David Foster Wallace: Life, Writing, Addiction, and Recovery

Editor’s Note:  As of this post, Points will be going on a “holiday hiatus” schedule– a light posting regime that reflects the editorial crew’s commitment to spending the holidays doing life rather than history.  We’ll resume regular posting at the end of January 2013.  I should also note that this will be my last post as Managing Editor; Eoin Cannon will take over that role next month with elan, aplomb, and a host of other personal traits that sound like exotic desserts. 

Viking, 2012

Given that the idea for Points originated when I wrote  a reflection on David Foster Wallace’s death for the ADHS “Daily Register” back in 2009 (scroll about halfway down if you want to see it), it seems fitting that my last editorial effort here is the interview that follows with D.T. Max, author of the impressive new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost StoryWith the help of Rich C., one of Wallace’s sponsors, Max has constructed a picture of the author’s life that gives addiction and recovery the pride of place they deserve.  This account reveals a hugely gifted intellectual struggling not only with clinical depression, but with another conundrum– less clinical but still debilitating: how to speak and write the language of the heart in a world that values the body and the head over that more delicate organ.

Points: Not much of the critical literature on DFW attends to the role of addiction and recovery in his life and work.  Your book puts them at the center, arguing that his participation in 12-Step culture accounts in many ways for this turn away from postmodern form and (non)feeling  and towards fiction that is earnest, morally engaged, and “‘about what it is like to be a fucking human being’”  (178).  Can you talk a bit about how you came to see addiction and recovery as central to our understanding of DFW?

DTM: I think the single biggest force on David, from the time he entered a twelve-step program in 1988 for the first time until his death, was that program. Continue reading →

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The Wire at Ten– Jonathan Simon, Wiring in the Empirical

Editor’s note– We round out our consideration of “The Wire at Ten” with a post by legal, historical, and policy studies heavyweight Jonathan Simon.  Simon is the Adrian Kragen Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, where he teaches classes on criminal law and socio-legal studies; he is also the author of multitudinous law review and criminology articles as well as several monographs, including Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (Oxford University Press, 2009), and the forthcoming Mass Incarceration on Trial: America’s Courts and the Future of Imprisonment (New Press 2013). Simon’s post today closes out our series on HBO’s The Wire with a consideration of the overlaps–and gaps– between the show’s narrative “realism” and the empiricism that goes by that name in the contemporary legal academy. Thanks again to all the Wire fans (and non-fans) who contributed to the series: Joe Spillane, Carlo Rotella, Sergio Campos, Stan Corkin, and Jack Halberstam.  All your pieces matter!

The popularity of HBO’s The Wire among legal academics — especially scholars of criminal law–responds to the same transformations in the legal field that have made empirical studies increasingly influential there.  But might the satisfaction of getting “realism” from a DVD (or download) deter a scholar from trading the couch for the backseat of a police car?

This is What Empiricism Looks Like

This is What Empiricism Looks Like

Empirical knowledge about law is enjoying unprecedented prestige in both law schools and courts. Continue reading →

Call for Proposals: “Challenging Punishment: Race, Public Health, and the War on Drugs”

Harry Anslinger, the Original Drug Czar, 1930-1962

Editor’s Note: last summer, Points ran a call for participants in a working group focused on “Challenging Punishment”; this conference is a related but separate event, with its own deadlines.

Friday 4 October and Saturday 5 October, 2013 will see the Challenging Punishment Conference, a two-day critical dialogue among scholars and researchers; health and legal workers; activists and advocates; artists and cultural producers to discuss the relevant issues about the War on Drugs, declared by President Richard Milhouse Nixon in 1971 and now in its fifth decade. The meetings will be held in New York City, on the campus of Columbia University and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library). The institutional sponsor is the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), at Columbia University. Organizers Donna Murch, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University and Samuel Roberts, Associate Professor of History (Columbia University) and Sociomedical Sciences (Mailman School of Public Health) invite interested parties to submit detailed abstracts of no more than 500 words, describing papers, projects, or panels to challengingpunishment [at] gmail [dot] com by 15 February 2013.

We are facing a moment of crisis and opportunity in the United States’ War(s) on Drugs (WoD). Official federal sanction against drug use is nearly a century old. For many decades since, there have been dissenting voices calling for the relaxation or abandonment of criminal penalties in favor of addiction treatment, mental health care provision, and other public health measures. More recently, even many law enforcement officials, former drug warriors, and conservative opinion makers have declared the War on Drugs a resounding failure. Punitive response continues nonetheless as the nation’s dominant domestic and international drug policy; and drug-related prosecutions since 1980 constitute the largest category of offenses contributing to the expansion of the prison system and — more generally — the carceral state. The War on Drugs is now a crisis of immense proportions.

This conference’s title, “Challenging Punishment,” has two meanings. On the one hand, it refers to the current state of substance abuse policy — which favors incarceration and social immobilization (punishment) over mental health care provision and community empowerment — that very literally challenges the realization of social justice, autonomy, and freedom. At the same time, the participants assembled for this conference will individually and collectively challenge this state of affairs within a wide range of academic/disciplinary research agendas, professional engagements, political mobilizations, and creative expressions.

Topics to be addressed will include (but are not limited to): the carceral state, criminal and juvenile justice policy; importance of race, class gender, sexuality, citizenship status and indigeneity in driving drug policy and mass incarceration; public health and therapeutic culture; punitive vs. redistributive social policy; informal, illicit and underground economies; licit drugs and pharmaceutical industry; culture wars and drug wars; and finally, mobilizing and building coalitions against the War on Drugs.

Conferenece Report: Cannabis Roots: The Hidden History of Marijuana

Editor’s Note: Guest Blogger Chris Bennet takes us inside the Cannabis Roots Conference held this November in Vancouver, Canada — complete with video from each session!

When thinking of the history of marijuana, most people’s minds go back to the hippy era of the 60s and the pot smoking flower-children whose peace and love ideals have forever changed our culture. Some might even dig a little deeper,  recalling the 1930’s Reefer Madness era, where blacks and whites shared ‘marihuana cigarettes’ at tea houses while creating a new genre of music and breaking long-held racial barriers. However, few people realize that cannabis has played a role in human history for at least tens of thousand years, or that even thousands of years ago, its use as a medicine and inebriant was known and reached from the Russian Steppes to China, India, Greece, the Middle East, Central Europe and other areas of the Old World.  Indeed, even in ancient times, as today, it was a prominent item of trade, and it influenced these cultures in a variety of ways, just as it does for better or worse in our own. The Cannabis Roots conference explored and discussed this area of cannabis history with some of the top experts in the world.

Held November 3rd, 2012 in Canada’s Vancouver, British Columbia, Cannabis Culture Vapor Lounge, which also hosts the incredible collection of drug artifacts housed in ‘The Herb Museum,’ this one day event took place in what might be considered a ‘relaxed’ environment. Attended by about 70 people, it was also streamed live. The lectures are archived and provided in this article.

The event brought together a number of academics and authors who have written about the topic, and they all provided entertaining accounts of cannabis’ fascinating role and potential role in a number of areas of world history. Continue reading →

The Wire at Ten– Jack Halberstam, “The King Stay the King”

Editor’s Note: “The Wire at Ten” has thus far featured posts on drugs and the “human ecology” of the show (Stan Corkin, Cincinnati), its logic of “subordination” (Sergio Campos, Miami), and the way it departs form the televisual crime genre norms laid out in the 1970s and ’80s (Carlo Rotella, Boston College).  Today we take a different tack and welcome Jack Halberstam, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. Halberstam is the author of, among other canonical texts of queer studies, Female Masculinity (Duke, 1998), The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012).  Currently working on a book on Queer Anarchism, he is also a founder of and contributor to Bully Bloggers.

In my recent book Gaga Feminism, I turn to The Wire for wisdom about power, gender relations, sex and violence. If you know where to look,

Omar and Brandon, Season 1

you can find pieces of gaga feminism, gaga-ideology strewn throughout this acclaimed HBO series. Filled with life lessons and hard knock truths about “the game,” or the perpetual struggle between the law and those people it fails to protect, the street and those people who are sacrificed upon it, professions and those people who learn how to work their success while engineering everyone else’s failure, this series has more to say about the inertia of race and class relations in the US than anything else in TV ever.

Set in Baltimore over in five glorious seasons, The Wire explores the warfare between drug dealers and drug addicts, between detectives and city hall, between the fine shades of right and the nuanced areas of wrong. And all of these epic, Shakespearian dramas play out against the backdrop of school, kinship, intimacy, homoerotic bonding, lesbian parenting, divorce, alcoholism, courage, love and loss.

Unlike recent “gay positive” sit-com fare like The New Normal or Modern Family, The Wire does not feel the need to situate its gay, lesbian or queer characters on the side of the right, the good and the true. It does not seek to correct negative images and it does not idealize or unnecessarily heroize those characters, or any characters, along the way. Instead, The Wire gives us magnificently complex, contradictory, flawed queer characters who, like everyone else in the series, kill, maim, struggle, fight and die. Continue reading →

Java Coca and the Dutch Narcotics Industry: An Almost Forgotten 20th C. History of Drugs Story

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome the return of guest blogger  Toine Pieters, Descartes Institute for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences, Utrecht University, who wrote memorably about the use of “sewage epidemiology” as a tool for tracking drug use a few weeks ago.  His post today is slightly more conventional, but no less cutting-edge.

This is a corrected version of the original post. Thanks to Hans Bosman and Toine Pieters for working out the edits and amendations. –eds.
 

The Great Seal of the Dutch East India Company

For most of us coca and cocaine production and distribution is synonymous with Latin American drugs cartels and Colombian drug lords. It is also common knowledge that Britain and other European empires ruled the waves during the 19th century opium wars and up to the 1920s did everything to frustrate the American-led war against drugs. Only those who read Joseph Spillane’s Cocaine: from Medical Marvel to Modern Menace  (2000) may remember that by far the most successful alternative coca growing venture outside Latin America before 1945 was in the Dutch East Indies on the island of Java. Spillane briefly mentions that Dutch colonial coca production began to dominate the global markets in the1910s and crowded South American producers from these markets. It is not farfetched to argue that the Dutch were the drug lords of the interbellum and continued to play a prominent position in the global narcotics industry after World War II.

Up until recently we knew relatively little about the halcyon days of Dutch drug production and trade. But on November 8 the 82 year old former employee of the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF), Hans Bosman, defended his thesis on ‘The history of the Nederlandsche Cocaine Fabriek and its successors as manufacturers of narcotic drugs, analysed from an international perspective’ at Maastricht University.

NCF factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis p. 124

NCF Factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis

From the 1860s until the turn of the century Peru was the major source by far of the raw  materials for cocaine: coca leaves and later on also crude cocaine. The coca leaves were used in Europe and the US for the popular cocaine-containing elixirs and tonics. Cultivation of the coca plant was attempted in a number of countries outside South America, notably on Java and Ceylon. In 1875 the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg introduced two coca plants on the island of Java, which was at that time part of the Netherlands East Indies. Java coca had a high total alkaloid content but was initially rejected by cocaine manufacturers as a raw material. Java coca contained mainly secondary coca-alkaloids and the direct yield of cocaine from the leaves was low. Chewing Java coca leaves did not evoke the same energizing sensation as Peruvian coca. Continue reading →

The Wire at Ten: Stanley Corkin, Drugs and The Ecology of the Ghetto

Editor’s Note: Following up on Sergio Campos’s meditation on the narrative manifestations of “subordination” in HBO’s The Wire, Points today welcomes Stanley Corkin of the University of Cincinnati’s English Department.  Recipient of a PhD in American Studies from NYU in the days before that school was fashionable (full disclosure: I was an undergraduate there at the same time, but our cronyism remained nascent until just recently), Corkin is the author of Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s (Oxford, 2011) and Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History (Temple,2004). His post today is drawn from his forthcoming book, The Wire: Space, Race, and the Wonders of Post-Industrial Baltimore (Texas, 2013).

How you expect to run with the wolves come night, when you spend all day sporting wit’ the puppies?
— Omar, Season Four

Over its five seasons, The Wire, among other things, delineated the terms of ghetto life in Baltimore, showing us in dramatic detail a self-contained sector of West Baltimore, a world defined by the term “hyper-segregation,” which references class as well as race.

caption

“Key Factors Effecting the Elasticity of Demand Include What?”

In such a self-contained space, overall wealth tends to be finite: if someone is getting more, then someone else is getting less. And in that world of restricted space and opportunity, the drug trade stands at the center of economic activity, since only illicit commerce can thrive in a place that is so geographically isolated. This limit of commodity and geographic market sets up a fierce and violent competition for both status and wealth.  As even Stringer Bell learns, it’s not just about product, it’s also about corners, since even a superior product cannot find its market if it has no access to those who would buy it. In such a vision of a specific and constrained environment, it is no surprise that eventually the emphasis of the show moves toward a neo-Social Darwininism through its exploration of the contours of human ecology within the spaces of West Baltimore.

This focus takes many forms. In the picturesque quote above, Omar explains how he feels about “finding” a bag of heroin when he’s out looking for Honey Nut Cheerios.  He expresses disappointment at the ease of his acquisition, elaborating further, “It’s not what you take, but who you take it from.”  As one who has dedicated his life to feeding off of those who feed off others, Omar’s assertion shows his attention to the “food chain:” he seeks to feed at its highest point.  Continue reading →