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Early Iain Sinclair: ‘Black Psychosis’ and the Primal

Robert Bond

This consideration of the status of violence within Iain Sinclair’s earliest work attempts to do three things. I begin by contextualizing Sinclair’s continuing concern with ‘black psychosis’ — which he explicitly gestures towards as late as 1987 — by tracing the concept of ‘black psychosis’ back to the psychoanalytic theory of André Green. Then I argue for the value of the integration of the irrational into an expanded conception of rationality, as a crucial countervailing force to psychosis. This enables me to suggest, in the main part of this article, that it is the fear of confronting and incorporating violent instinctual impulses that conditions the evasive nature of the flight back to a primal, ‘original’ consciousness, which is advocated by various countercultural writers throughout Sinclair’s The Kodak Mantra Diaries (1971). Sinclair’s writing continues today to inscribe a radical discourse derived from the ‘new consciousness’, Beat, Buddhist or sub-Heideggerian countercultures that he documented in The Kodak Mantra Diaries. Yet precisely by doing so it offers a valuable resource for interrogating the failure to understand the importance of integrating violent unconscious impulses within the broader psyche, which characterizes many contemporary literary attempts to validate psychosis, in particular the schizoid states resulting from recreational drug use.

documenting an angry society, dodging hippy extras

With its confrontation of ‘the kind of anger/ that could have killed’ in the poem ‘prime bang up at hackney’, Sinclair’s first published volume Back Garden Poems (1970) initiates his fascinated consideration of the violence which scars an urban environment characterized by ‘filth Nastyness and Brutes’, in Nicholas Hawksmoor’s phrase cited in Lud Heat (1975). Violence in Sinclair’s writing is, prima facie, easily read as expressive either of an external, natural, ‘mythic’ force, or of an equally indefinite, wholly subjective impulse or drive such as the ‘killer instinct’ taken by one reviewer to generate Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997), a text that ‘even frightens itself’.[1] Yet already in 1971, with The Kodak Mantra Diaries, a retrospective account of the circumstances surrounding the making of Ah Sunflower!, his film for West Deutsche Rundfunk of Allen Ginsberg’s 1967 visit to London, Sinclair demonstrates a concern with violence’s necessarily political contexts and forms. Whether as the violence exercised within and between state governments, or as that at once implemented and (in the form of potential resistance) disavowed and repressed by institutional structures, such as psychiatry and the mass media, violence functions as a term that both focusses and divides the radical politics of the late sixties counterculture documented by the text.

The Kodak Mantra Diaries is a core primer within the countercultural history of ideas. In that it contains writing that he judges to represent ‘some of the most decisive prose written about contemporary events on the emergent fringe’, the poet Chris Torrance has also noted in the text ‘much material of direct relevance to New Age politics & apolitics’. It is not an analytical work of political science, yet some idea of the parameters and reference-points of the counterculture’s oppositional position can be gleaned from the texts recorded on sale at the Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation for the Demystification of Violence, organized by R. D. Laing and held at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm from 15th to 30th July 1967. Sinclair’s documentary account of the Congress, which constitutes a major element of his text, at one point records as on offer at the Roundhouse Fire Magazine (with articles by Laing and David Cooper), along with ‘[Paul] Goodman’s books, Marcuse’s books, Ginsberg’s new pamphlet WICHITA VORTEX SUTRA’. Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man appears in an August 1967 letter from a friend of Sinclair’s printed later in the text (p. 73), Marcuse’s contribution to the Congress’s ‘analysis [of] destruction’ having been, according to Cooper in his 1968 follow-up anthology The Dialectics of Liberation , a protest against the ‘blind, frightened repression of natural instinctuality’.[2]

The same letter lists Georges Sorel’s Réflexions sur la violence (1908), the motivation for which text’s advocation of the proletarian general strike – the indictment of the modern state as the precondition for capitalist exploitation – Walter Benjamin quotes in his ‘Critique of Violence’ (1921): ‘the state was really … the basis of the existence of the ruling group, who in all their enterprising benefit from the burdens borne from the public’. This statement is echoed in Sinclair’s invective in The Kodak Mantra Diaries against the violent force of capitalism (‘the burdens borne’), interiorized by and inducing psychic conflict within the ‘hippy extras’ gathered outside the Roundhouse. The ‘whole weight of money / fear would crash in on them’ and stifle the spontaneity held elsewhere, within the text, to characterize praxis: ‘The negative dynamic would stop them DEAD. And the talk of it [‘new life’] would have to do.’ (p. 70) Yet for Marcuse, addressing the Congress with ‘Liberation from the Affluent Society’, the Welfare State is a ‘Warfare State’, constructing a ‘total Enemy’ against which to redirect the ‘primary aggressiveness’ of developing oppositional consciousness.[3] Marcuse suggests that the counterculture itself represents a repository of violence; the deployment of bohemian anger against bourgeois society is itself conditioned by the broader state of warfare. Consequently, and rather than confronting its own violence, countercultural rage simply replicates societal violence.

Ginsberg, interviewed by Sinclair, similarly questions the belief that to replace capitalism would be to interrogate adequately our capacity for violence:

Both the Marxist & the Capitalist view is competition & rivalry between classes, or between individuals, as being basic to human nature. Well — is that basic? or is that the character formation of the people who are conditioned to it & who are running things?

Arguing the basic expression of violence to be ‘conflicts of communication ultimately’, Ginsberg called for deconditioning of the unconscious reflexes determining subjective ‘personal & emotional’, ‘conflicts of fear & paranoia, rather than the inevitable competition between lifeforms on the planet’ (p.42). To recognize this suggestion that violence is a fundamentally subjective impulse is however not to suggest that Sinclair’s work posits the unconscious sole ‘creator’ of violence; nor that it advocates a bare evasion of psychotic elements of the psyche. Sinclair by no means views access to the unconscious as necessarily benevolent, yet the ‘black psychosis which many psychoanalysts now assume lies at the base of consciousness'[4] (from the head-quote to the 1987 poem ‘Jack Elam’s Other Eye’), is not shied away from. I will now briefly trace the theoretical roots of the concept of ‘black psychosis’ that Sinclair refers to here.

black psychosis/psychose blanche

In a lecture on Mark Rothko delivered at Goldsmith’s College in 1979, and published the following year in his Art and Psychoanalysis, Peter Fuller (to whose Modern Painters Sinclair would later contribute) noted ‘the blank psychosis’ or ‘fundamental psychotic kernel’ hypothesized by J. -L. Donnet and André Green in L’Enfant de ca: La Psychose blanche (1973). That the slippage from ‘blanche’ to ‘black’ was perhaps not accidental is suggested by a comparable transition in Fuller’s description of the ‘most violent phase of my analysis’ in his memoir Marches Past (1986); ‘the eruption from the deepest and most primitive layers of my personality of the furious energy of a “high psychosis”‘. By the time of Andrew Duncan’s 1995 Angel Exhaust review of Denise Riley’s Mop Mop Georgette the deep/high, blanche/black ambivalence would seem to have collapsed the psychotic polarities into a universalized grey: ‘Fuller claims that “in the ultimate grey monochromes painted just before [Rothko’s] suicide he discovered … something like that ‘blank psychosis’ which many psychoanalysts now assume lies at the base of consciousness.” Murk, nebula, blank, grey: a consistent decor.’ Yet, significantly, in Freud and Philosophy (1970) Paul Ricoeur emphatically noted neutrality — intrapsychic grey — to be a characteristic of the id, when he outlined the common characteristics, such as the quality of timelessness, of the Freudian unconscious and id:

What the paper of 1915 [‘The Unconscious’] said about the unconscious is now [New Introductory Lectures, 1933] attributed to the id; [the latter signifying] a matter … of an inverted phenomenology of the impersonal and the neuter, of a neuter charged with ideas and impulses, of a neuter that … is something like an It speaks.

It is important to notice that the ‘borderline’ (Ricoeur)[5] position of the id, an indeterminate region once occupied by the unconscious, is analogous to that of ‘blank psychosis’ at the similarly unspecified ‘base of consciousness’. Blank psychosis occupies an indeterminate position within the psyche; it is perhaps precisely for this very reason that the concept captured the countercultural imagination and floated so easily through underground writing.

In Fuller’s somewhat confused recollection in Marches Past of André Green’s position at the 1975 Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association (convened that year in London), Green would seem to place psychosis in a generally constitutive position, despite its indeterminate location within the psyche: ‘Whereas Freud argued that the neuroses were the “negative of the perversions”, Green held that “the implied model of neurosis and of perversion is nowadays based on psychosis”.’ His reason is undoubtedly the analytic common ground between neurosis and psychosis; ‘he had been working with “borderline” states, conditions which could be classified neither as neurotic, nor as psychotic, yet which retain aspects of both’.[6]

This crucial insight recalls ‘The Continuum between Neurosis and Psychosis’, the title of a thesis in Theodor Adorno’s two-part New Left Review article of 1967-68, ‘Sociology and Psychology’. Adorno’s article is particularly apposite here since, influenced by Green, Fuller reappraised the arguments of R. D. Laing, whose thinking Irving Wohlfarth (making explicit reference to Laing’s Congress) compared to that of ‘Sociology and Psychology’ when its first part was published in New Left Review in November 1967. For now, I want to stress the way in which Green’s suspicion of defence mechanisms as sustaining a falsely unified ego that potentially prepares the way for the psychic disintegration associated with schizoid illness — precisely because such defence mechanisms prevent the confrontation of psychotic impulses and their integration into a resultantly strengthened, more flexible unity of the ego — resonates with both Laing’s and Adorno’s arguments in the late sixties. Green’s (in Fuller’s words) ‘defence mechanisms, the ways in which the ego attempts to ward off anxiety, … mobilized against the fear of madness and of self-negation [my emph.]’, recall Adorno’s ‘forces whereby it [the ego, strengthened by “amelioristic” analysis] keeps the unconscious down, the defence-mechanisms that allow the unconscious to continue its destructive activities’.[7]

the emancipation of inner nature

That ‘the inhibition of the functions of representation’, or of the functions required for sublimation to occur, is one of the characteristics of Green’s ‘fundamental psychotic kernel’, suggests the value of the ‘integration of the irrational into an expanded conception of rationality’ — for which, Joel Whitebook has argued, sublimation is a central process — as a crucial countervailing force to psychosis. Whitebook’s Perversion and Utopia (1996) is a text of particular value for the purposes of my argument here. Whitebook’s realignment of Freud with Frankfurt Critical Theory involves a rehabilitation of the ‘perverse-utopian’ tradition of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), and an examination of the necessary changes within psychoanalytic practice consequent upon the emergence of forms of ‘postconventional’ identity in the sixties. His critique, drawing on Hans Loewald, of the psychoanalytic tendency to hypostatize the defensive function of the ego and to understand it as ‘a structure designed, as it were, to disguise or impede the true psychic reality represented by the id’, echoes Marcuse’s suspicion, as early as ‘On Hedonism’ (1938), of the absolutized opposition between ego and id, or reason and inner nature, which Whitebook identifies as motivating Marcuse’s concern with the emancipation of inner nature in the more widely influential Eros and Civilization.[8]

Whilst Freud is brought in to substantiate sublimation as a process ‘that allows for a high degree of instinctual expression’, Whitebook stresses its role as a ‘third alternative to the romantic idealization of the irrational and rationalist isolation from it’, and advances an ‘autonomy … not achieved through the repression of inner nature but, on the contrary, through the maximization of “free intercourse” [Freud] with it’. It would therefore be tenable that only a recognition and expression of violent instinctual impulses, made available for instance by sublimation, would afford the subject requisite flexibility and autonomy to withstand incursions of violence from without, such as Sinclair’s ‘whole weight of money/fear’. Indeed, though Sinclair does not view access to psychotic instincts as necessarily benevolent (as will become clear in his response to Laing’s ‘mass psychosis’ injunction), the interest in a ‘leap beyond the rational and abruptly into otherness the black’ expressed in Back Garden Poems already invites comparison with the Adorno who, in Whitebook’s words, ‘knows full well that the dissociation of the instincts from thinking results in the rationalist atrophy of thought’.[9]

Adorno, like Sinclair, tunes social dissidence to modernist dissonance and the critical rationality released by self-negation. ‘Sociology and Psychology’ asserts that ‘free intercourse’ between cognitive and instinctive psychic systems is not towards any harmonistic aim — Adorno’s suspicion of amelioristic therapy being in any case consonant with Ricoeur’s ‘express will to bracket the question of adaptation’ in 1974.

The well-balanced person who no longer sensed the inner conflict of … the irreconcilable claims of id and ego, would not thereby have achieved an inner resolution of social conflicts. … His integration would be a false reconciliation with an unreconciled world, and would presumably amount in the last analysis to an “identification with the aggressor”, a mere character-mask of subordination.

Whitebook’s reference to this passage in connection with ‘”the well-integrated personality” of the Hartmann era, itself the psychoanalytic counterpart to the “go-getter” of the Eisenhower (and Adenauer) years’, suggests that a 1968 poem from Back Garden Poems, sub-titled ‘(from MURDER, film by Alfred Hitchcock)’, is not simply bemoaning the violence stemming from Cold War era government paranoia. It also implicitly retrieves and re-invokes for renewed expression the subjective instinctuality which would otherwise be fruitlessly turned against the ‘total Enemy’ represented by bourgeois society:

these were the great years of
for all who crossed the barriers
and stretched too high for love[10]

In The Kodak Mantra Diaries, Sinclair pursues the issue of Cold War violence that inhibits the expression of irrational drives, or the crossing of intrapsychic barriers, when he quotes the ‘giant inertia going forward / towards murder & fear’ (p. 58) of Ginsberg’s poem ‘The End Now’. In a real sense Ginsberg’s ‘fear’ is precisely the fear of confronting irrationality. As we have now seen, at the time of Sinclair’s early publications, both Green and Adorno were theorizing the psychic defence mechanisms that, precisely in that they were mobilized against the fear of madness, simply perpetuated the destructive activities of the unconscious. They showed how the attempt to ward off ‘anxiety’ — for instance, by succumbing to a ‘giant inertia’ — in fact heightens irrationality. I now want to argue that it is the fear of confronting and incorporating violent instinctual impulses that conditions the evasive nature of the flight back to some primal, ‘original’ consciousness, which is advocated by various countercultural figures throughout The Kodak Mantra Diaries in response to the violence, mistakenly identified as ‘total’, of an ‘apocalyptic’ present and future. I will begin by examining the countercultural construction of an ideology of total violence.

the apocalypse clique

The ideology of totalized violence can only perpetuate the ongoing exercise of state violence lamented, by Ginsberg at the Roundhouse, as being blind to skin colour (‘also however falling on all of us’) and wielded by both superpowers (‘in America, also in Russia’). His call for ‘action either to placate the blacks, or to placate the whites, or to placate the planet itself’ (pp. 25-26) is motivated partly by the primarily ecological concerns of his address. Ginsberg began his address by quoting W. S. Burroughs’s Nova Express (1966) ‘as an example of what happens when a planet goes out of control’, in keeping with his own ‘thoroughly contemporary desire to create the human epic on a global basis of an entirely non-authoritarian ecology’, that Eric Mottram compared to Olson and Blake’s Jerusalem.[11] Yet the ensuing images of apocalypse throughout The Kodak Mantra Diaries indicate that its counterculture’s environmental concerns arise from a universalization of violence, or unification of diverse operations of violence, against which no ‘action’ has yet been formulated. The projected apocalyptic threat of global environmental collapse both masks and militates against the confrontation of specific acts of violence.

Sinclair’s novel Downriver (1991) indeed recollects the Congress in terms of its ‘fatalism of an apocalypse clique’ that, in the Lights Out for the Territory lampoon, ‘wanted to hear the worst, the spidery voice of doom: grave prophecies delivered like news’.[12] The distinct form of racial violence, for example, was so well obscured that its principal opponent at the Roundhouse, Stokely Carmichael, succumbed to an apocalypticism that was merely imitative of the very construction of ‘totalized’ violence inhibiting the recognition of specifically racialized oppression:

the cities are decaying from the centre
they’re so bad there’s nothing left to do
except burn them
as Carmichael says (p. 58: Ginsberg, ‘The End Now’)

That ‘news’-like apocalypticism is by no means unacceptable to the mainstream media is demonstrated by the rapidity of the televisual conversion of Ginsberg, Carmichael and ‘even’ Digger Emmet Grogan into ‘faces’, marketable ‘brand names’ (p. 18), so that the activist is inserted into the unthreatening category of ‘celebrity’:

The reality of Ginsberg having faded
dropped back into the fictional
the other world of
Tom Wolfe & Mailer & Time Magazine (p. 75)

Crucially, Ginsberg’s environmental concerns were reflected in one particular aspect of the interest in returning to archaic or pre-historic social models that marked the ‘Edenic, druidic 1960s hippyism’ (in Karl Miller’s phrase) of the counterculture. (This was an interest shared with the Cambridge English Intelligencer poets of this period). Discussing ‘the movement back to the land’ with Laing, Sinclair questioned him as to whether he agreed with Paul Goodman’s advocacy of ‘de-centralization’. Laing admired American teenagers’ attempts to form these ‘utopian communities’ and identified Gary Snyder as the ‘clearest thinker’ (p.33) on this issue. It was to be in the seventies that Snyder used the phrase ‘Re-inhabitory’ to describe ‘the tiny number of persons who come out of the industrial societies’ in attempts to form what he elsewhere calls ‘natural-credit communist economy’, yet of course ‘the inhabitory people — natives and peasants of the world’ [13] were evoked already in 1967 in Sinclair’s description of the hippies arriving at the Roundhouse as ‘the tribes’ (p. 12), and Ginsberg’s portrayal of neo-tribalist hippies wearing ‘the beads, appurtenances, of shamanistic groups of ecstatic transtate types’ (p. 26).

It is worth stressing that, as Sinclair’s own Albion Drive community attested, such a ‘new tribalism’ could also be an urban phenomenon. After all, the ‘hippy extras’ gathered ‘against the silent exhaustion of the city’ had ‘travelled to get here’ (p. 70); the move to the city being an ethical decision, as Barry Miles recalled:

It’s interesting that the first thing that made a lot of people in England get up & leave home & hitchhike to London for the first time was idealism, the concept of good & bad, rather than coming down for a big pop concert or something. That was good. It got people on the road, to meet other people in other cities, got youth mobile and our revolution has evolved from that. (p. 68)

This ‘concept of good & bad’ should be noted along with the bare logistical reason, noted by Burroughs in London in 1973, that a commune ‘depends entirely for its existence on the continuation of the [urban] industrial society in which it is located’ (however ‘post-industrial’ a location for the gathering of the tribes the Roundhouse may have been in 1967), just as the ‘spontaneous university’ was imagined by Alexander Trocchi, in his highly influential essay ‘Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’ (1962), as ‘a flowering garden already wholly sustained by automation’.[14]

Snyder’s essay ‘Re-inhabitation’ stresses the praxis enabled by a heightened sense of place, noting ‘the actual elements of a life committed to a place, … that are so physically and intellectually intense’. In The Kodak Mantra Diaries the activity pictured in the photographs of the Mapledene community (quite probably stills from Sinclair’s The Diaries, 1969-75), images accompanying his 1969 poem ‘Albion Square’ — ‘It was involved with/ place/ WHERE we lived & how’ (p. 75) — recalls an argument of Marcuse’s, from the same year, in An Essay on Liberation. For Marcuse, the ‘needs and faculties of freedom’ that ‘cannot develop in an environment shaped by and for aggressive impulses, nor … as the mere effect of a new set of social institutions’, can emerge only in ‘the collective practice of creating an environment: level by level, step by step’. This form of nonviolent reclamation of urban space resonates with both the Situationist theory of the dérive (1958), that ‘entails playful-constructive behaviour’,[15] and the countercultural attempt to discover the ‘original layout of the land under the cities’ and identify ‘the sacred spots’ (Laing, p. 33), as when ‘instinct led us [Sinclair et al.], with vague memories of Blake & of Bardic ritual’ (p. 43), to the summit of Primrose Hill.

In a 1997 interview published in Entropy, Sinclair noted the ‘kind of global sense of history as against the particularisations of what we were doing here’,[16] developed within The Kodak Mantra Diaries as a result of the extensive treatment of figures such as Ginsberg and Laing. (In this respect it is a unique text of his). Yet, within the context of approaches to violence, Ginsberg’s own ‘global sense of history’, as has been argued, merely subsumes particular implementations of violence within a universalized, undifferentiated environmental threat, one proposed solution of which — ‘the experience of a divine suchness to the whole substance that we are involved in: the place where we are’ (p. 38) — invokes a mystical, sub-Heideggerian image of community, which, Sinclair demonstrates, can potentially betray the very violence it was intended to disavow, and on a local scale — quite literally ‘where we are’, at the Hackney location of Back Garden Poems.

It is notable that, concerning an area described in Sinclair’s Red Eye (1974) in terms of ‘(this garden corridor)/ atavistic impulses’, Julian Harrap’s 1976 statement on behalf of the Hackney Society defending Mapledene’s ‘havens of seclusion’ (compare Sinclair’s ‘pre-dead’ streets ‘of great interest to the archivists of the Hackney Society’), all too easily fades into an unattributed article intended for a Mapledene bulletin named The Garden: ‘as the voortrekkers depended on their laagers of covered wagons for survival, so does civilization in modern inner-city conditions need the closed quadrilateral for gardening, for quiet, for safe play for the children and against violence and theft’. Indeed Lud Heat would juxtapose the self-imprisoning fantasy of the ‘environmentalist’ haven, its enchantment recalling Ginsberg’s ‘divine suchness’, to the ongoing racial conflict:

‘there are still enchanting enclosures, such as
the little group Albion Square, Albion Terrace &
Albion Drive, with fine public houses, the
Duke of Wellington & the Brownlow Arms’

here: Hackney South & Shoreditch where
Mr Robin May polled the National Front’s
best result 2,544 votes[17]

conclusion: the psychopolitics of regression

We finally now need to examine in more detail the countercultural advocacy of a flight back to primal, ‘original’ consciousness. In an ICA lecture delivered on 21 January 1964, and subsequently revised for the 1967 The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise, Laing recognized the importance, precisely because ‘there is no violent, coercive, authoritarian mode of persuasion or seduction that will turn people on’ (p. 65), of ‘admitting and even accepting our violence, rather than blindly destroying ourselves with it’. This recognition, though, was effectively disabled by his comparison of the covertly violent ‘twentieth-century’ mother to the ‘stone-age’ baby. Laing’s baby offers a delusory image of pacificism that masks both aggressive infantile instinctuality and, when equated with archaic, collective consciousness, the barbaric aspect of primitive societies. Further, as shall be shown, Laing posits here a wholly unproblematic model of psychic regression which neglects the actual content of Green’s ‘base of consciousness’ — the psychosis within collective (un-)consciousness. This model of regression is grounded in the late sixties reception of Jung that also informs – for example — Michael Horovitz’s 1968 ‘Afterwords’ for his Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969) anthology, with its inappropriate comparison to William Blake: ‘Atomic Adams, visibly erupting instead of falling, father the lineaments of a new renaissance personality — athwart the Philistine & Pharisee critics alike, dead hands of repressive control — towards Blake’s “Universal Poetic Genius” and Jung’s “Collective Unconscious”.'[18]

Crucially, in The Kodak Mantra Diaries, Laing’s vaunted ‘TOTAL DISSOLUTION OF THE OLD EGOIC CONSCIOUSNESS’ (p. 34) invokes psychosis, yet is in fact a reflection of his Heidegger-derived interest in ‘manifesting in one’s presence in the world the source of one’s being’: ‘Anything that one does that isn’t a manifestation of that can’t possibly turn anyone else on to what one is seeking to manifest.’ (p. 65) Within (Ginsberg’s take on) Laing’s definition of psychosis as ‘a breakthrough of the old consciousness formation & an insight into the new’, the ‘old consciousness’ is to be understood as collective, ‘the ground of consciousness which is our mutual thing'(pp. 36-37). The ‘new’ consciousness is no more than a replication of this archaic ‘old consciousness’; as the reference to ‘the new consciousness’ manifested by writers as distinct as Jack Kerouac and Robert Duncan — which can be traced back ‘through old gnostic texts, visions, artists and shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed and desecrated’ — within Ginsberg’s noted ‘Remarks on [Timothy] Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy’,[19] makes clear. The ambiguity of the final phrase, ‘suppressed or desecrated’, revealingly suggests the ‘suppression’ of or failure to integrate violent unconscious impulses which in fact characterizes the ‘new consciousness’, Beat, Buddhist or sub-Heideggerian, invoked, for instance, through the quasi-shamanic psychose faux of LSD use. We can see that the ‘breakthrough’ experienced by Laing’s hippies undergoing ‘DESPERATE AND UNCONDITIONAL DECONDITIONING OF THEMSELVES’ (p. 34), represents not a working through of subjective psychosis towards the end of the attainment of autonomous selfhood, but rather a collective self-dissolution that is imitative of the very process of alienating individuation, whereby society is ‘getting more & more separated & individuated by pressures of large civilizations’ (p. 36), that it is designed to counteract.

In that countercultural LSD use, however motivated by desires such as Ginsberg’s to ‘calm things down, to exorcise & pacify the familiar demons’ (p. 53), expressed a need to experience a ‘collective unconscious’, it provoked the possibility of a regression to the very constituent psychosis that the projected condition was intended to obscure. Laing’s advocacy of a drug use mistaken as equivalent to the working through of psychotic unconscious material, thus recalls Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel’s criticism of the 1968 French student movement and the eco-pacifist politics of the German Greens, for their regressive attempt to (in Whitebook’s words) ‘circumvent the paternal law and reunite with the archaic mother directly’. In The Kodak Mantra Diaries, the turn of the counterculture towards collective, ‘unconscious’ identity — as a reaction against the psychotic subjecthood that, fostered by the social process of individuation, ‘embodies in absolute opposition to society its innermost principle’ (Adorno) — which precisely fails to work through subjective psychosis, can only offer the ‘abstract negation’ of individuated identity which, in Wohlfarth’s terms, is ‘tantamount to complete regression’.[20] (Abstract negation is something that Ginsberg comments on too, if in less abstract terms: ‘Negative opposition just strengthens the old system because it keeps the mind dwelling on it. It will take energy to supplant the old barroom brawls with different kinds of barroom behaviour’ (p. 39)).

LSD-provoked regression represents collectivity only in the sense that the ‘brutal, total, standardizing’ society of ‘Sociology and Psychology’ ‘arrests all differentiation, and to this end it exploits the primitive core of the unconscious’; rather as Laing ultimately exploits psychosis, invoking the timeless nature of the Freudian unconscious whose contents ‘may be compared with an aboriginal population in the mind’, whilst denying the need for their integration. Despite his belief that the hippy ‘movement back to the land’ is being made ‘in a way that is totally different from the romantic nostalgia for the noble savage’ (p. 33), the hippies were effectively trapped within the stasis of Heidegger’s ‘primitive’ that ‘is always timeless’, or foreclosing ‘beginning’ that ‘already contains the end latent within itself’ (‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1936)).[21]

Interestingly however, and despite his involvement with the psychedelic ‘scene’ marked by the 1971 Albion Village Press publication of M. L. “Tony” Lowes’ Elephant Book (or, How the Elephant Made It through the Psychedelic Symbol), Sinclair’s notion of the collective unconscious is distinct from that of the hippies derived from LSD use. In a key poem from Muscat’s Würm (1972), ‘Mother Glacier’, the marking of ‘the tree as dream as family’, so that ‘the dream precedes consciousness’, suggests a form of racial unconscious that shares the predetermining capacity of Heidegger’s ‘beginning’ – but for Sinclair this provides cause for lament: ‘the memory precedes event, hence melancholy’. (The omission of the definite article in the Flesh Eggs & Scalp Metal: Selected Poems, 1970-1987 reprint stresses the collective form of this ‘memory’ of ‘great-grandfather, bird-eye/ watching from the tree’s beard’, recalled through dream). Further, in ‘Mother Glacier’ the psychic state when ‘I do not receive your message/ cannot break the codes of death [emph. mine]’, results in writing consisting merely of ‘implausible connectives/ the page fills, the issue is clouded’; so signalling an implicit belief of Sinclair’s in the creativity afforded by a working through of the unconscious energies associated with forms of ‘possession’ or intergenerational haunting — in psychoanalytic terms, through mourning and internalizing the lost objects — so as to overcome obsessional mechanisms symbolized by the finite, invariant ‘codes of death’. Such ‘writing out’ also evolves a more direct, public poetry, as opposed to one of ‘implausible connectives’, from the aim ‘to recover the dream/ of an aboriginal dynamism’ (‘Frog Killer Memorial’, Red Eye ).[22] Sinclair aimed for a similar dynamic directness in his film-making, hypothesized in The Kodak Mantra Diaries as that which can ‘say it fresh, no talk-throughs, no studios, might be liberated, might be spontaneous, might be authentic’ (p. 19).

In that text, Stokely Carmichael’s objection that ‘the people who say they are dropping out now are turning on & expecting that to be their excuse or their escape out of society’, a strategy ‘absurd at best, ludicrous at worst’, leads Sinclair to characterize ‘young white society’ in the United States as the ‘lost ghosts of middle america’ (p. 27). Indeed, in Eros and Civilization, Marcuse’s account of nondifferentiation as ‘the integral peace which is the absence of all need and desire — the Nirvana before birth’, as well as extending ‘new’-’old’ consciousness to prenatality, arguably converged with the Buddhism which Snyder, in ‘Buddhism and the Coming Revolution’, later judged to pay ‘no attention’ to ‘historical or sociological problems’. Marcuse’s nostalgia for an ‘integral’ psychic ‘peace’ which is imaginable only when attributed to an asocial pre-birth condition, effectively fixes psychotic impulses within an invariant unconscious which has no relation to the external reality of the ego. There is therefore no possibility within this regressive model that such unconscious material will be made conscious (for instance by sublimation), and capable of expression and subsequent integration within the ego, nor any way that it can, as in The New Introductory Lectures, ‘be recognized as belonging to the past’ and become no longer immutable. Indeed one marker of Snyder’s lack of ‘attention’ is the return of unintegrated violent instinctuality in the form of the retributive violence sanctioned by Buddhism, which he notes in the essay ‘Poetry and the Primitive’. ‘The enlightenment that can say “these beings are dead already; go ahead and kill them, Arjuna”’,[23] determines Laing’s ‘Buddha consciousness’ that ‘would say: kill them, they’re already dead’ (p. 32) when faced with the American presence in Vietnam. Such a repetition of existing violences, exposed by Sinclair throughout The Kodak Mantra Diaries, expresses vividly the indistinguishability of the only delusorily utopian ‘new consciousness’ from the brutal ‘old consciousness’ from which it derives, and the failure of both forms of consciousness to integrate violent drives within a newly-unified, autonomous, genuinely individuated ego.


[1] Iain Sinclair, Back Garden Poems (London: Albion Village Press, 1970), p. 17; Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat / Suicide Bridge (London, Vintage, 1995), p. 17; Phil Baker, ‘Canon of the Damned’, TLS , 14 February 1997, p. 30.

[2] Chris Torrance and Phil Maillard, ‘Iain Sinclair/ Lud Heat/ The Albion Village Press: A Tracking & an Interview’, Poetry Information , 15 (Summer 1976), 7-12 (p. 7); Iain Sinclair, The Kodak Mantra Diaries (London: Albion Village Press, 1971), p. 18 (further references to The Kodak Mantra Diaries are given after quotations in the text); David Cooper, ‘Introduction’, in The Dialectics of Liberation , ed. David Cooper (London: Penguin, 1968), pp. 7-11 (p. 9).

[3] Sorel quoted in Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’, in his One-Way Street and Other Writings , trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, 3rd edn (London: Verso, 1992), pp. 132-54 (p. 146); Herbert Marcuse, ‘Liberation from the Affluent Society’, in ed. Cooper, pp. 175-92 (pp. 181-82); Emmett Grogan, recalling the Congress in his Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps (London: Heinemann, 1972), pp. 425-35 (p. 430), claims that Marcuse failed to attend.

[4] Iain Sinclair, Jack Elam’s Other Eye (London: Hoarse Comerz, 1991), p. 1.

[5] Peter Fuller, Art and Psychoanalysis (London: Writers and Readers, 1980), pp. 9, 220, 249 n. 68; Peter Fuller, Marches Past (London: Chatto & Windus, 1986), p. 50, Sinclair labels this book Fuller’s ‘Dalston confessional’ in the former’s Lights Out for the Territory (London: Granta Books, 1997), p. 22; Andrew Duncan, ‘Cerise Georgette Flare: Mop Mop Georgette , Denise Riley’, Angel Exhaust 12 (Autumn 1995), 92-104 (p. 94); Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy : An Essay on Interpretation , trans. Denis Savage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 443-44.

[6] Marches , p. 160.

[7] Theodor Adorno, ‘Sociology and Psychology – II’, New Left Review 47 (January-February 1968), 79-97 (p. 94); Marches , p. 162; Irving Wohlfarth, ‘Presentation of Adorno’, New Left Review 46 (November-December 1967), 63-66 (pp. 63, 66 n. 2); Marches, p. 160; ‘Sociology – II’, p. 95; an important difficulty arising from Adorno’s hostility toward ‘amelioristic’ analysis is noted in Joel Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia : A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 261.

[8] Art , p. 220; Whitebook, pp. 219, 218, 247; Herbert Marcuse, ‘On Hedonism’, in his Negations: Essays in Critical Theory , trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (London: Free Association Books, 1988; first publ. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 159-200 (p. 199); Whitebook, p. 86.

[9] Whitebook, pp. 247, 12, 15; back cover of Back ; Whitebook, p. 261, compare Adorno’s ‘escape’ from ‘self-preservation’ in Simon Jarvis, ‘The Coastline of Experience: Materialism and Metaphysics in Adorno’, Radical Philosophy 85 (September/ October 1997), 7-19 (p. 15).

[10] Ricoeur, ‘Technique and Nontechnique in Interpretation’ quoted in Whitebook, pp. 307-8 n. 98, ‘Sociology – II’, p. 83; Whitebook, p. 258; Back , p. 24.

[11] Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 398; Eric Mottram, Allen Ginsberg in the Sixties (Unicorn Bookshop: Brighton, 1972), p. 13.

[12] Iain Sinclair, Downriver (London: Paladin, 1991), p. 301; Lights , p. 97.

[13] Karl Miller, Doubles: Studies in Literary History (Oxford: OUP, 1987 (first publ. 1985)), p. 452 n. 18; personal communication 25 March 1997; Gary Snyder, ‘Re-inhabitation’, in his The Old Ways: Six Essays (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1977), pp. 57-66 (p. 65); Gary Snyder, ‘Buddhism and the Coming Revolution’, in his Earth House Hold: Technical Notes & Queries To Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries (London: Cape, 1970), pp. 90-93, p. 93; ‘Re-inhabitation’, p. 66.

[14] Eric Mottram, Snack [A transcript of two tapes, the second made at W. S. Burroughs’ Duke Street flat in the early summer of 1973] (London: Aloes Books, 1975), p. 29; later in the seventies during his Church of Scientology period, Burroughs corresponded with Sinclair regarding an (unmade) film, see Lights , p. 288; Alexander Trocchi, ‘Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’, repr. in A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi , ed. Allan Campbell and Tim Niel (Edinburgh: Rebel Inc., 1997), pp. 164-76 (p. 173); most readers would have encountered it in its Anarchy and International Situationist Review reprints (Andrew Murray Scott, Alexander Trocchi: The Making of the Monster (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), p. 104), and it also appeared along with ‘Sigma: A Tactical Blueprint’ in City Lights Journal , 2 (1964), as a further index of Trocchi’s involvement with Situationism (Campbell and Niel, p. 297); see too Murray Scott’s anthology Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds: A Trocchi Reader (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991).

[15] ‘Re-inhabitation’, p. 65; on The Diaries , see Lights , p. 29; Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (London: Penguin, 1969), p. 31; Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, in Situationist International Anthology , ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), pp. 50-54 (p. 50) (first publ. in Internationale Situationniste , 2 (December 1958)); compare Marcuse’s argument in Eros and Civilization that, in Whitebook’s words, ‘the purposeful purposelessness of play and other sublimatory activities could, in fact, lean on, to use Freud’s term, “the satisfaction of the great vital needs.”’, Whitebook, p. 34.

[16] Gareth Evans and Ben Slater, ‘Unfinished Business… : Iain Sinclair’, Entropy , 2 (Late Summer 1997), 12-17 (pp. 12-13).

[17] Iain Sinclair, ‘Two Sections from Red Eye’, Grosseteste Review , vol. 7 nos. 1-3 (Summer 1974), 52-65 (p. 54); Harrap quoted in Patrick Wright, A Journey through Ruins: A Keyhole Portrait of British Postwar Life and Culture , 3rd edn (London: Flamingo, 1993), p. 124; Lights , p. 32; Wright, p. 125; compare the apartheid architecture of Stoke Newington police station, Lights , p. 31; Lud / Suicide , p. 130.

[18] Laing quoted in John Clay, R. D. Laing: A Divided Self (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), pp. 100-1; Michael Horovitz, ‘Afterwords’, in Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain , ed. Horovitz (London: Penguin, 1969), pp. 316-77 (pp. 370-71).

[19] Ginsberg quoted in Allen , p. 24.

[20] Whitebook, p. 67; ‘Sociology – I’, p. 77; Wohlfarth, pp. 65-66.

[21] ‘Sociology – II’, p. 95; Freud quoted in Ricoeur, p. 443; Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings , ed. David Farrell Krell, 2nd edn (Routledge: London, 1996), pp. 143-212 (p. 201).

[22] Iain Sinclair, Muscat’s Würm (London: Albion Village Press: 1972), p. 19; Iain Sinclair, Flesh Eggs & Scalp Metal: Selected Poems, 1970-1987 (London: Paladin, 1989), p. 29; compare Ricoeur, p. 372, ‘reality, hard reality, is the correlate of … internalized absence’, and the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok; ‘Two’, p. 62.

[23] Marcuse quoted in Whitebook, p. 36; ‘Buddhism’, p. 90; Freud quoted on Ricoeur, p. 444; Gary Snyder, ‘Poetry and the Primitive: Notes on Poetry as an Ecological Survival Technique’, in Earth , pp. 117-30 (p. 128).

To Cite This Article:

Robert Bond, ‘Early Iain Sinclair: ‘Black Psychosis’ and the Primal’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]