May 2015

Timothy Leary, Interview in Folsom Prison (1973)


Perhaps the most infamous “hippie philosopher” of his generation—and one might also dare suggest, the most intellectually sloppy (the man is hands-down creepy!)—Timothy Leary is best known for his oft-cited call to arms, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the motto of the Summer of Love and, in many ways, a statement that exposes the failure of the counterculture as a result of its insistence on a disengagement of self above all, a refusal of the political altogether. A Harvard psychologist turned rogue critic of the “War on Drugs,” a prophet of LSD and an advocate for mind-altering substances, as well as a writer who, later on in life, would develop transhumanist concepts involving space migration, life extension, and intelligence upgrading, Leary’s controversial activities made him a prime target of the law. Having escaped prison in 1970, Leary lived in Switzerland, Algeria, and Afghanistan, before, as he asserts in this video, the US Narcotics Bureau kidnapped him and brought him back to California, where he was incarcerated at Folsom Prison, placed in solitary confinement, and sentenced to ninety years. This interview banks on the wave of public interest around “the most dangerous man in America,” in an attempt to give a portrait of the thinker, writer, and activist as well as providing PR for the many interest groups pushing for his immediate release. Leary uses the opportunity to present himself as a philosopher of hope and freedom, making clear that his primary research has been into the nervous system, exploring possibilities for reprogramming the mind. The revolution cannot be physical, Leary suggests, it must be neurological, it must be hallucinatory. It is and will be a revolution of consciousness. The conversation, at times deliriously lucid, at other times an explicit self-promotion maneuver, addresses various topics such as drugs, addiction, the prison-industrial complex, education, and policy making, along with exaggerated statements on how to get rid of taxes, corruption, and class struggle altogether (it seems the answer is: give everyone LSD!). A nascent pharmaco-political subjectivity finds itself unwillingly articulated by Leary, who also hints at his transition towards becoming a “futurist” (he would author numerous books during his years in prison on future persons, exopsychology, and neuropolitics) in his affirmative embrace of communication technologies as the means for redistributing power to a more “conscious” public. In that regard, he certainly predicted the future well, though the dystopian resonance of the Intermorph’s contemporary condition may have been beyond the grasp of Leary’s imagination. The last line of the interview, in which Leary looks straight into the camera and delivers his message to the world, is, to say the least, uncanny, especially when seen from the perspective of today’s control society and its depoliticization of constant communication feeds: KEEP BROADCASTING! Oh yes, we will, we have no choice …

Timothy Francis Leary (October 22, 1920 – May 31, 1996) was an American psychologist and writer known for advocating psychedelic drugs.

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