Capitalism and poetry: 5 Questions for psychedelics scholar Neşe Devenot
Devenot discusses their research and the upcoming meeting of Psychedemia, a conference they founded a decade ago.
Sixteen years ago, Neşe Devenot was an undergraduate at Bard College when a friend offered her LSD. She ended up getting in trouble with the university — and in exchange for remaining enrolled, Bard asked her to research and write a brochure on the effects and dangers of LSD. (Devenot recently published the text of the brochure in a Medium post.) “I was really struck by the sense that the most important and profound experience in my life was an experience I was not supposed to have,” she said.
The experience stuck with Devenot, who shifted their studies to focus on psychedelics. (Devenot uses both she/her and they/them pronouns.) Devenot received a doctorate in psychedelic humanities from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 and is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Cincinnati, an affiliate scholar at the new Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education at the Ohio State University, and a Medicine, Society, and Culture research fellow at the psychedelic watchdog publication Psymposia. Devenot is a descendent of Indigenous people in the Middle East; her father is Kurdish (the Kurds are among the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world). She’s seen firsthand the influence of colonialism, power, and money, and much of her scholarship investigates those dynamics. The Microdose spoke with Devenot about their research and the upcoming meeting of Psychedemia, a conference Devenot founded ten years ago, which seeks to highlight humanities research and marginalized voices in the psychedelics space.
The first Psychedemia conference was held in 2012. Now, ten years later, you’re reviving it. How did the idea for Psychedemia come about, and how have things changed over the last decade?
The first conference was put on by a group of grad students at Penn from all different disciplines, and a few community members. We felt strongly that psychedelics was a topic that no single discipline had all the answers to, and that it was incumbent upon us to network with other disciplines, and to share what different disciplines could bring to bear on this complex subject. Some of the funding from the med school went to flying in artists who usually present their work at places like Burning Man so that we could have that perspective as well, and so that it wasn’t just the sciences that were considered to have a valuable perspective.
At the time, psychedelic studies as a field was not a thing. There were some scientific studies, but it wasn't an academic field. In the time since then, psychedelic studies have become a thing. In light of everything going on in the past few years — the mainstreaming and corporatization of psychedelics, and the blossoming of research studies all over the world — that it would be a great opportunity to take stock. We could compare what the expectations were ten years ago, and how are things looking now? We could then use that as a framework to look forward to the next ten years. For some of our keynote speakers, it's their first psychedelic conference; we’re trying to really think about how we can move the field forward by broadening the sorts of ideas that are represented.
There are now a handful of popular psychedelics conferences. In what ways is Psychedemia different?
There’s a real emphasis on horizontality — not having a hierarchical approach. In going to other psychedelics conferences, there’s sometimes a real kind of class difference between scientists, who are put on a pedestal and treated like rock stars, and people from what's considered the “softer” side of research, like the humanities. We’re valuing all the disciplines equally.
There will be more room for thinking about alternative perspectives and directions to develop the field in the future.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
Psychedemia also includes an Assembly of Psychedelic Research Centers, where representatives from universities doing psychedelic research will meet. What led you to add that to the agenda, and what do you plan to discuss?
Psychedemia is being hosted by the new Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education at the Ohio State University. We were keeping an eye on the field and noticing that new centers were popping up all over the place, like mushrooms! The different centers all have slightly different focuses. For example, U.C. Berkeley's is the only one that I know of that has a journalism emphasis, and OSU has a combination of research and educational focus, and will be having both a certificate program and an undergraduate minor in psychedelics.
The rails are really being laid right now for creating the routes of access and defining what psychedelic medicine and therapy will look like. Given that everyone is doing slightly different things, we thought it would be valuable for the field to bring everyone together for networking, as well as strategizing about how best to combine efforts, and to share expertise, knowledge and resources.
You’ve published papers about a wide range of issues, like silencing tactics directed towards survivors of abuse in the psychedelic space, the ethics of touch in psychedelic-assisted therapy, and how psychedelics can radicalize political beliefs. Now, you’re editing a special issue of the academic journal History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals about what you call “psychedelic capitalism.” It seems like the theme through all of your work is examining power in the psychedelics sphere; how does capitalism fit into that?
Hierarchies of power can influence the kinds of ideas that are represented and circulated in a field, and capitalism has that effect as well. Perspectives that are more conducive to capital tend to get a bigger platform and microphone; certain people are invited to places like Davos to give talks.
In the book Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas writes about the difference between the thought leader and the critic. He emphasizes the kind of the subtle influence that capital has on the kinds of ideas that are platformed and circulated: the critic is someone who has ideas that are actually challenging the status quo, and the thought leader recapitulates those ideas in a way that actually doesn't challenge the people in power. Those are the ideas that tend to get the most amplification. Capitalism subtly influences everything, from which ideas are circulating within psychedelic studies, to the trajectory of psychedelic studies, to access to psychedelics.
I’m also interested in societies that have had relationships to plant medicines that are not based on capitalism, like the various Indigenous communities. They take ecological and relational approaches to thinking about community health and environmental health. There are models outside of the capitalist paradigm. Rather than going with the inertia of accepting the loudest voices as the ones setting the agenda, we can be aware that these alternative dynamics exist and make a concerted effort to include those people in the conversation.
Much of recent psychedelic news coverage focuses on science, and not humanities — but the two have clearly influenced each other. You’re working on a book about the literary history of psychedelic science; what have you learned?
Many psychedelic researchers, like Timothy Leary and the Shulgins, have turned to creative writing, including poetry and fiction, to represent their psychedelic experience. The book considers the ways that science and literature work together.
Often humanities are undervalued as an area of study, but that’s a reflection of the hegemony of capitalism; the humanities are not considered to be a monetarily useful way of viewing things. To act like the arts — music, performance and storytelling — are not important, doesn't match with the historical record. It also ignores the ways people make meaning out of their psychedelic experiences; I was involved in the first qualitative psychedelics study out of NYU. If you look at the narrative reports generated in the immediate aftermath of people taking psychedelics, their trip narratives are often structured like stories. It makes a lot of sense, even from the scientific perspective, to collaborate with people who are trained to analyze narrative and discern significance from the data of non ordinary uses of language, like metaphor.
I have this dream of one day having a psychedelic study with poets, who are used to communicating experiences in non-ordinary language — they’re disrupting language to describe the non-ordinary; poets and literary scholars could help generate and interpret trip reports.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.