Jaeyoon Park is a PhD candidate in Political Science with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory. His dissertation charts the transformation of scholarly and popular discourse on addiction in the United States over the past half-century. Working with texts ranging from scientific articles and diagnostic manuals to 12-step handbooks, it explores how addiction has been reimagined as a normal feature of human experience in our time. In Fall 2022, Jaeyoon will join the political science faculty at Amherst College.

This interview was conducted in Fall 2021. 

Critical Theory: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Jaeyoon Park: I’m in my sixth year in the PhD program in political science. I’m also part of the Program in Critical Theory. My broad field is political theory, and my research focuses on the question of how the addict is defined, imagined, and practically treated in the contemporary United States. It considers the addict both as an object of medicine and politics, and as a subject of will, attachment, and desire.

Critical Theory: Can you tell us a little bit about your dissertation project and the significance of your research?

Jaeyoon Park: My dissertation work grew out of a question that arose from reading news coverage of the opioid crisis in the mid-2010s. During this period, the opioid crisis became one of the main topics discussed in the press, as well as on campaign trails, in public health circles, and in cultural reflection more generally. The discussion of the opioid crisis almost always featured a historical narrative, which went something like this: 

In the twentieth century, we were in the dark in our dealings with addiction. Knowing nothing about what addiction really was, we threw addicts into cages, saw them as moral failures, and allowed drug policy as well as addiction treatment to be guided by prejudice, not science. But in the 1990s, things changed. Brain imaging technologies proved that addiction is a disease, and now we can finally do right by addiction. We can provide treatment, not punishment. In dealing with addiction, we can be guided by compassion and science, not hatred and ignorance. Making this shift will not be easy, given the stubbornness of hatred and ignorance, but the road has been firmly paved, and we are well on our way along it.

In short, we were hearing what sociologists call a story of “medicalization,” in which a social issue is taken out of a moral frame and handled instead as a problem of medicine and science. At first, my question was simple: is the story true? A few things struck me as odd as I began to read about the history of addiction and American drug policy. First, I found that some of the most cruel and punitive responses to addiction (medical and political) in the last century were justified by careful and well-credentialed medical theories of addiction’s causes and sources. So, the notion that treating addiction as a disease is an inherently enlightened and morally neutral or benign approach seemed dubious to me. The crucial question is not: is addiction seen as a disease? Rather, we have to ask: what kind of disease is addiction taken to be?

Second, I learned that the brain-disease model of addiction has yet to revolutionize the field of addiction treatment. Most of the main therapies in use today have been around for decades (although not without change, of course), and sometimes the forms of therapy that work best for people suffering from addiction do not necessarily comport with the brain-disease model. 

And third, I found that the public appeal associated with the medicalization story—that is, to get rid of one’s moral prejudices and to deal with addiction for what it really is—is not new, and has been circulating in US public discourse for over a century.

For all these reasons, I began to doubt that the medicalization story, or the enlightenment story, could help us see where we are historically in our thinking about and ways of handling addiction as a social, political, and medical problem. So, my question changed. It became: what is new, if anything, about how addiction and the addict are construed, perceived, and handled today?

Over time, I arrived at my present thesis. In the last forty years, there has been a major shift in the American discourse on addiction. But this shift has not been one of medicalization. Rather, addiction has become normalized. For most of the twentieth century, and across scientific, political, and popular discourse, addiction was routinely, albeit variously, imagined as a state in which the subject lost something essentially human about themselves. If one had become bound to the use of a drug, this was because one had lost the psychic capacity to regulate hedonistic desire which constitutes the normal human person, or lapsed into an uncivilized state in which higher pleasures were unrecognizable and unknown. This figure of the addict as broken and abnormal recurred across medical theories, diagnostic protocols, policy documents, and popular texts on addiction up to the 1980s. Since then, it has largely disappeared. In today’s medical journals, clinical handbooks, and legal writings, the addict has emerged as a normal subject, whose compulsive and over-attached condition is an exaggeration or amplification of ordinary desire and conduct, not a perversion or exception. As one scholar of addiction treatment puts it, the addict is not subhuman, but “too human”; we are all addicts in miniature, or in waiting. My dissertation charts this discursive shift in detail, and asks how it is reflected in the ways that addiction is now medically, politically, and mundanely treated, as well as how it shapes contemporary notions of what the human subject is.

I see the significance of this work as twofold. First, it provides a counter to the conventional story about how the conception and treatment of addiction has changed in this country in recent times. And second, it sheds light on an important site in contemporary American society where the subject is constituted, where a broader figure and understanding of the human is formed.

Critical Theory: What influence has Critical Theory had on this work?

Jaeyoon Park: This project is deeply shaped by Foucault in two main ways. First, the example of Foucault’s work has enabled my selection of empirical materials and my way of reading them. He insists on reading across disciplines, in parochial archives, moving between erudite and popular registers, in order to see how a problem like madness, or crime—or addiction—is constructed in a given place and time. For instance, to know how madness was imagined, perceived, and treated in nineteenth-century France requires reading not just psychiatric writings, but administrative protocols for dealing with the insane, literary representations of madness, patient reports written by local doctors, and so forth. One reads across these not only to grasp the complexity of madness as it was constructed in that time and place, but also to see whether certain common themes or premises recur across the multiple sites and sources of construction. I have tried to do something similar in my efforts to see how addiction is construed in our own time and place.

And second, Foucault’s array of research topics reinforced my interest in addiction. He showed us that powerful insights about the contemporary form and constitution of the human subject could be gleaned from studies into the more difficult, and seemingly marginal, aspects of our experience. How do we handle and conceive mental breakdown—in what terms, in what venues, with what aims? What is the fate of the modern prisoner, and why not some other fate? Foucault insisted that how we deal with the problem cases, the hard cases, in human experience both reflects and shapes how we understand ourselves as human creatures in a more general and daily way. He revealed these hard cases as crucial occasions for the construction of broader understandings of the human subject. My wager is that addiction is, for us, one such occasion.

Critical Theory: In your recent article, “Does Addiction Have a Subject? Desire in Contemporary US Culture” you mention three sites for the reimagination of desire, in addition to new theories of addiction: cognitive behavioral therapy, self-tracking, and ratings. Can you tell us a little bit about how these three cultural developments converge with present-day addiction science?

Jaeyoon Park: In that piece, I begin by showing that one of the significant transformations that took place in addiction science at the end of the twentieth century was the construction of a new theory of human desire. Focusing on the work of Kent Berridge and Terry Robinson, two leading scholars of addictive craving, I show that starting in the early 1990s, addiction scientists began to conceive craving as a quantitative maximum of desire, rather than as a depraved form of desire. This involved a rejection not only of previous theories of addiction, but also of the Freudian and Skinnerian understandings of desire as a labile force to be contained and tamed by higher psychic agencies, and as an illusory correlate of behavioral conditioning, respectively. In short, research on craving produced a new theory of desire in general, not just of addictive desire in particular. This new theory involved three crucial innovations. First, desire was now understood not as a force that emanates from within the subject and then attaches to an object, but as the subject’s registration of the attractiveness of an object. Second, desire was now understood as impersonal: my desire is a reflection of the qualities of the object that has attracted me, not a reflection of my soul or psyche, and it is the same as the desire of any subject who has become attracted by the same object. Third, desire was now something to be registered as a quantitative intensity, rather than interpreted for its meaning, and hence something appropriately captured by metrics, not symbolic representation or speech.

Read in this way, it occurred to me that the rethinking of desire in the context of addiction science was not an entirely isolated phenomenon. Rather, I found that the same process of reimagination could be perceived, at least in its broad outlines, in several other recent cultural developments: the ascendance of cognitive behavior therapy and the waning of psychoanalysis, the popularization of self-tracking, and the naturalization of ratings as a measure for desirability. To open up just one of these examples, in the self-tracking movement, which over the past couple of decades has generated some widely read manifestos, national and international meetings, and tons of sales of tracking technologies, one encounters a direct repudiation of what some self-trackers have called the “literary” self, and the promotion, in the place of that figure, of a “quantified self.” This move involves a rethinking of the human in which the self is no longer a site and matrix of symbolic meanings, but a constellation of processes and patterns of behavior that unfold beneath the radar of ordinary perception and introspection, and over long stretches of time. Hence, the need for self-tracking technologies. Part of this rethinking involves a recasting of desire, in which what I want is no longer conceived as an expression of soul, and is no longer gleaned from my inner thoughts or my speech. Rather, desire is something acted out over time; it takes the form of intense behavioral engagement with an object that commands my interest and attention. What I want is never quite what I say or think I want; it is expressed in what I eagerly do, time and again, and what I most eagerly do is visible only in the patterns formed by my acts when charted over time. The way self-tracking represents and articulates desire is not identical with the figure of desire that has emerged in recent theories of craving. Yet both the ascendance of self-tracking as a form of self-reflection and the new theorization of craving enact roughly the same process. Both developments, together with the others that I study in the article, promote an understanding in which I am neither the author nor the privileged knower of my desire, and my desire is a reflection of the objects that have affected me. They represent the range of discourses and practices through which this new understanding of the desiring subject circulates in present-day US society.

Critical Theory: That might sound hopeless to some. Does your argument suggest that we’ve lost control of ourselves?

Jaeyoon Park: I would say that what the new figure of desire entails is less an eclipse of possible self-control over desire than a changed understanding of what such control is, what its limits are, how it can be enacted. If my desire is an impersonal bodily response to a gratifying object, and a registration of the object’s power to gratify me, then no, I cannot always know my desire, and I do not have the sovereign capacity to simply grab, shift, and transform a desire that has been instilled in me. But I can prevent or limit my exposure to gratifying objects. Or I can expose myself to new objects that I will then desire more strongly than what I presently want, and thus shift my overall profile of desires by indirect means. What I am describing here is an abstraction of the strategies deployed in some common forms of addiction treatment.

Whether the emergence of this figure as a truth in our society constitutes a loss in a larger sense is another, also important, matter.

Critical Theory: What are your future research plans and what might you do with this work in your career?

Jaeyoon Park: My next goal is to publish my work on addiction as a book. I am also working on a second project, on the uses and non-uses of confession as a means of truth-telling in the US today.