First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
English writer Sadie Plant is author of "The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age," and "Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture." Her new book, "Writing on Drugs," focuses on the way drugs have been portrayed in western culture.
[Walter] Benjamin was one of several German intellectuals who experimented with mescaline, opium and hashish in the years between the wars, and his early participation in what became known as critical theory found him chasing a secular version of the intoxication of religious ecstasy, "a profane illumination," as he wrote in his essay on surrealism . . . Benjamin imagined revolution as a moment of shared intoxication, a modern expression of a wild and ancient energy, running through the proletariat.
"Writing on Drugs"
HB: A basic theme of "Writing on Drugs" is that illicit drugs aren't tangential but central to our culture. You refer often, for example, to the historian Carlo Ginzburg's argument that drugs enable mass participation in a modern version of the shamanic journey. They allow users to believe that they are joining "the world of the living and of the dead . . . the sphere of the visible and of the invisible."
SP: Yes. One of the things which most interested me was finding evidence that drug-induced experiences, which are, of course, so subjective and ephemeral, might have really found their ways into everyone's consciousness. Hence my interest in writers on drugs. Coleridge, for example, with his famous notion of art as "the willing suspension of disbelief," popularized the idea of a state suspended between truth and illusion -- neither one nor the other, but something in between. He wanted the arts to effectively take people into the space that opium opened for him. And Poe, by writing about suspended states and by infecting his readers with the same feelings of suspense, brought that kind of experience to a wider audience.
HB: What train of thought led you from your previous book, "Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture," to the material covered in "Writing on Drugs"?
SP: I started thinking about a book on drugs some time before I began work on "Zeros and Ones," my book about women and technology. And when I finally sat down to write something on drugs, I found there were many ways in which "Zeros and Ones" -- and my first book, "The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age" -- had contributed to my thinking on the subject. All three books challenge mainstream cultural histories, not least by unearthing some of the apparently minor, insignificant, or unpalatable tendencies which often have had quite profound effects on the cultures which then like to ignore them. Just as the boy's own world of computing is shown to conceal a fascinating female history in "Zeros and Ones," so "Writing on Drugs" shows that many aspects of our literature, economic history, and political life have been strongly influenced by the handful of substances known as drugs.
Secondly, whereas "Zeros and Ones" deals with some "outer" layers of technology, "Writing on Drugs" concentrates on some rather more "internal" technologies -- the wetwares of the body and the brain.
HB: You connect the outer and inner technologies when you write that opium and hashish were nineteenth century drug precursors to the kind of altered perceptions brought about by photography and, later, electronic media.
SP: Yes, this is a connection which really intrigued me, and showed itself to have more and more substance as I looked into it. The popularity of opium coincided with a period of rapid technological change and indicates an ongoing relationship between these "inner" and "outer" technologies. For intellectuals like De Quincey, and for the mass of new factory workers, the use of opium compensated for the traumatic infringements made by industry on the old rural world. It also seemed to give its users the ability to stand back, to dream, to take stock, in a world which allowed so little time for these things. In the same way, photography allowed the past to be remembered and time to be frozen during a period of rapid change. And both the opium dream and the photograph brought a new quality and intensity to the image.
Towards the end of the 19th century, with the popularity of cocaine, the story seems to shift. Here we have cocaine not as a compensation, but rather an excitant, adding to the new worlds of electricity, calculation and telegraphy. Again, you can see this happening both with intellectuals like Freud, and with ordinary people; adverts of the day are full of references to the stresses and demands of this new age and the need to keep up to speed. And so the story goes, culminating in the popularity of ecstasy, a clean, calm, spacious experience which draws on the clarity of the digital technologies, especially that of digital sound, with which it developed.
Technology is not the only reason for the popularity of certain substances at certain times. Economic patterns, political expediencies, wars, crops and so on have a great deal to do with it as well. But the simple observation that MDMA was available for decades before it really became popular in the 1990s suggests that drugs have moments when they make sense in the social and technological context.
HB: You write: "If De Quincey had been horrified by his Oriental dreams, his French followers were in love with the Eastern flavor of hashish and the stories with which it seemed to come equipped." In what sense do drugs come equipped with stories?
SP: It's not that the content of stories come with drugs, but more that something of the quality of dreams, trips, experiences, and tales told in the wake of drugs -- their character, flavor, call it what you will -- is often shared by users of the same drug. In this sense, the passage of, say, hashish from the Middle-East to France was also a kind of backdoor migration of a certain kind of sensibility.
HB: What was the role of synesthesia in the drug experience of Baudelaire and others?
SP: The fusions and confusions of the senses have, I think, always been regarded as fine material for artists. The opium experience interested Baudelaire and his generation so much because it was such an intense, tangible expression of this phenomenon -- a chance to experiment and observe it in action.
HB: You refer to the ability of drugs to enhance what you call "patterned thinking," and say that it had that effect on Gregory Bateson, for example. Can you expand on what you mean by patterned thinking?
SP: Again, what I was really asking was this: is it possible to say that certain drugs produce common effects, or are the effects so subjective and so culturally informed that it's impossible to look at the drugs themselves? Literature provides some fascinating example. Texts like the "Thousand and One Nights," and Burroughs' hashish-influenced writings share a certain kind of lateral organization, in which the materials are, as it were, spread out on a plane rather than arranged in a straight line. "Writing on Drugs" has many examples of how, at the more abstract level, drugs do seem to operate with a consistency that overrides cultural differences. The content may vary enormously, but something of the quality remains the same.
HB: You talk about Freud's use of cocaine as corresponding to the period in his work when he believed that the mind would eventually be understood in terms of brain chemistry. And you point to De Quincey "making bold materialist claims about the brain and the machinery of dreaming." Do drugs, then, make us philosophical materialists?
SP: It seems to me almost unavoidable that serious reflection on the use and effects of drugs suggests some kind of materialism. What clinches it for me is precisely the way in which writers like De Quincey spoke of "the machinery of dreaming" long before there was any knowledge of the brain as a chemical system. If the introduction of a simple and very small chemical difference to the brain has such enormous effects on consciousness, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the brain is, to some extent at least, a complex chemical system. Some people object that this kind of thinking is reductive, or takes away some magic but to my mind it greatly enhances our sense of the complexity involved in neural processes, and makes it all seem even more amazing.
HB: We often talk about the brain in cybernetic terms today. Was it Timothy Leary who first popularized this way of thinking, as when he talked about LSD as reprogramming the "bio-computer"?
SP: Leary was one of the first people to make the connection between the brain and the computer. But McLuhan might be an even more interesting figure to mention in this respect. He made connections between LSD and multimedia at a very early stage, suggesting that drugs introduced new possibilities for the interiority of the brain at the same time as technological changes were shifting perceptual possibilities.
HB: You talk about a new kind of thinking that accompanied the use of cocaine in the late nineteenth century -- thinking "based on the intuition that obscure details and remote clues can be more important than obvious evidence." And you cite Freud and Sherlock Holmes as the great exemplars of this new style of thinking. Can you expand on this?
SP: The use of a drug like cocaine by someone like Freud, who was already so interested in the workings of the brain, inevitably encouraged him to pay close attention to his own changing states of mind. In addition, cocaine does heighten many of the senses, producing a mind that is more alert to the fine details of the world -- hence, in extremis, the tendency for it to induce such paranoia, as brilliantly displayed with Holmes and Moriarity.
HB: What stories attach to the kinds of drugs currently in use?
SP: It seems to me that drugs like Ecstasy tend to be accompanied more by music rather than stories -- and again, it would be less a matter of specific musical phrases than of a certain quality of digital sound. Beyond this, we have arrived in an era of such polydrug use that one might almost say that all the kinds of expression induced or influenced by drugs are deployed in today's culture.
HB: So we've arrived at a kind of postmodern pharmacopoeia.
SP: Right. We may be looking at the end of a kind of linear route through different kinds of experience. If the 1960s belonged to LSD, and the 1980s to Ecstasy, the 2000s seem to be a time when many different inputs and outputs are present together.
HB: You write that Baudelaire's suffered Catholic guilt for using hashish because the drug provided him with what he thought of as illicit "short-cuts to paradise." Does guilt of that kind play a role contemporary attitudes toward drugs, especially in the United States, where, in your words, "the federal budget for drugs control rose from an annual $1 billion in 1980 to some $30 billion at the end of the 1990s"?
SP: A moralistic attitude has always shaped US drugs policy. Way back in the early 20th century, the first moves to control the opium trade came from the States, and although it seems that the primary motivation was economic -- the US was one of the few global powers not profiting from the trade -- the arguments, of course, were posed in ethical terms. For all its claims to freedom, the US does strike many outsiders as a peculiarly regulated and puritanical country. However, clearly it's not "Catholic" guilt at work-- more a question of a Protestant work ethic.
Now that the drug trade is so vast -- not least as a consequence of so many years of prohibitionist policy -- it poses an enormous challenge to legitimate trade and to the ability of the nation state to control it. That in itself keeps the drug war going.
HB: If drugs bolster a materialistic/mechanistic view of mind, does that also mean they make us more easy to program and control?
SP: Certain drugs clearly do encourage such manipulation. But I don't think it's because they foster a materialist view of the mind -- which is not, by the way, the same as a mechanistic view. It is precisely the old mechanistic view of the brain which is overcome by the far more complex ideas being fostered now. The brain according to a materialist perspective is no less marvelous and unmanageable than in an idealist view of it. Indeed, it might be said that it's even more marvelous in its complexity and sophistication than was ever supposed before.