- "Junk" and the Other: Burroughs and Levinas on Drugs
The metaphysical desire . . . desires beyond everything that can simply complete it. It is like goodness — the Desired does not fulfill it, but deepens it . . . . [Desire] nourishes itself, one might say, with its hunger.—Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
Junk yields a basic formula of “evil” virus: The Algebra of Need. The face of “evil” is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. . . . I never had enough junk. No one ever does.—William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
“Just say no!” Odd advice indeed. Say no to what or to whom? Say no to a threat, to something that will draw you too far outside yourself. Say no because you want to say yes. Say no because, somewhere outside yourself, you know that this “you” owes a debt to the yes, the openness to alterity that is foreclosed in the proper construction of subjectivity. Of course, “just say no” never says no solely to a person — to a dealer or an addict; rather, you “just say no” to the yes itself — a yes that is not human but is perhaps the ground of human response. The constant reminder to “just say no,” then, is always haunted by a trace of the yes. As William Burroughs asks, “In the words of total need, ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Yes you would.”1
In Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania, Avital Ronell argues that the logics of drug addiction can hardly be separated from the discourse of alterity. As she writes, in the exterior or alterior space of addiction, “You find yourself incontrovertibly obligated: something occurs prior to owing, and more fundamental still than that of which any trace of empirical guilt can give an account. This relation — to whom? to what? — is no more and no less than your liability — what you owe before you think, understand, or give; that is, what you owe from the very fact that you exist.”2 Ronell is, of course, no simple apologist for a Romantic celebration of intoxication; as she writes, “it is as preposterous to be ‘for’ drugs as it is to take up a position ‘against’ drugs,”3 but it is the case that the logics of intoxication, as well as the kinds of desire that one can read in spaces of addiction, are inexorably tied up with current critical vocabularies of alterity and identity: postmodern thinkers increasingly understand alterity as a debt that can never be repaid, a difference that constitutes sameness, the incontovertiblity of a continuing obligation to someone or something “other.”
Of course, the leisurely space of recreational drug use most often can and does serve to produce isolated reveries that cut the subject off from alterity, but the serial iteration of episodes of intoxication — what one might clinically or etymologically call “addiction,” being delivered over to an other — brings on another set of considerations.4 For example, as William Burroughs characterizes the junk equation in our epigraph from Naked Lunch it necessarily begins in an economy of simple need over which the subject exercises a kind of determinative imperialism: junkies want, on the surface, to be inside, to protect and extend the privilege of the same; they want the pure, interior subjectivity of the junk stupor — with “metabolism approaching absolute ZERO” (NL, p. xvii) — to keep at bay the outside, the other.
But that economy of finite need and subjective imperialism quickly shows an economy of desire, an infinite economy of “total need” which breaks the interiority of mere need. In Naked Lunch Burroughs writes, in the voice of the smug, bourgeois “Opium ‘Smoker,’”
How low the other junkies “whereas We — WE have this tent and this lamp and this tent and this lamp and this tent and nice and warm in here nice and warm nice and IN HERE and nice and OUTSIDE ITS COLD . . . . ITS COLD OUTSIDE where the dross eaters and the needle boys won’t last two years not six months hardly won’t stumble bum around and there is no class in them . . . . But WE SIT...