Social concerns and wishes lie hidden in the condemnation or glorification of drugs, says the newly appointed professor of Modern History Gemma Blok. She investigated how narcotics have been talked about over the past two centuries.
According to contemporaries, nineteenth-century people used morphine to cope with the hectic city life; post-war westerners needed speed and downers to sustain the ever-harder rat race, and LSD was a way out of the stifling civil society. Such judgments by contemporaries provide insight into the prevailing concerns and dream images of society, Professor of Modern History, Gemma Blok, told her lecture at the Open University last week.
The intoxication as a metaphor is called your oration. What should I imagine?
In the nineteenth century, intellectuals were concerned about urbanization at the time and the acceleration of life. The idea was that the brains of city dwellers were constantly being strained. Could the human brain handle that?
At that time quite a bit of morphine was also used; that was isolated from opium in 1803. And that custom was linked to worries about the hectic life. Users took morphine because otherwise they couldn't handle all the fuss, or so the idea was. But morphine might have worked in earlier times too - if it had been available then. The look at these kinds of means is therefore a metaphor for more general criticism of society; for ideas about what had to be done differently. '
How did that work in the twentieth century?
‛After the war, the Age of Anxiety, the age of fear, was spoken of. Westerners would suffer from the threat of the Cold War and the pressure to be socially successful. As a result, they developed depression and neuroses and to cope with them, they turned to speed, drink or sedatives, or so the theory was.
That was a fairly negative assessment of drugs: something for weak people who cannot cope with society. But it was also possible the other way around. From the XNUMXs onwards, cannabis, LSD and heroin, for example, were framed as part of the counterculture: a raised middle finger against the establishment, and a way to reach higher consciousness.
Another example is Prozac, which was portrayed in the XNUMXs as a means of self-development. Until then, psychiatric drugs had the image of being dazed, but Prozac was promoted with the promise that users could develop themselves. That was in keeping with that time, when the psychologization of society reached a peak, and everyone had to work on themselves. '
You mention Prozac in the same breath with heroin and LSD, without distinguishing recreational drugs and medicines. Why?
‛Heroin, ecstasy, LSD - all substances that are now banned were once enthusiastically received as medicine. For example, in the XNUMXth century, cannabis was used as a sedative for psychiatric patients.
Since then, cannabis has been banned, but now it is making a comeback as a medicine and recreational use is legalized in many places. You see that kind of wave movements more. Because the distinction between drugs and drugs is made by humans, and it shifts. These changing valuations are of interest to the historian.
You announce research into user experiences and would also like to highlight the positive functions of drugs. Do the harmful sides not get out of the picture?
‛I certainly do not want to deny that drug use can be associated with a great deal of suffering. Alcohol in particular is a killer. But many drugs are very unilaterally portrayed as bad. To get a more layered picture, I look in diaries, police files and interviews for an explanation of people themselves, why and how they used. Because we often overlook that perspective. '
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