On the effects of cultural discourses of addiction

If you’re not one of my Facebook friends, you may not know what’s going on in my non-film-critic professional life. I’m an anthropologist, remember? So: I finished my dissertation on the effects of cultural discourses of addiction on meth-using HIV-positive men who have sex with men San Diego, received my doctorate in anthropology from UCSD in June of 2013, immediately started a post-doctoral fellowship focused on HIV prevention research at UCLA, am now finishing that, and, with luck, will be gainfully employed by someone fabulous before July. But, chances are, my readers do know that. Or not. Hard to know.

However, even if you do know that stuff, you probably haven’t had the opportunity to read my fabulous dissertation or, as I do when I get a copy of a friend’s dissertation, check to see if you’re in my acknowledgement section. I was told that it was going to be the most fun to write, and it was, since every other section involved deep thoughts. The acknowledgments just required memory and synonyms for “thanks.” After three pages1, however, I ran out of time and space, and I left a lot of people, places, and things off the list. So, an addendum was in order, but I’ll just footnote that, too, because the main reason for this post to talk about where the research went2.

And since you haven’t read my dissertation — and I doubt more than four people have actually read the whole thing — you probably don’t know exactly what I was doing all that time I lived in San Diego. It’s fabulous, but I don’t suggest you read it. Since I finished the thing, I’ve done a great deal of work on large chunks of it, transforming three of the chapters into articles. Those have all been published now, and now I’m going to give you the 411 on them3.

Survival Tactics and Strategies of Methamphetamine-Using HIV-Positive Men Who Have Sex with Men in San Diego,” PLOS ONE, September 30, 2005.

In this article, two ways that HIV-positive drug users survive under the supervision of law enforcement agencies, community health organizations, and social welfare offices are differentiated. First, strategies are long-ranging and often carefully planned, and they involve conscious utilization and manipulation of bureaucratic processes. Second, tactics are short-ranging and often haphazard, and they are used to survive on daily or weekly bases, with entrenched problems and structural solutions avoided or ignored. Data from three years of ethnographic fieldwork with 14 methamphetamine-using HIV-positive men who have sex with men in San Diego, California is used to expand upon these two categories, explaining the different, often ineffectual, ways these men accessed care, services, shelter, drugs, and companionship. This article also examines the policy implications of taking in consideration these different kinds of survival methods, arguing for intensive client-specific interventions when working with long-term addicts with multiple health problems.

Pride, Shame, and the Trouble with Trying to Be Normal,” Ethos, December, 2015.

Methamphetamine use and HIV are large and intertwined problems in American gay communities. This is particularly so in San Diego, California, where both meth and HIV have been endemic for three decades. Because meth use is associated with not just the spread of HIV and other STDs, but also with petty and violent crime, the public health and law enforcement agencies have responded with substantial, but often ineffective efforts at turning meth addicts into “normal,” “productive members of society.” In this article, I examine the effects of these processes on the subjectivities of 14 meth-using HIV+ men who have sex with men (MSM) who were the focus of person centered ethnographies I performed from 2009 to 2011. All of the participants in my study wanted to be normal, and what constituted normalcy was an American – in both the last 20th century neoliberal and “homonormative” ways – ideal of self-reliance, employment, health, marriage, and home-ownership. This desire for normalcy was not just the product of living in the United States at a particular historical moment, but also it was also influenced greatly by the men’s experiences with recovery programs, the prison system, and healthcare providers, all of which were trying to shape them into particular kinds of subjects, specifically addicts, either active or in recovery. They were taught to narrativize their addiction as moral and medical stories, and their stories tended to end with dreams of a normal future, a future free from pain, frustration, and the gaze of the apparatus. But in their struggle to make that future happen, their emotional options were limited by the anti-meth apparatus: those who failed felt profound shame, those who succeeded expressed great pride in their abilities, and those who hovered in the middle I describe as having “risky subjectivity,” the perpetual constructing and reconstructing, the perpetual struggling to become something else.

Framing Samuel See: The Moral Panic and “Double Epidemic” of Methamphetamines and HIV among Gay Men,” International Journal of Drug Policy, February, 2016.

After being arrested for violating a restraining order against his husband, on November 24, 2013, Yale professor Samuel See died while in lockup at the Union Avenue Detention Center in New Haven, Connecticut. The death received media attention around the world, with readers arguing online about whether See’s death was caused by police misconduct, as his friends and colleagues charged in interviews and during a well-publicised march and protest. When an autopsy revealed that he had died from a methamphetamine-induced heart attack, online commentary changed dramatically, with See’s many supporters rhetorically abandoning him and others describing him as a stereotype of the gay meth addict who deserved his fate. In this article, I argue that this shift in the interpretation and meaning of See’s death can be traced to the discursive structures left by the moral panic about crystal meth in the United States (1996–2008), which comprised within it a secondary moral panic about crystal meth in the gay community and its connection to the spread of HIV and a possible super-strain (2005–2008).

I’m currently revising a fourth piece for a collection of essays on syndemics.

My doctoral research led me to all sorts of places I never though I’d go. One of those places is the American corrections system, a bizarre and awful thing that is in desperate need of reform — and research. And my current work is with recently released HIV-positive MSM and transgender women who were incarcerated at the Los Angeles County Jail. But that’s another post.


An ice cream truck is going up the street.

Little girl in wagon: Daddy, that truck song is annoying.
Hipster dad: Yes, the commodification of your desires is annoying, isn’t it?

–Bedford & N 10th

When I was in Boston the other week, my brother made fun of me for referring to the annoying way that certain students in a certain grad program at UCSD only use “vulgar Marxism” to make their simplistic, politically correct points. “Did you just say ‘vulgar’?” he yelped. And then we went back to making bukake jokes.

I think I’m going to become one of those people who throw in horrid academicese in the middle of otherwise polite conversation. Oh, well. At least I’m not becoming to sort of person who makes bukake jokes.

Oh, darn.

Anyway, back to the vulgar Marxism. Just briefly, this sort of Marxism is what you’re bound to get from one of those wacky kids in Che shirts standing on street corners in Cambridge (or Berkeley) trying to sell you copies of the Workers Vanguard. Now, I’m enormously sympathetic to the goals of modern-day communists. But I get crazy pissed at the less educated, more rabid commie kids, who tend to blindly repeat the popular culture’s version of Marx in which everything–ideology, especially–is controlled by the capitalist state through various institutions. So, they tend to be opposed to, say, the DMV because it is enacting social control through the capitalist car culture–all without understanding that the reason folks have cars is that they need to get places faster than horses can get you. (This is not to say that the car culture is one of the bigger problems with the modern world, but for ecological, not cultural reasons.)

Anyway, a non-vulgar Marxism, as filtered by Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams, is subtle, with emphases on hegemonic processes, the consent and the resistance of the masses, and the understanding that people are not automatons blindly following the orders of a nameless, faceless capitalism.

Shall we go to the pull quote? Okay!

In this active process the hegemonic has to be seen as more than the simple transmission of an (unchanging) dominance. On the contrary, any hegemonic process must be especiallyu alert and responsive to the alternatives and opposition which question or threaten its dominance. The reality of cultural process must then always include the efforts and constribution of those who are in oneway or another outside or at the edge of the terms of the specific hegemony (Williams 1997:113).

So, these certain students in a certain grad program at UCSD use terms like “hegemonic” to refer to things as oppressive, when often it’s not oppression at all, but rather just accepted. Now, don’t get your boxers in a bunch. Some things are oppressive–like high heels, McDonald’s, and the military-industrial complex–but some things are agreed upon because they make sense for whatever reason. For instance, we cook chicken because if we don’t, we could get salmonella and die. Refusing to cook chicken is not rebellious. It’s stupid. We write with pens and not quills, not because capitalists have pushed them our throats, but because pens work better than quills. They’re less messy, last longer, and don’t involve plucking birds. (Yes, I know plastic is bad and evil, blah, blah, blah.) Schools are the most powerful instituion for social control, and they do insidious things like make kids pledge allegiance to the flag, but they also provide people with all the tools they need to resist. They are hegemonic, and occasionally oppressive, but obviously (to me at least) the singular objective of teachers is not the creation of little Eichmanns.

Those vulgar Marxists like to say things like, “Oh, you’re just saying that because you’re a white man and have no way to understand the plight of the migrant Mexican worker in the canyons of Carlsbad.” Now, there is some truth to that–it’s harder for the white male child of a lawyer and a doctor, who grew up in Gross Point and attended Middlebury College, to “get” migrant workers than it is for the daughter of Mexican-American factory workers who grew up in San Bernadino. But it’s not impossible, and it should never, ever be discouraged. Dismissing someone for their more privileged background is silly, and useless.

I’m finally getting to the part where I explain why I was bitching about vulgar Marxists in my brother’s kitchen. In one of my classes last quarter, we were reading an ethnography that was written in a non-narrative, deliberately “different” style. It was mostly in vignettes, and it was mostly a failure. The people in the class, all of whom had no experience with post-modern literature, were so very excited that someone could write ethnography in such an “artful” way. (I felt like saying that if you want to read good post-modernism, don’t start with artless academic writing, but I shut up.) On the other side of the classroom, a couple of the students in a certain grad program at UCSD started excitedly talking about some book they had read, in which the author, a Korean woman, had refused to have more than half of her book translated into English. She wanted the other half to stay in Korean so that her American/English readers would know what it feels like to be an immigrant and not be understood. (Oh, and I have spent hours on Google looking for said book, and I don’t think it exists. Or it’s not in Korean.) And so:

Me: What a waste of energy. It’s not like the readers are going to try to understand the Korean parts. They’ll just skip ahead. Why not just give out plane tickets to countries where they don’t speak the language?
Other student: Because that is tourism, which is just colonialism.
Me (stunned): … !

But wait. It gets worse. I began to complain about the book we had read and how the use of short vignettes didn’t actually succeed in communicating anything but fragmentation. It was style over substance, form over function, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Me: There’s a reason we use transition sentences. We need transition sentences.
Other student (coldy): That’s the definition of the hegemonic.
Me (stunned, then sarcastic): Oh, it sure is.

Actually, it is hegemonic, but it’s not oppressive. Sure, we all use transition sentences. But we have to, in order to be understood, to make coherent narratives. And you know what? That is
just fine. No one is being oppressed by transition sentences–unless you think linear thought is oppressive. I guess there are a bunch of people who think that. And I feel sorry for them. Because they must feel oppressed by time, space, and, I dunno, grass. And I’m angry at them. Because if you’re fighting the oppression of linear thought, you’re not fighting the oppression of immigration law, pharmaceutical prices, religious fanatacism, and government corruption.


And I hate the commodification of my desires. I spent $165.00 at Crate & Barrell today.