Why We Take Drugs by Tom Yardley

Originally published in 2012 ‘Why We Take Drugs: Seeking excess and communion in the modern world’ by Tom Yardley is a phenomenological analysis of intoxication. The book takes into account a number of theories to explain the descriptions of drug intoxication given to the author in a series of interviews with users. Yardley is currently working on a collaborative project looking at the intersection of prescription medicines, herbal remedies and legal and illegal recreational drugs.

The position of the text works from the premise that intoxication is a ‘human universal’ and that, in reflection on the current legal situation of certain drugs, it “might” instead be the fault of society, rather than any drug itself, by “denying those who seek intoxication a legitimate and socially sanctioned space in which to experience these altered states” (Yardley 1). Yardley performs a phenomenological analysis based on sixteen interviews, conducted on an age range of between twenty-seven and forty-seven years old, and on people from a number of social backgrounds. The result is a very insightful, thoughtful and thorough text on intoxication, which takes into account the role of drugs in community formation, as a transgressive act and as a sacrificial gesture; intoxication as a social function as opposed a social menace.

The modernist approach to health and the body implies some sort of ideal body, which is disrupted by drugs, and it is this position that Yardley subtly takes apart. Instead he proposes that health should take into account “a capacity for living that is manifested in reciprocal interactions with the world and with others” (Yardley 126). Intoxication, therefore, has the ability to promote these aspects of health; community for example (more on which will be said shortly.) The rational engagement with the world is, Yardley writes, based on gearing the present toward the future. Utilising the thought of Georges Bataille, Yardley points toward this ‘purposeful activity’, though being a condition for continued existence, as not being the sole reason for existence. In other words, one becomes intoxicated as a ‘sacrificial gesture’ and the rationality of immediate need is that which is sacrificed; thus promoting ‘gift exchange’, shared states and, consequentially, a health otherwise denied to us.

The experience of time and intoxication plays an important analytical role in the text. Yardley describes two ways of experiencing time; named aeon and chronos. The former refers to cyclical time that is based on the rationality of nature; the cycle of seasons that our ancestors used. While the later reflects linear time that appeared with the mechanised organisation of the clock. The modern concept of time (chronos) is when our present is orientated toward the future. However, intoxication “tends towards the interruption of this organized condition by making the unprecedented nature of the lived present fully apparent” (Yardley 58). The ability to transgress the ‘chronos’ mode of being-in-the-world, which itself elicit’s a type of experience, leads to one of ‘aeon’ that allows one to understand intoxication as a duration; but also as a forgetting.

The concept of forgetting is important to Yardley in his analysis of time and intoxication. When intoxicated “immersion in the present is manifested as a forgetting, of both the past and the future. This forgetting becomes apparent only at the point where self-conscious awareness returns and efforts are made to locate and account for time that has elapsed” (Yardley 59). At the time of intoxication, in the midst of forgetting, one enters into a different experience of time. Yardley uses the example of Michael to describe the movement from one space to another. Michael is in the imaginal of geometric patternation but with a question from someone else he crashes back to a room full of people. He moves, through remembering, from the ‘sacred’, unorganised aeon, into the linear, organised, profane chronos.

“The necessities of everyday existence are at once exceeded and retained at the moment of intoxication, and it is at this impossible point that intoxication finds its meaning as a transgressive event” (Yardley 24). In other words, the future-facing present allows for the possibility of forgetfulness and if it is achieved then one temporarily ‘exceeds’ its limits; transgressing previous boundaries. However, chronos is “retained” for without it there is no possibility of entering forgetfullness. The result being two positions from which to examine the other. Perhaps one could say that the ‘observer’ character of psychedelic literature is the detachment of chronos; its personification.

In chapter six – ‘Theorising Community’ – Yardley discusses various approaches to describing what a community is, with the intention of elucidating value from ‘intoxication’ so far as it promotes a durable communality. The ability to analyse the ‘duration’ of intoxication stems from the author’s phenomenological approach and the way in which he describes the experience of time. Reverting to the lived present is to experience life as cycles; enclosed spaces. This duration, as a communal experience, forms the basis of community promotion: “[I]ntoxication is associated with the formation of liminal communities” (Yardley 74). There are a number of interesting ways intoxication can produce these liminal communities according to Yardley: Sharing a hash cake, mushroom tea, or a bong around; individuals popping ecstasy tablets into their friends mouths at raves; and the sharing of experiences.

Yardley also looks at the role of laughter, and employs the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Victor Turner, who saw “a dialectic at work… where carnivals and feasts restore and renew human energies through laughter, excess and a gay relativising of all truths” (Yardley 86). The summer festival season, for example, still rages each year, filled with laughter and fun. The following chapter – ‘Intoxication Liminality and Community Formation’ – examines how these communities manifest. Baring in mind the phenomenological approach, the idea of the ‘body’ is central to the production of a liminal community and to Yardley’s proposed health model:

“Inhabiting the playful body means both encountering unanticipated possibilities that may be joyous and renewing but also accepting the vulnerabilities of the flesh. By embracing this playful body the manifold distinctions that find expression in the habitus of everyday life are, temporariy at least, set aside and a common destiny revealed” (Yardley 107).

There is a bubbling political undercurrent to this phenomenological analysis. The ‘war on drugs’ is often cited for its inability to provide a victory or resolution and indeed, as this text claims, could in fact be the cause of the dangers surrounding intoxication. Why We Take Drugs, however, goes a step further by bringing to light a number of important functions that drug intoxication can offer the social in itself; in both being part of an accepted social model and as a method of transgressing existing political boundaries. Overall, an excellent book that every student of drug theory should own.


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