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  • High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture by Mike Jay
  • Jan Baetens
High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture by Mike Jay. Thames and Hudson, London, U.K., 2012. 192 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-500-28910-5.

High Society is both the title of an exhibition presented at Wellcome Collection (London, 2010) and a book derived from the curatorial work of Mike Jay, a well-known scholar specializing in the cultural history of drugs. As such, it is a wonderful accomplishment of the infrequent encounter of scholarly and popularizing efforts seamlessly meeting in a lavishly illustrated publication that will be of great interest to both scholars and a general audience (the latter will appreciate the fact that the very readable text presents itself without footnotes, the former will find in the final advanced reading section helpful tools for further research; both groups will appreciate the well-made index).

Jay's book is divided into three parts. In the section "A Universal Impulse," he gives a very clear overview of the presence of drugs in all human civilizations as well as of the very different forms and meanings that the use of certain kinds of drugs has taken in a wide range of societies, Western and non-Western, natural (or allegedly so) and technologically enhanced, in the present but also in the past. This section helps the reader understand the dramatically multilayered but always thoroughly cultural value of drugs, be it plant drugs (like mushrooms) or laboratory-based drugs (like ecstasy). Jay emphasizes the role of drugs in the construction of human societies and reflects upon their role in the development of the human brain, always insisting on the collective and socially constructed dimension of drugs and taking advantage of the notion of drugs to ask questions on the relationships between the human and the animal. By focusing on the universal character of drugs, Jay not only foregrounds the fact that drugs are found everywhere but that all social groups are to a certain extent dependent, among many other things of course, on drugs, even if not all societies use or forbid the same kind of drugs. In spite of their wildly diverging forms and practices, the drug pattern, which is a cultural pattern of linking the individual and the social, seems to remain the same.

In "From Apothecary to Laboratory," Jay further problematizes the definition of drugs, blurring the boundaries between licit and illicit, drugs and non-drugs, positive and negative. The perspective shifts here from the spatial (as in Section I, where the idea is to study the drug phenomenon all over the world) to the historical, more particularly to the ongoing experiments in Western culture, from the Antiquity to the Renaissance, from the Enlightenment to the drugs of the future and the discussions on human enhancement. Here as well, the very well-informed study of the ceaselessly growing assortment of possible drugs and their various contributions to often clandestine subcultures goes along with the emphasis on what is persistent through all changes: the link between the techniques to heighten human consciousness and the construction of human behavior and social groups. The examples of opium, cocaine, laudanum, LSD and other drugs all confirm the basic knowledge already put forward in ancient medicine: "Whether a drug is medicine or poison is a question of dosage" (p. 107).

Section 3, "The Drug Trade," focuses very cleverly on "older drugs," such as tobacco, opium and alcohol, and makes clear that the so-called "war on drugs" is an immensely complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the dichotomy of "bad" drugs and "good" crime-fighters. Here again, Jay's approach discusses the many hidden aspects of laisser-aller and prohibitionist politics and the many permanently shifting nuances one has to acknowledge between the many ways of coping with drugs. The final part of this section is devoted to a discussion of the ban on tobacco in the wealthy classes of the Western world, which is analyzed in terms of changing cultural attitudes (and not just in terms of health care considerations and economics of insurance systems: after all, as Jay astutely observes: smokers do...