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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

accept no substitutes - some notes

“The common translation of pharmakon by remedy [remede] – a benficient drug – is not, of course, inaccurate. Not only can phramakon really mean remedy and thus erase, on a certain surface of its functioning, the ambiguity of its meaning. But it is even quite obvious here, the stated intention of Theuth being precisely to stress the worth of his product, that he turns the word on its strange and invisible pivot, presenting it from a single one, the most reassuring, of its poles. The medicine is beneficial; it repairs and produces, accumulates and remedies, increases knowledge and reduces forgetfulness. Its translation by ‘remedy’ nevertheless erases, in going outside the Greek language, the other pole reserved in the word pharmakon,
It cancels out the resources of ambiguity and makes more difficult, if not impossible, an understanding of the context. As opposed to ‘drug’ or even ‘medicine’, remedy says the transparent rationality of science, technique and therapeutic causality, thus excluding from the text any leaning towards the magical virtues of a force whose effects are hard to master, a dynamics that constantly surprises the one who tries to manipulate it as master and as subject.” -Derrida, Plato’s Pharmacy [B. Johnson’s translation]

I love this moment in Derrida’s essay in which the poles come out of the pharmakon – one thinks of it as like some extraterrestrial instrument or creature, from which suddenly poles shoot out. The word rests on one pole, or on the other – remedy or poison. We know these games - games of throwing dice. We just need rules in order to have winners and losers. Unfortunately, the game will be without rules in this post. There will only be losers. These are notes, bucko.

What I want to try out here is a precarious, a very precarious opposition. A shy mirroring, if we can imagine the mirror hiding itself (Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer) -- between substitution and addiction.

And futhermore - to advance slyly, slyly, and then fall on my face - on the side of substitution there is an institution – advertising. An institution devoted to disguising substitution. ‘Accept no substitutes’ was an advertising slogan that appeared in the 1880s – Chocolat Menier translated it as Evitez les contrafaçons. It is a command, an imperative, and as such is impervious to the truth table. One can obey it or not. But mark its strangeness, voyagers, nymphs and old boys. For what is being commanded here, and why? It is a slogan that must be extracted from out of its genre – advertising – where it exists as a sort of paradox. A paradox on the level of the superego. That command. For advertising, after all, consists largely of pursuading the audience that a difference exists where there is none. It produces images and words around what the industry calls “parity products” – that is, products that, in blind tests, can’t be told apart. Whiskies, cigarettes, coffees. In this context, a general command to the consumer to cease looking for substitutes is to substitute the image for the thing – or as David Ogilby, the advertising guru, said, you have to get the customer to drink and eat the image.

Take it another way - from another one of its poles – to accept no substitutes would be, really, to accept nothing – as they are all substitutes. They are, essentially, substitutable. Their presence is potentially already replaced. And thus, to obey the command is to enter into anorexia and death. For it would mean accepting nothing.

It is not clear, to all those who voyage to synthetica, that this is the voyage they signed up for. The artificial paradise is artful. and the substitutes proliferate here while denying that they are substitutes at all. Which brings us to my opposite, my secret sharer, my addict ... my special addict - my voyant addict. I'm speaking of the rare ones (although how do I know they are rare>) who come pre-addicted, the ones in whom the sensations don’t seem to go away. They pile up, they come back, they have a certain disturbing speed. De Quincey's Confession is full of the agony of those impressions that did not, like good Lockian properties, become absorbed in ideas, but lurked outside them.

There is no sense of the addict in the story told by Socrates upon which Derrida is commenting, naturally enough. Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, the notion of a morbid craving, of a need, a physical or psychological need for a drug, didn’t exist. Instead, the opium, alcohol, sugar you could not do without was viewed in moral terms. It was a supplement, a prothetic, a crutch. And here, of course, we return to Socrates’ tale.

Except I won't here. I'll introduce another tale. There’s a brief novella, Kokain, by Walter Rheiner, a German expressionist. Rheiner was an addict, his brief life was as the patsy of, the second fiddle to, the commodity. He was the straight man in that rouutine. The only work of his anybody really cares about is his little novella, Kokain. His single other contribution to art was to form the subject for his friend, Konrad Felixmüller's painting. It was a painting of Rheiner's suicide.

In the novel, the narrator cannot breath in his shabby surroundings – in his apartment, on the street, in his clothes, listening to the voices of the people in the bars he goes to – all of it seems to weave about him like a canvas sack and suffocate him. At the height of this feeling, he goes to a druggist he knows and buys his cocaine – on credit – and shoots up. And then the sack falls open, and he sees himself as a son of light. Until he notices that people are regarding him suspiciously.

“And there they bent close into one another and whispered.
He strained to hear them… and there, wasn’t it there? Didn’t he clearly overhead the word, the fatal word, that was stretched gigantically across the firmament of this his night and (with the clanging of a pitiless machine) slowly chopped him up: - cocaine!co-caine! Pieces and pieces were chopped away from him, until he was soon purely and completely pulverized.” [my translation, 8]

The chopping machine –like a blade chopping out a line of powder – follows him throughout the brief little story.

To be continued

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