Note XI

Recently I’ve been on the search for work engaging with psychedelic experience in a strictly philosophical way. This has proved oddly difficult, despite the resurgence in public enthusiasm for psychedelics. The conversation seems to be dominated by a combination of neuroscientists, psychotherapists, wellness practitioners and Silicon Valley types, who all share an interest in instrumentalising psychedelic experience in the pursuit of some other desiderata, be it psychological health, self-development, or productivity (or often some weird blend of them all). Amongst all this it has been pleasant to discover the work of Peter Sjöstedt-H, who stands apart from this crowd in his adoption of a purely philosophical stance toward the phenomenology of psychedelic experience.

A recentish article of his in IAI, for example, considers various attempts to pin down the essential characteristics of self, then shows how psychedelic experiences problematise them. They do this often by inducing states in which the claimed essential characteristic is absent, yet in which something we want to call the self still persists. A central theory he addresses concerns the understanding of the self in terms of agency, the will to act within the world. In this picture the self is seen as constituted by drives, its phenomenological texture what Spinoza called conatus, what Heidegger called sorge, or what we might just call “giving a shit”. Sjöstedt-H points out that many psychedelic experiences (particularly some of the most intense) place one in a state of pure passivity, a total suppression of drive. Yet still a subject of experience remains, suggesting that the self is not exhausted by its drives or the conflicts between them.

This relationship Peter Sjöstedt-H points to between drive, self, and the passive subject has had me thinking, and dovetailed with some thoughts I’ve had about ketamine experiences. By way of a quasi-response to the article (these thoughts are probably better described as perpendicular to the article), here I want to sketch out some ideas about the self and psychedelic experience in relation to Peter Sjöstedt-H’s comments on the cessation of drive, draw some explicit causal links between this and heightened aesthetic experience which will appeal to Bertolt Brecht’s theory of theatre, and finally to consider how the dissociative experience induced by ketamine can be considered as an inversion of the process of drive cessation encountered in ego death experiences.

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Note X

Here’s a few snippets pulled from Yuk Hui’s essay The Question Concerning Technology In China. These come from a later section about geometry and temporalisation that I found interesting in relation to some recent avenues I’ve been exploring on time, and which also elaborates on some of Bernard Stiegler’s ideas about technology.

It seems to me that the relation between time and geometry/space is fundamental to the Western concept of technics and its further development into efficient mnemotechnical systems. In posing the question in this way, we will shift from abstraction to idealisation—that is, from mental abstraction to idealisation in externalised geometrical forms.

Idealisation is the externalisation of an idea, its inscription in matter.

Idealisation has to be distinguished from ideation, which still concerns theoretical abstraction in thought—for example, we can think of a triangle (e.g. ideation), but the apodictic nature of the triangle becomes common to all when it is externalised (e.g. drawn). Idealisation in this sense thus involves exteriorisation, whether through writing or drawing.

It was ideation when Adam was a mere concept in God’s mind, an idealisation when he was formed from clay.

My reasoning on the relation between geometry, time, and technics can be summarised as follows: (1) geometry demands and allows the spatialisation of time, which involves (2) exteriorisation and idealisation through technical means, (3) geometrical apodicticity allows logical inferences as well as the mechanisation of causal relations, and (4) the technical objects and technical systems made possible on the basis of such mechanisms in turn participate in the constitution of temporality: experience, history, historicity.

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Reflection IX

I first encountered the hypothesis that Adam Smith’s formulation of the free market was inspired by Islamic scholars writing hundreds of years before him in David Graeber’s marvellous tome Debt: The First 5000 Years. The invisible hand of the market began its life—maybe—as the hand of Allah. Except that in the original version, unlike in Margaret Thatcher’s, the market was not supposed to oppose and replace the social order—it would complement and harmonise with it. You didn’t get rich to realise your desires as an individual; you got rich to fulfil your duties to family and community. (An interesting observation Graeber makes is that this convergence of moral virtue and business acumen in the caliphate was captured in the myth cycles of the time, in which the heroic figures—like Sinbad the Sailor—were often merchant adventurers.)

According to this somewhat apocryphal tale, Smith’s main contribution was to change the inflection of the concept of liberty implicit in the notion of a free market, from a positive conception in which freedom is taken as the freedom to act in accordance with a higher principle, to a negative conception in which freedom is taken as freedom from constraints on the realisation of one’s desires. For these kind of reasons capitalism and individualism have always been inextricably linked in the West. (A link which no doubt explains why Chinese communist-capitalism has proved so baffling to Western onlookers; a bafflement far less tenable once the role of Confucian morality is taken into consideration as underwriting a positive concept of liberty.)

Anyway—so begins the very long and weird debate between classical economists and their critics about whether or not humans can be reliably modelled as rationally self-interested actors. It’s a weird debate because its tone has typically been essentialist, as if there were some fact of the matter about whether humans are self-interested rational actors or not, when presumably what is at stake in the economic question is not what we are in essence, or how we characterise ourselves in theory, but how we actually behave in practice. Which in most cases is dependent on context. We all behave as rationally self-interested actors when we’re playing chess. (If we don’t then we’re not playing chess.) Point being that if rational self-interest is context relative then it is not fixed but malleable, something that can in principle be produced, manipulated, or overcome.

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Document II

In a now famous omen, offering a stark prognosis of the pitfalls in fighting oppression with the weapons of the oppressor, Audre Lorde declared in 1984 that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Since then this maxim—which I shall refer to as the MT—has proved both broadly applicable and highly divisive. A wide range of technologies and institutions have been considered as examples of the master’s tools, including virtual reality, the currencies or languages of colonising powers, and international law. To its admirers it has been wielded as an analytical trump card; to its critics it has often seemed a justification for cynical inaction. But despite its polarising effects, what has often been absent from the discussion is a robust attempt to clarify its interpretation. This oversight is peculiar, since taken at face value the MT is strangely ambiguous; somehow alluring, yet not obviously true. If instead it said “the master’s stones will never break the master’s windows,” the warning would ring hollow. Why not, we might wonder? Perhaps “the master’s techniques will never undo the master’s plans” would offer an improvement, but many questions still linger.

This essay represents my own attempt to untangle this ambiguity, motivated by my brief involvement with the world of critical arts. In this world one often encounters the MT—typically deployed as a critique of something outside the art world—yet at the same time one is deeply involved with exactly the kind of practices it appears to implicate. The critical artist is on the one hand someone who critiques the current state of world relations, and on the other someone who produces a particular kind of product for a particular kind of market. The extent to which it is possible for both of these roles to come together meaningfully is largely a question of whether an aesthetic object can contain, materialise or communicate a critique that retains its force when placed in circulation as a commodity. These puzzles raise questions such as: what is it that makes a critique forceful? What actually is a market relation in this context, and what effect can it have on the critique whose transmission it mediates? To what extent can these relations be subverted and reversed?

While originally targeted at an academic platform—the NYU humanities conference on feminism at which Lorde gave her original address—the ideas underlying the MT have much to offer these questions. They form a way of thinking about a wide class of problems unique to projects of emancipation that work within a system so totalising it has always already dictated the terms of action. Beyond critical arts and humanities conferences, the MT speaks to some of the definitive paradoxes of ethical and political action in contemporary life, from the extent to which ethical consumerism can achieve ethical goals to whether protest movements should leverage marketing techniques. The MT summons the pessimistic spectre that hovers above all these questions: if all tools are now under the master’s control, does this mean that resistance is impossible?

The argument I will make is that everything hinges on the difference between two forms of resistance: those with a strategy of subversion, and those with a strategy of appropriation. Roughly, this is the difference between trying to beat someone at their own game, and hijacking the deck to play something else. These two strategies correspond, respectively, to two different interpretations of the MT. The first reads it as a media theoretic claim, under which I shall argue that it is robustly true, therefore providing strong guidance as to which strategies should be discarded as hopeless. The second reading is materialist. Under this reading the MT is seen to be false—a realisation which points the way to positive forms of resistance. My recommendation will be that we abandon all attempts to subvert existing tools and channel all energies into appropriating the materials that constitute them. This recommendation is aimed primarily at myself, though I hope in the process I might also persuade some of my friends.

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Note IX

Here’s a brief of sketch of a mechanism of subjectivation (the engineering or production of subjectivity itself). It was brought on by an admittedly odd mix of Brandom’s reading of Hegel on self-consciousness, Žižek’s analysis of what he calls “interpassivity”, and some intersecting thoughts about game theory. This post also relates to a previous reflection on virtue-signalling, which takes up this theme in a specific context.

Supposedly advertising manipulates our desire. While there seems to be a kind of bored general agreement about this, it has the feel of a platitude. No-one seems to actually believe that advertising directly manipulates their desire—after all, the messaging behind adverts is often flatly transparent. Maybe the suspicion is that advertising manipulates everybody else’s desire. Other people might fall for the mock jokiness and on-trend typography, but I buy Oatly because it just tastes the best. It is this kind of attitude that Žižek pounces on, pressing the point that in fact advertising never works by directly manipulating desire, but rather by indirect manipulation, engineering the desires of the individual by engineering their perception of everybody else’s desire.

The liberal mindset of course balks at the implicit suggestion here, countering that if your desire is dependent on your perception of the desire of others, then this speaks to a deficiency on your part: you are simply not in touch with your authentic desires, and you should do some work on yourself (and by the way, here’s a bunch of expensive workshops that will help you do just that). Žižek replies that this is the voice of ideology, a tacital shifting of responsibilty onto the individual which masks the very truth that advertising relies on: that our desires are essentially mediated. There is no authentic unmediated desire that the individual can gain access to by stripping away all their social conditioning and achieving consumerist nirvana.

Žižek’s take on this mediation structure appeals to a decentering of subjectivity found in Lacan’s notion of the “subject supposed to know”. It has occurred to me that a similar point can be made by appeal to the kind of reasoning loops underlying game theoretic dilemmas like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons. In addition to throwing light on the engineering of desire, I believe this points to a way about thinking about a more general question of subjectivation, namely the production of self-interested subjectivity itself.

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Reflection VIII

The aim of this post is to pull together a few distinct threads that have been converging for me recently on the topics of media, authority and temporality. I’ll start where I mean to end—with a quote from Anthony Wilden, writing of George Orwell’s portrayal of the perils of mass media1:

In Nineteen Eight-Four, published 1949, Orwell gave us what I think is best called the Media Rule. It reminds us that one of the greatest of television’s threats to personal and public sanity has to do with history.

In print and image, a book is a medium, message, and memory. And hundreds of movies of the past fifty years can still be seen through repertory theatres, film clubs, night school courses, and of course and especially through television and videocassette, by which the medium does great service. But television as television, television as the most subtle and powerful source of information, education, and ideology in history, is here today, gone tomorrow. Television is a medium that leaves behind no written record, no visible artefacts, no historical trace, no publicly available memory.

The Media Rule: Those who control the present control the past. Those who control the past control the future.

Since the mid 2000’s I’ve been a member of a forum called psymusic UK. This is the primary forum of the UK’s psychedelic trance community, a place where people trade info about free parties, share technical music production know-how, give feedback on each other’s tunes, argue about conspiracy theories and hallucinogens, and moan about how the scene is not as good as it used to be. When I first starting lurking the forum was vibrant, the virtual focal point of a real world community and hotbed of scene drama.

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Last night I encountered this passage while idly rereading the first chapter of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle:

Though separated from what they produce, people nevertheless produce every detail of their world with ever-increasing power. They thus also find themselves increasingly separated from that world. The closer their life comes to being their own creation, the more they are excluded from that life.

Earlier I had come across this Twitter thread:

Having once been a programmer myself, the thread touched some memories of the fear and loathing that comes with this kind of work. As the author points out, much of the alienation stems from the complete absence of any shared social context in which the fruits of the labour can live and take on meaning. Social isolation is produced by the obscurity of particular technical problems, the extreme divisions of labour within particular projects or companies, and also the Balkanisation of codebases and technologies across the wider industry. Running parallel to this—and closely related—is the fact that a huge slice of the work that many programmers do is a repetition of something someone else has already done, and ultimately redundant. As the person doing it you are well aware of this, an awareness that jars horribly with the overwhelming stress of pointlessly tight deadlines and spiralling accountability. The author writes, aptly, that as a programmer there is a sense that you are doing little more than “monetising loneliness”.

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Reflection VII

Here’s a few thoughts about Wittgenstein’s private language argument, or more specifically Saul Kripke’s development of it into a generalised rule-following paradox. This paradox emerges against the background of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language, at the heart of which is a pragmatic treatment of meaning. According to this treatment meaning is not (in the first instance) about the truth-conditions of propositions, but about the assertability conditions of sentences within given language-games. The central idea that, roughly, to understand a concept is to know how to use a word, provided an alternative to the then dominant representationalist understanding of meaning as picturing, replacing it with a normative understanding of meaning as rule-following1. The impossibility of private language—a language that is used and understood by only one person—then arises from the further argument that rule-following is an essentially communal activity. While the implications for linguistic meaning in general have been elaborated by Kripke and others, it seems to me that this paradox has implications for a broader concept of meaning that touches on shared narratives, collective desire, and their conditions of possibility2.

Kripke relates the paradox3 by considering a person who is adding two numbers they have not applied the addition function to before, let’s say to 51 and 1300. The question is: how do they know what function to apply? They have applied what they take to be the ‘\(+\)’ function many times before, let’s assume only to numbers less than 1300. But since they have done so only finitely many times there are infinitely many distinct functions consistent with the previous applications. One of them is quaddition, whose output is defined as \( x + y \) for all \(y \lt 1300\), and \(0\) for \(y \ge 1300\). Previous applications of the function underdetermine the present application, since they are all consistent with both addition and quaddition. On what grounds should addition rather than quaddition be applied in this new case? It seems there is none.

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Note VII

Originally posted on Medium as a response to Will Franks post Notes on Counterculture

One potential pitfall I can see in making comparisons between present and 60’s counterculture is that not only are the mainstreams they react against very different, but the present mainstream is in many ways a product of the ideas of selfhood that emerged from the 60’s (or an appropriation of them, depending on where your allegiances lie). If the 60’s counterculture can be seen as reacting against the regimented blandness stereotyped in modern portrayals of the 50’s, then a modern day counterculture must surely be a reaction against the norms of neoliberal individualism and its promise of self-realisation in consumption.

If there is a common thread in these projects it is that they attempt to resist commodification, understood as an inertial force that stifles human potential. In the 60’s this took the form of an injunction to authenticity, accompanied by some fairly clear ideas about what that might involve: lose the suburban aspirations, don’t become the housewife in the home environment with its matrix of consumer objects — go take acid and run naked in fields instead, you’ll discover who you truly are. What’s different about the present situation is that the circuits of capital accumulation have long since diversified and learned to integrate these kind of experiences and practices. Taking acid and running around in a field can easily be packaged up as a commodity and sold as a form of neoliberal self-realisation. Surrealist techniques once thought to be revolutionary can now be effortlessly mobilised in advertising campaigns. Anti-consumerist messages are rendered consumable in the plot lines of Hollywood films. In many ways, the story of how the destabilising energies released in the original counterculture were neutralised is the story of how capital learned to appropriate its own subversions.

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Meditation III

Anger is socially heavy, and so morally unthinkable. Anger must be muted and contained, suspended as contempt. It is required of all affects that they be substituted for their lightest operational equivalent, a least energy principle with minimisation of social noise as its boundary constraint. Relations of interiority are folded into exteriorities, lighter because interiority implies weight of involvement. Interiority is involvement, and involvement is nothing other than concrete social labour, inseparable from risk. Risk and labour are heavy, and therefore condemned. There is a fractal decomposition of social space into distinct micropods, the residue of this exothermic mitosis gathering in salvageable droplets across the growing surface of the membrane1. At last everyone can relax: nowhere is lighter than outer space.

A synthesising dialectic of anger and guilt is switched for a non-synthesising dialectic of contempt and shame, a closed and self-stabilising circuit constrained to the plane of affect. The link between thought and action is severed at its centre, belief rendered impossible as thought becomes mandatory2. Thought persists, but only as epiphenomenon. What is no longer possible is to participate in thought, since participation is made possible only by affective substructures always-already immobilised. What remains is an aesthetisisation of thought: the Idea receives its gilded frame, encircled and beautiful, liberated from risk. Ouroboric thought short-circuits motive outputs, all categoricals diffracting into non-completing series of hypotheticals. A critical theory approved by capital impresses itself with its capacity to create space for the last word, always doing so faster than the space can be filled. Discourse is free to proliferate without the faux pas of judgement. Careers are made this way.

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