In recent years, and particularly in the United States, the concept of addiction has come to operate as one of those rhetorical switching points through which practically any discourse or practice or experience can be compelled to pass. As Eve Sedgwick points out in a well-known essay, one can, in contemporary parlance, claim to be addicted not just to illegal or dangerous substances, but also to forms of activity or consumption—work, eating, exercise—that constitute officially approved ways to pursue happiness in middle-class society. It would seem that what matters is not the self’s particular wishes or activities, but the integrity of its will or being. “We do not object to the drug user’s pleasure per se,” Jacques Derrida comments, “but to a pleasure taken in an experience without truth” . Sedgwick, for her part, suggests that “so long as ‘free will’ has been hypostatized and charged with ethical value, for just so long has an equally hypostatized ‘compulsion’ had to be available as a counterstructure always internal to it, always requiring to be ejected from it” [133–34]. The thought of addiction thus spreads to the point of infecting the founding tropes of Western philosophy. The logos becomes hooked on itself: always already it becomes the pharmakon, the remedy that poisons.
Yet as Derrida, Sedgwick, and many other critics have also pointed out, the notion of addiction is in certain crucial respects a nineteenth- and twentieth-century invention. Though inscribed within a sequence of representations of human agency that goes back to the Odyssey, the “addict” as such becomes possible only within a political and medico-social regime capable of rewriting identity as pathology. (Hence, in part, the persistent overlap between the addict and the “homosexual” in twentieth-century Western culture.) This is also to say that the addict emerges as part of the development of consumer capitalism, disciplinary society, and the modern state. Like the question of technology from which it is inseparable, the thought of addiction returns us to the West’s most ancient topics and texts only to confront us with some of the most prosaic, specific, and in certain cases disastrous characteristics of our own modernity. 1
When addiction is at issue, in other words, metaphysical complications acquire empirical importance. Like “diction” or “dictation,” the term “addiction” derives from the Latin dicere (“say, relate”), which returns to the Greek deiknunai, “show, point out, bring to light”; in Roman law, however, the word addicere had the more prosaic job of signifying a giving or binding-over of something or someone by sentence of a court: the assignation of slave to master, debtor to creditor. The modern recasting of addiction as pathology has occurred as a massive institutional and sociohistorical articulation of [End Page 3] metaphysical values, tensions, and contradictions. In what Mark Seltzer has termed “machine culture,” the figure of the addict channels anxieties about the uncertain differences between machines and bodies; about the “nature” of technology; about the ways in which identities and desires get produced within a consumer economy that represents subjectivity both as inalienably natural and as compulsively iterative and artificial. In such contexts, as Seltzer shows, seemingly abstract paradoxes, such as the psychoanalytic notion of primal identification—where the subject forecloses and reiterates the act of mimesis that enables it to be (other than) itself—can no longer be dismissed as merely “theoretical” figures: they bleed irretrievably into sociohistorical reality. The subject is always already the addicted subject, ready at any moment to become the “addict”; the addict, in turn, becomes a (medical and juridical) “case” or case history only by becoming a frightening, alluring mirror image of the normative subject of consumer society.
The discourse of addiction not only disciplines and deconstructs the subject of consumerism; as enacted in drug policies and politics, this discourse has violently reshaped the day-to-day operations of local governments and societies and left its mark on the global economies of the new world order. Hong Kong, the earliest drug spoil of the British Empire, may have returned to China, but the postcolonial world remains more hooked than ever on narcopolitics. From the vertically integrated cocaine...