Neuroverdetermination Loves “Addiction”

The quest to understand the nature of the relationship between technology and volition is, essentially, the story of Modernity.

There’s a nice post over at NPR’s 13.7 by Alva Noë that is fundamentally a book review of Marc Lewis’ Memoirs of An Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs. I’ve previously made a strong claim, that addiction doesn’t exist. I’m not denying that chemical dependence doesn’t occur. I’m not denying that problematic usage, or substance abuse doesn’t occur. But what do we mean when we use the term addiction? Ultimately the concept becomes untenable because at it’s core addiction is the pathology of one’s Will, which is a metaphysical concept and not something that exists physically in or on one’s person. The concept of addiction is an historical one (thanks mid-19th century!) and has consistently been revised in light of the socio-historical conditions in which it is cited when modes of power relations seek to adjust the relationships between people and technologies.

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Part of my problem has to do with how we conceptualize some key terms; without an adequate operational definition, we’re not likely to advance in our understanding of the phenomena we’re trying to address. Terms like [chemical] dependence and addiction are often interwoven into conversations and popular media accounts and it’s unfortunate because, as I’ve stated previously, if [chemical] dependence is what is intended whenever the literature talks about addiction, then we’d have probably 1/10th population being discussed. Some of this has to do with the difficulty in gaining access to truly [chemically] dependent folks: most social scientists/social workers are not going to pull a Bourgois—you should check that link—and it’s exceedingly rare to encounter neuroscientists such as Lewis that have actually experienced the effects of the technologies of abuse that they study.

Noë’s article is a solid read if you want to get a sense of what neuroscientific reductionism looks like:

The world itself is nothing but a source of activation of the brain’s chemical keyboard. So the addict—in a way—has the right idea: to hell with the world, I’ll turn my gaze inward and use drugs or other behaviors to play the keyboard of my brain myself! In a weird way, the expert’s conception of what it is to be a human being—that each of us is a system of neurons and associated molecules—is the addict’s apologia.

Just a few lines down I find this interesting commentary:

For the addict, everything becomes a means to an end, and nothing can be an end in itself. Other people, situations, work, family—these become mere opportunities for self-regarding adventure.

Far from being the quality of human interaction by which I would chiefly characterize those in the throes of “addiction” I instead would have to mark this kind of behavior as the hallmark of capitalism. Self-regarding adventure is what global high-volume trading in global finance ultimately boils down to.

So maybe Noë just doesn’t hang with many addicts, that’s fine. The bigger point being made is that we are not simply our brains. I’m guessing that Noë would agree with me (maybe in spirit) when I suggest that what we mean by “addiction” is a pathological state of affect.

Noë characterizes the addict in opposition to “us”

We are not all like the addict. We are at home in the world and open to it. We learn and grow, and love and connect, to people and to projects and values.

It's not obvious how to use this apparatus

There are two deeply flawed assumptions about “addicts” and “us” in these statements. To become an “addict” as I’ve said before, one has to learn and grow and love and connect to people and to values. You are not born with an innate understanding of how to manufacture methamphetamine, obviously, but you’re also not innately going to know how to procure meth either. You’re also not born with the knowledge of how to consume meth.

Maybe meth is an extreme example because it’s a designer drug. Even with marijuana, someone has to show you how to use a gravity bong:

“Addiction” requires an apprenticeship; you have to be brought along by more experienced users of the technologies of abuse. This is why I say that there is a double tragedy in addiction: the first tragedy is to find oneself in the circumstances that would compel one to use these technologies of abuse (many that would be “addicted” could be said to have initiated their use/abuse out of something like a desire to “self-medicate”); the second tragedy being that the persistent use of these problematizing technologies tends to drive away most of those relationships which were so rewarding at first in the apprenticeship phase.

Noë states that “we” are at home in the world and open to it; but if that is the case, why do we say that “the addict” that is on the mend is “recovering.” What is being covered-over in this process? Being open to the world is the mark of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic. It is precisely our lack of direct access to the world (and out need to maintain a screen between us and the Real) that marks the human condition for psychoanalysis. What “the addict” learns to cover-over in recovery is that fundamentally “who we are” is actually a composition performed in relationships and not an individual with a metaphysical will that bends nature to it. This is something I’m getting at when I talk about Heidegger’s profound boredom. Rather than being open to the world, it is the generally the case that we foreclose the world through mediation.

By this I don’t mean that there is a more real world in which we could be participating, this world is plenty real enough. Rather, it seems the case that we mask our interdependence with the world and insist that the controlled (mediated) worlds that we have instituted are disclosing the limits of the understandable world. I’d like to think that people looked to LSD and The Doors of Perception because they were hoping to connect with a world that they were born foreclosed from and so were seeking access again to another way of being in the world.

Huike Thinking. Shi Ke (Song Dynasty, 10th c.)

The above image is here to illustrate my point. Dazu Huike was the student of Bodhidharma, the patriarch of Chan Buddhism (what is called Zen in Japan). According to legend it took Bodhidharma 9 years of meditating/staring at a cave wall until he saw himself in that wall. During that time Huike stood outside the cave for days hoping that Bodhidharma would accept him as a student. Bodhidharma refused. Huike cut-off his left arm to show his commitment and was accepted by Bodhidharma. Suddenly Huike realized what he had done and screamed. As Ferguson (2000) reports it:

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” “There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s