Hey guys, here’s an essay I wrote for my English class. It had to relate back to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in some fashion. Tell me what you think!
The Dialectic Of Drug Use In American Culture
Hundreds of little pills, each uniform and purple, rattle down the assembly line. The conveyor belt is like a street, and the workers dressed in white caps and aprons watch the parade until it reaches their arms’ grasp. White face masks cover their breath. With darting hands and beaming eyes they sort these pills into machines that take each pill, position it just so, and slam it into a small plastic packaging at the speed of sound. Phu-chk, phu-chk, phu-chk, the machine goes until the day is done, casting the purple pill in translucent plastic. The caskets are carefully placed in flimsy cardboard boxes with Brooditor, Pfizer’s latest and greatest “self-stabilizing” laboratory concoction, in large purple letters on the front. They are shipped to the multitudes of 24-hour-a-day pharmacies across the country. The year is 2036. It is the age of cosmetic pharmacology.
Electronic billboards light up the night above the freeway. The screen is white with black lettering. “Brooditor – be yourself.” Brooditor was released as an alternative to Happilex, Pfizer’s other bestselling “self-stabilizer.” As opposed to Happilex, which, as the advertisements claimed, “brought the real you, the happy you, out to play,” Brooditor is a drug – no, not that, public censors won’t allow that word – Brooditor is a “self-stabilizer” that attempts to alter personality bring out your inner brooding poet. In other words, it was for individuals who were eclectic and energetic to a fault –too outgoing, too extroverted, or maybe just too much Happilex. Because in the age of cosmetic pharmacology, people can “be” whoever they want. Need to be more outgoing to get that upper-management position? No problem – Take some Powertex, and watch your inner ambition sprout. Want to give off that brooding, deep aura, like you really have something on your mind? Get some Brooditor. Your friends will be amazed at the deep thoughts you will impress them with at parties. Want to be smarter, more friendly, more aggressive, more suave, more happy? There’s a drug for that.
The future I have depicted above sounds dystopian. It is scary to think that prescription drug companies would mass-produce personality-altering chemicals, each and every American on some form of drug, in some sort of illusory state. A critique of this world from the standpoint of American culture might ask, “where is the individuality? Where is the real self, under all those drugs?”
Dystopian novels, from George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, have long played on the concept of constant, society-wide drug use. The drugs in these futures are used to control and manipulate the populace by the corrupt state, and this possible future plays well on American fears. The two aforementioned novels frequently make top-100 novel lists and are read in high schools across the United States because American culture is deeply haunted with visions of what drug use could destroy. Americans have a collective phobia of altered states, especially ones that are endorsed by governments or corporations, which is why it is odd that the United States is leading the world in antidepressant research, proliferation, and use.
The anti-depressant market has forged new ground, unlocking the secrets of personality, and is allowing us to change our personality through drug use. Neuroscience has fostered drugs that can make people go from sad to happy, introverted to outgoing, or anxious to calm. Antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, and Cymbalta are being ingested in the United States at record-breaking numbers. An article from the USA today states that, “about 10% of Americans — or 27 million people — were taking antidepressants in 2005, about twice the number in 1995.” With numbers like that, it is not hard to imagine a future where drugs exist for every personality archetype imaginable. It would be a future where human interaction is reduced to drugged-up “fakes” plotting along their daily lives, robbed of their inner self, their soul, their humanity – or so American culture says.
We Americans have a strange relationship with drug use. We at once fear drug use, with our war on drugs, the Just Say No campaign, and DARE. But we are also one of the largest consumers of drugs, legal and illegal. Why are we at once frightened and accepting of drug use? We are a culture that wages a war on drugs while “50.9 percent of adults 18 years of age or older are current, regular drinkers (at least 12 drinks in the past year).” We are disgusted by addicts yet create mental institutions where the patients are fed six different drugs on a daily basis. We fear dystopian mind-control while one in ten of us are on antidepressants. Drug use takes place in a strange dialectic, to say the least. But why? How?
It is our cultural view of selfhood that creates these glaring contradictions with drug use, and it is only through piles and piles of mental dirt that we can bury these contradictions. But to understand this seemingly contradictory attitude, we must first understand the American view of selfhood: the dualistic self.
Dualistic selfhood is defined as “the assumption that mind and body are separate.” Descartes thought that what one experiences as the I, the self, the thing that experiences things, the thing that we feel is “us” is a non-material phenomena, something special and outside the normal functioning of matter. Rene Descartes is the “father of modern philosophy.” His ideas make up the foundations of western existence, and dualism, the basic lens through which American culture views the world, is his ever-lasting mark on history. This thought can be traced back to its religious roots of the Christian soul.
Christianity holds the belief that the self, calling it the soul, is transported into another world upon death. Christians believe that awareness is something special given to us by God and that our physical bodies are merely vessels in which our souls are temporarily carried. This belief plays a large role in American culture. Although the United States is a secular nation in its government, it is still religious. A Gallop Poll from May, 2011 found that, “more than 9 in 10 Americans still say “yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?” Belief in God necessitates belief in a soul, and this concept plays heavily on American culture.
Whether or not they believe it to be a Christian soul, most Americans believe that what is between our ears is something more than a soup of neurons and grey matter, a meaningless algorithm or animal-like instinct organizer. Something “more” exists there, we think. The self, our fundamental building-block for our experience of the world, is “special.”
It seems obvious to us that the “self” exists. After all, we experience it every day. We think to ourselves, asking ourselves questions like “is that right? Do I like that? Is this good?” We feel the self inside. We feel it because we feel experiences from the outside world, and something, we feel, exists as an observer, a judge of this phenomenon. This judge, we feel, is us, the thing that controls our bodies and moves our arms, the thing that decides whether or not the pizza was good, the thing that decides whether or not we are tired, hungry, or angry. But what American culture’s dualistic attitude attempts to do is divorce our experience of reality from reality. It attempts to say that our emotions, memories, and cognitions exist on a different plane than the rest of matter. It attempts to say that awareness is special. But this belief is under attack from all sides at all hours of the day, from the research lab to the junkie’s heroin den.
American culture, and western culture at large, is inexorably intertwined with a dualistic view of selfhood. Dualistic selfhood, however, is failing the test of progress – science is ripping its foundations out day by day, study by study. Neuroscience is painting a new picture of the brain, and we don’t like it. It’s allowing us to destroy our “self,” and the century-long war with drugs, from prohibition to the war on drugs, is bearing down on our culture like cement shoes on a drowning man. The foundations of our civilization are crumbling before our eyes, but damned if we aren’t furiously painting over the cracks, carefully placing that Terry Redlin over the gaping hole in our culture’s psyche.
A specter is haunting the United States: the specter of non-dualistic selfhood. All our politicians, pundits, and priests have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. This ghoul lurks in our shadows, hides under our beds, and haunts our dreams – It is our greatest fear, and we’ll go to any length to quickly pull the blanket over our heads, to keep the nightlight on in the dark basement of our inner conscious.
Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions simultaneously.” For example: “The following sentence is true. The previous sentence is false.” When we view this statement, we don’t attempt to believe both facts, and we instead recognize that it is a paradox, a breach of logic. But if we were to believe both statements at the same time, we would experience cognitive dissonance. This is what should be happening in American culture. Dualistic selfhood states that “something more” exists between our ears and that the self is an extra-material phenomena, but American culture is wrought with evidence to the contrary: recreational drug use, antidepressants, psychiatric wards, neuroscience. All those things point to the fact that our experience of the world is little more than a series of brain algorithms, like a computer or a complex snail. Yet they exist side by side our dualistic attitude. How?
Dirt. Lots and lots of dirt.
In my dystopian story, I called the drugs “self-stabilizers” for a reason. I say “self-stabilizer” because that, I imagine, is how those drugs would be have to be marketed for an American audience. Americans would not swallow pills that drugged them up, changing their “inner self,” but they just might take a drug to bring out their inner self, however nonsensical such an idea may actually be. Americans love drugs, but they love their idea of dualistic selfhood even more, which is what creates this strange love-hate relationship with drug use.
What does it mean to take an antidepressant? In truth, in the neuroscientific actuality, you are altering neural pathways with psychotropic chemicals. This fact destroys dualistic selfhood. It points out that the brain is a series of codes that act on environmental stimuli, not a special “carrier for the self.” It points out that invisible hexagons called serotonin are the fundamental determinants of brain function, not God or the soul. It points out that we are not special. It points out that we are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. But that doesn’t jive with American culture. With the emergence of antidepressants came the emergence of a cognitive dissonance which we quickly buried six feet deep in careful wording.
Notice the careful wording in the advertisement I found on www.prozac.com According to the ad, Prozac has not fundamentally altered the concept of selfhood – it has “been a catalyst in bringing attention to mental health.” It has not drugged people out of their original self – it has “helped people in their battle with depression.” It is not a psychotropic chemical that alters your neural pathways and fundamentally changes your perception of the world around you – it is a treatment for a disease, Major Depressive Disorder.
The fact that Prozac, or any other anti-depressant, is a drug is carefully avoided in the advertisement. It is a “treatment.” It is a “medicine.” It is for a “disorder,” usually depression. It is not marketed as something that changes you – the disorder did that. It is marketed as something that brings the “real you” out from the grips of an ailment. Any cognitive dissonance was carefully buried under wording and pathos.
The advertisement’s treatment of the concept of depression brings another cultural burial to light: our dialectic of disorder.
In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the reader is taken inside a mental ward through the eyes of Chief, a patient. Through Chief’s eyes we see the metaphorical tyranny of nurse Ratchet, who is the epitome of dictatorship. She keeps an iron grip on the mental ward and carefully manipulates the patients into her control. Taken allegorically, Kesey is attempting to relate our cultural concepts of mental disorders to tyranny. He has got a point.
Due to American culture’s entanglement with dualistic selfhood, we must be very careful about how we go about labeling the condition of sanity. We cannot merely denote those individuals who act differently or strangely as just different or strange. We must denote them as wrong, sick, and unhealthy in the brain. We must denote them as broken selves.
What does it mean to be “mentally disordered?” A “mental disorder” is merely a product of genetic recombination that resulted in neurological coding that caused a human to differ, or appear to differ, from the normal range of human actions. And as for what is considered normal? As George Orwell put it, “sanity is statistical.” What the existence of what we consider “mental disorders” points out is that people are different. They are born that way. Their actions are merely the result of deviation in genetic encoding, and if that’s the case, then “sane’ people’s actions are merely genetic encoding too. It points out that just because a majority of people’s brains function a certain way, it does not mean that that way is “special” or contains any kind of soul or innate self. If normalcy were special, then the mentally disordered would have to be soulless and wrong, which is exactly how we treat them.
The concept of “mental disorder” is itself an extension of our dualistic culture. Due to the fact that we believe our neuron soup to contain a special soul, we grew diagnostic labels like depression, multiple personality disorder, and neurosis to account for the fact that not everybody acts the same. The multiple personality disorder patient does not have, or even have the capability of having, the same concepts of selfhood as most Americans do. Instead of recognizing this as an inherent difference in individuality, we label the patients as “wrong,” disordered, and insane. And then we attempt to fix them.
Ken Kesey’s nurse Ratchet metaphor is about how American culture attempts to fix anybody who is different. Are you depressed? Something’s wrong. Take a pill. Do you view the world through a different lens? Something’s wrong. You’re disordered. Let us fix you. By attempting to fix people, with so much emphasis on treatment, we avoid dealing with the reality – people are different, and that’s just the way it is. It is not the fact that we recognize mental disorder that is the outgrowth of this dualistic viewpoint. Rather, it is the way in which we treat the disorder. Everywhere we throw these labels, wrong, insane, depressed, but the true function of these labels is to pile more dirt on our cognitive dissonance, to avoid the truth that dualistic selfhood is not congruent with the concept of mental disorders.
It is ironic that we pile dirt on the cognitive dissonance caused by pharmacotherapy when pharmacotherapy is itself a result of attempting to cover up the cognitive dissonance mental disorders themselves cause. Just as there was an old lady who swallowed a fly, there is a culture that shovels dirt on top of dirt, only to cover it up with… more dirt. But on the flip side lies the most hysterical, the most sickening and destructive attempt to pile dirt on our cognitive dissonance. It comes in the form of an all-out war, being waged right now, to save us from ourselves.
Right now there is a whole army of heavily armed, highly trained troops, armed to the teeth with fully automatics, armored personnel carriers, combat helicopters. This army is fully-funded by a two-billion-dollar-a-year salary. It is dedicated to destroying certain plants. This army even has an official cabinet position within the United States government, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Dirt-piling is now official business. We are in a perpetual war, the War on Drugs: a war for our sanity; a war for our culture; a war in which our soldiers do vicious combat against plants and pills. The plants are dangerous, after all, but not nearly as dangerous to the user as to American culture.
What is a drug? It is a bullet that creates a gaping hole in dualistic theory. Drugs are the death of the self because they point out that hexagons and sticks are the cause of our actions, not an innate specialness between our ears. To the right is a picture of tetrahydrocannabinol. It is the active component in the cannabis plant. The dried buds of the cannabis plant can be smoked to achieve psychoactive effect, meaning that that thing over there gets put in your brain and causes your emotions, your ideas, and your perceptions to change. If you live in the United States and you possess any material that contains that certain combination of hexagons and sticks, you will be hunted. The army of dirt-loaders will suffocate you under piles and piles. You can be sent to a cage. You can be sent to a cage forever, if you possess enough of it, even though it is a victimless crime. The crime may be victimless, but the sin is cardinal: thou shall not violate dualistic selfhood.
The nature of drug use challenges the nature of dualistic selfhood. Cognitive dissonance arose. We piled it under dirt, from DARE to Just Say No, from the DEA to MADD. All psychoactive substances are illegal or stigmatized in the United States unless they exist to correct a mental or physical disorder. Tobacco and alcohol remain semi-legal for today, but the fight is never ending. Tobacco is being banned from establishments left and right, its users stigmatized and demonized through massive propaganda campaigns. Alcohol was illegal during prohibition. But now that prohibition is over, alcohol use still faces great stigmatization. More and more restrictions are placed on its consumption every day, and the fact that it is a beverage, not a pill or injection, gives it partial legitimization.
Ultimately, drugs are illegal or stigmatized because they point out that hexagons and sticks are the cause of our actions, not an innate specialness between our ears. The DEA is dirt. Lots and lots of dirt.
How contradictory is it that we at once label individuals as disordered and mandate they take drugs to fix themselves while condemning others for taking drugs in a recreational context? It is only after an exhaustive day of shoveling dirt that logic like that could pass as legitimate.
The fact of the matter is that dualistic selfhood cannot exist side by side drug use. One cannot take antidepressants and believe that their brain has “something more” to it. One cannot smoke a joint without realizing dualism is dead. One cannot live with the mentally disordered while maintaining a belief in the soul. But we do it. We have cognitive barriers, dirt mounds set up to block our dissonance. American culture needs to have a war on drugs. It needs careful marketing and diagnostic labels followed by treatment. Our culture needs these elaborate contradictions. Otherwise we would experience cognitive dissonance, and our fear would creep through our clever disguise, our mountain of dirt washing away in the rain.
The reason why we love Huxley and fear drug-induced dystopia, the reason why marketers for antidepressants perform an intricate ballet of words in their ads, the reason why we treat disorders and lock drug-users in cages is fear. We fear the idea that our lives, our existence on this earth and in this reality, are not special. We fear that our neuron soup floating in our skull is not forever, momentous, or perfect. We fear that we are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We fear non-dualistic selfhood. We fear that, in the end, we are hairless apes madly shoveling dirt over an idea we know is truth, on one pale dot out of nine, in the sea of infinity.