What is a drug? what the nature of a drug is. My desire was to get a fix on it; I wanted to be able to say what precisely we are dealing with here when we address that thing with which we become obsessed, that substance to which we become addicted. And this should be read both literally and metaphorically; drug as the reality of an ingested substance or thing; and also “drug” as that prime metaphor for all that we become obsessed by – religion, house prices, the futures market, tulips from Amsterdam, the person we are in love with… Surely, if it is possible to grasp the drug in its essence, in its reality, in its nature – then, and only then, can we answer the question as to whether obsession is passion or pathological, compulsion or choice, lust or disease.
But what if the meaning of drugs is precisely to disallow, from the start and in principle, the question: what is? What if the nature of drugs are such that to ask: what is this thing? – is to misplace this phenomena: although, as you will immediately see, if indeed “drugs” are not the sort of thing of which one can ask what they are, then that will mean, firstly that the word has no meaning, conventionally defined; and secondly that it most certainly is not a phenomenon.
For instance, it would be better not to raise these questions the next time I am arrested for possession of addictive substances: it is unlikely that the police will take kindly to a para-ontological enquiry into the grounds of drug law. This is because the discourse which will take place in that milieu is defined by that very law; the written law which does its job by answering the question: what is a drug? Once the answer to that question is written down, once it is made law – and, for reasons of justice and the separation of the powers of the state, the milieu for that operation is an entirely other one than the police station – once it is made law, the type of question is legitimated together with the specifics of the answer. We are permitted – nay, required - to ask and to know: what is a drug; ignorance of the law, as they say, is no defence.
At what level of discourse, then, in what milieu – for it is surely not everywhere or at all times – in what milieu is it necessary or legitimate to disallow the question: what is a drug?
In the essay Plato’s Pharmacy (from 1970) Derrida famously interrogates Plato’s notion of the pharmakon, in the context of a debate about the nature and status of writing and meaningful philosophy. The Greek word Pharmakon – which can be translated as “drug” – says, at the same time, simultaneously, in the same breath, both remedy and poison, beneficial medicine and harmful philtre. As he says: “The ‘essence’ of the pharmakon lies in the way in which, having no stable essence, no ‘proper’ characteristics, it is not, in any sense (metaphysical, physical, chemical, alchemical) of the word, a substance. The pharmakon has no ideal identity; it is aneidetic, firstly because it is not monoeidetic (in the sense in which Plato’s Phaedo speaks of the eidos as something simple, noncomposite: monoeides). This ‘medicine’ is not a simple thing. But neither is it a composite, a sensible or empirical synthesis partaking of several simple essences.”
What is it that we are obsessed by? What gives to be obsessed? This means, in turn, that there can be no “nature” of drugs, or that drugs are not defined in nature. Derrida, in an interview entitled Rhetoric of Drugs, says that: “There may be ‘natural’ poisons and indeed naturally lethal poisons, but they are not poisonous insofar as they are drugs…. There is not, in the case of drugs, any objective, scientific, physical or ‘naturalistic’ definition.” We cannot, the claim is, if we wish to get to the bottom of what drugs mean, to the bottom of what obsesses us, make use of a scientific or positivistic definition. Such definitions, of course, exist, as we have already noted, and as Derrida immediately himself points out: “[the definition of drugs] may be ‘naturalistic’, if by this we understand that it attempts to naturalize that which defies any natural definition or any definition of natural reality.”
And such an attempt is entirely legitimate – indeed necessary - when, for instance, it comes to framing the law. But more widely than this, we can say that in order to speak, in order to make discourse, in order to have knowledge, in order indeed to have truth, we must – legitimately and entirely necessarily – go a certain way down this route of naturalisation. Naturalisation, as Derrida will say elsewhere, is never innocent. There is always a strategy, a politics, a structuring of power within society by those with power, behind the process of naturalization, precisely because the claim that something is natural or, conversely – like drugs or, say, masturbation – that something is unnatural – these are claims which rules out in advance any questioning of that thing’s status. It is the claim that that is how it is: and such claims usually have the police to enforce them. Thus the dangerous status of drugs. Not just examples of drugs- real or metaphorical - but the concept – or perhaps we should say, the non-concept – of drugs, drugs in their non-essence. And this in a strange, manifold manner. For, firstly, it is on the basis of something like the non-concept of a drug, the non-identity of the pharmakon, on the basis of something which is not a thing because when we say it, we say more than one thing at the same time, we say (our) opposites at the same time – on this basis we can then differentiate between these two opposites which we subsequently give ourselves: poison and remedy. Things which have the character of drugs are, says Derrida, the medium within which we can differentiate that which we must differentiate in order to speak, to give knowledge, to allow truth to happen. In other words, they are that which enables differences to occur, and therefore have the status of Derrida’s neologism difference (spelt with an “a”), which means something like that which gives the possibility for difference to occur. They have, too, the status of Deleuze’s differences prior to any notion or possibility of identity; and the same status as Nietzsche’s eternal return, which is not the same thing returning, but rather the possibility of saying or positing the same within an eternal return; and the same structure as Bataille’s general economics, which means a milieu in which these non-ontological questions can be opened. This status is dangerous because it gets to the root, or rather beyond the root, beyond the thought of the root, of our current order, and therefore calls it into question.
Secondly, and to be more specific about the nature of obsession and addiction, we can see that in this environment of drugs there is a potentially obsessive movement. We can see that obsession, in general, has something to do with inappropriate movement, more specifically inappropriate positive feedback machines which mutually and reflexively reinforce in circular and potentially destructive fashion. We can see this across all fields of obsession. Drug addiction has something to do with the effect of tolerance on dopamine receptors in the brain; the more coke we snort, the less the pleasure effect, the more, therefore, we need the drug. This can be verified experimentally: rats which have their dopamine receptors removed do not self-administer cocaine; they do not, unlike their cousins, become dependent. The obsessive movement of the futures market in commodities, or indeed any boom and bust market such as that we are seeing for property, occurs due to the reflexive (that is, discourse-based) effect of knowledge and rumour on price in a reinforcing feedback mechanism; a phenomenon which Soros, amongst others, has learnt to use to his own advantage, precisely because he has theorised it and is thereby able to operate at the level of the pharmakon and not merely at the innocent level of those who believe the naturalised information of the journalists and other reality-based commentators.
Tim Gough, Derrida and Drugs.