Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Feed, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Drug theorist Sadie Plant sucks on the long, bendy tubing of a hookah at Kush, a Moroccan-style bar in downtown Manhattan, and exhales a cloud of tobacco smoke. "This is the real thing, not like the crap you get in these", she says, gesturing at the packet of name-brand cigarettes next to her glass of mint tea. "And it's really quite potent". Half way through the six dollar chunk of apple-scented tobacco, she does indeed look at bit dizzy.

Referenced in Alice In Wonderland and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit", the hookah is one of countless examples of the way drugs have long been identified in our imagination with the mystic Orient. From its flow-oriented spirituality to its ego-dissolving herbal potions, the East beckons those who yearn to defect from the Occidental tyranny of sober reason. And Sadie Plant shares this view: she sees drugs as the anti-Enlightenment in powder or pill form, directly challenging Western humanist confidence in the power of will. "It's a big Western error to think that individual humans, or even groups of them, can control things," she says. "Drugs are a perfect place from which to interrogate that notion."

35 year old cyberfeminist and renegade from British academia Sadie
Plant has always been interested in anything that unsettles and
undermines control structures. Her first book, written as a PhD, was
a study of Situationism, the Dada-influenced anarchist movement
whose ultra-extreme theories influenced the May 1968 riots in Paris
and inspired many key combatants in British punk. Zeros + Ones:
Digital Women + The New Technoculture, written while Plant was a
research fellow and director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick, has been hailed as a Nineties equivalent to The Female Eunuch. "With Zeroes, Sadie was working on the cutting edge of understanding cyberculture from a feminist perspective," says N. Katherine Hayles, a professor at UCLA and author of the acclaimed How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies
in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. "Her really important
contribution is recovering the secret history of women working in
computing, which is still seen as a male dominated field."

Beyond its gender polemic, though, Zeroes is also a poetically written verging
on anarcho-mystical paean to chaos--the promiscuous,
border-dissolving and mutagenic flows of information, desire, trade.
In her new book, Writing On Drugs, the first fruit of her
post-academic career as "freelance thinker," Plant adds drugs to her
litany of chaos-generating agents, messing with consciousness on an
individual level and causing all kinds of turbulence in the body
politic and internationally through the seemingly ineradicable black
markets they've created.

One of Plant's key polemics in Writing On Drugs--which is set for early summer publication by Farrar Strauss Giroux--involves demolishing the
real/unreal, authentic/vicarious distinction that still governs much
thinking about drug experiences. For her, the interesting thing about
drugs is that they are material substances that make relatively
specific, physical interventions in consciousness. Although she has
sympathies with the grand tradition of using drugs as part of a
spiritual quest for higher states of consciousness and as ritualized
encounters with a transcendental beyond, Plant has more in common
with the demystified approach of today's post-rave generation, who
increasingly explore drugs purely for the intrinsic interest of their
precise perceptual distortions and sensory enhancements, without
making the kind of investment in ideas of the visionary or shamanic
that characterized the generation of psychonauts that included Aldous
Huxley, R. Gordon Wasson, and Tim Leary. For Plant,
"the scrambling of perceptions" itself is the revelation -- the
discovery that reality is "just a deeply contingent effect of the
interaction between your environment and one of many possible
neurochemical brain-states", the realisation that the bandwith and
processing-speed of your cranial computer can be drastically
expanded. Plant's materialist approach makes her the Scully to Terence McKenna's Mulder--the cautious, sensible, almost incongruously grounded woman in the boy's club of crackpot speculation and wild-eyed messiah complexes.


IN HER NATIVE BRITAIN, Plant is one of the country's most famous
"media academics", writing for quality newspapers and pontificating
on the highbrow BBC Radio programme "Start The Week" alongside
fellow guests like Gore Vidal and Martin Amis. None of which is bad
for a woman who comes from "not at all a literary or intellectual
background... my parents left school at 15, and ran their own
engineering business, so I grew up amongst heavy machinery and
engineering blueprints". Born in 1964 and bred in Birmingham, the
dowdy industrial heartland of the UK, Plant spent her childhood
reading and writing, and her late adolescence revelling in and on the
"free festival" scene-- a nationwide circuit of drug-and-music fueled
bacchanals similar to today's raves or Burning Man but far more
disorganized. Going to her first festival in 1981, she remembers being
stunned by the sheer size of "what back then was known as the Peace
Convoy"--a nomadic hippy calvacade of thousands of trucks, van, cars,
and horse-drawn caravans that spent the summer migrating from
festival to festival, despite police roadblocks and persecution from
local residents. These events were Plant's introduction to anarchist
practice, and a key influence on the anti-politics of self-organizing
activity she subscribes to. "I used to love the way a town of sorts
would emerge in a few hours, with temporary landmarks and streets. It
still intrigues me how they did it. There was one festival I went
to that drew 50 thousand people and lasted a couple of weeks--long
enough to have its own urban history, with three deaths and an
outbreak of meningitis!"

It was through the Situationist pamphlets she found at the free
festivals that Plant also encountered anarchist theory. The result
was her first book The Most Radical Gesture, where she used
the Situationists's fervent utopianism as a stick to bash postmodern
defeatism. It was while she was writing the book as
her PhD at Manchester University that she witnessed another chaotic
outbreak of cultural dissidence: the rave movement, born of the
synergy between futuristic electronic dance music and the designer
drug Ecstasy. Her experiences at Manchester's clubs are the
seeds that bloomed eight years later as Writing On Drugs.

"What really got me started was the mystery of Ecstasy", she
recalls. "MDMA has been around for most of the 20th Century, it had
moments of popularity in the 1960s, but it never became a culture
until the late 1980s." Why this strange time-lag, given MDMA's
intense pleasures--euphoria, hyper-tactile sensuality, overwhelming
feelings of trust, intimacy and affection? Plant's answer was that
Ecstasy was "waiting" for the right technology to arrive and
"potentiate" it, to use the pharmacological term for the synergistic
interaction of two drugs. "There's something about the clean
precision of the MDMA experience that seems to fit digital
technology, the same technology that enabled the creation of that
very precise rhythmic dance music."" Beyond this, she sees Ecstasy
and rave music as training the nervous system and human sensorium in
prepartion for the Internet and virtual reality. In Writing On
Drugs, she describes how ravers in the raptures of Ecstasy feel
"overwhelmed by their own connectivity", merging not just with music
and with the crowd but with machines too: the sound-system, the
dazzling lighting effects and lasers, and all the other hi-tech
elements used to "engineer atmospheres". Melting what Reich called
character armor , Ecstasy creates a kind of porous, permeable ego
that's supple and open to connection and contact. It's a process
Plant describes as "positive self-destruction, a self-destruction
without death-wish".

Plant originally planned to write a single book on drugs and
technology that would cover the entire terrain she ended up dividing
between Zeroes & Ones and Writing On Drugs. "The Zeroes and Ones
element was gonna be the exterior technology--computing, the
Internet, VR. Drugs were like the interior technology, the "soft" or
"wet" technology that reconfigures the brain", she explains. Plant
sees drugs as cyborgizing -- anorganic elements "inserted" into the
body and interfacing with the nervous system to enable perceptions
and sensations inaccessible to the undrugged organism.

"Drugs are the perfect example of a subtle prosthesis, working on the
internal wiring of the body in a way that makes the traditional
notion of becoming a cyborg through adding robotic attachments seem
really quaint and archaic. And I'm sure there'll come a point where
drugs themselves will seem very clumsy and dirty--in that sense of
being imprecise--compared with future forms of enhancement."

The "bionic", superhumanizing aspect of drugs helps explain why the
military have had been so intimately involved with them in this
century, using stimulants like amphetamine to enhance soldiers's
fighting capabilities and R&D-ing the potential applications of LSD
and MDMA as disorientation-inducing weapons and/or "truth serums". In
Writing On Drugs, Plant traces this drug/warfare interface back to
the vegetable kingdom-- the "herbal", Gaia-given substances that some
drug enthusiasts regard as superior to synthesized man- made drugs
originally evolved to discourage animal predators by causing nausea,
delirium or death when ingested. Intoxicants are all, at root,
toxins; drug experiences, says Plant, are little infusions of death
into life. Which is why the shamanic traditions of using plant
hallucinogens tend to imagine the trip as a journey across the border
between life and death.


WRITING ON DRUGS IS ALL ABOUT the myriad ways in which the
production, trafficking, and use of mind-altering substances has
shaped our economic, political and cultural history. Half the book
is taken up with a survey of drugs's influence on literature, taking
in suspects usual and unusual (Coleridge, Poe, Rimbaud, Baudelaire,
Sherlock Holmes, Wilkie Collins, etc) and arguing that a hefty strand
of high culture has been precisely that--"high" as a kite. Plant
argues that even the most sober, abstemious regions of society have
been contaminated by druggy consciousness, because drug-derived
sensations get encoded in cultural forms--not just books, but movies,
music, TV commercials.

One of her more provocative arguments is that advertising in its
modern sense began as a surrogate for more direct forms of hooking
the customer. "The Coca Cola company was the first big company to
invest in mass advertising, and they did that in an attempt to keep
the market they'd first acquired when they still had a substantial
amount of cocaine in the drink. If you can't hook consumers one way,
you have to find another. Every commodity today tries to be as close
to a drug as it can possibly be without actually being a drug." The
intimacy of drugs and "normal life" goes much further than the way
they've insinuated their influence through all levels of our culture.
As Plant notes in Writing On Drugs, every single one of us is guilty
of "possession", because the human brain runs on neurochemicals that
are similar to or near-identical to illegal substances (endorphins,
for instance, are so named because of their proximity to the opium
derivative morphine). It's obvious, really: drugs wouldn't work if
the brain wasn't full of receptors pre-disposed to being activated by
these electro-chemical triggers. The upshot of human brain chemistry
is that there is no such thing as "sobriety"; consciousness itself is
an ever-shifting tissue of different drug-states. "There are all
sorts of non-drug activities that obviously change that neurochemical
balance--sex, exercise, food," notes Plant, sipping a
cappucino at a Lower East Side cafe where you still have to ask for a
key to the bathroom--a relic of the pre-gentrification era when it
was necessary to discourage junkies from sneaking in them to shoot
up. "Then there are all the more extreme techniques for achieving an
altered state, be it yoga or whatever."

There are points in Writing On Drugs where Plant flirts with the idea
that drugs can access certain "revelations." The twist is that it's
not a transcendent reality "out there", but one deep within the hard
wiring of the brain itself. She subscribes to Henri Michaux's
mescaline-inspired conviction that there's a kind of pre-cultural
commonality underlying all the many forms of psychedelic experience
through history and across the globe. The deranged geometry of
lattices, honeycombs, lacework, and spiderwebbing, the baroquely
infolding spirals and proliferating ornamentation, the mosaic vision
and kaleidscopic turbulence, seen by users of LSD, peyote, DMT,
psilocybin, and other hallucinogens, find a visual echo in such
cultural forms as the "coptic light" patterns of Arabian carpets and
the paisley fabric of the Indian subcontinent. Michaux speculated
that all this drug-induced eye-candy constitutes an amplification of
brain wave activity, especially that of the visual cortex. The fact
that some migraine sufferers see similar patterns--known as the
migraine aura--suggests that in certain extreme states, the MS/DOS
and subroutines of the brain can be apprehended by consciousness.
"Some people can get the aura effects without the pain of migraine,"
says Plant. "It's happened to me about three times in my life, at
times of extreme exhaustion. This almost kaleidoscopic stuff kind of
creeps across your visual field from one side to the other. It's
really quite stunning, and not at all scary. The fact that there are
'natural' equivalents to drug-induced experiences suggests the
possibility you are in some sense observing what's going on in the
brain." Noting the similarity between these psychedelic
hallucinations and the self-similar patterns of Mandelbrot's
fractals, Plant characterizes the drugged or migrained brain as a
cranked-up bio-chemical computer capable of picturing the
self-organizing behavior and non-linear dynamism at play within
normally staid reality.


THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO PLANT: One is the sane, pragmatic,
down-to-earth daughter of self-employed parents. This is the Plant
who diligently slogs through scientific writings for nuggets of
inspiration, who's prudently cagey about her "field research" for the
new book on the grounds that talking about her drug use might result
in problems with visas to foreign countries. The other side of Plant
is the anarchist free spirit--the 17 year old whose eyes were blown
by the free festivals, the avid reader of books by drug fiends like
Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, the writer who herself plans to abandon
fact for full-blown fiction, the neurophilosophical adventurer who
eventually reveals that she's tried almost all the illegal chemicals
mentioned in Writing On Drugs.

All these tendencies converge in Plant's controversial endorsement of
"market forces", which figure in the new book as an ambivalent
appreciation of the international drug trade- a dark parody of
globalization, the id of the New World Order. Appropriately enough it
was at Pharmakon, a 1992 drug culture symposium in Brighton,
England, that Plant threw down her gauntlet at the Left-wing
orthodoxies that still dominate British academia, in the form of a
paper co-written with Nick Land called "Cyberpositive". The title is
a twist on cyberneticist Norbert Wiener's ideas of "negative feedback" and "positive
feedback." Where the conservative Wiener valued "negative feedback"
(homeostatic equilibrium) Plant and Land re-positivized positive
feedback (vicious circles, runaway tendencies) and specifically
celebrated the propensity of market forces to generate disorder and
destabilize control. There's a gleeful, gloating tone to the way in
which the duo exalt capital as "a viral contagion" that scorns
national boundaries, deletes cultural traditions and over-rides human
priorites: "Everything cyberpositive is an enemy of mankind."

Today, Plant says the essay was written as a provocation. Her real
attitude is more humanely ambivalent. During the Eighties, she
opposed the modernizing policies of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative
government--the crushing of Britain's once enormously powerful labor
unions, the dismantling of the welfare state, the privatization of
nationally owned industries and utilities. But by the early Nineties,
she was coming to terms with the idea that Thatcherism's assault on
"dependency culture" really had been a revolution, creating the
climate for this decade's upsurge of British fashion, art, and pop
culture (including her beloved rave scene, which for all its
Ecstasy-addled utopianism is anarcho- capitalist to the core, from
its illegal warehouse parties and pirate radio stations to small
independent labels to the drug dealers themselves). Plant stresses
the fact that she's no fan of huge corporations--she sees capitalism
not as a coherent system but as a pluralistic warzone organized
around a perpetual tension between centralizing entities
(wannabe-monopoly corporations, government agencies) and bottom-up,
grass-roots activity (plucky entrepreneurs, street markets). You can
guess which side she's on.

Sympathy for the underdog and small-is-beautiful sentiments
notwithstanding, there are those who reject Plant's ideas as a merely
a postmodern update of 19th Century laissez-faire economics--the
update aspect being the way she uses ideas from chaos theory and
cybernetics to effectively "naturalize" what is really a human
construction, the free market. Natural's not in it, says Judith
Williamson, Professor of Cultural History at Middlesex University,
and writer for the left-leaning British newspaper The Guardian. "All
these excitingly eroticised ideas about the flows of capital absolve
one from morality. Most of capitalism's flows are deeply
pernicious." She castigates Plant's attitude for its fatalistic
underestimation of the power of human beings to change things on both
the individual and collective level. "Human will is not nothing. All
through history there have been huge acts of courage and altruism."
Indeed, Plant's understanding of how things change leaves no role for
charismatic, far-sighted inviduals, for a Bill Gates or Fidel Castro.

What Williamson denigrates as "inevitabilism," Plant herself
characterises as a Zen or Taoist view of the world--not so much
devaluing the power of human agency as putting it in perspective.
"Nothing takes the credit--or the blame--for either the runaway
tendencies at work or the attempts to regulate them," she wrote in
Zeros + Ones, arguing for a radically depersonalized conception of
how history works. "Political struggles and ideologies have not been
incidental to these shifts, but cultures and the changes they undergo
are far too complex to be attributed to attempts to make them happen
or hold them back". In Writing On Drugs, she sees a kind of
equivalence between drugs and capital: both are the quintessence of
trade and traffic, both make a mockery of national boundaries, both
resist governmental attempts to regulate their flows (the Soviet
Union, for instance, was ultimately unable to stay uninfected by "the
contagion of markets"). In the 20th Century's history of drugs
prohibition, she sees a powerful demonstration of human hubris: the
struggle to suppress the drug trade hasn't just failed, it's created
a monstrous, hydra-headed narco-military-industrial complex that
perfects its wares through refinement (cocaine>crack),
researches-and- develops new products, and aggressively markets its
wares to consumers. If the impersonal laws of supply and demand had
been allowed to play themselves out without interference, the global
drugs problem and its equally cancerous double (the industry of
policing, surveillance, incarceration, and civil rights infringement)
would never have reached anything like its current proportions.

When it comes to the war on drugs, neither cops nor crooks have
anything to gain from an armistice. "In Britain, there's a big
reassessment going on about drugs, and someone who argues the case for
decriminalization told me he'd been accosted at a public meeting by
a drug dealer, who asked 'are you trying to put me out of
business?!?'." Plant chuckles grimly. "There's a lot of very
different interests that are well served by the status quo." A sane,
pragmatic solution to the drugs problem? Plant isn't convinced we'll
see decriminalization in our lifetime. Sitting with the hookah pipe
in her hand in the mock-Moroccan murk of Kush, she doesn't look too
bothered, though--for there'll always be the fascinating trail of
havoc left by drugs for her to follow.

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