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Psychedelics, Set and setting and the digital realm (a new trilogy of papers)

July 21, 2022

Academic life moves in ebbs and tides. After publishing a trilogy of papers on set and setting in 2016-2018 I’ve went into a hiatus in which I focused mostly on my book American Trip which appeared in 2020 and had no further publications until last year’s Set and Setting in the Santo Daime, which appeared until 2021.

I’ve been changing gears, and the past couple of months have seen the publication of 3 new papers which build on my previous work and continue to deepen the exploration of the role of in psychedelic experience and culture, while also embarking on new directions inspired by media studies.

I’m quite proud of these new papers, so taking the liberty to introduce them here, since I think they would be valuable for anybody interested in thinking about psychedelics and set and setting in new perspectives.

Virtual Daime: When Psychedelic Ritual Migrates Online

This first paper, which was published by Frontiers in Psychology is actually a sequel to my 2021 paper Set and Setting in the Santo Daime. This one builds on my description of the Santo Daime ritual and examines its transformations as daime rites moved online in the context of the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic which forced many daime communities to reinvent themselves in virtual form. I’ve had a lot of fun writing this paper, particularly since I’ve long been interested in thinking about psychedelics as media and how they interact with other types of media (like digital media).

Many of my findings are bleak. Social anxiety shot up in virtual space as did concerns regarding consumerism and commodification, among other things. The limitations of digital technology became all the more evident under the influence of psychedelics. However, there was an upside too. Virtual daime rituals allowed people to continue their spiritual work at a time of social distancing and isolation. Some even had transformative spiritual experiences in the virtual astral. Moreover, virtual rituals created a global community and allowed the Santo Daime brotherhood to realize its plans to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of its founder in a radically different way, which unexpectedly enabled the entire Santo Daime flock to come together.  My research demonstrates how media adds another psychoactive layer that shapes experiences with psychedelics.

Technology and Addiction: What Drugs can Teach us about Digital Media

I’ve had even more fun writing this second paper Technology and Addiction, which was co-authored together with my good friend and close intellectual ally Amir Vudka from the Media Studies department at the University of Amsterdam, and published by Transcultural Psychiatry. This one takes another step in linking psychedelic theory and media theory as it merges insights from the psychedelic study of set and setting with insights about the psychoactivity of digital technologies and late-stage capitalism.

It’s a highly interdisciplinary endeavor bringing together media studies, psychedelic studies, addiction studies, cultural theory, political economy and science and technology studies. The upshot of the paper is the idea that thinking about set and setting of our narcotic digital use may offer new perspectives on harm reduction, but that this may force us to rethink the capitalist system as well.

Modalities of the Psychedelic Experience: Microclimates of Set and Setting in Hallucinogen Research and Culture

A lot of my writing over the past decade was about broadening our ideas of set and setting from the individual and concrete to the cultural: realizing that psychedelic experiences are shaped not just by the immediate conditions surrounding psychedelic use but also the dynamics and features of the surrounding culture. American Trip followed just this sort of thread as it traced the way 1960s American society shaped the psychedelic experience at the time (and since).

However, no culture is monolithic. Every culture is composed of various subcultures. In the context of 1950s and 1960s America there were 7 distinct sub-cultures with their distinct beliefs and approaches to psychedelics. These produced 7 distinct types of set and setting, which functioned like modalities for the psychedelic experience. My paper builds on research from American Trip to explore the idea of psychedelic modalities, or micro-climates of set and setting, and how the concept my serve as a heuristic for thinking about experiences with psychedelics.

From → academic papers

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