Drug Cultures

Fall 2011 – Eugene Lang College, New York

LANT 1502A – Fri, 9-11:40 am

Course description

Especially since the "psychopharmacological revolution" of the 1950s, mind-altering drugs – both licit and illicit – have powerfully transformed the cultures we live in. At the same time, cultural surroundings also affect drug actions and experiences. The course will enable students to develop a critical and informed perspective on drug cultures emerging from such interactions between humans and chemicals. It will draw on a broad range of literature from anthropology and philosophy of science to history of religion and from fiction to bioethics.

The first part of the course will focus on questions of ethics and personhood. Starting from current controversies about pharmacological enhancement of human capacities and moods, the course will travel backwards in time to the historical roots of these practices. Along the way, students will discover alternative visions of drugs in society and a surprising convergence of the countercultural drug ethic of the psychedelic era with the worldview of neoconservative bioethicists. The second half of the course will begin by focusing on how drug knowledge is manufactured through self-experimentation and randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials. But a problematization of the underlying epistemologies will eventually lead back to the political realm. The course will discuss recent developments in national and international regulations of drug markets as well as the just terminated War on Drugs and the underground economies, which it generated. On this trip through drug cultures past and present students will have ample opportunity to study concrete manifestations of some of the tensions characterizing modernity (nature vs. culture, subjectivity vs. objectivity, authenticity vs. normality, disenchantment vs. spirituality, mysticism vs. the Protestant ethic of capitalism).