Updated: Aug 30
‘Life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’
I had to think of these sentences when reading this blog’s latest Weekend Read. The words are from the opening paragraph of The Society of the Spectacle, French Situationist Guy Debord’s fundamental critique of our society published in 1968. Why did they occur to my mind?
Living in the Spectacle
In the Weekend Reads our Contributing Editor Alex Tepperman enjoyably chronicles instances of celebrity drug scandals. This time he made a very important observation that deserves more attention. ‘The only perspective that Weekend Reads has not yet covered’, Alex wrote, ‘is that of the non-celebrity, the view that should matter most when we try to understand the broadest implications of American drug culture.’ And not only American drug culture, I would add from my Amsterdam study.
Celebrities are nice to read about, but they are a distraction as well. In fact, that is probably their most important function in our societies, American or European. They are the spectacle that we can gape at, but their lives are far removed from that of most of us. I fully agree with Alex’s remark that ‘while profiling [a celebrity] would be fun, however, it wouldn’t get us any closer to knowing the perspectives of those people early social historians referred to as the “inarticulate”.’ He then goes on to deal with instances of non-celebrities that have received media coverage in connection to drugs.
A very worthwhile exercise, let there be no doubt about that. But it only gets us of course to a limited extent to a better understanding of the “inarticulate”. Playing the devil’s advocate, I would even claim that they once again distract us from seeing and understanding these “inarticulate”. That is because most drug users in our society do not get media coverage and are not removed into a spectacle. They are just there, in everyday life.
Let me clarify. French Marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre created the concept of everyday life in 1947. His definition is a little obscure: everyday life is whatever remains after one has eliminated all specialized activities. What he meant was that sociologists should take a look at those activities of everyday life that are not spectacular, not unique, not particularly special, but more or less constant and repetitious. This is the realm of waking up in the morning, having breakfast, commuting, jobs, lunch, dinner, television, recreation, and nowadays Internet and Facebook. These are the kind of things that keep society going.
It is easy to understand that most psychoactive drug use has its place in this repetitious everyday life. Consuming coffee, or tea, chocolate, nicotine or to an extent alcohol is not only something that the overwhelming majority of us does every today. It is also hard to see how everyday life could continue without this consumption. Unless it seems that health or social functioning are endangered this consumption is not spectacular and hardly worthwhile to bother about.
These are all licit substances, though some of them are up to a point controlled. What is often missing from debates and discussions on illicit drugs is that for these substances the same holds true. Sure, there are the spectacles of drug busts, gang wars, problems of abuse and riotous parties that are worth media coverage. But why has one century of international drug prohibition or almost two centuries of medical worries about dangers of addiction brought us not one bit closer to elimination of illicit drug use? Some would claim this is because their use brings us out of everyday life, that illicit drugs deliver us from repetition, pettiness, depression, and boredom and give us moments of escape and freedom – however pointless or transitory these moments might be. Malcom McLaren, one of the founders of the punk movement, said that people use illicit drugs to become as the celebrities in the spectacle, to feel as these stars might feel. This might of course be a subjective feeling accompanying drug use. But sociology or social and cultural history is not only about subjective feelings. What strikes me is that a not quantified and unquantifiable part of illicit drug use is a repetitious part of everyday life. It has its problems, but it does not get any media coverage, because there is not much spectacle about it. It does not hinder most people in their social functioning. In fact, it’s pretty boring.
Malcolm McLaren in Everyday Life
In my own country, the Netherlands, already in the 1980s cannabis and marihuana smoking was – especially in the cities – an accepted part of everyday life to most people. I admit, the Netherlands may not present a representative case, but I doubt they are so unique as some American politicians might claim. Pot was not something done in a counter culture, by hippies, artists, or whatever: in fact these associations hardly existed anymore. Those who smoked weren’t particularly interesting to others. Of course, it depends on your social environment which kind of psychoactive drugs are available and used. But similar stories can be told about amphetamine use among students and punks at that time, or for that matter of cocaine use among urban professionals today. It is there, but when there is no sensation to report, there is no media coverage. The same can be argued for psychiatric drugs. While the spectacle focuses on Prozac and other SSRI’s in the 1990s, everyday use of benzodiazepines as Valium and Librium continued to be high among some groups (especially elder women), but was not deemed worthy of media coverage.
The main problem of a historian, as a detective investigating the past, is not to be misled by the available sources. These sources are relatively abundant when it comes down to the spectacle of drug use and abuse. But they are far more inarticulate about drugs in everyday life. If we wish to give a more comprehensive picture of drug use in our societies, and make our research relevant to policy discussions that are now so often characterized by the use of spectacle to advance political agendas, everyday life is the direction we have to go. But here is the strange thing: it is the realm where we actually live, but how do we get there in our historical research?