The Acid Test: Failing to Control for Social Hierarchies

27 Mar

This post contains part VI of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A Merry Pranksters album cover, 1966Image from

A Merry Pranksters album cover, 1966
Image from

In Electric Kool-Aid, Wolfe emphasizes the Pranksters’ fixation on “transcending the bullshit” and living “out front,” which means as Kesey puts it, “Everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there’s not going to be anything to apologize about” (Wolfe 20). LSD was a critical component to the Pranksters’ “out front” lifestyle because they believed it allowed them to live truly spontaneously, truly authentically, and truly outside of social norms. Their communal drug trips served to build a unifying group identity, though one that may have been more bullshit-heavy than Kesey originally envisioned.

The communality of these drug episodes was epitomized in the Prankster’s theory of “intersubjectivity” and the “side of the LSD experience—that feeling!—[that] tied in with Jung’s theory of synchronicity” (Wolfe 61, 140). One Prankster astutely noted, “We are all one brain out here and we are all on the bus, after all” (97). The idea of being “on the bus” took off in the growing psychedelic culture, many members of which claim to have been inspired by Kerouac’s On the Road to go out and search for “IT,” whether that meant hitch-hiking out to California for 1967’s “Summer of Love” or participating in a group LSD experience.

These communal LSD trips frequently led to shared moments of ecstatic epiphany. “A great flash of insight came to me,” says an Acid Test attendee, “There was one instant when everything fell into place and made sense” (277).  The Beats describe similar ecstatic moments in conjunction with their marijuana use, which was often paired with generous helpings of amphetamines. Dean Moriarty describes one such “green tea vision”: “EVERYTHING I’d ever done or known or read or heard of or conjectured came back to me and rearranged itself in my mind in a brand-new logical way […] I had understood everything by then, my whole life was decided” (Kerouac 184). The Beats prized such “authentically” transcendental moments, and the injection of LSD into the counterculture consciousness (alongside other psychedelic drugs) amplified these experiences.

However, as the movement grew and use of psychedelics in the counterculture expanded, the limits of “spontaneous authenticity” were again tested, and Electric Kool-Aid chronicles the hypocrisies that emerged when the Pranksters tried to push the movement as far as it could go, out into what they termed “Edge City” (Wolfe 33).

As the leader of an influential countercultural group, Ken Kesey attempted to orchestrate his Pranksters and their experiences using the concept of “control,” a reoccurring theme within Electric Kool-Aid. The Pranksters used their group synchronicity to draw unwilling mainstream participants into their “movie,” flipping power dynamics to gain control over normally uncontrollable situations (e.g. being pulled over, or hosting a party for the Hell’s Angels). Ken Kesey is usually depicted as the master controller. As Wolfe puts it, “So few humans have the hubris to exert their wills upon the flow [of the universe]” (200). But there are dangers that come along with being in control, as Kesey realizes while observing frantic youths at a 1966 Beatles concert:

Control—[…]they [the Beatles] have brought this whole mass of human beings to the point where they are one, […] one psyche, and they have utter control over them—but they don’t know what in the hell to do with it, they haven’t the first idea, and they will lose it. […] The Beatles are the creature’s head. The teeny freaks are the body. But the head has lost control of the body and the body rebels and goes amok. (206-7)

Kesey is the head of his own body of freaks, and by this point, the limbs have started to grow a mind of their own. Despite the tight bonds that formed during their communal cross-country trip just two years prior, the “control” that Kesey both preached and exerted over his group was beginning to create a destructive tension between his orchestration of spontaneity and spontaneity itself.

For the Pranksters, living authentically “out front” meant constructing a society that existed outside of the “bullshit games” played by mainstream “square” culture. But the group’s actions often mimicked the power hierarchies found in “square” society in alarming ways. Kesey, who strove to have all of the Pranksters “out front” on the same level, invariably found himself at the top of a Prankster hierarchy: “Among the women, Mountain Girl was first, closest to Kesey, and Faye [Kesey’s wife] was second […] and Black Maria was maybe third […] Among the men, Babbs, always the favorite…” (330). Though there were supposed to be “no games,” life with the Pranksters began to seem like “the old personality game…looks, and all the old aggressive, outgoing charm, even athletic ability—it all won out here, like everywhere else” (330).

Far from the hippie ideals of communal love, Wolfe implies that Kesey’s control over the group contributed to the mental breakdown of one of the Pranksters, Sandy. Also troubling is Kesey’s decision to leave his mistress Mountain Girl—pregnant and in legal trouble—while he flees to Mexico to avoid his own criminal drug charges. One critic notes that “Kesey’s energy” which had been so successful in tying the group together, “has apparently limited their ability to concentrate and explore their own” (Breahl 78). Indeed, Kesey’s exercises of control were largely attempts to orchestrate spontaneity—to organize “authentic” expressions against mainstream culture—but his aggressive orchestration led to tension and resentment among group members who grew to resent his control. Though Kesey intended to promote his lifestyle as a means for authentic expression in an inauthentic culture, he eventually found himself at the top of a social hierarchy that mirrored the one he had tried to extract himself from.

Next Post: We Blew It: Outlaws in Edge City


One Response to “The Acid Test: Failing to Control for Social Hierarchies”

  1. daddyo March 27, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    More! More!

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