Toxicity in late capitalism
I.
One of the paradoxes of social life in late capitalism is that, even as more and more people abandon certain types of drug -- alcohol, tobacco, ecstasy, sex -- addictions are on the rise

The number of alcoholics, opioid addicts, gamblers, social media addicts, porn addicts and so forth shows a secular increase. In other words, the drugs of sociability are declining, while the drugs of solitude are gaining ground.

II.
What kind of problem is this? 

Trump says, massacre the dealers. The Duterte option. Liberals, with the soft paternalism of the moral reformer, say treat the disease. So we murder the problem, or we medicalise it. Hard cop or soft cop; either way, the problem is being suppressed.

Why substitute one lie for another? Freud is said, apocryphally, to have claimed that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. How could Freud, of all people, divest such objects of their fantasy investments? How could he, who was hopelessly addicted to nicotine, and the oral pleasure of smoking, pretend that there was such a thing as "just a cigar"? 

He, for whom the archetype of addiction was masturbation, the autoerotic pleasure akin to that experienced by a cat when it kneads the pillow with its paws, or licks itself. Freud died of mouth cancer, having ignored his doctors' pleas for him to quite smoking.


III.
It is telling, perhaps, that one could hardly imagine Freud saying the same of his other passionate attachment, cocaine. Would it even occur to anyone to claim that cocaine is "just cocaine"? 

The substance itself is barely a substance. It is colourless, shapeless, could be sneezed into a ghostly cloud. To impart to it a magical quality is such an easy step to take. Like many objects of addiction, cocaine began life in the pharmakon, often used as a local anaesthetic. Freud, for his part, fantasised that cocaine could be a wonder-drug, a panacea cure. He thought he could cure himself of neurosis, and even use it to help a friend break his addiction to heroin.

Like all pharmaceutical objects, however, the treatment had a toxic side. Anything can be toxic if you have too much of it. Freud's friend died of a cocaine addiction. This is already good reason to distrust the reformer's urge to medicalise addiction: it tends merely to expand the pharmakon, and thus the repertoire of addictions.


IV.
At least medicalising the problem appears to suspend the moral judgment which underwrites the 'war on drugs'. How can someone be blamed for the effects of a disease? 

But the discourse of victimhood simply substitutes one moral judgment for another, no less reactionary. To be judged a victim is to be morally condemned. It is to be deprived of one's agency, rendered helpless, child-like, and to depends on others who act on one's behalf. 

For Trump, addicts are victims of dealers who should be killed. For moral reformers, they are victims of circumstance, in need of a dose of soft paternalism: say, the sort of silent nudge provided by behavioural economics

To treat addiction as a disease, while it may appear to validate the experience of compulsion from one point of view, can also be a way of dismissing what is particular to it. Addiction, as the autoerotic connection suggests, has a relationship to satisfaction that diseases generally do not. This is true even (especially) where the addiction gives us hell.

Addiction is, for that reason, a passionate relationship that we have toward a substance, an activity or a person. We organise our lives around maintaining contact with the addictive object, in a way that we wouldn't with the mumps. It means something to us, in other words. The drug, and the addict's relationship to it, is meaningful because it acts out a subjective truth. 

To medicalise addiction is to refuse to hear what the addiction is saying. It is to do, in a way, exactly what addiction is designed to do: to cover up the personal meaning of the addict's toxicomania.


V.
Addiction is indexed to toxicity. We find it everywhere: in politics, relationships, on social media, in our food and drink. We can even find a certain kind of masculinity to be 'toxic'.

As the term 'intoxication' suggests, toxicity goes in two directions. Yes, it bespeaks an excess: anything can be toxic if you have too much of it. But it's the very excess, the too much, that gets us high in the first place. 

If we get high on the excess, on having too much of something, that may be partly because it helps obliterate an excess somewhere else. An unacknowledged depression, an anxiety, a thwarted desire, a conflict. In other words, we get high because we're too much for ourselves.

We might imagine, therefore, that the drug brings something into being, creates a presence in the body of something that is missing. Something that, as with magic beans, elevates us into the clouds. Or, as with the entheogenic drugs of the Peruvian Amazon, generates the divine within, enabling communion with the spirits. But each drug has wildly different effects depending on the user. This suggests that it is not some magical property of the drug itself that creates the high, but something in the addict.

So what if all it does is momentarily kill off a part of ourselves that is too much? What if it simply disarms repression with a blunt somatic force, suppressing conflict and, in so doing, freeing up a lot of energy wasted on exhausting, debilitating mental work? This might be experienced as euphoria or, at least with social media addictions, a comfortable numbness, contentment.

What if the yield of addiction comes, not from addition, but from subtraction? Not from presence, but from absence? Not from life, but from a brush with death?


VI.
If the rise of addiction is linked to a decline in sociability, this suggests that the part of ourselves that is too much, has to do with our relations to others.

Addiction, says Rik Loose, is an a-diction. Auto-erotic satisfaction, like masturbation, bypasses speech. Why bother speaking when you can get a direct line to enjoyment by hand, mouth, nose, or vein? Like acting out, it produces in repetition what cannot be spoken. It encodes an axiom which resists conscious articulation, while also neutralising the return of the repressed.

What is it about late capitalism, and the social relations therein, that burdens its subjects with an unspeakable excess? What is this surplus that poisons and intoxicates us? It might be capitalism itself. There is no 'holiday' from capitalism, after all. There is nowhere that it slows down or shuts up. Fly to the farthest ends of the earth, and there you will find the ever widening churn and clamour of extraction, beckoning you with its exhortation to work for its eternal expansion. It acknowledges no limits, spreading inexorably through and reconfiguring all our relations with one another. It is, for many people, the silent and unthought horizon of reality.

It has, moreover, no temporal logic. In the capitalist untimelich there is no real progress or cycle, nothing but the accumulation of catastrophe and noise. In the face of such relentless accumulation, who can maintain their faith that death will eventually come?

It is perhaps telling that, with addiction, far from inducing boredom, habit intensifies our passion for it. The rituals and repetitions surrounding addiction, including not merely the 'taking' of the substance but the peripheral activities of securing the supply, the preparatory activities of rolling up, chopping, pouring, logging on, burning, etc., give us their own satisfaction. 

If nothing else, that satisfaction might be a fugitive sense of temporal order. For a scheduled part of the day, a part of us, to our immense relief, will die.


VII.
It may be that addicts have a death wish. It may be that we want death. 

This isn't exactly the same thing as being suicidal. People commit suicide because their lives have become unbearable. Those with a desire for death keep the desire alive by pursuing it, but never actually consummating it. 

In addiction, we get a death. We administer it in doses. Addiction is, to the subjects of late capitalism, what the Ayahuasca plant is to the Shamans: the medium of our social relations with the dead.

But we also get a double life. The secret life of addicts is organised to circumvent sociability. We might try to route around society when we experience it as imposing an intolerable burden. It could be that we find ourselves bombarded with ideals which make us feel things we can't bear to feel: enjoy this, achieve this, fuck this, buy this. It could be that the possible lives it offers us make us want to die. 

But with addiction, we obey a set of highly secret, highly individual, necromantic rituals and codes. We, momentarily, drop out of the capitalist untimelich, into another dimension (with voyeuristic intentions). We ingest the death-drive. We turn it inward, on ourselves. We become intoxicated.

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