Recreational States: Drugs and the Sovereignty of Consumption – Kane Race

Recreational states

In Birmingham cultural studies, particular groups were said to create new and unconventional social identities through the unpredictable ‘uses’ they made of consumer culture. This vision of social and political possibility was often haunted by an image of drugs: the cultural dope, the spectre of mass stupefaction, Frankfurt style.1 In the field of pharmaceutical production today, profiteers ignore the domain of consumer enunciation at their peril: originally developed to treat heart disease, Viagra (sildenafil citrate) came across its current application when male participants began to report more amorous effects; a possible treatment for some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis came to light at Botox parties, of all places; even thalidomide recently returned to the market with new dermatological applications. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) the apparent productivity of these ‘misuses’ of medication, it is around this question of non-medical use that regulatory drug discourses converge.

The science of the proper use of medicines — patient compliance — began to grow exponentially from the 1970s. Defined as ‘the extent to which patient’s behaviour (in terms of taking medications, following diets, or executing other life-style changes) coincides with clinical prescription’, it posited itself as a science of patient ‘self-administration’, casting ‘following doctor’s orders’ as a distinct species of normal behaviour from which it is possible to deviate (Sackett & Haynes, 1976: 9).2 At the same time the construction of illicit drugs in legal instruments around the world went through a shift: from a discourse of ‘narcotics’ and/or ‘dangerous drugs’ to a discourse of ‘drug abuse’, ‘drug misuse’ and/or ‘non-medical use’ (Manderson, 1995). As a result, the activity of the consuming subject came to be regarded more and more as a problem and an object of concern, with the professional authority of medicine proposed as the proper reference for this conduct. This essay explores the political intonations of this latter discourse on drug abuse, and the modes of subjectivity it anticipates and generates. In doing so, it argues that the ban on illicit drugs forms an important site in which a general relation between the state and consumer-citizens is demonstrated and enacted.

Drugs hold a conflicted position in the blend of economically liberal and socially conservative policies and ideas that gave rise to the New Right. In 1984 the Friedmans wrote in favour of the de-criminalization of drugs on the basis of consumer choice — a move that, as John Clarke observes, ‘it is difficult to imagine the evangelists or the neo-conservative ideologues going along with’ (Clarke, 1991: 131; Friedman & Friedman, 1984). This insight gestures toward the place of drugs in emerging conceptions of economic sociality and personhood. As emerging formations of power shifted the normative conception of social life to a discourse of consumer agency, drugs were made to describe the moral boundaries of a freedom configured around personal consumption for this precarious, if enduring, political unity. I want to suggest that the appearance of medicine as a reference for self-conduct in this context represents a special investment in medical authority on the part of the state, as well as a novel function for the legal apparatus that instates it. This function corresponds with, but also seeks to suspend, broad shifts in the government of pleasure taking place at this time, giving rise to a particular expression of state authority, which I will describe here as ‘exemplary power’. Exemplary power enables the state to engage citizens in terms of their normative mode of existence — consumer self-fashioning — but in a way that seeks to subject such activity by allowing the state to make of it, in certain conditions and under certain circumstances, a bad example.

My argument proceeds by placing drug legislation in the context of broader shifts taking place in the legal regulation of ‘illicit’ pleasure in many Western jurisdictions in the post-World War II period. These shifts, which change the legal status of activities such as abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, pornography, gambling, prostitution, and various forms of recreation, have been read as attempts on the part of the state to gear its legal apparatus to a consumer economy (Hall, 1980). In some respects, these reforms are indicative of the growing influence of medicine in the treatment of ‘moral deviance’ — an apparent ‘softening’ of social attitudes, whereby many problems previously considered ‘criminal’ are reconfigured as ‘social problems’, inspiring therapeutic rather than punitive attention. But they also represent the simultaneous (and somewhat contradictory) propulsion of medicine into a juridical role, in which medicine takes on the symbolic and political status of social order and moral control, expressed, when advantageous, through the punitive mechanisms of the law. These investments converge most forcefully in the legal construction of drug abuse, which, through high profile practices of patrol and reportage, is liable to manifest as an offensive example of self-administration.3

At stake then is the significance of the state’s stance on illicit drugs for circumscribing and defining legitimate modes of consumer citizenship. Especially interesting is the signification of drugs for consumer culture – how, within this context, they can come to embody the antithesis of the proper administration of the self. By consumer culture I mean something historically specific and economically contingent: the dense material culture to which the expansion of commodity production in the last century has given rise, encompassing advertising and the mass media, and in which consumption – its sites, practices and identities – has taken on major symbolic centrality. One feature of this consumer culture is a partial dislocation of capitalist ideology away from a puritan ethic of hard work, accumulation, and restraint, and toward a provisional articulation around expressive, erotic and experiential pleasures. This dislocation raises certain problems for government – not least, how to contain and moderate between the conditions of licensed pleasure and disciplined productivity: how to maintain suitably encapsulated pleasures, if you like. My suggestion is that drugs are constructed as a sign or instance of excessive conformity to contemporary consumer culture – their use deemed at once normatively intelligible according to the terms of contemporary consumer culture, yet routinely cited as a sort of premonitory example of excessive adherence to its terms. This ‘excess’ is opportunistically scooped up and spectacularised in order to stage an intense but ultimately superficial battle between the amoral market and the moral state.4 The main casualties of this battle are almost always those marked in terms of race, class, sex, and citizenship status: whether incarcerated or excluded in various ways from any sort of hopeful participation in formal economies of employment or desire, or policed by sniffer dogs in their recreational precincts (O’Malley & Mugford, 1991). The ‘exemplary’ nature of drug control enables the state to selectively exert its authority in a context where it also depends, for the generation of economic value, on a degree of free-floating social experimentation and cultural recreation.

Stan’s Future Self

In a 2002 episode of South Park, Stan’s ‘Future Self’ turns up inexplicably one day (Stone, 2002). Stan is a regular kid, one of the fourth-graders who comprise the main characters in this cartoon about life in a small Colorado town. One day a strange man claiming to be his Future Self turns up on the family doorstep, alone and disheveled. Appearing first on the TV news, running wildly through the town, the Future Self arrives at Stan’s house bearing pitiable tales of junkie-dom – a life ruined by drugs. At first it seems young Stan must confront the loser he will become. But as it turns out over the course of the episode, Stan’s parents have hired an actor to play this future version of Stan from a company called ‘Motivation Corp’. The idea is to scare young Stan into a proper regard for his future by representing in the present a shocking projection of his presumed personal potential. In a covert operation of parental concern, the embodied spectacle of drugs is employed to dramatise the need for a personal state of enterprise among the young.

How and what do drugs embody in this underhand and precautionary deployment of becoming? To pursue this inquiry, I find myself embarking on my own excursions through time – not to a future I can pre-empt in a fearful defensive manoeuvre – but to a past I will assemble in a tentative and provisional style to explain how such an idea of the future could arise. The story of Stan’s Future Self gives some clues as to how, in the present imagination of virtuous consumer citizenship, an authoritarian stance on drugs is employed to beget order and hard work from the potentially boundless distractions of consumer recreation. In ways that appear as cynical and manipulative, a moral stance on drugs is adopted to motivate a particular subjective disposition, entailing a particular orientation to the future and a certain ethic of existence: forward-looking, calculative, prudent, aspirational; a subject with a very precise concern for the Self (see Rose, 1998). In linking any hope of a dignified future to individual acts of determination, morality, continence and self-control, the dopey Future Self isolates the present from consideration of the conditions of labour, belonging, or public life. My aim is to show how a medico-moral discourse on drugs operates to bring this ethic of existence into being. That the misfortune attending the situated consumption of some substances is available as an horrific spectacle is not such a surprise — but what are the histories and components of this conception of wasted life? How do the multiple and diverse instances designated by the term ‘drugs’ become comprehensible in terms a cautionary inducement to personal enterprise and industriousness? On what basis are they assumed to motivate a subject whose conduct and future is an object of precise individual control and pre-emptive action? What is the nature of the investment in this subject? And why is a Future Self the particular vehicle through which its promise materialises?

A preliminary answer to some of these questions comes in the form of the emergent symbolism of drugs in the context of their increasing popularity among middle-class youth in the U.S., Britain, and elsewhere from the 1960s onwards. The case of cannabis is illustrative (Himmelstein, 1983). In the 1930s, marijuana had the reputation of the ‘Killer Weed’ in North America, based on its association with Mexican (im)migrants and their association, in turn, with abject violence and criminality. Marijuana was thought to produce a failure of restraint, stimulating aggression, and leading to assault, murder, rape or self-destruction. These properties helped justify its inclusion within existing criteria of prohibition, which rested on the concept of ‘narcotics’ and ‘dangerous drugs’. But marijuana’s expanding popularity in the 1960s among a different class of users – middle-class youth and the counterculture – constituted its effects quite differently (though no less prohibitively) as the ‘drop-out drug’. Where earlier marijuana had been associated with violence, it was now ascribed virtually opposite qualities: an apparent source of passivity and ‘amotivational syndrome’. In a protean and nebulous manoeuvre, the pharmacology of the drug had transformed to suit the anxiety converging on its users.

It would be easy to read this as a case of antiquated and culturally prejudiced perceptions giving way to the objective precision of modern science, but this would be to suppose that some transparent, culturally-stripped access to the ‘drug’ problem is possible. These constructions were not ‘mere ideology’, awaiting the enlightenment of value-neutral medicine. They were not just ‘cultural scuttle-but’. Suppose that, to Southern landholders in the 1930s, and those they rallied to define the problem, marijuana really was part of a problem of crime and violence committed by an oppressed Mexican labouring underclass. That to middle America of the 1960s, and the scientific and official players who synthesised their concerns, marijuana really was a problem of lack of ambition, failure to achieve, and the rejection of conventional values among their young. The official gaze’s location within a particular time and place framed how the drug’s effects were apprehended and perceived. And the problem shifted according to the social situation of, and expectations converging around, its users. It is unlikely, for example, that ‘lack of ambition’ among migrant workers was a pressing concern for the medical professionals, public officials, and law-keepers who publicised the effects of marijuana in the 1930s.5 But it was a worrying preoccupation with regard to middle-class youth of the 1960s. And while I haven’t the means to determine whether marijuana ‘really did’ induce violence on the part of migrant workers, it is unlikely that these labouring classes were ever allowed to formulate the problem of their circumstances in terms that had a chance of being treated as legitimate, and thus hopeful of transforming the situation. In these moments, the governance of social tensions gets condensed. A substance is constructed as productive or indicative of a much wider, more nebulous problem; the drug becoming a fetishised sign of that which is seen as most threatening or worrying about a situation on the part of those authorised to define it as a problem. This is not to suggest that these drugs did not do things in bodies: they had effects, perhaps even harmful effects. But what was found interesting and problematic and harmful about these – what was determined causative about the situation and thus actionable – was a matter and function of politics: of how the technical problem was posed, and by whom.6

While the desire to identify something biological and substantial to account for, supervise, and eliminate troublesome behaviour was a familiar impulse at the time of early drug legislation, there were however subtle differences in the drug problem that consolidated in the 1970s, in response (in part) to the counterculture. If habitués of narcotics were thought to be held in thrall by the intrinsic scientific and addictive properties of particular substances, there was a distinct air of defiance about the drug user of the 1960s — a sense of deliberate dissent. The increasing use of medical and other drugs for various purposes, including a simple desire for pleasure, was identified by many with a broader culture of social experimentation (Morgan, 1981). It was not so much the physical dangers of use, but the social symbolism of drug consumption, ‘the way in which it had come to represent non-conformity in general’ that encapsulated official fears at this time (Manderson, 1995: 170). This is not to say that theories of addiction declined in influence — far from it. As Eve Sedgwick and others have observed, they penetrated further and further into all manner of activity of everyday life (Sedgwick, 1993). But as though to emphasise the social and moral non-compliance of the (otherwise normal) selves administering them, the legal framing of drugs transforms at this time from a concept of ‘narcotics’ (and inherent physical ‘danger’) to paradigm of ‘misuse’ and ‘abuse’.

The extent of this shift is widespread, hastened by the international (if U.S. dominated) nature of the instruments and institutions targeting the drug issue around the world (Manderson, 1995). Sections of the U.S. Code previously referring to ‘narcotics’ are renamed the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970. The Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 (UK) is replaced by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (UK). Commissions conducted in Canada and South Australia at this time take the ‘Non-Medical Use of Drugs’ as their focus, with Australian state legislation adopting the terminology of ‘misuse’ in the 1980s. Where previously legislation had located the problem of drugs in the intrinsic nature of the substances proscribed – employing the language of ‘narcotics’, for example, to group often unlike substances (heroin, cocaine, marijuana) under one rubric and suggest a measure of scientific legitimacy for their similar treatment – by the 1970s a new language of concern is taking shape.It is no longer the scientific properties of specific substances, nor the physical dangers arising from their consumption, but the character of their use, its deviation from professional authority, that forms the locus of juridical consideration (Manderson, 1995). Drugs now precipitate a concern in the general domain of self-conduct.

I want to emphasize and draw out the situated character of this problem: the appearance of ‘promising youth’ as the privileged object of anti-drug discourse, the imprint of flouted conventions of middle-class ambition and achievement. And perhaps most manifest of all in this framing: the concerned subjectivity of the parent.7 The reconfiguration of the drug problem around these concerns propels medicine into a new and apparently monumental role. As the explicit measure of legitimate conduct in regard to drugs, it takes on a much larger mandate. In the discourse of patient compliance, medicine forges an authoritative relation to the consumer via a concept of ‘self-administration’. Here this relation is reiterated, enshrined in law, and spread out across the social field to demarcate consumer propriety in general. Medicine becomes an index of social propriety, marking the parameters of normal conduct in a dogmatic iconicity of authority. But in a peculiar way, medicine is a puppet here. It is appealed to as a ground of social authority – to contest the perceived affront to established order and professional power – often irrespective of the physical effects of particular substances. This has unanticipated consequences. It makes it possible, for example, for a counter-discourse on ‘harm reduction’ to emerge, taking as its aim avoidance of the more potent physical dangers of drugs (often at the initiative of, or with support from, medical professionals). But the dominant conception of ‘drug abuse’ that emerges at this time spells a commitment to medicine far greater than the medical merits. It announces a case of social deviancy that takes its very bearings from compliance with medical authority. The figure of medicine stands in here, in legal garb, to propound a standardised identity for the parent.

This returns us to Stan’s Future Self, who does not embody the outcome of specific ingestive practices so much as the threat thought to be posed by such practices to a particular notion of the administration of the self — one that places a premium on a certain conception of the future rooted in white middle-class ambitions and aspirations. By impersonating these fears from the past, the Future Self compels and reproduces this image of life for the future – propagating an ethic at once enterprising and precautionary, in which the self is held responsible for the economic and ambitious possession of the body. This is life conceived as an individually managed project, in which the self is urged to realise the self, but must also assume responsibility for any excesses that this process of self-actualisation occasions. There is nothing particularly wrong or invalid about this conception of life, but it does not begin to describe or explain the conditions or effects, the variable and structurated nature, the situated character of the pleasures and the dangers of the experience of drugs in society. The Future Self appears, perhaps necessarily, as an isolated figure. But because this conception of drugs is communicated in the sensorium of fear, and enacts the subjectivity of the parent, it is remarkably available for imposing this idea on a broader populace: for organising general insecurities so that they take out insurance in this conception of life and the future (Connolly, 1999). Profiled in the law as crime, and implemented by global instruments in diverse jurisdictions, it is surprisingly adaptable for conjuring in diverse contexts Protestant-inspired notions of self-control and personal discipline, elaborated against a global scenography of consumer pleasure.8 We will see some concrete examples of how this construction has been used to startle into existence a particular conception of the good life below. For now, I want to consider in more detail how it connects with broader ways of conceiving the possibilities of social identity and political practice that arise at this time, beginning with a consideration of some of the changes in the social government of pleasure in the context of Western consumer culture.

Governing pleasure

The rise of consumer culture saw changes in the legal status of many activities previously considered illicit. Greater employment and the expansion of welfare in the post World War II period had created a new margin of freedom for citizens. The emergence of new markets targeting women and youth — particularly in terms of their capacity for self-directed pleasure and eroticised consumption – were significant features of this trend. If the rise in the social wage enabled an incipient generational consciousness and a new sphere of social freedoms, it also opened up new markets upon which the consumer economy came to rely. In many first world jurisdictions this was facilitated by important changes in the government of pleasure, with legal restrictions on abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, pornography, gambling, prostitution, and various forms of recreation removed or reworked. An almost universal exception to the general trend in states’ realisation or implementation of an economy based on consumer pleasures was their position on illicit drugs. Here they tended to abandon the preceding rationality and, as Stuart Hall writes in relation to the British context, ‘legislated in a thoroughly reactionary direction’ (Hall, 1980: 1).

In general, these reforms involved carving out a sphere of personal privacy within which ‘immoral’ – but no longer illegal – conduct was to be contained. This was true of the law, but it also usefully describes the shift in respect of these practices in the general locus of social control. Gambling is a good example (Dixon, 1991; O’Malley, 1993). Traditionally, opposition to working class gambling was grounded in doctrines of Protestant morality, it being thought symptomatic of a lack of discipline and a source of social decay. Legislative attempts to prohibit and regulate gambling over the course of the twentieth century met with little success. But a gradual redefinition of gambling as a form of entertainment and leisure for which people paid — a ‘pleasurable commodity’ (and a business) rather than a vice — justified its reform and legalisation at this time according to the terms of neo-liberal consumer culture. As a commodity, gambling could be thought regulated through the market and the free choices of individuals. It became intelligible as a legitimate consumer pleasure. Particularly interesting for our purposes though are the attempts made to reconfigure the problematic personal and social aspects of gambling in this context. While notions of illness had long been a part of anti-gambling discourses, these now drew on the language of ‘compulsiveness’ and ‘addiction’ to describe the unwanted effects of the activity. In this language, ‘the problem of gambling was reconceived as one of individual excess, rather than widespread social participation’ (Dixon, 1991: 318). Problem gambling became a condition of the self .

The example of gambling makes it possible to see how medicine is implicated in the circumscription of a regime of the personal. If legal prohibition represents regulation by and on behalf of a putative public, notions of addiction and therapy delegate this task to the private person, presenting it as a corollary of ‘healthy free will’ (Sedgwick, 1993). Medicine draws a circle around the individual subject of consumption, with the notion of ‘addiction’ acting as a sort of drawstring. But what is the significance of the state’s grasp on illicit drugs? What sort of place does it organise for the state in the oscillation of incitement and control, the play of liberation and restraint, that characterises the consumer context? To really grasp its full significance here, we need to consider just how mundane drugs are in terms of the sorts of pleasures animated in this setting. Many authors have noted the utility of a culture of excitement, transgression, self-expression and romance for the purposes of modern commodity culture, with varying degrees of distaste (for example, Bell, 1976). (Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to know whether it is in fact commodity culture, or the prospect of pleasure itself, that most incites these sombre tomes). Pat O’Malley and Stephen Mugford draw on these analyses to argue that, when set in a context where experiential novelty designates the attraction of many goods and services (including some dangerous forms) the recreational practice of drugs appears ‘an intelligible form of the normatively sanctioned search for the extraordinary’ (O’Malley & Mugford, 1992: 57). They point to the values of exploration, novelty, intensity, longing, excitement, self-expression, hedonism and imagination commonly transmitted in this setting. When considered in this light, the species of private hedonistic pleasure that drugs embody, far from being anathema to the conservative face of economic liberalism, appears as a requisite of some of its most indispensable transactions.

The notion of drug use as an instance of conformity (one might say excessive conformity) to consumer culture runs counter to how many individuals framed their drug practice in the 1960s. But it is in this context (in which consumption establishes itself at the constitutive center of social life) that a vast proportion of drug use comes to be understood as ‘recreational’. And while it would be incorrect entirely to paint the popular focus on expressive and experiential pleasures as some ruse of capital, it can certainly be said that capital sought to utilise and profit from them. Many forms of self-expression and exploration, previously forbidden, become permissible and even expected in this context, evoking what Mike Featherstone describes as ‘a calculating hedonism’ (Featherstone, 1991: 59). The consumer is invited to participate in a certain normative relaxation of emotional controls – one that allows for a greater exploration of the expressive and the experiential – but is also made responsible for reigning these back in: for maintaining what Cas Wouters depicts as a ‘controlled de-control of the emotions’ (Wouters, cited in Featherstone, 1991). And it is against this background – the contemporary correspondence of consumer pleasure and drugs – that the legal position on drugs takes on a special significance. For if drugs can be considered relatively typical as a consumer pleasure, their prohibition reserves for the state a distinct moral position in the field of pleasure. Further, it refers any responsibility for the casualties of consumption back onto the consuming self. Where the notion of addiction draws a circle around the subject of consumer pleasures, the concept of abuse reinforces it with the heavy machinery of the law, operating now as the hard edge of this deployment of medical authority. And as the stopping point of permissive legislation, drug law gains the capacity to conjure up a moral state – suggesting, if only fleetingly, the possibility of an alignment between state command and the contents of that space carved out for personal variation. It instates as its vision of control a regime of the personal – installing the self as the medium of liberation and control.

If the domain of the personal was the primary beneficiary of the relative prosperity of the postwar period, in conditions of world recession it was increasingly constructed as precisely the object according to whose control order was to be maintained (Hall, 1980). In this context the ground of social authority offered by medicine under the sign of drugs becomes particularly enticing for power. Experts and politicians make an (often very practicable) distinction between medical and criminal approaches to drug use, but perhaps this distinction misunderstands the broader political and economic forces that invest this site. It is not a rational preference for medical or criminal approaches that accounts for the selection of strategies at a given juncture, but the political investment in self-administration as a node of social control. Power never knows whether it wants to punish or save the drug-user, incarcerate or treat her. Instead, both strategies are kept in reserve as mutually reinforcing alternatives. It is almost always the underprivileged – those marked by race or class – that bear the brunt of the sterner form of discipline. Meanwhile, if not themselves electing rehabilitation and treatment, the more privileged are ushered in its general direction in concerned but insistent tones. So long as medicine remains the parental monitor of recreational activity, the trope of self-administration is available to be more or less severely enforced. In periods of social unrest, it is ready to find a more severe expression in an authoritarian performance of drug control, converting generalised instability into a matter of personal regimes.

In this sense medical authority marks the site of a certain becoming-conservative of consumer culture. And there is something very interesting about this, because, as I have said, medicine is a puppet here. It is doing the work of public order and social control, and it is doing it in a symbolic register. Thus it consistently seeks the value of publicity, to attain a public significance. There are interesting parallels with the broader symbolism of health in the cultural landscape at this time. Robert Crawford describes the health and fitness craze in America from the 1970s onwards as one in which ‘middle-class identity and self-control is secured and conspicuously displayed’ (Crawford, 1994: 1347). Perhaps this is where compliance finds its authoritarian expression: as a volitional intensity at the level of the person. Appropriately, perhaps, the discourse that takes the active patient as its object is embraced with exemplary activity. The performance of health is pursued here not simply for the purposes of achieving health, but in order to express certain values — ‘self-control, self-discipline, self-denial, will power’ (Crawford, 1994: 1353 ). A personal morality converging around the body claims public relevance and consequence, the body forming the site of a spectacular demonstration of personal economy. Out of the rubble of the welfare state springs the vigorous figure of the health-consumer, still inspired by the themes of self-determination and the personal-as-political, but now embracing the discipline of the active subject in a visceral enthusiasm for health, efficiency, and independence — a body at once liberated and conservative, exuding recreation and productivity.

How might we think about this instantiation of a medical authority? An authority moreover that makes on behalf of sovereignty a spectacle of the medical and non-medical administration of bodies? Foucault distinguished between biopower, which consists in making live and letting die and operates by disciplining bodies and administering populations; and sovereign power, which, through spectacular, violent displays in public space, presumes to take life or let live (Foucault, 1977; Foucault, 1978). Drawing on these elements, I want to characterise this mode as ‘exemplary power’. Consumer culture is generally understood in terms of the operation of ‘soft’ forms of surveillance, in which autonomous citizens regulate themselves through organising their lives around the market, allowing disciplinary and welfare technologies to be downscaled. In these terms, the policing of drugs might be considered one of the ‘harder’ punitive and behavioural mechanisms that are said to flank these ‘softer’ technologies of social control. But this would be to miss the declarative character of this exercise of power, its operation in the vicinity of individual self-fashioning and display. It would not quite capture the way it engages the technologies of pleasurable consumption, or takes advantage of the techniques through which the concept of the public testing of the private self is gradually embedded in consciousness.9The spectacular character of drug control represents a specific combination of powers, of particular utility to the conservative recreational state. It is an exemplary (rather than disciplinary) form of power. It exemplifies the state’s propensity to instate regimes of self-administration. It relies on high profile media and police presence, making of certain practices of cultural consumption a bad example.10 The sample and the moral example are its favourite tools, the sample claiming to measure objectively the extent to which an individual has complied with medico-moral regimes – making a biochemical example of the propriety of individual behaviour.11 Exemplary power marks the bounds of legitimate consumer citizenship by declaring a stop to (what it designates as) non-medical activity. It is haunted by the memory of a discipline at once paternalistic and protective, which it seeks to supplant by instating as its vision of control a medico-moral imagery of the self.

Using culture

In the face of postwar consumer culture, cultural scholars turned their attention to the practices of symbolic creativity that allowed new and unconventional social identities to emerge. Taking distance from Frankfurt School pessimism, consumption developed the form in this literature, not of a blueprint of alienation, but as a site of creative and symbolic play through which oppositional identities were forged. Here, cultural studies could be thought to propose a ‘vision of liberation via enunciative practices’ (to borrow a phrase from Margaret Morse) – an emancipatory politics of use (Morse, 1990: 195). The question of how consumer objects were taken up and used became an issue of considerable analytic investment and political longing, the conviction being that practice and process exceeded the formal determinations of the social system. But what is interesting about this literature in the context of this essay is how few studies take drug-use itself as an explicit point of focus. Indeed, it is rare to find more than cursory attention devoted to the topic in the literature on pleasure and consumption.This fact is especially surprising given that the darling object of these analyses, the youth subculture, is a site of apparent prevalence. But, with only a few exceptions, the practice of drugs seems to be a blind-spot in this body of research.12 (And yet it seems clear to many of those working in the drug field that an appreciation of the different circumstances of use, and their systemic dimensions, is precisely what is needed for the cultivation of sustainable ways of averting harm.)13

Whatever the reason for the insufficient attention given to drugs in this literature, their absence does provide insight into the particular species of cultural regulation that goes on under the sign of drugs. For it is precisely a domain of activity called ‘use’ that the new legal construction of drugs totalizes. As Desmond Manderson observes, citing the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (UK): ‘Misusing a drug’, it explains placidly, means ‘misusing it by taking it’ (Manderson, 1995: 171). There is no such thing as taking it without misusing it. Where critical theories of consumption invest in various ways in a notion of differential uses (in which agency derives from the multiform uses made of mass culture) the official conception of drugs collapses all instances of use into ‘abuse’. Drug abuse does not specify ‘abuse’ as a subset in the range of uses, but abuse as identified by drugs. The object trumps its enunciative variety. This step invests medicine – or the authority that medicine is taken to represent – with a specific regulative significance. Specifically, it realises the power of the state to regularise consumer conduct through a legal commentary on self-administration. By proposing a disastrous uniformity across all instances of use, drugs become spectacularly available to create a demand for authority in the field of consumption. They materialise as the dangerous terrain that warns all instances of use must be authorised. The illicit drug coalesces state power and medical authority in such a way that it forms a poignant index of the propriety of consumption. In the same move in which drugs are identified as a question of use, the capacity to distinguish between different forms of use is put into question. Or rather that capacity is arrogated by the state. This is an action at once totalising and individualising – that renders the nature and consequences of consumption an entirely personal, moral property. It works by connecting the promise of sovereignty to personal acts of continence and obedience, setting up a false symmetry between recreational states, and manifesting what I have described here as exemplary power.

At the turn of the millennium in Americo-Australian political culture the image of the cultural dope has come back to haunt us. But now, instead of throwing into relief the transformative possibilities of a new phase of capital, it is proposed in the figure of Stan’s Future Self as a real possibility and likely scenario, advertising the possibility of ‘destruction by popular culture’ in a bid (ironically enough) to compel adherence to privatised and acquisitive ways of being (Race, 2004). After a long and innovative history of harm reduction in Australia, for example, drugs recently began to feature in more reactionary and spectacular political formations. The theme of future security, as realized by individual moral determination and the tender exercise of authority, became the overwhelming focus of media interventions that ironically seemed bent on arousing anxiety. The titles of televised drug texts circulating at this time gives some indication of the terms of this discourse: ‘Securing a Better Future’,14 ‘Broken Dreams’,15 ‘Requiem for a Dream’,16 ‘The Strongest Defence Against the Drug Problem . . .Families’.17 Suffice it to say that an acquisitive culture of self-realisation found its generative other at this moment in the idea of Stan’s Future Self – the cultural dope writ large. (An unlikely convergence with Frankfurt theory, to say the least).

Margaret Morse has described everyday life in televisual consumer culture in terms of an ‘attenuated fiction effect’ in which ‘dreams become habit’ (Morse, 1990: 193, 209). In this respect, there is a certain perverse logic to the way in which the image of addiction has appeared as the moral extreme and condensation point of contemporary cultural hopes and fears. But what is curious about this figure and its deployment in the present circumstances is how it channels, ever more intently, general energies into private and guarded ways of being, reiterating the self as the medium of liberation and control. Drugs are conscripted in a discursive and affective assemblage that works to keep popular culture personal – and thus limit its transformative possibilities. This is accomplished, I suggest, by amplifying the affects of fear and disgust associated with the isolated hazards of one form of consumption (drugs), and putting it to work to model – and create an anxious demand for – authoritarian techniques aimed at domesticating consumption in general. I understand this as a conversion of the materializations of consumption – from an inquisitive and connective register to an acquisitive and personal register. If consumption (understood as an appropriation of meanings) harbours possibilities for connective and communicative counterpractices, the sensationalisation of hazardous instances remodels these impulses into defensive and subjectified desires for the property of the personal.

As for what motivated me, it was quite simple; . . . It was curiosity — the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with any degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. (Foucault, 1984: 8)


I would like to thank Rosalyn Diprose, Helen Keane and Marsha Rosengarten for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay.


1 For an influential statement see Hall (1981: 232). The ‘cultural dope’ becomes something like the constitutive other of a whole body of work in cultural studies, such that Meaghan Morris wonders humorously if ‘somewhere in some English publisher’s vault there is a master disk from which thousands of versions of the same article about pleasure, resistance, and the politics of consumption are being run off under different names with minor variations’ (1990).

2 To give some sense of this, a search on Medline reveals 6 articles published between 1960 and 1969, 1519 between 1970 and 1979, an astounding 6480 articles in the 1980s and 9096 in the 1990s. (On this point, see also Trostle, 1988).

3 Perhaps this is the place to mention that these practices are not the only regulatory technologies that converge on the field of drug use, which are diverse, and range from the creation of safe injecting rooms and needle and syringe exchanges, to the health promotion initiatives of non-government organisations and youth media. The latter typically accept the lifestyles of their audiences, and frame their interventions along the lines of ‘alternative consumer advice’ (‘don’t overdo it’, ‘look after your friends’). My concern in this essay is with the more prohibitory technologies, which have an uneasy, often conflicting relation with these strategies in policy debate. Uneasy – but rendered oddly compatible. Indeed, the same government might express a hard line on drugs in public media while funding the use of these ‘softer’ technologies and styles of education ‘behind the scenes’. This underlines the importance of grasping the demonstrative and spectacular dimensions of what I am calling ‘exemplary’ power – its relation to a mediatized, or voyeuristic, public. The main purpose of such a strategy has nothing to do with the safety of bodies on drugs. It is, rather, the display of power, the patrolling of ‘deviant’ populations or scenes, and the fabrication of illicit interiority, as I argue.

4 There are of course important distinctions to be made between the many and various substances designated by the term ‘drugs’ – their social contexts, material effects, and legal treatment (crack, marijuana, ecstasy, heroin, cocaine, steroids and so forth). Part of the efficiency of this political construction is the very indeterminacy of the term; the ability to insinuate an open-ended array of activities with overarching suspicion. So while the policing of drugs signals a forceful distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ consumption, the exact parameters of this distinction and how and where it will be enforced carry a certain strategic vagueness, and this vagueness serves to justify the persistent prodding of power. As Avital Ronell writes, drugs ‘resist conceptual arrest. No one has thought to define them in their essence, which is not to say “they” do not exist’. Thus, they ‘can be made to do, or undo, or promise, anything’ (Ronell, 1992: 51).

5 Idleness was however a theme in some early scientific reports — a term that bears different, if proximate, connotations (McCormack, 1938).

6 Isabelle Stengers, writing with Olivier Ralet, puts it thus: ‘The one who controls is the one who determines how the technical problem will be posed and notably if and how it will take into account constraints determined by human values and interests. This determination of the problem is a question of political choice . . . [I]t is always possible to maintain that [a given] solution is a solution to a problem that is technically badly formulated, that is, to a problem posed according to certain a priori imperatives that have resulted in handing over control to certain experts and ignoring others’ (Stengers & Ralet, 1997: 218-9).

7 My interest in the political articulation of the parent takes its cue from Lauren Berlant’s brilliant analysis (Berlant, 1997: see especially Chapter 2).

8 The Protestant lineage of addiction, first elaborated in early studies of alcohol, is well known (see Levine, 1978). With its intimation of immoral stimulation, illicit markets, border control, and a seductive imagery of protection, drugs have recently proved seriously attractive as a political theme in developing economies such as Thailand, where they propagate at once an intent to protect traditional ways of life, a barricaded image of national unity and security, an appeal to middle-class parental subjectivity, and the purported value of a personal ethic of enterprise and continence amenable to capitalist relations.

9 Scott McQuire describes the rise of a media-based ‘performative’ self in which ‘the public projection of ‘personality’ assumes critical political overtones’ (McQuire, 2003: 119). Lauren Berlant’s notion of an intimate public sphere is also relevant here (Berlant, 1997).

10 In this sense, it might be understood as a form of power peculiar to ‘posthuman’ sovereignty; that is, an exercise of power adapted to what Hardt and Negri, drawing on the later Foucault, refer to as posthuman humanism — ‘the continuous constituent project to create and re-create ourselves and our world’ (Hardt & Negri, 2000: 92).

11 For a sociological analysis of drug testing as a moral technology see O’Malley & Mugford (1991).

12 I am referring here to the body of work associated with subcultural theory. Before the 1990s, the most sustained work on drug practice and cultural representation comes out of the affiliated tradition of the sociology of deviance (Young, 1971), or else history (Berridge & Edwards, 1981). More recent literature, prompted largely by the popularization of Ecstasy, goes some way in redressing this absence. See also the excellent discussion in Gilbert & Pearson (1999).

13 See, for example, Southgate & Hopwood (2001).

14 Title of New South Wales Drug Campaign 2002.

15 Title of television advertisement in the Australian National Drug Campaign, 2001.

16 Film, dir. Aronofsky, 2000.

17 Title of a booklet mailed to ‘every home in Australia’ as part of the Australian National Drug Campaign, July 2001. Exactly the same format was used after September 11 to conduct education and ‘raise awareness’ about terrorism in the ‘Be Alert, Not Alarmed’ campaign.


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