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‘Pharmakon’: the cure or the poison?

Posted on 01/08/2009 The ancient Greek word “pharmakon” is paradoxical and can be translated as “drug,” which means both “remedy” and “poison”. In “Plato’s Pharmacy”, Derrida traces the meanings assigned to “pharmakon” in Plato’s dialogues: remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint. Derrida notes: «This pharmakon, this “medicine”, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence». Derrida points out that the problem of restricting the multiple meanings of a given word is clearly a problem of translation, for the translator must choose, as in the case of “pharmakon”, to either translate it as remedy or as a poison. From the same root derives another word, “Pharmakos” (Greek: φαρμακος), which becomes later the term “pharmakeus”, meaning druggist, poisoner, by extension, wizard, magician or sorcerer. In ancient Athens, “Pharmakos” refered to a sacrifice ritual, a kind of societal catharsis, used to expiate and shut out the evil, out of the body and out of the city. “Pharmakos” was the name given to a human scapegoat (a slave, a cripple or a criminal) who was chosen to become an “outsider”, being expelled from the community at times of disaster (famine, invasion or plague) or at times of calendrical crisis, when purification was needed. The evil that had infected the city from ‘outside’ is removed and returned to the ‘outside’, forever. On the first day of the Thargelia, a festival of Apollo at Athens, two men, the “Pharmakoi”, were led out to the outside of the city walls and killed in order to purify the city’s interior: they could be thrown off from a cliff or burned, or, according to the earliest source (the iambic satirist Hipponax), being beaten and stoned, but not executed. In the event of any calamity, they sacrificed one or more humans, after being well-fed, and their ashes were scattered to the ocean. Plato plays with both ideas in “Phaedrus”. This platonic dialogue happens between Phaedrus and Socrates, who decide to journey OUT of the city to the countryside in order to discuss a written speech by the sophist Lysias, and consequently the virtues of the written word over speech. Socrates compares the written text to a “pharmakon”: «You seem to have discovered a DRUG for getting me OUT», he says, «A hungry animal can be driven by dangling a carrot or a bit of greenstuff in front of it; similarly if you proffer me speeches bound in books I don’t doubt you can cart me all around Attica, and anywhere else you please» (230d-e). Madness traverses all Plato’s “Phaedrus” and can be seen as “pharmakon”. Zizek points out:

Derrida wrote a critique of “Madness and Civilization”. Derrida published ”Of Grammatology”. searching for deeper and deeper interpretations. where he described his teacher’s reading of Descartes as a case of «structuralist totalitarianism». so that we do not have to locate discursive practices in the field of transformations in which they effectuate themselves» (Michel Foucault. Perhaps. the foundational work of his «deconstruction». “Mon corps. a refusal. an avoided risk. by which we are caught in endless textual analysis. What is at stake here? It’s the very definition of philosophy. of inability to think how philosophy itself is determined by something that escapes it: «could there be something prior or external to the philosophical discourse? Can the condition of this discourse be an exclusion. so that all that remains of them are marks for a reading. and. Schelling and Hegel. the invention of voices behind the texts. (…) There is nothing outside the text. “Pudenda origo”. where he states: “Reading (…) cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it. said Nietzsche with regard to religious people and their religion». already defies the principles of the derridian system. consequently. “Of Grammatology”).” (Jacques Derrida. the elision of the events which are produced in these practices. and. Derrida was Foucault’s student during the 1950s. Foucault accuses Derrida of inability to think the Outside of philosophy.«…throughout entire philosophy of subjectivity from Descartes through Kant. “Thought from the Outside” (1966). Although Foucault’s essay about Maurice Blanchot. why not. to Nietzsche and Husserl. the relationship between legitimate thinkers and illigitimate thinkers. . “Histoire de la folie à l’age classique”). Foucault waited till 1971 to respond to Derrida’s previous attacks. dismissing deconstruction as a «minor pedagogy». “pharmakon”. In 1967. This concept of “pharmakon” is involved in a famous debate between Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida about the relationship between ”cogito” and madness. and. which is madness». and reproaching his «most decisive modern representative» (Derrida) for «…the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces. bearing in mind the theme of the ‘outsider’ linked to the ”Pharmakos”. Foucault puts aside the formulation that “there is nothing outside the text”. Cogito is related to its shadowy double. In 1963. the assignation of the originary as /what is/ said and not-said in the text. the choice between two divergent methods of contemporary analysis (genealogy versus deconstruction). ce papier. ce feu”. comprising the distinction between textual traces and discursive practices. a fear? A suspicion rejected passionately by Derrida. so that we do not have to analyze the modes of the implication of the subject in the discourses. by extension.

. is not textual analysis. whether it’s that of lack. This Paper. or “jouissance” [Barthes' concept]. it means that every statement splits the subject that produces it. Deleuze’s “Foucault” (1986). that begins with Plato. . on the contrary. the form or logic of individual statements has been fixed by the “cogito”..Foucault’s “Folie et deraison: Histoire de la folie a l’age classique” (1961). or pleasure. who dedicated a book to Foucault. ie. by chronological order: Plato’s “Phaedrus“. A first welding of desire-lack is brought about. but discursive practice. which is the inheritor of a type of thinking which we could call ‘Western thought’. Lacan is the last Cartesian. ie. “Cogito”: this means that every statement is the production of a subject.Foucault’s ”My Body. the Lacanians. this repugnant thought of the “cogito” is not only a metaphysical thought. Foucault’s “Thought from the Outside” (1966). (…) This way of linking desire to a beyond. After Foucault’s death. in “Tel Quel” (1968). seems to have understood his differences in relation to Derrida: «…psychoanalysis. Derrida’s ”Cogito and the History of Madness” (1963). and secondly. (…) From Descartes to Lacan. . it goes without saying that desire is defined as a function of a field of transcendence. in “Foucault Live: Interviews” (1966-84). Some relevant sources. But changing the scapegoat. (…) Here one always recovers Descartes. . Lacan. formations in which texts and statements are interconnected with extra-textual mechanisms of power and control.. Everything starts from that. or the very fact.Edward Said’s “The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions” (1978). does it mean any real change at all? – we ask.Foucault’s method. And finally. And it isn’t by chance that it’s the same people who are doing it today. and which says that there are individual statements. in ”To Do Justice to Freud: The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis“. He analyses “dispositifs”. in “Paideia” (1971). it is the very sign. Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy”. It means that firstly. Descartes’ “Meditationes de prima philosophia” (1641). from there. It has been fixed by the “cogito” which comprehends the production of statements from the subject. This Fire“. . desire is desire for what one does not have. l’absence d’oeuvre” (1964). that you are lacking something. because today we are talking about Descartes. Derrida reactivates this controversy. (…) Western philosophy has always consisted in saying: if desire exists. Foucault’s “La folie. not with Descartes. Derrida’s “De La Grammatologie” (1967). 1973). it continues with Lacan» (Seminar of 26 March. Isn’t Freud cartesian? Isn’t Lacan cartesian? Deleuze. from a subject. and of posing the dualism between the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement. saying that the problem had to do with Freud.Foucault’s “Madness & Sorcery”.

Peter Pál Pebart. Madness and Religion: Derrida..Derrida’s “To Do Justice to Freud: The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis“. . Foucault and then Lacan” (2007). in “Critical Inquiry” (1994). .Slavoj Zizek’s “Cogito. . the Outside of Thought (2000). “The Thought of the Outside.