Sadie Plant’s most recent analysis of the social conditions that allow
assumptive ideas to take hold. By astutely looking at the ubiquity of drug
use throughout two centuries of Western culture, she challenges the
restrictive drug war rhetoric of recent decades, and radically shows how
drug-induced states have been foundational to the culture in which we live
During her recent U.S. book tour, Sadie Plant met with
Wrye Sententia who is currently writing her Ph.D. thesis on dissident uses
of technology and dystopian fiction. Wrye Sententia is the Associate
Director of the Alchemind Society. Richard Glen Boire, also in attendance,
joined the conversation here and there.
Wrye: Sadie, I’m curious how your intellectual
trajectory—from an academic background in Cultural Studies, to your work
at the University of Warwick’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, along
with your two previous books on Situationism and on digital technologies—has
distilled into this third book project, Writing On Drugs. In the
book, you mention how “drugs take all authority away” from those giving
voice to the subject, regardless of their credentials. What made you decide
to go out on a limb by addressing such a controversial subject, and what has
been the reaction among scholars, intellectuals, and the public in general?
Sadie: Well, the first part about intellectual
trajectory, I think that right now as I look back on those three books, even
though they were all ostensibly on very different subjects—although there
are obviously lots of links between them—there is an underlying common
thread. And it is this question of trying to excavate the slightly hidden,
slightly unexpected stories underlying the commonly accepted mainstream
mechanics of things.
In my book about the Situationists, I was obviously
trying to bring out their influence that seems to have gotten lost amongst
lots of postmodern theory. With Zeros + ones, to some extent, I was
trying to bring out some of this relatively lost history about women’s
involvement in the history of technology. And obviously, with Writing on
Drugs, I was again trying to bring out this very material influence on
what’s often very much a kind of history of ideas. So my books all share
that desire to dig around in the culture a bit and find these slightly
In terms of the reaction and everything, when I mentioned
doing this book quite a few years ago, a few people did say to me, “oh,
you’ll ruin your career.”
I think that, certainly in Britain, the climate has
changed. Probably just in the time that I’ve been thinking about doing the
book, it did actually get much easier to talk about this kind of issue. But
even so, I have been really pleasantly surprised—many other people’s
moments of paranoia about the consequences haven’t materialized.
Wrye: I found that the first half of your book reads
like a fairly neutral introduction to the topic of drug use in Western
history. It seems to me that one of the implicit effects of your book’s
overview of “who’s high in history” is to normalize the presence of
drugs in Western culture by pointing to the historical ubiquity of their use
with, for example, instances of drug use among well-known British and French
literati of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Freud and other
psychologists, cultural and critical theorists, etc. You explain the use of
traditional and synthetic drugs in lay terms, and weave in highlights from
the “canon” of literary drug users (De Quincy, Coleridge, Baudelaire,
Burroughs, Huxley, etc). I am curious as to what audience you hoped, or
intended, to reach through your book and why.
Sadie: Oh, well, you’re right, I suppose in that
sense I do think it reaches a much wider audience. I mean you’re
absolutely right, I don’t like preaching to the converted—it’s too
easy and it’s too self—well, it’s self a lot of things actually—but
it’s kind of self-indulgent really. But having said that, I hope that the
converted will find it interesting. Obviously, you do want it to reach all
those people as well. But I really do hope that people who would not have
perhaps even gone near the subject might pick up this book , and it might
give them a different angle on the particular subject. And not only that
subject, but also the whole question about all the assumptions that we have
about how the world works. I hope that it gives an implicit message that if
you can find this kind of hidden history about this particular line of
thought, then by implication, there are 1001 other things that we don’t
necessarily think about how the culture works, as well.
Wrye: Yes, it puts in to doubt all the other
assumptions that dominate—both historically and in everyday life.
Sadie: Yes, exactly, I hope so.
Wrye: You write in Writing on Drugs that “When
drugs change their users, they change everything,” suggesting that the
common component of all drugs is that they shift perceptions, affect moods,
and alter states of mind. Do you see these potentialized individual
alterations in perspective producing or catalyzing social change today, for
better or worse? That is, you look at this issue from a historical
standpoint, but what do you see as the effects of this model on today’s
Sadie: Well, I honestly think it’s much harder for
me to get a grip on what’s going on today and how it will look in a few
years time. I think—this is probably a weakness of my way of thinking—I
would probably have to wait another ten years before I could really look
back and understand what was going on now. Obviously, in the last ten years
or so in Britain, Ecstasy has been the drug, really. Now that’s
sort of flattened out into very much a polydrug culture.
And there’s so many different ways you can look at the
use of Ecstasy: you can see it as a very subversive kind of liberating thing
for people, or you can see it as the final—the very epitome of a certain
kind of consumerism, if you like, as well. And I’m sure there’s
something to be said for both sides of that. And I genuinely think we
probably will have to wait a little while to see exactly how that’s going
to pan out, and what the longer term effects will be.
Wrye: That just made me think of your comment about
the inception of the detective story and Wilkie Collins’ opium use having
had an influence on that. Do you think that Ecstasy would have the same sort
of grandfather role in relation to cyberpunk literature?
Sadie: Yeah, maybe. Although I’m not convinced that
there is that same kind of connection between that drug and any literature,
actually. I think really it’s music that has been the voice of Ecstasy,
and not so much writing. Although, obviously there is lots of writing,
especially lots of writing about that whole scene. But I really think
that music is much more the expression of it—much more than writing.
Wrye: With a novel like Synners by Pat Cadigan,
there’s a heavy musical component as well as video side. So, I was just
trying to think what could have spawned the interest in drugs as expressed
so unabashedly in the near-future fictions of cyberpunk.
Sadie: Well, I suppose I do tend to see cyberpunk as
much closer to this kind of polydrug culture where almost everything is
Wrye: That’s a good point because with the
bricolage effect of combined technologies, the drugs themselves are cycled
into a sort of ad hoc sampler platter.
Sadie: Exactly. And that is how people do it now in
Britain: half an E, a bit of coke, a bit of speed, smoke a bit of heroin to
come down, and that can be your average Friday night—I mean it’s not my
average Friday night….
Wrye: For me, one of the most interesting and novel
sections of your book concerns the twentieth century philosophers’
experimentation with drugs. Your thesis that drugs have altered the world by
altering the parameters of the possible for everyone is compellingly
integrated with the Deleuzian concept of mental “lines of flight.” But
what weighs me down is that the idea of drugs as cultural catalysts is
rarely voiced in serious discussions of current critical theory or cultural
studies. Had Michel Foucault lived to write his study of the culture of
drugs, or drugs as culture in the West, the subject would certainly have
gained academic “respectability” just as his research on crime, disease,
madness and sexuality has cascaded so much intellectual (and therefore)
institutional interest on these topics. What do you think the role of
psychedelics has been on postmodern theory? Would it be too much to say that
they are in a major way responsible for many theorists ideas on the
breakdown of constructed concepts of language, semiotics, difference, etc.?
Sadie: Well, I think it might be too much to say they’re
responsible for that, but certainly they are there in the mix; I mean just
as a matter of historical fact, they are there. And it must be the case that
if you look at—I suppose, since the 1960s—those last few decades of the
twentieth century and, especially again in Britain, the last ten or fifteen
years, when there was a kind of renewed explosion of it, and obviously it
has coincided with—in more theoretical terms—that kind of postmodern
turn. It seems to me almost inevitable that they do go together.
RGB: Since you brought up Deleuze and Guattari, do
you have any speculations regarding the extent of Deleuze’s or Guattari’s
use of psychoactive drugs?
Sadie: I think it’s difficult to say about Deleuze
himself. There’s a few cryptic comments in 1000 Plateaus that you
can take or leave. I don’t know about Guattari, as a matter of fact,
either. But I would imagine that that’s where the sort of direct input
came from. Deleuze is more of a conservative character as a person. So I
think it’s probably through Guattari, that it comes. But, wherever it
comes from, it has effects on their work, even if it turns out that it was
second hand. Obviously it’s interesting, but in a sense, it doesn’t
really matter where it comes from.
There’s this thing I mention in Writing on Drugs,
where at one point Foucault is talking about drugs and Deleuze puts in this
little footnote saying, “What will people think of us?” It’s such a
lovely comment, you can just imagine this much more respectable philosophy
professor thinking, “Oh my God, this is Foucault; my career’s up the
Wrye: I know that originally, you intended to write
just one book on technology and drugs, focusing on external computer-ware
technologies versus the interior or “wet” technologies of drugs.
Instead, you divided these topics into your previous book, Zeros + Ones:
Digital Women and the New Technoculture and Writing on Drugs.
This division seems to leave women out of the drug book. I was a bit
surprised that Writing on Drugs was so devoid of prominent women with
the exception of Anais Nin, and a brief mention of Ada Lovelace.
Sadie: Mary Shelley is in there as well. And I mean,
there are a few that get brief mention, and there is the thing about the
witch craze, which is structurally important to the book, but you’re right,
there does end up being quite a gender divide.
Wrye: What do you see as women’s historical
contribution to drug culture, or, are women simply absent from the
spotlight? And, can you think of any other contemporary female authors other
than yourself and Avital Ronell who are writing about drugs from a
theoretical or cultural perspective?
Sadie: That last bit—probably there aren’t many
of us, but then, there aren’t many men either. It could be that somebody
else would say, “Oh how strange that there’s Avital Ronell and there’s
Sadie Plant and they’re both women.” I don’t know how it looks to the
In terms of the broader question, in some sense, it is,
to be honest, a bit of a weakness—from my point of view—of the book. But
in another sense, I was really looking for these kind of points where
particular writers had either intentionally or otherwise acted as conduits
for these substances to find their way into the culture, and to have this
larger, indirect influence on everybody. In that sense, I wasn’t really
thinking about whether they were male or female, and in another sense, as a
matter of fact, maybe they have all largely been male. I didn’t want this
to become the book on everybody who’s ever written anything about drugs,
because that’s another project. I was really looking for these points
where things have filtered through culture, for example, like The Strange
Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [the use of a drug shifts
personality/perception in the story—a story that was itself written by
Robert Louis Stevenson during six days of a cocaine high], the meaty ones
where it’s almost undeniable that something has come through to everybody.
So that’s kind of how it happened. But having said that, I can think of a
lot of women writers, who’d be there if I were going to sit down and
rewrite the book, but of course that will never happen. It would be good to
throw some more in. But even that, I’ve got misgivings about because I
know now that I would be “throwing them in” to cover that base, and that’s
a bit problematic in itself, really.
Wrye: You have said that one might consider drugs as
“high” technologies, as sophisticated communication technologies. And,
the mind altering qualities of brain-computer interfaces are, as you point
out, similar to the neurochemical qualities of certain drugs
interacting with the brain’s own chemical receptors. The imaginative
extrapolations in cyberpunk fictions like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash,
and also, Greg Bear’s Blood Music, blur the lines between
technological, drug, and body interfaces. You hint at this slippage from
drugs to technology—Terence McKenna’s DMT “machine elves of
cyberspace,” for example—but do you believe that, in the long run,
advances in computer and bioengineered-brain technologies will eventually
supplant the need for, or use of, drugs?
Sadie: Well, I think it’s very possible actually. I
mean, up until now drugs have been a relatively clean and direct way of
engineering particular states of mind, or certainly relatively quick anyway.
But from the perspective of a much more precise kind of
technology, they will start to look very vague, not at all clean and direct,
quite hit and miss, in fact. And I do think, almost inevitably, if there is
something more direct and more precise as a way of intervening in that
sense, then almost certainly, we will end up going in that direction.
RGB: Do you think that such technology would be
Sadie: Well, it’s going to be very interesting, isn’t
it. Because I think I would definitely say that yes it will be, if it was
the case that drugs were prohibited simply because of their effects on
perceptions and on ways of thinking—and I do think that that’s a big
factor in it. But there are so many other enormous economic and political
factors as well. So if those aren’t in play with the technology, or if
they’re very different, then we really will learn something about what has
actually been the motivation behind the current control of drugs. I think
Timothy Leary said about virtual reality “oh they’ll ban it.”
Obviously that hasn’t happened but as I say, that’s probably where we
will learn a lot about what the War on Drugs has been about. If that
technology does get controlled in the same way, then that really will
suggest that there really was something quite directly about controlling
perceptions and models of reality.
Wrye: Well let’s go the other way—if,
hypothetically, all drugs were legalized world wide, one of the benefits
would be a boon and a benefit to some of the third world countries whose
economies are reliant on illicit plant trades. But in our free-market, the
pharmaceutical companies would most cynically be right there to step up the
production of synthetic psychedelics and hedge all profits from an open drug
trade. This, in conjunction with advances in neuro-technologies,
computer/brain interfaces, psychopharmacology, etc., would mean that the
possible methods, or means to manipulate the mind could become increasingly
invasive and we might consequently find ourselves more vulnerable to forced
drugging or invasive sales tactics—or marketed addictions in a Brave New
World. In fact, there’s a short story by James Patrick Kelly, “Solstice,”
in which the central protagonist is a “drug artist,” who synthesizes new
drugs for pharmaceutical companies to “market the hell out of”—there’s
one named “Soar.” The drug artist functions like a slogan celebrity vis
a vis the public to encourage the consumption of brand-name
psychedelics, but there are some ominous plot twists regarding drug
dependency, control, and access, etc. I wonder how autonomy of thought can
be protected in a free-market of drugs; that is, how can mental autonomy be
protected from the manipulative efforts of self-interested pharmaceutical
marketeers or a government bent on deploying them for social control?
Sadie: Well, I think you’ve probably given a good
answer to the question to be honest. I think one of the mistakes that I’m
sure we all endlessly make, and I know I do, is that we always think that to
do something, like legalize all drugs, or whatever it might be, is somehow
going to solve the problem, and that there is some utopia around the corner,
or at least hypothetically possible. And I really think that no matter what
situation you are in, there is always going to be this tension between
attempts to control and attempts to evade that control. I think there is
something perennial about that, at least for the foreseeable future in the
Western world—it seems to me that it is an enduring situation. And so
every new scenario is going to bring new kinds of control, and also, the
other side of it, new ways of evading that control.
I think in that sense that all you can do is just keep
making sure that there are new ways of evading it. But of course, that’s
only going to encourage new ways of controlling it as well. And so it goes.
Wrye: As with the Situationist motif of perpetual “detournement?”
Sadie: Yes, recuperation—exactly. Well, of course,
I don’t think the Situationists thought it was perpetual recourse, but was
going to end in a revolutionary moment. But I don’t think it is going to
end in a revolutionary moment. That tension is exactly what keeps things
happening. It is a productive one, it’s not just a negative thing.
RGB: Inasmuch as you perceive the War on Drugs as an
absurdity, how do you see the situation in, say, five years?
Sadie: Well, I’m afraid I do see more of the same.
I really can’t see, certainly in five years, what is going to happen to
dramatically change the situation. It seems to me there are going to be more
attempts to control it, and, more drugs. I can’t see any other route. I
know it’s not a very helpful contribution to make to the whole discussion,
but I can’t see what’s going to alter it. And one of the reasons for
that, is that it seems to me that it has become—even just look at the
United Nations conventions that nearly every country in the world is signed
up to, even at that kind of structural level—the practicalities of undoing
that kind of international legislation would take—obviously it’s
possible—but it would take enormous will. There would really have to be a
kind of global desire to change the situation, and I just cannot imagine
where that’s going to come from.
RGB: So do you think that the global perception and
conception of psychoactive drugs will have to radically change before large
Sadie: Well, I don’t know if it would have to take
that, perhaps—at the very least, I would say, it would need to take some
reassessment of how drugs are regulated. Even if—well I suppose that would
entail a different attitude to them, so yeah, maybe you’re right.
RGB: You’ve speculated that reality is to some
extent a chemical construction, and if that’s the case, then regulating
drugs is one way of regulating Reality, or at least the way we model
Reality. Do you believe that there is an aspect to the War on Drugs, or the
War on certain Drugs, that is indeed an attempt—whether it’s
understood by the powers or not—that there’s fundamentally an attempt
there to produce a status quo model Reality?
Sadie: I think there is—and I don’t think it’s
necessarily deliberate or articulated by anybody—I think it is one of
those things that we all collectively do to ourselves. A lot of things that
happen are much more accidental, much more products of the culture pulling
itself up by its own bootstraps. Increasingly, I think that we’re much
more a part of it than anybody is controlling it. However it happens, I do
think that what you’ve described is happening. At one level, there is that
attempt to regulate and balance out the population’s neurochemistry. But
obviously if you’re looking at what the culture itself is doing, then of
course, it is taking lots and lots of very different psychoactive drugs.
Wrye: In one of your concluding sections in Writing
on Drugs, you denounce the War on Drugs as a governmental military
campaign that reaches far beyond legal parameters of governing the
substances themselves. This is much the position of the Alchemind Society.
Richard has commented that the War on Drugs is “not about plants, powders
and pills but about prohibiting certain mental states.”
Drugs are a politically and economically “dissident
technology” analogous to those subversions employed by 1980s cyberpunk
tech-mavericks and hackers. In the last two decades, the U.S. government’s
ever-expanding War on Drugs has paralleled government attempt to control
encryption technology. And, what Bruce Sterling called the “hacker
crackdown” is similar to the treatment of drug users as criminals, as
enemies in illicit economies that need to be suppressed. A group like the
Electronic Frontier Foundation has worked to establish and preserve
electronic civil liberties, and the Alchemind Society is working to do the
same in regards to cognitive freedom—the right to control your own
consciousness in all contexts. What is your position on the practicalities
of cyber-freedom, and/or on drug legalization? If you had to come up with
social policy for drugs, where would you begin?
Sadie: Quite seriously, I really think I haven’t
got the kind of brain that is very good at thinking about social policy kind
of issues. When I was teaching Cultural Studies, a lot of my colleagues were
in totally different areas to these interesting ones. But on all sorts of
different issues, they were very much concerned with policy. And I realized
then that I just don’t have that ability to grapple with things on that
level. I see my job as much more either making the problem clearer or
perhaps even complicating the problem rather than coming up with solutions.
But having said that, obviously, you know, it is the kind of thing that does
give me sleepless nights. I do think in terms of both the technology side
and the drug side—it comes back to what I was saying earlier about some
quotient of control and freedom are always going to perhaps even benefit
each other. And that maybe, rather than just simply going for one or the
other, perhaps it would be more productive in the case of the War on Drugs
and the drug situation, perhaps what’s wrong with it, is just that the two
aspects of that have become so extreme and so far away from each other that
they polarize. And perhaps the more rational approach would be one that
would have a more balanced attitude. But of course to say that, it just
sounds so trite. Everyone can’t be stopped with that . . . go all the way
around and come back to it, so it’s not a very satisfactory answer.
Wrye: But that resonates with the complexities of the
issues in trying to come to terms with the situation. What will you be
pursuing next? What is your next project? I sensed from the preface of Writing
on Drugs, a strong inclination for fiction . . .
Sadie: I do hope that the next book (there will be a
next book I hope), will be more fictional. As I said to you before, I don’t
want to say it’s a novel, because I don’t think it will be in terms of
what that involves. There are fictional longings in Writing on Drugs as
there are in Zeros + Ones. They’re not quite so obvious, but they’re
obvious to me. I’d kind of like to take the stabilizers of the facts off
and see if I can ride the bike on my own now. I hope with the next one, I
will try and do that. I love doing all the research, and I want to be
writing something that will have some kind of impact on something as well.
It won’t be fiction for it’s own sake.