Friday, October 17, 2014

Notes to Martin Witz's "The Substance" Q&A

Wednesday night, Karen Rommelfanger (Director of Emory University's Neuroethics Program), and I were asked to lead a Q&A session following a screening of Martin Witz's documentary The Substance: Albert Hoffman's LSD.

This was an Atlanta European Science Café event organized by the inimitable Marc Merlin, it was held at the Alliance Française/Goethe Zentrum and hosted by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta. I'm most grateful to Marc and Karen for inviting me to participate as well as to the Swiss Consulate for the lovely gifts and the screener copy that I borrowed in preparation. And of course, many thanks to the folks that came out and contributed to the conversation.

What follows are my notes that I wrote during the screening. Karen and I had watched the film a few times in preparation, but we sat in the back of the room and made some notes as well. During the weeks leading up to the event Karen and I had pulled some of the recent research on LSD being conducted here in the US as well as in the UK and together we discussed some of the neuroethical dimensions of LSD use and experimentation. I mention this to help situate and contextualize the below. These are literally my notes to myself as I'm watching the movie, so they're short and the intention is to draw on these for discussion in case the audience is shy (which they weren't—one of my notes to myself is "Lots of autobiography around LSD and psilocybin mushroom use").

"Drugs" as the broad term we understand it in English today was a rhetorical invention of the early 20th century. The American Pharmaceutical Association really disliked the term and waged an unsuccessful campaign to deploy more accurate terms.

Important to note that the narrator states the molecule [LSD] "alters our perception" not "our mind." And yet, perception and brain activity are frequently conflated as synonymous with being the mind in these conversations.

Translation moment—Hoffman states he had a "wünderbar Ereignis" while under the influence of LSD. The translation in the subtitles has Hoffman saying he had a "wonderful experience" and that is passable, but perhaps doesn't communicate the potential subtleties at work in Hoffman's thinking on the matter. Ereignis is a technical term for Heidegger and can include a translation like "enowning" referring to the ways in which objects distinguish themselves (become this particular pencil, say, distinct from the class of objects called "pencils") by the circumstances of hanging just so in a network of other objects. We couldn't responsibly say that anything is possible at any given time, but we can say that a range of things are possible given the prevalent circumstances and affordances provided by those conditions. Ereignis refers to that kind of experience, not precisely "cosmic oneness" but maybe something like feeling at one with the unfolding of the entirety of the events around us. This experience helps us understand how "things" are not simply discrete bits of matter independent of any other thing, but also are þings, points of assemblage that potentially shift the manner in which future events happen. LSD presents us with the question of the noumenon, things-in-themselves, and the limits of human knowledge. Ereignis was a term Heidegger deployed in his later years, perhaps in part because he was inspired by his use of LSD with Ernst Jünger?

Media Studies moment—The training video that Grof and his colleagues made of their psycholytic therapy shows the mode of administration was by syringe. In the addiction studies literature the shift from consuming opium orally or by smoking to syringe use heralds the beginning of our contemporary concept of "addiction." In part, syringes were understood by 19th century users as a cutting edge technology that promised a better future for humanity. But it instead ushered in an unrivaled era of opiate use.

Media Archaeology moment—The first film to demonstrate the use of an intravenous barbiturate for the treatment of a psychiatric disorder was William Bleckwenn's "Catatonia cases after IV sodium amytal injection" (1936). This was the birth of narcoanalysis (although scopolamine had been frequently used in the decade previous for inducing suspects to confess to crimes).

Grof tells us that his technique of narcoanalysis was a "psycholytic practice" and that this was a "chemoarchaeology" of the psyche. These are moments of contestation in the distribution of the sensible as my teacher Jacques Rancière might say. We need to keep in mind that barbituates and other synthesized substances were called "psychomimetics" because they were regarded as ideal models of psychosis. People under the influence of these technologies became representatives—stand ins—for people that had been diagnosed with psychosis. Other terms deployed include hallucinogens, psychedlics, phanerothymics, and entheogens; all try to establish a relationship between a technology and something divine. The suspected location of this divinity continues to be the brain.

Grof suggests that there is a reliable progression of experiences that can occur with recurring doses of LSD in the clinical context. That LSD and other psychedelics are as microscopes or telescopes into the human psyche. Today in a similar Carhart-Harris et al. are hypothesizing that human consciousness is the result of a noise gate-type action at play in normal waking life and that LSD disrupts this entropic policing action of the normally functioning brain.

Narcoanalysis, the use of "truth serums" was notably investigated by the US military during the 1940s and through the 70s (see Project MKUltra). Today the tradition continues in the US under the euphemistically named "enhanced interrogation techniques" (I believe this is torture by another name) and we also see it being tolerated by the judge in the "Aurora Shooting" trial.

Translation moment—Hoffman is translated as saying LSD gave him intensified experiences. This term "intensified" was coined by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as he tried to find words to communicate the effects of opium use.

Translation moment—The fMRI scientist doesn't use the term "ego" he uses the term "das Ich" which is also the term Freud used. We gained the contemporary understanding of "ego" from James Strachey as he went about the task of translating Freud's works. Carhart-Harris and Nutt have long been working a program to bring Freud's theories into meaningful conversation with neuroscience.

Media Studies moment—Hoffman insisted that the proper use of LSD would lead one to become something like a medium; that spiritual practice was the proper mode of deployment.

Millbrook—"making well people weller" here we have LSD as neuroenhancer. Leary wanted to develop and train people in the "science and art of ecstasy." Leary also said he wanted to "bring about a religious renaissance, a spiritual uprising." Is this some sort of psychedelic jihadism?

Combined with the fact that 20% of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War self-identified as drug addicts, Leary and co.'s call for spiritual uprising and drugs as sacraments provided the public relations campaign needed for LBJ and then Nixon to begin the current American War on Drugs.

Grof at Spring Grove—"We wanted to change people's conceptions of death [....] that we are something larger than our bodies [....] that this is an adventure in consciousness." Flashes of John Donne's "Meditation XVII" from which we get the expressions "no man is an island" and "ask not for whom the bell tolls."

Griffiths et al. at Johns Hopkins—these are patients struggling with severe anxiety and/or depression and that are also battling cancer. They are "struggling with existential dilemmas" he says at one point and it has me ask myself about the perennial struggle between philosophy and pharmacy.

Why is Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" always on the soundtrack at the moment of death contemplation? Always always always.

Cancer patient describes intense interactions with relationships from his past while on LSD and this is precisely what De Quincey reports from his use of opium.

Grof says he's had near death experiences while on LSD and that after the death of the body he suspects that cognition continues on. Once more we have a testament to the Western fixation on or addiction to psyche as soul.

This notion of psyche as soul brings me to think about the first uses of the term "auto" which forms our contemporary word "autonomous." Addiction threatens autonomy, a term European cultures became enamored of during the 17th century and forward to today. Auton referred to the body of a person slain and no longer possessing the breath of life in the Illiad and "nomos" refers to the habitual ways of comporting oneself and transacting one's affairs in a region. Autonomy read in this way (which is not historically accurate) leads us to think of the habitual actions of corpses, a zombie state.

But what is life without that which makes human life significant (and reduces one to auton)?

1) What benefits are possible from LSD use?
2) What are the longterm physical effects of LSD use?
3) How was LSD use received in Europe (the film shows us America's 60s activities).
4) LOTS of autobiographical commentary.