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Flying into the Unknown: On the Limits of Addiction History

Updated: Aug 30

Let’s begin with the story of a woman named Anna.

State Reformatory for Women, Bedford Hills, NY

In October 1917 the research staff of the Laboratory of Social Hygiene at the State Reformatory for Women, Bedford Hills, New York, examined a woman who identified herself, at different times and according to different documents, as Anna Dillon, Anna White, Anna Miller, and Anna Murray. Anna was both a heroin user and a prostitute, and the staff of the laboratory examined her closely in order to determine the causes of her deviant behavior. They studied her body in great detail, observing that the lobules of her ears “are attached,” her skin and mucous membranes “anemic,” and her vagina of “medium length and width.” They gave her a large number of psychological tests, eventually determining that she was “of normal mental ability with keen perception and fair reasoning ability.” And finally, they assembled a detailed case history of her life by conducting extensive interviews with her, soliciting documents from other institutions at which she had been incarcerated, and gathering information from her acquaintances. In all this, they sought to investigate and document the causes of her deviant behavior. They searched for an explanation of why she acted as she did in the details of her body, her mind, and the social experiences that made up her life. They collected and analyzed data, working to forge a coherent narrative explaining who she was and why she acted as she did. They did so in part to help her, and in part to advance scientific knowledge about sexual deviancy more generally.

Like our peers at the Laboratory of Social Hygiene, historians of addiction analyze the lives of the people we write about and try to come up with some sort of explanation for why our subjects acted as they did. Like our peers, we do so both out of an interest in the people we study and toward the goal of advancing knowledge more generally; through our work, we hope to find some sort of knowledge with which we can understand the world in which we currently live. Not surprisingly, we have a tendency to look in the same types of places for this information as the people interviewing Anna looked – including, most notably, the socio-economic environment and the physical workings of the body. There are, of course, complex arguments about the relationship between different approaches to explaining addict behavior in the past, and this blog is probably as good a place as any to explore the complexities of these debates – the recent series of posts responding to David Courtwright’s recent essay in Addiction is a great place to start. I do not want to downplay the importance of these debates, but I wonder: are we missing something important about the past when we try to explain it in this sort of way? Do we miss something important about Anna when we interrogate her life through the categories most familiar to us, those of historical and sociological analysis, biological explanation, or some combination? What is it that we hope to accomplish when we move from description to explanation, and what do we gain – or lose – when we do so?

I stole the title of this post from Joan Scott’s brilliant recent book, The Fantasy of Feminist History. Scott argues that psychoanalytic concepts such as fantasy helps us understand how gender is a flexible category that changes over time, and how it is “the futile struggle to hold meaning in place that makes gender such an interesting historical object, an object that includes not only regimes of truth about sex and sexuality but also fantasies and transgressions that refuse to be regulated or categorized.” For Scott, “fantasy undermines any notion of psychic immutability or fixed identity, infuses rational motives with desire, and contributes to the actions and events that come to be narrated as history….[she thus] advocates fantasy as a useful, even necessary, concept for feminist historical analysis.”

Fantasy: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis

I think historians of addiction should take Scott’s insights to heart, even if we don’t identify as feminist historians. I’m not suggesting that we embrace a psychoanalytic perspective in our work – I have my problems with psychoanalytic theory, and I decided quite a while ago not to go in that direction. But I do think Scott points to an important truth that, as a community of scholars, we need to face: categories of historical analysis such as gender, or – I would argue – addiction, change over time, and it is in the tension between the instability of the concept and the effort to stabilize it through the propagation of what might be called discursive regimes of facts that much of action of history takes place. What I mean here is that people don’t always act in ways that conform to the categories we use to understand them, or, rather, the way that people act cannot always – and perhaps ever – be limited to the categories that we use to explain the past.

The Ineffable--Another Useful Category

There are other motivations and forces at work than those that conform to the frameworks typically adopted by historians: fantasy, yes, and of course pleasure; but also loathing, and fear, and humor, and impulse, the power of repetition, even randomness and chance. Countless forces and processes animate the worlds in which we live, and while some of them can be discerned clearly, others we perceive only dimly or perhaps not at all. When I walk out into the woods at night, under the giant Oak trees of Tallahassee, I move through a world that cannot be fully explained by the language of facts and data and models and rational explanation. There are things out there, moving through the trees, and only some of them have an existence in the day.

Historians of addiction are terrible at talking about such things. We rarely speak of pleasure, revulsion, beauty, ugliness, transgression, excess, or the numerous other aspects of life that we all know animate the ways in which we live our own lives, here, now, in the present. Why is that? When I smoke a cigarette on my front porch, which I enjoy doing from time to time, it is about much more than the marketing strategies of the tobacco industry; it is about more than the addictive powers of nicotine; it is about much more than anti-smoking laws, or my socio-economic status, or the influence of the media, or even the social pleasures of spending time with my wife, who sometimes likes to join me. There is a kind of beauty in the moment when the smoke curls up into the sky that is meaningful to me, a kind of beauty that I have trouble recognizing in the texts that I and other historians of addiction write.

Richard Klein has given us a language to start talking about such pleasures as sublime, but I’m not sure his analysis really captures what I am talking about, and in any event historians of addiction have been surprisingly unwilling to follow even his lead. What’s more, these types of issues go far beyond their connection to the Sublime; they intersect with the Grotesque, the Absurd, the Mundane, the Fantastic, and numerous other aesthetic and experiential categories. And even there, such categories limit as much as they explain: what about randomness, chance, the moment in which nothing turns into something? What about when things happen for no reason at all, or when the explanations we have for why they do seem patently inadequate?

There is another level to this as well, one that I hesitate to bring up out of fear of looking somewhat ridiculous. If we historians are bad at talking about pleasure and fantasy, we are even worse at talking about the many beings that inhabited the worlds of the past that, when we look around the world we live in today, we no longer see – or, at least, don’t admit to seeing when speaking to our colleagues at conferences. I’m talking about things such as Gods, and ghosts, and demons, and spirit creatures, and plants and other things that call to us and ask us to do their bidding. Not everyone is so reticent: scholars in fields such as science and technology studies, political science, and other areas have worked out, or are starting to work out, ways in which we can talk about things as, if not actors, then at least not as passive material upon which we inflict our will. I suspect that a similar move can be made in respect to the creatures of the past – and perhaps present – that we have a tendency to evaporate with our critical eye.

John Gough-- Take Him at His Word

How this issue intersects with my comments above remains an open question to me, and perhaps not even one that makes complete sense. Still, it occurs to me: shouldn’t I ask the people I write about, even though they died so many years ago, what sort of pleasures and troubles animated their world, and in what ways such pleasures and troubles were a part of their habits? And when they tell me, as they sometimes will if I listen, shouldn’t I take what they have to say seriously? When John Gough tells me that he wrestled with a demon, shouldn’t I take him at his word?

This brings me back to Anna. Anna’s story is one that is familiar to all of us: recreational use, followed by the development of an overpowering habit, personal decline, and significant suffering. Yet how we explain this story is an open question; if we look closely, we can find evidence for a variety of explanations, and we can hypothesize that other forces were at work that don’t directly show up in the documents, such as her brain function. As I go through the pieces of paper that document her life, I am thus faced with a variety of choices about how to interpret the past and explain her life; I choose among models and explanations that makes sense to me, and presumably I pick the one that seems to me to carry the most explanatory weight. That is as it should be. That is what historians do, after all. Yet I also wonder if, perhaps, there are parts of the world in which Anna lived that escape such analysis, parts of her behavior that can not be captured through the language of sociological categories or biological processes; parts of herself and her relationship to her drug that exceed the categories we typically use for understanding her habit. What would it mean for us to expand our categories of analysis into other domains? What would it mean to allow the past to speak to us in new and perhaps unsettling ways? To fly into the unknown?

Flights Now Departing

#History #theory


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