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 technique.

Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ is oddly implicit in ‘Writing on Drugs’. Sadie Plant is almost totally invisible throughout the text (rather than those she examines.) Her academic style is thick in quotations and references but often lacks cohesion and direction; the result is a bewildering tour of culture through drugs that lacks originality. Nearly the whole book is regurgitation and the manner of its construction, although seemingly thorough, tends to obscure any possible original meaning.

“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 enquiry scatter like expensive dust.” [PLANT:1999;248] There is a strange post-modern 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.

Plant’s investment in time on pre-counter-culture texts, like De Quincey and Coleridge, traps her stylistically. Her own review of drug literature is of alienation, psychosis, division – something that simultaneously destroys and creates an individual against the backdrop of historicism. Needless to say that this style, though fitting for the earliest works of drug literature, falls far short of the post-counter-culture mark.

She falls into a trap of understanding that belongs to a more aged ideology when discussing later drug literature. That is, she frames it in the US’s overly discussed ‘war on drugs’. She almost reproduces directly the words of many other drug-lit writers – never differentiating psychedelic literature – to the point where one is really only reading a reference library. Is it a useful library? Arguably the bibliography makes for better reading.

“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]This is the extent of Plant’s words on McKenna; slightly short of the mark when it comes to the influence of this writer who often spoke of “self-transforming machine elves.” She even misquotes the meaning of psychedelic.

It seems to me that the only thing Sadie Plant has offered the genre of drug literature are some old, worn analytical models. She manages, with the use of some flimsy quotes, 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.

Of course, it is the way drug literature has shaped modern culture that is the books pretence to exist – even though at times it feels like she’s doing the very opposite – but even in this sphere Plant is really only asserting the standard understandings. It is ultimately a work of creative non-fiction, wherein the creativity has lost all sense originality. Well worth a read if you’re one of the few people not to realise that Coca-Cola was originally made from the Coca plant and you like your writing impersonal, stodgy and often ill-informed.

I will leave you with a lie that has been printed on the back of my edition; a quote from Geoff Dyer of the Book Forum who clearly knows how to sell a book but not necessarily how to read one:

“She’s a Nietzschean free spirit, as hip to what is happening now as was Sontag in her pomp… what is being examined here is nothing less than the history of the modern mind as refracted through the weird prism of narcotics.” Maybe he means the Nietzsche of the 1890s?

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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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