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.

My 10 favorite films of 2011

[Note: In a different form, this was supposed to run in LGBT Weekly last week, but it was cut for space.]

Before you read through the list of my 10 favorite movies of 2011, I want to provide you with a disclaimer. I haven’t seen every movie that came out this year. Yes, part of the reason is that many of the movies that are probably going to be nominated for Oscars only open in New York and Los Angeles before January 1, and they won’t open in San Diego for weeks. However, there are also some movies that have opened in San Diego that I should have seen but haven’t had the time or something was preventing from getting to the screening. For example, I ran out of gas on the 15 on the way to see Tintin. (I didn’t see until after it had been out for three weeks.) Some other big movies that I haven’t seen that could have made this list include War Horse, Take Shelter, Melancholia, A Separation, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, the reason Hugo, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Shame aren’t on the list that I just didn’t like them that much. And I really liked Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but not more than the other ten in this list.

With all of that in mind, here are my favorite movies of the last year.

10. The Help. I could not resist the easy morality of this story of a quiet revolution waged by black housekeepers in early 1960s Mississippi. Viola Davis’s quiet suffering is almost agonizing to watch, while Octavia Spencer is funnier than anyone in Bridesmaids. But most of the white characters are nearly as interesting or layered. (On DVD.)

9. Albert Nobbs. It doesn’t open in San Diego for several weeks, but I managed to see a DVD screener of this quiet and intense drama about gender politics in Victorian London. Glenn Close’s uncanny and deeply moving portrayal of the sad, scared butler Albert Nobbs is the one of the great performances of 2011.

8. Bridesmaids. Easily the funniest movie of the year, Bridesmaids is not just about female friendship, but also class warfare, gender politics, and food poisoning. Melissa McCarthy steals every scene she’s in as the bizarre butch future sister-in-law. The film’s jokes are neither cruel nor racist, as they were in the movie I hated more than any other last year, The Hangover, Part 2. (On DVD.)

7. Heartbeats. Barely anyone saw this stunning French Canadian story of a bisexual love triangle. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, who also starred in the film, it’s gorgeous, avant garde piece of art that seems impossible to have come from someone only 21 years old. (On DVD and Instant Netflix.)

6. Beginners. It’s a gay movie made for straight people – it does little too much Homosexuality 101 – but as Ewan McGregor’s father who comes out after turning 70, Christopher Plummer is as sweet and giddy and confused and awake as a kid in a candy store. Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the movie, uses some brilliant editing and witty voiceover to make something extraordinary, moving and funny. (On DVD.)

5. Drive. A violent, searing, and ultimately gorgeous homage to 1980s LA noir films like American Gigolo and Blade Runner, Drive is also Ryan Gosling’s best performance of the year, and that’s saying a lot. Taciturn, serene, and dressed a bit like Steve McQueen in Le Mans, as the Driver Gosling is the new ultimate example of cool.

4. The Artist. A silent movie about the silent movies, and as good as the best silent movies made at their height, The Artist is an exquisite, perfect film that features a performance by Jean Dujardin that is so charismatic and sexy that when the movie is finished, you want to watch it all over again just to stare at him.

3. Moneyball. How could a movie about baseball statistics be so enthralling, even exciting? The answer is Brad Pitt, who plays former Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane when he revolutionized baseball recruiting. Pitt is funny, arrogant, nervous, sly, and sexy; it’s a marvelous movie star performance.

2. The Tree of Life. The winner of the Cannes Film Festival, Tree of Life divided audiences, half of whom thought it was pretentious nonsense, and half of whom thought it was a masterpiece. I’m in the latter camp; I cried in awe during the film’s montage of the history of the universe. A meditation on family, anger, creation, and memory mostly set in 1960s Texas, the film still haunts me six months later. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain will be rewarded for other movies this year, but is in The Tree of Life that they did the best work of their careers. (On DVD.)

1. Weekend. I will just repeat what I wrote in my review three months ago: “It is about what it is like to be gay and in love now. It is an immediate, intimate, and honest examination of love, sex, and longing in 2011. It’s also gorgeously shot, sensitively acted, and sexier than any gay film I can remember. Andrew Haigh’s sensitive direction and editing and Urszula Pontikos’s cinematography turn what is basically a two-person parlor play into an intense, almost epic work of beauty.” It’s my favorite movie of the 2011. (On Instant Netflix.)

I went to a show, and it rocked.


<—- I love the National.

I rarely go to see live music.

I have some pretty good reasons: Seeing big-name artists in huge venues costs too much, and except for the cheap thrill of mob-mentality singalongs, those shows are only slightly more intimate than watching the same show on HBO, or DVD. Slightly. I prefer to go to small shows in clubs or, at worst, Broadway-sized theaters. These shows are, well, intimate, because when the band gets really crazy, I see see the sweat flying, and if the lead singer wants to talk to the crowd, I could theoretically and talk back and be heard, and if the sound guy does something weird, I can see the lead guitarist make an facial expression that says, “Dude, what the fuck?” So, you’d think that I’d go see some small shows.

Here are my bad reasons: I forget. Or I don’t know they’re happening because San Diego’s local media is either right-wing, really right-wing, half-baked, or just bad, so I tend not to read any of it. Or I flake. Or I flat-out refuse to pay Ticketmaster charges that amount of an additional 50 to 90% of the ticket price, so I have to go to the actual venue’s box office to buy the ticket, and they tend to be 20 to 30 minutes away, so I don’t make the effort until it’s too late, so the show sells out and I end up along watching “Law & Order” reruns and drinking martinis. Continue…

Me, meth

I’ve been meaning to update the five or six people who still read my blog on how my studies are going, since, well, the whole reason I’m here in Blandiego is the studying. But, actually, no, I haven’t been studying. And no, I haven’t been doing meth. I’ve been doing all sorts of other things, like teaching and obsessing over gay marriage and untangling myself from the absurd red tape caused by an ill-fated attempt to take a class cross-registered at UC-Irvine. (Irvine use punched cards in the registrar’s office. Still. Really. When I dropped the class I was cc-ed — for realz — on five emails from various admins at two campuses, because no one has figured out how to use the Interweb to connect the two schools.) I’ve also been collecting all sorts of fun stuff about crystal meth, because that’s what I’ve switched my focus to. Yeah — I came here to study assimilation and sexuality on the US-Mexican border and now I will be studying the gay meth “epidemic” in California.

This is what happened: I went to check in with one of my committee members. I had planned on working on a study on HIV-prevention among MSMs in Tijuana. I had spent two and half years studying Spanish and US-Mexican border issues (and theory), and I wrote my Master’s thesis on “Hybridity as Cultural Capital on the US/Mexican Border.” (Wanna read it? I’ll email it to you. And then I will list you in my Outlook contacts in the “masochist” category. Not that I have a category with that name. Really.) So, I was ready, more or less, to do a big ethnographic project of the such. But my committee member told me that the project that I was going to join and study (I was going to study the study, as it were) didn’t exist yet, for a host of reasons. But before I got to freak out, I was offered a number of other projects that I could hook up with, and I jumped on a large study of HIV+ gay men who use crystal meth.

I guess the questions would be: Why did I jump on this? Well, there’s one pathetic reason: My Spanish sucks and will suck for years — I’m convinced I have cognitive deficiency when it comes to languages — and so I’ll never be able to do the sort of psychodynamic interviewing in Spanish that I wanted to do. I could have done it with a translator, which had been offered, but it would have been a barrier/filter that I didn’t want to have to use, let alone totally rely on.


Then there’s the not-at-all pathetic reason: The meth situation in California’s gay communities is … gee, what’s the right word? Explosive. Dynamic. Epidemic. Increasing. Contagious. Confusing. Bizarre. Sexy. Dangerous. And it’s on the tips of everyone’s tongues, gay and straight. This is partly because of the recent, massive “Me Not Meth” campaign from the California Methamphetamine Initiative, the anti-meth arm of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. There are billboards all over the gay neighborhoods of California. There are ads on the sides of buses and in the Bay Area subways. There are 30-second TV spots running during, heh, “Desperate Housewives.” And I haven’t seen such a wide-spread concerted public health effort in gay bars since the early 90s: there are posters in every gay bar I’ve visited in the last month, and many of them also have “I lost ME to METH” drink coasters, too. The ads are the topic of conversation everywhere, and not always for the reason they’re meant to be. The recovering addicts in the ads are, um, kinda hot. As a friend said to me last weekend, “If they want people to stop using meth they should use guys who aren’t so attractive.” The man on the coaster (above) is especially cute; he looks like a cross between Jake Gyllenhall and Ryan Gosling. Yum!


Some people are simply pissed off by the campaign because they think that it unfairly singles out gay men, and this will, supposedly, lead the gays to be further stigmatized. In typical fashion, San Diego’s own Gay and Lesbian Times led the charge here:

Now, this is a necessary campaign – meth addiction is an epidemic in the gay community, and, the fact is, meth use is a risk factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. It eliminates inhibitions, alters judgment, wreaks havoc on one’s personal and professional lives, and has dire health implications.

Another fact to consider, though: meth addiction doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t single out a gender, race or community – but this ad campaign does.

The important question that must be asked is: does this ad campaign do more harm than good? For the vast majority of heterosexual TV viewers, what message does the campaign send about our community?

Again, it’s no secret: meth is a problem in the gay community, as much as it’s a problem in the straight community, the Latino community, the Native American community, the black community – the risks are as monumental for us all.

But, the well-intended ads, inadvertently we think, send a mixed message; one, that meth abuse is a problem exclusively in the gay community; and two, that the gay community is characterized by drug use and HIV/AIDS.

Why do I use the word “typical”? Because the GLT tends to get their facts wrong, and this is just another example. Here’s the Los Angeles Times on March 14:

The drug, commonly known as “crystal” or “tina,” has been a popular party drug in gay circles since the 1990s. A statewide survey, also released Thursday, found that crystal meth use was 11 times more common among gay men than in the California population overall. Fifty-five percent of 549 gay and bisexual men surveyed said they had used the drug, compared with 5% of the general population.

So, um, meth is not “as much as [of] a problem” in the gay community as the straight community. It’s 11 times worse. That is 1100% worse, if you want to play with the numbers. The GLT is so embarrassing. There are some problems with the “Me Not Meth,” but they aren’t in their focus on gay men. At all.

Anyway, I’m very excited about the shift in my project, and I’m excited about getting my qualifying done. That involves a lot of reading and writing, and then I can write my proposal, which will include, in some form, the following paragraph:

… the governmentality of public health helps to construct gay men as, what I call, risky subjects: neoliberal and sanitary subjects, sexual citizens with a political ethos that connects gendered behavior and subaltern sexuality to a moral regime that promotes individualism and responsibility within, ironically, a culture of hedonism. Since its appearance in the early 1980s, AIDS has been at the center of contestations over biopower, as those who might have, do have, and will probably contract the disease are disciplined, punished, and quarantined. Public health—as well as its surrogates in private healthcare, the ever-increasing number of activist NGOs, and aligned law enforcement agencies—has been charged with not just the modification of behavior, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the construction of subjects. These subjects are not just healthy citizens, healthy Americans, but also productive citizens, responsible, happy, and normal. But what sorts of subjectivities are actually produced? And how? People who are “at risk” for HIV-infection, whether they are men who have sex with men, IV drug and crystal meth users, sex workers, hemophiliacs, or anyone from a disease-ravaged nation, are made into risky subjects with hypercognized biology, bodies, and behaviors. But this is not necessarily (or not always) a negative form of state oppression, despite the tenor of much of the literature on governmentality, the modern form of statecraft that is probably most pronounced in processes of public health. Rather, the history of AIDS shows that both resistance to and collaboration with the governmental public health project has resulted in a slow and steady pushing of the subjected into the subjectors. The public health project is subverted and mutated as the HIV-positive become doctors, gay academics devote their research to HIV and AIDS, and activists, recovering addicts, and former sex workers are professionalized as employees of NGOs and state agencies. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that that there are deeply negative effects of becoming a risky subject, for the mental health ramifications are as potentially insidious as they are deeply under-recognized.

Ya know, in case you were wondering about my theoretical perspective on the whole thing.


Last night, after we saw “Disturbia,” we found a freakishly large, freakishly lime green grasshopper katydid on the roof of our car. Here’s a close-up of the little, er, big guy. I didn’t realize that they came in that size. He was a cool critter, but I was a little, uh, disturbed.

Anyway, the movie was fun. Most of the remakes-for-teen-agers that have been released in the last few years have been really, really bad. You have to go back to “Cruel Intentions” for one that worked. And that one may have worked because it was so, so wrong and so, so campy. But “Disturbia” worked, more or less. And “Rear Window” is one of my favorite movies. Despite the utter sacrilege, I liked the update/rip-off/twist of

  1. setting it in suburbia, high school, and 2007 (instead of New York, early middle-age, and the mid-1950s)
  2. putting the protagonist under house arrest (instead of a cast and a wheelchair)
  3. having a wacky Asian friend (instead a sarcastic, sexless female friend)
  4. using all the modern, though still very limited, technologies for surveillance (instead of one telephoto lens)
  5. having the very cute, very charismatic Shia LaBeouf carry the movies (instead of, ya know, the great Jimmy Stewart)

Neverthess, there were some problems. Obviously. You don’t redo one of the greatest films ever made and get off scott free! (Unless, of course, you’re Tim Burton, and it’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and your version is so, so, so much better, and anyone who thinks the creepy Gene Wilder version is “great” had too much sugar before they saw it. So there.) Yeah, so there were some problems, like

  1. the replacement of Grace Kelly with Sarah Roemer wasn’t quite so great (probably because Roemer only has a career because she looks like a teen-aged Gwyneth)
  2. the replacement of the very creepy Raymond Burr with the pretty creepy David Morse didn’t quite work (possibly because Morse’s hair was so bad)
  3. turning the wife killer into a serial killer made the situation less believable and therefore less scary (and it had “make the movie bloodier!” notes-from-a-studio-exec written all over it)
  4. allowing LaBeouf to be able to fight back instead of being truly trapped made the situation less tense and therefore less scary (and it had “give the thing more action!” notes-from-a-studio-exec written all over it)

Eh. Still, it was fun. And the several dozen teen-aged girls just loved it.

Oh, the previews were pretty good. In fact, one was just plain awesome. I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Michael Bay movie, but I cannot wait to see “Transformers” (which is another Shia LeBeouf film, and he’s been cast in the next Indian Jones film, so I guess he’s having a good year.) I also love the hilarious fanboy discourse about the movie. I love that some of them are refusing to see the movie because the Transformers aren’t going to transform the way the toys did in 1985. Well, if you’re going to go that route, why not demand that the Transformer not be able to transform unless an 8-year-old boy fumbles with its plastic parts for ten minutes. Fanboys can so, so strident.

Clearly, I’ve gone soft. It’s the suburbia. Disturbing, hunh?

(Even my prose has become cliched. Shit.)