Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The pharmakon revisited

Reading Ruden also put me in mind, once again, of the Greek word pharmakeia, which can often be translated as "the art of poisoning." I arrive at no conclusions on this basis, but in our indisputably over-medicated age, it is sometimes an apt description. I certainly do not reject modern medicine. Pharmakeia can also be translated as witchcraft, or sorcery, as it is in Galatians 5:20.

Reading Sarah Ruden last night put me in mind of Jacques Derrida's discourse on "The Pharmakon," specifically his demonstration about the problem of translation, namely that no single English word captures the play of signification of this ancient Greek word. In his exploration, Derrida traced the meanings assigned to pharmakon by examining Plato's dialogues, where it is used variously to refer to a remedy, a poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint. He was right to conclude that this word "is overdetermined" because it over-signifies, refers to too many things. So, by choosing one meaning translators often decide what in Plato's texts remains ultimately undecidable. It is always a problem of language.

It also makes me think of something a friend who was undergoing radiation therapy for cancer said to me: They pump you full of poison and see which dies first, you or the cancer.


  1. Overdetermined is a favorite concept for me. In grad school, I was taking three Milton-related classes and teaching one. On Valentine's Day, I received a rose with an anonymous invitation to discuss Milton.

  2. And of course, Milton was also the name of the toaster in Pop Tart commercials for many years.


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