I‘VE been sick. V sick. And in recovery. Me sorry 😦

(In case you haven’t noticed, I’m sticking by the Aussie… well, Britsky spelling of words with ‘-ised’ in them. My tiny stand against crazy American-iSAtion of spelling. Yeah.)

So this evening I attended a seminar given by Kane Race at Sydney Uni. I really like Kane’s stuff—I’ve seen him present before, talking about the way that discourse about drugs (both prescription and not) never really gets around to paying attention to the pleasures of such activities. His book, which is eagerly awaited (by me, amongst others), almost finished (by him) and published by Duke, is going to be called Pleasure Consuming Medicine which as you can no doubt tell, is one of those clever meaning-play titles that contains the entire thesis. Keep your eyes peeled for it.

So: to the seminar. Today Kane talked about pleasure in relation to illicit drug use, from a paper to be published in I think the International Journal of Drug Policy. As one can imagine, those from the ‘abstinence’ camp simply deny the pleasures of drug use, in order to try to undermine the attractiveness of them (well, that’s a simplification, of course, but that’s the gist). In fact, most public health campaigns based on the whole ‘abstinence’ thing fail miserably, because first of all, the experiences of drugs expressed doesn’t match those of the users (who oddly enough tend to claim it’s pleasurable), and second, the denial of pleasure just winds up making any of that authoritarian ‘advice’ seem stupid and out of touch. The other, more Foucauldian observation about abstinence campaigns is that they operate through pathologisation, where ‘bad’ behaviour is taken to be indicative of a deviant individual. For those who don’t know Foucault all that well, this is from the History of Sexuality Volume 1, and in that context, it is taken to apply to sexuality. The sudden emergence of scientific and psychologistic observations, cataloguing and theorising about sexuality in the Victorian period enabled the development of sexual identities: that is, although there were doubtless people who engaged in what we would now call homosexual sex prior to this period, they were not previously defined by these behaviours; after the development of these catalogues, identities such as ‘the invert’ and ‘the homosexual’ became possible (alongside the ‘heterosexual’, of course). These kinds of identities operated through poles of normal and abnormal. The same kinds of pathologising moves, Race was arguing, occur in relation to drug use.

In an echo of Foucault, who distinguished pathologised and medicalised ‘desire’ from ‘pleasure’ which was less framed by normalising discourse, Race suggests that paying attention to where and how pleasure comes to operate in relation to drug use has the possibility of moving away from the moralistic tendencies of pathologising drug users. In the first place, as harm minimisation methods have long argued, the shift from policing an identity to developing safer behaviours is less (though probably not completely free of) moralising. In the second place, and here we hit a contentious spot in Foucault, Race argues that pleasure is socially and culturally shaped material less constituted (in comparison to, say, desire) in and through a logic of the individual normalising subject. The contention here is that some have argued that at this moment, Foucault alludes to a pre-cultural body; Race explicitly disagrees with such a reading, and in relation to drug use draws on a 1970s (or is it 1950s??) article entitled ‘Becoming a Marihuana User’ by Becker. In this article, Becker suggests that there are three steps to becoming a marijuana user: “1)… learn… to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects, 2) learn… to recognise the effects and connect them with the drug use and 3) learn… to enjoy the sensations he [sic] perceives.” Race argues that the processes by which these three steps take place are socially mediated rather than developed through normalising and scientific discourses. Often, these social interactions also involve a negotiation of risks and some consideration of safety in amongst the development of particular pleasures. Yet in denying that which goes into the production of pleasure, as abstinence and even some harm minimisation methods do, public health campaigns tend to fail to recognise the often very successful negotiation of ‘safety.’

Okay, forgive the haziness of this; my notes are bad and I’m very tired (and still in sickness-recovery!). The general point, though, is that tapping into these processes of pleasure-constitution and risk-negotiation enables a non-moralising, or at any rate much less moralising and normalising engagement with users. I agree with this, particularly in this instance, but I still have questions about the extent to which social interaction can really be considered to be, or, better, be relied upon to be non-normalising. I think of the amount of policing that occurs in and around social interaction, and the ways that that policing is (sometimes explicitly, often not) moralising and normalising. Samantha Murray, for example (sorry, I can’t find a reference, this was at a conference; will post later if I find it), critiques Foucault’s ‘care of the self’ ethics (actually Kane talked a lot about this, but I skipped that stuff out… sorry!) on the basis that the very terms by which such a negotiation of selfhood might happen are not neutral. Foucault takes this ‘care of the self’ ethics from an analysis of Greek and Roman ways of being, and whilst he doesn’t simply want us to go back to a golden era, he does think that the reflective elements of care of the self as it was done then could be applied to now. However, he recommends the value of ‘moderation’ in relation to developing a care of the self, and here Murray offers her challenge. She uses the example of the fat body to demonstrate that this ‘moderation’ dovetails all too neatly with the pathologisation of particular bodies, particular ways of being, and in ways that often shape social interactions of various kinds, rather than being shaped by them. In other words, the current set of aesthetics which engender the desire for a thin body cannot help but be part and parcel of the kinds of ‘care’ we try to take of ourselves (though this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re simply bearing out power’s program, either).

I suppose in the end, my concern with Kane’s thesis is that whilst there are and will always these kinds of social interactions that allow for the productions of pleasures not fully bound to the normal liberal humanist subject, this doesn’t mean that they are not, or will not become normalising, especially if the infiltration of medicalised knowledge into everyday social interactions continues at the rate it is. Whilst, then, I agree that social interaction may well permit some of these pleasures to occur, this same social interaction is also part of the diffuse operation of power. I can’t remember who it was who suggested that while the images of women’s bodies in, say, women’s magazines may well have a negative effect on girls’ body image, part of the ways that they become so effective is in and through the kinds of group policing that girls are involved in. In relation to drug use, we need to be aware that there are other kinds of normalising going on in around and perhaps even through the kinds of social interaction that Race demonstrates is key to pleasure and to the negotiation of safety. Perhaps the most obvious form might be the ‘I can do what I want with my body,’ a justification which although absolutely understandable nonetheless reiterates a liberal humanist and Cartesian subjectivity. But more disturbingly (I thought, as I made dinner tonight) is the possibility that an awareness of these communal productions of pleasures and the concommitant negotiations of risk could in fact be used in some ways to inform an abstinence program, and may even be already understood in this way. For example, the absence of information about safer strategies for drug use in the public sphere means that only some communities are capable of this kind of pleasure-production-and-risk-negotiation-sharing. Abstinence campaigns, then, seek to use their moralising tools to dismantle the possibilities for pleasure, for example by disallowing or reducing the circulation of techniques for pleasure. With the knowledge granted by analyses like Race’s, how much more repressive and targeted might abstinence campaigns become? (Okay, a lil hysterical there, but it’s a legit worry, I think).

In some sense, here, though, I wonder again about Foucault’s ‘repressive hypothesis,’ which suggests that that which is supposedly being repressed is in fact produced in and through the repression. That is, as power claims (I’m personifying power, which is theoretically a naughty move, but it’s just shorthand) that sex is so bad it mustn’t happen, it ensures that sex happens in ways that feel naughty and in the ways it (power) describes. The distinction between desire (repressed) and pleasure (not so much) seems a little hazy here. In translating this across to the drug use case, I wonder whether abstinence campaigns come to produce precisely what they supposedly repress: dangerous drug use, pleasurable, deviant and risky. How much, though, is the pleasure involved partially the result of this construction?

Or, in a larger concern, if drug use, for all its pleasurable undermining of individualistic liberal humanist subjectivity, is justified or simply thought of as part of the function of that liberal humanist subjectivity (I do it coz I wanna, even though (read, because) it’s bad and they tell me not to do it like this) how resistant is this pleasure? Can it be understood as normalising, perhaps even moralising, just not in the ways we expect?

This is too crude a formulation, because it appears now that I’m denying Race’s point, and I’m really not. It’s incredibly important to acknowledge the ways that communities work to develop resistant pleasures and even risk negotiations; and for a harm minimisation approach, this kind of theoretical consideration is incredibly useful for developing strategies that actually might work. Yet it must be acknowledged that the context within which such strategies function is not neutral (not that I think that there’s some wondrous place beyond power which is ‘value-neutral’), and that the reiteration of the liberal humanist and ‘healthy‘ individual in and through even harm minimisation techniques isn’t innocent, and does have effects on the ways that certain groups are conceptualised and treated in relation to drug use. And that the harm minimisation attempt to tap into the social interactions Race identifies may have unintended moralising, normalising and thus rather problematic effects.

I’m going to leave it on that clumsy note because I’m tired and can’t even be bothered proof-reading (I am an evil blogger, to do this to you, I know). Further and hopefully more nuanced thoughts soon, especially about the absence of the other in Foucault (in amongst the Derrida post I’ve been working on that explains how sick I’ve been and makes other such excuses!) Bona nox!