CST Reading Group January 2019: ‘Complex events: Drug effects and emergent causality’

By Renae Fomiatti

January’s reading by Kane Race ‘Complex events: Drug effects and emergent causality’ (2014) provided an opportunity to continue thinking about enactment and multiplicity (see the most recent write-up here) through the issue of causation. Published quite recently, Race’s article can be considered alongside other Australian scholarship published in the critical drugs space over the last two decades (See for example, Duff, 2007; Dilkes-Frayne, 2014; Fraser, Moore & Keane, 2014; Fraser & valentine, 2008; Malins, 2004; Moore & Fraser, 2006), which has sought to widen the remit of phenomena traditionally assigned agency in AOD research, policy and practice. In this article, Race critiques the linear logics of space and causation upon which drug prevention research is premised to develop an alternative account of causation as emergent and enmeshed in time, space and local relations.

Here, Race’s domain of concern is normative preventative approaches to drug use in research and practice, such as drug detection dogs, that aim to deter drug use. These deterrence efforts, he argues, are underpinned by particular spatial logics – where drug ‘hot spots’ and ‘markets’ are bounded, geometric and accessible (reminiscent of the models also used in clinical research). They are also contingent upon predetermined and linear measures of effects and causation that ultimately struggle to account for the more complex dynamics, displacements and harms that characterise social life and practices. By way of contrast, Race gestures to the insights generated by several important crackdown ethnographies and his own research into gay urban spaces and queer kinship. For example, he references the police crackdowns in Cabramatta studied by Maher and Dixon (1999) that gave rise to a series of unintended consequences including the increased risk of transmission of bacterial and blood borne infections, as well as overdose, resulting from people increasingly storing caps of heroin inside their mouths and other bodily cavities to avoid detection. He argues that these earlier studies were better placed to attend to affective climates and the production of unintended harms and consequences.

Building on the notion of displacement explored in this earlier work, Race proposes a topographical model of emergent causality. He argues that these ‘permutations in the very form of practices, circumstances, events’ arising from drug prevention efforts suggest a different perspective on causality, in which the object of concern morphs and embodies new shapes and forms (pp. 312-313). Race suggests that drug effects might be considered ‘events-in-process’, the materialisation of which is contingent upon the specific coming together of discrete objects and relations (p. 312). As he argues, this model of emergent causality has important implications for harm-reduction oriented studies of alcohol and other drugs:

To propose a topological approach to harm reduction is to promote attention to the ‘taking shape’ of drug effects; to figure how various objects, practices, and forces enter into relations and emerge out of them. It is to understand causality as emergent and dependent on the manner in which these objects (which may also be conceived as affected entities) come together on a given occasion. (p. 313)

In line with our previous discussion on enactment and performativity, we discussed the methodological implications of Race’s reflections for our own scholarly practices. The first of which now seems commonplace to critical drug scholars: in order to engage with objects such as ‘drugs’ and ‘harms’, we need to turn our attention to the multiple objects and practices that go into their shaping and other unforeseen eventualities. One member of the group remarked that the issue of causation across various realms of knowledge production (e.g. drug prevention, policy and research) is marked by a peculiar case of ‘tunnel vision’, in which the relation between cause and effect is exceedingly narrow, and knowledge practices and evaluation are actively held apart from the eventuation of drug harms. However, as this article makes clear, artefacts of criminalisation and policy practices, such as drug harms and ‘hot spots’, are not abstractable from these practices, despite the inclination towards objectivisim that suggests otherwise. As researchers, we are also not immune from this web of causation but intimately entangled in it and thus bear responsibility for our research practices (Mol, 2002) – an issue gaining more and more traction of late in STS-informed alcohol and other drug research. Returning to this paper has been useful for reflecting upon some of the central movements in the critical AOD space over the last few years. Although Race is here addressing causation, his concerns reflect broader tensions in the field about the ontological nature of phenomena, the ethical implications of the phenomenal ‘cuts’ we make through research and policy, and how best to attend to objects that are multiple, moving and emergent.

The CST Reading Group: Renae Fomiatti, Duane Duncan, Emily Lenton, Nyssa Ferguson and Gemma Nourse

Dilkes-Frayne, E. (2014). Tracing the “event” of drug use: ‘Context’ and the coproduction of a night out on MDMA. Contemporary Drug Problems41(3), 445-479.

Duff, C. (2007). Towards a theory of drug use contexts: Space, embodiment and practice. Addiction Research & Theory15(5), 503-519.

Fraser, S., Moore, D., & Keane, H. (2014). Habits: remaking addiction. Springer.

Fraser, S., & Valentine, K. (2008). Substance and substitution: Methadone subjects in liberal societies. Springer.

Malins, P. (2004). Machinic assemblages: Deleuze, Guattari and an ethico-aesthetics of drug use. Janus head7(1), 84-104.

Moore, D., & Fraser, S. (2006). Putting at risk what we know: Reflecting on the drug-using subject in harm reduction and its political implications. Social science & medicine62(12), 3035-3047.

Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Race, K. (2014). Complex events: Drug effects and emergent causality. Contemporary Drug Problems41(3), 301-334.