On the Pharmacology of the Dopamine System: Fetish and Sacrifice in an ‘Addictogenic Society’ – Gerald Moore

À noter: la version abrégée à exposer à Épineuil-le-Fleuriel sera en français, avec l’accent mis sur un nouveau pharmakon que je suis en train de développer. Cette version-ci est donc propédeutique et ne remplace pas celle qui la suivra.

On the Pharmacology of the Dopamine System:

Fetish and Sacrifice in an ‘Addictogenic Society

In a survey of 200 Stanford students in 2010, 44 per cent of respondents said they were either very or completely addicted to their smartphones. Nine per cent admitted to ‘patting’ their iPhone. Eight per cent recalled thinking that their iPods were ‘jealous’ of their iPhones. [. . .]

Perhaps it has something to do with how these devices are engineered. They practically force you to repeat repetitive rituals of the sort associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior: from the initial activation of the iPhone to the weekly ‘syncing’ and nightly charging, your relationship to the phone is structured for you. (Thompson 2012: 18)

Du côté de la consommation, le mode de vie capitaliste est devenu à la fin du XXe siècle un processus addictif de moins en moins porteur de satisfactions durables—ce qui a engendré un grand malaise dans la consommation, laquelle a remplacé la culture. (CQF, 89/141)

The second chapter of Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert’s classic, Essai sur la nature et function du sacrifice (1899), offers a detailed description of various rituals through which the (hitherto profane) participants, site and instruments of sacrifice are performatively cleansed, elevated to the status of the sacred, by the adoption of specific clothes and instruments that that keep blood sacrifice distinct from murder. Sacrificial blades are either stored in special cells, withdrawn from any contact with the unpurged, or manufactured anew for each occasion and jettisoned—for example, thrown into the sea—as soon as a sanctioned killing has taken place (Mauss & Hubert 2002: 18-32). Similar accounts from Detienne and Assoun, among others, confirm that the function of such ritual is to enact the sacredness of a fetishised object, preventing its collapse back into profanation (Detienne & Svebro 1979: 233-7; Assoun 2003: 59-60). If that distinction between sacred and profane must be maintained, it is because the weapon that promises dreams of communion with the gods also gives rise to nightmarish fantasies of their murder, and of sacrificial violence tipping over into the very profanity it seeks to regulate. When the sacrificial blade is thrown into the sea, Stiegler suggests, it is to sacrifice the blade, the fetishised technical object through which we sacrifice the animal, and thereby prevent us from returning to the animal state that we have symbolically left behind. The tool that would lift us beyond animality is sacrificed to preserve only the curative, therapeutic side of the pharmakon; to remove us from the temptations of its toxic underside.

From the standpoint of our present ‘société addictogène’, this ritualised deferral of the fetish now belongs to a bygone age. The sacrificial ritual that kept its toxicity—and even its therapy—at bay has given way to a reversal in which marketing prescribes what was once proscribed: the fetish is not kept at a safe distance to mitigate misuse, but relentlessly presented for a consumption we cannot refuse. The organisation of society now falls to rituals of commerce, explicitly targeted at the reward systems of the brain, and with the explicit intention of getting consumers deleteriously hooked. Cited above, Thompson’s The Fix: How Addiction Is Taking Over Your World (2012) illustrates the lengths to which companies will go to exploit gadgets as screens for the projection of fantasy, seeding dreams of animate iPhones and cravings for the relentless release of new products. When our fetish objects are thrown away to stave off profanation, this is not done sacrificially, which is to say, for the sake of preserving us from the toxicity of our technical objects. Jetabilité is manufactured to create space for a new fetish to which the who will be sacrificed, by being refunctionalised to project the preordained fantasies of the what. And as we shall see through an exploration of the pharmacology of the dopamine system, the result is a literal regression to animality, a short-circuiting of the promise that makes us human. Drawing on a combination of Stiegler and contemporary neuroscience, it will be argued that the source of addiction is not simply to be found in the way in which our prosthetic crutches de- and refunctionalise the brain, but also, and moreover, in the way in which the objects of addiction programme their continued use by blocking our ability to envisage alternatives.

1. The neuroscience of addiction

There is widespread recognition of the multiform causes of addiction, which are broadly seen to consist in a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors, such as poverty, social trauma, and access to addictive substances. The dominant theoretical model of addiction—the one that lies, for example, at the heart of the treatment ethos of Alcoholics Anonymous—is the ‘disease model’, which sees those who suffer from addiction as afflicted by an illness that is wholly beyond their control. According to the American Society of Addictive Medicine: ‘Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry’ (cited in Thompson 2012: 40), characterised by a fault in the dopamine mechanisms of the neurally plastic brain. Strongly linked to memory, decision-making and goal-directed behaviour, dopamine is a neurotransmitter whose release coincides with the creation of new neuronal connections, which it reinforces by giving rise to the anticipation of reward. The dopamine system plays a fundamental role in our ability to learn from experience, influencing the kinds of expectation that are attached to acquired behaviours. In this sense, it is associated with pattern- or habit-formation, stimulating us to ‘want’ or crave the repetition of dopamine-releasing actions (Doidge 2007: 27% [Kindle file]). Brain scans of addicted individuals have shown how their dopamine system is hijacked in such a way that only the addict’s drug of choice can trigger the chemical’s release in the nucleus accumbens, the part of the basal forebrain that is ‘responsible for goal-directed behaviour and for the motivation to pursue goals’ (Lewis 2012).1 The stimulation of ‘wanting’, linked to dopamine, is not the same as that of pleasure, which is rather linked to the release of endorphins. In cases of addiction, we crave dopamine even when we no longer find its release pleasurable. ‘Excessive associative learning’ means that we habituate ourselves to the expectation of a reward that is not forthcoming, and which gives rise to a vicious circle, by desensitising the reward circuitry of the brain to the point where we need more and more to achieve the same effect (Nutt & Lester, Addiction, 2013: 17).

In the language of general organology, we might say that dopamine is a pharmakon tied to what is both highest and lowest in us. At its best, it serves as an expression of the plasticity that makes us human, by furnishing the mechanism through which the acquired experience of the past generates expectations of the future. At its worst, however, the neurotransmitter can lock us into existing experience, giving rise to a dehumanising spiral in which the constant craving of behaviours leaves us incapable of experiential learning; and in which the futures we envisage are overdetermined by that craving. The use of the term ‘dehumanising’ is not incidental, here: neuroplasticity is far greater in Homo sapiens sapiens than in chimpanzees and other mammals, who can generate only a fraction of our neural connections (Doidge 2007: 71-2%). Research also shows that rats and primates, with their smaller frontal lobes in the cerebral cortex, lack the specific (D2) dopamine receptors that constitute a highly developed ‘Stop impulse’ in (non-adolescent) humans. This ‘Stop impulse’, which has been described as ‘the voice of reason’, is precisely what is compromised when dopamine-induced cravings short-circuit our ability to project horizons of expectation (Thompson 2012: 57 [referencing work by Childress]; see also Caine et al., ‘Role of Dopamine D2-like Receptors in Cocaine Self-Administration’, 2002: 2986). (We might note in passing that RitalinTM—the drug routinely prescribed for various forms of attention deficit disorder—has been shown to have similar effects to cocaine on our ability to modify expectations in accordance with what we learn from experience, namely ‘a decreased capacity for neuronal plasticity in the brain region which is critical for higher learning and memory’ (see Grace E. Jackson, ‘The Case Against Stimulants’, in Sami Timimi & Jonathan Leo, eds., Rethinking ADHD: From Brain to Culture, 2009: 277-8).

For better and for worse, dopamine is the chemical associated with the internalisation of stereotypes, the formation of secondary retentions corresponding to prosthetic stimuli. Certain kinds of stimulus ‘induce exaggerated increases in dopamine’ in the reward circuits of the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum, conditioning ‘abnormal memory traces’ as addiction takes hold (Nutt & Lester 2013: 26). Experiments have shown that the dopamine system can be refunctionalised (‘hijacked’) by modern technology every bit as well as drugs. According to the psychiatrist Norman Doidge, writing in The Brain That Changes Itself:

Video games, like Internet porn, meet all the conditions for plastic brain map changes. [. . .] People who are addicted to computer games show all the signs of other addictions: cravings when they stop, neglect of other activities, euphoria when on the computer and a tendency to deny or minimise their actual involvement. (Doidge, 2007: 75%)

(We might add to this list a knock-on effect on attention, as Doidge acknowledges. 2007: 74%) And yet this has not stopped serious scholars from wishing to draw a sharp dividing line between substance abuse and a toxic dependence on technology, with the latter dismissed as an instance of mere ‘metaphorical’ addiction. A principal adherent of this mentality is the psychologist Sherry Turkle, whose misdiagnosis, we shall come to see, is attributable to a pre-pharmacological grasp of what is at stake in addiction. In the conclusion of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle states:

It is, of course, tempting to talk about all of this in terms of addiction. [. . .] The addiction metaphor fits a common experience: the more time one spends online, the more one wants to spend time online. But however apt the metaphor, we can ill afford the luxury of using it. Talking about addiction subverts our best thinking because it suggests that if there are problems, there is only one solution. To combat addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance. But we are not going to ‘get rid’ of the Internet. We will not go ‘cold turkey’ or forbid cell phones to our children. [. . .]

I believe we will find new paths toward each other, but considering ourselves victims of a bad substance is not a good first step. The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless. We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes. (Turkle 2011: 293-4)

If Turkle has good reason to be sensitive to a prevailing climate of hopelessness, the passage is nonetheless bête on several levels—not least of which being its extraordinary disavowal of a premise (the problem of internet addiction) based on the unpalatability of the conclusions (complete abstinence) that it would appear to her to entail. This disavowal is fully in keeping with a prevailing ideology that, in the words of Damian Thompson, immunises itself against critique by clinging to the image of the stereotypical addict: ‘the junkie shivering in an alleyway surrounded by needles [. . .] and morbidly obese people whose addictions are so out of control that we avert our eyes’ (2011: 10). This is an ideology whose fetishisation of consumer technologies makes for a vested interest in downplaying their addictogenic potential. Turkle’s implied distinction between ‘real’ (physiological) and ‘metaphorical’ (presumably psychological) addictions, and her absolutist approach to addiction therapy, which sees abstinence as the only cure for excess, are also indicative of ideological inculcation. The position she adopts is consistent with what Stiegler diagnoses as the repression of technics, the failure to recognise that neuronal circuits underpinning the life of the mind are inscribed and organised not just by a particular class of ingested substance, but by all objects in which the libido is invested. Or, as one prominent neuroscientist puts it: ‘every experience that has potent emotional content changes the NAC [nucleus accumbens] and its uptake of dopamine’ (Lewis 2012).2

2. Beyond the ‘disease model’

Transposing the disease model of addiction into Stieglerian terms, the addict would suffer from a breakdown in the very neurological architecture—the dopamine system—that, by enabling us to sublimate drive into desire, to break with instinctual patterns of behaviour, lies at the heart of the enactment of the promise of the human. But it is not quite as simple as that. The disease model of addiction has come in for increased criticism in recent years on account of its complicity in the ideology of medicalisation, which cedes too much to genetic determinism at the expense of neuroplasticity, and which, by clinging to dependence as an exclusively medical category, lets technological culture off the hook for the role that it has played in inculcating what Stiegler terms ‘une généralisation et une mutation de l’addiction’ (MD3, 116).

A well-established line of argument has long rejected the ease with which proponents of the disease model move from genetic susceptibility (thought to account for around a 40-60% chance of addiction—see David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure, 2011: 64) to conceiving dependence in terms of an irrepressible compulsion to consume irrespective of one’s environment. Writing in The Myth of Addiction (1997), John Booth Davies argues that the focus on inheritance has deleteriously downplayed the significance of the availability of drugs (‘probably a major determinant of the extent of drug use’—Davies 1997: x), to say nothing of the underlying reasons for which people take them. Michael Gossop makes a similar point, offering the example of large numbers of American soldiers who were heavy users of heroin while stationed in Vietnam. Despite US government fears of an impending addiction crisis upon their return home, once removed from the stressful climate of war, and without the ready supply lines of the Mekong Delta, the soldiers by and large showed a ‘remarkably low’ inclination to keep using: fewer than 10% of self-confessed addicts kept up their habits (Gossop, Living With Drugs, 2007: 32). Other evidence suggests that between 50-80% of addicts enter into ‘spontaneous remission’,3 meaning self-disciplined recovery without professional help. In direct contradiction of Turkle and, moreover, the ‘once an addict, always an addict’ mentality insisted upon by Alcoholics Anonymous, a large proportion of these (up to 63%, according to one study) are able to return to moderate, controlled consumption (Klingemann 2001: 652). The reasons for addiction, in other words, are not simply to be found in a deficient biological disposition (irrespective of whether this deficiency is naturally or artificially selected), but in the built cultural environments and social organisation within which dependence is played out. Rates of dependency and addiction relapse are higher in circumstances where a ready supply of pharmaka combines with social stress and deprivation (Linden 2011: 91-2); where, in other words, abuse is linked both to escapism—the desire to envisage an alternative—and to environmental circumstances that prevent users from envisioning and constructing alternative alternatives to those projected from the midst of an environment of addiction.

Deleuze wrote of wanting to be ‘a little bit alcoholic’, ‘être un peu alcoolique’ (Logique du sens, 184), meaning to have access to the dreams and visions opened up by intoxication—the therapeutic side of the pharmakon—without running the risk of encountering its toxicity. The alcoholic, it goes without saying, is mired in toxicity: not just that of the drink, but also that of the toxic environment he or she drinks to forget. In thrall to the cravings of a refunctionalised dopamine system, the dreams one looks for alcohol to project are reduced to what Deleuze and Guattari might have termed ‘le rêve castré’, prevented from producing social reality by their reduction to mere fantasy. This in turn perhaps maps onto what Winnicott diagnosed as the pathology of ‘fantasying’, a waking state of fantasy cut off from reality: ‘an isolated phenomenon, absorbing energy but not contributing-in either to dreaming or to living’ (Winnicott 2005: 36). It was Winnicott, too, of course, who first theorised the pharmacological relationship between fantasy, reality-construction and what we shall, in due course, characterise as the fetish-object of addiction. Not only did he show how the objects of an addiction can be used to envisage and realise an alternative, he also glimpsed that the more one is able to transform one’s environment, to construct oneself an alternative future, the better one’s chance of beating an addiction.

In his ground-breaking work on teddy bears, ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’, first published in 1951, the British psychoanalyst examined the role of the teddy, or ‘transitional object’, in children’s emotional development. Winnicott terms the teddy the ‘transitional object’, on account of the way it provides a safe, transitional place between the mother’s breast, on which the child has hitherto been totally dependent, and the as-yet-unencountered outside world, in which he or she takes their first tentative steps toward autonomy (2005: 5). And he describes how it serves as a prototype tool, and moreover as a material support for fantasy, equipping the child with the means to transform his or her environment. By giving the teddy an imaginary identity, the child rehearses its induction into the symbolic order, its first relationships with other people, and thus alleviates the anxiety of the first forays into the external world. Playing with the teddy thus furnishes the basis of the child’s construction of an ego. It comes as no surprise, then, that he or she suffers greatly when the transitional object is lost, or displaced. Winnicott stops just short of calling it an object of addiction, suggesting only that an unhealthy relationship with the teddy can presage later problems with dependence and fetishism, the latter pertaining to the perception that an object is endowed with magic powers and consubstantial with the object of desire. For Stiegler, however, the transitional object is not just the child’s first engagement with technics and, as such, the ‘first pharmakon’. The technical object as pharmakon is also, therefore, always already a fetish, understood as the material support for the projection of fantasy, and an object of addiction, insofar as the condition of possibility of spirit.

3. The general organology of addiction

For Stiegler, there is no distinction to be made between fetish and non-fetish: as the material support for the projection of fantasy, a technical object is always a fetish; but, as pharmaka, fetishes can be both curative and toxic. The same is true of addiction, which he describes as a form of dependence inherent to all relations between the who and the what, not all of which are toxic. Insofar as humans are not purely biological, but con-sist in the artificial organs that de- and refunctionalise our physiology, we are nothing without our prosthetic supplements. ‘La grande addiction, celle qui rend toutes les autres possibles, c’est celle de l’esprit’ (MD3, 116), as Stiegler puts it: the life of the mind that makes us human depends on, is itself made possible by, our externalisation in technics. And we find addictive behaviour not just in the habitual instances of pathological attachment (alcohol, drugs), but also in love (MD3, 86) and the bonds of dependence that structure community.

Les addictions sont aussi les supports des jeux de dépendances mutuelles par lesquels les hommes se sont liés, à commencer par l’amour—qui est la forme la plus élevée de l’addiction [. . .]. Pour le dire autrement, les addictions sont la concrétisation [. . .] du processus d’adoption en quoi consiste le processus d’individuation psychique, collective et technique. (MD3, 116)

Or, to rephrase this in the language of libidinal economy—and to reiterate the point made above about the plasticity of the dopamine system—, addiction is inherent to the ‘tendance que la libido a à s’attacher à ses objets (et est précisément la structure du fantasme comme addiction)’ (MD3, 117). Addiction, in other words, is tied to the fact that desire is created through technics: by the investment of libidinal energy in the technical objects through which we transform our environment, and which enable us to project alternative futures. The craving or dependence we experience in relation to our prostheses is, at bottom, a matter of desire for the kinds of future that they open up. Crucially, though, different prostheses sublimate varying degrees of desire, depending (again) on the fantasies whose projection they facilitate. And this is where we encounter the toxicity of an addiction: not in the mere fact of it being an addiction, but in the regression, or experiential lock-in, induced by its projections. This brings us back to the relationship between addiction and contextual dependence, namely the idea, established above, that toxic forms of addiction are to be understood in terms of the environments they prevent us from escaping: if we take a drug to project escape from surrounding misery, there is a greater risk of it merely trapping us in that misery, through impotent, castrated fantasies, linked to cravings that short-circuit our desiring of an alternative. The same idea is decisive for Stiegler, whose interest in addiction lies primarily in its relation to what he terms ‘disindividuation’, meaning precisely the extent to which a tool inhibits environmental transformation (MD3, 88-9/118-19).

Whether a psychotropic pill or a computer, a technical object participates in the construction of spirit insofar as it carves out quasi-causal horizons of anticipation, projecting visions of new environments that the dopamine system motivates us to build. Agency is not given, in other words, but quasi-causally invented, wrested away from automation, from craving the eternal return of the same. Only a tool that force-feeds us with a particular fantasy, or pre-determined pathways of use, is toxic—dehumanising—in this light. The point sets up a return to Turkle, who we last saw disavowing the premise of ‘l’addiction généralisée’ on the grounds of not wanting to countenance total abstinence from the addictogenic technologies of consumerism. The dichotomy she sets up is a false one: the cure is not to jettison the pharmakon tout court, but to cultivate its capacity for reindividuation. The same drug that, when consumed in a toxic environment, further mires us in toxicity, can in different circumstances enable us to project visions for environmental transformation. And it follows that the key for therapy, surely, is to build pharmaka that facilitate, rather than inhibit, the construction of alternatives.

The question becomes one of what these alternative-constructing addictions would look like. I’ll attempt to answer that with a demonstration in Épineuil.


2http://blogs.plos.org/mindthebrain/2012/11/12/why-addiction-is-not-a-brain-disease/ Elsewhere, (Linden 2011: 92-3) makes the case for

3See http://blogs.plos.org/mindthebrain/2012/11/12/why-addiction-is-not-a-brain-disease/, which references Harald K’-K. Kilngemann, ‘Natural Recovery from Alcohol Dependency’, in Heather, Peter & Stockwell, eds., International Handbook of Alcohol Dependence and Problems (Oxford: Wiley & Sons., 2001).

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