Politics is downstream from culture, as the saying goes. And this is true. But culture itself, I would argue, is downstream from pharmacology. At the very source of the stream, then, is what is working its way through the bloodstream of the artists and thinkers who give the zeitgeist its shape. It’s an obvious point when you begin to notice it, but it is something that goes unremarked.
Substances and Styles
Scratch the surface of any seemingly sui generis art or cultural movement and you are likely to find a newly imported or discovered or synthesised way of getting high.
You can make the case that the flourishing of English letters from Shakespeare’s time on down was facilitated by the importing of tobacco from the New World—nicotine to this day being the writer’s nootropic of choice. Further, there is an argument to be made that the Enlightenment itself was midwifed by the popularity of salons with their endless roundtables of coffee-addled discourse and debate.
The first written accounts of the medicinal properties of coffee, for what it’s worth, were penned by Avicenna in 11th century Persia, at the time that just happened to be, coincidentally enough, the Golden Age of Islamic philosophy, mathematics and medicine.
Intellectual flourishing and then coffee, or coffee and then intellectual flourishing? The chicken or the egg? Well, if the 20th century mathematician Paul Erdos is anyone to go by then “a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems”. The chain of causality is clear. Drug equals input, creation equals output. Coffee first, then theorems.
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet, the true opium of the masses, the true catalyst of the Industrial Revolution. (The truly heroic tea consumption of my fellow countrymen is generally traced to the dawning of the industrial epoch. Just another coincidence I am sure).
Culture is downstream from pharmacology.
Would Northern Europe be Northern Europe without beer? The Mediterranean, the Mediterranean without vineyards? Would Apache culture be what it is without peyote? Would the Third Reich and Hitlers army have come as close to domination as they did without the twin pillars of Pervitin (a pill version of metamphetamine that was distributed to millions of Wehrmacht troops before the invasion of France) and synthesised opioids such as Eukadol, which had twice the analgesic properties of morphine and which the Fuhrer himself was quite partial to.
Culture. Ideology. Pharmacology.
Look at youth culture throughout the 20th century. The rock-and-roll Sun Records of the 1950’s reverberated with the hum of the Trucker Speed that Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, and the gang would take so they could drive endless miles from gig to gig to gig across the vast southern half of the USA.
Further, the flower children of the 60s began on giggly, silly hash before graduating to fresh-from-the-lab LSD (discovered in the late 30s, permeated the intelligentsia by the late ’50’s and in the mass collective imagination (and bloodstream) by the late 60s). The music reflects this shift.
The Year Zero 70s punks were sleepless and speed-addled which is perhaps why their short, fun, angry and dumb songs bear more than a passing resemblance to the above mentioned rock-and-roll. Further still, the 80s were all red-nostrilled coke-laced materialism and ambition, no matter what genre you look at, and in the 90s the fault lines were between beery lad music, ecstasy-necking raves and the needle and spoon miseries of the fading candle of grunge.
Culture is downstream from pharmacology.
This checkered and whistle-stop tour present an obvious question: How are the kids of today getting high? And what does this mean for the world of tomorrow?
The Zoomer Speedball
During the height of The Rollin’ Stones’ late 60s/early 70s majesty, guitarist Keef was fond of speedballs—that is, the intravenous injection of heroin cooked up with cocaine. And like all rockstar narcotics regimes, it worked until it didn’t.
As far as I can tell the youth of the present moment, The Zoomers (born between the tail-end of the 90s and the early 2010s) seem to be on their own form of speedball—a rollercoaster of up and down, high and low, wired and tired, trying in vain like Keef to find the transient nirvana of psychotropic equilibrium.
What follows is of course a massive generalisation borne of anecdote and observation, but it only takes a fairly small nucleus of influential tastemakers to cause a given form of getting wasted to permeate the zeitgeist. It only took a small first wave of hippies to make the latter half of a decade stink of patchouli oil, cod-Eastern mysticism, and thinly veiled sexual threat.
The upper part of the Zoomer speedball, is social media dopamine. A hijacked dopaminergic reward system with likes and shares and notification bells. If you’ve done even the most cursory of google searches on the downsides of our Silicon Valley overlords, you have encountered such material before.
Social media is the upper of the Zoomer speedball, let’s take that as a given. Anyone with working eyes sees most people glued to screens and devices all day, whatever their age. But the introduction of Web 2.0 and then the smartphone in 2007 means that the Zoomers grew up with these things. You’ve gotta get ’em when they’re young, as the cigarette peddlers used to say.
One of the most pronounced side effects of taking this upper starting at a young age—especially in Instagram and other predominately image-based forms—is anxiety. Once an obscure malady in teenagers compared to the more perennial condition/state/affectation (depending on your level of cynicism) of depression. Now, if social psychologists are to be believed, anxiety is now rampant, and its acceleration tracks neatly with social medias increasing dominance and the increasing ubiquity of the devices that facilitate its constant use.
See, a person in this current society—young or otherwise—who is craving alleviation from anxiety and stress is likely to seek medical help. And a doctor, upon being presented with someone who reports their daily life is being affected by restlessness, a sense of dread, feeling ‘on edge’, irritability, difficulty concentrating, (all noted side-effects of chronic social media overconsumption by the way) is likely to diagnose something like Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
And what is the pharmacological treatment? SSRI’s and more importantly Benzodiazepines, the downer of our Zoomer Speedball, the other side of that coin.
Now, in the parlance of my mental health day job, benzos are pro re nata, as the occasion arises; when necessary. You administer them occasionally when there is no other recourse for a bout of acute distress. Largely because they are so incredibly addictive and open to misuse. The second act of the ongoing saga of Jordan Peterson is ample evidence of this.
There is a certain tell-tale comportment, a trademark cast of the eyes, an affectless monotony to the voice. And the place where I consistently sense this—to finally bring us back around to my opening point—is in a good number of the celebrities, pop stars, influencers, and zeitgeist shapers of the Zoomer generation.
Culture is downstream from pharmacology.
Now, nothing in life has a single neat cause—everything is multifactorial. But could it be that that major hallmarks of mainstream Zoomer cultural production: flat, somnambulist laptop music— with or without ASMR vocals, with or without ponderous, witless raps unenthusiastically glorifying the aforementioned benzos—is at least in part a product of this app-based dopamine and prescription sedative speedball?
Have I overdosed on the twin millennial drugs of pretentious coffee and insecure sneering or do I have a point here? More importantly, what comes next?
A New Prescription
I’m going to disappoint you. When it comes to the present, I am merely a diagnostician and probably a middling one at that. I am certainly not a clinician who can offer up a course of treatment. I don’t have the answers.
See, the temptation is to conclude a zeitgeist contemplating piece like this with a prescription, with a list of bullet points on what to do, but that is a manifestation of Silicon Valley ‘content’ type thinking. Which is a product of Adderall, modafinil and the like, pharmacologically speaking. Blinkered, hype-focused, unremitting, sequential. The assumption that all problems are neatly solvable if you input the right code.
Those aren’t my substances, that isn’t my temperament, and so such things aren’t my solution.
Don’t take drugs in the hope they will make you create better. They won’t. I am merely saying here that trendy substances shape the culture of those who take them and that this is an interesting lens through which to compare cultures across time. Even with that said, of all the things you could hypothetically take, the Zoomer Speedball—as I have called it—is emphatically not the way to go.
If we stretch the definition of drug to its elastic limit, and have it mean anything that can change your emotional and physiological state, then perhaps the drugs we need to move this moribund culture on are things like beauty, nature, endorphins from a strenuous life, adrenaline from healthy risk, that sort of thing.
But there I am getting dangerously close to giving advice.
I guess old habits die hard.
Until next time,