New handbook chapter: The politics of ‘intoxication’

In 2019 the DruGS team completed work on two large Australian Research Council-funded qualitative projects, one on opioid overdose and take-home naloxone, and the other on performance and image enhancing drugs and hepatitis C. In an invited chapter for the forthcoming Handbook on Intoxicants and Intoxication edited by Tamar Antin, Vibeke Frank and Geoffrey Hunt, Project Lead Suzanne Fraser and members of the DruGS team drew data together from both studies to offer a new way of understanding intoxication.

Entitled, ‘Passion, reason and the politics of intoxication: Ontopolitically-oriented approaches to alcohol and other drug intoxication’, the chapter examines some of the political implications and effects of the notion of intoxication. The analysis conceptualises intoxication not as a predictable effect of biochemistry, in which personal agency is inherently compromised, but as a variable effect of the relations between broader forces that shape drug consumption and its interpretation. As is argued in the chapter, intoxication is best understood as a political designation reliant on a range of assumptions about drug-consuming subjects and practices.

In the interviews conducted for both projects, we found reason to reconsider prevailing accounts of the pursuit and experience of intoxication, finding them not readily dismissible as excessive, chaotic and intemperate, nor as the effect of compromised individual agency or behaviour. For example, in our research on take-home naloxone many participants described acting decisively and using naloxone to save lives while intoxicated themselves. In our other project, participants explained that performance and image-enhancing drug use can produce forms of intoxication involving heightened consciousness and self-confidence. In these contexts, intoxication aligns not with chaos and debility but with self-discipline, focused action and self-improvement. As the chapter argues,  

“together the case studies demonstrate that common assumptions about intoxication, how it happens, what it means and who is culpable are thoroughly political. When conceived conventionally, intoxication sets up unhelpful binaries between reason and emotion, sense and irrationality, legitimacy and illegitimacy, chaos and order.”

Lead author Suzanne Fraser explains some of the thinking behind the chapter:

“Many of the foundational concepts used in alcohol and other drug research, such as ‘intoxication’ or even ‘drugs’, are often taken for granted. This tends to obscure their histories and the political implications of how they’re used in research. We saw this chapter as an opportunity to look closely at intoxication and offer generative new ways of approaching and studying it.”

The Handbook on Intoxicants and Intoxication will be published by Routledge in 2021.