Some reflections on writing an autoethnography about psychedelic experience

I’ve been enjoying Leon Anderson’s 2006 paper on analytic autoethnography, plus half a dozen responses to it, followed by his concluding remarks. The entire exchange is published in a single issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Vol 35 (4), pp.373-465)

In his opening article (pp.373-395), Anderson traces the history of ‘protoautoethnographic’ research by realist ethnographers, documenting a heightening of self-reflexivity, a blurring of genres and an increased focus on emotion in social science research. He compares these developments with those of the postmodern/poststructuralist tradition championed by Ellis and Bochner, and their form of ‘evocative’ or ‘emotional’ autoethnography. In effect he presents the ancestry of autoethnography as converging from two branches; one from cultural anthropologists who turned their skills on their own cultures, and the other arising from a descriptive literary approach and a rejection of realist and analytic assumptions.

At first, I thought my own sympathies definitely lay with Anderson’s view of autoethnography as ‘explicit and reflexive self-observation’, which seemed to describe exactly what I have been attempting to do on my blog for the last few years. Denzin’s (1997, p228) description of an ‘epistemology of emotion, moving the reader to feel the feelings of the other’ does not sit as comfortably with me.

But, out of all of the pieces, I thought Ellis and Bochner’s (pp.429-449) was the cleverest; the ‘good cop – bad cop’ dialogue suggesting a range of reactions, one being that a conventional analytical framing violates the value and integrity of evocative autoethnography. However fictionalised (and charming) the view Ellis and Bochner gave me into their lives, I found their response the most truthful, and therefore the most persuasive. In his original paper Anderson acknowledges the postmodern skepticism of the generalisability of knowledge. If we accept that all writing is a construction, the type of autoethnography Ellis and Bochner write, which ‘acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research’ (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011) is very honest, whereas more traditional forms of academic writing are perhaps less so.

What surprised me the most in the set of papers was Leon Anderson’s concluding piece (pp.450-465). It seems to have been Denzin’s response (pp.419-428) that upset him the most, but Ellis and Bochner clearly got to him as well. Despite Carolyn Ellis explicitly stating: ‘I haven’t felt attacked by his paper’ (p445), I think Anderson feels that they have painted his piece as an attack on the value of evocative authoethnography, its validity as a methodology and the integrity of its epistemological origins. Maybe he feels that the use of Art as ‘bad cop’ in their response is a sneaky trick – a means of maintaining one’s innocence while sticking in the knife – and to an extent I would agree. The use of the word ‘autopsy’ is obviously inflammatory, Bochner’s defence of it is obtuse, and Ellis’ acquiescence – given that the role of her ‘character’ in the story is a conciliatory one – does not ring true. Perhaps Anderson feels that in fictionalising their argument, Ellis and Bochner have given themselves an unfair advantage.

In any case, Anderson’s defensive response paints the whole exchange as more of a bun-fight than I think it actually was, and demonstrates a weakness of the ‘traditional argumentative’ or ‘one-two punch’ style of argument that Ellis worked so hard to avoid; his final word, especially when juxtaposed with Ellis and Bochner’s dialogue, carries a hint of facade; I feel that he is ‘trying to be more than what he is’ (Rogers 1967, p175).

So… what did this exchange make me reflect on, thinking about my own autoethnography?

On my relative comfort with the genre
On reading Burnier’s response (pp.410-418), I realised that I’m actually quite comfortable blending my personal and scholarly stories – I’ve been doing it all along on here. In fact, I’m so committed to this as a means of personal and educational development that I teach my students to do it and have even used it to assess their learning.

In Anderson’s comeback he proposes that ‘all ethnographic writing should have evocative aspirations’ (p459). I wonder at my ability to write evocatively. In my own autoethnography I have tried to capture and communicate my experience in the form of epiphanic fragments. David had us do a ‘Pathic Writing’ activity in the first year of the EdD where we wrote about a memory of a significant event; simply recalling it and how we felt, without analysing it. That was an interesting thing to do, and, in the long run, very valuable. The non-analysis stimulated a kind of slow-burn reflection; every time I returned to it I had to ask myself afresh ‘how do I feel about this?’. I’ve tried to use the same technique in my autoethnography, keeping the analysis out of the fragments themselves.

On my ‘white, masculine, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied perspective’
I can see where Ellis and Bochner are coming from with this one, about those who ‘advocate and insist on canonical forms of doing and writing research’. I am constantly, openly questioning myself and my motives. This blog, for example, is pretty far from a canonical form of research. Considering the topic of my autoethnography, it should be noted that openness to other ideas and perspectives is a mindset that psychedelics have been shown to promote. Recent research in this area ranges from the psychological study by MacLean, Johnson and Griffiths (2011) on psilocybin and the personality domain of openness, to the neuroscientific work by Muthukumaraswamy et al. (2013) on cortical desynchronisation. The results of studies like these correspond with the reported psychedelic experience, including not only an enhanced openness to one’s own experience, or ‘mindfulness’, but also the sense of being part of a collective consciousness.

On the existence and nature of truth
I recognised my own ambitions in Anderson’s call to make inferences beyond the data – to ‘transcend’ the data. I feel I naturally lean towards the analytic; I like to abstract and explain. What does this say about my epistemological standpoint? I guess it supports the idea that, despite my numerous psychedelic experiences, I am a realist – I believe the truth is out there. We can’t expect to know it completely but we can at least have fun trying, using a range of tools and approaches.

On the meaning of life
You might find it odd that I see truth-seeking as ‘fun’, rather than some kind of moral duty. I’m a curious person, and I’m increasingly feeling that it’s our moral duty to have a nice time. I recently discovered the works of Alan Watts, who presents a worldview that is primarily playful:

‘We thought of life by analogy as a journey… which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.’

The above quote is from a lecture titled ‘The Human Game’. Watts’ audio archives are vast and insufficiently labelled and the full reference has so far eluded me. Another Watts quote that has resonated with me recently is from his 1971 talk ‘A Conversation With Myself’:

‘You’re only making a mess by trying to put things straight. You’re trying to straighten out a wiggly world, and no wonder you’re in trouble.’

Over the last twelve months my reading and thinking have taken me through a shift, from someone who waves banners to someone who asks, listens and thinks. This has affected the way I view my doctorate as a whole and my thesis project in particular. It’s a hard circle to square; taking on the responsibility of furthering human knowledge and believing in my heart that we’re just here to enjoy ourselves. But… perhaps knowledge doesn’t need to focus on straightening out the wiggles. What about simply illuminating their beautiful wiggliness?

On reaching beyond self-experience
psych reading
Like Anderson, I also see myself as a relative newcomer to the culture I am ‘studying’ (psychedelic culture). That’s one reason why I do feel the need to bring voices other than my own into my autoethnography; there is plenty of literature and thought out there that warrants me reaching beyond self-experience. I don’t want to write one of those ‘pseudo-scientific personal reflections’ that Sessa (2012, p7) finds so dull, but maybe this is inevitable. I’m certainly keen to avoid what Atkinson describes in his response to Anderson’s paper as the ethnographer becoming ‘more memorable than the ethnography’ (p402). Some might feel that writing openly about my personal experience with psychedelic drugs is professionally risky. My aim is not to gain infamy but to present a perspective that I believe is both important and unfamiliar to many.

On risking one’s academic and professional reputation
The first time I attended a talk by Professor David Nutt, a fellow member of the audience asked him what we, the people, could do to assist the cause for sensible, evidence-based drugs policies (e.g. legal classification based on relative harm). Nutt said something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

‘Well, you all look to me like intelligent, successful people. One very important thing young professionals like you can do is start to be more open about your own drug use. The general public needs to realise that most people who take drugs do so for pleasure and are not addicts.’

This exchange affected me deeply. I also think it was relatively easy for me to take his advice on board, having only started taking drugs in my mid-30s, for what I consider to be the ‘right’ reasons; i.e. pleasure and personal development rather than rebellion and peer pressure. Nutt has always argued that we need to understand the personal value of drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) in order to identify appropriate actions to reduce harm. He was involved in initiating the Net Pleasure Index – part of the 2013 Global Drug Survey – which explores the balance of positive and negative experience for users of different drugs. When ranked by net positive effect, MDMA comes out top, followed by LSD and psilocybin, which have the lowest perceived negative effects. Alcohol and tobacco come last.

To my mind, there is nothing shameful about consciously choosing to engage in educated psychological exploration. It is an unfortunate peculiarity that LSD and psilocybin are illegal, given the range of risky, dangerous and downright harmful activities that we are all free to engage in any time. For example, how many people have avoided injury while training for a marathon? Is it even possible to run for 26 miles on tarmac without causing any damage to the muscles, the tendons, the soles of the feet? No, it is not. And yet, as a society we applaud those who do so. We hold them up as paragons of virtue, we actively encourage them to harm themselves. I have never understood the link between charity giving and long-distance running. Why would I give money to encourage something to do something genuinely harmful? I can see the rationale in sponsoring someone to stop smoking, or to join a choir to improve their mental health, but to run for miles and miles on tarmac… no.

This quote in Denzin’s response to Anderson accords perfectly with my motivation for writing about psychedelic experience:

‘Ethnography is a not an innocent practice. Our research practices are performative, pedagogical, and political. Through our writing and our talk, we enact the worlds we study. These performances are messy and pedagogical. They instruct our readers about this world and how we see it. The pedagogical is always moral and political; by enacting a way of seeing and being, it challenges, contests, or endorses the official, hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other.’ (p422)

On reading this, I realised the critical pedagogic role of my own autoethnography, my aim being to disrupt cultural understandings and ultimately contribute towards a more just society. The legal status and social taboo around the use of psychedelic substances is something I care deeply about. Sewell’s (2006) article on personal motivation for and the ‘realities’ of psychedelic research indicates that many academics and students feel the same way. As Anderson argues in his concluding response; ‘caring and theorising are not mutually exclusive’ (p462).

References

Denzin, N. K. 1997. Interpretive ethnography: ethnographic practices for the twenty-first century. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., and Bochner, A, P. 2011. Autoethnography: An Overview. Forum: Qualitative Social Research. 12 (1), Article 10. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095 [Accessed: August 2016].

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W. and Griffiths, R. R. 2011. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25 (11) pp.1453-61

Muthukumaraswamy, S.D., Carhart-Harris, R.L., Moran, R.J., Brookes, M.J., Williams, T.M., Errtizoe, D., Sessa, B., Papadopoulos, A., Bolstridge, M., Singh, K.D., Feilding, A., Friston, K.J., Nutt, D.J. 2012. Broadband cortical desynchronization underlies the human psychedelic state. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (38), pp.15171-83

Rogers, C. R. 1967. On Becoming A Person. Constable.

Sessa, B. 2012. The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society. London: Muswell Hill.

Sewell, 2006. So You Want to be a Psychedelic Researcher? The Entheogen Review. 15 (2), pp.42-48. Available at: https://erowid.org/psychoactives/research/research_psychedelic_article1.pd [Accessed: August 2016].

Watts, A. ND. The Human Game. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8h-_MF0Gx4 [Accessed: August 2016]

Watts, A. 1971. A Conversation With Myself. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aufuwMiKmE [Accessed: August 2016]

 

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