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Psychotropic Drugs And Popular CultureReview - Psychotropic Drugs And Popular Culture
Essays on Medicine, Mental Health And the Media
by Lawrence C. Rubin
McFarland, 2006
Review by Kevin M. Purday
Nov 11th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 46)

This is a collection of essays written by psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, musicians, anthropologists, and researchers in semiotics and associated fields. What they have in common is an interest in the ways in which psychotropic drugs have permeated contemporary American culture. Underlying their interest is a concern, firstly, that economics is the main driving force and, secondly, that rather than helping us to lead more rewarding lifestyles we are instead being propelled into a highly dystopian way of living.

The Asylum: Its Construction and Deconstruction by William Wingfield is an essay tracing the history of the way in which deviance has been labeled in the U.S.A. from the time of the first settlers until the present day. He tracks the way in which various forms of deviance have been ascribed to mental illness. At the same time he traces the rise and fall of the mental institution and the huge power once wielded by the asylum superintendents. The punch line, of course, is that it is the rise of the contemporary prescribed drug culture that has released the inmates into the community while at the same time trapping an even bigger proportion of the populace in a disturbing dystopia.

Hollywood Rx by Meredith and Ann Kneavel is an intriguing analysis of how mainstream the use of psychotropic drugs has become in films -- especially those coming out of Hollywood. They chart the use of psychotropics from Valley of the Dolls in 1967 to 28 Days Later in 2004 and analyze a host of major films in the intervening period. What this reviewer found particularly interesting was the implicit question as to whether Indie films are portraying a different reality -- one where people question their dependence on psychotropic drugs. The 2004 Indie film Garden State would indicate that the answer to that question might be in the affirmative.

Cheerful Robots in Cyberspace: Prozac, Postmodernism, and Politics by Simon Gottschalk is an analysis of web sites for that particular category of drugs known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) of which Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft are the best known and whose web sites form the basis for the article. Although the author sets out, firstly, to examine the links between the ways in which these drugs are pictured and the postmodern “structure of feeling” and, secondly, to investigate how the drugs and their depiction have implications for symbolic interaction theory, nonetheless, the article turns out to be a highly readable analysis. It is quite frightening how far along the road to Huxley’s Brave New World we have gone with the SSRIs assuming the role of the fictional soma in the novel.

Advertising Madness by Lawrence Rubin looks at the ways in which advertising has helped to push the sales of SSRIs and SNRIs (Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors) and antipsychotics through the roof. He quotes reliable figures to indicate that sales of any one psychotropic drug may be worth billions of dollars per year so the total income from all the drugs in that category is totally mind-boggling. This article cleverly plots the changes in the way that advertising has been pitched. Whether they are aimed at psychiatrists, physicians or directly at the general public, advertisements are cleverly angled to snare their prey. Rubin is particularly adept at showing the reader how the real context of the stresses and strains of twenty first century living have been neutralized and how the symptoms arising from a somewhat dysfunctional way of life are recontextualized as illness -- an illness so easily treated by prescribed psychotropic drugs.

Psychotropics, It’s What for Dinner! Technologies of Sex, Gender, Body, and the Mind in the Medicalization of Food by Phillip Vannini is an extension of the book’s theme into the area of food. The author picks up on Goffman’s 1960s work on the social situation of asylum inmates and, working on the assumption that we are living in a society that functions as an open asylum, he shows how food has been made into a series of do’s and don’ts. Certain foods should be avoided and other foods consumed when we are depressed, lacking in sexual vitality, anxious, suffering from lack of concentration, etc. In this way the simple pleasures necessary for life are turned into complex means to a range of artificially manipulated ends. In this respect, the author argues, food, like any psychotropic drug, is a medicalized route to satisfying artificially raised expectations.

Rappers, Ravers, and Rock Stars: The Deviantizing Hand of Music in Psychotropia by Robert Keller analyses the roles drugs play in modern music culture. He comments on the fact that many drug-taking musicians used to be thought of as deviants while nowadays much use of psychotropic drugs is seen as mainstream. He also reminds us that drugs such as methylene dioxymethamphetamine and cocaine were once accepted psychotropics with a respectable medical pedigree and that it was only abuse that outlawed the former, now known as Ecstasy, and drove the latter underground. The main thrust of the article is on the links between music and drugs -- the prevalence of drug-taking among many famous musicians, the music that is composed under the influence of drugs, the lyrics about drugs, etc. This reviewer for one did not realize how many drug references were hidden away in the lyrics, only to be appreciated by the knowledgeable followers of particular musicians. The author also undertakes an analysis of the club scene and concludes that the music industry is fuelling the demand for drugs by the constant references to them.

From Playground to Pharmacy: Medicating Childhood by Michael Brody was the most hard-hitting article in the collection for this reviewer. The author, a psychiatrist, lambasts the physicians who so glibly prescribe powerful psychotropics for children -- often, it would seem, very young children. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) also comes in for its fair share of blame. The author argues that the drugs companies in the pursuit of profit are in league with parents and physicians wanting a quick fix. Medical Insurance companies are the final rogues in the gang. Together they produce a situation in which children, suffering from parental neglect and all sorts of undue pressures from the educational system, are prescribed drugs often intended originally for adults with horrific results including increased depression and suicidal tendencies. Although the author thinks that matters have got better in recent years, he still thinks that there is a long way to go and he makes a powerful case for changes in society rather than the use of more psychotropic drugs.

False Advertising: Gender Stereotypes, Corporate Manipulation, and Consumer Resistance by C. Richard King and Marcie L. Gilliland has its heavy side -- an analysis of the ways in which women and the issues of women’s lives are medicalized with the result that they are targeted by the drugs companies. The lighter side of the article is the section in which they analyse the goofing and the culture jamming that poke fun at the advertising and especially the gender-stereotyped advertising. The analysis of the satire shows that some sanity still exists!

For physicians, psychiatrists and students of psychology and mental health issues this is an extraordinarily interesting and stimulating collection of articles. This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is always thought provoking, sometimes worrying, and never less than fascinating.

© 2008 Kevin M. Purday

Kevin M. Purday has just completed his fortieth year as a teacher and has recently returned to the U.K. after being principal of schools in the Middle East and Far East. His great interests are philosophy and psychology.


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