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In Session: Biopolitical Vietnam
1: Drugs, Detox and the Colonial Biopolitics of Addiction in French Indochina
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of California, San Diego, United States
While there is a vast amount of scholarship on the history of opium in Asia, it remains almost entirely focused on the political and economic dimensions of the drug trade rather than the social effects of drug use. Meanwhile the medicalization of drug use is rarely discussed; the work of doctors is cited most often as evidence of the deep ambivalence of the colonial administration about the social costs of opium, from the sloppy collection of statistics to the lack of any sort of coordinated response. However, as I argue in this paper, this does not tell the whole story. As opposed to France where opiate use was effectively criminalized during this period, this paper traces the development of a specifically colonial vision of drug addiction which held out the possibility of a “normal” opium user in Indochina. In this paper, I pay attention to how the language of medicine, and particularly psychiatry, was mobilized to express notions of harm, risk, and responsibility in ways that served to 1) to minimize ideas about the harm of regular opium use; 2) to describe risk not as an inherent feature of the drug itself but in terms of an individual’s psychiatric predisposition to addictive behavior; and 3) to limit the responsibility of the state for drug-related dangers. At the same time, a second, parallel, narrative about addiction was playing out in the interwar Vietnamese popular press where ideas about self-determination, modernity and social progress were debated alongside recipes for home detox cures.