The Varieties Of Ecstasy Experience: An Exploration of Person, Mind and Body in Sydney's Club Culture

Sean Leneghan
Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011.
ISBN: 978-3-8454-1634-2
RRP: US$114.92

Daniel Schnee

Medicine Hat College (Canada)

This monograph is a reprint of Sean Leneghan's doctoral thesis in anthropology, an ethnography of those that consume 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, an illegal amphetamine sold under the name MDMA, or ecstasy. The thesis examines narratives by ecstasy users concerning its effects and role in their participation in Sydney, Australia's underground club culture. In the process, Leneghan questions standard bio-medical and bio-psychological studies of ecstasy, arguing that the standard methodology is overly mechanistic and/or materialistic, and ignores the lived experience of ecstasy-altered consciousness. Instead, Leneghan thoroughly documents firsthand narratives of the ecstasy lifestyle in the participants' own idiomatic language, allowing him to take a "holistic organismic" approach to analyzing the overall, lived processes which inform their language. This is termed "processual morphology".

Leneghan situates this process within a methodological framework informed by existential phenomenology, with the work of philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) as the foundation for his analysis, asserting that the Husserlian Lebenswelt (Ger: life-world or 'lived experience') concept should be considered when discussing his subjects. More specifically, Leneghan suggests that Stephen Strasser's conception of the Lebenswelt, and how a "world arises in dialogue" (37), should be considered in bio-medical investigations of amphetamine-influenced consciousness. Failing to do so essentially reinforces the academic status quo. This current state of affairs, to Leneghan, amounts to a refusal to critically examine bio-medical/psychological pre-suppositions and foundations of the Lebenswelt, reinforcing frameworks that "reify the living subject" (210).

More specifically, Leneghan argues that the experience of actually using ecstasy and modifying one's own stream of consciousness is a unique reality, which should be investigated as another lived world, rather than an altered or non-ordinary state of consciousness (209). The language of describing the ecstasy-induced state has, to Leneghan, been ignored or dismissed. In one sense I would agree with that dismissal, as Leneghan's subjects describe this "lived world" after the fact. None are interviewed while actually on ecstasy, and thus their language is not truly based in the actual lived world of ecstasy intoxication, ergo the real language of ecstasy is missing.

Regardless, Leneghan seeks to create a "dialogal ethnography", which would allow him to "faithfully bring to light and clarify the direct experiential stream of consciousness of ecstasy consumers [sic] mode of being-in-the-world" (209–10). His reportage consists of several themes organized under the rubrics: initial reactions, the rush, PLUR (peace, love, understanding, respect), unificatory experiences, and so on. This context-specific approach to phenomenological ethnography, Leneghan suggests, can make a significant contribution to Australian and international drug research.

Leneghan's phenomenology is admittedly Husserlian in that experience is considered significant knowledge, though not science in itself. Through the act of "bracketing", the phenomenologist puts aside noumena (things) for the analysis of phenomena (how we experience things), isolating objects in order to know what we think they are, and thus understand how we feel while experiencing them. This creates an ontology of experience-as-reality, and not what one might call the "objectively real"; we separate the physical facts of the tree from the experience of sitting underneath it. The potential problem with this, though, is that one can treat what is noumenal as a parergon: a supplement, framed out and away from experience, an accessory to experience.

The Greek meaning of parergon (πάρεργου) is "subordination", or "what is of secondary importance". In early Greek philosophy, parerga (pl.) are that which have nothing to do with philosophy proper, things that are "not subject to rigorous philosophical investigation" (Krell 2000: 27). Bracketing and separating the material or mechanistic perspective would seem to remove it from the dialectic of ecstasy research, the continuum in which a full dialogue is possible. But Leneghan vigorously argues that bio-medical research brackets the language and Lebenswelt of the ecstasy user, discounting its role in a thorough sociological and/or psychological investigation of ecstasy use in Sydney.

In this sense, the materialist parergon takes on the Kantian definition; what is not "an intrinsic constituent in the complete representation" of an object (Kant 2007: 57), e.g. the frame on a painting or drapery on a statue. Though Kant's argument was within the realm of aesthetic judgment, the line of reasoning could also be used to justify ecstasy language not belonging in academic dialogue for aesthetic reasons, that such "aestheticism" has no empirical value in academic research. Indeed, Leneghan states that the two aesthetic reports of ecstasy experience contained in the book are "an example of the user's imagination augmenting what sense perception takes as given in the empirical world" (115). But are such augmentations true? Do they have epistemological value?

Such augmentation is also at the heart of debate about ontological truth in aesthetics. At the core of the debate is a dialectic that places a Romantic view of art, e.g. August Schlegel (essential truths are known through art, not science), at odds with the post-aesthetics of Martin Heidegger and his assertion aesthetic qualities obscure, not elucidate, fundamental truths. How then do the users augment "what sense perception takes as a given in the empirical world"? In this case, the augmentation comes in the form of the research participants' language, how they describe their experiences.

Leneghan documents, for example, one user's experience of the negative effects of ecstasy (121). He states "reactions through the digestive system can sometime lead to nausea, cramps, and vomiting", and quotes the user "HeL" who says:

It's like my stomach! It's just so empty... 'Oohhh... and you get 'chemi-guts;' like you haven't eaten in a day an [sic] a half, except for pills and base and things like that; and all your stomach is doing is turning in those drugs and stomach acids and things like that. You just go "arrrgg – I feel sick, need to eat – but can't." Cause food is not right – right now (121).

The description does not speak to a unique ecstasy reality though, but rather the common effects of adverse gastrointestinal reaction. Thus Leneghan is utilizing bio-medical analysis, albeit with the user's less than scientific description as a result. As Leneghan is dismissive of the bio-medical status quo, does the user's account then enhance sociological understanding of ecstasy cramps accurately? The answer, in this case, would seem to be no.

The ethnography does read well as a narrative, or set of narratives, if not a typical academic anthropological work. As much as it is a work of research, its usage of extensive interview material and a glossary of ecstasy slang provide a solid bridge between ethnographic analysis and the lived conditions of ecstasy use, club culture and meaning making in real time. As such, it could be argued that its contents challenge current bio-medical paradigms through Leneghan's decision to include such narratives in academia in the first place. Thus it is an act of merging or "transculturating" his own existential phenomenology by "un-bracketing" it, and updating its status from paragon to ergon: a work or act that also accomplishes the goals of medical and psychological ethnography via lived narratives of non-ordinary consciousness. Unfortunately, though, Leneghan's work may be disregarded for reasons other than his methodology.

Upon further investigation it turns out that the book's publisher LAP (Lambert Academic Publishing) is owned by VDM Verlag, both of which are considered by some to behave unethically, due to such practices as selling works created entirely from (free) Wikipedia content. Also, there seems to be no editorial process in place, as Leneghan's Acknowledgements section credits photographer Darren Hart for work that does not actually appear in the book (17). Thus, the fact that Leneghan's work is affiliated with Lambert at all might raise questions as to its veracity.

But, if the work is epistemologically sound, one could argue that it does not matter who publishes it. Leneghan's work is an interesting contribution to his field; a well-documented ethnography that will hopefully engender debate about phenomenology, if not non-ordinary consciousness.


Kant, Immanuel. 2007. Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krell, David Farrell. 2000. The Purest of Bastards: Works of Mourning, Art, and Affirmation in the Thought of Jacque Derrida. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.