Chlorodyne: Telling Transformative Tales about a Drug Whose ‘Composition Cannot be Discovered’

[This is the abstract for the paper I am giving at Transforming Objects, 28-29 May 2012.]

My paper uses the controversies surrounding the well-known nineteenth-century proprietary medicine chlorodyne to explore the relation between commodity culture and the unknown. Chlorodyne was a proprietary medicine and, as such, its inventors, J. Collis Browne and John Thistlewood Davenport jealously protected its composition. However, this secret came under sustained pressure over the period. When rival versions of the drug appeared on the market, Browne and Davenport were unable to prove that their chlorodyne was the original without giving away its composition. When the British Medical Association looked for a test case in order to regulate the market in medicine, they chose chlorodyne and contrived a way to make it confess its constitution. By maintaining the mystery of its composition, its creators found that others were able to transform chlorodyne into something else

The composition of chlorodyne was not really a secret, but it functioned as such because of the way its materiality was rendered knowable by chemical, commercial, legal and medical discourse. By concentrating on two key moments in its history, this paper explores how the imponderable otherness of materiality is converted into a knowable set of properties that allow objects to play a part in social life. Through an analysis of chlorodyne, I argue that objects play an important cultural role, operating as interfaces to the unknown. Standing on the threshold of what is knowable, objects not only provide the material media of social relations, but also, in always exceeding the discourse that describe them, constitute an inexhaustible and generative resource for narrative desire.