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Here we are not concerned with the biomedical parameters and potencies of cocaine. Rather, we seek to gain a new framework for problematization. Freud’s deliberations on cocaine help place psychoactive substances in a still larger perspective—their strange relationship with psychoanalysis, which is seen not as a way of talking about individual anxieties and the symbolic sublime but as a possibility of conceptualizing cultural and social criticism. In that regard, the young Freud’s interest in coca leaves and cocaine stands in telling contrast to his later psychoanalytical research and writing. At issue is a historico-conceptual juncture at which Freud has to make a decision about the direction of his future work. From a contemporary perspective, this is not an either/or decision so much as the development of a strategic angle from which to talk about one complex problematic. His subject has to do with understanding modernity in terms of transgression/repression.

During the 1880s, Freud was concerned about the psychic effects that moderate doses of cocaine could exert as a stimulant that “steels one to intellectual effort,” provides euphoria without successive depression (ibid., 61, 62), and shows promise as a positive treatment for hysteria and melancholia (64, 65). Freud eventually lost intellectual interest in the stimulant and turned to culture as neurosis, arguing in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) that modern Western civilization had become “neurotic,” or compulsively marked by symptoms of repression. Was Freud writing with an increasing perception of policies directed at restricting and prohibiting cocaine and other substances? Now, if we consider that the “psychoactive counterrevolution” regarding some—but not all—narcotics was mainly launched during the 1910s to the 1930s (almost simultaneous with Freud’s mature reflections on culture and society), we might ask about links between conflicts over narcotics and the affective developments, or repressions, taking place at the heart of Western modernity. If repression is essential to civilization and if Freud saw culture’s repressive agency as necessary for securing the “primacy of the intellect,” self-consciousness, and the sublimation of instinctual drives, what begins to emerge is the conflict scenario in which both psychoactives and neurosis are crucial factors in the negotiation of hegemonies at the turn of the twentieth century. Is not the social, collective, geopolitical, market-driven pharmacological regulation of affect the actual scenario through which unconscious strata are formed and regulated, placing the problem somewhere other than in the individual psyche whose traumatic core Freud had extrapolated onto society? In other words, as historical colonialism and then modern imperialism have taught us, does not modernity’s drive to take hold of an uneven world consist more of a proactive management of affects and embodied imagination than of “necessary” repression and sublimation?

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Source:  OpenStax, Emerging disciplines: shaping new fields of scholarly inquiry in and beyond the humanities. OpenStax CNX. May 13, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11201/1.1
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