the plastic flowers of perception

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called psychedelics “plastic flowers for the mind,” meaning that they’re false prophets, insufficient for self-realization. Meanwhile, Anaïs Nin (a psychonaut if there ever was one) described her LSD experience beautifully in her diary, but came to a similar conclusion — its meaning is diminished because it’s fake.

“Fake.” Of course acid trips are “unnatural.” They don’t emerge spontaneously from meditation or other contemplative practices, and LSD in particular is more refined than a lot other drugs, like mushrooms and pot.

But, these instruments of consciousness-alteration should be treated outside the division of real/fake and given the special considerations we afford technology — which we normally understand as “unnatural,” but whose impacts are undeniably real. Drugs are media. They enable us to apprehend the world in entirely new ways and, like many technologies, blur the distinction between mind / body / everything beyond the limits of our skin.

A chapter in Richard Doyle’s book Darwin’s Pharmacy, which is about how hallucinogenic plants assisted human evolution, is called “The Flowers of Perception.” Flowers emerge from the earth but so does plastic. Humans intervene in both. But nobody yet has devised a solid argument for a stable and exact degree of intervention that divides natural from unnatural. Anaïs Nin and Trungpa Rinpoche both observed the transient nature of the drug experience as an indication its insubstantiality. But acid trips, Buddhist meditation (Trungpa’s formula) and the artistic consciousness (Nin’s concern) all denote different experiences. If the idea is to maintain a certain respect for all of this — and in particular for the possibility that there is a metaphysical ground of creation, which Trungpa and Nin both believed — even when forces of society undermine this — we probably need all tools at our disposal. Some will be disposed of more quickly than others. (And they should; when asked about psychedelics, Alan Watts said that “once you get the message you should hang up the phone.” People who do a lot of acid are weird..) I’m not sure that any one is more or less worthwhile than any other.

about

Hi, I’m Emma, welcome to my website. I’m an instructor and PhD student at Virginia Tech, where my research exists at the intersection of continental philosophy, STS (science, technology and society) and critical data studies. I also write fiction, poetry and music.

Disclaimer: there’s not much rhyme or reason to what I post about on o-culus. (Winter 2018: recently it’s been a lot of experimental writing and music YouTube).

Here’s a page where I’ve indexed a lot of recent writings, some published.
My academia.edu homepage has other content, including lecture slides and papers.
Music: http://stamm.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @turing_tests
I dig it when people put things here
New for 2018, this site has a blogroll! Yes, like it’s 2003. Check it
And you can contact me via email: stamm[at]vt.edu.

Thanks for visiting!

— Emma Stamm

the darkness of narrative

On the “theory/data” problem, the notion that more data diminishes the need for theorization. Let’s assume this is true for a second: now, instead of developing hypotheses and testing them à la the scientific method, we simply subject our curiosities to computational operations. Feeding more data into better algorithms equals better living (through science!). This vision sees all phenomena as capable of being expressed in continuous quantitative variables, that is, infinitely spliceable into smaller and smaller pieces. Here, all abstraction becomes a procedure of mystification.

But abstraction is how we make sense of the world. We don’t experience life as a diffuse flow of sensoria. We generalize our experiences into language categories, groupings to which we offer greater or lesser perceptual priority. (n natural language processing, they cal this “weights.” Not all features have the same weight, or importance to sensemaking. If they did it would be impossible to make sense of anything.

The man who fails to do this is Funes in “Funes The Memorious,” the short story by Jorge Luis Borges. Funes, he of perfect memory, stores so much sensory input that he loses the ability to discern or classify any of it, and falls into a state of utter psychological degradation — breakdown.

It’s also the situation of perfect memory in the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You. (I know, I know it’s a cliché to reference Black Mirror, but it makes this point so well).

Regardless of what anyone thinks about the role theorization should play in the hard sciences, there’s a deep problem at the core of the “theory/data” problem that regards sense and meaning-making in everyday life.

I’ve thought a lot about magic, hypnosis, and the use of language in both of these practices. It seems to me that language acts as a bewitching technology between apparently distinctive phenomena; it makes This like That. Lead into gold. Language’s power is that it produce sameness. What if language-based hypnotherapy works because it serves the connective function that produces narrative, and thus meaning, from experiences that would otherwise seem senseless?

A hypnosis practitioner I knew once told me that a quick way to put someone in a trance was to offer suggestions that joined together different senses. Her skin was smooth and sweet: “smooth” references touch; “sweet,” taste. The water is cool and bright. The music is dark, fast and loud. Even if this is bogus, there’s something lyrical about these sentences. The synaesthesia is appealing.

Meanwhile, Byung Chul Han mourns the loss of narrativization in our information-saturated society:

Plato’s cave is a narrative world. No causal link joins the things that are there. A kind of dramaturgy or scenography connects the thing [or signs] with each other by narrative means. The light of truth denarrativizes the world. The sun annihilates mere appearance. The play of mimesis and metamorphosis yields to the working at truth [Arbeit an Wahrheit]. Plato condemns any hint of change in favor of rigid identity. His critique of mimesis specifically concerns appearances and play. Plato forbids any scenic representation, and he denies the poet entrance into his city of truth:

“If a man, it seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things, should arrive in our city, looking to exhibit his work, we should worship him as a holy and wondrous being, but would tell him that we have no man of such a kind in our city, nor is it lawful for any such one to be there. And, having anointed him with myrrh and crowned him with garlands, we would send him away to another city, after pouring myrrh down over his head ad crowning him with fillets of wool.”

Likewise, the society of transparency is a society without poets, without seduction or metamorphosis. After all, it is the poet who produces scenic illusions, forms of appearance, and ritual and ceremonial signs; he sets artifacts and antifacts against hyperreal, naked evidence.

The metaphor of light, which dominates philosophical and theological discourse from antiquity over the Middle Ages up to the Enlightenment, offers strong referentiality. Light springs from a well or a source. It provides the medium for obligating, prohibiting, and promising instances such as God and Reason. Consequently, it gives rise to negativity, which has a polarizing effect and produces oppositions. Light and darkness are coeval. Light and shadow belong together. The Good has Evil as its corollary. The light of reason and the darkness of the irrational (or the merely sensory) bring each other forth.

In contrast to Plato’s world of truth, today’s society of transparency lacks divine light inhabited by metaphysical tension. Transparency has no transcendence. The society of transparency is see-through without light. It is not illuminated by light that streams from a transcendent source. Transparency does not come about through an illuminating source of light. The medium of transparency is not light, but rather lightless radiation; instead of illuminating, it suffuses everything and makes it see-through. Moreover, its effect is homogenizing and leveling, whereas metaphysical light generates hierarchies and distinctions; thereby, it creates order and points of orientation.

And Han also writes, in the same book: “time becomes transparent when it glides into a sequence of readily available present moments.” This is the perpetual now-time of the digital, written on by Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock, theorized by less popular media and cultural philosophers — people we have to read in my degree program. (For what it’s worth, I should mention, I don’t think this is the same Now-Time of Eastern philosophy).

Narrative relies on occlusion, on what isn’t indexed in the Great Archive. Narrative can’t account for all of reality. There it becomes senseless. Epistemic inundation is an affront to narrative coherence, to meaning. Moon-worshippers need the Dark Side.

And maybe less explanation overall. Like how Susan Sontag wrote against interpretation.

Another hypnotist I knew once said:

“For those whose vision is ineluctably drawn to the mystery dimensions, life requires not explanation, but attention.”

writing warnings

[1] Fact: writing is made of words, not ideas.
[2] “Nothing is like an idea so much as an idea” — Bishop Berkeley
[3] Fact: writing and ideas and content all refer to ontologically separate entities.
[4] “I myself prefer an Argentine fantasy. God did not create a Book of Nature of the old sorts Europeans imagined. He wrote a Borgesian library, each book of which is as brief as possible, yet each book of which is inconsistent with every other. For each book, there is some humanly accessible bit of Nature [“the natural”] such that that book, and no other, makes possible the comprehension, prediction and influencing of what’s going on” — Ian Hacking on Borges and Berkeley

“Writing is made of words…” means that to write is to write. Thinking about writing isn’t the same thing as doing it. It’s something to put on a post-it note and keep over your computer, it’s a reminder that thinking about working isn’t the same thing as working.

It also means that writing done right self-contextualizes and self-legitimates.

Good writing cuts through the hell of sameness that is the digital space (and capitalism! Capital writ large). It doesn’t produce anything new, of course, but it reveals.

And writers have to be very careful as they pick through Pandora’s box. Some spells are stronger unsaid.

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.

problem children

In November, I’m presenting a paper tentatively titled “The Electric Kool-Aid Turing Test” at this conference  in Brighton, England. My argument is that emerging paradigms in research on the use of psychedelic drugs as psychotherapeutic tools problematize machine learning.

To be more specific: the recent resurgence of psychedelic drug research has, generally, privileged quantitative and empirical methods over qualitative and interpretive methods. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. My suspicion, though, is that quantitative methods may not be sufficient to understand trip reports in a way that contributes to workable medical knowledge — that the data gathered from the profoundly subjective experience of a psychedelic trip requires as much theorization, sensitivity to context and (quite frankly) creativity to parse in order to draw meaningful conclusions from them. This disturbs the capacity for them to be operationalized in an algorithm, especially a machine-learning algorithm that relies on inference and prediction to extrapolate beyond finite training data.

This is pulled from my abstract:

The paper draws from interdisciplinary scholarship that uses qualitative methods to interpret research on psychedelics as psychotherapeutic tools. I combine precepts of machine learning with developments in psychedelic research to explore the complexities of generalizing findings, which includes accounts from those undergoing “ineffable” and difficult- to-predict experiences — for data modeling. In doing so, I demonstrate that the use of qualitative methods in psychedelic drug research may offer useful insights to the field of machine learning… [later]  I explore axioms of machine learning that emphasize the ways in which  generalization and inductive reasoning are used to build algorithms that effectively “predict” the  future. Here I partially draw on the work of Pedro Domingos, whose research explores how  machine learning generalizes “beyond” finite data sets. Joining emerging paradigms from  psychedelic research and machine learning, I offer that the former can help the latter a) account for difficult-to- predict phenomena and b) understand its possible limitations.

The turn toward interpretation and qualitative approaches is the “emerging paradigm” in psychedelic research to which I refer. Scholarly work has been published very recently that foregrounds qualia and subjectivity in clinical trials with psychedelics. Furthermore, some scholars emphasize that philosophy is implicated in the outcome of these trials, and that the answer to why psychedelics are effective at treating mental illness may be entangled with traditionally philosophical concerns.

I’m not unique in connecting psychedelics to machine learning / machine consciousness. Andrew Smart’s book Beyond Zero and One attempts to theorize machine consciousness with the question: could a robot [an artificially intelligent mind] trip on acid [some sort of digitally modeled version of LSD]? Beyond Zero and One came out in 2015 and I suppose I could be accused of stealing some of Smart’s ideas, at least on the surface. Yoinks, a connection between machine consciousness and psychedelic drugs!

Actually there’s a funny story here: I was working at the publishing company behind Beyond Zero and One in the months leading up to its publication — I helped with the publicity for it. Despite a long-standing interest in psychedelic studies and computer science, the book seemed too much like a pop-science head trip to me to bother reading it and I basically forgot it existed until I started doing this work. (I could have even snagged a free copy, but I didn’t … sorry to Andrew Smart and my former employers at O/R Books…).  At any rate, not accounting for the possibility that it somehow got lodged in my unconscious mind, I can say that Andrew Smart and I arrived at the same connection independent of one another. With questions about the mind, consciousness, associative thinking, and so on central to both psychedelic studies and machine learning, this seems fairly plausible.

At any rate, I’m fully in the throes of this project now. It may become part of my dissertation — I hope it does, but as folks in higher ed know, some of that is beyond my control. Honestly, the fact that psychedelic research is so controversial will make this already complicated work all the more difficult. For the most part, I’ve been fairly quiet about this interest to avoid raising eyebrows. But since I’ll be “outing” myself by giving a psychedelic conference talk anyway, a possible new way of confronting the controversy is to own it — to be open about it, stand behind what I’m doing. To that end, I’ve been tweeting a lot more about psychedelic stuff, testing the waters I suppose, and talking to some sympathetic colleagues.

There’s a lot more to say, interesting connections between books and papers I’ve consulted. I’ll write it all down somewhere. One day.

The Virginia Tech library doesn’t have an extensive amount of material on psychedelic science, but they do have a copy of Albert Hoffman’s LSD: My Problem Child that I’m going to check out before I leave here today…

 

 

 

not digging political art

Re-reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” — good to remember this, from the epilogue, as fascist tendencies are (again) emergent:

“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing
formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to
organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property
structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in
giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express
themselves.21 The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism
seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result
of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its
counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values. All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.”

Also I’m not sure what the conventions are, but I don’t want to capitalize “fascism.”

another fiction excerpt — from a story about the boring apocalypse

So we talked about armageddon. We sat and talked in the tawny glow of the night light until the sadness that had cast us in the same shadow for months got too big. You should go, I told him, get some sleep. Give my dreams breathing room. I wanted to return to the warehouse with bloated cartoons that wrapped themselves across the corners of the walls, teasing party kids with their bouquet of fake colors.

He talked about a neoprene vest he bought in Nairobi and I never felt so miserable in my life. He talked about sculpting with vectors in high dimensions, city kids and the smarts required to build gaming machines from local trash. Not a monologue for my taste, I thought and protested with an empty-eyed nod. I wanted to descend the length of the rope ladder that dangled from the industrial neon heights, flex my ankles through the trap door announced by electric bells and LED buzzers. The party dungeon whose real contours are unknowable because it’s lightless. And there to find the magic layers that had peeled off him over time had been reconstituted and made flesh. A new man.

I wanted to walk up behind him, push up his hair and speak into the back of his head. What did you see? Tell me what sight so bad it fixed your mind on the endtimes. What line of reasoning so determinate it made you flee to the domestic. My home where you so coolly remark on this state of affairs, where hours congeal in numb complicity with my desires. Unlike the warehouse-time (kairos) that would press me into oblivion at its whims.

In the tamed world platitudes are enough to tell the truth. So I asked for a lie. Because he said no future is true, but I had something else up my sleeve, a sense that all this was more simple than it seemed. So I parted with my psychic indulgence, restored my attention to our sadness and the single light. He’d dream in my lap; I’d stay up to observe the sunrise.