December 14, 2008

Thinking Responsibily about the Drugs among Us

Category: Academic,Disability Studies,Ethics,Human Enhancement — Biella @ 12:51 pm

Next semester I am teaching a new undergraduate course tentatively titled “Technology, Society, and Media: The Body under Transition, in Movement, and under (Massive) Transformation(s).” As designed, the course should address technology and media in fairly broad stokes (which I do) but I narrow and control what is a truly unwieldy subject by framing the issues/readings in relation to the human body. Generally speaking, we will interrogate the ways in which technology engenders or erases bodily/human possibilities/capacities and especially the ethical and political ramifications that precipitate from the use/abuse of technology. We traverse a wide range of topics from the telegraph (and how it was used to speak with the dead) to the role of human enhancement technologies of today, to questions of surveillance and privacy, among many other topics.

I am pretty far along with the syllabus and pretty happy with it. So far I think I have struck a nice balance between fun/light/accessible readings and some which are bit more theoretically dense. I am still looking for one or two pieces, perhaps one on tattoos and body modification and another about karaoke. If anyone knows any great articles on these topics, do pass along the information.

I am probably most excited about the cluster of issues that address eugenics (and most students know next to nothing about America’s central role in unleashing the Eugenics’ movement), disability rights activism, human enhancement technologies, and transhumanism. Considering human enhancement in light of previous efforts to enhance our population brings into relief the similar and distinct ethical issues that haunt this field.

One of the most hot button issues of today concern the use of human enhancing drugs. The prestigious journal Nature has just published an editorial on the topic of cognitive enhancement drugs,Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy, which is a fairly interesting read and covers some of the main controversies.

For me, however, the interesting issue is not only whether human enhancement is right or wrong–though this is certainly important–but what our embrace of these drugs tell us about the conditions under which our bodies live and labor. That is, I think we are actually missing out on posing some other important questions simply by framing this int terms of human enhancement.

I suspect, and this is where ethnography would really help out, that many people turning to enhancement drugs may not be medically sick, in the technical sense but I don’t think they are healthy either. Many who turn to these drugs feel pretty worn, pretty exhausted, pretty frazzled (the perfect word, I think, is agotado, Spanish for exhausted) and use these drugs as crutches, as band-aids, as an elixir to help out one preserver in tough work circumstances. I am sure there are folks who take these drugs feel fine and are just trying to push their limits and capacities but I troll many many many patient support sites and it also seems to me that many people live under a state of low-grade chronic state of unwellness. Given the pace of society, given what and how we eat, given the extraordinary rates of depression in our society ,given the fact that babies are born with 200 + chemicals in their bodies (what a way to start out life) I am skeptical that enhancement really captures what is going on with these drugs.

I have not yet come up with the right term, but I am trying to come up with a phrase that would reflect the ways in which these drugs are not used as therapies for a discrete condition (Type 1 diabetes) but how they are a collective response to a state of low grade chronic unwellness that seems to mark the lives of a whole lot of people. This, I think, would be one responsible approach to human “enhancement” technologies that would contextualize their use within a much broader frame, one that is attuned to how bodies have been made, remade, and limited under actual material conditions of labor and life in the 21st century.


  1. There are legitimate examples of commonly used enhancement drugs.

    Like how Bangkok taxi drivers have to use meth in order to make enough money every day.

    Or, closer to home, how corporations throughout North America buy caffeine for their office workers, to increase productivity.

    Strange, how drug use is somehow scorned and also encouraged in the same breath.

    Comment by Simon Law — December 14, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

  2. This sounds like a great class. I don’t know of any particular articles on karaoke, but if you have a lecture with follow-the-bouncing-blue-ball singalong Powerpoint, I’ll want to participate! :-)

    You might be interested to see my thoughts on a popular, blase pro-bodymod essay from a few years back.

    Comment by Sumana Harihareswara — December 14, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

  3. Sumana: thanks I will check it out.

    And I totally agree Simon. I am also not against drugs/substances like caffeine either. In fact, I am pretty resentful I could not easily give my mom pot when she was at home and suffering terribly with anxiety from her alzheimers. As far as I am concerned, criminalizing weed is abusive as the stuff really helps people with certain illnesses. We pump them with one class of drugs and yet keep another class away often leading to greater harm and suffering.

    That said, an uncritical embrace of all drugs and substances is creepy and again, I think the traditional bio-ethics debates are far too myopic. But I don’t think we can or should simply moralize these substances as bad or wrong. I tend to believe in cognitive liberty ( but do so with an eye toward the social constraints that shape/enable desires and possibilities. It is those social conditions that rarely creep into the discussion.

    Comment by Biella — December 14, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

  4. Something else to consider is how America’s medical system results in primary-care physicians who don’t have the time to really get to know their patients and to really understand the full gamut of a patient’s symptoms. As a result, they tend to seize on some subset of symptoms that the patient is complaining about (e.g., headaches, depression) that seem treatable with drugs without getting the whole picture. When those treatments don’t help (or even make things worse), patients are forced to seek other explanations for the way they feel, and possibly other treatments.

    I’m also suspicious of the whole primary-care/specialist divide, as my impression is that communication between different doctors isn’t all that great. So one specialist asks one set of questions, and another asks a different set, and no one ever puts the whole thing together.

    Comment by Claire — December 14, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  5. Are you having the students go to a farmers market and then do a presentation based on it?

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — December 15, 2008 @ 5:39 am

  6. I am Joe. I have a few really cool hand-on projects. A handful of students will be interviewing farmers and reporting back. Another handful of students will be researching human enhancement technologies and arguing for and against them. I have a few other ones but those are the two main ones.

    This is also why I left Pollan for the end of the class so that there are more farmers and more produce!


    Comment by Biella — December 15, 2008 @ 5:44 am

  7. biella maybe the word you are looking for is ‘tonic,’ as in the patent medicines around the turn of the century sold for overall wellbeing and energy boosting. Among them cocaine, cannabis, and heroin :)

    Comment by will hall — February 5, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

  8. yes yes, indeed! TONIC. i need that now :-)

    Comment by Biella — February 6, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

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