On Drugs by David Lenson

Originally published in 1995 ‘On Drugs’ by David Lenson is a fascinating and enlightening pharmacography on the cultural reception of drugs from the point-of-view of the user. The author had previously published works that included ‘Achilles’ Choice’ (1975) and ‘The Birth of Tragedy: A Commentary’ (1987) and was Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts.

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.)

The book is sectioned into four parts. The first Drugs, Sobriety, and the Metaphysics of Consumerism is a critique of modern society that examines the hegemonic proliferation of a consumerist consciousness, wherein “cultural forms or genres without sales potential, like poetry, find themselves marginalized to cult status, so that their public functions now resemble sectarian social and religious assemblies” (Lenson 26). Lenson reaches this position by trying to explain what “straight consciousness” is; i.e. the consciousness we should retain by the non-use of such things as psychoactive drugs. The argument being that drugs become/remain illegal because they have the propensity to turn one away from the consumerist consciousness that behaves as society’s bind. The user, by the very act of taking an illegal drug, is stepping outside the limits of the social hegemony and this places them in legal and conscious opposition to the mechanisms of establishment consumerism.

The effect of blanket assertions about drugs’ deleterious actions is to obscure what they can teach us about the nature of consciousness. Psychiatrists and biologists are the first to admit that knowledge of brain chemistry has been significantly furthered by the employment of drugs as research tools. Why shouldn’t the same prerogative be available to investigators outside the natural and medical sciences? (Lenson 54)

In part II What Drugs Do and Don’t the focus shifts onto the efficacy of drugs but, in the first instance, this is understood to be about the external, social perceptions that give rise to a user construction. Lenson employs the consumerist framework to unravel why users are understood within certain categories and centres around the notion of desire, wherein drugs have the ability to transform the consciousness of the individual. While for the consumerist framework “these [drugs] cause the user to veer off the true path of desire into what can only be regarded as madness” (Lenson 59); for the user however, “character really is destiny” (Lenson 64) and the potential meaning lies in various other manifestations of consciousness that turn away from consumerism.

Based then on this notion of desire, Lenson compares it to pleasure and their relationship therein. Cannabis, he argues, is about the increased levels of sensuality; it plays with pleasure rather than desire, the ends of self rather than simply the means of desire. While cocaine, on the other hand, is a desiring drug, but it is so only in and of itself, the consumerist desire of consciousness must be attached elsewhere, so cocaine remains illegal. Yet aside from these critical appreciations in the difference of drugs, there is the difference in qualitative experience for the user. Throughout the discussion on drugs and thinking, regression and memory, there is recourse to different perspectives giving rise to different understandings about the same thing. The mechanisms of affect may retain a similarity but they are, experientially, manifestly different.

Part III is constructed of five drug studies; cannabis, cocaine, alcohol, LSD and drugs in combination. All the studies are astutely and critically revealing and are among the most interesting elements of On Drugs. In order to keep this review within the framework of psychedelia, a few words on the LSD section is necessary. In regard to the LSD pharmacographies of the 1960s Lenson quotes from Robert S. de Ropp’s The Master Game (1968): “Their insistence on forcing their insights into a framework which is essentially Tibetan [The Psychedelic Experience] produces a strained, somewhat artificial effect” (Lenson 143). Lenson suggests that this perspective was forced on the popular imagination and prohibited a purely Western conception.

However this argument, I believe, is a fallacy that has been repeated constantly since the 1960s and which is based on the belief that trained psychiatrists, who had been developing models like psycholytic therapy, had no existing framework with which to approach hallucinogens. It would be more accurate to say that Tibetan insights were forced upon a psychiatric/psychoanalytic framework. This orientalism, as otherness contingent to the experience, has more to do with the popularisation of LSD when models of mass consumption were needed to replace those of medical-pathology. Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience (1964), based on the ancient text The Tibetan Book of the Dead, may have the façade of Orientalism, but it is ego-death, not death itself that it addresses.

Finally, Part IV, Problems with Drugs examines the consumerist hegemony in regard to such elements as violence, economy, sex and technology: “Just as aspirin cannot alleviate my pain in my absence, so no drug can perpetrate a crime in the absence of a criminal. Still, it is common to hear people talk as if a vial of crack could leap up out of the sidewalk and strike  a victim down” (Lenson 167). Although it might seem obvious to say that violence is the product of society, rather than of a drug problem, which is itself bound to societal construction, it is not always the case in Establishment drug rhetoric. It is in this part, more than any of the others, that the consumerist consciousness of desire is put to the knife by Lenson. He astutely examines how associations – crime and drugs, sexual depravity and drugs etc. – are constructions employed to demonise groups of people who do not sit comfortably within the established hegemony.

What I see in drug use is a series of reactions to a spiritual disease, the way quail fly in all directions if you toss a stone at them. And this disease is the result of living too long in a world ruled by desire. Seeing no opportunity for political dissent, a certain percentage of the population is seeking change through dissent of consciousness (Lenson 200)

The over-riding feeling of On Drugs is that a cultural battle is constantly ensuing; sometimes this is obvious, like the War on Drugs media campaigns, and at other times it is subtle, through associations and education. Yet, in terms of drugs, Lenson has clearly shown that the hypocrisy of our current socio-legal approach is there for all to see (should, of course, they wish to.) His use of the concept of desire is intriguing and although it is used to great effect, its validity as a tool of analysis is limited in its partitioning alongside the consumerist consciousness and, I suggest, an analysis alongside the Deleuze-Guatarrian conception of desiring-production could well reveal a deeper level of analysis, on both drugs and Lenson’s own approach. Politically, it becomes obvious with the above quote that Timothy Leary’s idea of the fifth freedom, the freedom of consciousness, plays an important role in Lenson’s approach. Whether or not our ability to enact change through this new dissent, transforming the powers of desire, remains a question to be explored however.

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  1. February 24, 2012

    […] Literary Review: ‘On Drugs’ by David Lenson (psypressuk.com) […]

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