Saturday, November 07, 2009

his chaos I comprehended by the darkness of my own

When De Quincey turned twenty, he jotted down a memoranda for himself that listed the twelve constituents of happiness. Happiness was always a strong word for De Quincey – he had an almost cultic devotion to it that made him suspect to more robust natures like Wordsworth’s; it is certain that he truly meant it when, in the Confession, he calls opium happiness in pill form. Whenever, in his writing, we are in the neighborhood of the word “happiness”, the prose will be charged with a certain incantatory quality. The twelve constituents include such things as, education of a child, and a rather sad, ‘a personal appearance rather tolerable.” De Quincey was conscious of his small stature – and had been reproached for not being overly clean or kempt.

What is as interesting as the contents of the list is the enumeration of the constituents of happiness. For throughout De Quincey’s career as an opium eater – England’s premier drug geek – the number of drops was always of primary importance to him. He was not, at the age of twenty, acquainted with opium – except as anyone was in 1805, when opium was already a common ingredient in a number of medicinal cordials. According to Martin Booth, the years that pretty much span De Quincey’s writing career – between 1831 to 1859 – saw a massive increase in opium imports and use, from 91,000 pounds to 280,000 pounds, mostly from Turkey. As with sugar, so with opium – Britain was in the forefront of its use. But he was, at the age of twenty, already an enumerator. He was already trying to find some exterior, conceptual form to which he could attach his energies.

Enumeration – a drugged specificity – is on the other side of incantation. I understand the links – when I was a child, I would rock and count when I was in bed, in order to get to sleep. For I was never a good sleeper. With a more psychoanalytically sharpened eye, I suspect this rocking and enumeration had something to do with wanking – although I can’t really remember masturbating until the age of about 12, by which time my great struggle against wakefulness had ceased. I can feel that rocking motion in De Quincey’s writing. And of course, never far from the incantatory quality of happiness was its opposite, misery. The ‘portable ecstasies’, the commodified form of happiness that could be ‘carried in a pocket’, was, on De Quincey’s account, a vacation from life, his “Saturday’, for years. Oh vexed question of addiction, a word not in the dictionaries of either medicine or everyday life in De Quincey’s day! That we can create a thing that operates upon us as a parasite, forcing us to renew its life with our body – this idea was in the air of course by 1820, when the Confessions appeared. Frankenstein was on the horizon. De Quincey, willing to make his life work that of making his life transparent, was his own monster.

It was not obvious to De Quincey even in 1820, however, that his portable ecstasies could not be shuffled off, and that he would have to experience, as though he had no means to stop it, their slow, seemingly autonomous change to nightlong miseries. The thrill darkened.

In drug geekdom, every kick produces an equal and opposite kick. In De Quincey’s case, the kick was that opium was also the very basis of his career. The constituent of happiness that consisted in an independent income was undermined by De Quincey’s more expensive addiction to buying books. It was really this which caused all the miseries of his early twenties, because, of the amount of money left to him by his father that wasn’t frittered away in bad investments by his guardians, most of it went to paying off debts accrued to purchase rare volumes. Thus, his first great hit, The Confessions, was also necessary to sustain himself and his family. His writing life was then marked – he became a public character as an opium eater, which, in turn, gave him license to develop an antic prose long after the romantics gave way to the disapproving Victorians. And that style he was continually turning upon himself. He played his own miseries and memories for the crowd.

By 1844, a five thousand drop a day year, the basis was eating through the coherence. He wrote a friend about his newly published book on political economics:

“With respect to my book … which perhaps by this time you and Professor Nichol will have received through the publishers, I have a word to say. Upon some of the distinctions there contended for it would be false humility if I should doubt they are sound. The substance I am too well assured is liable to no dispute. But as to the method of presenting the distinctions as to the composition of the book and the whole evolution of a course of thinking, there it is that I too deeply recognise the mind affected by my morbid condition. Through that ruin and by help of that ruin I looked into and read the latter states of Coleridge. His chaos I comprehended by the darkness of my own, and both were the work of laudanum. It is as if ivory carvings and elaborate fretwork and fair enamelling should be found with worms and ashes amongst coffins and the wrecks of some forgotten life or some abolished nature. In parts and fractions, eternal creations are carried on, but the nexus is wanting and life and the central principle which should bind together all the parts at the centre with all its radiations to the circumference are wanting. Infinite incoherence, ropes of sand, gloomy incapacity of vital pervasion by some one plastic principle -- that is the hideous incubus upon my mind always. For there is no disorganised wreck so absolute so perfect as that which is wrought by misery.”

Truly a cry from the heart, and not just from De Quincey – for a big dream, be it a theory, a plot, a poem, or simply gathering together the elements of one’s days and ways, is always one in which the peculiar terror is just that the vital nexus will be wanting.

Thursday, November 05, 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

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

notes on Nietzsche's great politics

LI feels like a little note on politics is called for. The comments thread following the dialectics of diddling post made me realize that, just as Bataille divided economics into the “restricted” and the “general”, one could make the same distinction in politics. Mostly, I’ve been arguing under the sign of restricted politics, claiming that the various discourses of the truth are not just contingently located in institutions.

But general politics exerts itself beyond institutions. Nietzsche’s Grosse Politik, with its vocabulary of breeding, no doubt contains the stirrings of fascism – but it also contains a truth. Nietzsche’s great politics is about war. But the war that he describes is not between nations, nor classes, but a war of life style. A war about the living. In this sense, the great politics of the last hundred years has occurred across and around the restricted politics. For example…

For example, the greatest political event of the twentieth century. What was it? Was it 1917? Was it 1989? Was it 1947, the date marking the independence of India? All of these events fall under the sign of restricted politics. But to my mind, surely the greatest political even of the twentieth century was the collapse of agricultural populations across the globe.

How did this occur? I think four factors suffice: the development of the technology of storage; the invention of fertilizer; the mechanization of transport; and the mechanization of the farming process. Since the first Mesopotamian civilizations, a society that relied on livestock and agriculture was a society that was largely rural and peasant. In 1996, according to David Clark, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the world population lived in urban areas.

Now, what is most astonishing about this fact is that it found little expression in the restricted political sphere. Who, in the U.S. the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, India, actually questioned the fourfold technological mechanisms that were driving the smallholder out of existence? Not even the peasant parties proposed the banning of refrigeration, or fertilizer, or tractors – these things just “happened”. Of the great political figures of the 20th century, only one – Mao – engaged in a rearguard battle against this correlate of modernization. After the great disaster of the Great Leap Forward, with its Marxist orientation to industry, Mao began to rethink the end of the peasant base of society – and out of that came such disasters as the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. It is one of the ironies of the fourfold techno-structure that it makes it not only economically, but demographically impossible to support a mostly smallholder economy – for as the cities get larger, the agricultural sector has to get exponentially more efficient, or famine sets to work. According to McNeil’s environmental history of the 20th century, to support the world population at the size it was in 1999 without fertilizer, an area bigger than the size of the Amazon rain forest would have had to have been plowed. And he doesn’t subtract the other elements – take away the road system and the railroads and the better storage facilities, and modern societies would utterly collapse. In other words, urbanization is so much part of the system that the system is not only set up to make smallholding agriculture difficult, economically, but an actually menace to the urbanized populations.

As I said, the collapse of those agricultural populations rarely was presented as a choice any population or government was making. No American president ran on the ticket of radically shrinking the farming population; no Soviet premier proclaimed that policy either. The coordinates were as though set, as though insulated from any politics at all. Instead, secondary issues – price supports for agriculture, or collectivization – were the ones that penetrated the restricted sphere of politics.

Of course, the agricultural population collapse is uneven. In India, for instance, in 1996, only 26 percent of the population lived in urban areas – in China it was 41 percent. But the population flow is inexorably in one direction. But it happens across the capitalist/socialist boundary. In the U.S.S.R., as late as 1929, 80 percent of the population was rural. In 1990, 34 percent was. Agro-industry in the U.S. and collectivization in the U.S.S.R. resulted in the same linking of agriculture to urban populations and the same restructuring of agriculture on industrial lines.

According to David Clark – from whom I get all these figures except the one about the U.S.S.R, which comes from Nicholas Spulber – at the beginning of the 19th century, fewer than 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This was the oldest order. We have all dealt with the effects of its destruction in terms that organize restricted politics. And there is nothing in itself wrong with this. But it is the great politics that is the mover. And it is the effect – the side effect – of the great politics that will set the agenda for the foreseeable future, from the acidification of the ocean to the seizure of the atmosphere by the developed economies.

Monday, November 02, 2009

voyage to synthetica - eldorado of all the old boys

In 1940, Fortune Magazine (which was part of the Luce empire, and featured such writers as James Agee and Archibald Macleish – as well as Whittaker Chambers) produced an issue devoted to the relatively new industry of plastic. In Jeffrey Meikle’s American Plastic: A cultural history, he writes: “The editors seem uncertain how to present these new materials, whether to portray plastic as an extension of natural materials or as an intoxicating disruption of the natural order. These contrary interpretation emerged not in the article’s text, which offered clear explanations of processes and applications, but in two illustrations, each a two page full color spread, each so bizarre in its own way, so rationally unwarranted, as to suggest an intrusion into consciousness from a site of unresolved psychological conflicts.”(64) I note in passing, here, Meikle’s coupling of intoxication and plastic. More importantly, this is his introduction to “Synthetica: the new continent of plastics.”

Meikle quotes the Fortune caption: “[Synthetica] extended right out of the natural world – that wild area of firs and rubber plantations, upper left –into the illimitable world of the molecule.” Although it floated on the “Sea of Glass, one of the oldest plastics known,” the continent was only recently discovered. “New countries, like Melamine constantly bulge from its coastline”, and its boundaries were “as unstable as the map of Europe.” Already possessed of its own Ruhr district, known as Phenolic, “a heavy industrial region of coal-tar chemicals fed by Formaldahyde River,” Synthetica also boasted the “more frivolous and color-loving state” state of Urea and the “glittering night life” of the resorts of Rayon Island…”

De Quincey, I’d like to think, had dimly foreseen it all. Setting sail for the Artificial Paradise, we are bound to hit the continent of Synthetica.

In the comments to the Dialectics of Diddling post, I commented, in relation to one of Amie’s comments about exploring Derrida’s Pharmacy of Plato, that I was thinking, rather, of orbiting it – but this made me curious about the geographic roots of the now very common idea that one “explores” a text. Etymologically, exploration is a very odd word – such as could have bloomed on the banks of the Formaldehyde river. In Rev. Walter Skeat’s Etymological dictionary, we read:
“Explore, to examine thoroughly. (F-L) M.E. In Cotgrave; and in Milton, P.L. ii 632, 971 – O.F. explorer, “to explore; Cot. Lat. Explorare, to search out, lit. ‘to make flow out’ – Lat. ex and plorare, to make to flow, weep. – PLU to flow; see flow.” (200)
With the lexicographer’s usual superb elisions, we are left to ask how “to make flow out’ or to ‘weep’, plus an out – ‘out of weeping’ - could give us, in the end, ‘examine thoroughly’. Perhaps in this world we do see as in a glass, darkly – and counteract our vision through our self created prism – like unto the sea of Glass, the world’s oldest plastic – our tears.
Juxtapositions and jump cuts. And geography. In De Quincey's Confessins, and indeed, in all of his writing, Wordsworth's line about being haunted by a landscape is transformed into a dreadful, hallucinatory truth about the way landscapes he has left, chance encounters in the street, a Malay sailor who came to his door one day in the country all extended themselves, repeated themselves endlessly, in his hallucinations - which is a truth seized upon, in turn, by Baudelaire's idea that the secret of the appeal of hashish and opium is a craving for infinity.

The landscape of infinity for De Quincey is London. Speaking of his honeymoon period on opium, De Quincey writes the he often used to ramble, stoned, through London neighborhoods, especially poor ones. He would see a myriad of faces (looking, perhaps, for the face of Ann, the prostitute who saved him when he was down and out) and scenes:

"Some of these rambles led me to great distances, for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphynx's riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen. I could almost have believed at times that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London. For all this, however, I paid a heavy price in distant years, when the human face tyrannised over my dreams, and the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep, with the feeling of perplexities, moral and intellectual, that brought confusion to the reason, or anguish and remorse to the conscience."

It is worth underlining that last sentence - it was the very layout of the city that came to haunt his nightmares - or rather, nightmare united here to memory.


In Martin Booth’s Opium, Booth naturally turns to De Quincey’s Confessions, which is one of those rare ‘literary’ books that extended right out of the natural world of literature and into the world of opium sales – for De Quincey’s account of his addiction [years before the ‘morbid craving’ for morphine was studied by the doctors] gave the drug a lurid reputation. Booth writes: … it is surprising De Quincey does not mention the manner in which opium contorts or alters colours. In ordinary dreams, colourss (if they appear at all) are unenhnaced and realistic. In an opium dream, reds darken to maroons and blood crimsons, blues blacken to the colour of an early night sky, whilst yellows become solid and more luminescent. What is more, colours take on an almost tangible texture so the hue becomes only a part of their impact: one does not just see them, one feels them.” [38]

In Mielke’s account of the plastic industry in the thirties, color retention was one of the great factors driving research forward. Bakelite, the premier twenties plastic, fell behind its rivals because the process of synthesis disallowed a range of colors. It was phenolic resin ‘impervious to ultraviolet light’ which provided the first step towards creating materials “in all the colors of the rainbow’. ‘Catalin and other cast phenols arrived in time not only to take advantage of the rage for colors but also to stimulate it. The uncompromising artificiality of Catalin synthetic colors – bright, clear, uniform, reflecting a depth beyond that of a painted surface – contributed to an emerging commercial aesthetic of modernity.” [76]

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...