Article | Heroin Use, Gender, and Affect in Rock Subcultures Jason Middleton

“Heroin Use, Gender, and Affect in Rock Subcultures,” Jason Middleton, Duke University

In recent years the phenomenon referred to as “heroin chic” has gained great visibility in mainstream culture with cover stories in the major newsmagazines such as Newsweek‘s August 1996 feature “Heroin Alert: Rockers, Models, and the New Drug Crisis” and Time‘s May 1997 “How We Get Addicted—and How We Might Get Cured.” The drug has also received publicity in invectives by politicians like Bill Clinton’s 1997 speech to the US Conference of Mayors in which he decried images in fashion photography representing the “heroin chic” aesthetic. Heroin use among Americans has risen significantly in the 1990s. The DEA estimated in 1994 that 20 tons of heroin were shipped into the US yearly, up from 4 to 6 tons in the early 80s,1 and that the number of Americans who had tried heroin had also risen from between 400 and 750 thousand to roughly 1.5 million.2

But statistics alone clearly do not account for the investment of collective social anxiety in this particular drug. Crack use is still widespread but we stopped hearing much about it after the anxieties cathected to the demonized figures of crack users in the 1980s were gradually dissipated through the enactment of policy such as “mandatory minimum” drug sentences and welfare “reform” (policies which were influenced by racist representations of “social problems”). Heroin provoked a different kind of anxiety as it was represented by middle class, white-oriented magazines such as Time and Newsweek. These magazines promoted the idea to their target audience that it was their own children who were using this drug—and their own children’s rock’n’roll and movie icons who were promoting it. Films like Pulp Fiction, Drugstore Cowboy, and Trainspotting, and singers like Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots were blamed for “glamorizing” heroin and “making it look cool.” But the articles never tried to explain what is at stake in these images of glamour or cool, what exactly is being appealed to through the use of heroin, or the fashion and bodily aesthetics with which it is associated.                                                                                                                                                                            

It is my intention in this paper to uncover some of the stakes in certain highly visible cultural formations surrounding heroin use, and the representations of these formations. Many explanations of heroin use pathologize its users for an ostensibly irrational and self-destructive behavior. While I do not intend to glorify heroin use or to downplay its destructive effects upon many people’s lives, I will seek to uncover the sources of its dangerous attraction and to complexify such reductive explanations. I will argue that heroin use has represented within particular cultural formations a means of transforming the body and its affects, in a proce   ss which disengages from normative social imperatives. These imperatives include work, as organized by prevailing capitalist interests, and sexuality as based in norms of heterosexuality, binary genders, and bourgeois family life. The body on heroin is rendered unfit for normative modes of production and sexuality, and directed, potentially, toward new ones. It is disconnected from certain affective investments, and can be the site for the production of different and possibly transgressive ones. Here I will be focusing primarily on the transgressions and affective reconfigurations effected within heroin subcultures in the domains of gender and sexuality, but these arguments should be suggestive as to how the body on heroin points toward different modes of work as well.

I will be examining three moments which contribute to an ongoing cultural mythology surrounding heroin use, all of which involve rock music subcultures. The first is the early New York punk scene, particularly the music of the Velvet Underground, and its imbrication with Andy Warhol’s Factory; the second, Slava Tsukerman’s 1983 underground film Liquid Sky (pictured)Liquid Sky Image which promotes heroin use as a last possible means of transcending the tyrannies of the human body; and the third, Seattle grunge and the figure of Kurt Cobain, whose 1994 suicide capped off a series of deaths among musicians from this scene whose heroin use was notorious. All three of these moments involve deviant or underground forms of rock music: the influential proto-punk of the Velvet Underground; new wave, with the sex and gender transgressions of its performers and the aural transgressions of its frequent privileging of synthesizers over guitars; and grunge, which has come to represent a turning point in the mainstream visibility of previously underground forms of music and culture.

The connection between rock musicians and excessive drug use is by now commonplace, but it is important to remember that drugs have played a significant role in the cultures and subcultures surrounding other musical forms as well—notably the use and valuation of heroin and other drugs by be-bop jazz musicians. Among musicians themselves and among critics and commentators, drug use is often linked with creativity, and performers’ work following their “cleaning up” is often viewed as disappointing. But it is not simply the idea that drug use somehow promotes “better” music that provokes fascination in Miles Davis or Lou Reed; it is more importantly the way in which, even as such figures transgress musical limits, they transgress socially prescribed norms of the body, affect, and identity. Social and bodily transgression is valorized through its articulation to aesthetic innovation, and this articulation brings out utopian impulses in audiences for whom such transgressions seem to suggest new possibilities for the experience of everyday life.

What does the body on heroin do? Perhaps we first need to think about what the body on heroin does not do. Heroin provokes a loss of appetite for and disinterest in food; indeed, the hunger for the drug displaces the hunger for food to the extent that food takes on an abject status. It is no longer what the body needs, but rather precisely what the body does not need and expels in the vomiting which often accompanies taking the drug. Authors such as William Burroughs, Jim Carroll (pictured) and Irvine Welsh have all documented the disdain for food and its consumption which becomes something of a mark of status in junkie subcultures: renouncing food indicates real commitment.3 Jim Carroll ImageThe body of the junkie thus acquires the painfully thin, withering appearance embodied by icons such as Sid Vicious and Keith Richards. Another common understanding of what the body on heroin does not do is have sex. This perception genders the body of the heroin user as male, however. Although heroin has been shown to [sex drive in both men and women, the impotence produced in men by heroin use (humorously depicted in Drugstore Cowboy) marks a dramatic transformation of bodily functions and capacities which plays a significant role in many accounts of heroin cultures. It is notable that most junkie icons in popular culture have been male, suggesting that the transgressions upon normative conceptions of masculinity effected by heroin use register more powerfully upon the public imaginary.

How do we picture, how can we conceive of this body? A starting point might be to consider the grotesque body as theorized by Mikhail Bakhtin and re-imagined by Mary Russo from a feminist perspective. This body is “the open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process, and change.” It is opposed to the “Classical body which is monumental, static, closed and sleek, corresponding to the aspirations of bourgeois individualism.”4 For Bakhtin, Carnival, and the grotesque bodies which populate it, serve as figures for different social possibilities, perhaps ultimately for the Socialist state to come. By contrast to the grotesque body, the body of the junkie might initially seem as if it would be an inappropriate figure on which to attach such collective social aspirations. Unlike the grotesque body, whose excess figures possibility, the body of the junkie seems characterized by lack, and incapacity for effectivity of any kind. But the junkie’s body is certainly opposed to the Bakhtin’s “Classical body” as well. And the junkie’s body and the grotesque body share certain characteristics. Like the grotesque body, it is a body in process, a body under reconstruction.

Another body which is important to consider here is the cyborg body, as theorized by Donna Haraway in her ground-breaking essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Like the grotesque body, which has been theorized to potentially have either fundamentally conservative or radically disruptive effects upon dominant social structures, the cyborg body can have very different social consequences. The cyborg, the figure of new communications and biological technologies, marks the undoing of older ideological dichotomies between organism and machine, nature and culture, and male and female; but the new systems emerging are described by Haraway in terms of “the integration/exploitation [of women] into a world system of production/reproduction and communication called the informatics of domination.”5 Thus, a situation in which “no objects, spaces or bodies are sacred in themselves,” but can be interfaced with each other if “the proper code. . .can be constructed for processing signals in a common language,”6 reveals many possibilities for feminist and progressive political alliances, practices, and formations. But the work of finding or formulating the right codes is crucial so as to keep the interfaces from being made according to the demands of exploitative and oppressive social forces.

What might the body of the cyborg look like, feel like? One general impression we get, enforced by Haraway’s comment in an interview with Andrew Ross and Constance Penley—”I would rather go to bed with a cyborg than a sensitive man”7—is that it could look and feel great, an improvement upon the flesh body and all its problems. Many descriptions and images of the cyborg body in theory, literature, film, and art have expressed this view of the cyborg as better than the human, as transcending the human flesh. This idea of transcending the flesh body returns us to the drug user’s body. As Ann Weinstone has argued in a recent Diacritics special issue on addiction, drug use and transcendence have, in Western thought, a long history of rhetorical linkage which is presently being articulated in descriptions of the experience of virtual reality.8 This articulation between virtual reality and drug use through the idea of transcendence is elaborated upon by Margaret Morse in a fascinating essay titled “What do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society.”

Acknowledging that a “growing desire to disengage from the human condition” characterizes many domains of contemporary technoculture, Morse asks how organically embodied beings facing all the limitations this body entails can enter the electronic future they so desire.9 Morse demonstrates the ways in which a repudiation of the body is linked to a desire in technocultures to become the electronic body. This repudiation is manifested in the privileging of “nonfoods” such as smart drinks and drugs, vitamins, and products such as artificial fat over food as means of purification from the organic, of feeding the mind—metonymically the virtual body—rather than the flesh body.10 This devaluing of the body and desire for its transcendence through the ingestion of nonfood substances such as drugs is certainly a primary feature of much of the techno-fetishistic art, film, and literature which has been described as cyberpunk. One need think only of William Gibson’s paradigmatic cyberpunk hero Case and the constant drug use with which he maintains himself when he is not able to jack in to the net and enter cyberspace. Indeed, it could be said that drugs and their effects upon the body serve as the interface between the cyber and the punk of cyberpunk.11

Thus far, we have considered the junkie’s body in relation to the grotesque body and the cyborg body. Like these bodies, the junkie’s body represents a body in process, a potential becoming. In the case of the grotesque body, we often have a reconfiguration of gender norms Image of William Gibson's Neuromancerexpressed through cross dressing, and a reconfiguration of power hierarchies that accompanies such role reversals. The cyborg body dissolves dichotomies constructed as natural and rooted in biological essentialism such as male and female, and human and machine. It allows for other modes of identity and collectivity that operate according to different logics. I have gone through the theorizations of these two types of body not so much because I think that the heroin user’s body is necessarily grotesque or cyborg, but that it might have some similar effects as these bodies, and, as we will see in my examples, they often share the same representational spaces. Like the grotesque and cyborg bodies, the heroin user’s body disrupts gender norms, ideals of health and bodily propriety connected to social expectations concerning the body’s ability to work (produce) and reproduce. The allure of the drug itself and of the popular icons who use it, I will suggest, has to do with the way these social norms are brought forth and flouted in the appearances and practices of heroin users and their bodies. I will now seek to explore these issues in more detail in my examination of three cultural moments in the recent history of heroin subcultures.

With the 1967 release of The Velvet Underground and Nico, and their early live performance art pieces, the Velvet Underground effected profound innovations and transgressions upon the field of rock’n’roll. Their sound was distinctive even within the American punk style, fusing instruments like viola with more standard rock guitar, vocals, and drumkit, all played from an anti-virtuosic “do-it-yourself” stance [ed.]. Listen to an excerpt from VU’s “Heroin”:

Though some expressions had certainly been made in rock music of affinity for drugs, the Velvets’ first two albums explored the body and consciousness of the user of harder drugs—heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine—with an unprecedented explicitness and a new affective style of distance and disengagement from the audience. Dressed all in black and concealed behind dark sunglasses, with both Reed and icily beautiful, inscrutable German chanteuse Nico delivering the lyrics in flat, deadpan fashion, the Velvet Underground (pictured without Nico) challenged previous modes of expressivity in rock music. Image of Velvet UndergroundThey could be said to be characterized by a sort of depthlessness not unlike that of Andy Warhol’s artworks, which challenge older surface/depth models of artistic expression and its interpretation. This depthlessness also suggests, as Fredric Jameson argues in Postmodernismor, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the emergence of a new form of understanding subjectivity different from the older bourgeois model of the subject based upon surface/depth metaphors in which deep-seeded alienations and neuroses find expression in everyday acts of communication. Jameson proposes that in postmodernism a new sort of subjectivity emerges in which interiority and the psychopathologies of the bourgeois ego are replaced by a more impersonal, free-floating set of “intensities,” a process he terms the “waning of affect.”12 A new affective configuration along these lines can also be seen in the deadpan style of the actors in Warhol-produced Paul Morrissey films such as Trash, a film which depicts a day in the life of a junkie and in which the delivery of the lines indicates little to no interiority for the characters.

The Velvets’ articulation of transgressive practices in their lyrics linked drug use with other forms of deviancy such as cross-dressing, S/M, and gay and bi-sexuality. These linkages have a significant history in American subcultural formations. Sociologists such as Mara Keire have explained the ways in which the construction of the figure of “the addict” in turn of the century America and Europe was imbricated with constructions of the homosexual, or “invert.”13 Keire focuses on how the drug use by marginal social groups, including prostitutes, pimps, and gay men—known as “fairies”—shaped public perception of drug use as being effeminate. This perception allowed some men to “incorporate drug use into their rejection of conventional male gender roles,”14 making it a primary subcultural signifier among gay men and drag queens in this period. These men adopted much of the style and slang of the female prostitutes who moved in the same circles as them, but reinterpreted the prostitute’s model of femininity to suit their own purposes. Like drag, drug use was associated with forms of bodily play and transgression which did not conform to the expectations of masculine identity. Drug use modifies the appearance of the body as well as its drives in a way which places the natural body temporarily under erasure, a process also effected by drag.

The New York subcultural milieu of Andy Warhol’s Factory from which the Velvet Underground emerged celebrated such transgressive practices as drag and drug use. The articulation between these practices is expressed in the lyrics of many Velvet Underground songs, such as “Sister Ray,” about a cross-dressing heroin dealer who, along with a group of other drag queens, seduces and shoots up a group of sailors, leaving one dead. The shifting position of Reed’s narrator in this song, as Jeff Schwartz has pointed out, in which Reed sings first “Oh no man she hasn’t got the time-time/too busy sucking on my ding-dong” but later sings “Oh no man I haven’t got the time-time/Too busy sucking on a ding-dong,” allows for considerable ambiguity as to the narrator’s gender and the form of his or her desires.15 In the sociocultural context of Warhol’s factory, populated by queers, junkies, and other deviants, and influenced by Warhol’s challenges to older surface/depth models of affective investment, The Velvet Underground created music which transgressed boundaries of musical and lyrical narrative structures and promoted the disruption of limits imposed by social constructions of gender and the natural body.

These transgressions sometimes have a terrifying quality, however, and are expressive of a nihilism which implies the negation of all affect and even the body itself as a possible consequence of disengagement from dominant social standards. This nihilism is expressed in lyrics such as the refrain from “Heroin” which offers as explanation for the use of the drug only the acknowledgment that “I guess that I just don’t know” or the line from “Candy Says,” about drag queen Candy Darling: “Candy says I’ve come to hate my body and all that it requires in this world.”

Such destructive impulses are given compelling expression in Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky, the second moment I wish to examine in the recent history of heroin subcultures. The film takes us into the world of an urban new wave subcultural milieu involving fashion modeling, impersonal and often brutal sex, and cocaine and heroin use. The plot concerns the arrival on earth of aliens intent on stealing a chemical released in the human brain at the moment of orgasm and through heroin use. The film’s central characters are Margaret, a bisexual fashion model, and Jimmy, a gay fashion model and heroin addict. Both are androgynous in their own right, and both are played by the same actress, Anne Carlisle.

The new wave milieu that serves as the setting for Liquid Sky can be historically situated as a music and fashion style of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The androgyny and deconstruction of sexuality effected by the Velvet Underground and its punk descendants like the New York Dolls, as well as the flamboyant costuming of glam or glitter rock artists like David Bowie (pictured) and Marc Bolan, all contribute to the aesthetics of new wave.Image of David Bowie New wave lacks the aggression and destructive impulses of much punk but continues in the practice of transgression at a bodily and affective level. Unlike punk, which has been appropriated by both the right and the left, new wave has never really been articulated to a political ideology. Also differing from the articulation in punk of “no future” (The Sex Pistols), the new wave aesthetic contains a strongly futurist impulse in which the blurring of genders is linked to the blurring of boundaries between human and machine. This difference is signaled aurally in the predominance of synthesizers in new wave music as opposed to the guitars favored by punks. In the opening scene of Liquid Sky, androgynously made-up clubgoers dance robotically to a spoken word poem celebrating the union of human and machine called “Me and My Rhythm Box,” performed over cold synthesizer sounds.

As Janet Bergstrom points out in her article “Androids and Androgyny,” androgyny, a fashionable look in the 1980s (and, as we will see, a facet of heroin chic), can indicate more sexuality, possessing of both masculine and feminine appeal, but it can just as easily signal “the eradication of sexuality. . .[and] a withdrawal of affect.”16 In a brief discussion of Liquid Sky, Bergstrom rightly points out that the film’s focus on androgyny as a form of masquerade signals a radical change in sex role definitions in society. She isn’t quite so specific about this radical change, but the implication is that even as theories of femininity as masquerade suggest that there is no essential “woman” beneath the masquerade, here we have the masquerade of androgyny placing masculinity and femininity even as categories of performance under erasure.

The change or historical break which the film narrates may in fact be understood more broadly than being just about gender roles. The film represents a strong contrast and opposition between its youthful new wave protagonists and older characters identified as baby boomers or aging hippies, an opposition which was also important for many punks. In an early scene, Margaret, the female protagonist, sits with her college acting teacher who rolls himself a joint and paternalistically lectures her on how she is wasting her talent by spending all her time at the clubs. As part of an effort at seduction, he tells her that she is wasting her beauty by wearing trashy clothes and makeup which make her look like a whore and a freak. “I think you would look better in jeans and a turtleneck,” he tells her. She responds by pointing out to him how his preferred image of her would be just as much a masquerade, just as much a construction of his own desire: “You want me to be a happy housewife, slave to a husband’s desire. A hooker is at least independent.” She then deconstructs his idea of himself and his generation as more “natural” by arguing that his professors in their three-piece suits must have thought blue jeans were outrageous; and that these professors themselves didn’t know they were in costume: “You thought your jeans stood for love and sexual equality,” she mocks him, “We at least know we’re in costume.”

Throughout the film Margaret remains the character who maintains the greatest affective detachment. Other than a desire for drugs, she expresses no active desire of her own, and instead is repeatedly made a vehicle for the expression of other peoples’ desires, from the professor who wants to marry her to other junkies (including her own girlfriend) who rape her. Margaret expresses only disdain and contempt even in the face of the most violent enactment of others’ desires upon her. An important subtlety of the plot is that although the aliens initially sought the chemical released through heroin use and are hence attracted to this new wave subculture, they then find that the chemical released during orgasm is far superior for their purposes. Hence, no one in the film winds up getting killed for their heroin use—only for sex. The characters in the film’s new wave milieu represent the erasure of older constructions of the natural body and its desires, but even these various deviants succumb to sexual desire in one form or another and are killed. Jimmy, Margaret’s ambiguously gay but mostly asexual doppelganger falls prey to narcissism, the desire for his own flesh, and is seduced by Margaret at a fashion shoot while gazing into his reflection in a mirror.

Margaret is consistently haunted by an idea of “the natural,” a haunting represented when androgynous images of her being taken at the same fashion shoot are presented in montage form with photographs from her youth and childhood, in which, with long hair and ordinary makeup, she is conventionally feminine and innocent in appearance. In the climactic scene after Margaret’s girlfriend and Jimmy are both killed by the aliens in the course of sex with her, she gives a speech in which she voids the various myths of identity which have been “taught” to her in her life, from the security of bourgeois marriage to the glamour of being a beautiful, androgynous model and actress. Margaret rejects and voids not only older naturalized conceptions of identity but also the performativity of androgynous costuming. Her speech suggests that there is always an encroachment upon the destabilizations of the body and identity effected by performance, an encroachment by the natural body and its desires, expressed in the film through coarse and violent sexuality.

Margaret’s only recourse is the destruction of her body, which has itself become an agent of death to others. She shoots herself up with heroin and leaves the building where she encounters the alien ship, begging them to take her with them. This is the one moment of the film which suggests a possible transcendence: rather than being killed as the other characters have been, Margaret is “beamed up,” her body disappearing into the night sky, leaving behind no corpse as the other characters did—no corpse to remind of the degraded condition of being locked in a body of flesh. The film thus seems to represent a sort of allegory for the utopian impulses within the interlocking set of discourses I have been examining: the idea of transcendence through drug use articulated by Ann Weinstone; Haraway’s cyborg, fusing the human and machine and enabling an overcoming of limitations imposed through biological essentialism; and the waning of affect in postmodernism which rids us of the psychopathologies of the bourgeois monad. Only Margaret, who meets these criteria, reaches this utopian moment of transcendence. The other characters, locked into older modes of the “human,” do not achieve this goal.

The articulation of punk and new wave music, androgyny and gender-bending, and heroin use in these two cultural moments emerged again as a highly visible and controversial formation in the early 1990s known as “heroin chic.” This was a period characterized by the emergence into the public eye of a number of previously underground cultural currents, with 1991 ironically dubbed “the year punk broke” following the breakthrough success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. At this moment, heroin served as the interface between a new skinny, wasted aesthetic in fashion and body image exemplified by models promoted by fashion photographers such as David Sorrenti, who would himself die of a heroin overdose in 1997, and the postpunk musical form known as grunge and situated primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Initially a somewhat underground subcultural signifier, the popularity of heroin in this music scene gained public notoriety through the high profile overdose deaths of musicians such as Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch and Kristen Pfaff of Hole as well as countless other nameless kids in the scene. Finally, of course, it was the suicide of Kurt Cobain, who was found to have been using heroin up till the time of his death, that truly captured the general public’s attention.

Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, grunge’s “first couple,” both made visible to the public transgressions of normative ideals of gender, sexuality, and adulthood. Certain ideals from punk scenes to which Kurt and Courtney had ties gained national attention through figures such as them, although perhaps not in a form many would consider authentic. The musical, fashion and affective styles within punk known as “kindercore” or “cuddlecore” represent a certain neoteny—a retention, or reconstruction and celebration, of childlike qualities within teenage and adult life.17 At this time Kate Moss was the most notorious model in the public eye, representing an androgynous, prepubescent look which could, as Bergstrom suggests, seem to signal an eradication of sexuality along with sexual difference. I would suggest a further inflection upon this reading, however: the gaunt faces and frail bodies of female models situated within the heroin chic aesthetic suggest the voiding of the construction of sexuality through associations with fertility and other conventional signifiers of femininity. For male models, this shifting of visual signifiers away from gendered norms was also apparent, as thin bodies with little muscle and androgynous facial features were prevalent. It is not so much that sexuality is eradicated here, but rather that it is disarticulated from prevailing social standards. Desire is more free-floating and less cathected with the implied desire for the drug imbricated with the desire for sex. Prepubescent appearance, in turn signals a desire to escape from the adult responsibilities of the body and the imperatives upon it to produce and reproduce.

The breakthrough appeal of Nirvana can be understood in terms of a number of cultural currents related to the aesthetic of heroin chic discussed above. Nirvana was regarded as the antithesis of the hyperbolic, sexist, and masculinist spectacles of the “hair metal” bands popular through the late 80s. Cobain’s boyish, even childlike appearance, with oversized sweaters and a sloppily cut blond mane;Image of Kurt Cobain his affirmation of gay sex, and televised screen kiss with bassist Chris Novolesic; and the sound of his music in which guitar solos were eschewed in favor of amateurish intensity; all negated the values of aggressive masculinist heterosexuality prevalent in much rock music in the period preceding Nirvana’s emergence. The song which brought Nirvana their success was “Smells like Teen Spirit,” the ambiguity of which made it a cipher for different sorts of people to invest with very different meanings. Much of the interpretation of and response to Nirvana proved incredibly frustrating to Cobain, who insisted he was being misunderstood, without ever seeming able to really articulate what his ideas were. Perhaps the idea he articulated most strongly was what he screamed out over and over at the end of “Teen Spirit” (“a denial”):

Punk’s ethics have often involved forms of negation, and one of the initially utopian possibilities Nirvana’s success presented was a broader cultural application of this negation. Cobain’s heroin use was imbricated with his acts of negation, as he responded to social expectations of his role as hero rock star by the very denial of his embodiment of such ideals, and magazine photographs documented the steady withering of his physical being and finally his suicide. He seems to have inherited the promise of certain earlier impulses within punk (Sid Vicious, pictured) and expressed in Liquid Sky: everything is a lie and the ultimate recourse is withdrawal, not only from the world but from one’s own embodiment within that world.

The three moments in the recent history of the cultural mythologies and practices surrounding heroin use I have described point both to possibilities of forging transgressive and potentially productive modes of identity and sociality as well as to destructive and self-defeating impulses. I want to emphasize in conclusion that we should keep in mind these different possible products of heroin cultures, rather than reducing heroin use to self-destructive impulses based in some notion of a “death drive” as some psychological accounts of drug use have done. Sociological research on women heroin users has consistently shown that the motivations for the use of the drug had to do with liberating themselves from oppressive forms of identity imposed by patriarchal structures.18 A valuable text for thinking through these issues is Deleuze and Guattari’s “How do you Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?” in which they discuss the sort of remappings of the affective geography of the body potentially enabled by masochists and drug users.19 These forms of experimentation, in their reading, allow for a disconnection of affects from meanings in which they have been entrenched by discourses of psychoanalysis, medicine, and so on. The crucial point perhaps is that the “lines of flight” away from oppressive social structures which such practices represent are never inherently productive or destructive, but can have very different effects depending upon the care and caution with which they are undertaken. The body of the heroin user is a body in process, and can be a mode of passage, but only when connected up with other forms of productivity and creativity. If this is the case, as Deleuze and Guattari write: “The Body Without Organs reveals itself for what it is: connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities. You have constructed your own little machine, ready to be plugged into other collective machines.”20 Without this sense of collective possibility, the transgressive possibilities enabled by heroin cultures can, as we have so often seen, lead to failure and death.

  1. “Heroin,” alt.culture (
  2. “History of Heroin,” The Miscellany News (, 1996).
  3. See William Burroughs, Junky and Naked Lunch, Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries, and Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting. Several other popular books concerned with heroin addiction have appeared in the 1990s, including Luke Davies’ Candy and M. Burgess’ Smack.
  4. Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque (New York: Routledge, 1994) 62-63.
  5. Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991) 163.
  6. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 163.
  7. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, “Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway,” in Penley and Ross, eds., Technoculture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991) 18.
  8. Ann Weinstone, “Welcome to the Pharmacy: Addiction, Transcendence, and Virtual Reality,” Diacritics 27.3 (1997) 77-89.
  9. Margaret Morse, “What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society,” in Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckry, eds., Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology (Seattle: Bay Press, 1994) 157.
  10. Morse, “What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society,” 161.
  11. It is worth noting here that in the smash cyberpunk hit of the summer of 1999, The Matrix, the hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) must take pills to cross between the virtual and the real.
  12. See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) 14-16.
  13. Mara Keire, “Dope Fiends and Degenerates: The Gendering of Addiction in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of Social History Summer 1998.
  14. Keire, “Dope Fiends and Degenerates: The Gendering of Addiction in the Early Twentieth Century.”
  15. See Jeff Schwartz, “‘Sister Ray’: Some Pleasures of a Musical Text,” in Albin Zak III, ed., The Velvet Underground Companion (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997).
  16. Janet Bergstrom, “Androids and Androgyny,” in Penley, Lyon, Spigel, and Bergstrom, eds., Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991) 36.
  17. This aesthetic of neoteny was connected to certain political ideals such as the notion that sexual maturation and adult socialization brought about a number of ills including a devaluing of female friendships and a pitting of women against each other. Kathleen Hanna, in the zine Bikini Kill and in her band of the same name, was a prominent proponent of these ideas. Kurt and Courtney, however, who become internationally famous rock stars and celebrities were far enough removed from such scenes and their ideals that their expression of an aesthetic of neoteny seemed to be operating on rather different levels from that of a punk band like Huggybear (a mixed gender band whose childlike appearance and affect mobilizes an aggressive punk sound to the effect of disrupting gendered adult identities.)
  18. See, for example, Jennifer Friedman and Marisa Alicea, “Women and Heroin: The Path of Resistance and its Consequences,” Gender and Society, 9:4, August 1995, 432-449.
  19. In Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.
  20. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 161.