April 20, 2024

The Pataphysics of Pharmakoi (Roger Green)

Yesterday,  an article by Josh Katz and Margot Sanger-Katz in The New York Times drew attention once again to an opioid abuse epidemic in the United States.  As they write, the 2017 death rate caused by such abuse is “so steep that they have contributed to reductions in the country’s life expectancy over the last three years, a pattern unprecedented since World War II. Life expectancy at birth has fallen by nearly four months, and drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for adults under 55.”

Another article in the same paper earlier this week reports some success in controlling the problem in Dayton, Ohio, where death rates fell from over 500 to around 250 this year.  Among the factors contributing to the success, the article states, is the expansion of Medicaid and the focus on maintaining treatment for people who have gone to jail and lost Medicaid coverage.  Another factor is an increase in providing naloxone (Narcan) as an emergency substance for both fentanyl and its analogs — a balancing agent.

But, as writers on drug policy and its history such as Johann Hari in Chasing the Scream have argued, overwhelmingly it is not the chemical substances in drugs that is at the root of the issue. It is rather the psychological state and social factors surrounding individual users.  While providing more compassionate treatment for addicts, rather than blaming them for their “weakness,” etc., ought to be a no-brainer at this point, we see less coverage attending to the conditional factors siphoning off largely people with low-income status from the body politic than we do alarmist media pieces on epidemics.

As Hari astutely traces in his book, Harry Anslinger, who ran the Federal Narcotics Bureau from 1930-1962, greatly shaped public perception concerning drugs from a staunchly criminalizing and prohibitionist attitude.  Hari concludes with the ironic twist that Anslinger was secretly providing Senator Joseph McCarthy with drugs to hide his addiction from the public and that Anslinger himself was using morphine at the end of his life.

It is important to contextualize what many see as a domestic crisis with respect to opioid abuse within a larger history of drug policy and nation-state agendas, even though such a perspective will admittedly do little to console those who have lost a loved one to drug abuse.

We know, of course, that drug wars have little to do with drugs themselves.  The 1914 Harrison Act, which in many ways began the twentieth-century drug war in the U.S., was largely built upon scapegoating fears of Mexican and Chinese immigrants.   With respect to the crisis on the southern U.S. border and its recent militarization we see a direct lineage of this exterminationist kind of thinking.

In his analysis of Jacques Derrida’s famous essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” and through James Frazer, Dave Boothroyd notes the Athenian use of “a number of degraded and useless beings at public expense” to be sacrificed in twos when public calamities arose (40).  The question of the escalation or the de-escalation of the “War on Drugs” and “Law & Order” politics cannot be confined to discussions of drugs alone.  They must also address the phenomenon of the religiosity of the State authority in its particularly modern form, where drug war rhetoric is used for political ends.

This connection can be seen in Jake Kiernan’s rather oversimplified article in the current issue of American Affairs: “Containing the Drug Cartels: A Case for the Border Wall,” which I will read in a rather focused way here.  And although some may be quick to point out that the opioid crisis in the U.S. has more to do with the abuse of prescription drugs than drug cartels, the longstanding tendency to rhetorically conflate the “weak wills” of addicts is amnesiac with respect to the debt-enslavement that underwrites the term ‘addict.‘  Very quickly in policy arguments we see conflicting agendas at work.

As Kiernan writes, citing the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s numbers, “the sheer volume of lethal street drugs is worth contemplating in light of these trends — with the number of deadly drug overdoses in 2016 heavily dominated by fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and meth” (41).  Kiernan argues against “simplified or skewed messages” by libertarian and liberal-leftist optimism for Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs in 2001 (42).  He also contests arguments that a reduced cost in law enforcement and increase in tax-based income on legalized would benefit the economy.

Although he seems to agree that residential treatment is less costly than prison, his metaphors of “descent into addiction” and those “in the grip” of drug abuse reveal a chemical dependency model with which writers like Hari would disagree.  In any case, Kiernan sees the bulk of U.S. difficulty in Mexico, including the production of fentanyl at the heart of the domestic opioid problem.  Yet he is critical of drug repression and the failures of America’s “war on drugs” (45).

Kiernan then turns his attention to suggestions that a border wall may help reduce entry of illicit drugs to the U.S.  He cites the “effectiveness” of the wall in Israel and a razor wire fence in Hungary, yet his attacks on “clichés” such as “show me a fifty foot wall and I’ll show you a fifty-one foot ladder” divert his argument to impoverished border-crossers rather than very resourceful drug cartels.  He also points to Egypt’s wall with Gaza and its “20 meter” depth as a potential model for the U.S.  At this point Kiernan’s article accepts such potential and shifts toward advocacy for a wall, conveniently forgetting the slippage from groups who make more than entire nation-states and poor people caught in-between conflicting economies.

After shifting to discuss tunnel detection technologies, Kiernan contrasts the situations between Israel and the U.S.  He suggests making “cartels’ enterprise so risky and cost-prohibitive that traffickers would be discouraged” (48).  He concedes to opponents’ claims that many drugs cross the border through legal ports of entry but rebuts this by stating the increased attention to such ports with the presence of a wall making it difficult elsewhere.

Kiernan agrees with proponents of drug legalization that increased spending on drug enforcement has not been proportional when compared to addicts, but he still sees a reduction (51).  He concedes that Portugal might teach lessons on how “drugs” are not “monolithic” but a “spectrum of risky substances” (52).  He then abruptly turns back to the wall.

His concluding paragraph states, “Debates surrounding immigration or the legal and medical responses to drug abuse in the United States should not obscure the reality that supply matters in the drug epidemic” (52).  But of course, analyzing the broader issues of immigration or medical responses play no part in his analysis, which myopically focuses on the illicit drug trade to support his case for a wall.

Policy suggestions like Kiernan’s are particularly uninformed concerning the broader cultural and legal history of “drugs.”  They feign a measured rational centrism between “liberal left” and “libertarian” while tacitly accepting a whole genealogy of law and order tactics advanced by prohibitionists such as Harry Anslinger.

The slippage with respect to immigrants who have no wish to be involved with and may indeed be seeking escape from drug cartels (like most of my own students at MSU Denver) is taken up by Hari in his penultimate chapter analyzing campaigns in Denver, Colorado for the legalization of marijuana during the past decade.   Advocates for legalization called out then mayor Hickenlooper for owning a brewery supplying citizens with alcohol, which is much more lethal than marijuana.  When they approached a Latinx radio station in town, the radio hosts were horrified, knowing that many of their listeners would fear retaliation from cartels if anyone messed with their business.

Outside of drugs and more explicitly on immigration, Miguel De La Torre has argued in The U.S. Immigration Crisis against traditional liberal rhetorics of “hospitality.”  Instead, he argues for a deeper historical analysis of the exploitation of the Caribbean, South, and Central America by the United States since the emergence of the Monroe Doctrine.  For De La Torre, it is not a matter of being “welcoming” to impoverished immigrants.  It is a matter of immigrants following resources that have been stolen from them and brought to the U.S., and NAFTA is merely one recent example.

For De La Torre, the emergence of drug cartels would need to be analyzed alongside the United States’ decision to program a CIA-led coup in Guatemala in 1954 to overthrow a democratically elected president who wanted United Fruit Company out of the country so its own citizens could have access to the agricultural lands that were 97% controlled by the U.S. corporation.  There is a consistent pattern of the U.S. treating South America as its own backyard, maintaining instability in the region to serve its own ends.

A broader look at U.S. policy since the Monroe Doctrine is especially important for an analysis that takes a sophisticated look at racism, which Kiernan also ignores.  Long before the Harrison Act initiated racist drug legislation in the U.S., the policies of the Monroe Doctrine sought to “protect” South America by considering any foreign invasion of South America an invasion of the U.S.  It was this policy that would later frame the proxy war policies (inspired by European colonization) that the U.S. employed during the Cold War in South and Central America.

The term ‘Latin America’ emerged due to the concept’s historical aspirations among South Americans who were not pleased with the “big brotherly” policy of the United States.  Looking socially and culturally to European society informed political concepts such as the ‘Bolivarian Dream,’ which the U.S. categorically ignored with the 1848 war with Mexico (for which thinkers like Henry David Thoreau employed civil disobedience tactics to protest).

As Peter H. Smith argues in Talons of the Eagle, the concept of ‘Latin America’ emerged from resistance to U.S. imperialism and Monroe Doctrine:

A frequent corollary of this general position stressed the importance of Latin America’s cultural, social, and intellectual connections with Europe rather than the United States. During the nineteenth century the quest for self-identity meant not indigenismo, a movement that would emerge later in the twentieth century, but appreciation of European ancestries. In practice this pattern took two forms: Hispanidad, or glorification of all things Spanish, and unabashed Francophilia.(71)

In Brazil, the United States, and the South American SubsystemCarlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira disputes commonly held notions about U.S. influence south of Central America through concepts such as The Monroe Doctrine, yet he also finds the use of ‘Latin America’ has more to do ethnocentrism among U.S. scholarship that overdetermines U.S. influence in the region.  Portugal’s royal involvement and Brazil’s various 19th-century regional wars speak to Teixeira’s points concerning why even today some Brazilian’s (including a current student of mine) are mystified by Americans’ use of the term ‘Latinx’.

Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus helpfully describes how racialized assemblages such as ‘Latinx’ come to inform existential concerns of individuals despite the now unscientific claims concerning racial essentialism.  Again, the consequences of neglecting these socio-historical elements with respect to both drugs and border policies results in thoroughly flawed analyses.  U.S. political discourse is so overdetermined with respect to binary, “black/white” divisions due to its own history with African American slavery and tensions between state and federal governance that ignoring the ways even flawed notions of race with respect to the southern border amounts to gross minimization of social injustices.

We might take an interesting number from a different context: Norman Ohler’s recent bestseller, Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich.  Although Ohler capitalizes rather dogmatically by vilifying approaches to drug use so as to titillate his readers with increasingly addictive tendencies among Nazis for synthetic chemicals (despite early rhetorics of ‘purity’ and scapegoating of drug-using Jews and communists wholly imported into later U.S. Cold War Politics via figures like Joseph McCarthy and Harry Anslinger), he also cites a really interesting case of a political / racial assemblage:

When Hitler’s suicide became public, obedient compatriots followed his example all over the Reich.  Honor demanded it — or the fear of consequences.  In the city of Neubrandenburg, for example, there were over 600 spontaneous suicides, in the little town of Neustrelitz 681 — over 100,000 in Germany as a whole. (225)

If there is an addiction here, it is an addiction to strong sovereignty and the obsessive-compulsive returning to this notion.  Such an addiction might be comparable to the broadly current tendency among both citizens and U.S. media to infuse the current presidency with notions of sovereign decidability comparable to Pere Ubu from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.  Our analyses need to do better than that.

In Culture on Drugs, Dave Boothroyd builds upon Avital Ronell’s observation that Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, refers to the history of narcotics as “almost the history of our culture” (45).  Ronell, analyzing Martin Heidegger’s descriptions of Dasein, points to a blind spot with respect to addiction.  For Heidegger, addiction is relegated to “the they.”

But Boothroyd emphasizes “that Heidegger at least indicates the manner in which addiction is a basic disposition of Dasein [Being-there] — indeed this is what gives forces to Ronell’s notion of addicted Dasein as ‘being-on-drugs'” (35).  Both Derrida and Ronell locate drugs within Heidegger’s notion of Dasein as an ‘opening up’, which Ronell reads as a genuine ethics of decision” (36; in Ronell 64).  The pharmakoi here comes to occupy the liminal space between writing and speech in the matrix of how meaning is made.

As Boothroyd notes, “Derrida’s entry into Plato’s pharmacy is not a return to the place where the drug originates but to the place where it has been written up into a number of prescriptions” (37).  Before Plato, Western culture is already “under the influence.”  What Derrida points to is the necessity for balance rather than the absurdity of eradication or prohibition:

Drugs for Derrida do not present a means of transcendence and deconstruction is not so much concerned with the task of breaking through certain limits as questioning the operation of limits in the first place.  It represents, rather, a return to the passage or impasse of the border by aiming at good repetition. (39)

What would such a “good repetition” mean as the U.S. border with Mexico?  As Boothroyd notes, “Drug users whose use breaches prescriptive controls (and by definition, all users of illicit drugs) are seen as potential self-sacrificers and a general threat to society at large” (40). In an ironic twist on Kiernan’s piece, amplified by Ohler’s attention to Nazi addictions to sovereignty, we might see the addicts domesticated by the largely prescription-based drug abuses among U.S. citizens as sacrificial acts by drug-addict-soldiers who have internalized the War on Drugs within their own beings.

Liberal elites, on the other hand, who continue to believe in the transcendent God of “the State” (as is Kiernan in his addiction to law and order politics and the regimes behind them), seek to make of themselves a civic sacrifice rooted in a privileged notion of citizenship that returns to the mythical foundations of the 1960s for a neoliberal order, an order in which the transcending of nation-state boundaries was righteously performed by the youth as an embrace of moral authority over “the State.”  Such an “enchanted citizenship” is a born-again Americanism.

The recent push among liberal elites is most purely exemplified by the domesticated and biopolitically-rationalized rehabilitation of psychedelics.  Far from the substances inspiring the fears of the opioid crisis, psychedelics are increasingly habituated as the “cure / pharmakon” for such chemical dependencies by organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who will likely get MDMA rescheduled for therapeutic use in coming years (although MDMA is not a traditional psychedelic).

Largely regarded as “breakthrough” substances in the latter half or the twentieth-century, psychedelics now provide “microdosing” options to stimulate the imaginations of the “creative class.”  In ways that Terence McKenna would likely lament, the domestication of psychedelics has little to do with what Daniel Pinchbeck called “breaking open the head,” even if such authors lamented the criminalization of psychedelics.  The domestication of psychedelics is often accompanied by arguments for the psychotherapeutic use to help those suffering from trauma, including drug addicts.

Such domesticated thinking is clearly expressed in the popularity of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, which — though full of beautifully sensitive “trip narratives” and brilliant writing — remains mired in Freudian and Huxleyan notions of “ego” and “consciousness” unexamined with respect to liberalist political subjecivation.  Very little writing on drugs understands the Protestant political theological underwriting at work here.  We cannot address the issues at stake in drug abuse if we are merely re-inscribing the same economic notions of embodiment.  In the terms of William Burroughs, it is not a question of either “junk” or “soma.”

The mistakes of both “liberal left” elites and “law and order” addicts like Kiernan, as well as in the  logic of the New York Times articles with which I opened this piece, exist in their continued imbrication within the frames of liberal “experience” that economically inform their assumptions.  Embodiment in western political imaginaries makes the liberal subject a site of sacrifice, a kind of imago.  Addiction is a kind of mimetic repetition, and drug use in our culture mimics a sacrificial individualizing of a subjectivated being.

Whether we domesticate drugs through regulation and medical apparatuses or continue to criminalize addiction, the opioid crisis speaks to conditions our medical community is unable to address because it thinks in a logic of liberalism and political subjects.  As Boothroyd wrote in the late 1990s:

the discourse of drugs and drug taking needs to be freed from the requirements to articulate itself in the language of individual rights, the public/private distinction, and in relation to the given norms and mores of psychic (and often psychiatric) propriety.  A deconstructive approach assists this by holding in abeyance the false alternatives of libertarianism on the one hand and rigid prescriptions and proscriptions on the other, and it proposes allowing, in a sense, for ‘drugs’ to speak for themselves. (41)

Here, I think Boothroyd falls into a trap that echoes Thomas De Quincey, one of the first “liberals” with respect to drugs, though I take Boothroyd’s more general point.  Confessions of an English Opiun-Eater was first published in 1821. De Quincey concluded:  “Not the opium-eater, but the opium, is the true hero of the tale; and the legitimate centre on which the interest resolves.  The object was to display the marvelous agency of opium, whether for pleasure or for pain: if that is done, the action of the piece has closed” (86).

And a page later: “The moral of the narrative is addressed to the opium-eater; and therefore, of necessity, limited in its application.  If he is taught to fear and tremble, enough has been effected” (87).  While we might understand the aesthetic transference from Romanticism’s emphasis on the subject to the object itself here as rather innovative, we see in my second quotation the locating of the subjective “fear” in the individual.

Yet the earlier impulse, to let drugs “speak for themselves,” and De Quincey’s narcotic “hero,” point importantly to a register outside of 19th-century European attempts to domesticate nature.  Later 19th century poets such as Lautréamont would challenge this, but such aesthetic discussions appear entirely lost on American thinkers of “drug policy.”  Drug addiction is largely a literary phenomenon, and few are aware of the ways figures from the Arthurian knight, Lohengrin, to the so-called “wandering Jew” are at work in the ways people conflate foreigners with the spread of drugs.

This may likely sound absurd at first, but when you start putting together the social history of drug abuse, you see it comes to embody insider-outsider status.  Literary figuration may very well help us think in better ways about drug crises.

In the 20th century — first Ferdinand de Saussure and later Roland Barthes — continental philosophical analyses that did not divorce “art” from “policy” (even if Walter Benjamin in ways congruent to the time referred to the “aetheticization of politics”) sought through semiotics an avenue to understand being in the world.  Avant-garde writers from Charles Baudelaire to William Burroughs have used tropes of drug users to understand the fabric of political life.  But Americans constantly separate art and aesthetic sensibility from political discourse, and this is why I find articles like Kiernan’s both reductive and dangerous (and simultaneously why I gave him focused attention here).

The 21st century cannot abide in its policy decisions by reductive attempts to ingratiate themselves into claims to “objectivity,” especially when they weakly bounce from one scapegoated victim to a shadow-boxed enemy.  With respect to drugs, here’s a perhaps more intriguing way to look at the problem: The United States has purposely produced drug cartels as part of longstanding policy decisions and a research-driven initiative to explore what “post-capitalism” looks like in way neither Paul Mason  in Postcapitalism nor Sayak Valencia in Gore Capitalism have fully imagined.  I certainly do not claim this as a source of patriotic pride.

Drug cartels are merely economic experiments in future economies that have nothing to do with equity or nation states.  With respect to drugs, so long as people refer to humanistic notions based on “individual rights” going back to the Magna Carta, they merely identify themselves of participating in a kind of nostalgia for authority in which the body becomes a kind of state property while simultaneously becoming an active economic agent in what would later be called “liberalism.”

It is this metaphysical situation with respect to the economy that produces addiction to drugs and addiction to strong notions of sovereign deciders.  Alfred Jarry suggested the term “pataphysics” to examine the science of the imaginary.  Addiction is largely produced by trauma and isolation.  It is exacerbated by stigmatizing individuals as criminals.

Those who participate in the fringes of the economy are doing the work of the modern knight-errant.  Who is their sovereign?  What is their charge? No matter how silly it may seem, if we want to address addiction, we need to better address the imagination.


Roger K. Green is a lecturer in English at The Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of  the forthcoming A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics  and numerous short articles in Political Theology Today. He is general editor of The New Polis, where he writes monthly articles related to concerns that have come out of political theology.  He is currently ABD in Joint Doctoral Program in Theology and Religious Studies at The University of Denver, where he is completing his second PhD, writing on ayahuasca and religious politics.





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