2019 conferences

I will be presenting at five conferences this spring. These talks are all based on my dissertation. In chronological order:

1. ASPECT Graduate Conference, 21-23 March. Talk title: “Algorithmic Determinacy and Interpretative Psychedelic Science.” Date/time of presentation: 22 March, 11AM-12:45PM

2. Theorizing the Web, 12-13 April. Talk title: “Psychedelic Science and Algorithmic Governance.” Date/time of presentation TBA

3. Western Political Science Association, 18-20 April. Talk title: “Machine Learning and The Algorithmic Cancellation.” Date/time of presentation: 20 April, 10-11:45AM

4. Gender, Bodies, Technology, 25-27 April. Talk title: “The Plastic Flowers of Perception: Psychedelics, Gender Identity and Performance.” Date/time of presentation TBA

5. Society for Philosophy of Technology, 20-22 May. Talk title: “Abducting Intelligence: Psychedelic Research Methods and The Epistemic Limits of Machines.” Date/time of presentation TBA

Here are the abstracts for 2, 3 and 4:

— “Psychedelic Science and Algorithmic Governance”

In this paper, I argue that justifications given for the use of qualitative and non-digital methods in psychedelic drug research can be leveraged toward a theoretical critique of artificial intelligence. I draw from scholarship that uses non-digital techniques, and in particular interpretative phenomenological analysis, as hermeneutic devices for verbal data produced by psychedelic psychiatry research. I also invoke the machine learning functions of induction, generalization and classification — described briefly and without needless jargon — to explore the problems of subjecting data from non-digital psychedelic science to processing by A.I. systems. This in turn indicates how the rationale for non-digital frameworks in psychedelic science envelops an immanent critique of the notion of automated and/or artificial “intelligence.”

I begin by stating that the psychedelic renaissance, i.e. the current resurgence of medical research on psychedelics, includes an emerging paradigm which emphasizes interpretive and self-reflexive methodological frameworks in evaluating verbal “trip reports” given by human research subjects. This reflexive approach recognizes a certain Gestalt characteristic of psychedelic therapy, wherein the whole of the experience is felt to supersede the sum of any discrete and/or computable research variables — factors that might be reductively expressed as digital (i.e. discrete) data and/or machine learning classifiers. This, I contend, makes information from non-digital psychedelic research resistant to effective processing in A.I. systems. It furthermore means that a comprehensive picture of the medically effective properties of psychedelics must include information made by non-automated and non-digital methods.

I proceed to offer that my argument for the limits of digital automation techniques in the arena of psychedelic drug research can be extrapolated to a more general critique of A.I. Here, I return to my claims regarding the epistemic shortcomings of inductive, classificatory and probabilistic reasoning, functions which are enshrined in machine learning and A.I. Extant literature on psychedelic science indicates novelty and pattern-breaking as central to these drugs’ psychiatric effectiveness. In other words, the therapeutically active qualities of psychedelic drugs cannot be expressed by knowledge-production functions based on inductive reasoning (as in A.I.). This in turn indicates that psychedelic science can be leveraged toward a general theory of knowledge which cannot be produced or informed by A.I.

— “Machine Learning and The Algorithmic Cancellation of the Future”

In this paper I explore the impact of machine learning algorithms on the data they process. I make a two-part argument. First, that the inductive basis of machine learning functionality forecloses their capacity to produce outcomes with no ancestral relation to their training data. This has a protracted winnowing effect on content, which is a political concern due to the growing presence of machine learning algorithms in various facets of communal and individual life. I maintain that the a priori restrictions placed by algorithms on data constitute an emerging hegemonic order. Second, that an intervention in this scenario can be staged through an examination of non-digital, interpretative and self-reflexive methods in empirical science. The restrictions of machine learning, I offer, are drawn into high relief by exploring scientific studies in which it is deemed methodologically insufficient. This reading indicates predicates of intelligence which allegedly “intelligent” automation fails to self-generate.

I substantiate the first part of my argument with work from three philosophers of digital media. Antoinette Rouvroy writes on “algorithmic governance,” the automated retraction of possibility from probability in digital content. Matteo Pasquinelli argues that machine-learning-based systems, including A.I., cannot be intelligent, as their inductive functionality does not compass the creativity constitu genuine intelligence. Adrian Mackenzie applies a Foucauldian framework to algorithmic determinacy, highlighting the role of contingency in knowledge production. These thinkers provide me with materials for the second part, in which I use cases from experimental psychiatry to theorize potential sites of resistance to the algorithmic cancellation of the future.

— “The Plastic Flowers of Perception: Psychedelics, Gender Identity and Performance”

What can psychedelic science bring to our understanding of gender identity? In this paper, I merge insights from the burgeoning field of psychedelic psychiatry with classic notions of aesthetic and gender identity performance. My argument is that psychedelic psychiatry is well-positioned to affirm and extend the project of “troubling” gender norms, although this will only be achieved through a critical approach to methodology.

I open by noting that research on psychedelics suggests a relationship between their therapeutic efficacy and their tendency to subvert concrete notions of self — including that of a static and context-agnostic identity. I then invoke transdisciplinary writings on psychedelic drugs to remark on their capacity to dissolve hardened subjectivities in a more general sense, challenging the precepts of mainstream psychiatry. Scholars Byung Chul Han, Christopher Letheby and Nikolas Rose have critiqued the tendency of psy- disciplines to reify and constrain subjectivity; Letheby specifically connects this intervention to new findings from psychedelic research. Meanwhile, medical anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz has demonstrated a connection between the “unreal” phenomenological character of psychedelic therapy and theories of alienation in theater and art performance, particularly Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. I explore Langlitz’s argument that the sense of unreality shared by the psychedelic and theatrical experience contains the potential to loosen the imaginary of the concrete, isolated subject which rules over the popular imaginary of gender.

I proceed to summarize and supplement the aforementioned thinkers as follows. Psychedelics, I argue, work against the sense of over-determinacy and inevitability that pervades mainstream psychology, and can be used to designate gender as a space of construction and aesthetic play. This potential, however, rests in the the technique of researchers and practitioners. I conclude by stating that if methodological orthodoxy and conservatism are not challenged here, psychedelic drug treatments may fail to provide its subjects with radical perspectives on identity.

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After this conference season, I’ll mostly be a hermit in my apartment in Blacksburg. There may be some travel but the idea is to have a complete draft of the dissertation by the end of the calendar year. That’s a much more reasonable goal if I stay put. And who knows, maybe I’ll even have time to record music again (although I’m not banking on that until after the PhD is over).