Veteran acidheads will tell you that the outcome of any given trip is determined by set and setting. “Set” means what you bring with you– the various bundle of neuroses and tics all of us possess– while “setting” denotes atmospherics. Hardly anyone would recommend taking psychedelics in a slaughterhouse, for instance. The proper set and setting might lead to (temporary) enlightenment, while some discord between the two could mean a shot of thorazine in the emergency ward.
Taking this piece of deviant wisdom to heart, let’s consider the relationship between subjectivity (set), environment (setting) and experience (trip). Culture permeates and thus partially determines all three of these categories insofar as who we are– our assumptions and sense of identity– the landscape of signs we navigate, and our lived, felt response to that imaginative terrain all yield to the influence of cultural imperatives and possibilities. If every one of us in the last 100,000 years of human culture have understood ‘love’ or ‘sadness’– in part because of cognitive hardwiring peculiar to the human brain– still over the ages we have expressed and given significance to these feelings differently, have distinguished particular kinds of love or sadness, and privileged some of those distinctions over others. Love, after all, is variegated: patriotic, erotic, fraternal, familial, etc.– I “love” film noir and black coffee though it’s doubtful I would kill or die for them.
Set and setting are mutually imbricated: they overlap. Each of us is a product not only of the wetware of the cerebral cortex but of a lifelong education whether we go to school or not. Everybody gets schooled, right? In the classroom, on the job, under the bleachers, etc. Society– this place right here– is the matrix (from the Latin mater, mother or womb) that generates us. That knowledge and sense of self is thus emplaced: it is specific to locale and moment. Yet the world isn’t a one-way street. Sets (individuals) shape their settings, and here we have a view of history and humanity that seems fairly fundamental. We are born into this world only to re-make it. The world is both given and contingent, mutable and a hard, cold, final horizon of the possible and impossible. Hamlet was right when he said to Horatio “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, though on the other hand sometimes philosophy (theory) is the only way to know what we don’t know. Those of us who’d rather not think about the world are doomed to miss its horror and brilliance. Not-thinking is a luxury most of the people on the planet simply don’t possess. In other words, passivity and narcissism are for the privileged– those who can afford not to be interested.
So: our setting consists partly of culture. Ipod, myspace, jolly ranchers, warm beer, clean sneakers, hipster fixies, pine-scented, CGI, traffic noises, Madame Cleo, Herman Melville, aloe vera, free minutes, FTW, LOL, etc., etc.– all the semiotic shrapnel of a hyper-mediated environment exploding and imploding 24/7. And because we are saturated thusly, because nobody seems to want to leave us alone with their endless appeals for our attention, it’s far too easy to let the shower of cultural detritus come down unexamined– which is exactly the wrong move.
Next week we’ll be talking about Orientalism, Persia, Satrapi, 300, and representations of history and geopolitics in popular culture. Let’s call that work a form of discourse analysis: gathering the fragments together (images, bytes, text, etc.) and examining their effects as a totality. We may discover that we ourselves as subjects number among those effects.