Christine McKenna Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences
In 1956, William S. Burroughs sent a letter to the British Journal of Addiction with an article enclosed, which described his experiences using a broad collection of drugs and the symptoms of withdrawal from each. Of the common tendency to use the word addiction “to indicate anything one is used to or wants,” he suggests that “so misapplied, the term loses any useful precision of meaning.” Burroughs, a seminal figure of the 1950s Beat movement, appears in this letter to call for an understanding of “real addiction” as experienced by a “real addict”.
According to Micah Anshan, a soon-to-be MA graduate of York University's Science and Technology Studies program, the idea of considering the drug user’s perspective is a strategy often neglected by practitioners and policy-makers in the field of addiction recovery. At the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Anshan presented his research paper “Drug Addiction, Self-Experimentation and Insider Knowledge: A New Epistemic Role for the User?” which examines the empirical value of the addicted perspective and why studies in drug policy have “frequently failed to include user-based research.” Drug users, he suggests, can provide a “qualitative” element to research as they possess “experiential knowledge unavailable to epidemiologists conducting quantitative reviews.” Anshan’s paper demonstrates this point by engaging with the work of William S. Burroughs.
“I tried to use Burroughs to argue that there is such thing as a legitimate addicted perspective that can have useful input on addiction treatment and policy,” Anshan says. “Burroughs was actually trying to be part of the discussion, and his privilege as a white, male, famous writer allowed him a voice that most users simply don't have.” Still, his impact on issues like policy or the stigmatization of users was never substantial.
“Drug users are not seen as trustworthy or capable, so they don't exist as viable allies for drug research in the current cultural imagination,” Anshan explains. “The common idea is that addicts just want more drugs, so they'll do or say anything to get more and therefore they can't possibly produce reliable evidence. Reversing this thinking is really difficult because it's controversial to say that users should play a role in shaping their treatment. But the particular standpoint of addicted individuals seeking to lessen or eliminate their dependence on drugs should be taken as legitimate, trustworthy evidence by medical practitioners.”
But where did a Science and Technology Studies student get the idea to consult the work of an eccentric Beat literary figure for a scholarly research paper?
“I happened upon an old copy of Naked Lunch and kind of leafed through it. Well, there's this appendix to Naked Lunch which is called ‘Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs,’ which was published in the British Journal of Addiction and still publishes as Addiction today. So I thought, hey this is great! They actually let an admitted drug addict write an article for the publication! So I bought the book and went through more of his writings, especially his first novel Junky. Junky and the introduction to Naked Lunch and the journal article are all really empirically written, and Burroughs is really positioning himself as this scientist, this ‘scholar of drugs’. I found that really interesting, and I was already working on the history of drug addiction research at the Lexington Hospital where Burroughs spent some time, which made it a really natural paper to put together. Sometimes you're just looking through a random book and it comes together!”
Anshan hopes his research will show that drug users “can and should” play a role in developing evidence for different treatment and policy options. “Their needs have to be heard and addressed if policy is going to help alleviate some of the suffering caused by drug addiction.”