Monthly Archives: October 2011
My girlfriend Luna in Thailand received an exorcism a couple of weeks ago.
She had been sick for a month and a half: a swollen throat, persistent cough and pains in her leg sometimes so strong that she could not walk. She was taking loads of medicine that the doctors gave her, but to no effect other than to make her worry she was poisoning her kidneys. She finally got a local shaman to perform an exorcism. The symptoms receded after a couple of days, and now she is doing fine.
I actually suggested seeing the shaman. Partially because I am always suspicious of doctors and their drugs. But was also venting my own issues. I suggested that maybe her mother had cast a spell on her—swelling Luna’s throat so she couldn’t yell at her mom, and weakening her legs so that she could not leave her mother alone while she went to Bangkok to work. Yes, I was meddling where I shouldn’t. But I was persuasive enough that she sought out the shaman.
And the shamaness turned out to be a lot more insightful than either of us. She saw that the problem was not sorcery from Luna’s mother, but that the ghost of her father’s mother (which was actually only a temporary form of a ghost that was thousands of years old) had gotten into her body. The ghost was looking for somebody to take care of her, and Luna had a vulnerable body.
To explain the success of the exorcism in the form of psychotherapeutic myths that I grew up with (I don’t know if I believe those myths but I am more familiar with them than with ghosts and magic) my focus on Luna’s mother definitely had a lot more to do with my issues and projections than with Luna’s problems. Luna and her mother do have a very difficult relationship, but Luna is conscious of those difficulties and has dealt with them to some extent.
On the other hand, Luna has never really confronted her issues with her father, who more or less abandoned her as a child. This relationship is surrounded by denial and repression. I’ll skip the details, but Luna’s fears of abandonment have also shaped our relationship enormously, rarely for the better. To top it off, I left Thailand earlier than planned last August, with lots of unresolved issues between us. She got sick within a week after I left.
What started as my peevish and jealous attack on Luna’s relationship with her mother has flowered into some excellent results. The exorcism has not only helped Luna’s physical symptoms, but has also helped rejuvinate more open conversation and intimacy between us. Not least of all, we have overcome earlier problems when she tried to hide her relationships with local ghosts from me because she feared my scorn and criticism. Dealing with ghosts and magic certainly has been much more helpful than my earlier attempts to frame our problems in terms of psychotherapeutic categories and her trips to the doctors.
(As a side note, Luna likes to remind me of how the fortune teller she consulted earlier this year predicted that (1) it would be a difficult year for our relationship; (2) she would be very sick; and (3) I would have a serious accident. It all came true—I also had a nasty bike accident about the same time she started feeling sick).
I was in New York last weekend and joined an Occupy Wall Street general assembly at Washington Square Park. Many students and ex-students complained about their massive debts of tens of thousands of dollars, told moving stories of how the debts have dominated and ruined their lives, and explained how legally it is more difficult to reduce the hardship of student loans than any other kind of loan.
I realized that I am part of the problem. To be sure, my professorial income qualifies me as one of the 99% (although my job is more secure than most). And my annual pay raise does not even keep up with the cost of living, much less with massive annual tuition inflation. But students are going into debt to support my job.
None of the students complained about the education they received per se. They were certainly not demanding that their education be more practical and job-oriented. In fact, many of the most vocal students had majored in things like art, ethnic studies or media studies that don’t create strong expectations of employment even in the best of times. Instead, they were upset about having to go into massive debt to finance their educations but with no jobs at the end; about how the government would bail out bankers but not them; about having followed the expected life trajectory only to be betrayed.
So what are students getting from me in exchange for their debt? Like most historians, I agree that university education should not necessarily be in practical topics and skills that serve corporate needs. Universities offer a chance to learn things that are very difficult to learn elsewhere (although we must never forget that many more things can be learned outside of the university than inside.) But this evades the issue. Expensive university educations have become a necessary life stage for most people. It is about more than just the chance to learn something neat.
My colleagues also like to emphasize that they are teaching critical skills, creating an informed citizenry, training students in the clear analysis and expression of ideas, blah blah and so on. I am not convinced: university lectures and essays are not necessarily the best way to transmit such skills; PhD holders are not necessarily the best people to teach them; and the highly intellectualized versions of these skills that are taught at universities often suppress the emotional-self knowledge, flexibility and social talents necessary to implement these skills wisely. Among people I know, these talents and the skills to use them have no clear correlation with how many years of education they have.
We do produce diplomas. These are a crucial part of our society. They are the credentials that define status and create opportunity in a world without bloodlines, titles, caste or divine recognition. Everybody from fingernail technicians to Wall Street oligarchs needs them. And for better paid jobs, spending more money on a Master’s Degree is increasingly required. These diplomas don’t prove that we have learned anything useful or that we will be good at their jobs. But they do show that we are willing to submit to the demands of professionalization, and to invest enormous time and resources to follow the expected trajectory and to present ourselves as somebody who has learned and accepted the norms of society.
It is possible that people with diplomas have learned some practical and critical skills that they would not or could not have learned otherwise. But much more importantly, those of us who police the paths to diplomas teach kids to sit still for long periods, to absorb what we tell them regardless of how boring it is, to reflect our ideas back to us in the forms that we demand, and to discipline their imaginations into narrower and more utilitarian forms. These skills—much more than any critical skills—are the ones that will draw on most as they find places in institutions, climb career ladders, and learn how to consume expensive things.
Nobody at Washington Square seemed to be protesting the educational process per se. How could they? Our lives have been shaped by the predictable progress through educational institutions at least since we were five years old. Educational milestones have marked the main change-of-life and coming-of-age rituals in our lives. Educational institutions have shaped our communal and individual identities (Go Beavers!). Our experiences in these institutions and the diplomas we carry are important social and cultural capital. The students were upset about not getting the rewards they deserved for having invested so much in the process (although some of the more hard-core anarchist and communitarian protestors at Wall Street do seem to be searching for alternatives to this process). Beneath all the protest criticism is a sense of betrayal.
(Side note: I can still remember when, before 2008, I used to talk about the massive trickery and unsustainability of global financial mechanisms and of how the developed nations have become skilled in sucking wealth from the rest of the world without really producing anything except new services that will only suck more. Most students looked at me blankly, a few rolled their eyes, and some always tried to insist that new technology had changed everything. Some had the condescending air of people who knew that they would soon be earning much more than I did by joining technology and financial industries that would change the world far more than I would with my outmoded ideas.)
In other words, we are all part of the problem (i.e., all of us who advance, or hope to advance, through the Western educational systems). We are all struggling to be at the center global capitalism that specializes in sucking up profit from around the world, exporting dirty work while creating leisure and luxury for ourselves, and then making everybody believe it is all for the sake of truth and progress. The bloated university—with its ever-expanding services, administrators, practical and impractical education, and relentless professionalization—is an indispensable part of this. Not only does it typify the way that educated service providers have perfected the talents of sucking up the wealth of the world. It also controls entry into this elite world and trains young people to participate. More than anything, universities (and especially we professors) have perfected that capitalist trick of encouraging you to believe that we are being individualistic, pushing the envelope, thinking critically, caring about the oppressed or somehow standing outside of the system; even as we are training you precisely how to join that system. It is a powerful system, and nobody wants to be left out or on the losing end.
As Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party keep reminding us, it is not a system without glitches. It would feel good to wreak some vengeance on the bankers, or at least get them to reform a bit. It may even help to improve the general welfare for a while (at least for developed countries—but likely somehow at the expense of undeveloped countries). But the paradoxes at the heart of the human condition will remain.
In last week’s list of things I have learned from history, I forgot the most important one:
9. Marx was right: “Man makes his own history, but not under conditions of his own choosing.”
9a. We still have only a vague and partial understanding of what those conditions might be. It is not only the structural and economic conditions that Marx and others like to emphasize and endlessly disagree about. They are also the conditions of our families, our biological contents, the ideologies and other education we have imbibed and believed, the rituals we have undergone, the drugs, pollutants and other substances we have consumed, those emotions that never go away no matter how much we try to repress them, and those subconscious forces that may amount to little more than the sex drive or may stretch on to infinity. . . . just to name a few.
These are not the lessons of history. They are just things I have learned. Some of this knowledge is hard-earned, and some is just the persistence of ideas I have had since I was a teenager.
1. Things that seem very important now were often very different or even non-existent in the past. The opposite is also true, that things that were very important in the past now seem silly.
1a. This is especially true of general concepts that are important for our values, sense of identity and the ways we try to change other people—concepts like freedom, addiction, democracy, faith, justice, or rights. Historical analysis shows their meanings to be unstable, vague and contradictory.
1b. Sometimes people successfully attach a certain interpretation to these concepts, and insert them into policy and institutions. This can even recreate parts of the world in the image of those concepts and their opposites. But only for a while (see point 1).
2. Nothing has pure origins. Everything comes from hybridity, change and compromise.
2a. We very rarely say or do anything that is original. We usually just mix different ingredients, with different proportions.
3. Almost no social or political reform turns out as expected, especially over the long run.
3a. Intentions are usually irrelevant. Good intentions often lead to bad results and vice versa. The results are very hard to predict.
3b. Of course, the very definition of good and bad intentions and results will also change over time.
3c. We often criticize people in the past for behaving in such and such a way and not understanding the implications of their actions, even as we behave in a very similar manner don’t understand the implications of our actions.
4. There are many levels of historical process: Huge macro-trends that can only be understood in terms of abstract structures and statistical tendencies; mid-level trends shaped by events and policies; and micro-trends shaped by individual choices and agency (not to mention all kinds of intermediary levels).
4a. These levels clearly overlap, but I still have no clear idea how they are related to each other.
5. When we separate economics, politics, society, culture, language, environment, biology and technology, law and psychology, our analyses are inevitably wrong.
6. Good history scholarship has accuracy, a nuanced sense of causality and a complex sense of the many factors involved.
6a. Good history scholarship is immoral.
6b. It can easily seem polemical, revisionist or irrelevant because it cares little for the current stories and categories most people share with each other.
7. Good history writing works with symbols and narratives, in a complex but emotionally potent way.
7a. The truth of good history writing has little to do with accurate causality, facts and footnotes (although it can be easily combined with extensive research, facts and footnotes).
7b. Good history writing is very hard to combine with good history scholarship.
8. Everything is complicated.
8b. Most people don’t really want to know how complicated it is.
Before listening to Led Zeppelin yesterday, I found myself in a huge, drafty space with eerie lights and loads of evil spirits floating around. The Indian music that was playing nurtured the evil by chiseling open the weak spots in my defenses. I started to worry about sorcery. It is not usually something that I worry about. I’ve often told my girlfriend that I don’t have to worry about ghosts and sorcerers hurting me because I don’t believe them, and she agrees. But this space was so otherworldly and alien that I easily began to understand why many ayahuasca drinkers felt vulnerable there and worried about sorcery. It didn’t help that both my ex-wife and girlfriend have asked monks and shamans to cast spells that will manipulate my affections, and possibly to punish me.
It also occurred to me that these evil spirits might just be my own poisonous emotions. This interpretation was much more appealing and I tried to convince myself it was true. But the problem is that sorcery is adept at deception. By treating the spirits as mere emotions, I might be lulled into dropping my defenses and lured into their clutches. It was a paranoid’s paradise.
It had all the makings of a bad trip. I had to do something. I turned off the music. And I made a practical decision: I have no idea how to deal with sorcery, but I do have some ideas about how to deal with poisonous emotions. Instead of fighting them, I would just go with the flow, see what images they produced and what memories they dragged up. It helped. That huge, threatening space got a little bit smaller and less drafty, and it filled up with filing cabinets. It was an historical archive! If I wanted a memory, all I had to do was look it up in a drawer and pull out the file. There’s me feeling lonely and abandoned in my crib. There’s me trying to bury myself in my grandmother’s bosom. There’s me listening to one of my old friends talk on and on, influencing my ideas about how to live. I even had some files about people close to me. There’s Luna living her childhood in desperate hope that she could make her absent father return.
But I quickly realized that there were limitations to this research (beyond the fact that I really had no way to cross-check my findings). The archive setting created a comfortable and familiar space that protected me from those rampaging spirits. But it is precisely the same space I have lived in over the past 20 years to repress and ignore those spirits. My researches might give me some intellectual insights, but they still keep me separate from those churning emotions. I am still fearful, unable to express or deal with them.
So I turned on the music again. This time I chose classic rock, something familiar that could appeal to the emotions of my youth. Having been a white, suburban teenager in the 70s and early 80s, I of course worship at the altar of Zep. So Zeppelin music seemed the most appropriate.
My last post reported some of the results of this musical choice. I outlined the bulk of that post while I imagined coming down from the Ayahuasca. At the time it seemed like a great way to build a bridge between my psychedelic experiences and intellectual interests. In hindsight, I am a bit more ambivalent. Framing my experience in academic terms is just one more way to avoid dealing with those poisonous emotions. And if I don’t deal with those emotions, they are going to keep on coming back as sorcery and other crappy things. Also, academic perspectives can not really deal with the overwhelming strangeness and impact of the worlds encountered through psychedelics. I have only had fleeting glimpses of those worlds. But from what I have seen I am flabbergasted by the complete indifference of that world to the processes of human history.
To be sure, an historical analysis could show the ways in which experiences of that world are shaped by social and cultural expectations, and how those expectations are built on the descriptions and expectations that came before. In other words, the meanings we project onto that world are not inherent to that world itself, but derive from our social experience. And this is all be good and true. But the danger of this kind of analysis is the implication that it is all about social construction. It too easily leads to the insistence that all experience is really only about power, money, Darwinian survival or neurochemical balances—i.e all the things capitalism claims to be true (even while the real practice of capitalism is all about creating and promoting desires and fantasies). It shows no respect for the overwhelming impact of the experience itself—however we construct it. Some people talk about ego death, a higher plane, an alternate universe, a white light, a mystical experience, getting closer to god, or whatever. Right now the only words I can use to describe it are “a place where all kinds of really weird shit happens that has a vague relation to us, but really couldn’t care less about us.” Other people talk about being suffused with a feeling of pure love. I haven’t experienced that, but it seems like a better narrative than the one I am on and I am willing work towards that goal.
Some religions have channelled and promoted this experience in a way that gives meaning and social context. This is rarely the case now. Most mainstream religions have become hostile to ecstatic experiences, especially independent ones. But we live in time when chemicals, sexual techniques, raves and a variety of gurus promise easy access to these experiences. And for no more than the exchange of a few dollars, the chemicals can often deliver on the promise (the other methods can too, but much less frequently). But these experiences necessarily take place at the margins. The large religions and political establishment are much more invested in suppressing the chemicals and sexual commerce than in integrating them as part of the social fabric. How can we make sense of these experiences in a way that does not reduce them to the clichés of materialist capitalism?
Psychoanalysis is one modern trend that has developed a good relation with psychedelics. Psychoanalytic self-exploration has proven to be a good way to create order and meaning out of the experiences. But they only go so far. Personal history seems to be a good framework for accessing those experiences, but at some point we reach a space where it seems totally irrelevant and we are left on our own. (although Carl Jung had many ideas about how to extend psychoanalysis beyond the personal. See also the work of Stanislav Graf).
Science, on the other hand, has not developed a good relation with psychedelics. It rarely engages with the experience, and often tries to explain it away when it does. Among scientists who are open to the experience on its own terms, their elucidation of chemical and neurological structures have only tentative insight. Other scientists are exploring practical uses for psychedelics that range from curing cluster headaches to stopping cigarette addiction to easing the anxiety of cancer patients. This is a necessary way to go, given the social and legal constrains on psychedelic use. But this approach ultimately depends on this-world justification for the psychedelic experience. It only leaves us on the doorstep.
Many proponents of psychedelic use have embraced Eastern or shamanistic religions as a way to make sense of their experiences. I’ve spent enough time in my girlfriend’s ghost-infested landscape in rural Thailand, and seen enough of her ghost-free life in Bangkok and the U.S. to think that these religions will not translate easily to the modern world of chemicals and individualistic psychonautics–at least not in their mystical sense (although Buddhism as stress-relief is doing well). The tribal/art-based sociability surrounding Burning Man and other festivals may be working towards an innovative integration of the psychedelic experience and our modern social lives. I have never attended, so I can only speculate. My impression from reading accounts is that it is still in a state of flux: the arrival of big money and air-conditioned RVs is changing the nature of the festival, and many attendees only feel loss when they return home from the festival, unable to incorporate the experience into their daily lives.
For now, at least, I am more attracted to personal exploration that mass gathering and changing the world. I am surely infected by modern individualism. I also find the broader capitalist-scientific world that we live in to be equal parts fascinating, objectionable and attractive. And, for now, I am still attached to my skills in historical research and analysis. However much the psychedelic world may be indifferent to us, the way we experience these psychedelic and sexual encounters are at least partly a product of life in this world of science and capitalism (see previous post). If we are going to find meaning and significance in these encounters, we have to work with what we have. . . . I see I am convincing myself about the value of my last post.
My posting yesterday inspired me to drink a cup of ayahuasca, which in turn inspired me to think more about what I wrote about sex work yesterday . I also listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” and it occurred to me that I would willingly pay a lot of money—at least a month’s rent—to a woman who could perform a sensual dance for me that embodied the sensations I felt while listening to this song. I also realized that not just any talented woman would do. It would have to be a woman who was black and buxom.
This fantasy can be unpacked in many ways–and I cycled through a lot of them: misogyny and the objectification of women; unexplored racism; power relations; infantile fantasies of my grandmother; my anima; or as a manifestation of the great earth mother. My conclusions were tentative, but one fact remained: This fantasy is still lodged in my soul.
The fantasy also seemed like the perfect bargain of late capitalism (i.e. the capitalism that has moved beyond production and fulfilling needs and now concentrates on services that create and fulfill desires). I would get my deepest fantasies satisfied in return for a substantial monetary remuneration for the skilled service. The promise of capitalism fulfilled! Deals like this are already quite common, except that the service providers are usually called therapists. And if we prorate for time and expense, I doubt that therapists are any more successful at generating satisfaction than sex workers.
Of course, this wonderful capitalist bargain it is not really so simple. The first problem is that if all desires were so easily fulfilled, capitalism would quickly lose steam. Consumers have to be left somewhat unsatisfied, willing to come back for more, always in the belief that next time will hit the spot with fulfillment achieved. But my fantasy is predicated on a one-time payment. I could not afford such payments regularly (like the therapists demand). There is a chance that, if conditions are just right, the one encounter would hit the spot perfectly and some kind of catharsis would be attained (I am not just speculating idly). But structurally speaking, the chances are small. It is likely that further desire would be generated.
The problem is not only that the mechanisms of capitalism are designed more for the further extraction of profit rather than the satisfaction of fantasies, for the creation of desire more than its fulfillment. There is also the danger that the consumer will forget that this is essentially a ritualized and professional encounter. For it to work, it has to operate on a symbolic level as much as a physical one. But all too often, the customer will mistake the fantasies he projects on the woman for the woman herself (since this is my fantasy I am generalizing the sex worker as a woman, although this need not be the case). Indeed, a successful sex worker has to be skilled at attracting and reflecting such projections. This is when the encounter becomes a problem, when the customer confuses his fantasy for reality, is in a constant state of increased desire, and in worst-case scenarios starts to pay far more than he can afford in a desperate attempt to realize his fantasy. The ideal capitalist bargain begins to look more and more like late capitalist exploitation (These ideas are also inspired by a posting in Tits and Sass).
But exploitation of who by whom? I don’t think it is clear. At one extreme we could say that, like any good entrepreneur, the sex worker is just trying to maximize her profit. She needs to recognize an opportunity when it comes and milk it for what it is worth. On the other end, we could also argue that the exploitation is the other way around, that any relation in which a man pays money for sex is characterized by masculine aggression and domination that degrades and objectifies the woman. I don’t think either of these arguments entirely hits the mark. Because, ultimately, when the fantasies are at play it is about so much more than exploitation and money. Even when the sex workers claim they are only in it for the money, and the customers are sexist, domineering jerks—these are attitudes that are easy to adopt because they are accepted and even expected as sufficient justification in the context of capitalist norms. They may well be true, but they only scratch the surface of an encounter that is much more complex, shot through with dreams and fantasies we rarely talk about openly.
At the same time, those dreams do not represent some irreducible non-capitalist core. Tantric goddesses and sex surrogates play up the mythic and therapeutic aspects of their work, but still make good money and market themselves wisely. My fantasy of a buxom black woman whose “honey drips” and will grind, rob me blind and then transform into a woman that will “hold my hand, tell me no lies and make me a happy man,” may be a reenactment of distant goddess mother archetypes and myths (or it may be sexist, racist tripe). But that reenactment can not be separated from the sights, sounds, social structures and churning desire machines of modern capitalism and Led Zeppelin.
I have been thinking about what my next large research project will be . . . and whether I should even have one at all. I keep coming back to the idea of a global history of drugs, commercialized sex and the idea of freedom over the past two centuries. This may be something I can wrap both my head and my heart around.
First, here is what I am imagining in academic terms:
The international movement to abolish slavery from the late 18th through the 19th century established ideas of freedom and slavery that has shaped the ways that we think about morality, politics and personal values to this day. Perhaps most importantly, they established a polar opposition between freedom and slavery that were taken to be self-evident. This binary has made it difficult for us to understand the many gray areas that lie between these two poles. The temperance/anti-opium and anti-prostitution movements were the first two major major post-abolition transnational social movements of the 19th century. They latched onto this vocabulary of freedom and slavery in a big way, shaping the way we still talk about drugs and commercial sex. Ironically, these suppression movements arose in the context of expanding global capitalism, and what better exemplifies the markets, urges and consumerism of capitalism than sex and drugs? Both are commodities in nearly indestructable markets in which the logic of prices, supply and demand and all of the other capitalist fetishes survive and flourish even in conditions of repression. Culturally, sex, drugs and the fantasy of freedom virtually embody the desires, urges and dreams that are the life-blood of capitalism. Yet sex and drugs have been primary targets of global suppression in the capitalist world. And both are usually suppressed in the name of freedom: freedom from addiction, freedom from exploitation, freedom from enslavement to our passions, freedom from druglords, pimps, traffickers, chemicals . . . etc. Indeed, drugs, sex trade and the preservation of freedom are frequently justifications for intervention–often violent–into domestic lives and foreign countries. What better way to understand the paradoxes of modern life and the consciousness of globalization?
It sounds fine as an academic project. As I outline it in my mind, however, I am increasingly dissatisfied. It is all too easy for me to fall into those familiar academic patterns and analyses that will make this book indistinguishable from so many other books: some criticisms of the state capitalism and social control projects; an ironic look at the consequences of regulation and suppression; all flavored with an “I-understand-things-more-deeply-than-you” smirk. I can see where I might add something new by looking at the global dimensions and the interaction of these three phenomena that are usually kept separate. But ultimately the prospect of producing yet another critical, skeptical tome—framed in footnotes and passive voice—leaves me feeling empty.
To put it differently, the inevitable result of all my training in skeptical criticism is to turn it on my own mode of researching, writing and thinking. And when I watch myself thinking about these two topics—drugs and commercial sex—I see how quickly I start thinking of various abstractions and convolutions that will make them acceptable to an academic audience. What insights will I water down, what topics will I avoid, what conclusions will I delete? And once I produce this properly formulated academic tome, I will have contributed to the very structures that put commercial sex and drugs into this cultural hinterlands where we can’t talk about them openly. I would reinforce the very sense of illegitimacy and danger that I had intended to subject to critical analysis in the first place.
Let me explain:
Histories and classes about drug trades and controls are common. Histories of drug use less common. There seems to be a tacit knowledge among my colleagues that many of us have consumed psychoactive substances in our youths. None of us talk about our current consumption other than alcohol and caffeine. I have brought up my recently renewed consumption of psychedelic substances with a few of my closer friends at Claustrodemonic U. Their responses were more accepting than hostile. But they (with the exception of one) quickly shifted the subject away from the experiences to more familiar terrain about legality, distribution and how we might build careers by researching other people’s historical drug use.
Like many users of psychedelics, it is hard for me to forget the actual experience of taking the drugs. I want to understand it, integrate it into my life. I can usually shift the discussion towards topics that now interest me, like the history of addiction science, the psychonautic explorations of 19c doctors, and the ways that big pharmacy has created and packaged drugs from cocaine and heroin to Prozac. But these still feel trivial—modes of analysis that continue to avoid the meaning of the experience in much the way that all the doctors, politicians, temperance activists of the past have avoided it by subjecting it to excessive categorization, abstraction and rigid explanation. They betray the drug experience itself, which constantly reminds users of the limits of these kinds of analysis.
At the same time, I can not easily dismiss the political, social and institutional analyses. All the prisoners and destruction of the War on Drugs; and the ways in which science and political propaganda have shaped even our personal experiences of drug use are not at all trivial. And I am enough of a skeptical historian to get easily frustrated with the more enthusiastic attempts to show that drug use has inspired every aspect of the origins of culture and religion (the conventional methods of historical evidence are worth something). And I can easily dismiss the more utopian claims of contemporary users about how these substances can free our souls and create a society of love (yeah, we’ve heard it all before).
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics among psychologists, therapists and doctors (watch the videos from the Horizons conference on psychedelics). While I am happy to see this (indeed, my recent experiences have been much more Freudian than I expected) I really hope the doctors don’t get too much control over the meaning of psychedelics. The goals of medical science and therapy are ultimately to make us normal by avoiding serious health disturbances (which are increasingly proliferating to include more and more forms of human behavior). They tend to see exploration into new mental experiences only as risky behavior, with consequences that will need to be cured. This is not so much a matter of the attitudes of individual doctors who have an interest in psychedelics, but of the larger structures within which they work—the therapeutic state in which the preservation of life and maintenance of bored, ‘adjusted’ normality seems to trump all other goals.
Say, by some miracle, all of our social critiques, discoveries of medical benefits and calls for freedom of choice took root—what then? Are we ready to engage drug experiences on their own terms? I don’t think so. Our mental equipment has been forged in the fire of analytical reason and criticism. We will just go spiraling in to some new mutually-repressing hell. Critical analysis is not sufficient.
It is even harder to speak openly of sex work in academia than it is to speak about drugs. By and large, the anti-commercial sex as exploitative patriarchy attitude is still the norm. There are some cracks in the edifice, but most of them are abstract and cautiously formulated. However much I might openly propose alternative facts and generalizations, I still wouldn’t dream of telling my colleagues that I have visited sex workers. To be sure, some sex workers in academia have come out to their colleagues, usually without horrible results. But it often comes at a price of having to express their activities in terms of abstractions and a critical vocabulary that does not always do justice to their experiences. (For unorthodox academic opinions on sex work and the difficulties in airing them, see Laura Augustín’s blog Naked Anthropologist).
I am not entirely sure what attracts me to this topic. To some degree, it is that sex sometimes take us into those same realms of ineffable experience as drugs. And adding some commercial exchange can make the experience significantly different—although no less ineffable—and directly links that experience to the more conventional historical topic of capitalism.
I’ve also found that sex workers write some of the most thoughtful and eloquent blogs on the internet (some are listed at the end of this post). This is no accident. The work both attracts people with independent personalities and fosters an outsider perspective, one that is built on daily experience with social hypocrisy. A sex worker daily engages with people who are often at their most vulnerable, insecure or obnoxious. A successful sex worker has to understand the human condition. A successful sex worker also learns to restrain judgment, manage difficult situations, play roles and project images, make people feel at ease, convey self-confidence, manage her or his own conflicting emotions and attachments, and deal with the self-doubt and anger that results from the relentless public criticism of their jobs. When they are good writers, this translates into a mix of emotional nuance, trenchant social critique, unique perspectives, self-awareness, unflinching observation and great story telling. It is a model for how I would like to write. It is a perspective that should not be ignored if we want to understand the modern world.
Drug literature is rarely a model for how I would like to write. Much about drug consumption is asocial and private, and the writing is often excessively personal and opaque, or else self-pitying. Even drug-taking that is about sociability and bonding has a personal dimension that is hard to express. Commercial sex, on the other hand, is fundamentally about communication and social interaction (at least if we focus on person-to-person exchanges rather than the internet). Sex workers and their writings are grounded in the material world, while still living in that liminal world where new insights and truths are more easily found. They directly inhabit the interface between practical reality, social marginalization and the ineffable experiences and emotionality of sex. And it is all mediated through money.
Most of my ideas about freedom come out of my academic experience, so the problem is different here. With drugs and commercial sex, I am confronted with the problem and limitations of translating emotional experiences into academic analysis. Here the problem is of not understanding the emotional and personal implications of my intellectual knowledge. I can elaborate endlessly on the many historical meanings and manipulations of the idea of freedom; the way the preservation of freedom so often justifies intervention into and control of the lives of others; and its uselessness as an abstract idea that can deal neither with the complexities of an interconnected society nor the needs and demands of our psyches. I find it hard to believe that freedom exists, or that it would be desirable if it did.
My historian colleagues will give me a good hearing, acknowledge the nuances of my argument, and then go right back to praising agency, resistance, freedom of choice, multivalence, fluidity or any of many vague ways of putting freedom on a pedestal and criticizing those who might block us from getting it. And I have to admit that, whatever I may convince myself of intellectually, in my daily life I still feel that freedom is something that I want, something I enjoy, an ideal I strive for. And I stubbornly pursue most of my individualistic goals and inclinations more than most people that I know (my stubborn criticism of freedom being one of those inclinations). What the hell is going on here?
I worry too much. Whatever new directions I am trying to explore, I am still excited by the nerdy historical ideas I described back in the second paragraph. The real challenge is how to combine the abstract over-analysis with these more visceral experiences and knowledge. And my black-and-white picture of academic resistance to open discussion about these liminal activities is a bit extreme. Academia has numerous pockets of tolerance and exploration (although one often has to sacrifice the career ladder in order to enjoy them). Any fear and resistance to exploring in new directions comes more from inside myself than from the outside. . . . . That’s something I’ve learned from drugs and sex.
*Some sex worker blogs that have inspired me (there are many more):