Elevate Difference

Pleasure Consuming Medicine: The Queer Politics of Drugs

Pleasure Consuming Medicine is the deliciously (and ambiguously) titled new work by the Senior Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, Kane Race. His difficult but rewarding text joins a number of new works about the pleasures (not just punishments) of drug use. New works by Sarah Maclean, Joao Biehl, Philippe Bourgois, Lee Hoffer, Merrill Singer, and others have begun to flesh out in ethnographic richness the theoretical provocations of the French social theoretician Michel Foucault. Race theorizes the limits to community and political mobilization efforts insofar as they are tied to drug use and to sexual identity and networking. Insights from ethnography, queer theory and drug and gender studies address the illegality of drug use and the perceived deviance of drug users. Nevertheless, he pitches his argument not at the level of degradation and addiction, but rather, at the possible unity and the undoubted pleasures of members of communities who identify and who can be mobilized politically through consumptions of drugs and pursuit and experience of sexual pleasure.

The book is comprised of seven densely written but rewarding chapters, each being titled by means of double entendres, for example, “Recreational States,” “Exceptional Sex,” and “Consuming Compliance.” It will appeal to academic researchers and to gay and lesbian, feminist and queer activists, but will not perhaps be appreciated by many policy-makers, public health officials or casual readers. Pleasure Consuming Medicine is not an easy read, but those who are well versed in critical theory, social history, and queer studies and who proceed slowly and contemplate his complex argument, will be greatly rewarded. It would be appropriate to use in graduate-level courses in several fields.

Race’s account of the centrality of the Azure Party, the piece de resistance of Sydney, Australia’s annual lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender fest, is just as humane as it is intellectual. Such events are typically analyzed as instances of mass escape and debauchery by members of sexual minorities. By contrast, he argues that it was also “a crucial apparatus within which the notion of community was given popular resonance” in terms, for example, of dealing with the threat and reality of HIV and AIDS. Race explores the ethics of drug use (both in public and more privately), but resists the usual tendency to frame drug use and (gay male) sexuality in terms of marginalized, deviant men in search of (sexual) ecstasy and (pharmaceutical) Ecstasy. Pharmaceutical companies make the drugs that their reps shill to the doctors who prescribe that they be obtained from pharmacists, each of whom, then, does his or her part to proscribe their use and denigrate their users. Much irony ensues.

If there be a scene or event around which this text revolves, it’s the swooping down of disciplinary forces in 2007 upon denizens of Sydney’s Mardi Gras, the Azure Party. As gay, lesbian, straight, and gender-bending partiers engaged in the technocultures of music, dance, and licit and illicit drugs, supervised by and being cared for by members of volunteer medical teams, a tremendous panic swept over the crowd when policemen and canine drug-sniffers busted into the crowd. Some revelers swallowed their drugs to avoid detection and thus overdosed. Others breached the gates and were arrested thusly. Others reacted with (mild) violence to police presence and thus damaged their reputation further.

His argument is often subtle, for example, asking us to think of “the dance party” not as “the transparent radiation of community,” but rather, “as a mediated event through which a sense of community was hallucinated.” The rewards are there for the reader who takes the time to appreciate the complexities of dance party culture and social theories about it.

Written by: Lawrence James Hammar, Ph.D., November 22nd 2009