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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Cultural Studies and the Evidence of Addiction

Professor NicolasSaul (School of Modern Languages, Durham University and Dr Gerald Moore (School of Modern Languages, Durham University)

From Facebook to shopping and online pornography, consumer culture has brought with it numerous well-publicized claims about the addictiveness of and widespread addictions to our contemporary habits and technological devices, and no small controversy, too. In neuroscience, the long-standing distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ addiction is being deconstructed by the emerging consensus that all experience alters brain chemistry, notably via the reorganization of neural networks and the dopamine (reward) system. Yet those who have diagnosed cultures of addiction, like the philosopher Bernard Stiegler and the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, have routinely been dismissed as trading in metaphors, lacking the requisite evidential support for their claims (see, for example, Turkle 2013). And we even invoke historical reports of spates of cultural addiction—for example: addiction to the new mass media of print in the C18 and C19 and to digital media in more recent decades (Hayles 2007, Grusin, 1998/2010)—to reinforce the suspicion of hysteria and loose language at work in our readings of the present. This has not stopped addiction psychologists from taking such reports at face value. Bruce K. Alexander’s The Globalization of Addiction (2008), for example, reads Plato’s discourse on ‘weakness of the will’ to propose that Athens in the age of Socrates may well have been in the grip of addictions, brought about by the collapse of Athenian society. Developing on work by the ‘neurohistorian’, Daniel Lord Smail (On Deep History and the Brain, 2007), Catherine Malabou has gone so far as to suggest that all cultural history can be read as the ‘history of addictions’.[1]

But what would constitute adequate evidence? Must we suspend judgment in the absence of brains scans and chemical evidence, or can we accept fictional and eyewitness testimony of what look like withdrawal symptoms in lieu?

This panel will take the form of short presentations and a roundtable discussion, bringing together a literary theorist (Professor Nicolas Saul), a philosopher (Dr Gerald Moore) and a neuroscientist.