Editors’ Introduction for NANO Special Issue 9: Intoxication
by Alexine Fleck and Ingrid Walker
Published April 2016
We do not object to the drug user’s pleasure per se, but we cannot abide
the fact that his is a pleasure taken in an experience without truth.
– Jacques Derrida
In “The Rhetoric of Drugs,” Jacques Derrida points out that mainstream (sober) culture tends to moralize about the pleasure derived from drug use, as if the escape “into a world of simulacrum” is an empty and untrue experience (22). Of course, Derrida most likely does not really believe this statement himself; he is describing cultural assumptions about the pleasures of intoxication. For a philosopher whose very prose challenges any false comforts of “truth,” Derrida knows that such a standard is too slippery to be taken at face value. Yet he puts his finger on a common cultural supposition about intoxication: that it is an illusory state of mind. We, the editors of this NANO issue on Intoxication, propose that rather than being “an experience without truth,” intoxication is potentially an extremely pleasurable truth. It is a moment when a person reduces him- or herself simply to a body that perceives itself as perceiving even if, from the outside, the sober witness sees only what appears to be the absence of (common) sense. We might avert our eyes from the drunken slob at the end of the bar, or the kid riding the crest of a sugar high, or the user on the nod, comfortable in the knowledge that we already know intoxication. But perhaps we have moved too quickly and missed an opportunity to see intoxication as more than something to be passed over between more “productive” and “rational” moments of sobriety.
Intoxication, as defined by the World Health Organization, is the condition that “follows the administration of a psychoactive substance and results in disturbances in the level of consciousness, cognition, perception, judgement, affect, or behaviour, or other psychophysiological functions and responses.” Even though it is a common and widespread practice, intoxication presents us with a cultural conundrum. Individual “sprees of abandon,” as Lee Stringer referred to intoxicating excesses, are fraught with social tensions because these acts are often understood as harmful to the self and others, particularly in today’s recovery-oriented culture (9). By linking intoxication with supposedly inevitable outcomes such as addiction, disease, incarceration, or death, scholars rarely look at intoxication as a valuable means or end in itself. This imperative to focus on what is risky about intoxication all but eclipses the possibility of intoxication as a desirable state. What is often lost in scholarly discussions of intoxication is a recognition of “user agency,” the rational ability to choose that state of being along with the reasons one might want to make that choice. In this sense, intoxication offers a tantalizing paradox: what looks like chaos, insanity, or simply a waste of time from the outside can feel like order, transcendence, or inspiration from the inside.
“Baked - Episode 2: Grandmas Smoking Weed for the First Time (Condensed Version).” YouTube. 19 Nov. 2014.
Intoxication can be euphoric and expansive. It can also be chaotic and incoherent. At times, intoxication is joyful or silly; at others, it is downright angry or greedy. The challenge of describing this transitory condition underscores its complexity. Even the etymological origins of the term reflect a blurred boundary between elixir and poison. As Joseph Gabriel points out in the Afterword to this issue, intoxication risks (and promises) an obliteration of the self—if only temporarily. It exceeds its own containment, as reflected in terms like getting “trashed” or “wasted.” Terms like these indicate a deeply ingrained assumption that intoxication is garbage to be thrown away. However, perhaps what is to be found in the unstable temporality of intoxication is neither disposable nor wasteful. The essays in this issue of NANO: New American Notes Online presume that there is treasure to be found if one just digs a bit through the trash of wasted time.
The notion that intoxication might have its uses is not new, as Charles Baudelaire famously reminds all who will heed his advice: “So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk,” on wine or virtue or whatever else might float your boat (71). Both intoxication and sober reflection upon intoxication serve to free humanity from the pressures of the world at the same time that they shake humanity from its collective stupor. Whether we choose to pursue such intoxicated mindfulness through hashish, wine or tequila, sugar, or the theater—as the authors in this issue suggest—we as scholars must bring intoxication itself out of the gutter to see what it has to show us. How else might we—both scholars and denizens of the twenty-first century—escape what Lauren Hawley terms a “narcotized habit of mind” but through the “euphoric expansion” of intoxication?
In this issue, we seek to reconceptualize intoxication through a series of multidisciplinary analyses. The analyses included here explore the possibilities of understanding intoxication as an intentional performance and a transgression of cultural norms. By reflecting on what intoxication can offer to the user and/or what it might provide as a lens to scholars, these pieces open up a very different dialogue about this relatively unexamined state of being. It is either a very happy coincidence or evidence of some sort of intoxicated zeitgeist that these very varied articles overlap in such provocative ways while, at the same time, pushing at the boundaries of scholarly conventions and definitional assumptions. Refracted through these analyses, intoxication becomes a human practice that is normalized as an expression of intentional agency that is well worth scholarly exploration.
In her interview with sociology and legal studies scholar Craig Reinarman, Ingrid Walker asks why, in an American culture that exalts in the pleasures of food and drink, we struggle to talk about other intoxicating pleasures. Reinarman posits that to explore the factors that “make our culture uniquely vulnerable to fears of altered states of consciousness,” we need credible models that situate drug use as a normalized practice rather than as a deviant behavior. Borrowing from Michel Foucault, Reinarman argues that we might think holistically about our drug use practices to “carve out discursive space between abstention and addiction, cultural space in which the use of such ‘technologies of the self’ is normalized.” In this context, intoxication might be understood as but one form of altered consciousness and corporeal agency that Americans perform regularly.
To seek “credible models” that help us understand and normalize intoxication, we turn to how the story of substance use and abuse is told. In “Coming to (the History of) Our Senses,” Kyle Bridge calls for a new mode of inquiry into the history of drug use, arguing that, “we as historians should not necessarily focus on sensory inputs, or even how they typically affect brains and bodies, but instead on how historical actors interpret that sensory input.” When even the taste of wintergreen is culturally contingent (British can’t stand it; Americans love it), how can historians look back and know the experience of ingesting any substance? Indeed, how can historians attend to the ephemera of any sensory experience, inflected as it is through the particulars of any person in any moment? Bridge’s work is exciting in that it takes a mode of inquiry that might easily contribute to a biochemically seductive trap of a-historical analysis and repurposes it to refuse just such an essentialism. It is through attending to the particulars of individual experience contextualized in history, Bridge argues, that the field of drug and alcohol studies can return to and better grasp the particular moments in which something is taken to produce intoxication.
Much as Bridge’s piece works against an ahistorical reading of intoxication as simply a matter of biochemistry, Michelle McClellan’s essay, “The Price of Eternal Vigilance: Women and Intoxication,” also resists overly simplistic interpretations of intoxication. McClellan argues that the “cultural meaning of intoxication is shaped profoundly by the reality that we seem to only hear about it from women who have given it up.” This is a problem when it obscures the reasons why women seek out alcohol. Resisting the seemingly inevitable trajectory of addiction and recovery narratives, McClellan introduces the concepts of “dry” and “wet” feminism to draw attention to both the cultural expectations women face and the ways that intoxication might serve as a form of resistance. By refusing to see intoxication as a sort of false consciousness from which women must awake, McClellan demonstrates that it reflects female ambivalence about mothering, sexuality, and pleasure itself.
Yessica Garcia Hernandez’s piece, “Intoxication as Feminist Pleasure” takes up McClellan’s challenge to find alternatives to the seemingly inevitable slippery slope of user narratives that lead from intoxication to addiction and then to recovery. Garcia Hernandez presents a subculture of unabashed, unambivalent, and unapologetic “wet” feminism. During the concerts of the Chicana singer, Jenni Rivera, intoxication is divorced from the pressures of respectability by both Rivera and her fans, who continue to celebrate the singer and her name brand tequila even after her death. “Instead of viewing intoxication as shameful, particularly for women,” Garcia Hernandez writes, it can be a “suspension of time, a feminist pleasure” and a means of empowerment through which women embrace sexuality and drunkenness as embodied by Rivera. Specifically, Rivera facilitates her fans’ bacchanal refusal of the limited self-expression afforded Latina women through her masterful inversion of the double standard of gender norms. Unlike the deeply ambivalent, largely white culture of mommies who drink as described by McClellan, Garcia Hernandez demonstrates that intoxication can also serve as a flat refusal to conform or even to feel guilty ambivalence about gender roles and gendered ideas of intoxication.
In “Sugar Highs and Lows: Is Sugar Really a Drug?” Kima Cargill engages a broader set of dynamics inherent to American drug discourses through the intoxicant du jour: sugar. Cargill explores the cultural politics of the inclusion of sugar in the category of powerful psychoactive substance. She argues that sugar acts as fulcrum to “a see-saw of opposing forces” between moralistic and scientific discourses about how we regulate consumption, intoxication, and health. Cargill traces how sugar has been subject both to moral panic-mongering and nutritional scapegoating. Sugar occupies an interesting position because it is something we eat to live, but also something we (should not) live to eat, if we may borrow from Moliere’s axiom about eating and living. As such, it seems to have become a substitute for other addictive drugs, perhaps expressing more of an anxiety about our culture of excess than an actual worry about sugar as an intoxicant or addictive substance. As a topic of inquiry in this special issue, Cargill’s analysis demonstrates that sugar disrupts elemental definitions of key terms such as drug, addiction, and intoxication.
Lauren Hawley’s piece, “‘Fringes blown by the wind’: High Hopes for Expanded Consciousness in Benjamin and Brecht,” takes up destabilized notions of intoxication in order to refigure “sobriety” as a narcotized state of conventionality and intoxication as the means of awakening. Hawley argues that both Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht use intoxication in order to achieve what she calls “euphoric expansion.” In her analysis, intoxication is no longer seen as a narcotized state into which one escapes from reality, but rather as a means of disrupting dangerous, “narcotized” habits of mind. Rather than producing an escapist comfort, intoxication creates discomfort, which can then “enhance one’s receptivity to thoughts, feelings, ideas, and objects that regimented patterns of consciousness tend to repress.” This is a meta-intoxication of sorts, one that follows Antonin Artaud’s command that, although “everything encourages us to sleep,” we must use aesthetic production such as the theater to “wake and yet look about us as in a dream, with eyes that no longer know their function and whose gaze is turned inward” (11). In this sense, Hawley argues that euphoria and intoxication operate, for Benjamin and Brecht, as a form of critical inquiry and consciousness.
We asked historian of medicine, Joseph Gabriel, to reflect on intoxication in the Afterword to this issue. In “Intoxication as a Zone of Exception,” Gabriel turns our eye to what lies past intoxication: getting trashed or wasted. Even as he concedes that intoxication at its extreme marks the impossible boundary beyond the articles collected in this issue, he refuses to throw out the excess with the trash of its own terminology. Taken in the context of Michel Foucault's and Giorgio Agamben’s theories, extreme intoxication represents a user’s resistance to the ways that enlightenment rationality comes up against and frames individual agency. Agamben’s liberal democratic state and Foucault’s biopower entrap the self via the discipline of the subject as individual. If biopower at its extreme facilitates the power of the state to decide who lives and who dies, then intoxication represents the exceptional moment of de-subjectification when an individual decides, no, I believe I shall obliterate myself on my own, at least for a little while. Assuming that individual sobers up eventually, there is no real outside or beyond, but there can be moments in which the progress of the self through history is interrupted by the self, altered. And after all, isn’t that what intoxication does for all of us?
As states decriminalize and even legalize additional means of intoxicating the self, we look forward to new thinking about intoxication as one way of being human in the world. We hope these essays will encourage more comprehensive discussions about intoxication. We especially hope that you have as much fun reading them as we did.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and its Double. New York: Grove P, 1958. Print.
Baudelaire, Charles. Paris Spleen. Trans. Keith Waldrop. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2009. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Rhetoric of Drugs: An Interview.” differences 5.1 (1993): 1-25. Print.
Springer, Lee. Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street. New York: Seven Stories P, 1998. Print.
World Health Organization, “Management of Substance Abuse.” n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/en/>
Cut.com. “Baked - Episode 2: Grandmas Smoking Weed for the First Time (Condensed Version).” YouTube. 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Alexine Fleck is Assistant Professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia. She writes about addiction and language. Her work attempts to use the tools of literary analysis to understand and legitimize the lived experiences of drug use and addiction. She writes for Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.
Ingrid Walker is Associate Professor of American Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma. She has published scholarship on the politics of American popular culture in journals and edited collections and is currently finishing a book on the effect of drug discourses in the United States. See her TEDx talk: Drugs and Desire.