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Drugs, Imagination, and Neuromancer

October 26, 2009

Humanity has quite the curious relationship with the pharmakon.  I call it a curious relationship because our responses seem to not always be confined to the chemistry that should confine them.  See, we know that these substances really only work in one way:  their active molecules fit into specialized chemical receptors in our brains.  These molecules can’t change what receptors they fit into, so their physiological effect essentially remains constant.  Therefore, we know that morphine will induce sleep; amphetamine activity.  Yet despite this, we’ve constantly been fluctuating our collective response to drugs depending on our social perception of what they should do.  In the early 19th century, for instance, opiates were largely considered euphoriants instead of the depressants we now know them to be.  Even Thomas De Quincey, who related its many soporific effects, believed that the primary effect of opium was “to excite and stimulate the system” (77).  Similarly, marijuana, now popularly depicted as retarding the mind, was treated by those same 19th century devotees as a highly active hallucinogen.

Clearly, then, there is some subjectivity to what should be a decidedly objective chemical reaction.  I can only guess as to why those in the 19th century seemed so keen to find stimulation in the depressants, but that guess is because they lived in an era of significant mental and artistic expansion.  As Marcus Boon noted in his introduction to a collection of Walter Benjamin’s drug experiments, On Hashish (2006):

The words “drugs” and “literature” in their modern senses emerge around the same time (circa 1800, with the Romantics).  Both are concerned with the full manifestation of the power of the human imagination, with consciousness in its expanded sense, at a time of increasingly relentless utilitarianism. (7)

The key words in this passage are ‘full’ and ‘imagination.’  This period was perhaps the first to wonder what the human mind was capable of if it could be unblocked from its mundane requirements, or, as William Blake put it, how “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite” (39).  This pure imagination went well beyond the confines of our primary tools of description: language and image.  Indeed, William Wordsworth thought imagination could only be approached when “the light of sense / Goes out” (The Prelude VI, 600-1).  Hard as it is to describe the experience of a ‘high,’ it stands to reason that those concerned with the inaccessible limits of imagination would think certain drugs the key to Blake’s doors.

Jump forward a hundred and sixty years or so, and drugs and imagination have a different connection.  For example, take this passage from William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984):

“Look, you’re a cowboy.  How come you aren’t just flat-out fascinated with [AIs]?”

“Well, he said, for starts, they’re rare.  Most of them are military, the bright ones, and we can’t crack the ice.  That’s where ice all comes from, you know?  And then there’s the Turing cops, and that’s bad heat.”  He looked at her.  “I dunno, it just isn’t part of the trip.”

“Jockeys all the same,” she said.  “No imagination.” (91-92)

Gibson’s playing up a Cartesian mind/body dualism here.  The body, Molly Millions–a woman who has made extensive cybernetic modifications to herself and roughly acts as the ‘muscle’ in the book–asks the mind, Case, a cyberspace hacker acting as the ‘brains’ of their operation, why he is ambivalent toward artificial intelligence.  It is quite the conundrum:  why wouldn’t the mind be fascinated by itself free from a physical body?  As a ‘cowboy’ hacker in Gibson’s universe, Case can tap into the matrix of cyberspace–a state Gibson calls a “consensual hallucination” of “billions of legitimate operators”–and can effectively enter into others’ bodies and share their thoughts (51).  Were he to do the same with a powerful artificial intelligence–something that doesn’t have bodily limits–he would essentially be merging into something akin to the pure imagination that was the Romantics’ desideratum.

Case, however, doesn’t find it remotely desirable.  The trip of the Romantics is not his trip, and Molly concludes that this means he has no imagination.  As denoted by his use of ‘trip,’ though, Case does derive pleasure from his cornucopia of pharmaceutical enhancements.  Therefore, in Gibson’s universe, drugs and the imagination have no relationship.

This is, as Marcus Boon notes in his own book, The Road of Excess (2002), a commonality amongst “stimulant literature.”  In works centered on modern stimulants, Boon finds that

all emotional or moral states are merely chemical or electrical fluctuations, dependent on the presence or absence of drugs. […] With stimulant use, the metabolic vehicle of the body is to some degree produced and controlled by its “owner,” who treat his or her body as if it could be programmed, through stimulants, for work–or for pleasure.  (194)

Boon also notes that the cyberpunk aesthetic to which Gibson’s Neuromancer belongs has further “fetishi[zed] many of the elements of the stimulant world:  the notion of the body as hardware, the mind as software, and the eroticization of violence, machinery, and alienation” (208).  Neuromancer certainly delivers on this.  There’s hardly a scene where some form of stimulant doesn’t enter, be it cocaine, meth, amphetamines, coffee, or cigarettes.  It’s so normalized, the book even opens with a character joking that his “body’s developed this massive drug deficiency” (3).  In essence, drugs are widely used in Gibson’s novel to extend the limits of the body.  It’s just another tool, like Molly’s cybernetic modifications, to make the character a better machine.

So, that’s what I’m getting out of this so far.  The Romantic approach to drugs is dissolving mental barriers–transcendence, if you will.  The Gibson approach to drugs is dissolving the body–taming it as man has tamed nature.

My question to you is what does the Gibson approach ultimately do to environmental imagination?  We’ve established it has little interest in the Romantic construction, but what about the environmental twist?  What can we even consider the environment in this text?  The characters’ bodies?  The Matrix?  I don’t even know…

  1. Blake, William.  “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”  The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 1982.  Print.
  2. Boon, Marcus.  Introduction.  On Hashish.  By Walter Benjamin.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2006.  Print.
  3. Boon, Marcus.  The Road of Excess:  A History of Writers on Drugs.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard UP, 2002.  Print.
  4. Gibson, William.  Neuromancer.  New York:  Ace Books, 2000.  Print.
  5. De Quincey, Thomas.  Confessions of an English Opium Eater. London:  Penguin Classics.  1971.  Print.
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