Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hofmann, 1906-2008

Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who devised the technique to make derivatives of lysergic acid and who eventually synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), has died of heart failure at the ripe old age of 102.

Hofmann was a chemist at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, when in the late 1930s he turned to the study of ergot, the name for a fungus that grows on rye, barley and certain other plants. Studying the active ingredient of ergot, a chemical identified by American researchers in the 1930s as lysergic acid, Hofmann invented a method to synthesize a series of compounds of that substance. The 25th one he synthesized was lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. As is well known, he subsequently, in 1943, became the first person to take an acid trip. LSD-25, Hofmann’s so-called “problem child” as he referred to his creation in his autobiography, subsequently influenced an entire generation, and had a profound influence on the lives of individuals such as Timothy Leary.

Thus Albert Hofmann can be understood as an author, although not necessarily an author of the novelistic sort (he did, though, author numerous scientific articles). In calling Albert Hofmann an author, I have in mind Michel Foucault’s essay, “What Is an Author?,” and his discussion of an uncommon but profound kind of author that Foucault named a “founder of discursivity.” About such authors, Foucault wrote:

They are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts. In this sense, they are very different, for example, from a novelist.... Freud is not just the author of The Interpretation of Dreams or Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious; Marx is not just the author of the Communist Manifesto or Capital: they both have established an endless possibility of discourse.... the initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its subsequent transformations. To expand a type of discursivity, such as psychoanalysis as founded by Freud, is not to give it a formal generality that it would not have permitted at the outset, but rather to open it up to a certain number of possible applications. (See Josue V. Harari, Textual Strategies, Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 154-56.)

Albert Hofmann was an author of the sort Foucault outlines here: he enabled and initiated the creation of many other texts, in film, literature, art, and perhaps most especially, in music--particularly the form of music that developed in the 1960s, psychedelia. Hence Albert Hofmann can be understood as one of the more significant and influential authors of the twentieth century, and perhaps should be remembered as such.

A compelling obituary can be found here.

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