Coke Theory/Weed Theory, and Some Possible Alternatives

// cocaine includes crack (obviously) and weed includes hash and skunk (also obviously) //

A few weeks back I decided to push back on Twitter against the idea that Freud’s work was discreditable because, as a young man, he took a lot of cocaine. I have an interest in this question because, as a young man, I took a lot of cocaine. But that wasn’t quite my point. My point was if we to discredit those theorists who have done a lot of cocaine, we will be left with the stoners, which would, moreover, be a boring monocrop to harvest. Freud is a case in point: as is well known (though sometimes overstated) he frequently explained the neurotic symptoms of his patients as expressions of half-understood sexual repressions. The corresponding importance that he granted to sexuality in general, then, is one of the grounds on which the American anti-Freud movement has always attempted to discredit him. Part of that attempt has rested on Freud’s early experiments with cocaine as a therapy (as well as his personal use of it): I was both staggered and amused, at a talk a couple of years ago, to hear the veteran anti-Freudian Frederick Crews (erstwhile Chair of my department) explain that Freud simply had sex on the brain, because he’d snorted a bunch of coke, among whose “well-known side-effects” is “sexual mania.” As though someone would require the introduction of white powders to think sex and desire were rather important aspects of a person’s mental life. Meanwhile it is well-established that the criminalization of cocaine in the United States was the result of Reconstruction era white fantasies about Black power and pleasure. In some ways, Crews’ inability to think about the racial origins of his own anti-Freudianism led him to get the point exactly backwards: Freud wasn’t thinking about repressed sexual desire because he was on coke; coke was constructed as a legal and cultural object on the basis of a desire to repress and control sexual desire. 

It’s been a while since I last used coke, and with a bit of luck I won’t have to do that again, but there’s some part of me that remains stubbornly committed to the aesthetics of cocaine, which I think can be treated as distinct from and even somewhat opposed to the aesthetics of marijuana. To treat any particular drug as suggestive of an aesthetic is to court a couple of different dangers - either that of appearing merely impressionistic, or of ascribing essential formal features to an inert chemical. Derrida manages to negotiate these poles in “The Rhetoric of Drugs,” by treating drugs as a culturally produced object that produces its mode of participation by rhetorical means. And there’s something to this: when one is “on acid,” one can feel (among other things) an impulse to act as someone on acid would act. Thus reproducing the form for someone else to try to imitate in turn. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s much to interest Derrida in particular drugs: he’s concerned, rather, with the totality of drugs, and of the condition of being “on drugs” as indicating a peculiar relation to philosophy - to onto-theology, especially. I think my binary (coke theory/weed theory) would feel wrong to Derrida, because he would want to argue that theory and drugs are co-constitutive, such that any binary or negative formulation (like “Freud is not weed theory”) would be blocked off. 

So, I think Derrida’s not quite the right basis for an inquiry such as this one, and I’m going have to rely on the old problematic of aesthetic judgment: the fact that a lot of people seemed to find the distinctions I made intuitive. I set out on Twitter to prove that coke theory was not only good in itself, but - on balance - better than weed theory. I found that the two often seemed to come in pairs: Freud is coke theory, obviously - and Jung, his shadow-self, loves archetypes, vibes, mysticism. Straight up weed theory. Walter Benjamin wrote “Hashish in Marseilles” - one of the most vigorous and sumptuous essays about marijuana I’ve read - and, in general, is an anti-systematic theorist, whose great assets (a poetic grasp of the particular; a commitment to the revolutionary possibility of a moment in time; anti-systematicity) and whose great defects (verbosity, obscurantism, a difficulty mobilizing for direct political value) are both those of a weed aficionado. Benjamin’s great collaborator and disputer, Theodor Adorno, meanwhile, is perhaps the cokiest theorist of them all: arch, magniloquent, sadistic, and forever constructing a single, enormous system of incomprehensible complexity and utter mastery. Benjamin and Freud are weed theory/coke theory, then, because they wrote about weed and coke and it shows; Adorno and Jung are coke theory/weed theory because of something more intangible, more felt, that I nonetheless think most people who read their work can deduce.

Other pairs were more complicated: Derrida : Deleuze : : coke : weed, for example. Although Derrida is anti-foundationalist, his work is characteristically insistent and self-reinforcing: one is likely to be persuaded by one Derrida argument if one has already been persuaded by another. It all hangs together in some way. Deleuze, on the other hand, is not self-evidently anti-foundationalist (especially in the earlier work like Difference and Repetition) but his thinking is full of biological images, prosaically sticky, and teetering on the verge of a paranoia psychosis. Skunk, more than weed - though the difference seems trite. Baudrillard coke (spectrality; virtuality; perversity; cyberpunk), Lyotard weed (spaciness; sweetness; occasional bursts of incredible, oxygenating clarity). Within queer theory, Bersani is clearly coke theory (snarling, brilliant, acerbic) and Sedgwick is weed theory (world-building, meditative, patient). Of course one would have to admit that, in the latter case, gender shapes the coke/weed expressions - but that’s occasional, rather than essential. Donna Haraway is coke theory; Cary Wolfe is weed theory. Homi Bhabha is weed to Gayatri Spivak’s coke. Kristeva is coke (Bulgarian spy); Irigaray is weed (vulva as angel). Writing about one or the other is no proof of anything: Michael Taussig, author of My Cocaine Museum, is pretty weedy. As is Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race, Arun Saldanha’s excellent book about pills and tabs.

Arranging these thinkers in this way helped me to understand why I’m so bothered by what I perceive of as the over-valuation of weed theory (I acknowledge Benjamin and Sedgwick are both obviously brilliant, but I’m... tired of what I sometimes see as the sentimental encomia they, and they alone, seem to elicit from their admirers). But I lost the bet: in a vote that wasn’t even that tight, my Twitter chose weed theory. And then, as is the proper run of things, people started coming up with alternative schemes and contesting the designations I’d made. Danny Wright was dead opposed to my classification of Bersani. Adam Fales added Badiou and Rancière (coke/weed, obviously); someone named Hannah added Moten/Mackey, which felt right although I also think Fred Moten’s writing, which addresses and is addressed by so much of enormity and grace, could belong in weed too. Foucault and Butler were both considered to have made switches in the later parts of their careers: Foucault, from coke to weed (between The Will to Knowledge and The Care of the Self), and Butler, from weed to coke (between Bodies That Matter and Excitable Speech).

Pamela Thurschwell wondered whether there is such a thing as alcohol theory. As I tried to picture it, I found myself in the tipply world of the New Critics: I. A. Richards and William Empson (sherry); Cleanth Brooks (mint juleps); and T. S. Eliot (gin). Modernism feels like an alcoholic proposition: Joyce and Hemingway only the most obvious symptoms. But then Pam, a modernist, had a sharper and more ambitious claim, which I think is probably right: somehow criticism and the literary enthusiasm of which it is a cognate are, unlike theory, intrinsically boozy pastimes rather than druggy ones. And when one reads something like De Man’s “Resistance to Theory,” a polemical defense of the necessity of theoretical accounts of literature for literary study, one feels both the ardor and the charisma of the guy who brought coke to a drinks reception and is vaguely annoyed that nobody will get fucked up with him. 

On the other hand, I do think it’s easy enough to imagine alcoholic philosophy: Hegel, slurring his improvised lectures, perhaps most obviously. And Kant’s relation to drinking is interesting too: in the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, he writes “a human being who is drunk is like a mere animal, not to be treated as a human being.” His reasoning is that both alcohol and, worse, narcotics “are seductive because, under their influence, people dream for a while that they are happy and free of care, and even imagine that they are strong; but dejection and weakness follow and, worst of all, they create a need to use the narcotics again, and even to increase the amount.” The poignancy of his interposed intensifier, “and even imagine they are strong,” derives, I guess, from the premise that strength is further away than happiness. On the other hand, anxious as we might find this passage, the picture of Kant we get from Wasianski’s account of his last days, irreverently and playfully translated into English by Thomas de Quincey, reports that Kant always served wine at his own dinner parties; that he was always impatient to start eating and considered excessive reserve when eating an intolerable affectation. And he never discussed his work:

His style of conversation was popular in the highest degree, and unscholastic; so much so, that any stranger who should have studied his works, and been unacquainted with his person, would have found it difficult to believe, that in this delightful companion he saw the profound author of the Transcendental Philosophy.

My beloved friend Beth Freeman, whom I listed on Twitter as weed theory against Lee Edelman’s coke, texted me as soon as I had done so to tell me I was wrong. And then I realized that a third category required some kind of theorization, and it was more or less where I wanted to be myself: molly theory. Theory committed to depathologizing pleasure, sensation, delight; party theory; designer theory; a theory of the dumb, joyful, and unabashedly cod-spiritual. This combines elements of both coke and weed, but isn’t merely an amalgam or synthesis: when one thinks of the great practitioners of molly theory (Beth’s Time Binds, Antonio Gramsci, José-Esteban Muñoz, Angela Davis, and, as much as it pains me to admit it, Jacques Lacan) there is an optimism of the will that isn’t the same as the cokey drive. (It pains me to admit it because this newsletter was initially started as a place to talk trash about Lacan - this seems a long time ago now, but it’s true; hence the snarky name.) I can’t claim any authenticity to my mollyishness - it’s been a while since MDMA was a big part of my life, and I’ve been completely clean/sober for three and a half years anyway. But like... sober molly theory with background notes of coke and booze? It has some explanatory power over my ambition for my writing, I think.

What difference does any of this make? Not much, perhaps. In some ways it’s just moving things around aimlessly on a table. It is obviously a parlor game, in some sense. If I had to supply any dignifying purpose for it, it would just be that there is a sense in which the extraction of propositional content from theoretical writing, which is obviously necessary for a responsible treatment of it, can feel like an alienation of the aspects of the thing that brought us towards theory in the first place, and that this dialectic of estrangement and insight resonates with various ways of experiencing intoxication. One of the best guides to thinking about and teaching theory I’ve read is Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ essay “We Aren’t Here to Learn What We Already Know,” (also molly theory, I think) argues that theory is best used when it is mobilized to understand and estrange the world: “we are going to move from theory to the world, and not back to you.” It’s not that your personal traumas, kinks, delights, etc. aren’t valuable at the scene of inquiry - on the contrary, “your intuitions and feelings are what will lead you to original insight.” But such feelings are the beginning, not the end: “they are the end of the psychic thread that you begin to pull at as you develop the ability to summarize and analyze the structures of thought, habits of mind, and analytic forms that undergird critical theory.”

Something I do believe is important and underrated in general - and something that I don’t think can be accounted for by digital reading methods, for example - is the subjective side of criticism, which works (as Kyla says) exactly as the instigating event of interpretive analysis. All the evidence one has when one embarks upon an interpretation, is the evidence of one’s feelings - and yet the traditions of critical theory teach us that those very feelings, the most intimate and individuated part of ourselves, can be used as a instigating stimulus for understanding the world at large. I realize I sometimes sound naive when I think about the utopian power of the subject to reshape the world - this is molly theory, after all: and I just feel like I have this tremendous love inside me, you know? But I think so many of the intellectual traps that we see arrayed before us imagine/pretend/project/deceive themselves into thinking they begin somewhere other than in the feelings (the feelings that must be estranged). This, I think, is how analytic philosophy becomes neurotically committed to proving the categorical integrity of a naturally-occurring type (like, let’s say, “woman”); how macho campus radicalism lets itself be tricked into adopting a fascist discursive register; how a certain kind of historicism comes to seem like the singular answer to every question, because it gives nothing away about the asker; how the pursuit of large quantities of data about literary artifacts (an important aspect of Kyla’s second stage of theoretical reasoning) comes to seem akin to interpretation itself, or else presents itself to us as the real source of questions, a more reliable guide to what requires an explanation than the embarrassing wetware we used to use. (I’ve yet to see a DH method that wasn’t coke theory - though I am totally prepared to be proven wrong on that.) What these methods share is a sense that the primacy of the subjective experience of the world is an error to be corrected in the process of analyzing it. Which isn’t true, I don’t think.

By the way, I realize this now turned into something more manifesto-like than I anticipated when I started writing it, which is a little unfortunate because I’ve co-written a “response to the responses” to the whole “weak theory” thing with Paul Saint-Amour, which is coming out soon (possibly this week); and although that too isn’t a manifesto, I worry that it will be read as one, and I realize it is the very apogee of poor form to publish two potentially contradictory manifesto-like texts in the same week. WHAT CAN I SAY, I’m sorry, okay? I’m SORRY. And also I don’t care. Caprice!