Afterword: Intoxication as Zone of Exception

by Joseph M. Gabriel

Published April 2016


A long time ago I read a wonderful little book about sex. You may have read it yourself, but in case you haven’t I will go over it a bit. I’ll do so because I want to use this book as a way to approach the delightful set of essays published in this collection and, perhaps, say something interesting about the act of getting intoxicated. Actually, what I want to discuss is the act of getting really intoxicated. Getting wasted. You know, getting trashed.  Along the way, I want to suggest that these essays, despite their many strengths, aren’t about getting wasted at all. Indeed, I will argue that scholarly essays of this sort cannot really capture the meaning of intoxication—or, at least, the meaning of getting wasted. So, although I will try to say something interesting about getting trashed, please do not assume that I am trying to say something true. I’m not. I’m writing around the topic, rather than about the topic, and if I were you I wouldn’t expect it to make much sense. Imagine you are talking to a drunk guy in a bar.              ​​​

In any event, the book I read many years ago was The History of Sexuality volume 1: An Introduction (1978), by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault suggested that in days long past what he called “sovereign power” was based on the ability of rulers to decide between life and death for their subjects. Our “threshold of our modernity,” as he put it, was reached in the transition from sovereign power to “bio-politics,” a new form of power in which the minute workings of the body are linked to the needs of the state through regulatory mechanisms that intervene in the most intimate parts of life. Rational knowledge itself is part of this insidious process. Enlightenment rationality leads not to human emancipation and the betterment of the self, but instead to the proliferation of power in the most intimate domains. Indeed, power operates through “procedures of individualization” in which enlightenment rationality is fundamentally intertwined with the constitution of disciplined subjects (59). In other words, reason itself is historically constituted and deeply intertwined with modern biopower. For Foucault, power is therefore not something that acts on an otherwise autonomous subject; it is not something that elites do to the powerless, or that can be shaken off with enough resistance. It cannot be escaped through politics, or science, or self-reflection. It is what makes us who we are.

I love Foucault’s little book. I really do. Reading it was like jumping into a pool of icy water: exhilarating, breathtaking, terrifying. Perhaps even intoxicating. Yet I have also come to see Foucault’s vision in this book as tremendously bleak and perhaps even debilitating. If power is everywhere, inescapable, then what is the use of deliberation and inquiry? What of critique itself? Yet all is not lost. Foucault wrote two additional volumes in the History of Sexuality series before his death. In them, he turned to the ancient world to locate practices of self-care that might serve as the basis for a type of critique that is not based on enlightenment rationality. Foucault, I think, was working toward a new type of reason grounded in aesthetic practices of self-cultivation. Foucault argued that due to the fact that reason is historically constituted, it cannot be used to formulate a complete account of who we are; any such account is itself part of the operation of power through which we as subjects are constituted. Reason can, however, be used to offer novel accounts of ourselves within our own situated perspectives, in part by using aesthetic criteria to expand and reformulate the possibilities of our own subjectivity. I don’t know. To be honest, I am not sure I completely understand what I just wrote. So instead of digging myself in deeper, I’ll simply sum up my understanding of the latter Foucault, via Anita Seppä, by quoting something I wrote in another piece, one in which I displayed much more confidence on these issues than I am currently feeling. For Foucault, I argued, “aesthetic self-invention provides the possibility for us to go beyond the historically imposed limits within which we find ourselves” (Gabriel 31).

That seems nice. Who doesn’t like aesthetic self-cultivation? I know I do, at least when I can pull it off. Yet I am not sure how much this has to do with intoxication, let alone getting wasted. Foucault’s ideas have been incredibly influential, and numerous scholars have used them to understand and theorize various practices and institutions associated with drug use, broadly defined, including drug courts, methadone maintenance, the recovery movement, and the disease model of addiction. Biopower is a tremendously useful analytic framework for thinking about such things. Yet none of this is really about getting wasted. Explanatory frameworks indebted to Foucault don’t have much to say about what it means to get really drunk with your friends. They don’t have much to say about walking home late at night, stumbling, the world spinning around you. Or what it means to get freaked out after taking one too many bong hits, or to listen to a really awesome song while high. How should I put it? Biopower is an awkward framework for trying to understand getting wasted because getting wasted isn’t about enlightenment rationality. Not even close.

I suppose I should be careful here. Intoxication comes in many different forms, and some of these are clearly linked to the production of disciplined subjects. The caffeinated buzz we use to get through the day is an obvious example. But even the relaxing martini after a long day at work, the celebratory New Year’s drink, the joint at a party with a friend—these and other forms of intoxication loosen the regulatory mechanisms that we use to constitute ourselves and, simultaneously, strengthen them by providing a little time off, a little grease to the wheel, a little distraction. I will return to this idea in a bit, but for the moment I just want to point out that this is not what I am talking about. I am not talking about the two cups of coffee I drink at work every day, or getting a drink at the bar on the way home, or smoking a cigarette on the front porch and enjoying the beautiful moon, which I used to like to do occasionally before the totalizing regime of public health got the better of me. I’m talking about getting trashed. And getting trashed isn’t a mild or controlled sort of experience. It isn’t about increased focus, and it isn’t about the utility of a vacation, because getting trashed actually makes it more difficult to get to work in the morning, not easier. Intoxication might be about self-knowledge, sort of, and it might be about pleasure, at least some of the time, but getting trashed isn’t about any of these things. It isn’t really about much of anything at all, except when it is about absolutely everything.

Scholars seem to think that we have something to say about this. But I am not so sure that we do. I hesitate to say this, but sometimes it seems to me that we have forgotten that analysis and experience are not the same thing. We seem to have forgotten that what we are actually doing when we analyze something is constructing a theory, building a model, telling a story. Building a box. I’m a historian, and as such I like to think that I write about actual people. But that isn’t really correct, is it? What I do is take little bits of information I find in texts and assemble them together and then pretend that I am saying something about the past. Something true. But, when push comes to shove, I will admit that I don’t even know what it means to say that a statement about the past is “true.” What I do know is that it is very complicated, and that the stories I spin about the past are just that: stories. Historical narrative is just another box, and the effort to investigate and explain obscures the fact that what we historians really do is write about other pieces of text instead of actual people. Even anthropologists fall into this trap, spinning explanatory frameworks out from the words that their so-called informants provide them as if their models and explanations capture and contain something that is true about the world. Or, at least, something interesting. But I am not sure that even this can be said about getting trashed. Is getting trashed really even interesting?

Sometimes, when I am feeling trapped, I like to flip through books that help me feel like I am in graduate school again, wrestling with big ideas, instead of simply working at a middling type of day job, making my academic widgets, slowly lumbering toward chronic lower back pain and carpel tunnel syndrome. One of the books I like to flip through is Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. It is a great book, but also a scary one. Following Foucault, Agamben argues that liberal democratic states are characterized by an “intrusion of biologico-scientific principles into the political order,” or “the politicization of bare life as such.” Under modern liberal states, what Agamben calls the “exception”—the ability of the sovereign to determine that it can violate its own laws—has become universalized, with the nation state able to revise its own laws at will. This potential for revision extends to laws governing who lives and who dies, and as a result “bare life” becomes the essential question of the democratic state. If I understand him properly, the flexibility and capriciousness inherent in the question of who lives and who dies in the modern liberal state means that, for Agamben, “the exemplary places of modern biopolitics” are “the concentration camp and the structures of the great totalitarian states of the twentieth century.” In a concentration camp, who lives and who dies depends on the whims of the guard. In a democracy, it depends on the whims of the people (122, 10).

Yikes. This is scary stuff. Luckily, Agamben also sees a way out of this mess. In an earlier work titled Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1992), Agamben argued that under Western metaphysics knowledge has been split into an “inspired-ecstatic” form characteristic of poetry and a “rational-conscious” form characteristic of philosophy. Neither of these two forms is capable of fully “possessing the object of knowledge” by themselves, but a reconciliation of the two may be possible (xvii). In Homo Sacer, Agamben suggests that the universalization of the “exception” that defines modern democratic states corresponds to the division between poetry and philosophy because it depends on the separation of language from voice. If I understand him properly, which of course I probably do not, Agamben suggests that the “transition from voice to language” was a foundational moment in the creation of politics, since the distinction between the two is what separates man from animal; as Aristotle noted, “among living beings, only man has language.” The alienation of man from “bare life” caused by the adoption of language is thus foundational to politics; it also parallels the split between philosophy and poetry since, as Agamben puts it, referencing Aristotle, “the question ‘In what way does the living being have language?’ corresponds exactly to the question ‘In what way does bare life dwell in the polis’” (Homo Sacer 12). Perhaps, as Agamben put it in Stanzas, “the unity of our own fragmented word” (xvii) can serve as the basis for a new politics, one which moves beyond the bleak vision of Homo Sacer and its description of the “inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism” (13).

To be honest, I am not completely certain what all this means. Still, it occurs to me that the concept of the exception might help us understand the drunken slob at the end of the bar, the stoned kid doing one more bong hit, the woman at the party who really, really wants one more line. One of the things I take from reading Foucault’s work is that the functions of the sovereign now operate not just at the level of the state but also at the level of the individual subject. Yet if the sovereign is now articulated through technologies of the self, fractured into multiple nodes and produced through the proliferation of power-knowledge, then perhaps Agamben’s concept of the exception can be read in this way as well: as not only about the universalization of sovereign power over who lives and dies in the form of the democratic state, but also about the decision the individual subject makes in any given moment whether to live or to die. Perhaps this individualization of the exception takes place alongside, or within, the act of subjectification itself, proliferating in conjunction with it like some sort of virus, some sort of possibility. Perhaps the proliferation of biopower has brought with it not just discipline and subject formation but also the possibility of dis-regulation, of taking apart, of annihilation. Perhaps the individualization of the exception means that we can all make a choice, of sorts. We can choose to undo ourselves. We can turn toward oblivion.

And what of poetry? If, for Agamben, the reconciliation of reason and poetry might “clear the way for the new politics, which remains largely to be invented,” can intoxication help in this project? Yes, in part. Poetry and intoxication have long been intertwined. It seems clear that the intensification and distortion of experience through intoxication can lead to new aesthetic and political possibilities; this is something that artists and writers have known since at least the late eighteenth-century, when a group of young British radicals discovered in nitrous oxide the power to challenge social norms and break through convention, to make art through rebellion and rebellion through art and to make both a form of self-cultivation. Who can deny that this been a source of inspiration ever sense? As Oscar Wilde put it, perhaps after a draught of absinthe, “it is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection” (380). Although critics such as Ralph Waldo Emerson have long suggested that intoxication provides only a false taste of what he called “the true nectar,” it seems inescapable to me that art, in its disruptive and stimulating possibilities, has a deep overlap with intoxication and that both offer possibilities that cannot be reduced to the demands of biopower. As with other aesthetic practices, the act of altering one’s consciousness offers the possibility of unsettling the disciplined self and creating something new through the intertwined acts of transgression and self-reformulation. If we are to find an alternative to the relentless spread of biopower through practices of aesthetic self-transformation, then perhaps intoxication can help us in our work. Perhaps it can also play a role in the creation of a new type of politics by helping us reconcile poetry and philosophy. Who knows?

Yet, I wonder. Transgression and the rejection of norms through art no longer carries the power it once did. As Jacques Barzun suggested, the “quality of upsetting, inverting, upside-downing” is now “as mechanical and untrue as conventionality, of which it is the mirror image” (138). Martha Bayles points out that for Barzun “perversity has nothing further to teach us,” but also that he “despairs that it will ever lose its grip” (36). That seems overwrought to me. Personally, I like a certain amount of perversity. The problem, I think, is not so much that we cannot rid ourselves of perversity but instead that it seems to be losing its bite. Perhaps I am simply getting old, in the sort of way that people mean when they describe that process with despair, but it seems to me that transgression no longer accomplishes what it once did. It is increasingly easy to produce and reproduce and endlessly reproduce works of art; indeed, we seem awash in great music and stunning photographs and films that take your breath away. The same can be said of images that shock or startle us. They are everywhere now. Yet these artistic works, thoroughly extracted from the context of their creation, also seem increasingly detached and hollow of meaning. How much good music do you really want to listen to, now that it is all instantly accessible? How many shocking photos have you seen? Everything begins to look and sound the same. And it is not just music and visual images. A similar process appears to be slowly evacuating the meaning from our clothes, our accoutrements, even our bodies: tattoos and blue hair and other such aesthetic practices still carry the power to surprise and act as a mark of difference. I still make choices about how I dress when I go to work, after all, and these choices still mean something. But they don’t mean what they once did. I used to have my ears pierced. I don’t anymore. Who cares? The repetitive and increasingly rapid reproduction of not just the beautiful but also the transgressive seems to be taking a toll on the power of aesthetics to act as a ground for something new. I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but increasingly I feel like an inverted simulacrum of Jacques Barzun, worrying about the banal nature of transgression and fretting about the loss of perversity.

There is another issue here as well. I am not at all sure this is the case, but it occurs to me that the weakening of the transgressive is something like the moving of the goal posts during a game. It is not only that the transgressive is increasingly routine. It is also that, when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, something new is needed to take its place. Or even required. The rapid proliferation of aesthetic possibilities and the intensification of experience may lead to a hollowing out, to feelings of boredom and dislocation, but in doing so they also lead to the desire for novel experiences and further amplification. This is the heart of a capitalist system organized around the production of consumer desire that can never be truly fulfilled: a relentless and unyielding diversification of markets grounded on the production of more—more needs, more goods, more experiences. At the same time, the aesthetic practices available to us as we seek to refashion ourselves are inevitably wrapped up not just with the possibilities of corporate markets but also with the incessant demands for reinvention put forth by the neo-liberal state. What does aesthetic self-cultivation mean in a world in which innovation is the new buzzword, with flexibility and transformation not just normalized but imposed? Perhaps it is just me, but the demand for transgressive reinvention often seems both relentless and pointless. Self-transformation is less appealing when it is linked to your annual evaluation. It all makes me very tired. Stop, I want to say. I don’t want to invent myself anymore.

There is a limit here, at least when one thinks through these issues in terms of intoxication. Certainly, altered states of consciousness retain the power to stimulate creativity, a power that might prove quite useful if we are trying to create a new piece of art, come up with a new idea for a paper, or think through our institution’s five-year plan. Yet this power only goes so far. Once we cross a certain threshold, the more intoxicated we get the less we are able to make use of whatever it is that intoxication provides us. This is not about taking a vacation. Numerous scholars have pointed to the use of intoxication as a means of stepping outside of the self and the ways in which such an altered state can be a source of inspiration, or pleasure, or even mystical experience. That is all fine and good, but it is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about having one too many drinks, one too many tokes, one too many lines. I am talking about not just the erosion but the actual collapse of the disciplined self, something that we might term de-subjectification. As we consume more and more we inch toward the boundaries of self-regulatory power. The rules begin to bend, and our concerns fall away. Our behaviors and impulses change. There is pleasure to be found here, of a sort, and perhaps even insight. But once we cross a certain threshold, and move closer and closer to the zone of exception, these sorts of possibilities recede. We begin to act on impulses and habits, to speak in gibberish, to do things for inexplicable reasons or, indeed, for no reason at all. This is not about pleasure, or insight, or art. It is about something closer to bare life. Something that cannot be captured in an essay like this. The boxes fall apart, the narrative breaks down. At some point, there is nothing more to say. There is nothing more that can be said.

• • •

As we recover, if we recover, we put the pieces back together again. We straighten ourselves out and, perhaps, try to think about what just occurred. Usually the bits that remain do not make much sense. There might be a vague sense of pleasure, or of embarrassment, or concern about something we think we did. There might be some sort of remainder that we can make use of, a sliver that can be expressed in a painting or a poem. We might organize our days, and even ourselves, around the possibility of getting wasted again. And perhaps again, and again. But what took place in the zone of exception is not really accessible to us. It lays beyond what we can make sense of, what we can fold into the regulative processes that we use to understand and construct ourselves. That is part of its appeal, and part of its danger.

This brings me, finally, to the fine essays in this collection. I enjoyed reading them, and I learned quite a bit from doing so. I assume you did as well. Still, I can’t help feeling that, just like my own essay, they are not really about getting trashed. How could they be? The products of significant intellectual engagement and long hours of hard work, these essays try to capture something meaningful about intoxication and wedge it into some type of framework, some type of story, some type of box. This is not a bad thing. Not at all. This is what we academics do—we spend our time writing texts in order to capture and then translate something meaningful for our readers. As such, the texts we produce are disciplining mechanisms, technologies of the self, part of the process through which power circulates and produces well-regulated citizens of a neo-liberal state. Yet they also provide material that we can use in our own acts of self-care. Like modest forms of intoxication, these essays expand the possibilities of our own reinvention by exposing us to both new ideas and new experiences. They are useful in this way, at least to me, because they help me work through who I am and what I am doing, both in my day job as a historian and as I go about the rest of my daily life. They do so in part by the pleasure and creative stimulation they provide—and there is much of this to be found in this fine collection—but also by the opportunities they provide for engagement. These essays invite us to respond, and in doing so to contribute to the ongoing conversation or, to put it another way, produce yet another academic widget. Creativity, possibility, reinvention; can these pleasures now be separated from production, circulation, and, increasingly, disinvestment?

What these essays are not about, what they cannot be about, is getting trashed. There remains something that cannot be captured in the act of getting wasted, something that cannot be folded in and made useful, even in a world where transgression and discipline are increasingly intertwined. For better or for worse, at least for the moment, getting intoxicated—getting really intoxicated—remains outside the constitution of the self. For better or for worse, it remains a place we go when we no longer want to be anything at all.


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.

---. Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. 1992. Print.

Barzun, Jacques. The Use and Abuse of Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975. Print.

Bayles, Martha. Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Essays: Second Series. 1844. Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts. Web. 8 Feb. 2016. <>

Hunt, Lynn and Margaret Jacob. “The Affective Revolution in 1790s Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34:4 (2001): 491-521. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print.

Gabriel, Joseph M. “Bioart and Biopower: Reflections on the Aetheticization of Life Itself.” Head Shoulders Genes & Toes. Ed. Judith Rushin. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, 2013. 19-33. Print.

Seppä, Anita. “Foucault, Enlightenment, and the Aesthetics of the Self.” Contemporary Aesthetics 2 (2004) Web. 2 Feb. 2016. <>

Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist.” The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Richard Ellmann. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968. Print.