Chasing Dragons by Kyle Grayson

Review of Grayson, K. (2008) Chasing Dragons: Security, Identity, and Illicit Drugs in Canada, University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada, pp. 304.

PDF Versions: Review by Martin Coward, Review by Andres Perezalonso, Author’s Reply by Kyle Grayson.


Review by Martin Coward

University of Sussex

In 2007 The Independent declared Guinea Bissau ‘Africa’s first narco-state’ and an important staging post in the movement of illicit drugs from Latin America to Europe. Concurrently, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) World Drug Report referred to the patterns of organized crime responsible for the smuggling of drugs from Latin America and South Asia to the US and Europe as an ‘invisible empire’. Central to both accounts is an image of the flow of drugs, and the violence (of criminals and warlords) taken to be attendant to it, as a pressing source of instability and insecurity in the global era. Interestingly both reports do not simply identify the threats to the health of northern populations that illicit drugs and the criminal networks responsible for distributing them represent. Both accounts also note the way in which northern demand for illicit drugs, via the underdevelopment and violence the drugs trade perpetuates, comprises a threat to the populations of the south.

Notwithstanding such nuances, however, both accounts could be seen as elements of a wider discourse that represents the sources of global danger as emanating from the global south towards the global north (Dalby 2006). Such a discourse reinscribes long-standing civilisational discourses in a contemporary account of the manner in which the developed, largely pacific, northern self is threatened by its underdeveloped, violent and illicit southern other. Such an other is taken to demand a securitised response in order to contain its unruly threatening behaviour.

Chasing Dragons represents an excellent response to such securitising discourses. Kyle Grayon demonstrates the manner in which notions of civilisation, gender, sexuality, race and moral superiority are inscribed into Canadian national identity via discourses on illicit drugs. As such, Chasing Dragons is a timely lens through which scholars might critically read the securitised responses to threat perceived to posed by illicit drugs.

Taking the metaphor of the dragon as both transcendent object of wisdom (and, hence, metaphor for finding certainty in an uncertain world) as well as threatening monster, Grayson shows the manner in which discourses surrounding illicit drugs have performed Canadian national identity both in terms of its search for security as well as in relation to its threatening others. As such Grayson draws upon the framework of analysis developed by David Campbell in his Writing Security (1998) to show the manner in which the representation of otherness is central to a discursive performance of the security of the self. Grayson augments Campbell’s framework with reference to Foucault’s understanding of parrhesia (the technique of claiming authority for one’s discursive position and thus gaining the ability to make credible discursive performances) and biopolitics. This framework allows Grayson – drawing on Gearoid O Tuathail (1996) – to present the discourses surrounding illicit drugs as a ‘geo-graphing’, or inscription via cultural practices, of relations of identity.

This theoretical framework is then deployed to examine a genealogy of the empirical discourses surrounding illicit drugs in Canada in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This genealogy begins with an account of the manner in which Canada’s contribution to negotiations concerning global drug control regimes was constitutive of a sense of the moral superiority, and liberal sophistication, of Canadian identity. Grayson interestingly notes that this has led to a position in which Canada identifies itself with America’s civilisational position and yet finds itself, due to its liberal stance, taken to be perversely different to the US (which has a more punitive attitude towards illicit drugs). Grayson shows how such a positioning can be understood, via queer theory, as a mix of difference and sameness that the US finds threatening in its ambiguity.

The genealogy then examines the racialisation of Canadian identity through discourses about the manner in which the threat of illicit drugs arises from immigrant communities. Stemming from the notion that Canadians were a superior ‘northern race’, illicit drug consumption has been taken (from Chinese opium smoking to Somali Khat chewing) to be a foreign activity indicative of the indolence and moral inferiority of ‘southern races’. The majority of the book though is taken up with three chapters that might be seen together as a genealogy of the medicalisation of the body of the drug user. From early conceptions of the drug user as a criminal addict to contemporary anxieties about the threat to the health of young people posed by ecstasy, discourses surrounding illicit drugs in Canada have been constitutive of a notion of health that has performed an ideal of Canadian society. Such a performance could be said to be biopolitical in the sense intended by Foucault – a discourse that attempts to define and regulate the vital functions of the population.

In its theoretical sophistication and empirical richness Chasing Dragons is, to my mind, an important contribution to the critical security literature. As such it raises for me a number of questions that I would like to pose by way of concluding this review.

In the first place it strikes me that two important points are left unexplained (indeed, are mentioned only in passing). On the one hand, it is stated that the US has a punitive attitude towards illicit drugs. And yet, curiously for an account that stresses the cultural and interpretive basis of identity, there is no explanation for how such a situation arose. On the other hand, a vast rise in the number of arrests for drugs offences towards the latter part of the twentieth century is noted in several places and yet no explanation is given for this rise. What were the performative circumstances in which such an increase in arrests became possible?

Secondly, I note also a curious kernel of objectivity under an account that poses the cultural, performative notion of identity as its central category. This manifests itself in the bald assertion that tobacco can be (‘arguably’) seen as a larger health threat than illicit drugs. Of course on a common sense level this appears incontrovertible. And yet the purpose of the analysis is to unsettle such common sense. So the question is how do we subject such an assertion to the same analysis as the discourse surrounding illicit drugs?

Thirdly, I detect a certain formalism in notions of identity and difference deployed by critical security theorists. Such accounts are predicted on the idea that all performances of selves are worked out in relation to others. Two problems seem to arise here. On the one hand, what happens to the international? Is it merely the theoretical residue of the various self-other relations that exist in global politics? Or is it a site in which more than the relation of self and other takes place and which has its own specificities that makes it a distinct space (as I think classical realist accounts of the international might posit it to be)? If the international is nothing but a theoretical residue (i.e., that which can be deduced from an aggregation of all the self and other relations that exist globally) what about international relations as a discipline? Is it simply a sort of global sociology of self-other performances? Secondly, there is the problem (that you note in the conclusion) of the inability of Canada to become something other than America’s other. But this will be more than an empirical problem. It will be a structural problem. Conceptually, Canada cannot be something other than its neighbour’s other. But is this not limiting theoretically?

Fourthly, I was interested to see that there is no discussion of the economics of illicit drugs. Of course, I recognise that the primary aim of the book is to examine the performance of identity that Canadian discourses on illicit drugs accomplish. Moreover, I also understand that your conceptual framework would lead us to understand economic circulation and exchange as a cultural artefact. That said, the consumption of illicit drugs requires their production and exchange. Moreover, these circuits of production and exchange will be related to wider social circuits of production and exchange. This is noted in passing when the marginalisation of Somali immigrants is recognised. But how is this marginalisation related to their positioning within the discourse on illicit drugs? For example, is the drugs discourse not just a matter of the performance of national identity but also class identity? The problem I perceive is that critical theories of international politics have been criticised for failing to account for mechanisms of production and exchange (Laffey 2000). Of course such criticisms falsely figure the economic as extra-discursive and thus objective (de Goede 2003). Indeed, in response to such criticisms critical theorists have noted the way in which ‘economic’ categories are amenable to discursive analysis (de Goede 2006). However, these discursive analyses are few and far between with critical theorists choosing to concentrate on cultural representation as the forum in which identity is performed. In this regard I would have thought that the discourse on illicit drugs provided an ideal opportunity to undertake an analysis of the discursive constitution of economic circuits and subjects. Discourses on drugs are dominated by ideas concerning the economic basis of flows and dependencies. These could, presumably, have been deconstructed in your framework and so I am a little surprised by their absence.

Finally, I am of course in sympathy with your conclusion, but also a little unclear about where it leaves us. Of course, as Foucault said, making facile gestures difficult is the first task of theory. But can’t we take more from this analysis? What would comprise an ethical stance towards those understood as dependent on the substances we refer to as illicit drugs? What would comprise an ethical response to the flow of such substances from, for example, Latin America to North America? In other words, I am not sure I agree with the notion that contesting the common sense is the most we can ask of scholarship. I would have thought that if scholarship is a practical engagement with the world (as you suggest in your concluding reference to Foucault’s understanding of theory and politics as coterminous) then implicit in such scholarship is an ethical engagement with the world that has to go further than simply contesting the common sense. And it strikes me that in the face of some of the global challenges of posed by illicit drugs such as those I outlined at the start of this review, we will need to go further lest we allow common sense (no matter how challenged) to maintain its hegemonic position in responses to the challenges that we perceive illicit drugs to pose.

References

Campbell, D (1998) Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, revised edition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Dalby, S (2006), ‘Reading Robert Kaplan’s “Coming Anarchy”, in Gearoid O Tuathail, Simon Dalby and Paul Routledge, eds., The Geopolitics Reader, 2nd edition, London: Routledge, pp. 197-202

De Goede, M (2006), International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics, London: Palgrave.

De Goede, M (2003), ‘Beyond Economism in International Political Economy,’ Review of International Studies 29 (1), pp. 79-97

Laffey, M (2000), ‘Locating identity: performativity, foreign policy and state action’, Review of International Studies, 26, pp.429–444

Miller, J. (2007), ‘Drug barons turn Bissau into Africa’s first narco-state’, The Independent, 18 July

Ó Tuathail, G (1996) Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Space, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

UNDOC (2007), 2007 World Drug Report, United Nations, Available http://www.unodc.org/pdf/research/wdr07/WDR_2007.pdf, accessed 06.01.09

Martin Coward is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK. He is author of Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction (Routledge, 2008). His current research focuses on the contemporary relationship between the city and war.


Review by Andrés Perezalonso

Newcastle University


Recent years have seen a proliferation of analyses that move away from the traditional schools of International Relations towards post-structuralist and social constructivist approaches which make of discourse a central theme. The influence of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, among others, is pervasive in a variety of works of current scholars who seek to apply the notions of deconstruction, genealogy or biopolitics to the international arena. In doing so, more than one has highlighted the direct relationship that exists between security and identity.

There are different variations around the notion of the Other, often conceived as a potential threat, as the element that constitutes and determines the Self.[1] Perhaps a work that has become a standard for studies gravitating around security, discourse and identity is David Campbell’s genealogical analysis of American identity and United States foreign policy.[2] In a first approach, Kyle Grayson’s book on Canadian identity can be understood along the same lines of thought. There are, however, a few important differences which turn out to be refreshing, given the nature of the subject of study. While we are accustomed to think of alienation and belligerence as important aspects of American political discourse, most people (Canadians and non-Canadians alike) will not usually consider Canada as a country primarily concerned with threats from the exterior or deviance from the interior. We do not stop to think of the ways in which this country constructs its identity through practices of security, nor do we stop to think what threats might be perceived by the Canadian imagination, if any. That Grayson has stopped to consider issues that are often overlooked or taken for granted is already promising for the stimulation of future research in comparable areas of study.

Grayson’s guiding question is “how have competing ideas of security and Canadian identity managed to code particular practices as un-Canadian, thereby making it possible to pursue various forms of prohibition towards illicit drugs?”[3] In doing so he challenges dominant conceptualizations of what Canada or being Canadian is, while resisting the temptation of revealing the ‘hidden truth’ about Canadian identity, since, as he argues, such reality is constructed by the meaning we give it and always linked to power relations.

Instead of trying to provide an answer to the question of ‘what is true’ about illicit drugs and their effects, the focus shifts to who is able to tell the truth, about what, with what consequences, and with what relation to power in processes that have been touted as marking a slow liberal transformation in Canadian drug policy.[4]

This approach allows Grayson to stress discontinuity and seemingly contradictory elements of Canadian identity/security. Indeed, perhaps the major strength of the book is that it traces the imagination of Canada through a wide spectrum of dissimilar manifestations. Illicit drugs and their consumers have historically received responses from Canadian authorities and society that range from multiculturalism and tolerance to racism; just as they do from law enforcement to medicalization. This way, Canada ceases to be simply a progressive and tolerant country enlightened by rational principles; through its practices related to drugs it reveals itself as a complex set of contradictory representations subject to contingency.

Grayson makes a comprehensive, intelligent and intelligible study of Canadian identity and illicit drugs. His analysis covers equally the role in the performative of identity of the country’s geopolitical relationship with the U.S.; the different historical constructions of minorities (Asian, Somali, African-Canadian) as the alleged carriers of the ‘drug epidemic’; the positions of the medical, legal and law enforcement communities, swinging back and forth in their portrayal of drugs as a disease to be treated or a crime to be punished; and specific issues embedded within the larger discourse, such as the medicalization of marijuana or the rise and fall of rave culture.

There is little left to be desired of Chasing Dragons. If any matters remain unanswered they are related to the possibility that alternative methodological or theoretical approaches could have provided additional or more interesting results. There are a few passages that suggest so. For example, on the issue of race and illicit drugs, Grayson concludes:

In the Canadian context, the securitization of specific drugs has been made possible through biopolitical discourses of race. In adopting a Foucauldian approach that highlights the contingent character of the discursive relations that made it possible for opium and khat to be represented and accepted as threatening to the Canadian Self, I have made it clear that these threat constructions had very little to do with the chemical properties of these substances. Opium and khat were constructed as threats because of the political challenges they presented to Canadian identity and culture within their contexts of securitization.[5] [Italics added.]

True enough, the Canadian discourse on drugs is proven to be contingent and has been marked by a biopolitical understanding of race – points which may be highlighted thanks to Foucault. But the obvious gap between the constructions of threat and the chemical qualities of drugs begs for the introduction of the analytical notion of disproportionality as proposed by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda.[6] Although these authors were not alien nor opposed to social constructivism they chose to retain a sense of objectivity in their appreciation of hard facts – like the chemical qualities of a drug – in order to assess how disproportional a construction of a threat was.

The possibility of using Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s work in the construction of drugs in Canada as dangerous is apparent in a number of examples in Grayson’s book. However, early on in the text Grayson dismisses Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s Moral Panics for the reason that these panics are only one of many possible manifestations and that such analysis using such explanatory concepts “presuppose the existence of some previously articulated morality that all members of society draw from and interpret in a uniform manner – a precarious assumption even in the most homogenous of social environments”.[7] It is a fair point, but there is no reason why we could not find a way to adjust Goode and Ben-Yehuda to a complex discourse marked by contradictions and discontinuities; nor is there a logical reason why a Foucauldian perspective would deny the element of disproportionality when present.

Ultimately the problem seems to be related to what we do with ‘facts’ in the context of discourse analysis. This is how Grayson deals with them:

In exploring [the question of the conditions of possibility for the acceptance of the interpretation of threat], this study draws from researched data and follows standard rules of evidence. At times, arguments based on empirical data will be provided that counter what are considered by authorities to be conventional ‘facts’; at other times, alternative interpretations of conventional ‘facts’ are offered. Some may want to argue that, given the discussion about the productive role of discourse made above, the presentation of evidence in this manner is at best dubious (i.e., it does not clearly define its ontological basis), or at worst, intellectually unsustainable and contradictory. Such charges, though, project onto this project the traditional aim of (social) science as the search for truth; they neglect to recognize that no such truth claims are being made here.

Thus, Grayson makes use of evidence and ‘facts’, but not as standards of truth or objectivity. They are simply used to destabilize constructions and to make a point of the contingency of the discursive formations. This appears to be the essential difference with an approach that would accept disproportionality and therefore evidence as a measure of objectivity or lack of it.

Perhaps the time has come for our understanding of discourse analysis to attempt a synthesis between a purely constructivist approach and one which accepts a certain standard of objectivity that does not pretend to possess ‘true’ explanations of reality, i.e. that of elemental facts and data.


[1] For an example see Richard Johnson, ‘Defending ways of life, The (Anti-)Terrorist Rhetorics of Bush and Blair’, Theory, Culture & Society, 19-4 (2002)

[2] See David Campbell, Writing Security, United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998)

[3] Kyle Grayson, Chasing Dragons: Security, Identity, and Illicit Drugs in Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008): 5

[4] Kyle Grayson, Chasing Dragons: 18

[5] Kyle Grayson, Chasing Dragons: 123

[6] Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994): 36

[7] Kayle Grayson, Chasing Dragons: 31

Author’s Reply by Kyle Grayson

Introduction

I wish to start by thanking the reviewers for the very considered comments and the close readings that these are based on. At a time when the volume of scholarship is increasingly exponentially to where the results of academic publishing often feel like the sound of one hand clapping, it is a rare occasion to be able to engage in a discussion with two colleagues on issues of mutual interest.

At the same time, it is an unnerving experience, particularly to see others identify and reveal the potential tensions, sub-texts, omissions, and unresolved issues entangled within one’s own research. But having colleagues who are willing and able to provide this kind of support is central to the academic fulfillment of the Foucauldian maxim about making facile gestures difficult–including our own. While I cannot possibly hope to do justice to the important issues raised by the reviewers or necessarily resolve them to anyone’s satisfaction, I will attempt to provide at least a preliminary response to points raised individually and in combination where appropriate.[1] But first, it is necessary, as Martin Coward has noted, to contextualize Chasing Dragons.

What was I trying to do?

Keeping all the usual caveats of the hermeneutic circle in mind, Chasing Dragons initially set out to find an answer to the question: ‘what is the relationship constituted by the politics of illicit drugs, security policy, and identity in Canada?’ In exploring Canadian geonarcotics, the construction and coding of the body of the illicit drug user, the nexus formed by practices of liberalism and illicit drugs, and the regulation of sub-cultures and minorities through the prism of illicit drugs policy, I realized that another question was lingering beneath the surface: ‘how has it become possible for Canadians to position themselves as distinct from Americans?’. This second question to my mind is the more politically relevant in a context where the United States is a looming presence in any discussion of identity, policy, or political possibility. Thus, what I hoped to illustrate was the historical contingency of the drug threat, the identity of the people said to be in danger, and the relations of power underpinning the entire dynamic, in order to challenge the common assertion that there is a crystal clear delineation between the foreign policy characters of Canada and the United States.

Truth, Power, and Objectivity

In using insights, frameworks, and–dare I say it–‘methods’ developed by ‘post-structuralist’ theorists, the thorny issue of ‘truth’, that is what can we claim to know with certainty, comes to the forefront in the book and in the minds of the reviewers. The position I take in Chasing Dragons is unabashedly Foucauldian: what counts as knowledge (of truth) is a reflection of power-relations, while knowledge and truth regularize relations of power by conveying a status to those in the fields of their production. The end result is that truth is not just contingent but also highly subjective. And those truths that become inculcated into the realm of knowledge known as common-sense are in fact political products that have the tendency to benefit those in positions of authority. Thus, one of the most highly political acts is that of establishing which discourses, institutions, techniques, and processes, will be accorded value in finding truth. Both reviewers raise key questions about this approach and how it plays out in Chasing Dragons.

For Martin Coward, the issue is consistency. With respect to my deployment of the common-sense assertion that tobacco can arguably be seen as a greater threat to public health than illicit drugs, he notes that the argument slides from wishing to problematize the foundations of truth production to taking them–and their products– at face value.  Thus, the deeper issue is how might one subject such an assertion to the same analysis as the discourses surrounding illicit drugs?

My response is two-fold and much more focused on the first point than the second. The assertion is made in the text to demonstrate the inconsistency within the illicit drugs discourse itself: that is, if the protection of public health is a primary concern, why are those substances that the requisite regime of truth and its accepted procedures of knowledge production have identified as more harmful not been subject to the same forms of brutal disciplinary and biopolitical control? And the implicit answer that runs throughout Chasing Dragons is that tobacco use has not historically been subject to the same politics of security and identity.

In terms of how to best subject the claim of tobacco’s harm to critical scrutiny, my suspicion would be to engage in a genealogical analysis of how smoking has been problematized–from a cancer, heart disease, and stroke causing agent in the self and more recently in others, to the psychological effects of addiction–since the proliferation of professional medicine in the nineteenth century. The objective would be to see how these problematizations have shifted with changes in the way in which the practices of medicine are understood.

For Andres Perezalonso, the issue is more fundamental: in accepting that truth is socially constructed and contingent, do we concede too much in the approach used in Chasing Dragons, thereby leaving us unable to expose deliberate deceptions as lies? As he so eloquently puts it:

the time has come for our understanding of discourse analysis to attempt a synthesis between a purely constructivist approach and one which accepts a certain standard of objectivity while not pretending to     possess grand ‘true’ explanations of reality; i.e. one that limits and supports its claims of objectivity on elemental facts and data while recognizing the production and construction of discursive objects.

I have two serious concerns about the pursuit of such a project. The first is that there is not a realm of the real and a realm of the discursive that merely represents the real; discourse constitutes reality. Therefore, the study of politics and the use of discourse analysis to study politics–or any other field for that matter– is about examining the contests that occur over meaning and representation that make reality intelligible. That ‘event a’ is taking place or that ‘person b’ exists tend to be shared across positions: at the heart of politics are the battles that are fought over what ‘event a’ means or how ‘person b’ is represented. These battles are discursive; victory is achieved when the dominant discursive formation is no longer able to accept the meanings and representations forwarded by your ‘opponent’ as understandable. It is misplaced to try to use philosophical realism in order to say that we can ground any claim in a ‘reality’ that supposedly exists independently of our thoughts about it and then move on to argue that this reality can be objectively verified and necessarily used to adjudicate between competing claims in a way that is neutral. To do so, is to try to give solid form to the wind. And as Nietzsche reminded us, much like a frozen stream in the winter, even those forms that appear to be solid, may be in a state of flux beneath the surface.

But what then of deception, lying, or even bullshit? Particularly with respect to the discourses of illicit drugs where ‘bad science’–that is, medical research that has purposely sought to come to conclusions that heighten  the risks associated with illicit drugs–has been identified by many analysts as a pivotal contributor, how can the approach taken in Chasing Dragons respond? The answer, in part, is to illustrate that ‘deception’ tries to have it both ways. On the one hand it wishes to latch onto the relations of power and advantages that arise in discourse when a claim has been produced through the recognized procedures, processes, and practices underpinning the contemporary regime of truth. On the other hand, it wishes to do so without actually having gone through them. Thus, one can be critical in saying that a lie does not hold up to the knowledge production procedures of the contemporary regime of truth while still recognizing that the regime of truth itself is contingent. Calling out a claim on this basis does not require an appeal to a logos.

Formalism, Identity, and Critical Security Theory

The next set of issues identified by Martin Coward are as equally important and vexing as the status of truth: what is the international, what is international relations, and how then do our understandings of these establish limits in both theory and practice?

In part, critical scholarship in the academic discipline of International Relations has arisen in response to the inherent contradiction identified by R.B.J. Walker (1993) in Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, Western political theory and its constitutive understandings of sovereignty—always bound to the territorial state—paradoxically make the international a space devoid of politics. Instead, it becomes a type of mechanistic model like those forwarded by structural theories of realism where agency gets completely subsumed under the constraints of the structure (i.e., anarchy). These ‘orrey[s] of errors’, as Richard K. Ashley (1986) has quipped, leave politics as something that may only take place within the confines of the territorial state where a sovereign maintains rule of law and order. Yet, to maintain this law and order internally demands that the sovereign be prepared to keep the disorder that supposedly characterizes the space of the international outside; violence becomes a means for preserving order either by expanding the realm of the inside or repelling the forces of the outside, with both strategies leading to various forms of violence. Thus, to paraphrase Homer Simpson observations about alcohol, the sovereign becomes the cause of–and answer to–all of life’s political problems.

Yet, Coward suggests that critical approaches themselves—or at least my appropriation of them in Chasing Dragons—may in fact fall into exactly the same trap. This is certainly something troubling to consider and my initial response will be deeply insufficient to the task. On the one hand, I would crudely argue that the international as a space is constituted by everyday relations of power aggregated to the largest volume currently commonly recognized in political discourse as defining a discrete social and economic space where meaningful activity occurs. On the other, these seemingly abstract and supposedly mechanistic relations of power help to constitute the everyday (Davies and Niemann 2002). In other words, the international is not a residue of a range of other processes enacted and determined at another ‘level’ nor can it simply be reduced to self-other identity constructions played out elsewhere. The levels of analysis—e.g., the international, regional, national, local, and individual— that are supposed to segregate both research and power relations themselves into water tight boxes for observation miss that these are all mutually constitutive and relatively indistinguishable in the absence of mental gymnastics or slick sleights of hand. When a piece of street art by an award winning artist—who could be described as male, and/or British and/or as Muslim— is commissioned in Birmingham with a message displaying solidarity with Gaza and is subsequently ordered painted over by the Birmingham police as a matter of public security, what level of analysis can best explain the power-dynamics at play? No one level is sufficient. This was the position that I wished to articulate in Chasing Dragons.

Still, this leaves the structural and conceptual problem of self/other identified by Coward. In part, it requires one to begin to break free of the binary thinking and ‘tradition’ of western philosophy that has shaped how we approach these things even in critique. A place to begin looking might be in psychoanalytic theories of abjection like those advanced by Julia Kristeva where the subject-object dichotomy of self and other collapses through feelings of disgust and unity. If I were crafting Chasing Dragons again, the work of Kristeva, particularly given the way in which it has been compellingly deployed by people like Francois Debrix (2008) to explore identity dynamics in the ‘war on terror’, would certainly be engaged.

Moral Panics: Confusing Processes with Causes

Theories of abjection are not the only place where the reviewers suggest that I may have left out literature that could have furthered my arguments. Perezalonso notes that using literature on moral panics could have potentially produced fruitful results. The issue with the ‘moral panics’ concept is that it has a tendency to be used a black box to explain why certain outcomes occur when these cannot not be easily deduced through an analysis of rational interests or ‘rational’ cognitive processing being used to produce ‘rational’ policy outcomes—often defined through utilitarian outcomes. This of course relies on highly contested notions of rationality while positioning things like emotion and the affect as abnormal—rather than central—to politics. For this reason, the moral panics concept is inherently conservative, being deployed to fight a battle about the way politics ought to be conducted along utilitarian lines without problematizing those lines themselves.

Furthermore, moral panics do not have the explanatory power that is given to them by advocates. Moral panics are, at best, a reflection of deeper processes and more diffuse relations of power, that provide limited insight to either ‘why did X happen’ or the more critically the important question of ‘how did X become possible’. My preference was to look at the processes and power-relations themselves rather than using a term to aggregate them.

At the same time, Perezalonso’s comment offers a very important direction for future research with respect to the way in which the concept of moral panic is used as the central problematization to frame the politics of resistance to things like illicit drugs policy. For example, how does the concept of moral panic as a problematization shape the ways in which opposition forces attempt to initiate changes to policy? What kinds of counter-arguments does it make possible and/or preclude?

Economic Representations of Illicit Drugs

In terms of future research, Coward also notes the recent impact of discursive analyses of economic categories that would appear to be beneficial for the case of illicit drugs. As he rightly notes, the preference in critical security studies to focus on cultural representations is itself limiting—and I would argue is in part a product of disciplinary politics from within critical scholarship itself. By way of a partial justification for the absence of this kind of analysis in Chasing Dragons one primary consideration can be raised: scope. To have given fair hearing to an analysis of the ways in which value sums are deployed[2] or how the illicit drug industry itself—with relations that could charitably be considered as hyper-capitalist– is often represented as being outside of the formal structures of normal market relations would have necessitated an expansion in this project that would have been untenable. However, as part of research consortium headed by Julian Reid that will be exploring the contemporary biopolitics of global development governance, my contribution on the global illicit drugs regime will necessarily have to engage in this kind of analysis, particularly with the way in which patterns of drug production, distribution, and consumption are linked to theories and representations of underdevelopment.

The Role of Critical Scholarship

The final point raised explicitly by Coward and implicitly through the comments of Perezalonso is the role of critical scholarship. Both I think would agree that academic research is always shaped by the environment in which it is produced. My future research on the global illicit drugs regime will be shaped by the elements listed by Coward in addition to a global security environment in which the resolve of the most vociferous wager of the ‘war on drugs’ , the United States appears to be wavering with the announcement that the Obama administration will be abandoning the term and looking to increase the percentage of its anti-drugs budget dedicated to harm reduction and treatment programmes.

Likewise, Chasing Dragons was researched and written in a political environment in which aspects of Canadian drug law were declared unconstitutional, laws regarding marijuana possession went unenforced in most jurisdictions for nearly a year, the federal government flirted with the decriminalization of marijuana, and all of these were represented in nationalist discourses as evidence of both the extension of personal freedom in Canada based on a long history of tolerance and its superiority in relation to the United States. In illustrating the largely forgotten role played by Canada in establishing the punitive global illicit drugs regime, the centrality of race to the Canadian illicit drugs discourse, and the relations of power underpinning models of national and municipal illicit drug governance where police and medical professionals have clashed over the  management of the body of the illicit drug user for the past ninety years, Chasing Dragons does attempt to make a practical contribution. That contribution was to reframe the parameters of the Canadian drugs discourse and the ways in which illicit drugs have been problematized so that the appropriateness of comparisons to the United States, the domination of policing concerns, the denial of the roles played by gendered and racial representations, and the idea that harm reduction is devoid of power relations are no longer taken for granted.

Dawn Moore (2007) has shown with respect to drug treatment courts and rehabilitation programmes in Canada, that until deeper-seated relations of power based around gender, race, and class dynamics are confronted, contesting illicit drugs policy and alternative options will be limited to the repackaging of means for the same (biopolitical) ends. Thus, I do explicitly take the position to not provide detailed prescriptive policy options because this would either involve a listing of generalized policy orientations (e.g., recognize that illicit drug policy has disproportionate effects based on classifications of race, gender, and class) that could potentially serve as fodder for policy savants who delight in the minutiae of policy making, leaving all of the analysis proceeding these prescriptions extremely vulnerable to dismissal, or be an exercise in banality as policies potentially being advocated (e.g., legalization with production and distribution controlled by the public sector) are non-starters within the existing discursive formation.

At the same time, I would not want to be so quick to replicate the distinction made by mainstreamers who wish to label critical work as impractical because it does not offer policy advice in the in an easily digestible form devoid of any kind of problematizing–i.e., the form they have come to expect. Transforming modes of thinking and ways of problematizing are just as practical as being able to provide a number for budget line or guidance over the size of a policing deployment. If critical scholars make this concession to the mainstreamers and to the savants, it will be all over for critical scholarship. Already academics writ large are being increasingly pressurized to engage in paint-by-numbers social science research whose end results serve to confirm the presuppositions held by contemporary government and business. At this time, there is a need to be vocal about the practical utility of our work. Not only will no one else do so for us, but the failure to confront this charge head on will eliminate what little remaining space there is for academic research to play its role in the transformation of the world for the better, whatever that better may turn out to be.

Works Cited

Ashley, Richard K. “The Poverty of Neorealism.” In Neorealism and Its Critics, edited by Robert Keohane, 255-300. New York: Columbia University Press,1986.

Davies, Matt and Michael Niemann. “The Everyday Spaces of Global Politics: Work, Leisure, Family.” New Political Science vol 24, no.4 (2002): 557-577.

Debrix, Francois. Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics. London: Routledge, 2008.

Moore, Dawn. Criminal Artefacts: Governing Drugs and Drug Users. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007.

Walker, R.B.J. Inside/outside: International Relations as Political Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


[1] With respect to Martin Coward’s question about the performative circumstances under which US incarceration rates increased in the United States, please see Grayson (2003), or for a longer version Grayson (1999). These were based on the major research paper required for my Masters degree—and it shows!

[2] For example, police as a matter of policy always report the value of drug seizures in terms of the monetary value of the smallest weighting of the substance typically sold multiplied by the total weight seized as opposed to the actual wholesale value (which would be far less).