Interdisciplinary Conference


in Art & Science

26-28 November 2020, University of Applied Arts Vienna/Online

71. Psychedelic technologies and reconfigured subjectivities: Transgressing the taboo of self-transcendence
Session: Session "NSP10 / Phrenic"
Speakers: Claudia Schwarz-Plaschg

Modern western societies are governed in ways that delimit officially available subjectivities (subjectivity here understood as a person’s sense of self) from undesirable ones. One central mechanism through which this ordering is achieved is by classifying mind-modulating substances into different categories, thereby rendering some acceptable within bounds (e.g. alcohol, opiates) and defining others, such as psychedelics, as off-limits. A historical perspective, however, reveals that the societal status of these substances is constantly in flux. During the course of the past century, psychedelic substances such as LSD have moved from being a CIA-investigated potential mind-control technology, a means to raise consciousness and liberate the mind in the hippie counterculture, to being placed into the government- defined taboo category. The ensuing War on Drugs is essentially a war against specific subjectivities rather than substances. 

Yet since the turn of the millennium the status of psychedelics in society is slowly changing again, as we find ourselves in the midst of a resurgence of psychedelic studies demonstrating the mental health benefits of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and highlighting the importance of mystical, self-transcending experiences to foster healing. Without a doubt, we are standing at the brink of another shift in how western societies use and understand psychedelics. A central question then is in how far this shift could also reconfigure the landscape of subjectivities, in terms of their availability and distribution, and as a consequence induce broader social change? 

Against this background, this talk presents a perspective on psychedelics as psycho-spiritual- social technologies that allow to alter subjectivities in a variety of ways, depending most fundamentally on the intention/mindset of their users and the relations established between human and (non-)human others. I argue that psychedelic technologies enable a transgression of three entangled societal taboos, when approached with an inquisitive mindset: the taboo against knowing who we are (Watts 1989/1966), which stabilizes human beings’ misidentification as limited bodyminds separate from other humans, nature, and the mind@large (Ascott 2000), and thus legitimizes exploitation; the taboo of subjectivity in science (Wallace 2000) that relegates the experiential, subjective, and spiritual dimensions of consciousness to the fringes and judges them as less truthful than “objective” science; and the taboo of questioning and resisting authority (challenged from Socrates up to Timothy Leary, Peter Weibel and beyond) that guards hierarchical power structures and reproduces inequalities by prescribing norms and rules of conduct from “above.” I will discuss the potential opportunities and pitfalls that psychedelics offer to shake up these taboos and re- make subjectivities in the sciences, arts, and broader society during the current Psychedelic Renaissance.

Claudia Schwarz-Plaschg

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