Reconsidering Drugs: Mapping Victorian and Modern Drug Discourses by Lawrence Driscoll

Rediscovering DrugsTitle: Reconsidering Drugs: Mapping Victorian and Modern Drug Discourses [HB] Author: Lawrence Driscoll Publisher: Palgrave ISBN: 0312222726 Year: 2000

In the introduction to Reconsidering Drugs, its author Lawrence Driscoll describes a society that promulgates the idea that “we investigate the problem of drugs, assuming that only they use drugs, and that we have the cure, and are somehow in control” (Driscoll 1). By trying to “resurrect” various nineteenth and twentieth century “voices” that have experienced drugs differently from the aforementioned approach, Driscoll wishes to develop new ways of looking at the ‘drug problem’. Essentially, shifting cultural perceptions as a way to eliminate it. He is not arguing that ‘we’ should just stop talking about it, however, but rather,

My position is that we should recreate for ourselves a discourse on drugs in which it would no longer be of any use to ask the question if one is either for or against them. We need to stop thinking about drugs as being good or evil, but find a discursive space for them in culture, which places them, in Nietzsche’s terms, beyond good and evil (Driscoll 6)

Driscoll puts the roots of our modern drugs discourse in to the nineteenth century when Victorian moral and medical models began describing them. Today, the State and medical infrastructure, the popular and media-driven attitudes, and drug depictions in art and culture, represent the current dominant discourse. They are the legacy of the good (medical) and evil (moral) discourse that Driscoll wishes to challenge. How does his selection of ‘voices’ differ from this discourse however, and what do they propose for their own construction?

The opening two chapters are largely concerned with textual analysis and the identification of drug approaches that challenge modern assumptions. These include  discussions of such novels as The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Moreover, Driscoll also introduces how certain questions of race, gender, class and alike, begin to be framed, and juxtapose them with his literary readings.

Primarily, the central pillar of the modern discourse that Driscoll approaches is the idea that one becomes ‘helpless’, ‘alienated, ‘other’ and loses the capacity to employ one’s Will when ‘on drugs’—which manifests through discourse such as the addiction model. Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone is employed to set this whole scene. Published the same year as the Pharmacy Act was passed in 1868 (UK), the novel received negative reviews because, Driscoll tells us, it was giving an opposing narrative on opium to the legislation. Collins’s mystery about a missing necklace is resolved when the protagonist realizes that he had perpetrated the crime himself while under the  influence of opium. However, it took another dose of opium for him to remember. Driscoll writes:

We place recovery in the same category as health and cure, yet for Blake, real recovery occurs when he un-covers, which entails not separating himself from his drugged self but realizing that it is part of himself (Driscoll 38)

Had the protagonist Blake remained ‘clean’ from opium then he may never have remembered his criminal act, and opium experience becomes a place of resolution. Compare this to a discussion in chapter five, Planet Heroin, in which Driscoll discusses modern discourses and looks at the work of psychiatrist Dr. John Marks. Marks ran a clinic in Widnes, UK, in which ‘addicts’ were meant to carry on using their substance of choice, and they were provided with medical grade product in a safe environment. The premise, which was seemingly successful until the US government put pressure on the UK’s drug policy to be firmly criminal and funding was cut, was that returning to a normal life was facilitated and doing so allowed ‘addicts’ to stop in their own time. The drug experience, if responsibly managed, was similarly a space in which resolution occurs.

The third chapter deals with Freud and his early papers on cocaine. While addressing their subsequent reaction – ignored, derided as the folly of youth, or even evidence of his own pathologies – Driscoll draws out an alternative reading: “Freud wanted to keep the door on cocaine open and prevent it from being closed. He insisted on a perverse course, preferring foreplay to end-pleasure, preferring browsing to discharge.” (Driscoll 85). Similarly, in a chapter on the writer William S. Burroughs, Driscoll looks at the motif of power and control in his work; specifically how words becomes tools through which to sell ideas and control. Being able to break out of the ‘drug discourse’ is, to an extent, implicit in what Freud was attempting to do.

The framing of modern drug discourses revolve largely around gender and race in Reconsidering Drugs, and it is commendable for lucidly highlighting how language is employed to create stereotypes that fit into certain political and social agendas. This, it could be argued, ties directly into the grand framing of this approach so far as it is aligned with the rise of drug law: When a particular behaviour becomes codified into socio-political discourse. However, it not so simply a question that has arisen in response to legislation. In fact, while Driscoll does spend time looking at the role of the medical gaze and how this variously opposes or plays into the modern drug discourse, he fails to cite its full historical scope.

A good example to take would be Drugs and Theatre in Early Modern England (2005) by Tanya Pollard. Pollard examines the use and meaning of drugs in the popular English media of the time: theatre. During this period, the rise of modern medicine began and it framed many of the questions being asked about the nature, the danger, and the potential of drugs. Take Johnson’s Sejanus (1603): “Intriguingly, in the context of the plays’ interest in medical poisoners, writers concerned about the proliferation of unreliable or inauthentic doctors routinely drew on the traditional theatrum mundi metaphor—the notion of the word as a theatre—to describe the unreliability of the self-claimed physician” (Pollard 27).

Over 250 years before the onset of modern drug laws, there was a crisis, or fear, of the wielders of such power in terms like ‘poisoning’. The medical and the criminal are conflated to one in this earlier discourse, and interestingly both have their theatres of play—whether that be the clinic or the courts. Now, of course, I am not simply myself conflating the poisoner and ‘drug addict’ together, but highlighting that the social reaction to them is the very social matrix that creates the binding discourse that Driscoll interprets in the Victorian and modern era. The medical and the criminal have a long observed relationship. In this respect, the use of drugs (whether they be herbs, ointments, preparations etc.) became dissocialized with the medico-political discourse. Driscoll’s ‘voices’, on the other hand, challenge this socially separatist, and ultimately controlling, attitude.

Burroughs suggests that language is quite literally a virus, and seeing as how the Latin root of “virus” is “poison,” it is this virus that has caused us to become sick. If we are excessively fond of control and in fact we “dote” on control, then Burroughs’s work is precisely an antidote, curing us of the poison of language, and so curing us of our addiction to control (Driscoll 90)

In conclusion, Reconsidering Drugs is a well executed analysis and, although scholarly, it has very practical ideas about how we can begin to talk about ‘drugs’ – if that’s even a useful word anymore – that leave behind the implicit political bias that divides, controls and criminalizes individuals. It is a must read for anyone interested in drug reform, in terms of history and argument, and a very reasonable and enlightening textual analysis that brings some literary wisdom to bear on today’s drugs discourse.

Via the House

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