Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Medical Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Health
Secondary Theme: The Political
Rather than taking the notion of the “opioid epidemic” at face value, this panel will consider the relevant histories and genealogies of current epidemiological anxieties. Tracing the development of pharmacological, technoscientific, and biomedical discursive formations (Clarke et al. 2010) as well as providing new theoretical frameworks and analytics, we will engage opioids as an open question rather than a foregone and familiar conclusion. Refusing to conflate opioids with drugs in general, this panel will consider how specific chemical compositions, stigmatized social formations, and physiological effects constrain and enable the emergence and dissolution of ideologies, bodies, and biopolitical regimes.
In recent years, anthropologists have begun to question how opioids come to matter for both individuals and institutions (Garcia 2010; Garcia 2014; Knight 2015; Meyers 2013; Lovell 2013). Such anthropological obsessions with opioids, as well as the meditized moral panics of the biomedicalized and racialized War on Drugs (Hansen 2015; Netherland and Hansen 2016), have provided invaluable contributions to the field while at the same time calling for news ways of engaging with epidemiological reasoning (Seeberg and Meinert 2015). At stake in such research, of course, are broader questions of individual autonomy, necropolitics (Mbembe 2003), and narcopolitics (Garriott 2011).
As in the case of other kinds of highly mediatized epidemics studied in anthropology (Epstein 1998; Briggs and Mantini-Briggs 2003; Briggs and Hallin 2016), understanding the contemporary opioid epidemic in the United States and other parts of the world requires anthropologists to consider how journalists, researchers, physicians, and public health authorities collaborate and construct durable notions of addiction, harm, pain, and pleasure. Considering the affective, material, and symbolic registers of opioids and their antagonists as well as recent trends in anthropology and STS (Pine 2016; Sunder Rajan 2017; Murphy 2017), the panel will consider how opioids transform the topographies and temporalities of social worlds using conceptual tools adequate to the task of understanding the coproduction of subjects and objects (Jasanoff 2004). We will direct critical attention to the ways that some narratives and voices emerge and predominate while others are erased (Briggs and Mantini-Briggs 2003; Briggs and Hallin 2016) in the fraught nexus of race, death, and desire (Ronell 2004) that characterizes engagements with opioids.
News coverage of the opioid epidemic across media outlets in recent years—subsequently posted and disseminated widely across social media platforms—has consistently foregrounded certain interests, grievances, and demands at the expense of others. These interests, grievances and demands have served to frame the relevant data and ground the increasingly urgent statements issued by the CDC and Surgeon General in regards to the opioid epidemic. Our panel seeks to scrutinize how such substances mobilize new ways of being, living, and dying in the world while attending to the asymmetrical power relations, genealogies, and histories that frame the political urgency and expediency of an emergency or epidemic.