Editors’ Note: We’re grateful to guest blogger Michael Durfee for adding to our ADHS conference reporting. Below is the first of three very insightful panel reviews he’s prepared. Michael is currently a doctoral candidate in History at SUNY Buffalo. He’s working on a dissertation that examines crack-era drug reform, racial conservatism, the state of race and police/resident relations in New York City, the emergence of hip-hop culture as a counter-narrative, and the politics of symbolism under the Reagan administration. At the Buffalo meeting, Michael presented a paper (“Len Bias and the Poltiics of the 1980s ‘Crack’ Panic”) which he’ll mention in the third and final of his reports.
David Courtwright began the afternoon by posing a fundamental question: Has the Internet exacerbated extant addiction? For Courtwright, the tentative answer appears to be an emphatic yes. In order to prove his case, Courtwright first points to what he refers to as “Limbic Capitalism”: The production, marketing, and distribution of goods and services that stimulate pleasure and emotional responses in the limbic region of the brain (gambling, junk food, internet addiction, etc.). Behaviors elicited by limbic capitalism take on characteristics of addiction and addictive behavior. Those of us with relatives or friends who spend ample time on social networking sites like facebook, or play Xbox into the early morning hours know all too well how this type of behavior mirrors that of someone, say, hooked on smack.
Most certainly, Limbic Capitalism has seen its profits increase as the internet provides an important medium for accessing much of the goods and services offered under the umbrella of Limbic Capitalism. Additionally, “problem profits” earned by other activities designed to fix problems created by limbic capitalism are also on the rise. A troubling example of fishing for problem profits comes through tracking cookies which advertise for rehab clinics on websites involving alcohol and drugs. Essentially, internet traffic surrounding drugs, alcohol, gambling, and even pornography all provide ready-made consumers for problem profits such as rehab facilities and self-help books and DVD’s.
Internet increases exposure and the availability of vice thereby increasing addictive behavior writ large. As Courtwright argues, vice has become both global and post-spatial in the Internet Age. Frequently, drug and alcohol scholars find that technology impacts both use and distribution. In the case of crack-cocaine, development of the new hybrid democratized consumption as its cheap price allowed even the poor to “beam up.” The Internet—in its own right—has also changed both use and distribution. Much like crack, the Internet has also had a democratizing effect, this time perhaps democratizing addiction itself.
Next on the panel, Joseph Gabriel argued compellingly that aesthetics shape how we perceive and understand addiction. Mainly, Gabriel used the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the grotesque to highlight the significance of aesthetics in shaping perceptions of drugs and drug users. As an example, Gabriel presented a picture of a shamed heroin addict along side a sunny presentation of a wilderness landscape with a smiling father and son fishing together. The ad—not surprisingly—was not in service of a Bass Pro Shop or some alternate sporting goods competitor, but rather, an add for oxycontin with the slogan, “it works.” It sure does (both the drug and the ad).
Rounding out the panel, Robert Stephens and Michael Montagne gave a joint presentation, attempting to bridge the gap between history and science. Stephens, a drug historian, and Montagne a social pharmacologist, set out to answer a few pertinent questions: How do we reconcile both camps? Is this a worthwhile endeavor? Where do history and science overlap? Arguing that the cultural turn has reached an impasse, Stephens asked the audience what might be next. A “return to science” perhaps?
Integrating non-pharmacological elements with formal pharmacology, Michael Montagne acknowledges the importance of social and cultural history in studying addiction. Attempting to ascertain the drug experience from the users perspective, Montagne sees that many of his colleagues are limiting their understandings of addiction by pledging their allegiance solely to science. So what conclusions, if any, might we draw? Ultimately Stephens and Montagne believe that there is no panacea, no silver bullet, to fix the problem. Despite this reality, both camps can benefit from the other and must remain open to positive, productive dialogue.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.