Psychedelic Investigations (conversation with Trent Knebel)

Leonora Carrington: El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas
Leonora Carrington: El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas

DF: The psychedelic (or phenoumenodelic) is a mode of investigation into perception, periodically renewed by new technical means – drugs, synthesizers, fractals, neural nets. We are now entering into a new phase of psychedelic investigation; that is, investigation into how we perceive what we perceive, what perception is “made out of” or “drawn from”, and what extensions or modifications it is susceptible to.

Psychedelic investigation is sometimes taken to be investigation into the ultimate nature of reality, which it is but not directly. In psychedelia, perception is relieved of its sufficiency and submitted once again to the real. That doesn’t mean that we see what’s “really always there”, but that what we see is other than what our standard frame of perception acknowledges as capable of “being there”. Givens appear outside of the established regime of givenness. The stranger enters into manifestation.


(Give the neural net a picture of some sky, and ask it to extrapolate images of Lucy with diamonds…)

Computer-generated psychedelia
What androids actually dream of

TK: Re: neural networks: I’ll be impressed when a computer can uncover a new correspondence between apparently unconnected domains of reality, progressively deforming things is fairly trivial and I don’t think stretches much past ideas of what computers are capable of (even if it does generate some interesting visuals).


DF: I agree, what we’ve seen so far with this is pattern recognition over-egged into hallucination, rather than pattern recognition uncovering previously undiscovered real structures. But I think that has always been true of psychedelia: it doesn’t bring insight into the real directly, but insight into the construction of illusions.

Edge detection
Edge detection

TK: I’ve never tried psychedelic drugs so can’t comment in that area, however, I do think Catren style psychedelia uncovers real structures that are only glimpsed distortedly when seen from any particular perspective, and Zalamea’s oeuvre is filled with example realizations of synaesthetic glimpses of structural kernels.


DF: I think I have to modify my previous statement: psychedelia is essentially undecided between reality and illusion, it’s an investigation of areas for which there is as yet no decision procedure. The question of whether or not there’s any “there” there is temporarily suspended. Later on it may be possible to discern some “structural kernel”, but the psychedelic moment is about developing the intuition that there is a “there” where something might conceivably be.

60s Psychedelia
60s Psychedelia

TK: Perhaps psychedelia is perceiving a correspondence in a synaesthetic manner without conscious grasp of the higher order principles governing the correspondence- eg synaestheticaly perceiving homotopy and type theory together without formally understanding homotopy type theory.

Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley

DF: Yes, it’s a kind of unchained synaesthesia, a synaesthesia that might always come to nothing.

Diagram from Zalamea
Diagram from Zalamea

TK: Might, but I’d also say that ascension to higher order structures (coupled with rich fleshing out of those structures, which is obviously there in psychedelia. this is opposed to hollow knowledge of higher order structures without understanding the lower level things they control) is one of the most fundamental types of progress, if not the most fundamental.

Transits: Notes on the Xenofeminist Manifesto

It’s a bold gesture, to be sure: to insist on the conjugation of lived experience with stringent formal abstraction, on the compatibility and even identity in the last instance of intersectionality and “the right to speak as no-one”, on the possibility and necessity of a transfeminism that is also a rationalism. As if one wanted to have all the enemies in the world at once. “We must draw a line between ourselves and the enemy”, but here are many lines crossing each other at many points, a mesh of antagonisms. If nothing else, the XFM presents an imposingly compact yet comprehensive mapping of the contemporary terrain of struggle within feminism, or amongst feminisms.

The underlying wager is that a connection can be drawn between the theoretical and experiential resources of contemporary transfeminism and those of an earlier feminist transhumanism, in such a way that the white-male-supremacism that is always seeking to inhabit and possess the mutating body of the transhuman can be checked, subverted and put to rout. This is both the resumption of a feminist political project that was active in 1990s cyberculture — notably in the symbolic and theoretical subversions of VNS Matrix — and the mutation of that project in the light of new experience, and by new theoretical means. What has to be repelled, continually, is “the facile tendency of conflation [of the universal] with bloated, unmarked particulars — namely Eurocentric universalism — whereby the male is mistaken for the sexless, the white for raceless, the cis for the real, and so on”. It is a question of discriminating the true universal from the false, and mobilising the former against the latter.

As the postmodern, in Lyotard’s formulation, precedes the modern, so the postmodernism of 90s cyberfeminism precedes and conditions the modernism of the XFM. Modernism extracts new formal techniques from the “paralogisms” of postmodern experimentation, and uses them to extend its logical apparatus. It forms a new canon from diverse materials. Thus: “From the postmoderns, we have learnt to burn the facades of the false universal and dispel such confusions; from the moderns, we have learnt to sift new universals from the ashes of the false”. In the symbolic register, a process of alchemical transmutation; in the logical register, a diagonalisation or transversal procedure.

In playing with the various different valances of “trans-” here, I’m both exploiting an affordance and signalling a danger. The danger is that trans* politics, the politics of trans existence within and against a patriarchal-capitalist and transphobic/transmisogynist social order, will end up being strip-mined for its conceptual and metaphorical resources and put into use by, well, people like me: cis people without all that much skin in the game, for whom those resources can be safely diverted into a more or less “academic” interest in gender and sexuality and so on. So there’s a question of how to affirm what the XFM affirms, which is that any contemporary feminism must be a trans-feminism and that feminism-modulo-”trans” is vitally necessary for the development of a genuinely emancipatory technoculture, without ending up making a rather instrumental and exploitative use of trans* politics, which has some pressing concerns of its own to attend to. If you’re chiefly in it, as I am, for the emancipatory technoculture, then you need to take care that the proposed adjunction between transfeminism and feminist transhumanism provides benefits in both directions.

Here there is a particular tension between the “right to speak as no-one” — access to the scientific-theoretical register, to which belong statements such as “there exists no largest prime number”, or “Earth’s climate is changing due to human release of carbon into the atmosphere” — and the right to be acknowledged as a “someone” who can speak for themselves in a radical democracy of identity positions. The former belongs to what Lyotard called “rights of the infinite”, the latter to what we might call “rights of the finite”. The XFM repudiates the assumption that the former must be subordinated to the latter — that we should seek, for example, a more “democratic” science. It is important here not to confuse science with technoculture: the argument is that in order to have an emancipatory technoculture, we need a science that acts as far as possible as a vector for the inhumanisation of knowledge, since it is this inhumanisation that renders it uniquely capable of overturning socially-entrenched positions and attachments.

In taking a stance of “gender abolitionism”, however, the XFM reveals a preference in favour of inhumanisation — in favour of the “scientific” over the “manifest” image. Should the rights of the infinite trump the rights of the finite; or (to put it more concretely) should our knowledge that gender is a social fiction trump the significance of gender identification as a social act? The XFM asserts that intersectionality — the combination, within the finitude of a subject position, of multiple identifications and attachments; or, within the finitude of lived experience, of multiple oppressions and circumscriptions — just is the generic-universal which undoes every particular identity: “Intersectionality is not the morcellation of collectives into a static fuzz of cross-referenced identities, but a political orientation that slices through every particular, refusing the crass pigeonholing of bodies”. I wish — and the manifesto wishes with me. This seems like a hyperstitional move, however: the positing of an accomplished identity that has yet to be achieved in actuality.

“Scientifically”, the conclusion to be drawn from intersectional analysis is that no cross-referencing of identities, no system of pigeonholes, can ever be adequate to the real complexity of embodied social existence. But what is socially “manifest”, at every moment of our lives, is that we are positioned by and within antagonisms that have no particular regard for that complexity. For example: transmisogyny focuses an intense hatred on “feminine” expression, especially when attached to a body sexually coded as male (and therefore as natively entitled to “masculine” expression). The open expression of a “femme” identification, in this context, brings one (whether male or female, trans or cis) into political conflict with a transmisogynist value system. We have to simultaneously know that “femme” cannot be the whole truth of anyone’s embodied existence, and uphold the right to that expression and to the identification “as” femme that supports it.

“Gender-abolitionism” is taken by today’s radfems to mean that “femme” should be eradicated, immediately or as soon as possible (and in the meantime condescended to, with a certain morose delectation, as a regrettable compromise with the malign imperatives of a fallen world); and the practical consequence of this is that the radfems fall politically into line with the transmisogynists, a consequence that the XFM denounces as an “absurd and reckless spectacle”. So the XFM must mean something different: a revision of our understanding of gender in the light of the scientific image, yes, but not simply the violent suppression of gender’s social manifestation. What, then? What emerges from consideration of this point is the extreme delicacy of the universal, the care that must be taken at every point to preserve its genericity, its quality of being “neither this nor that and both somewhat this and somewhat that”. The universal can never come to rest, assume the status of an accomplished fact; hence the XFM’s proposal of an “open platform”, governed by certain orienting principles, rather than a set of prescriptions. Even as bold a manifesto as this has to hedge somewhat — but for the best of reasons.

anonymous scenes

Announcing a new blog, dedicated to the music of Mark Eitzel and American Music Club: anonymous scenes. The first post concerns The Confidential Agent, considered as a member of the class of songs that are definitely somehow sort of about sex, and considers in passing the strange sauciness of Kate Bush, the Stürm und Drang of A-ha, and the unbearable obscenity of Perry Como.

Poem: “Referring in some way”

your body, mine – the field
of reference in no way a meadow

to lie down in, body-
to-body in the light of fresh
discoveries. Your field

is far-afield, neither enfolding
nor overlapping my unkempt corner,
my dream of you for now.

This is one of the Half Cocks, a series of fifty-word poems I wrote over a period of several years. The capitalised phrases at the beginnings of the poems are usually “seed phrases” of some kind, taken from elsewhere and then expanded on. I don’t remember where this one comes from, and it’s generic enough to have come from almost anywhere. So the reference is floating, unresolvable, perhaps irrecoverably lost.

A number of the Half Cocks are about dreams, and in particular about dreams of connection, intimacy (less often sexual than you might think) and reconciliation, and the feeling of waking from such dreams into a world in which the desired and (dream)-experienced proximity is lacking and seems permanently unavailable. Here the lack is explored as a lack of reference, a failure of the name or image of a person to maintain a stable connection with that person’s reality; in the first place because they are simply not there to be brought into correspondence with the token that represents them.

The gap between token and referent is reflected in the gap between “field” as metaphor – as in “field of reference” – and “field” as literal “meadow”, a place where one might lie down in pastoral comfort and closeness. (Although the latter is still arguably an image. I’ve never really enjoyed picnics. There are usually wasps). While linguistic reference permits many different “ways” for things to be connected, including words and bodies, the field of reference is “in no way” such a meadow: there is in unsurmountable barrier between the permissiveness of fantasy and the reality of human contact. It is only on the far side of that barrier that the “light” illuminating the scene can become “the light / of fresh discoveries”; that visionary dream-seeing can give way to genuine experiential novelty, rather than remaining transfixed by its own static images of fulfilment.

There is a sense of interment, and of separation as having been separately interred. The cue-words here are “far-afield” and “corner”, which in the context will recall Rupert Brooke’s “corner of a foreign field / That is forever England”. A different Half Cock poem has “clammed in sleep’s bathysphere you seek / conciliation amid disarray”: the dreamer is submerged, buried, “clammed in” or pent-up, incapable of action. The “field” is now where the bodies are buried, each in its own “unkempt” or untended corner, lacking even a shared place to “lie down” in. This is a kind of hysterical projection of the everyday feeling that the people one misses are living in a separate universe (Half Cocks has an epigraph from Geoffrey Hill’s “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz” – “You are outside, lost somewhere”) and that there is no common “field of reference” that can bring these separate universes together. Even in death the disjunction must seemingly remain unresolved.

The final line is a re-ordered quotation from Auden’s, “Night covers up the rigid land”, which closes with the couplet “for now my dreams of you cannot / refer to you at all”. Auden’s lines imply finality, a dismissal: since the speaker can no longer “control the moments of your sleep, / nor hear the name you cry”, the addressee may as well “hurry to the fated spot / of your deliberate fall”. By contrast, “my dream of you for now” suggests that the speaker is tided-over by dreams, awaiting an encounter that the dream is felt to prefigure. It seems that the poem’s own internal critique of this expectation is not sufficient to force its abandonment.

Seven Types of Intersectionality

Posted, for no better reason than attention-seeking, over at Medium.


“Intersectionality” finally names a projected system of correspondences: between social structure and lived experience, between lived experience and theory, between theory and political practice, between political practice and discursive representation. (And within theory: I have seen it claimed that an intersectional “approach” or even “method” is necessary in order to accomplish an intersectional analysis). Each “post” in this system is related to the others via its intersectional character, as if intersectionality were a global semantic “bus” routing messages from post to post. What may seem semantically unstable or protean to the uninitiated is thus in fact highly systematic. But a signifier capable of doing this kind of universal mediating work is no longer functioning as a descriptor; it is rather, like “power” in Foucault or “difference” in Deleuze, being employed meta-descriptively as the “glue” holding a system together, or as the guarantor of an idiom.

Sufficiency, Adequacy, Fidelity

The “principle-of-sufficient-X” is a principle held by X, stipulating a condition to which it either aspires or already conforms by (its own) definition. Rule 34 is something like a principle of sufficient internet porn: it entails that ∀x: P(x), or equivalently that ¬∃x: ¬P(x), where P(x) means “there is porn of x”. But it is a meta-pornographic principle, a rule “of the internet”, rather than intrinsic to the pornographic stance: porn neither presupposes nor purports to enact its own sufficiency (i.e. the pornifiability of everything). The limit of pornographic inscription is not set by any unrepresentable act, any “last taboo” (there is always one more taboo, and it is always possible to break it – and where else but on the internet?), but by the rubric of explicitness*: porn is emphatically not about anyone’s interiority. (A new rule of the internet is needed, in fact: for every feeling, there is a corresponding “tfw” – “that feeling when” – statement illustrating the circumstances that would give rise to that feeling, ideally paired with a suitable gif. But “tfw” is arguably the gravestone of interiority: its premise is that every feeling is communicable, and linked to an occasion outside the self.)

Here is a trivial model of “sufficiency”: for every set, there is a free monoid whose elements are the finite sequences of elements of that set, whose identity element is the empty sequence, and whose monoid operation is the concatenation of sequences. Every set is convertible with its free monoid, in a precisely definable way (there is a functor from the category of sets to the category of monoids, and what is meant by “free monoid” in this context is that this functor is left-adjoint to the forgetful functor running in the opposite direction. Haskell programmers know the monad arising from this adjunction as the “List monad”; it’s worth studying, as an elementary example of how such things work). The free monoid construction means that there are “sufficient” monoids to cover the entire category of sets (although this shouldn’t be thought of in terms of there being an equal quantity of monoids and sets, since we’re dealing with infinite categories).

Is this really a model of “sufficiency” in the sense intended by Laruelle, when he talks of the “principle of sufficient philosophy”? Not quite, and it’s worth trying to figure out why. The principle of sufficient philosophy doesn’t just entail that for every entity in some domain – the world, or some region of the world – there is a philosophical reflection or representation of that entity and its relations with other entities. It is also implied (in Laruelle’s usage) that this reflection is not “free” (in the sense of being “freely generated”), but rather involves the covert addition of extra structure or information. Philosophy’s “world-system” is then a construction over the world which uses materials taken from philosophy – Laruelle will sometimes describe it as a “hallucination”. Philosophical sufficiency is thus indicted as an imposture: the in-sufficient or over-sufficient specular model poses (itself) as sufficient, and in doing so does a kind of violence to that which it claims to reflect.

We are dealing, in that case, with a kind of failed or defective specularity, which “makes up for” its defects by violently normalising that which it purports to reflect, mutilating the foot to make it fit the glass slipper which supposedly transparently ensheathes it. And there are many such systems abroad in the world today (although I note in passing that this account lines up rather well with Friedrich Hayek’s in The Road to Serfdom: Hayek claims that a centrally-planned economy must compensate for its inability to model the informational complexity of real economic activity through distortion, cover-ups, and ultimately violent political suppression…). But we also have in hand an example of a “mapping”, or transference between categories by means of a functor, which is rigorously, demonstrably, non-violent – which serves, in fact, as a counter-example to the violence of which Laruelle accuses philosophy. For there are “full and faithful” functors as well as “forgetful” ones – and the mathematics of category theory exhibits a panoply of different kinds of specularity, different ways in which one thing can be reflected in, projected on to, extracted from or transformed into another, faithfully or lossily, invertibly or non-invertibly.

The point here is not to say that all we need to do is turn philosophy into mathematics and all will be well. It can’t be done anyway – mathematics can propose images of thought to philosophy, and philosophy can do its best to attend to them carefully, but there is no general-purpose mapping between the two. We have to recognise something like Badiou’s Being and Event as a philosophical construction of ontology with mathematics, which draws on set theory as an organon of ontological stricture.

What I mostly miss in Laruelle is any sense that stricture can be useful: the general drift is towards destriction, letting it all hang out.  In some respects of course Laruelle is very strict – Galloway describes him as having a “prophylactic” ontology, which absolutely forbids the binding together of entities under any representational syntax whatsoever. But this enforced unbinding and excommunication of entities serves the purpose of allowing them to mix promiscuously, to be brought into identity with each other in an ad hoc manner, without regard for regulated channels of communication (or, it must be said, the semantic conventions proper to their discourses of origin). I compare Zalamea’s vision, in Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics, of a universe of “transits” between regions of mathematics, in which extremely delicate constructions make it possible for remote areas of knowledge to be brought into communication with each other, mixed and modulated and amplified in just the manner Laruelle seems to desire, but with complete and unyielding exactitude.

  • But on this, see Helen Hester’s Beyond Explicit, which considers precisely the impasse encountered by porn when it attempts to go beyond the “frenzy of the visible”. The pornographic act may be one of explicit depiction, but it is haunted by the undepictable.

Samois Gamgee

Chiara d'Anna in The Duke of Burgundy
Here comes the new boss

Back in the days before the Feminist Sex Wars (ask your mother), radical feminists used to fret about sexual practices which revolved around domination and submission – their contention was that compulsory heterosexuality already revolved around domination and submission, and that S&M just did the same thing harder and more openly (which made it a convenient target of critique, e.g. Andrea Dworkin reading heterosexuality through porn, and porn through Sade and Bataille, telescoping together a long chain of determinations into a single static image of bad sex). At the root, the radix, was the fact of male domination: political, economic, physical; from this came the inscription of domination into sexual practice, which set the stamp of male power on gendered bodies.

In spite of decades of people arguing that this was ludicrous, and that domination in a sexual context had no necessary connection with social forms of domination (everything that now goes by the name of “kyriarchy”), I still think the radical feminists had a point. Social facts shape embodied practices, and what we do with our bodies is part of how we reproduce social forms. The claim commonly made for S&M is that it’s a way of interrupting that process of reproduction, making explicit and available for transformation the power dynamics that are implicit in less consciously mediated practices. That seems plausible enough, but it’s also a little like believing that racism isn’t properly racism if you’re doing it ironically. At some level you’re still really doing what you’re consciously, mediatedly, subversively and transgressively doing. It wouldn’t be any fun if you weren’t.

However, I also don’t think it’s worth arguing about any more. The radical feminists had this notion that you could derail patriarchy by attacking its reproduction via embodied sexuality; but nobody really wanted to go along with that all the way to the end. We have to live in the world as it is, embodied as we are, and that means compromising (with) ourselves. The last two decades of feminist talk about sex have largely been a mixture of thrashing out the terms of that compromise, and establishing the consent standard as a kind of minimal, universally agreed-upon index of OK-ness.  What do they want, who want neither Virtue nor Terror? Mostly, just to be left alone.

(There is a kind of melancholia attached to this compromise, which I do think deserves attention. As Janet Halley brilliantly argued, the radical feminist vision of sexuality gave rise to an extraordinarily total sexual politics. There is something rather degraded and shabby, in comparison, about the argument that we should just go on doing whatever we feel like – within the parameters of consent, naturally – but should also take time to “question where our desires come from”. What possible outcome is being imagined for such questioning? A mild frisson of guilt and regret at being so unreconstructed?)

One thing I found intriguing about The Duke of Burgundy was the way it set its laborious fetish-games in a male-free, child-free, female-only world – the world of artsy lesbian softcore reimagined as a temporary autonomous zone – in which sexuality had no patriarchal referent or context: no reproductive hazard, no men to please or pacify, no discernible “metaphysics of force” of the kind outlined in Dworkin’s Intercourse. What social facts are being reproduced through embodied sexuality here? Ultimately, and rather tellingly, the axis of domination resignified in the lovers’ games is class. The key question at each moment is, who is working for whom? It’s clear that the relationship is rather tyrannical, that the submissive party is actually obnoxiously demanding, and that what she demands above all is emotional labour: say the lines with conviction, be spontaneous, surprise me. She’s like a terrible neoliberal employer: not only do you have to go through with this whole scripted routine, you have to do it with a smile (or, in this case, a convincing “coldness”), adorned all the while with the requisite number of “pieces of flair”. The feeling of relief when the lovers agreed to give it all a break for a bit was palpable – this was the true utopian moment in the film.

I imagine it was the tyrannised-by-the-client aspect of their relationship that most resonated with viewers who weren’t themselves particularly into lesbian BDSM roleplay, that seemed most “universal”. In this way, The Duke of Burgundy has a kind of remorseless deductive logic about it: by bracketting off the entire context in which feminism had previously debated the ethics of sexualised domination, it’s able to isolate and present the true form of contemporary social power – that of the Pret-a-manger store manager, directing the behaviour of frontline staff like a client instructing a dominatrix in precisely which admonishments to use.

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