2011 Annual Report on Drugs and Creativity

Jeremy Shaw, Unseen Potentials (2011).

Creative Capital/The Warhol Foundation just posted the audio of my keynote talk at the their Arts Writers convening in Philadelphia last August.  They asked me to speak about drugs and creativity, and this gave me an opportunity to revisit the work I’d done on drugs and the arts in my book The Roads of Excess: A History of Writers and Drugs in the early 2000s.

As you can hear on the audio recording, mostly my argument was that the heroic age of literary and artistic experimentation with drugs is over, even if many of the questions provoked by the existence of psychoactive substances remain unanswered.  You can see it in Vancouver based artist Jeremy Shaw’s fascinating installation piece, DMT from 2004, where the gap between the noumenal quality of the experience and the banality of the images of those perhaps under the influence or their narratives is a vast one.  Whatever the quality of the experience, it is basically unrepresentable, and thus beyond the sphere of art.  Contrast this if you like with someone like Henri Michaux’s attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to write and draw under the influence of mescaline.

In place of this kind of art, the most interesting drug cultural artefacts have been TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Weeds.  But there’s little attempt to represent drug experiences in those shows, and all the excitement and drama comes from the fact that drugs are an economic and legal proposition.  It’s almost as though people now get high on business or the law, the way they used to on drugs.  I find that an amazing and troubling proposition.  In the talk, I looked at some of Ryan Trecartin’s recent video pieces, which are strikingly psychedelic, but whose psychedelia mimics and amplifies the self-distorting fx of corporate training videos and reality TV, and is without reference to drugs.

Talk of drugs and economy brought me back to research I’m currently doing on William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s collage manual, The Third Mind, and Burroughs’ still unassimilated argument that the broader lesson of drug addiction is that we almost always build our reality pictures based on what he calls “the algebra of need”.  And that need can be and is manufactured — this corresponding to what Zizek and others today call ideology.

For me this opens up an interesting way of thinking about the contemporary impasse of the arts, whether writing or visual arts or for that matter music.  If the presentation of reality itself happens mostly through the manufacture and manipulation of need, what can art be, other than one more form of participation in the manufacture of our need for certain kinds of reality picture?  Is it a question of distinguishing between false needs and real ones? Or do “real needs” become the primary site of ideological capture … i.e. the thing that you submit to believing.  Conversely, would an art that refused any discourse of need have any meaning or function whatsoever? Do we need to have needs, even beyond the biological imperatives that seem so fundamental?  David Levi-Strauss asked me: why “need” and not “desire”?  It was a really good question … maybe this is a very 2012 answer but it seems very difficult to think about desire today without also thinking about what limits or structures desire.  It unsettles me to think about need and I think that’s a good thing.

Christian Bök Interviews Marcus Boon

A interview with Christian Bök on The Road of Excess for YorkU Magazine that was originally published in print in 2003.

CB:  The Road of Excess discusses the literary heritage of numerous coteries inspired by at least one of five  pharmaceuticals: narcotizing drugs (like junk), anaesthetic drugs (like huff), cannabinoid drugs (like hash), stimulating drugs (like coke), and psychedelic drugs (like acid). Your research almost implies that each drug corresponds to a different style of writing. Does each drug induce its own “poetics” in the writing of the user? How might you characterize each of these chemically fabricated styles?

MB: You’re right that it’s possible to tease out a “poetics” for each class of drugs, although my goal was broader than that – namely, to describe the totality of relationships between specific classes of drugs and writers.  This would also include the effect on the lives of writers (and readers), the kinds of stories that were circulated about either the drug or the writer and so on, and the degree to which literary descriptions became part of scientific knowledge or history.  As for the details of a pharmako-poetics specific to each group of drugs, I would say that with opiates tend to produce writing that is fragmentary, arbitrarily ordered, arrogant, narcissistic and fascinated by destruction; anesthetics users often produce transcendental philosophical ruminations on their experiences and attempt to write down the “secret of the universe” at the moment of re-entering daily life; cannabis texts often take the form of short stories concerned with the blurred line between the dream world and the real world; stimulant-influenced literature is often composed of euphoric, long, single sentence or paragraph rants, again with a narcissistic twist to them, and an obsession with death and machinery; psychedelics in general make writing very difficult, and tend to produce religious/philosophical texts that question the established patterns of language and knowledge by which we orient ourselves in the universe.

CB:  The Road of Excess almost seems to imply that writing constitutes a use of drugs by other means. Does writing merely record psychoactive experiences, thereby piquing the curiosity of the reader who then goes on to try the drug? Or does writing in effect try to induce these psychoactive experiences, thereby slaking the curiosity of the reader who now has no need to use the drug? Do writers get addicted to their own literary delirium?

MB: All of the above, and more, I’m sure!  Especially in the case of opiates, writers often decide to write about their experiences and/or addictions as a way of escaping addiction.  By writing, they attempt to create a new self that stands outside the machinery of addiction.  Before 1800, writers like Samuel Johnson took opium and apparently found nothing worthy of writing about there.  That changed with De Quincey.  Since the Romantics, writers, readers and drug users have all had an interest in achieving altered states of consciousness through the media of pen and paper, printed word and certain chemicals.  So there’s an overlap in terms of the goals of writers and drug users.  For me, the big question is: what does it say about the modern world that books and chemicals have become the most prestigious ways of attaining such altered states?

CB:  William Gibson has remarked in a recent weblog that “writers  who imagine [that] they ‘use drugs to write’ really only manage to write in spite of the drugs [that] they use.” How might your own research endorse or dispute this hypothesis formulated by a writer famous in part for repeatedly portraying his own futuristic underworld of imaginary narcotics.

MB: This is a variation of the old chestnut “do drugs make people write better?”  My own belief is that first of all, we have to affirm that almost every human being throughout history has taken some form of drug, whether it be tea, cigarettes, beer, wine, anti-depressants or LSD.  Thus it is difficult to say that there is any aspect of the history of literature which is not at least peripherally connected to the history of drugs.  I don’t believe there’s such a thing as pure literary inspiration – there are always mediating factors, and drugs, along with childhood experiences, nature, the whole social world, act as mediators that influence writers in their literary efforts.  To say that they were solely responsible for a particular book would be absurd.  To say that they were wholly absent would be equally absurd.  So, the question we have to ask is: “what kind of effects do different, specific substances have on writing?”  And my book is an effort to begin to answer that question.