[Drugs] double for the values with which they are at odds, thus haunting and reproducing the capital market, creating visionary expansions, producing a lexicon of body control and a private property of self — all of which awaits review.
Avital Ronell, Crack Wars, 51.
When I’m not writing for theavantguardian.org, I use an addiction model in order to understand the nature of human relationships. It probably seems warped to approach humanity from an intoxicated perspective: what strange visions would we have, and how could we rest assured that we understood what our analysis revealed? I’ve always been somewhat interested in the occult, and in the occluded. There is a tendency to think that gathering knowledge of reality (like a good social scientist does) is meant to enlighten the world, but there is no way to dream without the dark. Being-on-Drugs reveals this because it is defined in opposition to Being-on-Reason. If we understand one, we can understand the other. But how do we know what it means to be unreasonable without trying a little bit of unreasonableness? We grapple with understanding when these little hits become a bad habit, and our habits become uninhabitable.
Aristotle credits Thales with beginning what we call philosophy and science. Thales sought to understand the nature of things, and he saw that the nature of the universe is water. After three millennia — to show how hooked on Thales’ thinking we are — it was only recently put forward by the astronomical community that extraterrestrial life might not first have to be in the so-called habitable zone, where liquid water would be present.
Tradition has it that the Ancients saw events such as earthquakes, tidal waves, terrible rain storms, etc. as the expression of anthropomorphic gods. The gods demanded certain ritual observations of the people, and if these weren’t met, the gods showered their wrath upon humanity. Thales was the one who called shenanigans on this idea.
Thales wanted to develop an explanation of phenomena like earthquakes without having to resort to gods, not only because he liked math (he introduced us to geometry via the Egyptians), but also because he seemed to be concerned with law and politics. If the gods make the world the way it is, then humans can’t be held responsible for the crimes they commit, as the gods are using humans as pawns in their own games against each other. This sort of thinking makes a mockery of creating a stable society, because everyone in that society can always attribute their actions to the machinations of the divine. If gods are actually the ones who control our actions, we therefore have no ability to choose.
Those pesky, pesky Egyptians.
In Phaedrus, Plato (through Socrates) tells us that Thoth invented writing, then presented it to King Thamus as a pharmakon (as Derrida points out, an impossible word to determine without making a Schrödinger’s Cat kind of decision). One choice is to decide that Thoth presented the written script (pharmakon) to King Thamus as a recipe — a prescription– that would supplement the King’s memory. But the King decides that what Thoth has presented is actually a poison (pharmakon) that will eat away the ability of the people to remember, leaving them with false knowledge.
Thoth creates a pharmakon by being a pharmakeus, or magician. Socrates sometimes refers to himself as pharmakeus and states that his strongest medicine (pharmakon teleotaton) is living knowledge, unlike that false knowledge (pharmakon) of writing which is only the mere image of knowledge — this is a key distinction for popOp as we continue to discuss spectacular agency. We therefore have a chain of related terms employed by Plato (writing the dialogues of Socrates, since Socrates hates writing): pharmakeus–pharmakon–pharmakeia is the last term we haven’t touched on yet, but it means the same as pharmakeus, or dispenser of pharmakons; the term is also a synonym of a more disturbing term, pharmakos.
The Ancient Greeks had a ritual for purification of their cities; we have our ritualistic washing of feet or baptism, but the Greeks had the pharmakos. The pharmakoi (plural of pharmakos) were something like a scapegoat: the people of the town kept them well-fed, but when disease broke out, or at prescribed calendrical moments, the city would cast out the pharmakoi and execute its residents (they would be stoned or perhaps thrown off a cliff). Socrates would eventually become just such a pharmakos, forced to drink that poisonous hemlock because his gift of speech made him a pharmakeus, or dispenser of poison.
Today we continue to wrestle with this Ancient Greek problem. The United States has the largest documented prisoner population in the world, the Bureau of Justice statistics find that 20% of those on probation or in prison were prosecuted for drug offenses. The Onion — one of popOp‘s preferred sites for news — recently announced that Harvard University would be giving Adderall an honorary degree (“without which many of you would not be sitting here today”), along with news of the push within the scientific community to provide access to “cognition-enhancing drugs for the healthy.”
There is some speculation that the term pharmaceutical may have not only these Greek roots, but that the Greeks themselves borrowed the term from the Egyptians. Thoth was not only the god of writing, but like Hermes (with whom he would be syncretized), he was a god of many hats, including medicine. Ph-ar-maki, or “bestower of security,” is the approbation that one gives to the ferryman that crosses the river successfully, and seeing how Thoth judged one’s heart on the banks of the river, this seems appropriate.