Aesthetics of Addiction in the Modern Society

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Food, as a culturally defined construct, attains its spatial and temporal ‘meanings’ within a ideologically rooted discursive field characterized by a wide array of discourses and counter-discourses. It is within this field of discourse that the consumable is differentiated from the unconsumable and is then placed in an unstable yet discernable hierarchy loaded with associations of class, age and gender. Within this hierarchy, drugs occupy a problematic position for while, as ‘food’, drugs are bound by similar discourses and counter-discourses of production and consumption, they have one unique feature which other substances signified as ‘food’ do not - addictiveness. Defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the the compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal”, addiction forces the addict into patterns of behaviour that stray from prescribed norms. This deviance from social mores, coupled with the all too evident psychological and physiological consequences of addiction, allows the contemporary power structure to define and therefore limit the drug user as the ‘other’, against which the dominant ideology validates itself as legitimate, moral and healthy. Such a process of legitimisation, however, glosses over the fact that it is some flaw, some lacuna in that power structure itself, that is one of the major factors which pushes individuals into drug use for it is often the misguided and misinformed promise of a transcendental escape from harsh economic and political realities that forms the primary motive of the addict. In this context, the paper, using the tools of Marxist criticism, deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Foucaultian discourse analysis, endeavors an exploration of the politics, economies and aesthetics of addiction in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Against the aggressive and rapidly shifting social ethos of a post-war, late capitalist America, the writers of the Beats generation - principal among whom were William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Kerouac - sounded an ardent clarion call for an immediate release from a ruthlessly consumerist society “in which the most ‘freely’ accessible items - bodies and ideas - seemed restricted” (Johnson 1), attempting to chisel for themselves alternate discourses of identity formation outside the suffocating circumference of dominant ideology. This dominant power structure centred around an all engulfing culture of consumption had as its pivotal function the transformation of individuals into consumers where, as Stuart Ewen points out, “the definitions of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ were being unified and firmly implanted in the conception of loyal commitment to political, religious and social arenas of brand names and consumer credit… To look different; to act different; to think different; these became vague archetypes of subversion and goddessness” (206-15).  The ‘American Dream’ with its ‘grand narratives’ (to use Lyotard's phrase in The Postmodern Condition) of egalitarian development, liberty and the ‘rag to riches’ myth of self determination seemed subservient to this relentless means-end hegemony where life was increasingly totalized as a series of exchange relations in which humans mostly serve as means of production and consumption. The acute existential dread in consequence of such a collapse of the meaning imposing narratives, further augmented by the nerve-racking tensions of the Cold War and impending nuclear apocalypse, created an atmosphere of paralytic terror from which the Beatd writers endeavored to escape, and narcotics seemed to provide a way out, however illusory and transient.

In Naked Lunch, Burroughs uses addiction to narcotics as one of the major vehicles for the creation of a countercultural discursive field, seeking a reenactment of the Romantic motif of transcendence of belligerent socio-economic and political conditions. The use and abuse of drugs is thus effectively turned into an aesthetic device, as Burroughs, by focalising his narrative through the drug addict Bill Lee struggling with baffling disjointed hallucinations in consequence of a rapidly alternating sequence of withdrawal, recovery and relapse, releases his text from conventional formalistic narrative devices limited by, among others, linear narrative, spatial and temporal fixity and stable narrative voice. Deeming these worn-out conventions incapable of representing the meaningless flux of contemporary consumerist existence, Burroughs’ experimental novel is characterised by the absence of any stability of narrative voice, robbing the reader of the illusory security of objective points of reference as narrative perspectives hasten through time and space without causal logic. The Beats writer thus achieves the creation of what Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations calls the ‘hyperreal’, that not only stimulates physical and temporal locations but replaces them, resulting in the production of world of “total simulation, without origin… without a past, without a future, a diffusion of all coordinates” (125), a world that self reflexively emphasizes and comments upon its own artifice in order to liberate both the characters and readers from incarceration in the ideological constructions of the ‘real world’. This is perhaps best evident in Naked Lunch from the Burroughs’ depiction of Interzone, a surreal, orgiastic wasteland of drugs, depravity, paranoia and endless, gnawing addiction.

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