Time Capsules

Speed is of the essence, but the essence of value isn’t speed

In one of my favorite scenes from Absolutely Fabulous, Patsy Stone, the fashion editor and professional drug user played by the inimitable Joanna Lumley, comes to work in the morning and goes to a light box to look at contact sheets. She grabs a loupe, but instead of putting it to her eye and carefully examining the images she puts it up to her nose, runs it across the top row of the contact sheet, and sniffs loudly.

It’s a sight gag first and an in-joke about the fashion world second, but it’s also, maybe, a metaphor for the complex, ridiculous relationship between labor and drug use. A metonym? A parable. It’s complicated.

With drugs, as with sex, we’ve spent much of the 2000s publicly unraveling a set of naturalized correspondences with drugs. Just as “sex ed” taught us that promiscuity was a hell-bound domain of the STI-riddled outcast, so DARE taught us that the kind of people who “do” drugs are not the kind of people who go to college and have careers. With the advent of AIDS, especially, pleasure became regimented by an Old Testament fear of pollution in which drug use and promiscuous sex were two faces of the same moral decay. Drug use, like promiscuity, was prominently antithetical to family, wealth, and all the other social hallmarks of success. Except it turns out that plenty of housewives love anal, and cocaine is ubiquitous among doctors completing their residency. Allegedly. The old oppositions just won’t do anymore.

“Drugs,” as a category, is inadequate and dissatisfying. The same substance can be perfectly legal in some places and times and criminal in others (ketamine). Some substances are “scheduled” completely out of proportion to their effects and dangers, like marijuana, which remains formally a “Schedule I” drug despite being legal in much of the U.S. Others, like alcohol, are completely legal and absurdly widespread despite their socially awkward and often fatal effects. There’s no meaningful correspondence between “drug” and “medication,” either. Ginger, available at many bodegas and most supermarkets, is better for clearing your sinuses than any number of pills you need a government-issued photo ID to buy at Walgreens. Is coca a drug if you just chew the leaves without processing them?

The prescription drugs that are most socially acceptable are also those that maximize our ability to live on time

The questions get even sloppier if we define “productivity drugs” as substances that in some way enhance our capacity to act or ability to accomplish a task or tasks. By that measure, the banana you have before you go to the gym is a productivity-enhancing drug. That’s silly, right? Okay, but what if the potassium from 12 bananas were extracted and put into pill form? Would that be a performance-enhancing drug? It’s tempting to compose a theory of drug forms instead of drug use. Pills and needles call to mind “drugs” immediately but the two most widespread and acceptable drugs in our society are both usually drinks — caffeine and alcohol. Back when opium and cocaine were widespread and acceptable they were often purchased from the pharmacist as “tinctures.” Perhaps the idea of a liquid is more socially palatable than the idea of a compressed powder. But I digress.

“Clearly,” wrote Gilles Deleuze in his 1978 essay “Two Questions On Drugs,” “no one knows what to do with drugs, not even the users. But no-one knows how to talk about them, either.” Neither of these statements turn out to be quite true. With drugs, as with sex, what people do and what people say rarely seem to correspond. This is perhaps because no issue or idea other than sex is situated at the intersection of so many overlapping and often competing systems of regimentation, classification, and prohibition. A “scientific” or “medical” categorization of drugs does not have the same agenda as a juridical or penal one; and by the same measure, the drugs that encourage and facilitate social well-being may not always be the drugs that encourage and facilitate your own well-being. All this is complicated by the fact that what we think of as distinct fields are often clouded by each other’s clout. Faulty research can lead to widespread modifications of legal and investigative procedures, as the recent invalidation of FBI hair “tests” showed; political pressures can have great impact on “scientific knowledge.”

If drugs parallel sex in the complexity and self-contradiction of their conception, use, and prohibition, perhaps that’s because, like sex and sexuality, “drugs” span an enormous range of effects and activities, some immensely beneficial to the social order and others considerably less so. Like few other forces or concepts in our social existence, “sex” and “drugs” exemplify activity as a locus of will and agency. Simply put, it is impossible — as of now — for our society to continue to exist without both sex and drugs. And the forces that organize our lives have not — as of now — figured out how to give us access to sex and drugs to the degree necessary without also giving us access in ways that can and often do destroy us and extinguish our social utility. As of now, you remain, with few exceptions, the final adjudicator of moderation in your relationship to sex and to drugs. Situated at the intersection of subjective agency and systemic power, both concepts open onto the entire range of questions of what it means to be individual thinking entities in a social field. And in late capitalism, what it means to be an individual thinking entity is first and foremost existence as a laboring body exploited for its productive capacities.

Discussing the advent of Taylorism — or “scientific” labor management — the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote in the 1930s that “the American phenomenon [is] the biggest collective effort to date to create, with unprecendented speed, and with a consciousness of purpose unmatched in history, a new type of worker and of man … Taylor is in fact expressing with brutal cynicism the purpose of American society — developing in the worker to the highest degree the automatic and mechanical attitudes, breaking up the old psycho-physical nexus of qualified professional work.” Technologies we might summarize as “drugs” have played a fundamental role in the 20th- and now 21st-century process of reshaping the human into a productive machine. Modern capitalism is unthinkable without the production, distribution, and consumption of caffeine, which enables millions of people to arrive at work at roughly the same time and have their brains switched on by the time they have to start “producing,” not to mention offering a crucial legal bump later in the day when the body’s internal cycle of waking and rest is often subordinate to the contractual obligations of employment.

The progress of capitalism for at least a hundred years now has corresponded with an increasingly successful and inventive system for regimenting the time, labor, expenditure, and corporeality of the worker. This regimentation includes modifying when people wake up, when they sleep, when they relax, and when they eat, not to mention when they fuck and shit. The social value and function of all drugs, including those we sometimes call “productivity drugs,” are closely linked with temporality and productive labor: Time is always a factor. The inability of the addict to “function in society” isn’t a feature of an innate moral failure so much as a symptom of the divergent relation to temporality that the drug user experiences. You’re up late, or you’re nodding off, or you need a fix, or you have to leave work to score, or your dealing doesn’t come on time, or you sleep in because you’re hung over, or you see pink elephants on the ceiling for 14 hours straight. With drugs as with sexual deviation, acceptability is linked with an ability to continue fulfilling your social obligations, to not damage yourself too visibly, and to avoid embarrassing yourself or anyone else too much. That includes, in many professions, letting your boss or your co-workers see just how much effort you’re putting into effortless success. On reflection, it’s astounding what proportion of those three imperatives has to do with doing things and being places at the right time. Be at work on time and get your work done on time and finish at the gym fast enough so you get to the concert on time and get to bed on time so you can be in the shower on time in the morning and get that lump checked in time before it turns into something and get your teeth cleaned regularly and respond neither too fast nor too slow to things people say and above all know when to stop, know how much is enough.

Drugs, as we’re prescribed them, are for things we’re supposed to be doing anyway

Morality, it turns out, is primarily a relationship between time and the body. It’s this relationship with time which is affected by virtually every substance we might think of as a “drug.” The government’s “scheduling” process is less concerned with lethality, health, or risk than with the relationship of controlled substances to value-production, a half-scientific, half-ideological effort that is aided and abetted by the ad-buying and lobbying power of various drug-makers. The prescription drugs that are most socially acceptable are also those that maximize our ability to live on time in every sense of the word, whether that means coffee to get to the office on time or a laxative to get your bowels moving on time or a little bit of powder to keep you going for another hour until your friends are done having a good time. At the average social event, the fascinating sole exception to this generalization is alcohol, which deserves a separate essay regarding its relation to time and labor.

As the Human Machine Project progresses, the old correspondences of morality bend from necessity to avoid breaking. If you hang out around pill-takers of any stripe, really, you will eventually hear “Ambien stories.” These stories vary wildly in content but uniformly involve various acts of sleep-activity, from walking to the convenience store for cigarettes even though you don’t smoke to cooking a Thanksgiving meal in the middle of the night in July. These stories aren’t remarkable for the “wildness” of their content, which tends to be weird rather than spectacular. There are plenty of other drugs that make you act equally odd — PCP straight-up makes certain people psychotic — but you don’t randomly hear “LSD stories” at dinner parties; nor do you often hear stories about other sleeping pills. What makes Ambien odd is that its effects are surprisingly varied for a legally prescribed medication. Its effects can run counter to a pharmaceutical definition of productivity: Drugs, as we’re prescribed them, are for things we’re supposed to be doing anyway, whether that’s sleeping or working or exercising. Ambien is not illicit, and it rarely makes you do illicit things. It does, however, lead you to do things when you’re not supposed to be doing them, which making it highly unusual for a socially-acceptable and widely prescribed drug.

When I was a graduate student, I felt incredibly “productive” if I sat up all night reading a book by one of my advisors. I felt considerably less productive if I sat up all night reading graphic novels. It is absolutely not a question of “production” in the sense of making things: You’re supposed to take an Adderall to finish your homework, not to make 7,000 origami frogs in different color combinations. Which isn’t to say that you couldn’t drop out of school and start an Etsy shop for origami frogs; but that would be to translate what you do while on drugs back into the sign system of social exchange value, effectively eliminating any qualitative trace of the drug. The difference between regular frogs and frogs you made on Adderall is purely a difference of quantity: a fundamental social requirement of a “productivity drug” is that it leave no trace of its product, neither in the bloodstream of an Olympian nor in the addled syntax of a 4 a.m. sophomore essay. What we demand of “productivity drugs” over and above other legal drugs like alcohol and (basically) weed is a transparency of quality. What a productivity drug is supposed to produce is an abstract and purely qualitative “more.” It isn’t supposed to alter our behavior; it’s supposed to increase our capacities.

We are, alas, finite beings. We are finite in body, limited in extension. We are finite in perception, limited in mind. We are finite in life expectancy, limited in time. We can be awake for only a finite number of hours before sleep becomes necessary; we can only burn so many calories before food becomes necessary. So fundamental is finitude to the human existence that the greatest philosopher who ever lived, Baruch Spinoza, made human finitude a cornerstone of his flawless metaphysical system, the Ethics, setting the finitude of humanity in glorious counterpoint to the flawless infinity of substance itself, Deus sive Natura. Finitude is the fundamental nature of the human condition. And god damn are there a lot of emails to respond to within the framework of that finitude.

How do we make more people do more things in less time? This is the problem with which the forces we can most easily designate as “Taylorist” have struggled for centuries, always in the shadow of the human body’s limitations, and which can be divided into two linked parts. One part was confronted in the first wave of the Industrial Revolution with the rise of automation and machine labor: How do we reduce the time-cost of the productive action? That is, how do we get X amount of labor in Y amount of time instead of Z amount of time, which it used to take? The other part was confronted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Taylorists and Fordists whose primary question was not only reducing the time-cost of productive action but reducing the amount of time lost to un-productive action.

A fundamental social requirement of a “productivity drug” is that it leave no trace of its product. It isn’t supposed to alter our behavior; it’s supposed to produce an abstract “more”

We like to think of perpetual distractedness as a fundamentally modern condition, but a certain degree of “lost time” is the inherent nature not only of labor but of life. A certain part of every day will be lost to pausing, to blinking, to pissing, to eating, to walking between the bedroom and the kitchen. As the basic ratio between the amount to do and the time to do it in continues to skew, modernity has invented for us a battery of techniques to address these two basic dimensions of the problem. And directly at the intersection of these two imperatives, doing things faster and wasting less time, are so-called “productivity drugs.” Behind the widespread use of these substances is the fantasy of the pure, undefinable, but ultimately quantifiable more, the pure capacity.

But this dream belies the necessary chain of cause and effect. A banana before the gym might boost your performance, but it won’t boost anything if you don’t then go to the gym. The same is true of taking Ritalin if you don’t then do your homework. We are once again left with the basic problem of the limited individual mind, forced by the exigencies of reality to make decisions incessantly.

“All drugs,” says Deleuze, “involve speeds, modifications of speed, thresholds of perception, forms and movements.” We’ve already considered form and movement, however ironically. The fundamental questions here seem to be less of categorization or legality than of speed and perception. We can narrow our object to those technologies of speed and perception which are consumed by the body in their use (I call a technology anything that we know to increase the capacities of the body; it is, in its broadest sense, a means of doing things). A car is a technology of speed, but you put yourself in the car and not the car in yourself. Oculus Rift is a technology of perception, but it isn’t consumed in use nor does it enter the body.

We do many things with drugs, on drugs, and to drugs. But one of the things drugs do to us is show us the ways in which consciousness — and by extension subjectivity — complicates the process of quantification that stabilizes and organizes our shared social reality. This is where the question of speed comes in.

The quantifying logic of contemporary capitalism assumes a fundamental commensurability between the things we use to measure value. Time, money, and even the measurements by which objects — like energy, mass, volume, and speed — are quantified are symbols that help us compare unlike things with a nominal degree of consistency. You can only pay someone by the hour if you have some way to measure hours; you can only measure hours if there’s some recognized standard for their duration.

These networks of overlapping convention not only help us measure and make sense of the world around us, they are the world around us, insofar as without them, we cannot conceive of the system of flows and exchanges that is global late capitalism.

We live in a world of relentless correspondences, constantly translating between measures of value to give coherence to our experiences and perceptions. But those fixed relations of value do not determine the world, they merely struggle to describe it, and our consciousness always strains to grasp the world more precisely than standardized units of measurement can allow. An hour is always the same length, yet an hour in the park on a Sunday seems to breeze by while an hour at work on a Monday ticks past so slowly that you could swear the clock was frozen. That feeling of sheer impossibility at the stubbornness of measurement is the sensation of the difference between time and duration: time being the division of events into discrete units of identical length, and duration being the condition of perception. Continuity is pure temporality; duration is behind time, it is infinity itself. To perceive a strain on continuity is to feel time overcoding and compressing duration, even as it resists. That last hour of work on a Friday crawls with painful slowness, but it’s not over until the clock tells you it is, even if you’re absolutely convinced it’s been 90 minutes.

Your relationship to the clock on your desk has essentially three parts: your own sense of temporality; your own actions; and a social sense of temporality. What drugs do, to put it simply, is chop off one corner of that triangle. A “productive” drug is supposed to remove from the equation your own perception of temporality: It is supposed to make your body’s action accord with a social construction of temporality. An “unproductive” drug, on the other hand, reaffirms the link between your body’s activities and your own perception of temporality, ignoring or overriding the social sense of time. The problem, of course, is that it is often the very same substance which can erode the usual triangulation in both directions. Popping that Adderall might help you get work done during that last Friday hour in the office, but it might also lead you to compulsively rearrange the icons on your desktop for 55 minutes of that hour.

There was a brief time when email was an activity, singular, like writing a letter or knitting a sweater or going to the gym. For me that window was roughly from 1996 to 2001 or 2002. That was the period during which email was something I sat down to do once or twice a day, sometimes once every three days. It was, with virtually no exception, a voluntary thing: nothing crucial or professional or legal or official happened over email back then. More importantly, email was a fundamentally limited thing. Some days there might be a few more messages than normal; some days a particularly heartfelt or exciting moment might prompt a longer-than-usual missive. But by and large, email was something you sat down to do and could finish in one sitting. That is no longer the case. Most of us check our email multiple times a day; many of us receive continuous, automatic notifications as new emails arrive. “Inbox zero” has long since ceased to be a daily reality and has become an aspirational goal. Email is one of the easiest examples of a widespread general phenomenon: With the assistance of portable digital technology (okay, just say “smartphone”) what used to be specific events or activity have gradually become ongoing processes.

The thing with processes is that they don’t correspond to specific moments. When does a process happen? All the time. And as more and more of what used to be time-and-place-specific activities become all-the-time processes, it becomes increasingly impossible to alleviate the tension in your relationship to the clock, the feeling that things don’t quite line up right. In other words, as the affordances of modern science “disrupt” existing limitations on exchange by breaking it down into processes, it also makes increasingly untenable the ideological conventions that help convince us we’re in the right place at the right time. We’re not medicating to get more shit done; we’re medicating to get rid of that increasingly convincing sense that we’re really not supposed to be here doing this at all. What does it mean to “speed up” something that is a continuous process rather than an individual action taking a fixed amount of time? It means nothing but to overclock, to intensify; it can’t ever mean to end or conclude.

We do not yet know what the body can do. There’s no way to be sure what the upper and lower limits of its possible accomplishments are; there’s no way to prove that a feat would have been impossible without chemical enhancement. The thing with the abstract “more” promised by the fantasy of productivity drugs is that “more” is always potential until expressed in an action. Actions, however, occur within certain thresholds of identity and difference. It can be a little different every time, but it has to be similar enough to be the same action. So while the quantified “more” of productivity drugs is never a definite amount until after the fact, there is a finitude to the range of intensity an action can encompass before becoming another action. A pen can only cross the paper so fast without tearing it. A baseball bat can only hit the chest so hard before breaking the ribs. Drug use is experienced as a modification of capacity within certain parameters; the basic consistency of these parameters is what makes it “the same” experience even though the intensity of the experience can be divergent in relation to itself. This is the variability of the experience.

We need to introduce a third axis of analysis along with speed and perception: variability. Consider the aforementioned psychoactives, acid and shrooms, whose effects are a little less predictable than weed, coke, or even ecstasy. You might trip quietly in a corner, making you weird but bearable. Or you might freak the fuck out, making you socially dysfunctional. The rigor of normalized social behavior in a particular group and the variability of an acceptable substance’s effects tend to be inversely proportionate.

What “productivity drugs” do, in short, is alter the perceived relationship between subjective time and universal time. Of the three axes, perception, speed, and variability, they are substances that have limited variability and largely alter the perception of a single relationship, that of consciousness to time. “Productivity drugs” are those drugs whose effects are largely on the axis of speed: They make you do things faster. But because they are designed to make you do what you were already going to do, they can’t ensure in any meaningful way that the “productivity” that results from them is consistent with monetary forms of value-production. That’s because the relationship between productive labor and social value is complicated by the niggling insistence of something we tend to call consciousness: the set of drives and impulses that you understand as your own, as, well, “you.”

What used to be specific events or activities, like answering emails, have gradually become ongoing processes. “Speeding up” a continuous process means to overclock, to intensify; it can’t ever mean to end or conclude

The use of drugs in human society is as old as our society itself, but it has always corresponded to the logic of the ritual, of the event. The extreme drunkenness on New Year’s Eve; the three-day ayahuasca retreat; the one time a year you do acid in the middle of the desert: these all correspond with ceremonial or at least socially acknowledged opportunities to disrupt the rhythm of daily life and its accompanying mores. Alcohol and ayahuasca and LSD can be qualitatively disruptive (they can alter perception radically) to the precise degree to which the person who consumes them can afford to detach from the qualitative system of continuous value-production for the duration of the disruption. That’s why more and more rich people are crowding Burning Man; who else can afford the time off and the cost of travel? The ubiquity of productivity drugs, on the other hand, is determined by their capacity to affect quantities and presumably leave qualities untouched. To fulfill that function, they must be as predictable in their effects as possible; they must affect speed, but leave variability and perception largely untouched.

What we want from drugs, from a social perspective, is certainty: We want to know we’ll be able to get all this work done; we want to know our roll will peak at the same time as our friends when we go out. The logic of temporal social organization is much the same. What drugs give us, instead, is capacity: an extension of our abilities and our range, whether that means the range of motor actions our body can perform or the range of social settings we are comfortable experiencing ourselves in. What drugs do to and for us has almost entirely to do with the material world, with its relative speeds and perceptions, but what we want from drugs has almost entirely to do with the mind. We want drugs to alleviate our anxiety. Instead they increase our capacity to do what we’re anxious about.

Meanwhile, for all the immense labyrinth of quantification that surrounds drugs, certainty and precision in their use remain under the purview of consciousness. You have to remember to take your birth control for it to work; you have to decide how much Adderall you really need that day to get shit done and how much will leave you tapping your feet and looking at your nails for an hour and a half; and you have to remember to take the fucking Molly when everyone else does and not be the greedy bitch doing a line alone in the bathroom at the pregame and finding out 45 minutes later everyone took theirs while you were in there. Drugs are meted out to use in what are probably the most precise units of measurement we encounter in daily life. What other substances do you need exactly 25 milligrams of? The massive discursive and industrial apparatus that brings us this precision is unable for all its efforts and threats and promises to uncouple the effects of its measurements from the vicissitudes and needs of human nature.

Even when some of those vicissitudes and needs are met or matched by activity, we have another problem: We still don’t have a way to fully uncouple the activities undertaken by a body with enhanced capacities from the deliberate determination of individual consciousness. Someone’s individual consciousness. You could be made into a pure flesh automaton, but someone or something would still have to tell you what to do, and you would still have to be able to do it. What we are experiencing as a “lack of productivity” is not an inability to perform labor so much as an inability to determine which form of productive action we’re even supposed to be performing in the first place. The pharmakon we are prescribed enhances the capacities of the body; the problem we seek to address is the weight of encroaching anxiety on the mind. Which is why, with all our productivity drugs, we still manage to be less productive than ever: because buying bigger speakers doesn’t improve the sound if all that’s playing is static.

Once, in the vague long-ago between prehistory and modernity, time was secondary to activity and event. Before winter was the months between December and March, it was the cold, dead part of the year. Before there were 24 hours in a day there were alternating phases of light and dark. It is not the fact of quantified time that gives rise to seasons, cycles, and events: It is the recurrence of events at what we perceive to be fixed intervals that gives rise to the idea of blank, empty, divisible time. The fact that different cultures have different numbers of days in a month and in a year — the fact that some calendars are lunar and some are solar—is plentiful indication of the fact that quantified time is nothing but our imprecise effort to precisely divide and measure the intervals at which we experience cyclic events, and not a fixed fact of existence. Before the advent of quantified time, “work” was something you did when appropriate to the activity, not when the clock said so. A fisherman went to work at the hour best suited to catching fish; a baker timed his baking to match when people would show up in the morning expecting bread; a person with a seasonal job had nothing to do in between seasons. But as the web of translatable quantification spreads across the world, activities come to align not with our perception of the world’s time but our idea of social time.

Productivity drugs don’t take a “normal” or “average” person and “boost” their productivity. That is not their nature. Their true nature, misnomer notwithstanding, is to struggle to patch up the gap between our body’s capacities and the social idea of those capacities. Productivity drugs may incidentally help us make things; but they are prescribed to help us resolve the cognitive tension between what we’re doing and what we think we should be doing. Productivity drugs, in short, are better ethics through chemistry.

The question whether one should take productivity drugs is an asinine one, to be honest. Should we be driving cars? No, we should be preserving the planet. But that is a scope of ethical speculation considerably beyond our current purposes. Instead we can conclude by returning one last time to the question of cost. As with most cures demanded by anxiety rather than by the body’s need, productivity drugs incur costs that are often hidden. That’s the cost of doing business with an entity that was stupid enough to evolve the capacity for surviving despite continuous anxiety: It might be so worried about getting a solid day’s work done that it will spend two or three days tracking down the drugs to do it. The time you spend worrying someone will find out you’re taking something and the time you may or may not spend worrying whether you’re taking too much are also examples of labor time lost to anxiety, potentially defeating the purpose of the drug in the first place. People are pretty ridiculous that way. And meanwhile all that capacity, all that abstract “more,” is sitting there, waiting to be used while you worry someone will notice.

Take “productivity drugs” if you want. Just keep an eye on two basic things: How happy are you with the “product” you’re producing, and what is the sum cost of the drug? That doesn’t just mean what you pay out of pocket when you pick up your prescription; it also means: How much time do you spend trying to track it down? How many days are you hung over and incapacitated after you go crazy with it? If Ritalin lets you do five hours of work in three hours, but you spend four hours the next morning rehydrating in the dark because your head hurts, that pill has actually cost you an hour. At that point, the only thing that still counts is the specificity of the actions accomplished in those three hours of peak speed craze. Was the work too urgent to wait? Was the payment higher if it was finished sooner? Were you really really excited and really wanted to get it done and email a picture of it finished to someone? Did you find the conversation at that party absolutely fascinating and work a half-day of jaw pain from all the teeth grinding the next morning? These are the subjective dimension of value that are not only impossibly and absolutely subjective but also irreducibly contextual.

The question of drug use will never be separate from the questions of agency and of the ability of the mind to rationally adjudicate its own best interest; the anxiety induced in us by these questions can be alleviated but not answered by using drugs. In short, my answer to the question “Should I take Adderall and do X” rarely differs from my answer to the question “Should I do X.” If you shouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t do it faster or longer, either. And if you do do it, whether you should be doing it or not, make sure to stay hydrated, get plenty of rest, and eat a banana.

Fuck Theory is a New York-based scholar and critical thinker. Not critical like critique, but critical like don’t leave home without it. For more, there’s Tumblr.