thoughtful or neglectful?

February 27, 2012

This blog is perhaps woefully out of date. But, who knows, it’s an experiment to begin with. So maybe its posts are remarkably timed with what you should be paying attention to, precisely when you’re meant to pay attention to it.

During the past couple of months I have been performing and recording with Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band and What Time It It, Mr. Fox? (wait, why do I keep finding myself in musical projects whose names are as ponderous as books that start with phrases like, “Call me Ishmael”?) And I’m about to go into the studio with my (and my partner Vessela Stoyanova’s) twisted psychedelic-metal-meets-Balkan-folk-song creation, Bury Me Standing. That session promises bloodshed of one form or another, so … suffice it to say I’m getting grounded. We’re recording on the leap year, no less.

The writing is plodding along. I have a small piece coming out in Wired tomorrow. And a nerdy-but-accessible piece about sociopolitical and experiential crises associated with psychopharmaceuticals, coming out in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine next month.

More. Soon.


This Is Bananas

September 19, 2011

(This was part of my first pitch to Cracked. It turns out they did a piece about the history of the global banana trade a couple years back. So you, fine reader, are the beneficiaries of these comedic dregs. Enjoy. BTW, my first actually-published Cracked article can be found here.)


You probably knew that your Nike’s are made by forced child labor in Pakistan and Cambodia. But that’s cool, because everybody knows that. And old news = taken-for-granted = guilt-free jogging or snacking in place! But maybe you didn’t know that the most mundane foods that you eat every day have been brought to you by brutal political oppression and murder? Well, read on, and feel like an asshole all over again!


Americans eat more bananas per year than apples and oranges combined. That’s really fucked up, considering that both apples and oranges are native to the U.S., whereas bananas originally came from the other hemisphere.

Bananas were introduced to the U.S. in 1876 at the nation’s Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It was thus perhaps no coincidence that these exotic little yellow phalluses would predate the erection of Washington Monument by just a few years.

Talk about an exhibitionist!

On the other hand, initial sales of bananas were weak. This was the prudish Victorian era, after all, where the socially elite one-upped future 12-year-olds everywhere, by thinking that eating a banana looked like sucking a dick.

In the future, bananas would be outright named after dicks

The United Fruit Company (which would later be renamed to the I think less catchy sounding “Chiquita”) launched its own anti-prude advertising campaign, distributing postcards that depicted hoity-toity, morally upstanding women sitting around a table with half-peeled bananas. Showing off such culinary circle jerks worked, apparently, and bananas became all the rage.

No, seriously, banana importation caused so, so much rage. Like when Samuel Zamurray (who would later head up United Fruit) just straight up took land from people in Central America, essentially turning the Honduras into his personal private plantation. The balls on this guy. He loaded up boats with a small army led by mercenaries with Saturday morning cartoon-sounding names like General Lee Christmas and Guy “Machine Gun” Maloney, and proceeded to install a government who looked more favorably upon being a fake government. You know what was even more of a dick move? He forced the very people whose land he took to work on it as de facto slave labor.


“What a delightful coincidence these bananas fit up your asses so perfectly!”

With such low labor costs (zero is low, right?), United Fruit transported and sold these bananas to Americans so that, despite traveling 1,000 miles, they were actually cheaper than the apples that you could buy next fucking door.

“Hey, you can’t spell emissions without MISSION!”

No, wait, this get so much better. To keep banana prices low, the U.S. government got in on the act, and has even overthrown a government or two in Central America. Like, in the 1950s, The United Fruit Company started a propaganda campaign that Ecuador was a rising communist power in cahoots with the Soviet Union, and was taking the land that United Fruit stole paid fair price for, and giving it to the fucking people they stole it from in the first place insurgent commies. But here’s the thing. They got the fucking C.I.A. in on this shit. The U.S. quickly deposed the democratically elected government, and replaced it with a military junta.

But whatevs. As so much political oppression is solved with cartoons, and as Chiquita just so happened to need an advertising mascot, they went with the obvious choice of turning Carmen Miranda into a singing jaundiced penis, who came into every American home, urging us not to refrigerate our bananas. You see, the peels of refrigerated bananas turn black, which, as every 1950s household feared, once you go black, you never go back.

But, what’s this? After decades of painstaking yet foolishly daredevil research, it has been discovered that refrigerated bananas last longer, and taste juuuuust fine. But you probably won’t use up your bananas as quickly, which means you and your bloated wallet are kind of being a shitbag towards Chiquita.

Thank god the 1950s are over, and all of this is behind us.

Whoops. Nope. Wrong. The U.S. Marines have since been used to put down banana worker strikes and other efforts to organize themselves. And Chiquita has very recently paid millions of dollars to Colombian paramilitary groups to protect its banana harvesting zones. Dudes, as of 2007, Chiquita has been dealing with what could end up being the biggest terrorism-related lawsuit in history, in which the associated death toll is three times that of the World Trade Center attacks.

The rest of us live in the fucking Matrix:

What other name would an American clothing store choose for itself, but a derogatory epithet that references the global political oppression of O.G. jungle capitalism!

Speaking of the Matrix, this story wouldn’t be complete without some techno-horror genetics-gone-wrong component. Indeed. 99% of the bananas we eat now are of the “Cavendish” variety (surely named as such because its letters can be rearranged to get “I vend cash”). These are now all genetically engineered to be the inbred retarded dalmatians of the fruit world.

Not dalmatians, but bananas. Not Cruella DeVille, but Chiquita Brands International

Cavendish bananas are all technically sexless and sterile (so I especially appreciate the irony that so, so many people have gotten fucked over by them). They are also highly susceptible to fungus diseases, especially the insult-to-injury named “Panama Disease.”

A close-up of the Panama fungi

Just like bloated cookie-cutter hair metal bands from the 1980s, this is what happens when massively cloned fruit goes globe-trotting. They get the fucking clap. Cavendish bananas from Ecuador might be resistant to a particular fungus, but then they’re brought to Asia, where they run up against mutated version of it. Hence the Panama Disease, which can wipe out entire plantations in a matter of a couple of years, has been spreading across that other hemisphere, and experts predict that it will come full circle to Central America soon. So the people there, whose lands were stolen from them, and who were essentially enslaved to work on said lands, and whose political economies depend entirely on MOTHERFUCKING BANANAS, could very well lose their one tyrannically imposed livelihood.

But they are still delicious on corn flakes, so I’m really torn.

(A comment on my last blog entry got me thinking more about the relationship between drugs, politics and free will. This post is my first sustained response to that comment.)

Historically, we have been deeply ambivalent towards psychotropic drugs, wondering what (if any) role they should have in society. I would even argue that drugs are at the heart of all political philosophy. Indeed, you already know the politics behind the following questions: Are drugs ‘themselves’ dangerous (are they like guns)? Is drug use truly the activity of a free, rational, autonomous individual? Or, does one not truly act ‘voluntarily’ if they are under the influence of drugs, essentially making them less able to make ‘free choices’? What, then, should be the status of drug users’ civil liberties?

John Stuart Mill, whose nineteenth-century political philosophy was the direct precursor to modern-day libertarianism, emphasized that, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill address the question of drugs specifically, arguing that any self-harm that comes from drug use should be punishable only insofar as it directly affects others (his example is being drunk while performing soldierly duties). That is to say, members of society should be held criminally responsible only for those behaviors that harm others. Do not criminalize the use of drugs; criminalize the resultant actions that may harm others.

Of course, the case for a paternalistic drug policy can be made on the argument that the notion of true self liberty is a complete fiction. Harming oneself inevitably affects others, whether in the form of a drain on public medical services (health problems), or a drain on social services (family neglect), or on social security (unemployment). Mill’s solution was simply to disregard these cases, defining harm to others as narrowly as possible, for instance as defraudment or physical violence. “Indirect” effects like the eventual use of social services did not count in his framework.

I am definitely attracted to the social ideal behind Mill’s proto-libertarian political philosophy, which was that we should live in a society that enables “experiments of living.” In On Liberty, he writes:

The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are (for it is they who make them what they are), cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody; and what is more, spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers, but is rather looked on with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction to the general acceptance of what these reformers, in their own judgment, think would be best for mankind. (1859, Ch.3)

Mill emphasizes the development of one’s own individuality as a hallmark of a free, democratic society. Essentially saying: “get yo’ freak on!” He warns against the kind of paternalistic government that would essentially predetermine what kinds of lives, personalities and characters are socially valuable, and therefore individually permissible. So drugs may ruin our lives, but it’s of paramount importance that we live in a society that allows us to include them in our individual “experiments of living” — which, of course, could very well turn out disastrously.

But still, one argument against drug-taking is that it is essentially an irrational act, antithetical to the civil ideal of a society made up of rational, autonomous citizens. (Therefore, if drug-taking is not truly a free act, the government should be paternalistic and prevent us from possessing them). This argument can be applied to the decision to take drugs in the first place, or to whether the citizen-on-drugs is a ‘fully rational’ participant in a civil society. That is, either drugs are inherently without value, and pursuing them in the first place is irrational; or, consuming drugs incapacitates or debilitates individuals to the point of making them less rational, less autonomous, and essentially less capable of participating in a ‘free society.’ But I think both boil down to a fundamental confusion between personal freedom and political liberty. And I would argue that, c’est la vie, the integrity of civil liberties risks the compromise of personal freedom. It’s easy to see how an individual’s drug use might made them ‘less free,’ in the sense that they may become unhealthy, irresponsible, destitute, miserable. Their personal, everyday experience of freedom would then become compromised. Yet their civil liberties would have remained intact, since (hypothetically) they ‘freely’ made a decision — albeit a poor one — for themselves. And isn’t this the more important social ideal? [I put ‘freely’ in scare quotes because, of course, there’s no absolute freedom, as if we lived in social vacuums and as if our individual decisions weren’t overdetermined socially and culturally. But I’ll bracket this discussion (addressing behavorial economics, too) for a later post …]

As to the question of whether drugs have ‘inherent’ value, I hasten to mention that public debates about drug policy almost always avoid discussing positive effects of illicit drugs. As Bakalar & Grinspoon put it in their book Drug Control in a Free Society, “Permitting drug use is often defended in the name of individual freedom but rarely on the ground that there is any good in it.” (1984:16) This is another challenge to personal freedom and political liberty, but from a different angle: Nevermind whether drug use makes an individual less free; if drugs are inherently without value, then trying to obtain them in the first place is irrational, and should be prevented by the government. But we already know how contentious and ultimately wrong-headed this claim is. The fact that we now have the phrase “medical marijuana” speaks to the political compromises that simultaneously belie and reveal how this drug has positive effects. But the politics here is that marijuana’s positive effects have to be framed as social (“medical”), not personal.

Of course, there would seem to be numerous other demonstrable social boons from drug use. The historical connections between drugs and art and music certainly jump to mind, which are perhaps most visible in part because of the counter-culture posturing that has been a core component of artists’ and musicians’ collective identity (drugs as badges of anti-authoritarianism). At the same time, where artists and musicians have not flaunted their drug use, mainstream media has all too often stepped in to create their own mythologies-cum-scandals about such behavior. Check out this nice clip of a young Paul McCartney calling out the media for creating and bloating the very scandals about his acid use that they claim to have merely identified and reported on:

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Keith Richards also comes to mind, as the iconic drugged-out, infinitely parodied how-the-fuck-is-he-still-alive rock star. But read his autobiography. Jesus, this guy is articulate [yes, I realize the book is co-authored with a bonafide journalist], funny, and can recall his life with an extraordinary level of detail that puts my 35-year-old brain to shame (as he snipes in the book’s inscription: “Believe it or not, I remember everything”). Moreover, while Richards fully admits to near-constant drug use for his whole career, if we are to believe his narrative, he has never been in serious medical trouble because of it (his legal and political problems have been another story).

Many of us are familiar with how figures like Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Baudelaire, Jean Cocteau all used drugs to some extent. But also, some of our most prominent contemporary scientists and engineers credit their revolutionary developments in part to their experimentation with drugs. Kary Mullis, Nobel Laureate who invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) as a technique to make copies of DNA fragments, says he learned to visualize DNA because of his experiences on LSD. Similarly, Microsoft co-founder Bob Wallace claims that the birth of early Silicon Valley technologies was influenced by psychedelic drugs, crediting his own invention of shareware–which transformed software distribution–with his experiences with psychedelics. In a documentary on the use of LSD in scientific experiments Wallace says, “I think psychedelics help you in general go beyond the normal way of doing things, and to really open up your mind to more possibilities that maybe seem obvious in retrospect but that you never think of if you’re going along the normal way of doing things.”

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I do not intend these examples as a naively one-sided celebration of drugs that most certainly have the potential to damage or kill us. I intend them as counter-examples to policy-level debates about decriminalization that ignore the very questions of whether and how drugs can have positive effects.

In the middle there is always this:


Drugs are bad. But psychopharmaceuticals, on the other hand …

(from The New Yorker)

Some of my ethnographic research around psychopharmaceutical advertising has been to explore what drug companies say beyond the FDA-mandated package insert information. As I discussed in my last blog entry, the discourse of psychopharmaceutical advertising is that antidepressants and antipsychotics realize a return to self (never a way to “explore” or “transcend” the self, which is outside of our normative sociomedical discourse). In terms of civil liberties, it would seem that, so long as you are taking licit psychopharmaceuticals, your free, rational autonomy is guaranteed. So much so, in fact, that the drug companies combine the pharmacological return to self with the consumerist discourse of self-empowerment (You know what’s wrong with you / You should talk to your doctor / You should ‘take control’ of your symptoms). All this is fine and good — and distinctly libertarian-sounding, incidentally — but of course the end-game here is profit maximization for the drug industry, whose “Be Yourself, Take Antidepressants” insinuation is isomorphic to every other advertising slogan that gets hurled at us.

On the other hand, occasionally the drug companies slip up in what their ads reveal about an ideal, fantasized relationship to psychopharmaceuticals. Just days after 9-11, Pfizer released a public relations spot, basically patting themselves on the back for donating to the American Red Cross. But check out this line from the ad’s voiceover: “We wish we could make a medicine that could take away the heartache. Until we can …” This ad aired only very briefly, but luckily my dissertation advisor Joe Dumit was able to record it. I have since posted it on YouTube, with the following description: “In their rush to broadcast a touching bit of PR immediately after the World Trade Center attacks, Pfizer said what it wanted to say (we make medicines, we perform acts of social good). But they ended up promising much, much more (we will make drugs that cure heartache). The pharmaceutical vision of goodwill here is that of a company who eradicates the collective emotional response to a national tragedy.”

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In terms of political philosophy and the question of free will, the Pfizer ad lets slip the idea that it’s perfectly permissible for a giant corporation to be in the business of selling drugs that chemically manage citizens’ emotional processing of geopolitical trauma. For the record, I do not actually think this should be illegal. HOWEVER, I think it is highly hypocritical of our society to allow such widescale psychotropic drug-mongering on the one hand, while criminalizing our personal decisions to make our own chemical “experiments in living.”

I’ll end this post with a spot-on Chris Rock clip. He says, “The government doesn’t want you to use your drugs, they want you use their drugs. So every night on TV, you see a weird-ass drug commercial trying to get you hooked on some legal shit. And they just keep naming symptoms until they get one that you fucking got.”

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“Be a philosopher, be a mummy … and away, above all with the body, that pitiable idée fixe of the senses! Infected with every error of logic there is, refuted, impossible even, notwithstanding it is impudent enough to behave as if it actually existed!”

Here Friedrich Nietszche mocks the longstanding Western philosophical tradition that exalts something called ‘Reason’ over the perpetually unreliable, fallible and deceitful ‘senses.’ Nietszche indicts Plato, Christian theology, and uber-positivist scientists alike of buying into and disseminating a giant moralistic LIE that there is a ‘true world’ that we can access, if only we can unshackle ourselves from our inferior / sinful / inaccurate bodies.

Modern-day Dream Theater is just as shitty of an experience ...

Flagellants sure knew how to party

Müller-Lyer's optical illusion: eyes? more like lies!

Pharmaceutical marketing is one of today’s ultimate snake-oil philosopher kings. Remember the television and magazine ads for Pfizer’s “antidepressant” Zoloft?

The putative “chemical imbalance” of these ubiquitous ads updates Nietzsche’s complaint about moralistic, arrogant-yet-idle philosophizing as a modern-day capitalist ideology: The ad’s refrain condescends, “When you know more about what’s wrong, you can help make it right.” This is paternalistic philosophizing, too, albeit one that hands over a deeply personal, social and culturally complicated construct like “depression” to a literally cartoonish scientific expertise, whose ultimate end-game is profit maximization.

Profit, indeed. We’re talking BILLIONS of dollars (according to industry tracker IMS Health, antidepressant sales alone brought in $9b in 2009). In just over a decade, what was once a relatively unknown illness has turned into a mammoth global industry that, in a nutso Orwellian turn, has had so many people taking antidepressants that these drugs have literally ended up in our water supply.

pharm fresh!

Say wha?

Crazy. And a big reason for why antidepressants have become so commonplace is because of the massive marketing campaigns that the pharmaceutical industry has launched over the past decade, which have relied heavily on the rhetorical sway of neuroscientific language and imagery in these ads.

With this in mind, here’s my critique of the psychopharmaceutical industry, in a nutshell (yes, it dawns on me that I should start using “nutshell” to refer to antidepressant pills themselves):

(1) Whether antidepressants ‘work’ at all is completely up for grabs

Through the Freedom of Information Act, analyses of ALL the antidepressant clinical trial data that drug companies have conducted (and not just the ones submitted to the FDA) suggest that antidepressants do not work significantly better than placebos. (For a nice review of this predicament, see Steve Silberman’s 2009 Wired article.) Of course, this is a real slap to the face of the notion that antidepressants work because they target biochemically-deficient disease states. Which brings us to:

(2) Drug companies propagate mainstream, scientific explanations of how antidepressants work that are part of a contemporary capitalist ideology

That was kind of a nerdy way to put it, BUT: Do patients/consumers feel relief because their antidepressant has worked on an underlying disease pathology, as the drug ads would have us believe?

poor little egg! there's a nice bird RIGHT NEXT TO YOU!

where'd the bird go?

BOO-YAH! THERE'S the fucking bird!

Or, do antidepressants actually induce psychoactive states, like sedation or stimulation or altered sense perception?

(from a 2003 MadTV parody using the Zoloft-style ads to promote Ecstasy)

This not a straightforward ‘objective,’ ‘scientific’ question. This is a question about the kind of language we choose to describe what a drug does. Correcting a “chemical imbalance” sounds squarely medical and socially appropriate. “Altered sense perception” sounds too much like how we are used to talking about illicit or illegal drugs, as if their psychopharmacology were a completely different animal than what Big Pharma peddles. Of course, it’s absolutely crucial that the pharmaceutical industry sounds like it is in the business of generating health and normality, not pleasure and dependency. For instance, one of the first direct-to-consumer pamphlets for Prozac claimed that, “Prozac doesn’t artificially alter your mood and it is not addictive. It can only make you feel more like yourself by treating the imbalance that causes depression.” What strange and preemptively defensive language … and what grandiose philosophical and epistemological claims about such a poorly-understood chemical!

Contrast how the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes MDMA (Ecstasy), whose pharmacology is quite similar to that of Prozac and Zoloft: “MDMA produces feelings of increased energy, euphoria, emotional warmth, and distortions in time, perception, and tactile experiences.” Can we imagine Pfizer making the same claims about Zoloft? And yet, this is what individuals sometimes actually report experiencing.

Part of what makes such psychopharmaceutical claims part of a capitalist ideology is their relationship to a distinctly Western-style of consumption in which we seek out and buy commodities to fashion our own unique personal identities. We buy things to become who we were always meant to be. (For critical theory buffs, start with Jean-Paul Baudrillard’s analysis of how, over the past few decades, capitalism has started to focus on the consumer — and not just the laborer — as a key site of exploitation.) Psychopharms are no different. Note the language of the above Prozac pamphlet: “It can only make you feel more like yourself …” Whereas users of illicit drugs like MDMA and LSD hail them as ways to go beyond oneself, or to explore oneself, the drug industry offers us psychopharmaceuticals as a return to our true selves. To the point, the tagline for Paxil advertisements used to be, “With the help of Paxil you can see someone you haven’t seen in awhile – yourself. Hey, I remember you.”

So, in this society, we consume antidepressants to fulfill our roles as outstanding consumer-citizens. But we consume marijuana or Ecstasy and become aberrant, unproductive drains on society. Which brings us to:

(3) We live in a hypocritical society that denies non-prescription self-medication while simultaneously encouraging a behemoth pharmatocracy

(First, this claim reminds us that the pharmaceutical industry does not exist in a vacuum. These companies are easy targets — and should most definitely be targeted — but we need to keep in mind that our contemporary experiences with drugs emerge from a complicated nexus of relationships between Big Pharma, government regulatory agencies, physicians, consumer groups, and beyond …)

On the one hand, the U.S. government denies individuals rights to grow, synthesize or consume psychotropic substances, whether it’s marijuana, opium, LSD, or methamphetamine. (This is a topic that I will give special attention to in later blogs.) On the other hand, psychotropic drug-taking has become a cornerstone of global capitalism, as corporate pharmaceutical paternalism takes over under the guise of “health” as a cultural imperative (so much so that the drugs are ending up in the water, remember?) The very facts — or, more properly, factoids — that the State-cum-pharmaceutical-industry propagates about mental health are circular: The notion that there is a high prevalence of depression in the United States is largely based on antidepressant prescription rates. So, the more people taking antidepressants = the more people counted as suffering from depression. “Depression” becomes reified as a bonafide epidemiological entity, and the pharmaceutical industry touts growing antidepressant rates as mere evidence that they are unearthing an “undertreated” (!) illness.

The capitalist, expansionist logic of this medical system is scary. Antidepressants do not work very well; their prevalence bloats the pharmaceutical companies’ and physicians’ profits; and their commercial success gets reinterpreted as a medical rationale for why we should consume more and more of them.

All this makes me feel like Nietzsche looked at the end of his life:

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So let’s start changing the rules of this game.


August 21, 2011

My blog begins. Words tomorrow. But, here, we are clearly off to an auspicious start: