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High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture

by Mike Jay
Thames and Hudson, London, 2012 [2010]
192 pp., illus., 142 col, 15 b/w.  Paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-500-28910-5.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

High Society
is both the title of an exhibition presented at Wellcome Collection (London, 2010) and a book derived from the curatorial work of Mike Jay, a well-known scholar specializing in the cultural history of drugs.  As such, it is a wonderful accomplishment of the not so frequent encounter of scholarly and popularizing efforts that meet here seamlessly in a lavishly illustrated publication that will be of great interest to both scholars and the large audience (the latter will appreciate the fact that the very readable text presents itself without footnotes, the former will find in the final advanced reading section helpful tools for further research; both groups be grateful also for a sober but well-made index).

Jay's book is divided in three parts. In the section "A universal Impulse", he gives a very clear overview of the presence of drugs in all human civilizations as well as of the very different forms and meanings that the use of certain kind of drugs has taken in a wide range of societies, Western and non-Western, natural (or allegedly so) and technologically enhanced, in the present but also in the past.  This section helps understand the dramatically multilayered but always thoroughly cultural value of drugs, be it plant drugs (like mushrooms) or laboratory-based drugs (like ecstasy).  Jay emphasizes the role of drugs in the construction of human societies and reflects upon their role in the development of the human brain, always insisting on the collective and socially constructed dimension of drugs and taking advantage of the notion of drugs to ask questions on the relationships between the human and the animal. By focusing on the universal character of drugs, Jay does not only foreground that fact that drugs are found everywhere, but that all social groups are to a certain extent dependent, among many other things of course, on drugs, even if not all societies use or forbid the same kind of drugs. In spite of their wildly diverging forms and practices, the drug pattern, which is a cultural pattern of linking the individual and the social, seems to be always the same.

In "From Apothecary to Laboratory", Jay further problematizes the definition of drugs, blurring the boundaries between licit and illicit, drugs and non-drugs, positive and negative. The perspective shifts here from the spatial (as in section I, where the idea is to study the drug phenomenon all over the world) to the historical, more particularly to the ongoing experiments in Western culture, from the Antiquity to the Renaissance, from Enlightenment to the drugs of the future and the discussions on human enhancement. Here as well, the very well-informed study of the ceaselessly growing assortment of possible drugs and their various contributions to often clandestine subcultures, goes along with the emphasis on what is persistent through all changes: the link between the techniques to heighten human consciousness and the construction of human behaviour and social groups. And the examples of opium, cocaine, laudanum, LSD and other drugs do all confirm the basic knowledge already put forward by in Antique medicine: "whether a drug is medicine or poison is a question of dosage" (p. 107).

Section 3, "The Drug Trade", focuses very cleverly on "older" drugs, such as tobacco, opium, and alcohol, and makes clear that the so-called "war on drugs" is an immensely complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the dichotomy of "bad" drugs and "good" crime-fighters.  Here again, the approach of Mike Jay discusses the many hidden aspects of laisser-aller and prohibitionist politics, and the many permanently shifting nuances one has to acknowledge between the many ways of coping with drugs. The final part of this section is devoted to a discussion on the ban on tobacco in the wealthy classes of the Western world, which is analyzed in terms of changing cultural attitudes (and not just in terms of health care considerations and economic s of insurance systems: after all, as Jay astutely observes: smokers do make a positive contribution to the finances of our care systems, for they die sooner and thus help keep under control the exploding costs of an aging population).

Mike Jay's merits in this book are great. He offers a well balanced, historically very rich and culturally very diverse presentation of drugs. His writing can be quoted as an example to all those who want to popularize science. The book is illustrated in a highly didactic yet always very attractive way. And last but not least, one may hope as well that this study makes a positive contribution to ongoing discussion that clearly does not follow the careful and open approach that such a complex phenomenon needs.


Last Updated 2 August 2012

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