Through the use of globalized, brand-name pharmaceuticals and illicit tinkering, drugs act upon our physical well-being and sense of self, creating relations of care, dependence, and exploitation in their wake. Informed by Marxist theory, feminism, and science studies, this class interrogates how drugs – both engineered pharmaceuticals and pleasurably addictive illegal substances – gain and reproduce their power in our social life. As total health expenditures approach 20% of American GDP, and drugs become dynamic components of everyday life, understanding the personal experience and political economy of these compounds is more crucial than ever.
In this course, we will consider: What counts as a drug? What does it mean for a drug to “work” and what systems have been developed to decide what “working” means? What are the social and political effects of our current “biomedical” regime, in which medical science becomes the privileged paradigm to explain our personal and social ills? Who profits and who suffers, and why? The core readings of this course will consist of three theoretically-motivated ethnographic texts: Joao Biehl’s Vita, Kane Race’s Pleasure Consuming Medicine, and Jeffrey Schonberg and Philippe Bourgeois’s Righteous Dopefiend. Through these readings, we will explore how drugs are designed and marketed, consider their medical potential, and question what happens when their pharmacological properties exceed their intended use. Finally, we will consider how drugs shape their users and take on new, often unintended meanings, and how social theory can help us better understand the worlds these potent chemicals create.