SHAD Interview: “Just Say Know: A Social History of How Naloxone Came to Matter,” with Nancy Campbell

Editor’s Note: Starting today and running periodically over the next month, Points will feature interviews with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 34, no. 2; Fall 2020), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today’s post by Dr. Nancy Campbell reflects on both her keynote address at the 2019 ADHS biennial conference in Shanghai and on learning how to promote a book during the early days of a global pandemic. Dr. Campbell is Professor & Department Head, Science and Technology Studies, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. You can see her keynote address here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or to request access to this article or any other article from SHAD

Nancy Campbell in Shanghai
Nancy Campbell at the Humble Administrators Garden in Suzhou, China.

Delivered steps from Shanghai University, my 2019 ADHS keynote address in the Fall 2020 issue of SHAD foreshadowed my latest book OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose (The MIT Press). The David F. Musto Center for Drugs and National Security Studies was the event’s host organization, and the SHAD editorial trio (editor’s note: Nancy Campbell, David Herzberg, and Lucas Richert) was in town for the first ADHS conference held in Asia, “Changing Minds: Societies, States, the Science, and Psychoactive Substances in History.” Thus my memories are bound up with an evening at Healer in Shanghai, where Phoebe Han mixes ritual, baijiu aged within live bamboo, creativity, and incense into exquisite concoctions (pictured). Even reading the page proofs of the keynote brought that moment of contemplative refreshment back to me like Proust’s imagined petit madeleines dunked in tea.

Multi-modality drink at Healer.
Multi-modality drink at Healer; photo by the author.

The keynote address condensed the book, which came out on March 5, 2020—right before institutions shut down in the face of COVID-19. Fumbling around Zoom and jerry-rigging cables to ease home WiFi traffic while pivoting my class “Drugs in History” online, I leaned into co-editing SHAD, heading a department, and maintaining a brisk writing and walking schedule with COVID buddy Marion Roach Smith. I learned more about promoting books than I ever wanted to know in the basement corner that became my pop-up studio. To up my audio game, I hid beneath a blanket to record, while coordinating my video outfits with a teal couch and russet walls.

Our field’s futures are multiple, transnational, and pluripotent as scholars shift analytic and archival frames to the global South. The keynote, “Just Say Know,” like the book, shifts overdose from margins to mainstream. It is about an ever-living social movement to recognize that these deaths are almost entirely preventable. Cold comfort to those who grieve loss or nurse loved ones who live at risk of OD. Knowledge and naloxone circulate thanks to harm reduction advocates and activists whose vision it was to liberate naloxone from emergency rooms and ORs in order to distribute it in take-home kits to ordinary people. Following the global dimensions and life-and-death implications of naloxone’s travels and the protagonists who people the harm reduction movement, I am fascinated by the underlying social, political, and historical forces that frame the cultural work that drugs and their users do.

2019 ADHS Conference Venue
The 2019 ADHS conference venue; photo by the author.

Naloxone works.  It saves lives. But it is an artifact with politics. We cannot pretend that naloxone-for-all is not contentious for some. As a technological artifact, naloxone embodies the moral stance of harm reduction. An antidote cannot heal. But an antidote can give us a bit more time, some breathing room, a chance to get it together, a way to repair relationships with the people who have been most harmed by the war on drug users. That’s what I’d like, I’d tell my bartender—a little more time for a late-night dinner with Edith Springer, Imani Woods, Dan Bigg, John Szyler, and other animating forces of the U.S. movement. This dinner would involve driving around in a rainy, chilly Chicago night, talking endlessly, and making stops at the harm reduction hotspots and culinary landmarks of the Windy City.

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