Book Review: The Narco-Imaginary: Essays Under the Influence by Ramsey Scott
Drugs, as Nancy Reagan told us, are something you’re supposed to say No to. But there are two big problems with that directive and with the longer history of prohibition and inhibition that it stems from. One is practical: People really like to do drugs. As David T. Courtwright’s Forces of Habit (2002) demonstrates, every culture on earth has at least one preferred intoxicant, and most have several. The other problem is more philosophical: What is a drug, anyway? It is easy to name individual drugs; it is far harder to explain why some chemicals are permitted in certain contexts while others remain forbidden. Then try to succinctly articulate what “being high” means or where the desire to get high comes from in the first place, and soon you’re down a rabbit hole deeper than any hangover, where questions proliferate like mushrooms. But along has come Ramsey Scott’s provocative, strange new collection of essays, The Narco-Imaginary, which links material history to philosophical speculation in ways that have wide-ranging implications for cultural and literary criticism.
Scott’s grounding argument is that drugs are heavily determined in disciplinary, institutional, and discursive terms. Attempting to describe the “narco-imaginary” means venturing into territory long disputed by multiple stakeholders. Biochemists, poets, painters, neurologists, farmers, publicists, economists, musicians, psychiatrists, pharmaceutical companies, private-equity traders, sci-fi novelists, literary theorists, the police—everyone has a cut of the action. Writing this book thus meant dodging rhetorical and conceptual boundaries: “You find yourself struggling against a warren of conventions and institutions—the partitioning of territory, at every conceivable level—not only the miserable American legacy of the division of lands, regions, and neighborhoods, but the regulation of discourse itself—historical and literary, popular and academic.” It is difficult to say what genre The Narco-Imaginary inhabits. Perhaps it is best to observe that, like narcotic substances, Scott’s prose defies easy categorization. By turns lyrical and acerbic, encyclopedic and dilettantish, critical and impressionistic, his essays set out like Montaigne’s, without a definite end. “Language is the universal inebriant,” he declares at the end of the Prologue.
“The recent history of the narco-imaginary is the history of postwar American poetry,” Scott contends. Indeed, setting aside Berryman’s martinis, Kerouac’s Benzedrine, and Ginsberg’s acid, you can go back a lot farther, past Baudelaire’s cannabis and Coleridge’s opium to the psychotropic toadstools that nourished Greek myth. Narratives of inspiration and ecstasy exist in perpetual dialectic with regimes of prohibition and enforcement: drugs are already cool, but they’re even cooler because people in positions of power are constantly warning you not to touch them. “Every anti-drug message,” Scott shrewdly observes, “confirms the power and appeal of drugs as the gateway to a new consciousness—supposedly dangerous, apparently subversive, possibly revolutionary.”
But the book would be limited if it just catalogued the influence of chemicals on the lives and works of artists, fascinating as that might be. Scott goes further, locating drugs within networks of capital and power. Narcotics are big business. Reliant on economic and ecological networks built during centuries of imperial conquest—that’s how rum, cocaine, sugar, coffee, Scotch, tea, tobacco, weed, Oxycontin, and all the other hedonic goodies became global commodities—“migrations of the narco-imaginary are marked by a history of violence.” Police power backs up corporate interests, determining which drugs are legally available and which are forbidden, and punishing socially marginal users of the latter most severely. Witness America’s prisons, full of black and Latino users in 2017, when a middle-class white literary critic might walk down the street smoking a joint in any state where you can buy a medical-marijuana card. The great irony of drugs: promising transcendence, they are wired into the same late-capitalist circuits that provide us with Chicken McNuggets and private jails.
Or maybe at this point most of us are done looking for transcendence and just want relief from pain. One of modernity’s burdens is boredom, and it has a place here, in a chapter of letters to Franklin W. Dixon, a pseudonym devised by the corporation that published the popular Hardy Boys novels in the mid-twentieth century. (“Dixon” was a team of hacks.) Following Walter Benjamin, and nominally writing to Mr. Dixon, Scott identifies “chronic boredom” as a central fact of modern life. An unsatisfied, “directionless desire,” it “collects on the tops of shelved books, under couches, on television screens.” Drugs, of course, are one of the great boredom killers. Elsewhere, Scott beseeches The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper for scraps of wisdom about life in contemporary Berkeley, California, where Sixties idealism has given way to fantasies of responsible lifestyle consumerism. (“This, Sergeant Pepper, is where the Sixties have landed: the Whole Earth Catalogue as sold by Williams and Sonoma.”) Utterly everything in his adopted home, an erstwhile bastion of leftism, has been ingested by Capital, which provides affluent cosmopolitans with organic milk, locally sourced menus, and hand-crafted bicycles; families attend protests together on the weekends, but meanwhile Oakland’s nearby poverty “remains a mystery that soy lattes in cups of recycled cardboard can’t explain.”
Scott’s work is not without flaws. It occasionally bogs down: chasing a lot of tangents, digressions, loose ends, and introspective associations, the self-reflexive monologue can run on longer than it needs to, while the essay chapters, written over a period of years, hang together loosely. This is partly because the genres Scott uses as models—the notebook, the letter, the diary, the fragment—are by convention structurally miscellaneous, and one presumes the effect is intentional. Besides, drugs do strange things to time and space. Legal or illegal, sacred or profane, they bend our experience, and written language struggles to bring back accounts of narcotic phenomenology, which, says Scott, is a “substance beyond language, that which it cannot quantify.”
“Narcotic” derives from a Greek verb that means to deaden or benumb, which first shows up in Hippocrates’s medical writings. Meanwhile, when “drug” migrated from French into Middle English in the fifteenth century, one of its meanings was a person or thing of little value. (“On drugs” doesn’t enter the language as a derogatory colloquialism until the mid-1930s, affirms the OED.) Psychoactive substances—all but the mildest—still carry pejorative connotations to one degree or another. The long, disastrous American War on Drugs has only deepened these in public discourse, whereby even dabblers (to say nothing of outright addicts) are untrustworthy at best and dangerous at worst. The Narco-Imaginary contests this facile assumption. Without denying that addiction is bad or that drugs can be paralyzing—Scott mentions his struggle with Adderall as a writing aid—it underscores the fruits of narcotic experience as a whole phenomenological orientation. What matters is the cultural material culled by artists and writers, believers and travelers, philosophers and scientists, who have experimented in various ways with drugs and tried to describe the results in their home discourses. As the comedian Bill Hicks said, if you don’t like the idea of people using drugs, you should go home and throw out all of your records. It is worth remembering that the desire to get high intersects with and sometimes even produces high art.
Ryan Boyd teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Koreatown, Los Angeles.