opaque, fragile and performative selfhoods

Recently I’ve discovered some overlaps between various works of contemporary psychedelic scholarship. Over the summer I started reading Nicolas Langlitz’s book Neuropsychedelia and came across the work of Chris Letheby not long after (when he himself reached out to me after an introduction I made on a grad student listserv… +1 for email networking).

Letheby co-authored a philosophical paper where he argues that selfhood is a fiction vis-à-vis the well-documented psychedelic phenomenon of ego dissolution:

As Metzinger points out, our ‘phenomenal avatar’ (conscious selfmodel)
is ‘transparent’: one does not feel like an avatar encoded in a ‘biological data format’, one feels like a unitary, persisting substance, or entity. The prevalence of this Cartesian intuition in philosophical discussions of selfhood supports this psychosemantic claim. Some may find this claim introspectively dubitable. But it is precisely the ubiquity of this sense of ‘I’ that makes it difficult to isolate phenomenologically—and this is the reason why phenomena
such as ego dissolution are theoretically valuable.

As Savage says in his discussion of LSD phenomenology, ‘By and large the individual is not aware of the ego boundaries of his mind and body and becomes aware of them only when a change has occurred in them’. Psychedelics, by deconstructing the avatar, render it opaque and acquaint subjects directly with its representational nature (cf. Letheby 2015, 2016). Alterations in feelings of ‘mineness’ or ownership, the sense of bodily boundaries, and so forth put pressure on the predictive hypothesis of a unitary entity underlying and persisting throughout experiences. The subsequent diminution in the sense of solid selfhood shows subjects that this sense is ultimately just one more conscious experience, rather than a transcendental precondition of all such experiences. The transformative existential shock which often attends this discovery testifies to the fact that a mere avatar is not what we, in the ordinary and sober course of things, deeply feel and take ourselves to be.

Chris Letheby and Philip Gerrans, “Self Unbound: Ego Dissolution In Psychedelic Experience.” (I removed some citations for readability; the paper is freely available online here: https://academic.oup.com/nc/article/3/1/nix016/3916730/Self-unbound-ego-dissolution-in-psychedelic)

Meanwhile, in Neuropsychedelia — which is an ethnography of psychedelic research since the 1990’s — Langlitz recounts the story of a man who, having just undergone an experimental ketamine treatment, was spooked by the theatrical tone he detected in the voice of a clinician:

Samotar’s voice, he said, had reminded him of the way the East German playwright and stage director Heiner Müller used to read texts, especially his own or those of Bertolt Brecht. Later on, Wetzel [the trial subject] provided a more detailed explanation:

…”if you described a speech as performative in Austin’s sense, then it would be a speech emphasizing its textuality. With every word, even with every syllable, it stressed the elaborateness, the official character marking the sentences from the questionnaire. Far off from any spontaneous communication. A certain gesture of abstraction, a depersonalized speech, which you could often hear in Müller’s productions in direct continuation of Brecht’s aesthetics and theory of theater. There, the text was supposed to become audible as a completely independent parameter, cut off from techniques of empathy and the actor’s desire for identification. For this purpose, it had to be depsychologized, formalized, and spoken on the basis of a structure contrary to the psychological (bourgeois) semantics. In the experiment, the researcher sounded similar to that, making an exaggerated effort to provide expressions for my state of mind (‘I had a religious feeling’) far beyond any empathy.”

By looking at the performative dimension of the experiment, Wetzel read one of the leitmotifs of modernist art, the break with representation, into the scientific setting. It was one of Heiner Müller’s credos that on stage the text had to be worked with, not as a mere representation of reality, but as a reality of its own. Any understanding had to be preceded by a sensual perception of the text’s materiality. In the attempt to objectify his subjective experience with the help of an itemized self-rating scale, Wetzel found a distant echo of the Brechtian alienation effects in twentieth-century theater that prevented the audience from losing itself in the character created by the actor. By calling attention to the theatrical practice of representation, Brecht had wanted to break its illusionism.

Neuropsychedelia, pp. 136-137 (boldface added for emphasis)

These writings are both concerned with selfhood as a phenomenological entity with no intrinsic reality. That is to say, our feeling of being the same person over time is a lived momentary experience, without the dignity (the ontological authority) we give to the “real.” There is no metaphysics of selfhood, no God-given reality of individual existence.  Letheby and Gerrans use their analyses to argue that selfhood is a fiction. Bertolt Brecht — and the person who takes psychedelic drugs — may be inclined to agree.

If selfhood is a fiction, certainly it’s a useful fiction, a state of “epistemic innocence” (to borrow a concept developed by philosopher Lisa Bortolotti, used by Letheby in another paper) that can lead to positive outcomes. We’re supposed to believe that we really do, in fact, exist. If you don’t, you’re either Buddhist or insane.

Bertolt Brecht wanted to route attention to the fiction of representation, to cut short the audience identification with theatrical pathos and narrative. Meanwhile a psychedelic experience can reveal the fictive quality of selfhood, illuminating the fact that our sense of being comes from a theater of consciousness: an unreal stage that facilitates play, imagination and creativity as part of the way we experience ourselves.

And, indeed, exploring psychedelics or one’s creativity via theater can help individuals surprise themselves with insight into their own imaginative depth — the possibility that the source of this imagination is something other than themselves (if the self is an illusion, see…).

And, you know, it’s possible that social norms built on the supposedly real and fixed nature of the self rely on denying these Brechtian / psychedelic inuitions. But I don’t want to read politics into this right now.


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