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Reading the Pharmakon: Part II

Updated: Jun 27, 2020

Poetic Shamanism and the Word as Virus

The god of writing is thus also a god of medicine.

--Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”

Language is a virus.

--William S. Burroughs


In my previous post, I offered a brief overview of the work of Michael S. Judge. In this second installment, I want to offer a more theoretical account of his work, drawing on the writings of Jacques Derrida and William S. Burroughs. Not only have both writers been important influences for Judge, but by putting the three in dialogue we can begin to trace the features of what I am calling the “pharmakonic text” and thereby help further distinguish the stakes and rewards for Judge’s unique mode of writing. In essence, this mode blurs the lines between toxicity, intoxication, and healing, threatens fixed boundaries of identity and meaning, and reveals language itself as an all-consuming psychic organism.

Of course, it is one thing for me to assert all this in expository prose; it is quite another to vividly enact it, as Judge does, across thousands of pages of visionary text.

Prescribing the Word

I want to begin by briefly retracing the concept of the pharmakon as it appears in Jacques Derrida's seminal essay “Plato’s Pharmacy.” There, he offers a reading on that ancient Greek word that allows him to deconstruct what he has deemed "the metaphysics of presence." Appearing in Plato’s Phaedrus, and being the root of our word “pharmacy,” pharmakon attracts Derrida initially for its unstable, untranslatable, and provocative cluster of meanings: it is at once remedy and poison; also recipe, drug, philter; and, by extension into the related word pharmakos, a sacrifice or scapegoat. In short, it is radically opposed to the principle of identity: it contains alterity within itself, frustrating any desire to circumscribe or conclude its signification; and it suggests an excessive and unworkable quality which is, paradoxically, potentially sacred. In his initial statements, Derrida tells us, “Operating through seduction, the pharmakon makes one stray from ones general, natural, habitual paths and laws” (70). And for Derrida, the ultimate form of pharmakonic straying is writing.

Now, before proceeding, we must note that Derrida means "writing" in a unique sense. He sees writing as opposed to speech, where “speech” signifies that which is present, proper, self-contained, and at one with ones person and identity. By contrast, Derrida asserts the necessity of “writing” as that which is absent (or absent-present), improper, disseminated, and un-assimilable to mere personhood. As Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents, "Writing was originally the voice of an absent person." One aim of elevating these stray, improper, and fugitive potencies of writing is to resist the reductively linear, logocentric mentality. In such a mentality or discourse, a word is subsumed by logical operations such that whatever echoes or ambiguities it possesses are circumscribed or eliminated so as to allow the meaning to be made fully present to understanding. From such a position, then, the pharmakonic potential of writing is a threat to the order of things: it exceeds what can be posited, it breaks apart, it does not add up; it is a body of remainders, echoes, fractures.

Still, the pharmakon should not be construed as something Oedipally repressed, such that it would be free if only logocentric rationality leave it be; rather, its position is also a potential threat to itself, to the very notion of an “itself,” and is thus an orientation in which identity is eclipsed or possibly annihilated. The pharmakon is profoundly at a crux: on the one hand, its “going astray” may draw one out beyond prescribed identity, leading to loss of sanity or intelligibility; on the other, it may simply compel the authorities—those who insist on demarcations of identity and property (the appropriate)—to police what one is doing and enforce conformities of various kinds. In both cases, one may slip from pharmakon to pharmakos: scapegoat, sacrifice, victim. And this potentially lethal slippage is crucial to tracing the pharmakonic text.

To see these powers at work, I want to turn to The Scenarists of Europe (Dalkey Archive, 2016), the third published work by Michael S. Judge. There, we are introduced to Patient—a kind of pharmakonic soul in training. We follow him as a young man wandering devastated landscapes deprived of life and connection, and we re also given reflections on his childhood. We are told that, as a boy, Patient was given a book, Patient’s Series of Americas:

He was prescribed it as a child, when he had a wrong name because nobody yet knew that he was Patient. It was meant to realign his childhood mechanism. Or if not accomplish this—too ambitious really—at least give him some kind of scarecrow to imitate and prune…

He received the prescription on pamphlet-sized glossy cards that he found, one by one, in his pockets. They said, Recite this. Direct it toward the thick Americas that fill your mouth with hot orchids. Direct it at the thought that you’ll die by drowning in grain; direct it at the grain silos as they topple. Direct it at the empty car that pulls you in its sliding door and, driverless, surveys your city while it releases other passengers. Recite it.

Patient, wrongly-named, tried to recite it but got afraid (150).

Here, the voice of authority—absent, anonymous, absolute—has attempted to inscribe Patient into himself through this book. And this is not just reading but recitation: internalization through repeated externalization; a blurring of the interface between self and world that subsumes both into the text. In one sense, this is allegory for education itself, especially catechism, and as such reveals an omnipresent authority’s desire to neutralize the phramakonic potential of that which would write back or alter what is written. Further, there is an ingenious cruelty in this alienating, oppressive text’s bearing its reader’s own name—in the possessive—in the title: he is taught that it is his own book he reads, that it is proper to him, despite its attempt to eclipse and infiltrate whatever “he” is. Further, we learn that he was not always Patient, but that his previous name was not his real name; however, only now, as Patient, is he capable of becoming himself. Of course, he finds that being a self—or having one—is impossible under such conditions. And yet, ironically, Patient is the sole first-person voice in the book: a prefatory note tells us, “When you see an I, it’s only Patient. He’s the one who uses I” (3).

As stated, I take Patient as a kind of apprentice pharmakon. The connection is clear in the proximity between the language of medicine, treatment, and writing: “Patient” is “prescribed” a book; he “uses” (abuses, ingests, applies) “I”. Ultimately, the fundamental ailment of his identity—which hides its cure—is its being divided in relation to what names it. Not only is his name essentially a pun—“patient” as both noun and adjective—and not only does the name “Patient” efface a “wrong name” that is never revealed, but we are divided further in our understanding of Patient through consideration of just what it means, medically, to be a patient. A patient’s subjectivity is one which may be experienced more as subjection; moreover, that subjection is itself split between the doctor whose care he is in and the disease itself. Thus, a patient can be seen as a site of radically fractured subjectivity: he is a site of deferral (“patience,” again) between self and other, sickness and cure.

Dr. Benway’s Alphabet

When it comes to tracking this interplay between fractures, sicknesses, cures, and writing, few have made as singular a contribution as has William S. Burroughs. Although he is not frequently invoked in relation to Derrida, there is a vital connection between the two writers relative to the idea of the pharmakon. Obviously, the most direct link between Derrida’s pharmacy/pharmakon and the work of Burroughs is the idea of the drug. As is well known, Burroughs not only lived with drug addiction for large portions of his life, but he asserted that the principle of addiction lay at the root of human nature and of societal structures. Prior to Derrida, Burroughs’ idea of an “algebra of need” traced the logic of the pharmakon in advance into a darker and more destructive realm, where the need for confirming and controlling “one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws” is sought in a perverse contract with a parasitic, cellular force: junk—a term expanded to encompass whatever it is one uses in order to maintain control. For the addict, the drug is both remedy and poison, creating a closed circuit in which life may be controlled precisely by aligning itself with what will ultimately destroy it.

It was Burroughs’ genius to see that this same logic applies both to drug addicts and those who are addicted to other things, such as power. For in the lived system by which both persist, there is one overriding obsession: Control. For Burroughs, Control is the name of the pervasive condition in which human beings are reduced to being either agents or victims of a self-replicating virus whose ultimate aim is total subjection of the other—of Otherness. So much of Burroughs’ life and work was a protracted defense against this entity (alternately known to him within his fiction and his life as the Nova Mob, the Venusians, the Ugly Spirit, et al.) and its efforts to thoroughly liquidate otherness in the name of a monological, tyrannically consuming Identity. And as he knew from his studies of the priestly casts among the Egyptians and the Mayans, one of the earliest technologies of control was none of other than the Word.

Burroughs was fond of maintaining “the Word” in its archaic, capitalized form, echoing the King James translation of the Gospel of John’s logos. Ultimately, Burroughs’ entire body of work appears to have been one long interrogation of the Word in an attempt resist its being used as a tool of control. Burroughs sought to reorient the Word in us—or us in the Word—into a trajectory Out: into possibility, futurity, Space. “We are here to go,” he would reiterate, even as he acknowledged that the Word was little more than a sad raft he had set out upon to reach the Western Lands, the paradise of Egyptian myth. Thus, as it is in Derrida’s pharmakon—and, for that matter, as it is for Christ the sacrificed, eternal Logos and for the apostle Paul (“the letter killeth, the Spirit giveth life”)—the Word in Burroughs’ work is a crux: an entity at once subjected and subjugating, and an interface through which human beings work out a potentially cosmic agon of control and liberation.

And as a reader of Derrida, Burroughs, and (at one time) the Bible, Michael Judge is acutely sensitive to all of this. In an unpublished interview I conducted with Judge, he offered the following statement on his own sense of language in this connection:

Language actively structures and restructures our world, of which any given consciousness is an inextricable component, and there may be no larger component of our cosmology, our epistemology, our whole imago mundi, than our written language. As neurochemistry and physiology, the Word is very literally the Incarnation. John Edgar Wideman described artists as “dream surgeons” once, people who get into the subterrane of those images and semiconscious ideas most foundational to our reality, and I’d go him one further by insisting that it’s not just surgery on dreams. William Burroughs wasn’t being paranoid when he wrote about the Reality Studio. Reality as structured by pictograph is not reality as structured by logograph, by alphabet, by number, by hypertext, by omnipresent digital image and sound.

Give this orientation, the position of the writer could not be more charged. Caught between the divine and the mutating technological armature of Reality Studio technicians and flunkies, the writer is at once surgeon and patient. And not just a patient, but one who sometimes goes under the knife of Dr. Benway, Burroughs’ famously drug-addled, casually homicidal doctor who has reneged in the most ostentatious way on his oath to “do no harm.” The writer in fact bears the Word: the page is the flesh itself, inscribed and scarred and bursting with auras of proudflesh. And what’s more, the reader then puts this on. The page is clothing, a new set of skin, a habitable apparatus that reveals the psychic reality most lives exist to conceal.

In my previous post, I wrote that pharmakonic writing is a kind of shamanic practice, and this absolutely applies here. One version of the shaman is that of the symbolic victim: the one who dies psychically for the well-being of the people, and then lives on in a kind of afterlife of total psychic receptivity and articulation. In this, the shaman is a scapegoat, a pharmakos. Thus, the writer as shamanic vehicle of the Word, and as medicinal agent struggling against a viral invasion, operates as subject in this doubled sense: they are at once subject to language and the subject as language: language made conscious, driven mad in its endless chain of self-reflexive replication. Operating at the event horizon of non-being—of being taken over by the Word—the shamanic writer is one who develops an art out of getting caught in order to get free, of dying in order to be born, of pursuing violent obscurity in order to ecstatically reveal.

And so the pharmakonic writer is engaged in acts of creation that may be at times indistinguishable from destruction. For the writer has effectively erased the boundary between self and other while directly engaging parasitic and hostile forces. For Burroughs, we see it in his agent K9 of the Nova Police, in dire combat with “alien mind screens.” He draws closer and closer to them, risking assimilation and death, until reporting a success that is also a destruction: “Word falling—Photo falling— Breakthrough in Grey Room.” Elsewhere, the aim of writing is to destroy it: "Rub Out the Word,"as in mob lingo for "kill" as well as in literal erasure. We see this also in Burroughs later shotgun paintings, where spray-paint cans were blasted with shotguns to splatter the paint on boards: a weapon being used for creative acts.

In Judge’s The Scenarists of Europe, we this same dialectic in reverse: the once-potent Word has become sterile and deadly, as Ezra, Tom, and Djuna—writers become characters and deprived of the Word—struggle inside the collapse and decay of their psychic cities. We see it in the very title of a recent manuscript, The Wounded Surgeon. We see it in his Lyrics of the Crossing, where the narrator is characterized as a “flawed voice, starting and restarting, flaking off repetitious leprosy, struggl[ing] and fail[ing] to name or goad his artificial people, and to learn code from a landmass that long slaughter could not clarify, more pestilence decipher[.]” What better figure for pharmakonic writing that slaughter and pestilence being modes of articulation and receptivity?

And again, this is the source of the deep pathos in the character of Patient. Essentially, I read Patient not only as apprentice pharmakon, but as nascent shaman, who is still under the threat of being a quite literal victim. His Series of Americas had been prescribed to him by agents of Control who wanted his subjection to a foreclosed Word to be complete. But what Patient intuits is that to be subjected in this way is to be no one at all: that he is being written out of existence by this Word promising to confer a life. Worse, it is to be someone else’s no one: entirely an object in a system of control. And yet resistance—namely writing against these forces—paradoxically mirrors this same act of wounding and wounded inscription. And as such, it participates in the enigmatic and sacred double-bind of the pharmakon.

Tying the Frays

Ultimately, pharmakonic texts like Judge's and Burroughs' make palpable for the reader the war between subjugating and fugitive energies within language. Both writers create texts marked by the pharmakon in a multivalent way, such that narrator(s), characters, language, and reader are all drawn into a radical, reflexive interface in which the Word is made to appear, transform, evade, and perhaps evolve. In this psycho-textual engagement, identity and alterity are allowed to blur, simulating an experience in which the language one reads reads one back, and in so doing draws one into the written. The pharmakonic texts of Burroughs and Judge reconfigure readerly immunity, subjecting the reader to the wounded and wounding plasticity of inscription, and revealing the capacity of this reflexive textual space both to free and to confine.


Thanks for reading, and be on the look out for a third and perhaps even a fourth installment in this series. Michael Judge can be followed on Twitter at @corpseinorbit.

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