Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Addiction and Authorship


Crispin Sartwell[ # ]
Penn State Harrisburg

"Addiction and authorship" is a good theme for me, since I am both addict and author. I have decided that I have already done all the research that I need to do: now all I have to do is write. Writing and substance abuse are both things I have done compulsively. When I don't write for awhile, a little voice goes off in my head that says "write, write, write". That voice is pretty similar to the voice that used to say "drink, drink, drink". I always tell people that I write not because I want to, but because I have to. They look at me funnily at that point. If they are untenured academics, they look at me maybe with envy, like they wish they had this particular compulsion, or they wished that this particular compulsion originated within themselves instead of coming from the tenure and promotion committee. There is a similar kind of puzzlement, though not envy, when addicts tell non-addicts what it is like. People still want to make this a sheer matter of choice; they cannot or do not want to understand compulsion, cannot or do not understand the experience of acting under almost total constraint, where that constraint originates internally.

I personally do not believe in free will, so I do not think that this position that addicts get into where we cannot do otherwise where, for example, the arm simply must raise the bottle to the lips is unusual. I think this is one little spot where the delusion of freedom melts away. A reflective addict knows he is not free because what drives him is something in his own body, in his own head. We used to call that "jonesing". But the average western non-addict conceives herself to be free because she is not divided within herself in precisely the same way. I desperately wanted to quit alcohol and drugs for many years. And I could continue to want to quit even as I was lifting the pipe to my mouth. What is going on inside someone who is having that experience is very hard to describe to people who don't have that experience. But if you take me seriously, I suppose it will be obvious to you that the self is divided or perhaps fragmented in that experience. Something is trying to make something else in the self stop; something is trying to make something else keep going; you're in a very very explicit "inner conflict", a notion which could only possibly make sense given a multiple self. Actually, putting it that way is not at all satisfactory because it makes it sound as though there is some unitary self that has been sledgehammered like glass, whereas I am going to agree with the fashionable or formerly fashionable folk who hold that the coherent self, insofar as it is not just a delusion, or even insofar as it is a delusion, is an achievement reflecting a certain social/linguistic positionality.

But this experience I have been describing in addiction, this explicit experience of self-division where you can actually sometimes feel yourself being torn apart, is seen even more elaborately in the experience of what is called in the world of recovering addicts "denial". In some forms of denial you're just an idiot who doesn't know what he is doing, who misses the obvious. But in others you are playing this incredibly elaborate game with yourself where part of you is hiding from another part, where you don't know over here what you know over there or where, as we say, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Sometimes it almost seems that you don't know that you are, say, drinking, which would be an amazing piece of epistemic legerdemain. Or more likely you know what you are doing in the most direct literal sense but you don't know what that means, or you don't want to reveal what it means to yourself, etc. There is a whole range of possible distributions of delusion, a whole range of tiny or huge self-delusions, or tiny self-delusions that amount to one huge self-delusion and so on. Each of these would correspond to some specific form of self-division: the patterns by which a self could be mapped or in which the bits of a self could be arranged are indefinitely large.

Now here is a start on developing my basic thesis : these forms of self-division or fragmentation make the self explicitly, or obviously, into a site where power is transacted. This is something that, for example, Nietzsche saw : that the self is an arena of power. I don't see how this could be true if the self were singular, if there was only one of me, even only one of me at a given time. Think of such locutions as "control yourself", for example, which is the kind of thing people say to addicts and the weak-willed, two groups between which there is considerable overlap. And notice, this notion of "controlling yourself" is a fundamental strategy for training children in how to behave. But when we train children that way, we are not only teaching them, say "impulse control", we are also teaching them an ontology of the human self; we are showing them who they are, or rather we are making them into selves we recognize as human, by inculcating the particular sorts of configurations of the self that we recognize as comprehensible, as opposed, for example, to animal or machine selves. Now when you tell me to control myself, what is supposed to be controlling what ? I guess part of me is supposed to be controlling another part of me, right ? Well, I am trying to make you see that this would make no sense at all for a Cartesian subject. And so one thing I am saying is that the common-sense self that we make our kids into by yelling sentences like "control yourself", the common-sense selves that we conceive ourselves also to be, are not much like Cartesian coherent or singular selves. Our common-sense notion of the self is a notion of something multiple, in which some parts are or ought to be empowered over other parts.

And we do have ways of talking about bits of the self that would allow us to make sense of the self as a site of power-transaction: consider the word "will", for example. Maybe when you tell me, as I dance around up here and scream or start barking like a poodle to "get a hold of myself", you mean something like this : my will should get a hold of my body : I should be telling myself what to do: there's some kind of inner voice that should be hectoring my dancing legs or shutting my screaming mouth. This picture, which I admit I don't know how to evaluate, would of course also entail that there is a corresponding capacity in my legs or in my mouth to listen to what this hectoring voice is saying and respond.

There is something crazy about this, isn't there ? And just to make it even more complicated, I think that probably there are supposed to be many acts of will going on simultaneously and that all parts of your body are supposed to be listening, that this notion of self-control presupposes this wonderfully lush and wacky ontology of a committee of wills or selves issuing orders to a committee of body parts. Sometimes these body parts listen to this committee, but sometimes they don't : your body can be recalcitrant to your will. Maybe they end up in a kind of negotiation, where the committee will allow your head to sleep as soon as you finish reading the chapter. Now it gets even funkier. Think about the role of desire here. Desire, some of it anyway, comes from the body. It articulates the will but it is involuntary. I have no control, literally none, over what I desire. Desire seems to be pre-committee stuff. If I want some kind of kinky sex with the wrong partner, I cannot make myself not want that: indeed, if I try to make myself not want that I convert the desire into an obsession and myself into an addict. So then the will sifts these desires and I prescribes a series of bodily actions or inactions to realize or fail to realize these desires. For that is also certainly what it means to "control yourself" : your will should be doing a better or more emphatic job of sifting your desires and so on. So maybe we get this feedback loop: bodily desires get sifted by the will which moves the body which produces desire out of its particular situation.

I am not endorsing this psychology, but I am saying that this is a reconstruction of a kind of common-sense western notion of the self. And I am saying that this is really interesting, because it turns out that a kind of commonsense understanding of the self makes the self into an profuse multiplicity of faculties and functions, one that is hierarchically organized, that is constantly articulated and reconfigured in internal transactions of power.

Now let me focus on one part of this: the will. "Get control of yourself", means something like this : tell yourself what to do, and listen. Leave aside for the moment that we don't understand how this could literally be the case; it corresponds roughly, anyway, to the way we think about these things. The will in this little structure is conceived to be linguistic : the little Napoleon in your skull makes you do things by issuing orders in a language; the body is supposed to become a mirror or reflection of those orders. It is like the Tractatus in reverse : the body is a representation, a reflection, of the will: the body assumes the form prescribed in the propositions formed in the will. Again, we have no idea of what this could possibly mean, but right now I am not worried about this. Or like the post-modern folks say: the body is a site of inscription. And what I am saying would of course have to be supplemented by a Foucault-type proposal because the will does not operate in a vacuum and these little propositions of which it makes the body a mirror are developed in the public language and themselves arise or are articulated within institutional power-contexts. The will is trying to impose a comprehensible form on the body, trying to convert the body from a random or meaningless set of gesticulations into a story or into some appropriate repertoire of behaviours, appropriate by the standards of, say, a university, a prison, a coffee shop, a marriage. And really our individual histories are like this. Babies start off twitching randomly and more or less incomprehensibly; with great struggle we teach them to twitch meaningfully; we subject them to language and incorporate them into institutions-the family, the daycare center, whatever until their twitchings are a semiotic and their bodies are subject to their wills. The will is itself a reflection of the institution, and it absolutely must be, when it is conceived to be fundamentally linguistic.

Now it is actually a hopeful thing that the body cannot always be effectively inscribed. Sometimes you still twitch incomprehensibly. Sometimes you act on your desires even when your little will is telling you not to. Sometimes you can't bring your body into the appropriate configuration : it resists, like when you are dieting and your will is trying explicitly to reconfigure your body and perhaps is unable to do so. Or when you are engaging compulsively in any behavior. Here, in a way, what we think of as the "appropriate" power relation of will and body are reversed. This apparently chthonic, prelinguistic animal thing is resisting the blandishments of its trainer: it is like the lion devouring the lion-tamer. In fact, you might notice that it is possible for the will to get rearticulated by the bodily compulsion in such cases : that's what did, so that must be what I want. Compulsion is a useful, at times liberating, experience because it reverses the power relations within the self or makes them dialectical, which is exactly why compulsive behavior is also aberrant, scary, in need of treatment, and so on. We conceive of it as the invasion of the animal into the pristine world of the pure linguistic self and its perfectly efficacious syntax.

All of this brings us to the notion of authorship, or it better anyway, given that that is supposed to be my topic. It is often pointed out that authorship is a position of power, that the words "authorship" and "authority" are related. I would feel a lot more powerful myself if anyone ever read my books, but I guess this is basically right. I guess I am an authority on whatever my books have been about, although right now I can't remember what my books are about. But actually the point is that the position of authorship is a claim to authority : to present yourself as an author is to assert a kind of power, just in virtue of the nature of the voice in authorship. Now even though I think that is fundamentally true, let me point out what is obvious : that there are indefinite ways to take up this position, each of which has a somewhat different relation to power. You can, for example, present yourself as an author in a total expropriation or erasure of your own subjectivity, as you are expected to do in a scientific paper, for example, or maybe in philosophy too or in some forms of omniscient fictional narration. That is a very authoritative kind of authorship. Then again, there are all kinds of partial or perspectival or personal authorships and every place in between. There are authorships, like mine perhaps, that are continually trying to undercut their own authority, but maybe that is also a way of trying, disarmingly, to demonstrate or claim precisely the authority that is disavowed. So there are lots of ways of authorship, and personally I prefer the absolute bludgeon, like Nietzsche, say, where the power is as desperate and explicit as possible.

In my view, power in contemporary western culture is fundamentally linguistic (though of course there is still the occasional jackboot). It used to be that the power that was exercised through language was fundamentally bound up with a semantics: we deployed a set of concepts in order to articulate an ontology or to organize or produce a world that could be controlled through comprehension. Call that "modernity". But that is not the way power operates with relation to language anymore, or rather, a new systematics of language/power is now overlaid on the conceptual scheme or taxonomic scientific representation. Language operating as power now mutates towards a pure syntax where in a way the idea is just to keep mumbling or blabbering or scribbling in the appropriate way and really it means nothing at all. Think of politics in the U.S., which now consists almost wholly of empty cant phrases : "Let me be clear. We must educate every child for the global economy of the twenty-first century". In a way you might just as well say "Blah blah blah yackety smackety". The point is certainly not whatever this might mean; the point is simply to allow yourself to be borne aloft into power by muttering the correct phrases. That is what Baudrillard might call a hyperreal politics, a politics that is all syntax or that is a pure player of signifiers. It would be cool and hip if it was not so incredibly boring. It is also a lot like, say, the uses of the cant phrases of Marxism in pre-fall-of-the-wall Eastern Europe. The point is just to let yourself be borne aloft by ideology, where ideology finally becomes a pure syntax. The media is like this too : basically a pseudo-semiotics. The point is to have a voice going, to have the television on, to be listening to a CD : the point is a quasi-human noise. It is not the sign/signified relation that is essential but rather a kind of basic syntactical arc : the construction of a news story about a crime, for example, or a weather report, or a sitcom: the point is the shape of the noise, the smiling face that has nothing to do with the content, the comforting presence that allows you to stop thinking and simply immerse yourself in the sea of pseudo-signs. And if it sounds like I despise this, I don't. I do it myself and I think that thinking is a terrible burden of which I would usually like to be relieved. And I am up here now just uttering. Maybe this will offend you, but I didn't think as I wrote this and two minutes after I finished I couldn't remember what I had written; the point was just to fill the right amount of space with something that sounded like a communication.

The power of authorship, however, is a rather odd power, and authorship finally melts or dissipates to a single extensionless point. One might say that the power of authorship is a power exercised through language. In this sense, and perhaps you have seen this coming, the author is a will. The will reconfigures the body linguistically into the inscription of the will's proposition, or rather the will sentences the body: delivers a verdict on the body to the body : then punishes or rewards it or rearranges it, manacles it, etc. And authorship has at least this in common with the will: its power is linguistic. But now here is something to think about: authorship, at least in its best, most thorough, most compelling moments, is not conceived as a power in language, but a power over language. The master prose stylist is not out here reconstructing the world to match some sentence; she is empowered over sentences; is a master of the language. Now this is a very odd and fundamental craft, where the materials are not things over which we have power in virtue of knowledge, but in which the materials are the very stuff of power itself, the fabric of power in our culture, the materials constituent of the will. Of course these materials are the bits of the public language : I am of course not asserting that the author is creating power or administering power ex nihilo; what I am asserting is that the author is conceived as being empowered over the instruments of power and for that reason as transcending or preceding the work of language itself. It is as if the author is working from the will to will, or as if the author is simultaneously subject to the language and also creating or inventing a language.

We authors, in part, simply allow ourselves to be borne aloft by language; every writer knows that language is a recalcitrant medium that imposes its own demands, to which you must conform your will. Nevertheless, the relation of an author to language is not exactly the same as that of an American politician or east European apparatchik. Because here the craft isn't governing, or whatever you might want to use language to accomplish, as if language were ever a mere instrument, but rather the craft is language itself. Perhaps the author creates a pure syntax, perhaps even a syntaxless semantics, or whatever; but, whatever, the author's medium is itself the language, which seems to bespeak an empowerment over or previous to the language itself. One possible function of the author in this sense would be to invent the syntax that bears others aloft, or to deflect or reconfigure such syntaxes. The author function in the culture corresponds to whatever in the person would be the inventor or the channeler of will. When someone says : you should get some willpower here : what in the world does the word "you" refer to ? It refers, I suggest, to something that could compose a script for the will, something that invents a syntax for the will, an author in the body. Maybe this thing is prelinguistic or maybe it is language itself. Maybe it is a Cartesian ego or maybe it is a cyborg/sadist/strumpet/stone/slave/seed. Maybe there is no such thing.

Power is always dialectical. Will is never perfectly and instantly obeyed. The will orders the body forward, or reconfigures it, but except in cases of deep insanity, the possibilities of what can be willed are articulated within the bounds of bodily possibility. I am not out here willing myself to jump over the moon; in a way I am not able to will that except in a moment of deep aberration. When I empower myself over you, say in bed as we have sadomasochistic sex, my desire for you informs my will which informs my action which reconfigures your body. But unless I have mutated from friendly sadist to dangerous crazy person, the possible reconfigurations of your body I consider or impose are constrained by the reconfigurations your body can possibly assume. Power in this sense is never transparent and is never originary : power and its object are mutually, simultaneously constituted. Power works with, and not only against, the stuff over which it is empowered, or it is at best completely irresponsible or at worst utterly delusory and demented.

The power over language that we might find in authorship is like that too; language is itself an opaque medium; it cannot be reconfigured at perfect whim, not at all; power over language is as dialectical as any other power. And yet it must be a very fundamental power because it operates with and over the materials of will.

Now let me say this : I hate my will. My will is extremely powerful and I experience myself as its slave. Is this not bizarre ? I experience my self not as the will that linguistically articulates my body, but at least also as the body that resists that articulation and delineates the limits of its possible forms. Addiction is often conceived of as a failure of will. Now if that were so-and perhaps in one mode or moment, from its linguistic articulation. But in fact, and not necessarily incompatibly, addicts often suffer from an excess of will. Ask yourself what it takes to do that, say, every day. I tell you what it takes : it takes will-power. You have absolutely got to stop listening to your body; you have to overcome a thousand bodily recalcitrances and make yourself keep pouring. Ask yourself what it takes to keep doing this even while everyone around you is telling you that you need to stop, and so on. It takes a masterful will. But in my opinion, what is sought through this intensification of will, finally, is a place where the will is annihilated. One seeks through a kind of absolute self-command, a perfect discipline of ingestion, to bring body and will into the sort of flawless alignment which collapses them into identity. One seeks to make correspondence of will and body perfect, to create a body that is perfectly inscribed or which cannot be inscribed, wherein the dialectic of will and body is annihilated because the will finally conforms to the body instead of vice versa: a reversed semiotic in which the reality effects an inscription, in which body writes will, in which the inscription is composed by its object. What this amounts to, finally, is a complete erasure of inscription, or a collapse of the self out of the linguistic order. The desire for the end that is the desire to be seduced, to tumble into the abyss of pure desire or even the erasure of desire, an edenic dream of man before or outside of language, where I escape finally into and from my will, a dream of non-differentiation where I desire whatever I get, or desire nothing at all, a masochistic letting go into a will that is not mine or a perfect masochistic seduction where there is no will operational, just a door into absence from myself, a relief from myself, a place where all the chattering stops, where I let go finally, completely. And then this dream too would be a return to a kind of perfect authorship reduced to inanimacy, a perfect empowerment over the language which could not itself be linguistic, a pure vanishing point of questionless crushing power where one is nothing and everything, a religious ecstasy that turns one to stone.

So here is my thesis for the moment: addicts suffer from an excess of will, and through a deep prolonged intensification of will they seek an annihilation of the distance between will and body : they seek to collapse into a single thing or to find a non-fragmented or non-differentiated or non-alienated identity. Or perhaps we should conceive this as an animal identity, or a machine identity, or an identity of stone: an identity that can no longer be conceived fundamentally in terms of language and self-division, an identity that is no longer a "self" as we conceive it is always a site of power. Understand : it takes will power to inject heroin into your bloodstream : obviously. But where you get when you do this is a place where the will is less importunate, where you experience a surcease or extinguishment of will, which for a person suffering from an excess of will is the deepest relief and release, the only real vacation. To be in a heroin nod is to finally feel cured of the self, de-fragmented. What lurks out there as the end of the high, the end of highs, is the extinction of consciousness, the extinction of the self: death as a feathery sifting back to presence.

Authorship in this sense could be conceived as an addiction, or as the addiction, or as a kind of meta or mega addiction. And I have literally been addicted to authorship in my own opinion, in a deeply self-destructive, that is, deeply self-creative way. Certainly I have written compulsively. All my writing, and I think this is true of a lot of people, has been aimed primarily at treating myself; I am always telling myself what I think I need to hear, am always writing the books I think I need to read. My books are attempts to reconfigure my self or to manufacture a new self. They have not been entirely unsuccessful in this regard and so to that extent they are worthwhile even if they don't really ever gain much of an audience. They always have a pretty wide audience among the committee in my head. But now this makes it sound like my authorship is just more willpower, just more linguistic refiguring of the self in which the self is simultaneously empowered and stripped of power, in which I "seize command" of myself. But that's not the way I experience it.

The power of authorship is a power, dialectical to be sure, over the public language. Authorship uses the public language or sometimes rips it apart, not as a whole or not in an utter expungement or obliteration, obviously, but in inflection or deflection. In this sense my authorship feels like my tethered escape from the public order of signification, that is from the contexts of institutional power through inscription. It is also, simultaneously of course, my entry into precisely those institutions in the most concrete ways: through tenure or through university presses. Maybe my authorship is where I try to participate in the ever-ongoing work of inscribing you in the service of these institutions. But it is also the point at which I seem to have some control over these inscriptions or even to resist them. I have no idea what I mean by "I" in this context. It is not exactly the inscribed body, the object of will, though that is there. It is not exactly the will itself either because the will is language in my head. It is what engages dialectically with the will and with the public language to make the language of the will; it is a participation in my own inscription, it is a power that is myself, if that makes any sense.

Yet it has to appear to come from outside myself because it comes from outside the transaction of desire/will/scripted body which is the fundamental loop, spinning in which I find myself. And it has to appear to come from outside myself because it is a craft the materials of which are found in the public language. A potter will say: the pot makes itself with my hands, or the pot takes form in my hands but I don't, e.g., force it into form. And an author will say, or will if she is any good: the sentence or the book or the story or the characters, take shape in my hands, or write themselves using my hands or whatever. This is what I mean when I say authorship is a disappearing point, a point where finally literally there is nothing.

Thus, authorship is a self-assertion and also a disappearance, a place where the desire/will/body loop collapses and the "self" is lost or is perfectly present, which finally are exactly the same thing. The human self as all these post-modern folks have been insisting for all these years, is a sad delusion; we are fragmented, incoherent, etc. Of course we are, and there is no easier way to see this than to actually draw out some of the implications of a "common-sense" view of the self, as I have been doing. But then these fragments might also be imploding in an authorship or in an addiction. They might be collapsing into the ideal presence of an animal or an inanimate object, into a full-bore objectivity, a pure block or plenum that is surface all the way down, infinite or indivisible; or it might be imploding into an extensionless authorship in which there is not even any surface or in which a surface is inconceivable, in which there is just language making language, a will being used by a language and a language being used by a will, which the will is itself a patchwork of linguistic bits.

A lover of mine once told me that my vision of the ideal sage was a vision of an inanimate object. I told her that was false, but even as I said that I knew it was true: I yearn for the perfect presence of a boulder; or, I want to die. Even as all these power relations are established within the self, even as all these various self-divisions are conceived and imposed and even as they gain leverage over the self and splinter it into a thousand pieces they are also collapsing or revealing themselves as delusions or insane intimations of immorality and disembodiment. Even as we are dividing ourselves against ourselves, we are resisting the blandishments of will and collapsing into a perfect incomprehensible presence. I am attracted to a nonsensical authorship and maybe you think that this paper I have been reading is really nonsensical. I am more worried because I think it is true.

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