Dave Boothroyd (2006) Culture on Drugs: Narco-Cultural Studies of High Modernity

Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719055997

Rich Cante

One afternoon this spring I crossed the tingly threshold that separates my psychiatrist’s office from his waiting room, as I had a hundred times before. That room is not generally shared with strangers without complication. On this day, though, my haze after 45 minutes on the couch was punctured in a major way. The entire waiting area reeked of strong, freshly smoked pot. As I crossed the area toward the door to the outside, I studied the young source as well as I surreptitiously could.

When this scene restaged itself a few weeks later, my shock really consolidated itself. So did my shock at my own shock. Why had it had never entered my mind? Years before, I had read with great interest Martin Duberman’s memorable chronicle of his forays into acid therapy in Cures. I myself will not hesitate to take a valium before a session. Of course, I also regularly prance in there with a triple latte, or even a quad. Plus, I have certainly been acquainted, in numerous ways, with Adorno’s famous quip that in psychoanalysis ‘only the exaggerations are true’. What’s the big deal, then?;

Yet, I wanted an authoritative diagnosis on this person. And my sophistications tumble like dominoes as I continue to long for decisive answers. Is it part of his problem, a troubled, aging kid present in the office primarily due to the strong-arming of his parents, or perhaps the law? Is it a mode of defensive distantiation? Does it work? Or does it make the whole process more intense for him, launching him in whole-hog-on? Does it help him tell the truth, one way or another? Could it possibly go unnoticed by his analyst?

‘Taking drugs’ is a crucial phrase in Dave Boothroyd’s Culture on Drugs: Narco-Cultural Studies of High Modernity. Through such devices, the book manages, to its great credit, not to be too much about drugs. Boothroyd repeatedly uses ‘taking drugs’ in the sense both of ingestion/injection/inhalation and of an already-deconstructed epistemology. The latter amounts, if not to taking drugs as traditionally delitimable objects, then to taking them otherwise: as not analytically severable from their spatial and temporal surrounds, or from the fabrics they share –‘as poisons and as cures’– with any such near and far surrounds (including their entailed abstinences and sobrieties).

Boothroyd focuses primarily on deconstruction in the first two chapters. To use Derrida’s own description of a deconstructive gesture, the book here essentially ‘introduces beforehand what it seeks to find out’. The specific ‘foreign substance’that it introduces ahead of time is a new ‘measure for drugs, unfettered, for example, by such rhetorics as those of authenticity and inauthenticity, of health and illness, of use and abuse and so on’. In other words, ‘a displacement of the shared axiomatics of both pro- and anti-drug rhetorics’.

The remaining chapters cover multiple modalities through which ‘holding in abeyance the false alternatives of’, for instance, ‘libertarianism and rigid prescription/proscription’ can facilitate mapping the scene of cultural theory onto the drug scene, and vice versa. But Nietzsche’s comment that ‘the history of narcotia is almost the entire history of our culture’ provides only part of the motivation for this aspect of Boothroyd’s project, and only part of its formal self-justification. For, right upfront — in the Introductory chapter he calls his ‘Deposition’–the author effectively circumvents trenchant demands for such justification. He does this by forthrightly invoking the sort of ‘Nietzschean moment’ through which what could be brought up on charges as the nuttiness of this approach must be understood as passing. This is the theoretical equivalent of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Only qua MacGuffin, that is, might it help crack open transversal linguistic and conceptual passages across which, at which, and through which creative culturalist work and any of its singular fixations can go astray of themselves, rather than merely incessantly returning — via bad rather than good repetitions — to eternal holding vestibules such as that therapeutic waiting room, with its more or less powerful and more or less fuzzy limits and extensions.

Boothroyd’s opening three chapters may be frustrating. Were the contents of this book available for analysis through amazon.com’s ‘concordance stats’ function, I am fairly certain that ‘exorbitant’ would appear near the top of its Most Used Words chart. But this exorbitance is well confined to these most explicitly deconstructive chapters, and it comes with that territory. These sections are also absolutely required by the book’s broader interventions into criticoculturalist method. For instance, Chapters 2 and 3 run through a litany of overarchingly important deconstructive terms, whose polyvalences gradually expand as they are brought onstage to discuss, among other texts, ‘Plato’s Pharmakon’ and the interview on ‘The Rhetoric of Drugs’: supplement; transaction; transcendence; prosthesis; aporetics; decision; calculation; dosage; and ‘the experience of the impossible’ that is Derrida’s ‘least bad’ definition of deconstruction.

That, right there, illustrates what makes this such an accomplished and useful book. All drugs aside, each subsequent chapter is a thorough, lucid, concise, detailed and masterfully-handled primer on a strain of theory that is notably important right now. Each chapter also goes through difficult terms, concepts and their relations within these ‘schools’– with which many of us are currently wrestling. Furthermore, the chapters not only simultaneously explicate and demonstrate such theoretical nodes and their component concepts/terms. The book also mobilizes them cumulatively. So, while I cannot go so far as to call the closing chapter a ‘synthesis’, in effect it is a summation of everything that has theretofore transpired. Here Boothroyd shows how a deterritorialization of the drug scene might work — along with the entailed liquification of one materialized capture-substance — through an excellent Deleuzian non-reading of ‘the heroin film’. (Liquid Sky seems to me sufficiently bound up with the workings of this last chapter to recommend viewing that film as a companion piece to the book’s ending.)

In between, Boothroyd goes first to Freud, and largely to the Entwurf, to approach psychoanalysis as a theory of the hinge between the psyche and the soma. The nose is shown to have been, for a time, an unusually charged transit point not only in that correspondence, but also in the closely related one between Freud and Fleiss — which relates in various interesting ways to self-treatment with cocaine, its use on patients, and the dream of ‘Irma’s Injection’. The modes of philosophy, writing, and thought that the book then explores include: Frankfurt School materialist dialectics (focused mostly on Benjamin, involving hashish); phenomenology (primarily Sartre but also Merleau-Ponty’s critique, bringing mescaline into play); and the immanentist antihermeneutics of Foucault and Deleuze (their acid exchange). Partially following Avital Ronell’s fingering of ‘the place where narcotics articulates a quiver between history and ontology’, each of these chapters approaches relations between substances, their users, ontology and history/historicity in a manner consistent with the assumptions and assertions under their immediate consideration.

‘Hallucinating Sartre’ thus ends up being not just an extended explication of, and rumination on, the status of hallucination in phenomenology. That would have been disappointingly predictable. Instead, that chapter goes into notable depth on the derivations, functions and implications of Sartrean phenomenology’s non-thetic realm of experience. Likewise, ‘Benjamin’s “Curious Dialectics of Intoxication”‘ explains the profane illumination in relation to, among other things, various of Adorno’s critiques of Benjamin’s work and the question of precisely how Surrealism’s basis in l’art pour l’artwas connected to multiple forms and forces of modern narcosis. Finally, ‘Foucault and Deleuze on Acid’ takes a brief comment from Foucault’s ‘Theatrum’ as a provocational meeting ground between Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) ‘chaste perversity’– it is refreshing to me just to see that acknowledged as such these days!– and Foucault’s equally dubious ‘courtings of infamy’. Boothroyd takes the death valley acid trip as a marker of shifts — though not in a biographical or authorial sense — as well as continuities between Foucault’s earlier (discourse) work and his later stuff on askesis and aesthetic existence. It is the continuities that lead Boothroyd, with Deleuze, into a terrific discussion of the plotting of ‘depth-surface gradients’ and their zero points, and next into some very good questions about the drug assemblage as it is discussed in A Thousand Plateaus.

For the broader-reaching series of solid demonstrations and sensible (re)directions that it offers contemporary critical/cultural theory and analysis, I heartily recommend this book. For the places it takes cultural theory — and shows that cultural theory can, in fact, be taken by taking drugs otherwise (and by taking ‘the example’, in general, otherwise)– my hat goes off to the potency as well as the measures of Boothroyd’s subtly potent concoctions, which are only as evasive and as they are head-on.

Rich Cante is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA. His book Gay Men and the Forms of Contemporary US Culture is forthcoming from Ashgate in 2008.