PRINT March 1992


Crack Wars

Crack Wars: Literature/Addiction/Mania, by Avital Ronell. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

IN AN INTERVIEW scheduled to be aired on the BBC’s “Theory in the Art World” program later this year, Semiotext(e) publisher Sylvère Lotringer says that too many American artists and writers have gotten bogged down in the formality of recent French theory and that he looks forward to the next stage: “I think there was perhaps a misreading not so much of French theory, but the way French theory was produced. So you find Americans intimidated by the literality of theory. Why? Get the idea! Get information and then drive off. . . . That’s the great American tradition. Go for what you need and forget about the rest. . . . We need more theory and people who have open minds and can think freely about theory and not just use it in a passive, representational fashion.”1

Within academia, the passive, too literal translation of French theory has resulted in more formalist orthodoxies and not enough of what Suzi Gablik recently called “the aggressive ground-clearing work of deconstruction.” Much of what has been said and done in the name of deconstruction in the U.S. is antithetical to its Derridean origins, and its political utility has been questionable, at best. When Gregory L. Ulmer set out the terms of “a new pedagogy, beyond deconstruction” that he called “applied grammatology,” the examples he used were Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Joseph Beuys, and Sergei Eisenstein.2 The need for a rigorous philosophical writing, arising out of the best of French theory yet politically and culturally practiced in American terms—mobile and engaged enough to make a difference—is greater now than ever.

Enter Avital Ronell. Ulmer has called her “perhaps the most interesting scholar in America.” Others have called her an “ivory tower terrorist” and a “walking, non-mimetic ‘hallucinogenre.’” She was profiled in Re/Search Publications’ Angry Women and in a special section of Mondo 2000 and her books have been reviewed in Substance, Modern Language Notes, and Diacritics. She is a channel-jumping reality hacker, a free radical who crosses enforced boundaries with shocking alacrity.

Following her first book, Dictations: On Haunted Writing, 1986, an analysis of “the Goethe effect” on Johann Peter Eckermann and Sigmund Freud, and her second, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, 1989, which Derrida called “an earthquake” and one reviewer described as “one of the most decisive readings of the technological since Heidegger,” comes Ronell’s Crack Wars: Literature/Addiction/Mania, an incendiary text of immediate importance on several fronts. The book begins with Nietzsche’s time-released charge (from The Gay Science): “Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica?—It is almost the history of ‘culture,’ of our so-called high culture.” Ronell returns the question: “What if ‘drugs’ named a special mode of addiction, . . . or the structure that is philosophically and metaphysically at the basis of our culture?” To interrogate this structure—“our narcotic modernity”—Ronell has prepared a sort of philosophical dossier on the subject that includes: a series of “hits,” short luminous takes that gradually open out into a complex reading of a section of Being and Time in which Heidegger discusses addiction and “urge” (Heidegger, Ronell says, “thought about addiction . . . but not about the specificity of the technology of the drug,” though she gives credence to the rumor that Heidegger dropped acid with Ernst Jünger); a discussion of the War on Drugs and the terms of a possible “narcoanalysis”; a science fiction and a crime story (the Deleuzian modes of a future philosophy: “Henceforth, genuine philosophical inquiry will have to be conducted in modes of science fiction or crime story”); a passage of linked quotes on shame; an interrogation of the ties between drugs and literature, eating and vampirism, chemical prostheses and electronic ones (AI, VR, etc.); a thorough reading of Madame Bovary as “a work that exemplarily treats the persecutory object of an addiction”; a “Doctor’s Report” on Emma Bovary that begins by dismissing the “fanciful arguments” of “a professor from Berkeley, California”; and a death masque entitled “Cold Turkey or, The Transcendental Aesthetic of the Thing to Be Eaten,” consisting of a series of “installations” in a “Thanatorium,” in a “café across from Hölderlin’s herbeceuticals shop,” and in the municipal court where Flaubert was tried for Madame Bovary, with characters named Ernst Jünger, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Marguerite Faust, Marguerite Duras, Freud, Irma, Emma B., Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, a priest, and a chorus. That’s why they call it “hallucinogenre.”

The vertiginous genre-shifting, ventriloquisms, neologisms, puns, and popisms of Crack Wars will upset readers expecting Marxism and Form. The jacket copy of Hélène Cixous’ Coming to Writing and Other Essays, 1991, calls Cixous “a notoriously playful stylist.” As this odd locution indicates, playfulness is often considered to be at least in bad taste, at worst criminal, harmful to consumers. Ronell’s hallucinogenre plays with the language and is played with, “[risking] everything on every page,” as Michael MacDonald said of The Telephone Book.3

At the center of Crack Wars is Ronell’s constitutive reading of Madame Bovary, that “clinic of phantasms,” the urtext of toxic modernity. Since Ronell finds the War on Drugs to be a war against “creatures of the simulacrum” (in a lecture at San Francisco’s New Langton Arts in November, Ronell said, “The War on Drugs is a war on artifice: it’s a war on art; it’s a war on thinking”), it makes sense to focus on one of the first of these in modern literature in an attempt to understand the origins of the conflict. Through Madame Bovary, Ronell presents evidence of “the pharmocodependency with which literature has always been secretly associated as sedative, as cure, as escape conduit or euphorizing substance, as mimetic poisoning.”

As the court recognized in its condemnation of Flaubert’s meticulously significant text, literature is related to “drugs” in certain of its effects, and must be similarly controlled. When the transgression (the “ideological crime”) is too great (Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Naked Lunch), an attempt is made to criminalize the writing and arrest the book. As we’ve seen recently, this practice has now been extended to images (especially photographs).

In choosing not to interrogate more aggressively the conventional reduction inherent in the term “drugs” (an allopathic distortion ignoring the homeopathic principle that the difference between poison and curative is a question of dosage), and the official conflation of drugs with addiction, Ronell opens herself up to criticism from some pharmaceutically experienced readers who will argue that she misses the whole point of “being-on-drugs.” But Ronell picks up the discourse where it is, including all the societal static currently surrounding drugs, and argues that there is no “whole point”; that drugs, like the telephone, are an atopos, a nonplace, “that which resists presentation—those things that are non-substantial, tending to obliterate the originariness of site.” In the postpolitics of atopy, the old terms and tools of discourse do not work, so one must invent new ones. Protected boundaries are crossed and double-crossed. Extreme measures are called for.

Crack Wars is extremist writing, so there are overstatements: “In an altogether uncanny manner, the polemics surrounding drugs historically became a War only when crack emerged. At this moment, drugs acquired the character of political question” (and the Opium Wars? The politics of heroin in Vietnam and Harlem? Paraquat? Operation Just Cause?), and understatements: “This work does not accord with literary criticism in the traditional sense,” and “what follows . . . is essentially a work on Madame Bovary, and nothing more” (which is like saying Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael is not exactly standard literary criticism, or that Robert E. Duncan’s forthcoming The H. D. Book is a book about the poet H. D. and nothing more). Crack Wars is a decentered, highly figural, aphoristic text that jumps to conclusions and throws off centrifugal asides that are worth more than whole volumes of plodding analysis: “Being on the run, addiction dumps understanding along the way, the way one flushes evidence when there’s a bust,” or “[the alcoholic] frequently drinks in order to preserve an incorporated other,” or “the toxic maternal means that while mother’s milk is poison, it still supplies the crucial nourishment that the subject seeks.”

Crack Wars is a dangerous book not only because of what it says, but also because it enacts what it says. Reading and writing are twin intoxicants that are given over—addicted and addicting—in a way that implicates everyone involved. Ronell is no distanced, sober observer. Her text is as passionate as it is rigorous. The call in Crack Wars for “a genuine ethics of decision” is a potent antidote to the crippling aporia of much current theory and the self-satisfactions of too much work in cultural studies. It is, among other things, a radical act of ethical resistance to the War on Drugs and its concomitant climate of managed consent—an imagination of a post-Modern politics. In this way, it is a text of necessity.

David Levi Strauss is a writer who lives in San Francisco.



1. Sylvère Lotringer, quoted in Matthew Collings, “Sylvère Lotringer: Kicking Theory,” Artscribe, September 1991, pp. 40–41.

2. Gregory L. Ulmer, Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

3. Michael MacDonald, “The Telephone Book,” Substance 64, 1991, p. 139.