Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#1 Arjen Mulder 1 Jan 1992


Avital Ronell, Crack Wars: Literature Addiction Mania, University of Illinois Press 2004

There is no theory of drugs concludes Ronell in her new book. Jumping on the bandwagon of the current war on drugs, she focuses attention on the 19th-century, the period when heavy use became widespread in the West. However, Ronell does not write about drugs, but about addiction; 'crack' is the drug that offers addiction and nothing else.


Cover of "Crack Wars" -

Addiction is the behavioural model that underlies everything in technological culture, from the Industrial Revolution onwards. Ronell opens with a quote from Heidegger, who expressed this insight in its most basic form: Addiction and urge are possibilities rooted in the thrownness of Dasein. Upon re-reading Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Heidegger's own drug experiences (acquired on the advice of Ernst Jünger) emerge as crucial in his metaphysics of decision. Confronted with the thrownness of Dasein, the human being must make a decision, according to Heidegger, and only one decision can is possible: to say yes to the world as the place where Dasein can be. We have no other choice, or, in more modern terms: We're stuck here for a while and we better work it out.

Why, actually? Why accept the world, the thrownness, the certainty of death? Because this is precisely what dope, or addiction, rejects. The addict decides to say no to the world as the place for the realisation of Dasein (because of the injustice, the inadequacy of that world), but the addict does this by saying yes to one particular possibility of the body, its thrownness. He refuses to replace it with mind or religion, the institutions settled on by Heidegger after his decision. For Ronell, addiction is tantamount to a materialist critique of the decision. ‘If this is the only choice, then I say no.' To quote Ronell: There can be no doubt about it. What is required is a genuine ethics of decision.

This decision to say no can be typified as the strong, positive aspect of ‘being on drugs'. The need for this rejection is developed by Ronell into a re-interpretation of Madame Bovary, Flaubert's classic novel, which she perceives as the first extensive analysis of the model of addiction in a technological world. Madame Bovary was first addicted to dreams, then to romantic books.
Only afterwards did medicine enter the picture as the temptation of
the pharmacist (the dealer). One is already addicted before the introduction into the body of a substance called a ‘drug', a substance that indicates a way out of the rejected world. Drug use is aimed at the outside, the Other, the promise of an escape, the possibility of contact with that which is alive outside the body.
While Ronell never says it out loud in her analysis of the novel, her description of the course of Bovary's addiction, of the possibilities contained in the immense boredom offered by the technological era, makes an implicit claim: why introduce a substance from outside into one's body, when the possibility is already present within the body itself – in the form of love.

Ronell rejects the presumption of literate users that chemical drugs offer a way to the outside. She claims: Drugs, it turns out, are not so much about seeking an exterior, transcendental dimension – a fourth or fifth dimension – but rather they explore ‘fractal interiorities'. This was already hinted at by Burroughs 'algebra of need'. Drugs only penetrate deeper into more of the same thing. This same thing is called transcendence, mind, decision. But the Other is only to be found outside the self (it is the body of others, which causes one's own body to realise itself and become real). The tendency in technological culture to render the body superfluous and cause it to disappear, recurs in the drugs that belong to this culture. He who thinks beyond this terrorist social order, thinks himself beyond drugs or, what is more, beyond addiction (with love as the non-addictive bond with something other/the other outside of one's own technologised body).

This is an interesting position, a stimulating contribution to the debate on the question of what exactly the 'war on drugs' is fighting. Like The Telephone Book, the book beautifully designed. The text is consistently profound and the various genres that Ronell uses as moulds for the formation of her theories are varied and mind-expanding (though Ronell's attempt at cyberpunk gets somewhat off course due to the unlikely plot). But, curiously enough, Crack Wars produces nothing new, no novel concepts, no fresh fields of knowledge. It does not pass beyond the level of analysis and criticism, and when it tries to go one step further in the concluding pages (with an imaginary round-table discussion between Heidegger, Bovary, Duras, Jünger, Gretchen, etc.) its arrives at an
answer that is bound to sound very familiar to religious readers.

The rejection of the thrownness of Dasein by addiction, if thought through consistently, leads to rejection of addiction itself. Ronell's perception of this is not as simple as I am presenting it here. She tackles the suspicion that she simply belongs to the moral majority with a quote from Walter Benjamin on practically the last page: I was suddenly seized by a ravenous hunger. I was incapable of fearing future solitude, for hashish would always remain.
(Hashish is the emotion-drug; expressing hunger for direct contact with the outside world.) But, when all is said and done, with all the explicitness one can expect of Ronell, this is what her book comes down to: realisation of love is the purest form of rejection of the world, without drugs, Dasein in all its glory.
What do you mean, love? The post-millennium era casts its shadows ahead.

Ronell: Nietzsche committed this thought to writing:// Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica? It is almost the history of ‘culture', of our so-called high culture. Our work settles with this Nietzschean ‘almost'. It is exactly this position — the a priori idea that somewhere in the world neither culture nor narcotica is dominant — which is both the strength and the weakness of Ronell's book. She locates this herrschaftsfreie spot in the final sentences of Crack Wars// in the future as seen from the present. A view in the right direction, it seems to me. Had it been aimed at the past, it would have had to admit that so-called high culture, including technological culture, had been founded for twenty centuries on the religion of love, Christianity.

I cannot escape the feeling that Ronell has underestimated another characteristic of drugs not explicitly dealt with in her book: their promise to the user of real experiences without technical media entering the picture: drugs as defense against the culture of the secondary text. But drugs themselves are also clearly media as plant extracts or syntheses. For Ronell, love offers the same extra-medial promise that the needle offers the week-end user: love is what people
‘really' experience. In the final analysis, I cannot help but find that Ronell does not succeed in locating the ‘outside' of her metaphysical-psychoanalytical discourse; this leaves the before and after in the discourse of desire unresolved (desire as the truth of being) thus rejecting the world outside of that discourse as ‘only simulation'. But if Christianity has proved anything, it is that the argument of love can serve any (mis)deed. I will short-circuit my doubts and close with a quote from Multatuli:

''Love is a beautiful thing /
A diversion for all humanity.''

translation JIM BOEKBINDER