Ryan on Drugs at the Los Angeles Review

Over at the Los Angeles Review, I’ve written a short essay about a new book on drugs, art, and culture. Despite the subject, I’m sober as a judge. Here’s an excerpt:

But the book would be limited if it just catalogued the influence of chemicals on the lives and works of artists, fascinating as that might be. Scott goes further, locating drugs within networks of capital and power. Narcotics are big business. Reliant on economic and ecological networks built during centuries of imperial conquest—that’s how rum, cocaine, sugar, coffee, Scotch, tea, tobacco, weed, Oxycontin, and all the other hedonic goodies became global commodities—“migrations of the narco-imaginary are marked by a history of violence.” Police power backs up corporate interests, determining which drugs are legally available and which are forbidden, and punishing socially marginal users of the latter most severely. Witness America’s prisons, full of black and Latino users in 2017, when a middle-class white literary critic might walk down the street smoking a joint in any state where you can buy a medical-marijuana card. The great irony of drugs: promising transcendence, they are wired into the same late-capitalist circuits that provide us with Chicken McNuggets and private jails.

-Ryan

Holiday Jams: Choking Victim’s Dark Channels

Back in the 1990s, when I was living by a creek in Appalachia, I had a half-hour commute to high school. On unlucky days I had to ride the bus, so I would bring my plastic off-brand CD player; on better ones I’d catch a ride with a buddy, and we’d bump CDs in his secondhand Kia. Or we’d play mixtapes we had curated by pulling tracks off borrowed discs and the radio. Literal, material tapes! There is still a stash of these in my parents’ basement.

Despite having a stable family, decent-to-great teachers, and a path to college, I was a typical artfully disaffected American teenager. I was real white and real middle-class. Had my acne, my cynical hunch, my unkempt hair, my paperbacks (edgy stuff like Rimbaud, man), had my monosyllabics and mumbling. Two genres dominated my soundtrack: hip hop and punk. My early love of the former was genuine but way less self-aware than it is now—I was fetishizing black alienation and anger (Nas was trapped in Queens and I’m stuck in rural Virginia) without reflecting even a little bit on why that might be a problematic position for white kid from Alleghany County to take.

As for punk, I was a big poser. Outside of the Sex Pistols—whom I don’t actually like—and The Clash—do they count as true punk?—I was mostly ignorant of canonical acts. Ask me to name a Black Flag song and I’d have gone radio-silent. I definitely wasn’t living anything like a punk lifestyle: I didn’t skate, rock a mohawk or piercings, have tattoos, or go to many shows. My tastes were vanilla and West Coast aspirational. I went in for groups like NOFX and Blink-182 (yes) and Rancid, whose music contained elements of pop, sometimes heavy elements. I bought or copied a lot of Epitaph Records products. In terms of its origins (far away, on a magical skateboarding coast) and my consumption habits (punk paired well with driving and got me amped for soccer games) the music did not fundamentally challenge the world that I was supposed to inherit after I went to school and got a white-collar job. It definitely had some middle fingers for the United States, but it was no more deeply transgressive, for someone in my cultural position, than Bob Marley or On the Road.

But we’ve all got our kinks and sidelines, and a band that I loved, that I still keep on my jogging playlist, is the hardcore group Choking Victim. In 1999, at the height of the specious Clinton economic boom that would soon give way to Enron and a burst tech-stock bubble, they released their only record, No Gods / No Managers. Recorded by young men who were living on the grimy margins of golden New York, it was all the voyeuristic experience an anxious teenager like me could ask for. It mocks capitalism and Christianity, sneers at traditional media, excoriates the police, and has no patience for mainstream politics. In place of those institutions, No Gods / No Managers advocates a nihilistic portmanteau of squatting, shoplifting, heavy drugs, Satan, and louder music—hardly a program for a new world or a healthy life, but a genuine expression of alienation that spoke even to lucky kids like me. Ironically, as I’ve gotten older, passing into the scrum of student loans, the Great Recession, and post-middle-class American adulthood, I’ve probably gained actual reasons to imaginatively identify with this album’s tone.

Few records start harder. “500 Channels” is a tense, furious song, two and a half minutes of exuberant despair. While its use of satellite TV as the technological metonym for a degraded, adipose America is dated (social media has become the thing that supposedly ruins your mind), the track’s mood arguably suits 2015 better than it did the Clinton years. After all, back then one could at least pretend that something corny and critique-worthy called the American Dream existed, as an ideology, if not a material reality. Now that the narrative has withered, cynicism and insecurity are ascendant, especially for young people who will spend the rest of their lives renting, paying down education loans, and hoping that their 1998 Hondas make it a few more years.

To all general readers, Happy Thanksgiving, whether your plans are to “smoke some crack” and “shoot some dope,” or something more traditional, like “sit and stare at my TV.”