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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Conference Report: Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century

This conference, held at Edge Hill University on 13-14 September 2018, was part-funded by BARS. You can see tweets from the conference here. Anna Rowntree reports from the event.

Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century:

a report by Anna Rowntree

Substance use and abuse: can there be a subject that more intimately and richly connects the long nineteenth century with our own modern moment of being? We live in a world of blurred boundaries – our food, our clothes, our drugs, and our technology grown, mined, manufactured and designed in a cross-pollinated global world where nothing is ever straightforward.

But perhaps we can track something – perhaps we can go back and pay attention to the time which from this vantage point looks a little like a beginning. We can burrow into the literature, art and artefacts of the long nineteenth century and we can draw lines which trace the moving, trading, inhaling and consumption of substances such as tobacco, hashish and opium. We can look at the ships facilitating the new globalising world economy and political landscape of colonisation, revolution and capitalism. We can chart the psychological landscape of the individual drug user and observe the blooming of new ways of painting, thinking or conceiving of self and world. And that is exactly what the conference ‘Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century’ managed to do. From the minutiae of each scholar’s intricate research came a bigger picture which expressed something not unified but mutating and on the move. What every paper did in its own way was get things rolling – the effect was a view of the long nineteenth century where nothing stayed in its box and things were allowed to bleed.

Thursday began with a keynote from Noelle Plack entitled ‘Alcohol, Power and Identity in the Age of Revolution’. What Plack’s comprehensive research revealed was that alcohol consumption both encouraged social breakdown and simultaneously defined and reflected power hierarchies in an era of social upheaval. Whilst places of consumption and the loosening of tongues allowed a subversive physical and psychological space to open up, the choice of alcoholic beverage was highly coded with nationalistic and class associations. Plack’s conclusion that social movements and drink are intimately entwined laid the foundation for a conference in which culture revealed itself to be consistently under the influence – and in which substances are much more than recreational toys.

Panel One continued the investigation of alcohol with Jean Webb discussing the fascinating field of Victorian children’s fiction. Her reading of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Hesba Stretton’s work showed the complex ways in which these writers were considering the social anxieties around alcoholism, degeneration, poverty, and child labour. Here Darwin, science, religion, literature and social activism all came together in an affective nexus. This interdisciplinary approach laid the foundation for a conference which at its best sought to be historically, culturally and artistically inclusive.

In Panel Two, Bob Nicholson treated us to a bodily understanding of cocktail culture. His shot glasses of blue liquid were not celebrated for their taste but were a fitting way to embody the subject. Nicholson’s conclusion that the British public were enjoying cocktails as part of a celebration of American culture spoke to the transnational nature of substances and the complex cultural interactions they encourage.

Speaking on the next panel, I made a case for reading De Quincey’s opium use through the lens of the posthuman, and argued that when we do so we introduce the possibility for exploring the role of peace in defining the shift between occasional and habitual drug use. Menglu Gao followed my paper with her rewarding reading of De Quincey alongside John Brown’s Elements of Medicine. Gao’s focus on energies and the invigorating effects of opium on the individual body, and as a nationalistic metaphor, was a beautiful illustration of the engagement of the personal and the political.

Panel Four was another rich offering. Sarah Irving complicated a traditional reading of Mary Eliza Roger’s memoir Domestic Life in Palestine. Instead of rejecting the text as an example of a romanticising European gaze, Irving argued that we read the work in terms of authenticity. The act of shared smoking implied Roger’s bodily knowledge of the orient which went beyond the mere onlooker. Suzanne Bode’s work on the hyper-realistic paintings of the pre-Raphaelites was a welcome inclusion of visual art in our discussion. Whether paintings of drugged models or paintings composed under the influence of mind altering substances, it was fascinating to analyse both the representation of the drugged body and the subjective reality of the drugged mind.

The day concluded with Susan Zieger’s keynote ‘Nineteenth-Century Revolutions: Psychoactive, Logistics, Aesthetic’. Zieger gave us a glimpse into her new work (her earlier work Inventing the Addict informed several of the papers at the conference). Her argument that we need to read the success of opium as a global commodity in terms of logistics encouraged not only a deep appreciation for the storage, transportation and handling technologies that enabled the success of opium, it formulated a new aesthetic understanding of the nineteenth century. Whilst the scale of opium’s production may seem at first to be unmeasurable and chaotic, in fact the strictly regulated ways in which it was managed reveals an underlying choreography which describes fetishised sleek capitalism. The modern implications of this kind of logistical sublime can be seen in Silicon Valley’s promotion of psychedelic micro-dosing as a tool for greater efficiency and productive creativity. The capture of substances – which for many stand for unpredictable freedom in oppressive modernity – is a worrying issue. Zieger’s work showed how profoundly relevant an understanding of the long nineteenth century is to our modern moment of crisis.

Continuing the theme of productive, mechanised labour through substance use was Douglas Small’s keynote paper ‘Sherlock Holmes and “Sports Doping”: Cocaine, Profession, and Performance’, which kicked off day two. Day two was also notable for Kevin McCarron’s paper in which he made a case of returning to a Victorian model for understanding addiction. McCarron’s dissatisfaction with the modern idea of addiction as disease was generally appreciated but his argument regarding a moral model which sees the addict as weak created wide-spread consternation. Nonetheless it was a pivotal point in the conference which got to the heart of why addiction studies matter and clarified the need for an ethical approach to addiction and addicts.

McCarron’s paper was followed by Sean Witters’ deconstructive approach to understanding addiction. Witters asked us to consider how we use the words ‘addiction’ and ‘addict’ forcing us to confront the constructed nature of the categories and the shifting historical ways for describing and understanding the phenomena of repetitive drug use. What happens when we name ‘the addict’? How does the temporal immutability of the noun obscure our understanding of addiction as an act? It was a useful reminder that the language we use creates realities that may have unintended effects.

Natalie Roxburgh’s paper ‘Medication and Social Optimization in Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ worked well as a follow up to both McCarron’s and Witters’ work. Here the reasons for taking drugs were shown to be culturally entangled and various. Roxburgh illustrated how the repeated ingestion of substances in Wilde’s and Stevenson’s work is about social functionality and optimisation (as opposed to biological inevitability or an anti-social disregard for society). The transhuman implications of Roxburgh’s argument spoke again to our modern moment and the hybridisation of the human in pursuit of perfection. It was also a thought-provoking way to conclude the conference, leaving us with the haunting suspicion that we are all in the business of socially optimising ourselves.