The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 2, Issue No. 1 pages 45-59 
© 2000 CENTER FOR COGNITIVE LIBERTY AND ETHICS
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946
 

 

 

 

In Conversation: Sadie Plant speaks with Wrye Sententia

Writing on Drugs is 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 today.

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 hidden elements.

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 society?

 

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 going on.

 

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 shoot.”

 

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 outside world.

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 immediately prohibited?

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 scale…

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.

 

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Wrye Sententia is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics.