Points Bibliography: Drug Use in the Past and Present

Editor’s Note:  These entries are part of an ongoing drug-related dissertation bibliography being compiled by Jonathon Erlen. They were formerly published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs journal but are now periodically featured on the Points blog. For more information, contact Dr. Erlen through the link above.

Psychotropic Society: The medical and cultural history of drugs in France, 1840-1920

Author: Black, Sara Elizabeth

Abstract: “Psychotropic Society” traces the numerous ways in which the everyday consumption of psychotropic substances in the nineteenth century blurred the lines between science and stimulation, calculated therapeutic practice and chemically induced self-discovery. It focuses on opium, morphine, ether, chloroform, cocaine, and hashish—all substances used both to control pain and to produce pleasure, at a time when the boundaries between medical and recreational drug use were ill defined and permeable. Doctors, pharmacists, and the state sought to mobilize these substances to relieve pain in the birthing room and the battlefield, to restore sanity in the asylum, and to shore up their own authority over the bodies of citizens. Determining proper dosages and discovering potential side effects of these drugs are crucial chapters in the history of therapeutic progress and medical ethics, which this dissertation explores. Yet these projects were intertwined with doctors’ self-experimentation, bohemian recreational drug use, and popular fascination with the increasingly common figure of the addict. “Psychotropic Society” reveals the centrality of these varied and seemingly liminal uses of drugs to the emergence of modern French medicine and therapeutic regimens that shaped the ways in which citizens experienced the world at key moments in their lives. Drugs offered doctors and pharmacists powerful ways to legitimate their professions. It was not simply that they acted as gatekeepers to these powerful substances. Rather, medical professionals emphasized the danger and heroism of their experiments with drugs on their own bodies in the name of therapeutic progress. Psychotropic drugs were also at the center of a new claim by French citizens: the right to freedom from pain. Drugs’ widespread availability empowered patients to self-medicate, transcending the quotidian discomforts of modern life. Yet this freedom came at a high potential cost for a nation that saw itself as a collection of liberal subjects. Drugs cast into doubt the notion of the liberal self as autonomous, rational, and driven by free will. Instead, these substances revealed that self to be malleable, sometimes passive, and mediated through the body’s chemical needs and desires.

Publication year: 2016

Read more