Saturday, October 17, 2009

Your debutante just knows what you need. But I know what you want.

"Addiction is an illness of exposure. By and large, those who have access to junk become addicts." - William Burroughs, With William Burroughs: a report from the bunker [109]

In Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz tracks sugar from the cane plantations in Sicily and Egypt in the fourteenth century to the Canary and Azores islands (where the Spanish and Portugese developed the prototype of intensive sugar production with a mix of slave and free labor) to the Caribbean. Sugar cane was brought by Columbus, that divine, diabolical harbinger, to the Caribbean on his second voyage. The Spanish attempts to grow and process the sugar cane were not very successful, especially compared to what the Portugese did in Brazil. But the suggestion was, as it were, in the air; it was taken up by the Dutch and the English in the mid seventeenth century, long after the Caribs had vanished, the way blood, bones and skin massively vanishes – pushed into the vanishing act by the European magicians with their white magic.

It was after the mass cultivation of sugar cane on Barbados and Jamaica and – by the French – on St. Domingue that sugar became more than a medicine or a luxury good in Europe. As Mintz puts it, it became the first “exotic necessity” “… by 1750, the poorest English farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea,” as R.J. Davis wrote [quoted in Mintz, 45]

David Courtwright, in Forces of Habit, includes sugar with tea, tobacco, coffee and chocolate as the commodities that produced what he calls the ‘psychoactive revolution” of the eighteenth century. All operated, in one way or another, to alter moods. These exotics were intermingled with each other as well – as for instance, tea and chocolate with sugar. For Europeans, they produced, over a hundred and fifty year period, a radically altered physiological environment. Courtwright surveys the impressive statistics of sugar use in England, always the main consumer: “The demand for sugar was phenomenal. During the eighteenth century, the annual growth rate rose to 7 percent, and during the nineteenth century, when beet sugar roduction also became a factor, to 20 percent. The British possessed Europe’s sweetest tooth – and perhaps the continent’s worst teeth. Their per cappita consumption rose from 4 pounds in 1700 to 18 pounds in 1800 to about 90 pounds in the decade before 1900.” [28]

I like to think, here, about De Quincey. The incident that led De Quincey to opium was a tooth ache. He calls it a rheumatic tooth ache, which I think is De Quincey laying it on thick. But could it be the tooth ache of a boy of privilege, who, indeed, enjoyed that new environment of sugar products? De Quincey’s father was a merchant, and once, in a bout of virtue (for he seems to have been a good man), he forbade sugar at the table, in sympathy with the Evangelical crusade against slavery. This was in the 1780s – but man is as grass, as we all know, and bends with the wind, and the De Quincey’s did live in high style, and Thomas’s father did, after all, do a lot of trading with the West Indies.

Mintz, in his analysis of the double triangle of the trade in sweetness (slave labor to sugar to England back with goods sent back to Jamaica, and commodities from England to Africa for slaves to the West Indies for sugar production), argued that we should look to the sugar plantations, rather than to Europe, for the development of the first factories. This, of course, contradicts an old account, by the Marxists and Weberians, that free labor was a condition for the development of the factory. According to Mintz, the sugar plantations worked under extreme time constraints, and divided the labor into a sort of assembly line, with the slaves cutting the cane and other slaves assigned semi-skilled tasks boiling the cane and refining the sugar. This required a certain number of skilled supervisors. It was horrendously hard labor, and proved to be a man-eater: “From 1710 to 1810, Barbados, a mere 166 miles in area, received 252,000 African slaves. Jamaica, which in 1655 had been invaded by the British, followed the same pattern of ‘economic development’; in the same 109 years, it received 662,00 slaves.”

The plantation owners fretted about their kidnapped and abused stock, always dying on them. Unlike the less work intensive tobacco estates in the Southern U.S., this slave population never fully reproduced itself. It would fail to until the slaves were liberated, in fact. Thus the giant trade in human blood and flesh, those white lips and sharp fangs on Africa’s throat. As one model of work is developed for Europe, another model of transport and labor is developed for Africa – which will, in its time, be emplaced in Europe. Hypnogogy on the periphery, creeping in.

The sweetness, the drugs – oh, we don’t have to dig deep to find, under the surface of the artificial paradise, the piles of bones. But it is important to see that the paradise a-building in the sugar stats is not only what comes to surround us, but what we come to be. The Mordspiel is at work deep in the interior. And, as in a cartoon of a robber hiding in a cartoon cave, the cops are soon to follow. The commodities are now in motion. What only the Gods could once pluck is now cut, harvested, tapped, boiled and barged across the entire face of the godless globe.

Which only goes to show that hophead history is not merely a suburb of universal history. Hopheads have witnessed, with all the sorrows of young Werther and every suicidal lover, that their accept no substitutes passion was doomed in the accept all substitutes world.

New pains, new pleasures, new worlds, new cravings. The catchers of men are learning about the bodies of men. The artificial paradise.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gods and drugs

This is how the story must go. This is how the story goes. There must be a god in the midst of the forest. There is a god in the midst of the forest. In the forest, too, the wisest of men is walking down a path. There is the wisest of men, and there is the path, and there is the forest around him. There there there. As if I had a finger to point to these things. As if you who read me saw the finger. Who must also be a simpleton. Who is a simpleton. Who must be hailed by the god, and shown a divine plant. Who is hailed by the god, and shown a divine plant.

Or – as the beginning is always a matter of bifurcation, paths of needles, paths of pins, other encounters, other forests - let us start this in another way:

“She’ll mix a potion for you: she’ll add drugs
Into that drink; but even with their force,
She can’t bewitch you; for the noble herb
I’ll give you now will baffle all her plots…

When that was said, he gave his herb to me;
He plucked it from the ground and showed what sort
Of plant it was. Its root was black; its flower
Was white as milk. Its moly for the gods;
For mortal men, the mandrake – very hard
To pluck; but nothing holds against the gods.”

This is Alan Mandelbaum’s translation of the passage in Book Ten of the Illiad. Circe, that nymph, makes a potion, a pharmaka, and feeds it to Odysseus’s men, turning them into swine. As so often, the animal is a kind of prison in the tale – just as later, Jesus will imprison demons in the Gandarene swine. One of Odysseus’ men escapes, however, and runs to tell him. Which is how our hero comes to be walking through the woods.

We note here, in passing, how clearly the human limit is expressed in Homer’s notion that the God’s names are not the names given by mortals. If I was to follow Nietzsche, I would camp at this boundaries, and I would cast an eye on the Cratylus, in which the divide is ever so stealthily overthrown and replaced by another, in which the God’s names become, suddenly, simply the clear definition of the things – they no longer hold any insurmountable difference.

Jenny Clay, in “The Planktai and Moly” (1972), claims that Planktai – the crashing rocks Odysseus has to go through - and moly are the only instance of Homeric doublenaming – dionumia - in which the mortal name for a thing isn’t given. This, for Clay, puts Hermes gesture of pulling up the plant in the linguistic position of the human name – because it is hard for the humans to pull up, they haven’t noticed it. If they had, they would have noticed its black roots. Mandelbaum’s decision that moly is mandrake is by no means the consensus among Homer’s exegetes. Theophrastus seems to indicate it is garlic.

As has often been noticed, this is the only time in Homer that the important word phusis is used – which Mandelbaum translates as “what sort of”. Gerard Naddaf, in The Greek Concept of Nature, closely reads this passage, with its contrast between the baneful drugs [pharmaka lugra] of Circe, and the effective drug [pharmakon esthlon] that Hermes hands Odysseus.

A question, then, in the woods, of two registers of names, and a register of drugs posing the good against the bad.

And yet, what we don’t have here is an explanation of the kind of thing a drug is. How moly goes from the sort of thing a plant is to the sort of thing a drug is – this is the wonder we are here in the woods to experience.

Shall I point out that nature, phusis, flashes into our range, here (and the term has miles to go before it sleeps) in an exchange of drugs?

Monday, October 12, 2009

the uncanny life of objects

“The petit bourgeois views [Rücksichten] disappear, Life charms us with all its temptations to enjoyment, and so everyone, the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the pious and the worldly, steps quietly out of their relationships. The certainty with which this can happen on all sides has something uncanny [unheimlich], something horrible. It quietly and noiselessly dissolves the bonds without this being perceived from the outside. There is a dualism in this life, that naturally pulls after it the most universal demoralization.” [Berlin, Ernst Dronke]

The eye drifts to that moment of the unheimlich, here – although Dronke is writing a good sixty years before Freud. Freud, of course, also located his uncanny in two urban stories – one concerning the Sandman, in which, crucially, one of the characters looks out of his window and sees into another person’s window, and the second of which involves Freud wandering in the streets of Rome.

And yet one would think that the gothic tale is rooted in the countryside, or the forest.

Dronke, in Berlin, emphasizes an aspect of city privacy – the disconnect between oneself and one’s neighbors. There’s a matrix of themes here: privacy, solitude, the city, and the uncanny. And what is the uncanny? In one sense, it begins with a category mistake – mistaking the machine for the organic, the dead for the living. This category mistake is obviously historically conditioned and befalls those who live in a society in which the ‘projection’of life, consciousness, or power upon the inhuman is sanctioned.

When, then, this projection occurs – is it within the regime of something like the return of the repressed? I want to follow the Otherness of certain small things, commodities, like gin – or opium. Commodities which are caught up in a field of policing – or become targets of policing. For the economist, the commodity nexus is all about the disappearance of the particular characteristics of the thing in the face of the medium of exchange. For the police, however, commodity characteristics reappear. Or rather, for certain commodities they reappear. In an influential paper in the 80s, Igor Kopytoff, proposed that we can make cultural “biographies” of things.

“As Margaret Mead remarked, one way to understand a culture is to see what sort of biography it regards as embodying a successful social career. Clearly, what is seen as a well-lived live in an African society is different in outline form what would be pronounced as a well-lived life along the Ganges, or in Brittany, or among the Eskimos.

It seems to me that we can profitably ask the same range and kinds of cultural question to arrive at biographies of things. Early in this century, in an article entitled “The genealogical method of anthropological inquiry” (1910), W.H.R. Rivers offered what has since become a standard tool in ethnographic fieldwork. The thrust of the article – the aspect for which it is now mainly remembered – is to show how kinship terminology and relationships may be superimposed on a genealogical diagram and traced through the social-structure-in-time that the diagram mirrors. But Rivers also suggested something else: that, for example, when the anthropologist is in search of inheritance rules, he may compare the ideal statement of the rules with the actual movement of a particular object, such as a plot of land, through the genealogical diagram, noting concretely how it passes from hand to hand. What Rivers proposed was a kind of biography of things in terms of ownership.” [66, from the book, The Social life of things]

I’m going to move from gin to opium for a bit.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...