Addiction Becomes Normal: On the Late-Modern American Subject | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Addiction Becomes Normal: On the Late-Modern American Subject

Addiction Becomes Normal: On the Late-Modern American Subject
by Jaeyoon Park

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2024
224 pp. Trade, $99.00; paper: $27.50
ISBN: 9780226827070; ISBN: 978-0226832760.

Reviewed by: 
Amy Ione
June 2024

Jaeyoon Park concludes his book Addiction Becomes Normal by saying, “Put another way, the late-modern body is one constituted without a coordinating center” (p. 174). Admittedly, I found this an unsettling conclusion, although it was clear how he reached it. The path that led him here was forged by his focus on understanding who “we” are in the present time sociologically. Park notes that a foundational tenet of this study of who “we” are is the distinction between the individual and the subject. In other words, the author does not see the individual as a significant factor because “the subject and the person are not just conceptually distinct. They are formed through different processes” (p. 7). As a result, although Park defines individuals as people who grow and change through their actions; subjects, again this is his focus, are defined generically or as components of the social frameworks. As a result, in terms of addiction, the overall presentation is tautological, conceptually confusing, and top-down.

Park, who teaches political theory at Amherst College, approaches addiction through a generalized human subject who is intertwined with normalization, an idea Park explicitly borrows from Foucault. Observing this in terms of the diversity of processes that have unfolded over the last 40 years, Park highlights the use of indirect techniques rather than Foucault’s coercion/power approach to surmise that this shows there is now a new sense of the norm regulating and adjusting individual conduct. In other words, since contemporary techniques no longer include the moralizing judgment that in part defined Foucault disciplinary norms, Park designates contemporary norms (or normalization) as post-disciplinary. Thus, this book “has surfaced as a theoretical prism, both for understanding more richly and deeply the normalization of addition, and for investigating what Foucault called ‘the constitution of ourselves’ within what Park sees as a novel phase in the history of the American subject” (p. 180).

Park unpacks his arguments in four chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. Chapter 1, “The Normalization of Addiction,” opens by saying drug use used to be considered a degraded type of behavior. In the nineteenth century, he tells us, the prevailing idea was that deviant behavior led to the construction of a pathological addict identity. Over the last 40 years, according to Park, this construction has changed. Addicts are now seen as normal subjects, not as an exceptional (i.e., deviant) type of being. A self-administrative model has been developed and revelations about “the neural substrates of drug dependence” (p. 31) have allowed us to flesh out the biological means by which addictive behavior is reinforced and enacted.

Chapter 2, “The Power of Behavioral Interventions,” argues that behavioral interventions or therapies have become the most common social response to addiction treatment over the last 30 years. He compares the contemporary approach with the therapeutic community (TC) treatment, which was popular in an earlier time. TC aimed to reform the personality of individuals by altering the character type that was seen to underlie their addiction. What sets this chapter apart is that it is the only one in which we meet actual people, in this case two. The first, a woman named Lee Ann, gave testimony in a Congressional hearing in regard to the TC technique, which is now out of fashion. She explained that after the TC treatment, she felt “it was like a new person was emerging from myself” (p. 59). The second is presented through a case that ended up in court.

Chapter 3, “Measuring Our Desire: Craving, Therapy, Tracking, Rating,” analyzes the neuroscientific theory of incentive-salience attribution, which Park tells us emerged at the end of the twentieth century as the leading explanation of what addictive craving is, and how it develops. According to the author, as originally presented this theory was aimed at revising the Freudian and Skinnerian views of desire that informed much of the psychological work on addiction in the twentieth century. As revised, it offers a new basic account of human desire. Here Park uses Foucault’s views on confessional desire as a prism to argue that conceptually desire cannot be interpreted as a sign of the subject’s soul, character, or psyche because each desire is formed in the subject discretely. The upshot is that because desire is not a secret to be confessed or symbolic, it has a measurable quality. It can be tracked and numerically registered. In other words, Parks says that the neuroscientific model of addiction now understands that addiction is not a discrete pathological state that begins at a single moment.

With Chapter 4, “Reframing the Self: Addiction and Wellness,” Park claims to revisit and rethink a historical development that is separate from, but deeply linked with the normalization of addiction: wellness. Park points out that substance addiction in the United States is now diagnosable in the absence of any specific physiological marker, as are addictions to sex, technology, work, shopping, eating, gaming, and so forth. It is in the conclusion, “Subjects of Accretion,” that Park acknowledges the limitations of the book. Framed through developments in American science, politics, and culture over the last 40 years, the author recognizes that he offered no solutions. Unfortunately, he also didn’t offer probing question or analyses of the broader biological and historical trajectory that has led us to where we are now. Rather than probe how genetics research, brain plasticity, and related topics have influenced current thinking, he argues that each field has reimagined addiction in its own way.

Park’s truncated analysis feels noticeably cold, and in my view he misses an opportunity to look at our diversity as individuals within the social framework. His discussion of addiction does not include that individuals and their recoveries are impacted by complex factors. For instance, drug use during pregnancy can lead to fetal exposure. In this kind of situation, the mother’s addiction may result in a baby being born dependent on drugs and having to suffer withdrawal upon birth. It may also stunt the baby’s brain development. Park’s abstractions fail to address this kind of addiction. Similarly, whereas exercise often helps people fighting with alcohol or drug abuse addiction, it can be taken to extremes and become an addiction. This kind of behavioral tension is far beyond the book’s scope. In terms of the body, or the loss of center mentioned earlier in sociological terms, I wish the author had added our current knowledge of genetics, epigenetics, and environmental factors to his history and thus probed the value in including the individual person in evaluating social problems. Without conceptualizing addicted individuals on their own terms, I do not think he can create a foundation for expanding our understanding of addiction for the diverse individuals who comprise our social structure.

This is most obvious in terms of a coordinating center. Although Park does not see a center, in terms of the social response to individual addicts, it baffles me that he does not incorporate it in terms of the nervous systems of individual addicts. Indeed, today it is well known that the nervous system is a human’s coordinating center. It is responsible for the control and coordination of the activities of all the systems in our bodies. Adding a chronic addiction to a body’s nervous system adds functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control. None of this comes through in Park’s analyses. Rather, he sees the loss of a coordinating center as a feature rather than a bug in the system. As he puts it, this book is intended “for understanding the reimagination of craving as a norm of desire in our recent history, that is, for developing the whole of its possible sense and significance” (p. 121). His analyses are not concerned with how one copes with a chronic addiction but are rather critical analyses that are essentially narrative readings of studies within neuroscience, behavioral psychiatry, law, and public policy.

In summary, Park’s update and expansion of Foucault’s normalization theories may have resonance with sociologists and policy makers, but I am not convinced it has much to offer those who are interested in thinking about addiction in terms of individual risk factors, diagnoses, prognoses, treatment options, and similar nuances. His human subject approach does not capture that our biological nuances are lived experiences. At the beginning of this review I noted that Park ends his book Addiction Becomes Normal by saying, “Put another way, the late-modern body is one constituted without a coordinating center” (p. 174). When I first read these words, they brought to mind the beginning of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” He wrote in 1919: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” It is now said that several historical events directly influenced the poem, with the First World War’s chaos and its aftermath being among those often cited. Less often mentioned is that his pregnant wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees had almost died during the 1918 flu-pandemic. The framing of this early twentieth century poem in terms of religion correlates with Park’s sociological generic point of view for he often mentions the importance of religion in earlier times. The poem’s title and language such as “the Second Coming” reinforce this framing. If the circumstances of Yeats’ individual life, however, speak of his own situation as well, then one can also see the poem in terms of the difficulties that stem from breakdown and the nature of healing. In terms of Park’s analyses, he seems to recognize the importance of religion historically and that individual development is unique and frequently speaks about accretion — how our habits determine our process of growth. Nonetheless, his generic framing does not probe the problem with the kind of specificity in terms that would aid our understanding of those trying to cope with addiction personally.