Addiction as Inappropriation

Given the attention to the passing of Amy Winehouse I’d like to take this opportunity to briefly discuss some contours of this phenomenon that we all seem to be saying killed her. “Addiction” doesn’t exist, but we all know what we mean by the term. Ask a neuroscientist, or a psychiatrist, etc. and you will be told that addictions cannot be diagnosed, only dependence and qualified degrees of use. Nonetheless the top journal in the field is still called “Addiction,” NIDA’s website still carries a section called, confusingly, “addiction science.” What is this ghostly thing?

If we were to take the causal mechanism of addiction (a dependence on a substance without which the organism would die), we would not have an epidemic of addiction. If “dependence” were the criteria for measuring addiction the literature would probably be 1/10th the size it is. Dependence on a substance of abuse is rare. Instead of dependence, what we encounter fairly regularly is a relationship with a technology that has become inappropriate.

“Inappropriate,” as the word usually gets used, probably doesn’t sound strong enough to intimate the unmitigated disaster that is the process of addiction. But it’s a good word to use because it gets us thinking beyond the simple binary of good/bad and it also helps us to, I hope, start thinking beyond the limitations of volition and choice. Volition, metaphysically, ends with a discrete individual, the person whose will is to be asserted (and for many people in the U.S. a will is somehow tied to some concept of a part of the individual that never dies). This concept of will power to say “no” to substances of abuse is myopic and doesn’t prepare people for the disaster of addiction when it strikes. Strengthening someone’s will power as a defense against addiction is like reinforcing your umbrella for when the earthquake comes.

Our concept of addiction is impotent in the face of the phenomenon that affects us. This is because addiction seeks to unite a metaphysical concept (will) with pharmacology, this is impossible and I will bet you dollars to doughnuts will always be impossible as we have will and pharmacology understood today and since the advent of Modernity (which is when addiction was born).

“Inappropriate” carries two significant characteristics that dependence does not: 1) what is appropriate is always determined in a context and dynamic, 2) we appropriate what is at hand. Appropriation is a process of gathering what is useful from what came before us as we face the task that is before us, and if we are appropriate in our appropriation those that will come after us will have a model for living that can be trusted to be useful for their problems.

Addiction is not located only in an individual. To become an “addict” requires an apprenticeship: you are not born with an innate knowledge of how to produce, acquire, or ingest the technologies that one becomes addicted to (for example methamphetamine). To produce an addict there has to be a community and this is the double tragedy of addiction: without those networks—which do provide meaning-full relationships within that context—the person that becomes masterful at using that technology would not come into being, but the phenomenon we call addiction refers to an interaction with a technology that eats away all those relationships that the addicted user needs in order to sustain. The tragedy of addiction is an ironic tragedy: the audience knows where this is all heading, just look to Russell Brand’s wording.

Modernity is defined by its relationship to technologies, as is addiction. We say that when someone is no longer in the process of  (ab/mis)using the technologies of abuse that that person is “in recovery.” What is it that is being covered-over in recovery? The Heideggerian in me wants to say that recovery is the recovering-over of the world with the technological worldview.


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