This is the concluding post in the series, The truth and change. As part 3b, it offers a final alternative future. In 3a, I looked at how technology is bringing out the futures within our minds and imaginations. The virtual world is deeply connected to the organic world, and the “crossover” realm may well be the real space in which we do live.
The present posting, 3b, picks up where 3a left off – wondering about the potential for change in the essential emotional experience of being human. This leads to a Huxleyesque future of chemical alterations and experiential morphing.
From Gilgamesh to Pharma
Gilgamesh, the God-King of Uruk, is the oldest surviving literary protagonist in human history. He was a real man, who built the walls of his famous town, after which the modern nation of Iraq is named. His story was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has inspired writers, readers and listeners alike for over 4,700 years.
Preserved on cuniform tablets, the Epic tells how Gilgamesh grieved the loss of his friend Enkidu. In his sorrow and listlessness Gilgamesh became consumed with death and set out on a quest for immortality. Gilgamesh’s inner turmoil at this point is no different than any of us will have over the death of a loved one.
Some years later, but still long ago – 2,300 years ago to be more precise – the Hebrew prophet Qoheleth wrote that there would be nothing new under the sun, and about 2,267 years later The Beatles got a number 1 hit with the same message.
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game …
If there’s nothing we can do that can’t be done, then what is there? Do the changes that have occurred in the world really matter when it comes to the fundamental experience of what it means to be human? The issue is not about change in the world, or change in the nature of social organization, or the changes we can effect on the world. It’s about who we are inside:
What about being human has ever changed in some undeniably essential way?
This question doesn’t deny the reality of change. Societies are different. Mores and belief systems change over time. That some technological changes have made life better for some people is absolutely true. Some illnesses and conditions no longer make life miserable for people. Basic everyday machines like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators have liberated countless numbers of people from demeaning and exhausting chores, even while they take up new chores for new reasons.
The undeniably essential experiences I am thinking of, however, belong to other moments in our lives. They are moments of being. They are fundamental. They are emotional. They are constitutional. They are moments critical of passage: birth, love, marriage, death, loss, success, envy, anger. In these kinds of moments, has what it means to be human really changed all that much?
The answer is yes, maybe, sort of. These are emotional moments, and emotions are not purely given, because we can tinker with them. A change in scenery is sometimes enough to change one’s emotional state. Want to feel better? Find the sun. Get some air. Climb a hill. Have a drink. It is in the last instance that we people began to find real power over our emotions.
We’ve been tinkering with chemical alterations to emotions for millions of years, well before Gilgamesh. This may not even be unique to the human species; chimps use chemicals, too. People, however, have a way of taking things to extremes, as any history of the species will demonstrate. There’s a cost to chemical happiness in terms of addictions. Some chemicals even change who we are and give rise to social ills, such that most societies ban certain forms of chemicals.
What gets banned and what doesn’t – or as Jennifer Michael Hecht poses the issue, what makes a good drug bad – is really an outcome of cultural power politics (though other issues are also involved). From the late 1800s, upper middle class, liberal, Americans of Northern European descent acted out their concern for the disruptive behaviors of less-welcome immigrants (Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews) and African Americans by banding together to ban alcohol, which they did successfully from 1920 to 1933. For the last 40 years, “drugs”gained a connotation of “mind altering experience” that became associated in our society with illegality, rebellion, and tragedy, but that’s nothing new either.
What is different today is the industrialization and institutionalization of mass drug consumption designed to create an emotional social fabric that breeds order, productivity, and “happiness” (not “high,” but “happy” and “productive”). These are the legal drugs that big, powerful companies want us to take under the guise of “freedom,” the kinds of drugs that appeal to people who believe there’s something fundamentally different between the urge to eat Xanax as opposed to psilocybin mushrooms.
In this scenario, prescription drugs are the real gadgets making the future happen, and “health care reform” is the Trojan Horse that Big Pharma will ride into the future (and into our minds and bodies), a “PhRMA payoff” in the words of journalist Matt Taibbi. The great gorging that the drug companies will continue to enjoy will fuel research and development into drugs that can normalize every possible quirk, peak, and valley of human experience.
This has been at least a century in the making: from snake oil, to heroin (created by Bayer in 1898 as a cough remedy), to Hadacol, to the array of drugs advertised directly to you on television but which you need to make a doctor’s appointment to demand. Whether there’s a government option for insurance in the reform won’t change this: belief in pill-popping is one thing that everyone agrees on.
The pills we have for depression, anxiety, weak erections, high cholesterol, urine flow, restless leg, bacterial infections, low sex drive, menstruation, motherhood, and every other imaginable “malady” (a word chosen advisedly here) are what the future is about – and it’s not about change.
The future according to Pharma is about muting our experiences so that change doesn’t matter.
The original, brilliant video for “Ashes to Ashes” can be seen here (it can’t be embedded).
I wrote this to explore an alternative future, not to predict it. The creative spaces opened up by the Internet and virtual lives (The truth and change, 3a) are far more interesting and preferable to me.
When it comes to the issues in this posting, there are a lot of grassroots ways to challenge the way that health reform is going on. Changes in diet and lifestyle practices can prevent a great many problems that are currently medicated out of us. Organizations like the Economic Policy Institute provide informative coverage of the issues with data that make sense.
A stern willingness to explore the nature of illness and suffering is another way to challenge the future: we all get sick and must live with it. We’ll all die. Why not die with dignity and leave on one’s own terms? There will be sadness as surely as there will be joy, and the latter is only made deeper and richer by contrast to our experience of the former.
Notes and Credits
The songs of David Bowie have guided my thinking along the way through these four posts on “The truth and change.” At every turn I found another one to make me think even more deeply about these topics, forcing my mind to link further and further afield into the other areas I was reading about now or had some knowledge of in a past life.
The photo of Walgreen’s at the head of the post was taken by Monique S. Guidry. It’s at 3004 North St, Nacogdoches, TX 75965-2858. The photo of the Prospect Gardens Pharmacy, at 89 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, was taken by the author. That pharmacy is a nice little store in the gentrifying Park Slope neighborhood, subject of recent contretemps among the Park Slope literary and blogging community. The New York Times ran an interesting story about Amy Sohn’s novel, Prospect Park West and yet another possible TV series to shoot here (what happened to Darren Starr’s?). Local blogger Louise Crawford ran two versions of a review, one on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” and the other in the Brooklyn Paper, where she also writes the “Smartmom” column. Fucked in Park Slope absolutely loved the book.
In The Happiness Myth (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), Jennifer Michael Hecht looks at the relationship between drugs and happiness, beginning with a chapter entitled “What Makes a Good Drug Bad.” Along the way (pp. 78-79), she tells the story of Bayer’s invention and marketing of Heroin against the backdrop of an inquiry into what we really want out of drugs in our society. The book is an unrelenting look at things that are supposed to make us “happy” and how misplaced our ideas about “happiness” today might be. She explores her subject across time and cultures to make a pretty good case that happiness isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be.
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