The Will to Party by Wayne Mellinger

The Will to Party by Wayne Mellinger

"Drug wars" and "addictions" seem to be defining features of modernity. When patriarchal church and state conspired to destroy shamanic practices, the wisdom of entheogenic "controlled use" died (See my essay "On the Genealogy of Drug Use and Addiction). The eminent ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott calls this the "pharmacratic inquisition".  

The following essay was written a while back (2008), and I recognize in it a "romantic" perspective on drug use as normal, healthy, and natural, a tone which frightens many.  In my life journeys I have learned many important things through the use of intoxicants.  Centrally, I have learned that I personally am not able to use many "harder" drugs and maintain my freedom.  When I do attempt to use these substances I break out in handcuffs.  I live a clean and sober life now and have no desire to go back to daily drug consumption  (I self-medicated for untreated bi-polar mood disorder for almost a dozen years).  But I still accept a lot of what I wrote here. Let me state clearly that I do not condone methamphetamine use at all and see it as an unhealthy, destructive poison unworthy of shamanic exploration!  Other natural entheogenic substances, such as ayahuasca, peyote, and amanita muscaria I do not put in the category of "hard drugs" and I reserve for another time and place my estimation of their shamanic value.
“For it is only in the Dionysian mysteries, in the psychology of the Dionysian condition, that the fundamental acts of the Hellenic instinct expresses itself—its “will to life”. What did the Hellene guarantee to himself with these mysteries? Eternal life, the eternal recurrence of life: the future promised and consecrated in the past; the triumphant Yes to life beyond death and change; true life as collective continuation of life through procreation , through the mysteries of sexuality (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1889[1968: 109]).

In this essay I attempt to formulate the concept of the Will to Party as a way to capture the complex desires which surround our drug-using behavior, needs to alter consciousness and spiritual longings for ecstatic frenzy. I attempt to ground my understanding of these desires in my meth-using lived experiences and those of my subcultural companions. I have informed my studies of these phenomena through detailed examination of the anthropology of drug use, shamanism, and ecstatic religion, particularly as found among “primitive’ tribal societies. Also, I take inspiration from the worship of Dionysus by the ancient Greeks, and the insight on all this by Nietzsche, Bataille and their followers.  Elsewhere, I explore different aspects of this "dionysian thinking".

Let me begin by stating that I believe that humans have an innate need to “go wild” – to cast off all of our civilized pretensions, social mores, and normative restrictions — to transgress these limits in liminal spaces. In traversing the borders of culture (cultivated, tidy, predictable, bound) we become closer to nature (uncontrollable, untouched, animal-like and wild). A genetic predisposition leads us to want to “party”—to engage in ecstatic pleasure, alter consciousness, have "peak experiences" with out-of-this-world sexual activity, and to do drugs. Moreover, I believe these urges are inherently sacred and have manifest themselves as religious expressions throughout time and across the globe.  There is special wisdom to be gained through these types of transgressive ecstatic experiences that are not to be found in other ways.

Product of the interplay between interdiction and transgression, irreducible to biological cravings, the Will to Party is a total social phenomenon. Under the rubric of the sacred, it can be explored in terms commensurate with its powerful evocations which I describe as “dancing with Dionysus".  The Will to Party illuminates the most obscure forms of behavior. People gather for festivals and carnivals to satisfy the rending open onto others that is ultimately a liberating tear. The Will to Party properly enacted, affirms rather than undermines social cohesion when enjoyed with others.
Like eroticism and mysticism, “partying” provokes an experience of wounding, an opening of the body or mind in a death of the ego, and in joining with wholly Other—the sacred. Drug use is an expression of the "will to party" -- the desire to transgress boundaries, to burst mundane reality open and shatter reason into a million little pieces. This takes its ideal form in ancient gatherer societies, in which shamans produced ecstatic frenzy through the use of psychotropic plants. For our primitive ancestors, what we consider "drug use" was for them the consumption of plant-gods in sacred rituals.  Centrally, it was not merely recreational, but was a “total social phenomenon”— simultaneously religious, social, aesthetic.

With the destruction of world-wide shamanic wisdom, most Western "civilized" cultures lost the wisdom of "controlled use" (Zinberg 1984), and the wisdom of entheogenic plants, and have turned to the compulsive use of synthetic drugs.  The massive levels of anxiety in modernity caused by the destruction of many time-honored traditions has only exacerbated the problem.  This has had very negative consequences for modern humanity.
Primitive transgressive rituals satisfied "the will to party" and had community-binding elements. While a stark contrast to the predominant value orientation of homogeneous societies, which degrades all social action to the status of a means to an end—typically the accumulation of wealth, it would be wrong to consider shamanic rituals as having no end in themselves.

The Will to Party is an aesthetic focus on desire for an altered state of consciousness, especially the feelings of anticipation of substance-using activity. It is not only the state of arousal and anticipation, but also the attempt through whatever means of representation to incite those feelings. I hope to draw a parallel between the concepts of “will to party" and eroticism. What eroticism is to the biological drive for sexuality, ”the will to party" is to the biological drive for intoxication. Theoretically, I draw upon Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on the Dionysian and on Georges Bataille’s work on transgression. Anthropologically, I want to ground my conceptualization in empirical studies of tribal shamanism, ethnopharmacology and ecstatic religion.
Stepping Forward, Stepping Back

Let me attempt to situate my initial thoughts on the "Will to Party".  I spent a great deal of time and money and energy “partying” during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine were the primary substances I enjoyed. The social worlds I inhabited largely supported such activities. During these years I mostly would have thought of my consumption as "moderate”, although there were often periods of excess, and even periods of out-of-control “hardcore” addiction. Obviously, I am not alone in this culture with my deep desire to get high, have a laugh and share this experience with others.  (Since initially writing this essay I have learned that I had untreated bi-polar mood disorder.  See my essay on the "Triple Challenges" for more on my mental health challenges).

The Will to Party is an attempt to grapple with a dominant form of cultural activity in the late modern era. I seek to understand the roots of substance consumption in these times—the biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual foundations of drug-using behaviors. Moreover, I hope to ground my exploration of these topics through a detailed examination of my journey through the social world of meth use in the opening years of the twenty-first century. Anthropologically, I ground my conceptualization of the Will to Party in my observations of meth subcultures and a thick description of the everyday life of meth users.

By “stepping forward” I refer to my empirical interest in the real lives of a particular gang of meth users in Ventura, California, and my attempt to understand our thoughts and actions. By “stepping back” I hope to see the “big picture”—the broad historical and structural happenings which contextualize these mundane movements of meth users.
Stepping back, I see a few rebellious spirits not swept up with the machinations of Empire—tiny minorities momentarily maintaining an earthy lust for pleasure and defying the logic of capitalist accumulation and technocratic rationality. Many of these folks “just wanna have fun” and escape the work-and-spend routines which dominate American life. Many reject the dismally bland offerings of evangelical sacraments and almost unconsciously embrace direct mysticism through ancient plant potions. 

Stepping back, I see the fascist police state’s over-reaction to these largely harmless revelers and how the failed policy of prohibition imprisons many of my brother and sisters. Vast amounts of societal resources will be employed to punish these drug users. A whole recovery industry has emerged with a sophisticated psychiatric ideology to process the people and attempt to bring order to this chaotic realm.
Stepping back I see that I am drawing upon conceptual tools that many others in my age are also drawing upon. Millions of others are re-reading Nietzsche and finding resonances in his themes that reverberate for our times. Likewise, several of the other authors who I employ have moved to the front of our cultural awareness, with major publishing houses releasing volumes of Bataille, Foucault and Deleuze. The “critique of reason” this group collectively pursues clearly touch a collective nerve in our psyche.
Similarly, my use of the scholarly literature on shamanism is reflected in the huge interest in neo-shamanism in Western societies. Of course, I can’t but help notice that this cultural appropriation of indigenous spirituality occurs as the forces of global capitalism gain control of every last valley and hillside on our planet.  Perhaps amidst the end of Empire  and the the beginning of the "Great Turning" of the sustainability revolution, we crave Earth-based spiritiualities with natural sacraments.  

I believe that the Will to Party is a cultural manifestation of our hard-wired biological urges to alter consciousness. These instincts have been tempered through millennia of years of cultural conditioning.

Inspiration for my understanding of the Will to Party and the motivations behind contemporary drug use comes from my studies of the Dionysian mysteries. This complex mystery religion employed intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques, such as music and dance, to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a more natural and primal state. Dionysian religion has been called “the voodoo cult of the Mediterranean”.
The ecstatic cult of Dionysus was centered on the sacramental use of wine and other drugs, including the fly agaric mushroom (amanita muscaria). The rites were based on a death-rebirth theme and on spirit possession.
Maenads and satyrs went wild. 

The constraints of civilization were tossed out. Oppressed outsiders, such as women, slaves and foreigners, were momentarily liberated and transgressively inverted in their roles. The activities of the devotees of Dionysus are interpreted as cathartic, liberating, invigorating and transformative.
“Evoi!” they shouted.
The “Dionysian” as found in the writings of Nietzsche, Bataille, Foucault and Evans, provides a powerful concept essential to understanding contemporary drug-using practices. I hope to translate Dionysian notions of transgression, excess and power from the realm of sexuality and apply them to the realm of drug use.  

Arthur Evans (The God of Ecstasy, 1988) argues that the essence of the Dionysian tradition is the “affirmation of the whole self through ecstatic ritual”. He argues that patriarchal civilization identifies only one aspect of a person—the rationally calculating ego—with selfhood. 

In contrast, pre-patriarchal culture (what Riane Eisler calls “partnership cultures”) with the Dionysian traditions of shamanism embrace the whole self—including irrational elements, emotions, fantasies, sexual longings. Evans argues that the essential unit in the practice of the Dionysian mysteries is the “group-in-action”.  

Dionysian practices work to dissolve egos—a theme also found in the shamanic literatures. Evans also states that Dionysian traditions provide a supportive ritual environment for the controlled use of psychoactive substances, which he sees as aimed at self-growth in those contexts.
Drug use is a site for the construction of knowledge and power. Drug use and its experiences are a borderline between Apollonian rational and Dionysian realms of flux and the unknown. Excessive drug use challenges the assumptions of Western civilization. The transgressive experience of excessive drug use involves the pleasure of passing from an orderly and relational realm to a disorderly and irrational realm.

Why is this transgressive experience pleasurable?  What about passing into the irrational realm makes it enjoyable?  Is it, in part, because it is forbidden and social repressed?  In a secular world emptied by practices of desecration, excessive drug use-as-sacred-psychosis is a source of division. Thus, drug use is a subject of taboos and limits.
Of course, getting high is pleasurable primarily because it feels good. With methamphetamine, the body is energized, the mind is euphoric, the energy level is increased, one’s alertness and sense of intelligence is heightened. The physical and mental sensations are, for many, highly pleasurable. But there are other aspects of “partying” that make it pleasurable, inclucing the fact that it is forbidden, and outlawed and tabooed.
Bataille’s festival, like Bakhtin’s carnival, captures something essential about the meth-using river-bottom encampments I frequented in Ventura. Bataille (1993: 124) describes the festival as a state of exception in which lawful crime, sacrifice and sovereignty emerge as a pure form. 

Getting high and having fun in the sun-drenched wilderness, people often become naked, getting rid of their markers of identity. Dionysian moments often served as an outlet—people break the rules now that will be restored later, “sacred and inviolable” (Bataille 2001:66). Done in this manner, “Partying” performs a reactionary state of exception, strengthening and legitimating the rules of the game. 

The transgressive behavior of “partying”—the orgy of sun, sea, sex and meth are times out, enjoyed under the license and only for a defined period. Thus, Dionysian activities are a revolt from and an affirmation of the norms of everyday life. The partying activity does not suppress the rule but suspends it (Bataille 2001: 36; cf. Diken and Laustsen 2004).

As citizens of modernity, we have utterly failed to understand the motivations to use "drugs" and the underlying reasons for the compulsive use of substances in our societies.  My hope in exploring "the Will to Party" is to expose some of the sacred urges which underlay our cravings for ecstatic frenzy and to situate them historically and anthropologically by pointing to times when these behaviors, attitudes and desires took more healthy and natural forms.  By understanding the entheogenic consumption of plant-gods in archaic shamanic rituals, and how those rituals morphed into subsequent religious ceremonies, such as used by the followers of Dionysus in ancient Greece, we gain insight into the biological urges which lead to these behaviors, their varied cultural manifestations, and the potentials that they contain for personal growth, community development and spiritual enlightenment.
We desperately need a shamanic approach to drug abuse and addiction.  Only when we understand the Will to Party, and understand how natural and healthy desires have been messed up by the prohibitionist ideologies of patriarchal church and state, can be begin to teach people the" harm reduction" techniques of our ancestors.  Let us reclaim the shamanic wisdom of the "controlled use" of entheogenic substances which kept addictions at bay for tens of thousands of years.  Let us also realize that some people need no longer "journey to the Other World" and have found other ways to live spiritual lives centered around abstinence.  

May we bring peace to our planet and no longer incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people for doing what comes naturally to humans on our planet.  May we learn to respect our bodies and instincts and no longer see them as base and vile sources of "sin", but rather as magnificent sources of meaning.  If humans have innate urges to expand consciousness through ecstatic rituals, let us rejoice in these qualities.  We need to freshly re-examine who we are, what is our "human nature" and love these things on their own terms.  May it be so!

See also my blog entries:
"To the Initiate"
"Dancing with Dionysus: A Sociological Memoir of Methamphetamine Use" 
"Dionysian Thinking: Nietzsche and the Celebration of Unreason"