Tuesday, August 11, 1998

Drugs and Technicity: A Heideggerian Inquiry into the Evolution of Drug Use

by Tao Ruspoli

"You must always be intoxicated...In order not to feel the horrible burden of Time which breaks your back and bends you down to earth, you must be unremittingly intoxicated. But on what? Wine, poetry, virtue, as you please...And if it should chance that sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the bleak solitude of your room, you wake up and your intoxication has already diminished or disappeared, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, ask everything that flees, everything that groans, everything that rolls, everything that sings, everything that speaks, ask them what time it is and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will reply: "It’s time to be intoxicated! If you do not wish to be one of the tortured slaves of Time, never be sober; never ever be sober! Use wine, poetry, or virtue, as you please."

-Charles Baudelaire

"Opium cannot bear impatient addicts...It moves away, leaving them morphine, heroin, suicide and death."

-Jean Cocteau

The use of drugs has undeniably played an important role throughout human history. Each culture, with the exception of the Eskimos before the west introduced them to alcohol, has accepted at least one mind altering drug as a part of its tradition and practices. Drug use has also always been controversial. Each culture has had strong negative opinions of certain drugs while accepting and even encouraging the use of others. However, it was almost always the case that the drugs attacked in one society were accepted in another. For instance, whereas American Indians used tobacco in their religious ceremonies, the Turks would sentence to death anyone caught with the same drug. Some Indian Yogis encourage the use of marijuana while condemning the use of opiates or alcohol. Muslim cultures, on the other hand, tolerate opium use but also do not accept the use of alcohol. In the twentieth century, especially in the west, we have witnessed a brand new phenomenon: the creation and use of new drugs which no culture views as valuable. Subsequently, drugs in general have suddenly come under tremendous attack. Synthetic drugs like heroin, cocaine, or cigarettes, for example, are understood to have no redeeming qualities even by those who use them most regularly. Nevertheless, it is drugs like these which are most widely used and abused in today’s cultures.

It is my purpose in this paper to trace the history and evolution of the use of mind altering drugs from a Heideggerian perspective. The questions to be answered thus fall into three categories: first, what role did drug use play in the past; second, how has the use of and the attitude toward drugs changed; and finally, what other social phenomena can be seen to have caused this change to take place. Using Martin Heidegger’s essay on "the Thing," I will attempt to analyze the possible reasons why so many cultures have incorporated drug use for so long, and why they have played such an important role in their rituals and practices. Next, it will be helpful to analyze the same philosopher’s essay entitled "the Question concerning technology" to shed some light on the nature of the above mentioned new drugs. Heidegger’s essay on Nietzsche will help us understand why these drugs have gained so much popularity despite the fact that they generate such general mistrust. Finally, we will search for some solutions to the problems today’s drugs have undeniably caused.

The history of drug use is longer than many realize. Even before the beginning of human civilization, man has had the fortune of finding, in nature, substances which somehow alter his mental state. There is evidence that beer and berry wine were being produced by Neolithic man as early as 6400 BC.; the Sumerians used opium in conjunction with religious rituals beginning about 3000 BC.; legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung called cannabis "the liberator of sin" in his pharmacopoeia of 2737 BC.; the Arizona Indians smoked tobacco in pipes starting in 200 AD.; the Peruvians have been cultivating the Coca plant since 1000 AD.; Taoist Chinese texts from 300 BC. discuss the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in conjunction with attaining immortality; Wasson and Wasson argue that mushrooms may have caused man’s first religious tendencies; the Aztecs used peyote for healing purposes as well as employing it in their religious ceremonies.

Glancing at the above facts, it should be obvious that one can not easily generalize about the value and purposes various cultures placed on drugs. Various cultures use different drugs for different reasons. The purposes of drug use seem to include the aid of religious practices, the promotion of social interaction, the treatment of diseases, the improvement of physical performance, and the stimulation of creativity. Although the uses of drugs seem to vary so drastically, Heidegger’s and Borgmann’s analysis of the role of "things" will greatly aid us in generalizing the importance of drug use. I maintain that drugs, the objects used in conjunction with their use, and the actual use of drugs, when accepted by a culture or group, satisfy each of Heidegger’s criteria for "things thinging".

Heidegger brings up the notion of things in response to the shrinking of "distances in time and space." For example, technology has brought the most distant events into our living rooms with the aid of television. This homogeneity of time and space, argues Heidegger, does not bring everything nearer to us. Instead, we live in a world where everything is equally near, and therefore equally far. But let us return to this problem later, and first discuss how nearness used to, and still can, manifest itself through things. "Near to us are what we usually call things," Heidegger declares. "But what are things? What in the thing is thingly?" he asks. First, a thing is something made with its future purpose in mind. Heidegger uses the example of the jug made to pour wine, incidentally one of the most "thingly" of drugs. But, let us use another example in order to show that the wine’s being a drug, and the jug a tool for its use, is not a mere coincidence.

Take the example of the age old practice of smoking opium. The process of smoking requires a number of tools, each carefully crafted for its specific purpose. A pipe will be carved out of jade or bamboo. The pipe is made of two components, the smoke passage and the pipe-bowl, each of which is usually designed to fit both aesthetic and practical purposes. A fine needle is used to burn the opium over an oil lamp, whose discovery in the far east is speculated to have been motivated by this need to keep a constant but small flame. All these tools are placed on a plateau, or tray, which also needs to be made. When smoking is finished, other instruments are used to clean the smokers tools. Opium is also usually consumed with tea, another drug involving specific hand crafted tools. Pipes and the like are of course not only made for opium, although an opium pipe can only be used to smoke opium.

In contrast, the discovery of morphine, and soon later, heroin, was thought to be a discovery of the essence of opium. However, here we encounter the first difference between ‘‘thingly" drugs and their modern "equivalents". Heroin can be snorted with no more than a simple plastic tube; or, if one is not available, a dollar bill will do. If neither is obtainable, the drug can be simply sprinkled on a cigarette, another modern drug whose predecessors required tools which have been done away with.

What purpose does the crafted tool serve? If modern drugs required more complicated tools, would they be less harmful? The presence of tools for drug use goes hand in hand with the necessity of certain skills. This serves two distinct purposes. First, it simply makes it more difficult to achieve the desired effect of the drug. Chewing the coca leaf, for example, takes work: a mouthful of leaves has to be chewed for half an hour to achieve its subtle stimulant effect (the coca leaf is only .05 % cocaine, compared to 60-100% in its powdered technological form). The effects of the drug are small compared to the effort exerted. Consequently, problems with coca abuse are rare. Smoking opium also requires time and patience. As a result, once a smoker has had too much, he is no longer able to smoke more. If the smoker is not aware of what he is doing, he can easily burn the opium in preparation. Even if he succeeds in smoking, the burnt opium is now useless. This makes overdose unlikely. On the other hand, even when heroin is used with a simple tool like the syringe, little skill is required. If anything, a mistake in the preparation process will cause a dose which is too strong, instead of no dose at all.

The abolition of tools and skills actually causes increased doses in almost every modern drug. The result goes hand in hand with increased addiction. When American Indians used tobacco in conjunction with their religious ceremonies, they would build enormous cigars which they would pass around and take turns inhaling. The drug had powerful effects on its users because it was used only on special occasions, and tolerance was therefore low. Tobacco in its technological form, the cigarette, no longer requires any tools or skills and can be smoked at any time or in any place. The results are twofold: is it is much easier to get addicted, and tolerance builds quickly. Tobacco today is longer no a consciousness altering drug for it merely provides temporary relief to the addicts cravings.

The second purpose of the skill is less practical but possibly more important. The process of learning and practicing a skill, as well as the crafting and use of tools, makes one aware of the means required for certain ends. Albert Borgmann, in his book on Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, differentiates a thing from a device or commodity based partially on this criterion. The absence of knowledge about the means to a certain end, argues Borgmann, causes a "lack of engagement" with one’s world. The Peruvian farmer who cultivates the coca he later uses to help him work is engaged in his world; the college student who is given cocaine from his room mate is not. Hence we have the second defining aspect of technological drugs. In finding and isolating those substances in the drug which produce the effect of the drug, a technological culture assumes that it is finding the essence of that drug. For a technological society, we are brought nearer to things when they are made more available. In Borgmann’s words, "something is available...if it has been rendered instantaneous...and easy." When morphine was discovered, it was thought to be an antidote to opium addiction, for it provided the same effect without the encumbering means. The addict could now relieve his cravings without the time and effort entailed in the opium smoking ritual. The result was the opposite of what was expected, and for the same reasons outlined above for tobacco addiction, more addicts appeared. Amazingly, since technology can not admit that the essence of things lies not in what they do for us but in how we encounter and use them, the same mistake was repeated. The invention of heroin was seen to be a fool proof cure for morphine addictions, it being ten times stronger and more efficient than morphine.

In addition to increasing the possibility of addiction, technological drugs cause the above mentioned disengagement with one’s world, which brings us to the next aspect of the thing. Thinging, says Heidegger, involves "giving", "receiving", and "dwelling." The example he uses to explain the giving is similar to that of the coca farmer. Heidegger says the jug is used to give wine. The wine itself is a gift from nature, and this gift is seen as a gift since "it [the gift] stays in the wine given by the fruit of the vine, the fruit in which the earth’s nourishment and the sky’s sun are betrothed to one another." In Borgmann’s terminology, the presence of this gift is similar to being aware of the means used for making the wine. The presence of this gift and a certain awareness of the means allows for the aforementioned engagement with one’s world. The gift stays in the coca leaf picked and chewed directly from the plant; it stays in the hallucinogenic mushroom eaten from the ground; it does not stay in the processed powder we call cocaine; and it does not stay in the LSD manufactured in some unknown chemistry lab. Hence, we have established another difference between the types of drugs which are today all placed in the same category and all labeled equally harmful.

But what is the use of being aware of this gift? Why should we be engaged with our world? This brings us to what I believe is the essence of drugs when properly used, and that which modern, technological drugs completely lack. In short, the importance of nature’s gifts to man, many of which have been drugs, is that they make us aware of our receptivity. In Heidegger’s words, they gather the fourfold: earth and sky, mortals and divinities. All the aspects of drugs discussed so far, the way their use requires skills and crafted tools, and the way they appear as gifts, converge in this gathering and in this manifestation of receptivity.

In order to understand Heidegger’s concept of the fourfold, and how it relates to things, we must first examine his concept of dwelling. In Building, Dwelling, Thinking, Heidegger states that "Dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on the earth." Although dwelling seems to be a fundamental characteristic of existence, Heidegger later says that there exists today a "plight of dwelling." In other words, it must be the case that some ways of dwelling, or existing, are better than others.

Heidegger traces the meaning of dwelling to Gothic, where it meant "to be at peace." The word peace is found to mean "free," and to be free is meant to "spare." Therefore, "to dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature. The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing and preserving." Hence, we have the first connection between dwelling and things: in order to dwell properly, each thing has to be preserved in its nature. Regarding our subject, we have already encountered this difference among thingly and technological drugs. The wine in the jug, says Heidegger, remains closer to its nature when it is drunk in the proper context than does the harder alcohol dispensed in bars.

However, this preservation of things in their nature does not have a simple meaning, nor is it an easy task. For what is the nature of things (By nature, or essence, Heidegger usually means the "function" or "role")? Once again, the function of things is to gather the fourfold: earth and sky, divinity and mortals. Finally, in order to understand what this means and how it works, we return to our subject: drugs.

The first way mortals gather the fourfold through things, says Heidegger, is by cultivating and nurturing that which grows and constructing specially that which does not. This connects us with the first of the fourfold, the earth. We have already seen how the practice of opium smoking uses specially constructed objects and how the coca farmer cultivates his crop. In fact, all the drugs that have played important roles in cultural practices have come almost directly from the earth: coffee, Tobacco, peyote, marijuana, just to mention a few.

When we receive these crops from the earth, we necessarily become aware of the "sky", or that which lets things show up as they do. In other words, we are forced to receive things as they are given to us. Whereas technological drugs are created by our control and manipulation, cultures which let drugs "thing" are forced to accept them as they are. Thingly drugs make no claims to adapt to every situation, as do technological drugs. On the contrary, as we have seen, they make demands on their users: their growth demands care and cultivation; their use demands skill and/or patience. A space and a time therefore have to be created to suit these demands. The opium is smoked solely in the den; the wine is drunk around the table; the coca is chewed while working; the tobacco is smoked only during religious ceremonies. Borgmann says that in a technological society, "the constraints of time and place are more and more disolved." In sharp contrast to the drugs discussed above are their technological counterparts: heroin, cocaine, and cigarettes seem to be made with the express purpose of flexibility. They can be used at any time or at any place, and, once again, this is a plausible explanation for increased problems with addiction.

This awareness and gathering of earth and sky, which forces us to be receptive, in turn makes us grateful. We are not grateful to someone or something in particular, for it is not a particular thing which gives us the gift of things. In other words, although the thing is a gift, it is not the giver of the gift. We are not only grateful for the thing in itself, but we also have cause to be grateful to the occasion of the thing thinging and to the gathering function of this occasion. This nonspecific receiver of our gratefulness Heidegger terms the "divinities".

Drug use tends to cause this gratefulness to that which is outside ourselves. It does this in a number of ways. First, when drugs are thinging they tend to gather people together in the aforementioned places and times of their use. Second, they simply provide feelings outside of the realm of ordinary experience. The fact that we are often unable to cause these feelings without the aid of drugs often brings attention to the powers that fall outside of human domination. It is probably for this reason that drug use has so often been found in conjunction with religious ceremonies and rituals. This is especially true of hallucinogenic drugs. For example, Mexican Indians use magic mushrooms during ceremonies meant to put their participants in contact with the supernatural world. In the Amazonian forest, tribal rituals include the use of Yopo, a drug which contains DMT, one of the most powerful hallucinogens known. The resin from a huge jungle tree is cooked, dried, and made into a powder which men blow into each other’s noses through long sculpted tubes. During the relatively short high (15 to 30 minutes) the Indians dance and sing together and claim to see visions of gods and spirits. One of the gods of some groups of Native Americans is often pictured as a "cosmic tobacco smoker." Hundreds of drugs, from coffee to peyote, are or have been used solely in such religious ceremonies.

These examples provide a literal explanation of Heidegger’s notion of gratitude to the divinities. However, drug use can cause a similar gratitude even when not directly related to religious practices. Heidegger seems to maintain that the divinities can be a more abstract notion and that their presence can be felt by the mere togetherness things can encourage. This brings us to the final element of the fourfold: mortals. When things are thinging, we are engaged in practices that reflect our mortality. Although we are connected with our sense of divinity, the practices described above are finite and self contained. We are brought together for a definite time, and we are inextricably tied to this temporal aspect of our activity. The spiritual or religious feelings we may experience are closely tied to the sensual or bodily experiences caused by a particular drug. Moreover, Heidegger wants us to understand that this unification of the fourfold helps eliminate these distinctions: the spiritual and the sensual, the outside world and our inner selves cease to be separate.

"By a primal oneness the four--earth and sky, divinities and mortals--belong together in one...this fourfold preserving is the simple nature, the presencing of dwelling." And, since the best way to gather the fourfold seems to be by letting things thing, "dwelling itself is always a staying with things." Things, by allowing us to be receivers of each element of the fourfold, and by bringing each of these elements into one, allow us to dwell most perfectly.

However, we have seen that in today’s technological society, things, including drugs, do not act in this perfect way. Hence, we are experiencing this "plight of dwelling." How and why has this happened? To a large extent, these questions are unanswerable. What counts as an explanation changes from epoch to epoch, and our existence in a certain understanding of being makes it difficult to speculate on what occurs between these understandings. However, Heidegger has some ideas on what it is in our understanding of ourselves and our world that has changed from the time things "thinged".

In a technological society, in accordance with Nietzsche’s praise of "constant overcoming", the highest value is placed on maximizing efficiency. In Heidegger’s terminology, we are more concerned with enhancement than with preservation. "Every instance of life-preservation stands at the service of life-enhancement." This tendency necessarily diminishes the importance of entities and practices except in so far as they act as resources. These resources are judged on how well they achieve their ends, not on the process by which they do it. The objective is then, of course, not focused on the gathering of the fourfold or on letting things appear in their ownness. Nor is it directed toward building skills or cultivating that which grows and crafting that which does not. Instead, the less skill an activity requires, the more efficient its technological aid. We are less concerned with cultivating and crafting than we are with controlling and manipulating.

Of course, drug use is not and by its nature cannot be an efficient or resourceful activity by the demands of a technological society. However, it seems that our society has nevertheless imposed this totalizing value criteria even on these types of behavior. It may be that the ideal for a technological society would be a set of practices completely devoid of drug use. However, we have seen that in the meantime, technology has had a significant effect on the drugs whose use does not seem to be waning. We have seen how it does this in two ways. First, it de-emphasizes the practice or ritual in favor of the effect of the particular drug, and, second, this in turn encourages the invention and use of powerful, concentrated substitutes for traditional drugs. This, in my opinion, has taken away all the possible value of drug use while maintaining and multiplying all its dangers.

In conclusion, one might ask why I defend drug use. It may be true, one might object, that drugs can be things: that they can bring forth man’s skillfulness; that they can engage people in their world; that they can manifest man’s receptivity; that they gather the fourfold, and in doing so, that they can gather people together and make us aware of our receptivity. However, it will be argued, other things will serve these objectives just as well, if not better. Besides, drugs do seem to all have harmful physical effects on the user. Why not continue to discourage the drug use I realize is bad, and just encourage other things to thing? My answer is, and here my philosophy differs from Heidegger’s, I believe that the use of drugs is an essential human activity, and although certain individuals may resist this, there has not been a single society that has not used drugs. Nor do I think we are headed in that direction. Whereas our technological culture pretends to be so aware of health related issues, the types of drugs we use are undeniably unhealthy. Therefore, given the alternative of a somewhat beneficial way of using drugs, instead of the unrealistic dream of a drug free society, I will unremittingly support the former. If one day our technological society is miraculously able to do away with all drug use, it will be entirely for the wrong reasons: it will merely be another symptom of the absence of nearness in our society and of our inability to maintain contact with things and with each other.

© Tao Ruspoli, 1998