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Gord Barentsen



This is the first post on the Complex Processes Research blog. The goal of this blog is simply for myself  (and others if they like) to engage with the ideas and arguments put forth at the CPRG weekly meetings.

Unfortunately I went to Arran Gare's inaugural talk but missed a couple of others, and my talk was last week. So we start this blog with this afternoon's talk:

SPEAKER: Peter Brace

TOPIC: Altered Carbon versus Altered States: Disruption in Defence of an Ecological Civilisation

TIME: 12.30pm, 9th May



If we are going to be successful in, as our theme for the CPRG this semester demands, ‘Overcoming the Neoliberal Assault on the Environment,’ then we would do well to imagine the results of a total victory for the forces of neoliberalism. A consideration of the outcomes that are articulated in the dystopian narrative from the Netflix television series “Altered Carbon” may strengthen us to continue our resistance. And an understanding of the roles of altered states of consciousness in disrupting entrenched and dysfunctional ways of thinking may give us hope for a self-correction to humanity’s current disastrous course. 

From their role in evolution to their contribution to the development of Western philosophy, we examine some of these altered states at various levels of abstraction through the lenses of neurophysiology, psychology and, of course, philosophy. The induction of these altered states in a therapeutic setting is already showing great promise for the treatment of certain intractable mental illnesses, but could a broader understanding of their effects help us to form another line of defence against neoliberalism’s assault? We call for greater recognition of their positive potential and encourage a cautious approach to further interdisciplinary study.

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(NOTE: in the future I will present the talk abstract and my discussion of it in a single blog post to avoid confusion.)

Peter Brace's talk was quite stimulating!  Beginning with a brief synopsis of the Netflix dystopia series Altered Carbon, the talk turned to a discussion of the potential for altered states to resist the indoctrinations of neoliberalism and support the creative articulation of a "global ecological civilisation."

So the question, in a nutshell: can psychedelics contribute to the development of global ecological civilisation?

Our contemporary preoccupation with the policing of leisure (for better or worse) has of course been in lockstep with the prohibition of psychedelic substances which were one perfectly legal (LSD and marijuana to name a few).  There is, of course, no one single explanation for the prohibitions - without being a scholar on the subject I assume one can argue at various points for moral panic, powerful substance lobbies (alcohol and tobacco?), high-profile examples of individuals ODing and killing themselves or others, etc. as fuelling public outcry and calls for prohibition. But is it also because there is a resistance to (and fear of?) the different, "higher" state of consciousness such substances can induce?

One useful way of conceiving this is to see it in terms of "responsive cohesion" - a term describing the relational quality inhering between entities in ideas, physiology, architecture and perhaps other disciplines.  In short, the parts relate to and respond to each other in this sort of system (as opposed to discohesion, where there is only chaos and randomness between parts).  Psychedelics can produce a state of interconnectedness which can catalyse new ways of thinking - really very similar to what we now know as neuroplasticity, which conclusively debunks the tired old computer metaphor of the brain as "hardwired" - to wit, the view of the brain as computer or machine made up of several discreetly moving parts (sadly, it persists in many forms today, along with the to me repulsive metaphor referring to social media and similar networks as "ecosystems").

One of the central issues of discussion came when one constructive critic called for, in his words, "education and not intoxication" - that is, do we really all need to experiment with psilocybin in order to help ecological civilisation?  My response to this is that while education is of course crucial, neoliberalism/capitalism is the standard metanarrative nowadays precisely because it's so good at co-opting discourses!  This is what happened to 1980s punk subculture, which at one point had at least some authentically emancipatory potential.  Capitalism chewed it up and spat it out as Green Day and a number of other pop-punk mutations.  So how far can we get with discourse before it's gobbled up by the reigning order?  My opinion in a nutshell is that while we need systems of discourse to educate ourselves about these possibilities, at some point we need to explore how to inject affect and a certain kind of nondiscursivity into our encounters with this knowledge in order to demonstrate that there is a potentially productive excess to these discourses that in fact drives their evolution.

Someone else remarked rather interestingly that the talk was based on a "Western" model of therapeutics based on what we put in to our bodies (medication) as opposed to an "Eastern" paradigm based on introspection and meditation - how we improve our own states, as it were, without medication.  Offhand, I question the simplicity of such a distinction: while I completely agree that Eastern traditions have an element of introspection which is lacking in Western medicine as a whole, traditional medicines are also ingested like other medications.  Moreover, I wonder whether or not global capitalism cum neoliberalism hasn't washed over these Eastern traditions and co-opted them into the monetisation fundamentalism of the 21st century.

All in all, a great talk and ensuing discussion which, like all such things, raises more questions than it answers.


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Next CPRG sessions are

12.30 pm May 23rd, AGSE Bldg, Cristina Neesham,

12.30 pm June 6th, ATC205 Bldg, Ryan Carolan

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