Cultural Ecstasies by Ilana Mountain

Cultural EcstasiesOriginally published in hardback in 2012 ‘Cultural Ecstasies: Drugs, Gender and the Social Imaginary’ is written by Ilana Mountain. This review is written from the 2013 softback edition. Mountain is an Honorary Research Fellow and a member of the Discourse Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University. This work analyses discourses surrounding drugs, addiction, prohibition, treatment and prevention, in light of views on gender, race and class.

Ilana Mountain’s Cultural Ecstasies is a scholarly work that is heavily seated in theoretical constructs. While Mountain utilises a dizzying number of theorists, from Foucault and Derrida to Žižek and Frosh, it is also a multidisciplinary approach, which takes into account medical, social and cultural positions in its exposition. In order to tie this theoretical multiplicity together Mountain employs the idea of the social imaginary. She develops this idea from the works of Jacques Lacan and Cornelius Castoriadis: “Imaginary, in a broad sense, refers to images, fantasies, illusions and so forth that are seen as relevant to the constitution of subjectivity” (Mountain 11). In other words, it is the portrayal of drug use and the drug user, specifically in regard to gender, criminality and medicalization, as social discourses that is of concern to this work.

In chapter 3, Mountain examines the historical discourses of drugs, primarily focussing on the United States and the United Kingdom because of their important roles in international policy making. Taking a Foucauldian leaving point for her historical analysis that concentrates on discontinuities, dominant power structures (and their relations), and the unspoken efficacy of these positions, she produces a loose cartography of the subjectification of the drug user. Certain elements are necessary in this analytical type, understanding the role of language (power) for example and, therefore, a discussion over a term like ‘drug’ is entailed. Indeed, the great number of vague conjectures about the meaning of the word, while never actually succeeding, reveals much about the assumptions of certain power structures. This is certainly not new research but does provide the theoretical context to her approach.

“From the ethical perspective adopted in this book, it is clear that it does not provide a prescriptive conclusion, as it is a claim that the policies should be developed accounting for the specifics of the situations. Rather, this work points to the importance of taking into account – in the sense of challenging – the specific social imaginary produced (and reproduced) for planning and delivery of drug policies” (Mountain 134).

Previous pharmacographical works, like A History of Drugs by Toby Seddon, have examined the political-criminal-medical discourses in drugs during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Seddon’s identified the oscillation (or power struggle?) between medical and political approaches. Mountain follows a very similar analysis and lucidly extrapolates how both the medical and politico-criminal each subjectify the individual in their own ways. The effects of these power structures are enlightening. The medical, for example, often falls into a pathologisation of individuals, which is to say that they must be understood as diseased, mentally or physically. Mountain’s chapter on addiction does this very well: “The medical approach conceives of addiction primarily as a disease of the brain, in which medical explanations focus on the toxicology of drugs and their neurological effects, concerning personality change and physical effects” (Mountain 68). The result of such an approach is the limitation of the drug user and their being pigeon-holed. For policy making, perhaps the medics could bare this in mind.

Of course, and especially in the current climate, tobacco smokers are a primary example of the aforementioned approaches to addiction. In the above construct they are mentally ill. There are, no doubt, many smokers who would disagree with this, while still admitting they were addicted to nicotine. The inability of certain approaches to addiction, a loaded term anyway that is slowly being eradicated in preference to dependency, to take into account social and cultural forces involved in drug taking, is reproached succinctly by Mountain. Furthermore, in the chapter on gender, one finds the assumptive nature of power structures to be in full subjectifying mode. A number of tobacco advertising posters are included and Mountain deftly elaborates on their gender-specific methods. A naked, showering lady, surrounded by men, asking ‘Do I look shy?’ next to a packet of cigarettes, for example. In this case, ‘allowing’ woman to enter the masculine world of smoking or, in other words, opening up a new market while playing on previous masculine-specific techniques.

“The drug user is often located as the ‘other’ in mainstream discourses, based on polarised positions of the victim and/or plague. These discourses are strategically used according to specific aims. Medical discourses position the drug user as a victim of the disease addiction, therefore in need of medical care; this contrasts with other approaches that conceive the drug user as a threat, as such included in legislation, or as evil or as a source of bad influence or some religious discourses” (Mountain 79).

Overall, Cultural Ecstasies does, at times, fail to make the meaningful jump from theory to practicality, which is perhaps the result of a none-to-thorough historical context. The scholarly approach, in this respect, often tends to reveal itself as a problematic in texts. It might have perhaps been advisable to have explored one theoretical approach more thoroughly. For example, a section on Derrida’s notion of the pharmakon, of drugs being a non-specific remedy and poison, seemingly had a huge potential for highlighting the efficacy of subjectivity produced by power structures over a number of her other analyses. Indeed, there was a historicism there which could well have highlighted far deeper patterns of approach and behaviour. However, when Mountain turns her analysis onto the products of the social imaginary itself, she beautifully highlights actions and efficacy. A great work for anyone interested in gender studies and the proliferation of the drugs discourse from a top-down approach.

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1 Response

  1. January 11, 2013

    […] a wonderful archive with which to use, if they wished. Interestingly, the last book I reviewed was Cultural Ecstasies: Drugs, Gender, and the Social Imaginary and though its theory was good, it lacked the substance for analysis—something this superb […]

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