One effect of this approach to composition, as many of Benjamin’s commentators have noted, would be to collapse the distinction between the “then” being examined and the “now” of its examination. And this is, indeed, something he consciously sets out to accomplish. After comparing his method to, “the process of splitting the atom,” he seeks to explain this provocative analogy by suggesting that the Passagenwerk, “liberates the enormous energies of history that are bound up in the “once upon a time” of classical historiography. The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the century.” (463)
Narcotics are, of course, one of the biggest preoccupations of Burroughs’s oeuvre. He does not apologize for his own addictions, but also explains how and why he had to overcome them. Vigorously opposed to anti-drug hysteria and the social ills to which he perceived it leading, he nevertheless lays bare the destructive aspects of drug use with unusual clarity. Ultimately, though, what sets him apart from the vast majority of addicts who have documented their experiences with pharmaceuticals, is his relentless destabilization of the terms of debate. Readers of Burroughs are more likely to come away with the conviction that taking drugs is dangerous than they are to come away with the conviction that they know what drugs are.
In one of the interviews Daniel Odier conducted with him in the late 1960s, first published in French and then translated into English as The Job, Burroughs gives his stance on philosophy. “The Aristotelian ‘either-or’ – something is either this or that – is one of the great errors of Western thinking, because it’s no longer true at all.” (48-49) Prompted to explain why this fundamental mistake has stood the test of time, he explains that, “there are certain formulas, word-locks, which will lock up a whole civilization for a thousand years. Now another thing is Aristotle’s is of identity: this is a chair. Now, whatever it may be, it’s not a chair, it’s not the word chair, it’s not the label chair. The idea that the label is the thing leads to all sorts of verbal arguments, when you’re dealing with labels, and think you’re dealing with objects.” (49) Burroughs then goes on to reinforce this critique of “arguing about labels,” emphasizing that, “when you’re talking about things like democracy, communism and fascism that have no clear-cut references, no clear-cut thing to which they refer, you’re not talking about anything.” (49)
The problem of “not talking about anything” lies at the foundation of the aesthetic strategies he deploys. He wants to pick the “word-locks” that keep humankind in chains. And this goal encompasses the labels associated with substance abuse as fully as the labels associated with politics. In the end, drugs are only “drugs” because of a classificatory apparatus that transforms arbitrary decisions into the semblance of nature.