Writing on Drugs By Sadie Plant

Writing on Drugs by Sadie Plant was originally published in 1999. The book is a dense examination on how drugs have influenced contemporary culture through the medium of literature. She uses a wide variety of sources and employs several post-structuralist theorists in her writing technique.


Barthes’ Death of the Author essay is oddly implicit in Writing on Drugs as Sadie Plant remains largely invisible throughout the text (unlike those she examines.) Her academic style is thick in quotations and references but often lacks cohesion and direction, and this results in a rather too bewildering tour of culture through the drugs it uses. Nearly the whole book is regurgitation and the manner of its construction, although seemingly thorough, tends to obscure any possible original, or indeed wholly new, meaning.

As she writes, “To write on drugs is to plunge into a world where nothing is as simple or as stable as it seems. Everything about it shimmers and mutates as you try to hold its gaze. Facts and figures dance around each other; lines of inquiry scatter like expensive dust” (Plant 1999: 248). There is a strange postmodern twist to this quote in that it is impossible to decipher whether Plant is talking about drug literature in general or her own experience of doing so; or indeed both, or neither. While this type of ambiguity is certainly a temptation in writing about drugs – particularly certain classes of them – one wonders if it functions merely as spectacle in the end.

Plant’s content investment on Romantic texts, like those of De Quincey and Coleridge,  tends to trap her stylistically as the text progresses. Her own review of drug literature is of alienation, psychosis, division – something that simultaneously destroys and creates the individual against a neglected backdrop of historicizing forces. Needless to say that this style, though quite fitting for the earlier works of drug literature, is less sure-footed as the 20th century texts emerge. She reproduces, or perhaps schisms, writers and their words so widely that it feels like reading a reference library. Is it a useful library? Arguably a bibliography makes for a more assured grasp of the texts .

When it comes to the psychedelics (and aside from misquoting its meaning as a term,) she notes, “Psilocybin mushrooms have the same sense of personality, and all the tryptamines introduce the elfin, cartoon characters described as ‘the machine elves of cyber space’ by Terence McKenna, who has published a number of influential discussions of DMT and its relatives” (Plant 1999;141). Even the elves have become homogenized across psychedelic drug experiences. Plant manages to connect all drug literature as being about “swirling colours and shapes,” as if a single banner makes the understanding of these texts more palatable. The fact that there exists a different temperance, in different texts, on different drugs is woefully ignored. Indeed, Writing on Drugs misses a literary trick.

 

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5 Responses

  1. psq says:

    This book is one of the first I ever read on the subject of psychedelics. I picked it up hoping it would be a manual but was pleased to learn about how these different substances shaped the writing styles and work of authors I read in compulsory education.

    I disagree with your comments about her writing style only because it’s been a long time since I’ve read her book, but I remember getting through it without a lot of fuss.

    Good review though. I’d like to see this as part of every college literature curriculum. It simply adds a layer of depth and complexity to popular literature or which most people aren’t aware of its existence.

    • psypressuk says:

      Hi psq! Thanks for your comments. Having re-read it, I was a little harsh – bad day being translated on the book I think – her effort is certainly more admirable than I gave it credit for; especially in her use of Deleuze and Guattari’s critical method. It’d certainly be a very interesting addition to the curriculum – swaying them into teaching critical thinking (in the broadest sense) and away from simple fact retention might well be the challenge though!

  2. psq says:

    This book is one of the first I ever read on the subject of psychedelics. I picked it up hoping it would be a manual but was pleased to learn about how these different substances shaped the writing styles and work of authors I read in compulsory education.

    I disagree with your comments about her writing style only because it’s been a long time since I’ve read her book, but I remember getting through it without a lot of fuss.

    Good review though. I’d like to see this as part of every college literature curriculum. It simply adds a layer of depth and complexity to popular literature or which most people aren’t aware of its existence.

  1. January 23, 2012

    […] In On Drugs (1995), David Lenson coins the term pharmacography as a category term for writings on drugs. His own text appeared at an important time in the history of pharmacographies for two reasons. Firstly, it took the opportunity to appear during Bill Clinton’s reign as U.S. president, when although the ‘War on Drugs’ still continued, the propaganda-fuelled public rhetoric of Richard Nixon, and Ronald Regan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, had eased off, offering a brief lull in anti-drugs fervour. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for the scholarly approach, Lenson undertakes a cultural analysis on the question of drugs, based on the user, which sees them embedded as an intrinsic part of the historical and contemporary human play; a postmodern method still widely used today (See Boon and Plant.) […]

  2. January 23, 2012

    […] In On Drugs (1995), David Lenson coins the term pharmacography as a category term for writings on drugs. His own text appeared at an important time in the history of pharmacographies for two reasons. Firstly, it took the opportunity to appear during Bill Clinton’s reign as U.S. president, when although the ‘War on Drugs’ still continued, the propaganda-fuelled public rhetoric of Richard Nixon, and Ronald Regan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, had eased off, offering a brief lull in anti-drugs fervour. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for the scholarly approach, Lenson undertakes a cultural analysis on the question of drugs, based on the user, which sees them embedded as an intrinsic part of the historical and contemporary human play; a postmodern method still widely used today (See Boon and Plant.) […]

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