intoxicating power of interactive software is that it eliminates dependence on the enormous bureaucracy of knowledge professionals that flourished in the industrial age,” claims Leary (43). In short, you can, and should, create your own reality though this new communication technology. And although more than a decade has passed since Michael Benedikt declared that “cyberspace itself is an elusive and future thing, and one can hardly be definitive [about it] at this early stage” (1991:22), we are still far from being definitive about it. And so, engaging with this phenomenon by exploring some of its various aspects may help us understand it better.

My first encounter with a serious exploration of cyberspace in a context involving performance (the discipline I’ve engaged with throughout my adult life) happened during the winter of 1994/95 when I discovered Phil Morle’s Communitek: Performance at the Electronic Frontier at the website for the Center of Theatre Practice. [2]  I was intrigued by this work and the rest of the material at the site, particularly because I felt that Kaos Theatre, of which Phil Morle was the artistic director at the time, and Platonium, the performance group I worked with in a similar capacity between 1994 and 1997, shared a set of common values. In spite of this, a series of email messages to and from Morle developed into what I believe to be a misunderstanding of each other's intentions. At the time I did not possess the basic technical/academic knowledge to clarify my thoughts to him through the medium itself. I failed to recognize a basic principle which Morle himself presents so clearly in Communitek: “The first to consider this new medium in the same way, and with the same rules as the one we are currently working in [i.e. theatre]” (1995a). It is also possible that the miscommunication arose from what the Critical Art Ensemble describes as  “abstracted representations of self and the body, separate from the individual, [which] are simultaneously present in numerous locations, interacting and recombining with others, beyond the control of the individual” (1994:58). And, if we accept that cyberspace is indeed beyond individual control, then the question is to locate the matrix of control.  Is it determined by chance in the same way that two live performances of the same theatrical production are never exactly the same?  Phil Morle's words resonate with deeper meaning now:

I am starting to use the term 'Communitek' rather than 'theatre' so that we do not get confused.  I am not talking about grafting existing artforms onto new media I am talking about new environments for interactions - new artforms - new entertainments - new media. The structures we will eventually create for Cyberspace over the next ten years are yet to be designed (1995a).

Regardless of Morle’s call for new terminology and "new environments for interaction", I choose to think of cybercommunication in terms of ritual, following David Tomas’ claim that such an approach “allows us to make sense of an advanced information technology that has the potential to not only change the economic structure of human societies but also overthrow the sensorial and organic architecture of the human body, this by disembodying and reformatting its sensorium in powerful, computer-generated, digitalized spaces” (1991:32). In cybercommunication the body undergoes a transformation from the organic to what Tomas calls the 'postorganic'. The postorganic, he explains, refers to “the classical (hardware-interfaced) cyborg and the postclassical (software-interfaced) transorganic data-based cyborg or personality construct” (41). And the transformation occurs regardless of whether the communication is with another cyborg or with a totally virtual being such as a database.[3]

If we are to take this route we must look back, as Tomas does, at Arnold Van Gennep seminal work Les Rites de Passage. Working at the beginning of the twentieth century, Van Gennep was the first anthropologist to write a detailed study about specific rituals that mark major individual or collective social stages.  Significantly he explains that,

although a complete scheme of rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation), in specific instances these three types are not always equally important or equally elaborated ([1909] 1960:11).

Since Van Gennep’s views have been applied mainly to identifiable social structures they may not appear to be so obviously applicable to cyberspace.  However, through his own explanation we can still argue that, as Tomas puts it, “there are a number of similarities between the overall structure of rites of passages and cyberspace that suggest that the latter might be closely related to the former in a functional sense” (40). The action – an encounter involving exchange – that occurs in the "rituals" of cyberspace is the focus of the similarities. Using the terminology put forth by Van Gennep, Tomas claims that, “the act of ‘jacking-in’ and out of cyberspace [...] suggests radically truncated versions of separation and aggregation ‘rites’ in which the hardware serves as portal to, and exit from a parallel virtual reality” (40). The ritual Tomas has in mind, “involves a passage from the everyday space and finite time of the organically human or postorganic hardware-based cyborg to a digital - as opposed to an analogical - space and time that is both transorganic and cyberphysically collective” (40). The passage is between the organic human body-mind and the cyberphysical self as reconfigured through the computer hardware and software systems necessary for navigation in cyberspace.

Initially it may appear that the passage is a one-way stream from the organic to the electronic: the adding of new content, graphical and written information, to the Internet's collective-like database. Nevertheless, the passage is not unidirectional because the organic body-mind is also transformed by this ritual. Phil Morle expounds upon this in his essay Virtuality: “We interact with these spaces, sending our virtual prosthetics into the limen for re-configuration, forcing a process of simultaneous separation and re-aggregation” (1996). It seems to me that this is the same premise on which David Tomas constructs his reasoning for the parallels between rites of passage and cyberspace. The body-mind is changed by the electronic experience as much as the virtual-self "projected" in cyberspace is determined by the body-mind it emanates from. Once online I become something other than a person in front of a computer terminal. My body is still in front of the computer screen, but I am also actively engaged in a whole new world on the other side of the screen. I am in a liminal state between the “real world” and the “virtual reality” of cyberspace. And when I go offline I find that I am affected by the online experience to some degree or other; I shall explore this further in a moment.  As William Gibson points out in Mona Lisa Overdrive, “cyberspace exists, insofar as it can be said to exist, by virtue of human agency” (1988:107). In other words the ritual occurs when the virtuality of cyberspace becomes someone’s reality.

In classical anthropological terms, the subjects in rites of passage are "released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas" (Turner 1969:129). One comes to cyberspace for the first time unaware of the true vastness of the virtual reality about to be tapped into. If the experience is a complete one, over a period of time and repeat visits the initiated individual will be transformed into something which would not have been possible without the engagement with the medium. Communitas is Victor Turner's term for prestructural communities. Communitas "can happen anywhere, often in despite of rules" (1982:59). Turner identifies three distinct modes of communitas: spontaneous, ideological, and normative. Spontaneous communitas is "a deep rather than intense style of personal interaction" (1982:47). Ideological communitas is "a set of theoretical concepts which attempt to describe the interactions of spontaneous communitas" (48), a sense of togetherness. Normative communitas is "a subculture or group which attempts to foster and maintain relationships or spontaneous communitas on a more or less permanent basis" (49). Thinking of what goes on in cyberspace in terms of communitas is useful for two reasons. First, much has been made of the importance of online communities by virtual homesteaders like Howard Reingold and Stacy Horn, who along with scholars like Stephen Doheny-Farina have been among the most articulate writers on the pros and cons of online communities.[4]  They have made many realize that there is indeed an ideological communitas in cyberspace. And second, it helps us understand better why we can speak of the performance of transformation which evolves from cybercommunication as kind of rite of passage.

In the Van Gennep model for rites of passage, liminality is, as Turner reminds us, "often likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon" (1969:95), however, there is an important difference between interpreting liminality as a once only event rather than as a repeatable experience which once experienced cannot be fully undone. It is true that one can never return to the womb, but an eclipse occurs more than once and the previous occurrences will leave their mark in one way or another. This and other subtle variations lead Turner to distinguish between the liminal and the liminoid. Thus, although through his definitions we should speak of the online experience as liminoid rather than liminal, what matters is that it is a personal performance of transformation.[5]

While Victor Turner posits the limen as “a no-man’s-land betwixt and between the structural past and the structural future” (1990:11), Colin Turnbull suggests that “the liminal state is an ‘other’ condition of being that is coexistent with the state of being of which we are normally conscious (the material state of being susceptible to rational awareness and sensory perception)." It is as if liminality is so contrasting to normality that although we can know of its existence we cannot find clear cut borders to differentiate it from reality because it is not a foreign component of our consciousness. The way Turnbull sees it, "we can not be aware of [the condition of alterity], know it or understand it as long as we restrict ourselves to the rational, objective, analytical approach of contemporary anthropology” (80). The true liminal experience is beyond words in Turnbull's view, and he explains that to understand it, “what is needed is a technique of participation that demands the total involvement of our whole being” (51 - emphasis in original).  In retelling about his 1950s fieldwork among the Mbuti in the Ituri Forest he explains how his ethnographic needs and desires “made impossible that total sacrifice, that moment (for it needs a mere millisecond) of utter abandon in which the power and the self are one and all questioning is resolved” (66). Just as seeing someone’s initiation mark is not the same as experiencing the liminal condition during which it was acquired, the best way to understand the passage from the organic to the "postorganic" is to go through it. To understand the true nature of cybercommunication we need to immerse ourselves in it. In the process we become one with it, in the sense that we become one of its essential components.

The Internet is a preeminent virtual space, and its nature is constantly being re-created by every person who taps into it to impart or search for information. It is fundamentally pluralistic and embraces differing and often conflicting positions. Even though many people accessing cyberspace have the same name, no two people can have the same individual email address, just as no two persons can have the same set of fingerprints.  In cyberspace the more identity and character you loose, the more individuality you gain. On various online chat channels I am known as akrobat. I am one of many users on a vast network of Internet relay chat servers. Some users who know me offline know that “akrobat” is “Toni Sant,” however, strangers can only know what I choose to tell them about myself on the chat channels. At the same time, people I meet online can seem to be anybody they tell me they are. Women can seem to be men, men can seem to be women, children can claim to be grownups, a university professor can claim to be a shy high school sophomore, and so on. You can be virtually anyone or anything you desire.[6] This is not to say that swapping gender, class, age, and race, cannot cause complications. My point is that the more identity (assigned to you by your social surroundings offline) you shed while online, the more individual control you have over your individual online identity. It becomes easy to disown any characteristics which you feel “get in the way” in “real life.”  The more offline identity you loose the more online individuality you gain. Or,  in Victor Turner’s words, “the more spontaneously ‘equal’ people become, the more distinctively ‘themselves’ they become” (1982:47).  Cybercommunication is a liminal experience, whenever interlocutors displace signs of their preliminal status and apply signs which are virtually real. In this way Internet users who wholeheartedly engage in cybercommunication are like initiates in a rite of passage.

The elaborate transformations that sometimes occur online may make this process seem like something which emerged with the advent of the Internet. Nevertheless, the concept can be related to an important aspect in the history of the development of the coffeehouses in Europe, for example. During the period following the English Civil War (1642–48) coffeehouses in England “were commonly referred to as levelers, as were the people who frequented them and who relished the new intimacy made possible by the decay of the old feudal order” (Oldenburg 1989:23). A closer look at the history of the coffeehouses in the medieval Middle East and renaissance Europe, we find that as the habit of drinking coffee spread,

the coffeehouse provided the sixteenth-century urbanite with an excuse to do something that he obviously had a desperate urge to do - to get out of the house. […] One went to the coffeehouse not merely because one wished to drink coffee. One went to the coffeehouse because one wished to go out, to spend the evening in the society of his fellows, to be entertained, to see and to be seen (Hattox 1985:89-90).

Thus the café came to share many characteristics with theatres, taverns, bars, and other public houses. Essentially, “the coffeehouse was a new locus of social intercourse, in which new patterns of social behavior were manifested” (Hattox 1985:126). The sociability which is now taken for granted must certainly have altered the patterns of everyday life. Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out that the most important social role of the seventeenth and eighteenth century coffeehouse was as “a center for communication” (1992:52). He elaborates by claiming that "people frequented coffeehouses not only to conduct business but also to discuss politics and literary topics - and to read the newspapers that were available there.  The coffeehouse and the newspaper, the coffeehouse and journalism, the coffeehouse and writers - these are old associations that would last into the twentieth century" (57). The genealogies of the coffeehouse and cyberspace converge in the cybercafé. Wired coffeehouses offer computer terminals to their patrons, mainly for the purpose of accessing the Internet. The café is also commonly used as a metaphor for online communities using Internet services to meet on line, even if none of them offer real coffee.

Away from home and from the workplace, people, according to Ray Oldenburg, need a “third place,” one which is “inclusively sociable, offering both the basis of community and the celebration of it” (1989:14). The café is one of the best examples of Oldenburg’s “third place”. This notion of a “third place” is also very helpful for understanding why people choose to spend time in cyberspace. As coffeehouses, cybercafés are not good examples of Oldenburg’s theory of a “third place” because there is very little of the interpersonal communication between the café patrons as is habitual in non-wired coffeehouses. Furthermore, Oldenburg contends that “a room full of individuals intent upon video games is not a third place” (31).[7]  However, if we agree with Oldenburg that “third places that render the best and fullest service are those to which one may go alone at almost any time of the day or evening with assurance that acquaintances will be there” (32), then, people who regularly roam about in cyberspace, participating recurrently in chat-rooms, newsgroups, instant Internet messaging, MUDs, MOOs, video-conferences, and other forms of cybercommunication, are definitely visiting a “third place.” And inasmuch as “before industrialization, the first and second places were one” (16), in the post-industrial age, first, second, and third place can all be accessed from the same chair. For example, while at a cybercafé I can lookup the timetable for trains leaving from my town for a weekend trip I am planning with my family, sip my cappuccino, check if a colleague has sent me an email message asking about the progress of a report I’m writing, sip my cappuccino again, and finally join my favorite online chat channel to meet my friends around the Mediterranean as I order another cappuccino.

In a “third place” one can come and go with no obligations but to pay for services rendered. Oldenburg explains that “the third place is largely a world of its own making fashioned by talk and quite independent of the institutional order of the larger society” (48). Even if in cybercafés not much conversation goes on between the patrons themselves, cybertalk, in its many varieties, is the main online activity. Oldenburg says that during third place conversation “consciousness of conditions and time often slips away amid the lively flow” (30). As anyone who has ever engaged in online conversation knows, the exact same thing can be said for cyberspace. In this regard cybercommunication is not very different from traditional third place activity.

Robert Angelone, who has served as Management Consultant and General Manager of New York City’s Cyber Café, says that at the cybercafé you often “find people so ‘hooked’ that all around them becomes a blur to their experiences on that little monitor in front of them.” This is not unique to cybercafé patrons. Computer users everywhere may become so immersed in cyberspace that they become oblivious of their surrounding environment. On a more personal note, Angelone adds, “I must admit my own guilt in this area. My family constantly has to call my name several times before I realize I am in a real world” ( Another similar testimonial comes from Bruce Eisner, author of Ecstasy: The MDMA Story (California: Ronin Publishing, 1994) and the founder of Mind Media Software: “a few days after returning from the first, quite small Internet World trade show, we finally got the ISDN talking to the computer and I had access to the Internet. Soon, I found myself staying at the office late into the night. What I found was that the World Wide Web became a kind of intellectual LSD” (1996). I find that the references to intoxication by both Angelone and Eisner are far from casual. In March 1999, the daily Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that a young man in Rome who had spent a considerable amount of time in front of a computer screen surfing the Internet had been hospitalized with hallucinations, and psychiatrist Tonino Cantelmi said he believed several hundred people had overdosed on the Internet in the Italian capital alone. In spite of Dr. Cantelmi's assertion, this may be a rare and extreme case, but the connection between cyberspace and altered states of mind has been prevalent throughout much of the writings on the use of computers involving online activity beyond light routine engagement. In her introduction to a special issue of Women and Performance on cyberspace and sexuality, Theresa Senft refers to the Internet as “a metaphorical hallucination” (1996:14), while Phil Morle likens Gibson’s image of cyberspace as a consensual hallucination to performance which is “not something performers do and spectators watch - it is Gibson’s ‘consensual hallucination’ created in the virtuality of the liminal space” (1996c). These statements hold true because, as has been evident to scholars of cybercommunication for quite some time, “cyberspace’s inherent immateriality and malleability of content provides the most tempting stage for the acting out of mythic realities, realities once ‘confined’ to drug-enhanced ritual, to theater, painting, books, and to such media that are always, in themselves, somehow less than what they reach for, mere gateways” (Benedikt 1991: 6). And gateways, or portals, are after all an integral part of liminality.

Oldenburg explains that, “a transformation must occur as one passes through the portals of a third place” (25). The transformation is similar to the one that occurs when we watch a movie or read a fascinating book. We become practically oblivious to everything except the screen or the printed words. In the process the range of our awareness is diminished but its intensity is augmented. This experience can also be compared to Csikszentmihalyian “flow”:

Artists, athletes, composers, dancers, scientists, and people from all walks of life, when they describe how it feels when they are doing something that is worth doing for its own sake, use terms that are interchangeable in their minutest details. This unanimity suggests that order in consciousness produces a very specific experimental state, so desirable that one wishes to replicate it as often as possible. To this state we have given the name of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 1988:29).

The desire to replicate the process as often as possible shows aspects of addiction or an innate drive for something which benefits the human organism. At the same time it is essential to bear in mind that “flow” occurs only if the person undergoing the experience is totally immersed into the activity for its own sake. In 1998, Dr. Paul Grasby and his medical colleagues at the Cyclotron Unit of Hammerstein Hospital in London, England, studied the release of neurotransmitters as eight men played a videogame for money. Previous studies on monkeys have shown that when primates are learning behaviors and rewards are involved, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in their brains. Similarly, Dr. Grasby and his associates found that their subjects' dopamine production doubled during the time they were engaged with the videogame (Koepp, et al: 266-8). Unfortunately, a similar study without a material reward has not been carried out yet and so we cannot be sure how much of the alteration in brain chemistry is due to reward and how much is actually a result of playing the videogame. Still, according to Csikszentmihalyi it seems that "age, sex, and social class affect one's ability to enjoy activities for their own sake. In addition, presumably, a large number of other factors are involved." (1975:22). I believe that understanding how intoxicants affect the so-called normal functions of the brain and the nervous system is useful in unfolding the cybercommunication experience, and dealing with at least one of the large number of other factors presumed by Csikszentmihalyi as accessories to the production of flow. Besides, intoxication leads to drastic changes in the ways in which one’s own existence is perceived, and thus shares the quality of activities which allow people to overcome their perception of inadequacy in some domain of reality.

To understand how mind altering substances cause effects on the brain we need to take into account the way the nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body communicate with each other.  To put it simply, the nerve cells send signals to each other by the release of neurotransmitters that act on a receptor.  Since it is unlikely that the receptors evolved in the brain waiting for manufactured substances to come along, it follows that there are biochemicals in the brain that use these receptor, and all that the active ingredients in drugs do is simply mimic their action. In his book The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, Dr. Andrew Weil, introduces “the notion of an innate human drive to experience periodic episodes of nonordinary consciousness” (1972:13). In the years after his book was published, the field of neuroscience produced much physical evidence to substantiate the contention that the need for altered states has it origin in the human nervous system, independent of any external substance. After all, people can and do experience an extraordinary feeling of well being by running, meditating, and various other non-chemical techniques.  Even before the discovery of endorphins in 1975, the essential message of The Natural Mind was that the quest for altered states of mind is a basic human need, and that it is not necessary to turn to the products of chemical laboratories, or even intoxicating agents naturally present in plants, to experience euphoria. Weil's notion has its parallel in Roger Callois' theory of autotelic play which besides competition (agôn), chance (alea), and fantasy (mimicry), holds loss of consciousness (ilinx) as a central element why humans play games. Following Weil’s notion that intoxication is an innate part of the human condition, psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel explains that our nervous system “is arranged to respond to chemical intoxicants in much the same way it responds to food, drink and sex” (1989:10). The chemical intoxicants are not necessarily synthetically fabricated; they can also be produced naturally by plants or biochemical processes within the human organism.[8]

Personal background and cultural expectations can color the contents of altered states of consciousness. The subjectivity of the psychedelic experience was outlined by Timothy Leary in the "set" and "setting" model presented in the manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead he wrote with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert in the early 1960s. “Set” refers to the personal disposition of the person taking the drug and the expectations for the experience; setting refers to the physical surroundings and context in which the session takes place (1964:11). Although it is often thought that Leary and his colleagues where the first to propose this idea, it should be noted that the French decadent artists of the nineteenth century were clearly aware of both set and setting. Writing about hashish in his biography of Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier maintains that the drug “of itself creates nothing, simply developing the particular disposition of the individual, exaggerating it to the very last degree” (72). He cautions that “if one wishes to enjoy the full the magic of hashish, it is necessary to prepare in advance and furnish in some way the motif to its extravagant variations and disorderly fantasies. It is important to be in a tranquil frame of mind and body and to have on this day neither anxiety, duty, nor fixed time […] without these precautions the ecstasy is likely to turn into nightmare.” (73-75). What the set and setting model expounds upon is the fact that while psychedelic exploration and experimentation may enhance the creative abilities that are already present in a person, they will not necessarily turn an unimaginative person into an imaginative one. In his discussion of "flow," Csikszentmihalyi too evokes the "set" aspect of the set and setting model when he writes that "a state of flow does not depend entirely on the objective nature of the challenges present or on the objective level of skills; in fact, whether one is in flow or not depends on one's perception of what the challenges and skills are" (1975:50).

The alteration of consciousness can help uncover and resolve discrepancies between an individual's perception of the world and the world itself. In "normal" states of consciousness, an individual is able to perceive, interpret, and react to events occurring in the "real" world. As experiences accumulate, the same individual constructs a personal universe to explain the general universe and provide a framework for activity. My communication and interactions with others define my everyday life reality. The reality of everyday life is a world that I share with others. What is “real” is built upon consensus. At the same time, this everyday life reality is different from other realities. I am alone in the world of my dreams and daydreams but I know that the many aspects in the world of everyday life are as real to others as they are to me. By the same token, when I am online I choose to take part in a consensual altered state of mind.

The ideas and theories I present here are relatively simplistic in terms of explaining drug-induced states but I hope to open up possibilities for looking at altered states of mind without the negative associations that have become inevitable when discussing drugs. Conformity equates hallucinogens with addictive substances which can produce outrageous behavior and serious threats to body and mind.  Consequently, psychedelic substances such as LSD are made as socially unacceptable as dependency-creating substances such as cocaine and heroin. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD, explains that, “the psychotropic agents which had been denominated in scientific literature by the terms “phantastica,” “hallucinogens,” or “psychomimetics” [...] are not narcotic addiction-producing substances like the opiate heroin, or like cocaine, with their ruinous consequences for body and mind” (1980:xiv).[9] The basic pharmacological facts about psychedelics are that they are non-addictive compounds – mostly occurring naturally in different plant species – that interact with brain chemistry and, to a degree, with personality and social context, in such a way as to trigger temporary altered states of consciousness.

Drugs are by no means the only routes to visionary states of consciousness. William S. Burroughs, one of the mentors of cyberpunk, [10] believed firmly that “a systematic study of [consciousness expanding] drugs would open the way to nonchemical methods of expanding consciousness” (1964:173). Burroughs has been a huge influence to writers like William Gibson and so it should come as no surprise that psychedelic exploration and cybercommunication are closely related. Both experiences entertain the same ultimate goal: ecstasy. Ecstasy: from the Greek ekstasis, the process of going outside; going beyond learned modes of experience.  When Timothy Leary urged people to “turn on, tune in, drop out” in the 1960s he was urging them to go beyond learned modes of experience. Essentially, what Leary was advocating was for everyone to explore whatever was available beyond their socially conditioned life. He was encouraging anyone who cared to listen to him to be that which they were not. His was a call for transformative performance. With the coming of the World Wide Web, questioning “reality” became even more worthwhile than questioning authority. In my view, the psychedelic era of the 1960s fizzled out into a web of fear and negative energy mainly because the location of power did not rest in an ambiguous zone without borders as it does now with the Internet.

Before his death Leary recognized that the time was ripe once again to invite one and all to explore the unmapped realms of consciousness; to be that which they are not – to perform. This time it is even easier to chose your “reality” because, unlike psychedelic drugs, the new technologies are not illegal. The mechanics for the decentralization of power have already been brought forward by the Critical Art Ensemble:

As the electronic information-cores overflow with files of electronic people (those transformed into credit histories, consumer types, pattern and tendencies, etc.), electronic research, electronic money, and other forms of information power, the nomad is free to wander the electronic net, able to cross national boundaries with minimal resistance from national bureaucracies. The privileged realm of electronic space controls the physical logistics of manufacture, since the release of raw materials and manufactured goods requires electronic consent and direction. Such power must be relinquished to the cyber realm, or the efficiency (and thereby the profitability) of complex manufacture, distribution, and consumption would collapse into a communication gap (1994:17).

This is not to say that this predicament has no resistance. As Timothy Leary himself realized, “many people are understandably disturbed by the idea that in the future human beings will be spending more time in PlatoLand than in Flesh Play; piloting their brain-selves inside electronic realities, interacting with other electronic humans” (Leary 1994: 8). Nevertheless, it is clear that a positive psychic development is possible through the alteration of the “normal” state of consciousness; going from a structured consensus of what is “real” to sharing a consensual hallucination within a communitas of wired individuals.

Sources and References

Angelone, Robert

1996                        “The Future of Cybercafés” in Epicurus Online: The Ezine of Fine Food and Beverage

                                Available at

Benedikt, Michael

1991                        “Introduction” in Cyberspace: First Steps, 1-26. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Burroughs, William S.

1964                        “Points of Distinction between Sedative and Consciousness Expanding Drugs” in LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug. Edited by David Solomon, 168-173. New York: Berkley Medallion.

Callois, Roger

1961 [1958]            Man, Play, and Games. Translated by M. Barash. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Critical Art Ensemble

1994                        The Electronic Disturbance. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly

1975                        Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

1988                        “The Flow Experience and Human Psychology” in Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Edited by M. Csikszentmihalyi & Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi, 15-35. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Eisner, Bruce

1996                        “How a Psychonaut Became a Cybernaut” in The Global Village Voice (#6; June 1996)

                                Available at

Gautier, Théophile

1915 [1868]            Charles Baudelaire: His Life. Translated by Guy Thorne. London: Greening & Co.

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[1] All other elements related to cyberspace outside the cyberspatial sphere of the Internet are beyond my current interests. Their exclusion is of no immediate consequence to my research, and I am aware of the fact that cyberspace precedes the Internet.

[2] The URL for the Centre of Theatre Practice - Beta Testing Version was  The site later developed into the Kaos Theatre’s Cyberstation  -, but in 1999, soon after his departure from the Murdoch University, Phil Morle stopped working with Kaos Theatre. His current website is at

[3] In Neuromancer (1984), written more than a decade before the development and widespread use of the Internet, William Gibson has people literally plugging their brains into a global network called “the matrix” and navigate through virtual reality databases made up of raw information. This concept was appropriated by the Wachowski Brothers for their film The Matrix (1999) and subsequently fed into popular culture.

[4]  I am here referring mainly to the following books: Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993); Stacy Horn, Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town (New York: Warner Books, 1998); Stephen Doheny-Farina, The Wired Neighborhood (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996).

[5] Richard Schechner has distinguished between performances which are transformations, "where performers are changed," and performances which are transportations, "those where performers are returned to their starting places" (1985:125). Pertinently he proposes that when performers "reenter ordinary life" without the appropriate "cool down" they may experience an eventual "slight" transportation after a series of transportations (126). This concept is central in understanding cybercommunication as a performance of transformation.

[6] There is a extensive amount of written output related to this matter.  The most significant works include Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); Allucquere Rosanne Stone “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures” in Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by M. Benedikt (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991) pp. 81-118, and The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press); Lindsay van Gelder "The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover," in Talking to Strangers: Mediated Therapeutic Communication, edited by Gary Gumpert & Sandra L. Fish (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1990); William S. Burroughs, “Is the Body Obsolete?” Whole Earth Review (Summer 1989), 54; Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1998); The Presentation of Self in Electronic Life: Goffman on the Internet (

[7] I point this out because some people equate cybercommunication with video games. Yet, although videogames are a prevalent manifestation of human-computer interaction, cybercommunication incorporates many more configurations.

[8] While the major psychedelic agents vary somewhat with respect to their chemical structures and effects, all are structurally similar to the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Although much research has been carried out in this field over the past three decades, neuroscientists are still investigating precisely how these compounds affect neurotransmission at the receptor sites.

[9] One of the first attempts in the modern era to offer a systematic classification of psychoactive agents is Phantastika (1927), a pioneering and encyclopedic work on narcotics and stimulants by the German psychopharmacologist Louis Lewin. In it Lewin suggests that there are five basic types of intoxicants: "Euphorica" (such as cocaine, opium, and their derivatives), "Inebriantia" (alcohol, chloroform, ether, etc.), "Hypnotica" (chloral hydrate, kava), "Exzitantia" (including tobacco and substances containing caffeine), and "Phantastica" (peyote, marijuana, and other such substances). There have been several attempts at reorganizing Lewin’s schema, into stimulants, intoxicants, depressants, deliriants, and hallucinogens, however, what is more important is that they all recognize that hallucinogenic substances, those which Lewin called Phantastica constitute a unique group profoundly different from other drugs. The term used to describe these substances since the 1950s is Psychedelic – from the Greek words psyche (mind) and delos (clear or visible), therefore mind-manifesting or mind-opening (Osmond 1964 [1957]:148).

[10] The term cyberpunk refers to a sub-genre within science fiction which depicts visions of  future worlds with a vast range of technological developments and power struggles.

* Toni Sant ( teaches about Performance and the Internet at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

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