The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience by Sean Leneghan
Originally published in 2011 ‘The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience: An Exploration of Person, Mind and Body in Sydney’s Club Culture’ was written by Dr. Sean Leneghan. Leneghan gained his PhD, in Anthropology, from the University of Sydney in 2010; his interest areas include phenomenological anthropology, psychedelic research and altered states of consciousness. He is also continuing his research in uncontrolled and clinical contexts for ecstasy use.
Leneghan’s The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience: An Exploration of Person, Mind and Body in Sydney’s Club Culture is succinctly described as a “phenomenologically grounded ethnographic study of the life-world of ecstasy users in the socio-cultural contexts of raving and clubs in Sydney, Australia. The thesis espouses existential-phenomenology as a framework for describing and understanding these experiences” (Leneghan 2011, 5). In employing this methodology, Leneghan is explicitly rejecting the mechanist-materialist paradigm for describing and interpreting drug use. By doing this, the author is offering the reader an interesting and alternative perspective that escapes the medical monopolisation of drug understanding, which is all-pervading in public health and political debate. And, as such, provides a series of useful tools to enlighten the question of what it means to be human in the context of that culturally-universal behaviour of self-dosing with psychoactives.
In adopting a phenomenological approach, Leneghan also describes it is an organismic approach, so while a mechanistic point-of-view sees an individual being determined by their environment, the organismic sees the biological relationship of subject-object as an entwined dialogue. In other words, following Kant, it is the relationship between one’s inner-world and an exteriority, which proposes an inseparable unity. Thus, when Leneghan uses the existential-phenomenological approach he is giving credence to the lived experience of his subjects so far as they are constructing the relationships of their realities. The non-ordinary states of consciousness are, as opposed a pathological-breakage in the mechanistic view of human behaviour, a constructive force in the forming of one’s weltanshauung. Understood as such, ecstasy use, for example, is not necessarily a problematic in regard to socio-political and/or medical perspectives, but a tool in socio-cultural production. There is an implicit, and very welcomed, flight away from the ideological negativism that so often haunts the drug debate.
“The primary aim of the phenomenological method is to provide a critical base or matrix for empirical investigations and analysis of the concrete situations of everyday-life. As a rigorous methodology for the social sciences, phenomenology uncovers and clarifies the invariant structures of the life-world in which the intentional directedness of consciousness constitutes all human action” (Leneghan 2011, 31).
The biological and anthropological stances in Leneghan’s approach create a very interesting ground from which to deliver his phenomenological analysis. The analysis itself is comprised of an ethnography of rave culture, a dialogal ethnography of the ecstasy experience comprised from roughly 300 000 transcribed words from informants, a general phenomenology of an ecstasy user’s being-in-the-world; and, also, a number of sections dealing with elements like altered bodies and minds, peak and effects, social interaction, isolation and unity, scatting and comedowns and tolerances, addiction, reconstitution and fading away.
The informants create a very picturesque vision of their ecstatic clubbing scene in Sydney. Even ideas about addiction become embedded in the environment, rather than in the drug itself, for instance in 8.5.2: “The addiction behind it [ecstasy], I think, would be the scene and not the actual drug. The drug facilitates the scene” (Leneghan 2011, 197). In this sense, one is ‘addicted’ to a social scene, one in which ecstasy plays a role in the communality of the experience. Indeed, the term addiction as it is traditionally understood (baring in mind that it’s a wide area of research in itself) becomes almost meaningless in terms of the chemistry of the drug; it is behavioural, but not detrimentally. Rather than this social scene being a morally-corrupt behaviour in young people, it is in fact a passage that people pass through, an intrinsic element of life in which ecstasy plays a role – the party, the burn-out, the rebirth.
The comparison between the normal, everyday world and the ecstasy life-world becomes an important distinction, so far as it seems that it allows one a space in which to develop outside everyday constraints: “Whereas on the weekends, or sometimes during the week if that was your thing, there is a place where you mingle with people – yes – they on average probably about 70% plus, are on some sort of substance or other, are there to have a good time, who are on drugs, but happy, not sort of violent on drugs…” (Leneghan 2011, 95). This begs the question as to what is the necessity of this particular life-world in the context of the non-drug time that is spent. What appears to crop up during the discussions with informants is the otherness and tribalness of the ecstasy club scene; as a method to communality within a very experiential framework that is not typically part of everyday life in the Western world.
“When taking a bird’s-eye-view of the entire corpus the reader may ascertain a degree of cohesiveness in the completed ethnography. However, I wish to emphasise that these experiences are invariably fragmentary and incomplete. In other words, they represent piecemeal objectifications arising in and describing partial experiences within the life world of ecstasy consumers” (Leneghan 2011, 212)
Sean Leneghan’s The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience is both a carefully constructed scholarly work, which presents a useful set of tools for invigorating drug research outside the materialist paradigm, and also a beautiful insight into the lives of those individuals involved in Sydney’s party scene. The cohesiveness to which the above quote refers stems from the presentation of the work and the manner in which it was constructed; however, the fragmentary experiences can only ever be that, for they are small snippets of various individuals understandings and, as such, are transitory – not only for themselves but in their interpretation on paper as well. Suffice to say, however, this blend makes for an enlightening read and I’d recommend the book for drug researchers, theorists and partiers alike.