love and other drugs
You don’t have to look far to find comparisons between falling in love and getting high. Ever since the 60s people have used love and drugs to bring about social revolution and reshape ideas of identity. But what do our drug choices say about us today...
When Lou Reed sang that his love was chemical in 1985, he wasn't talking about the benefits of oxytocin. He sang of "chemical warfare" having an unfair advantage over "physical" love. Thirty years and several studies later, Lou Reed has got company. Unfortunately for disillusioned romantics everywhere, it turns out love might just be a drug after all. In 2009, a neuroscientist called Larry Young published Being Human: Love: Neuroscience reveals all in Nature, the weekly science journal, claiming to have cracked Cupid's secret. For Young, the ever intangible and unpredictable bond of love could be understood as a series of neurochemical events; through research into signalling molecules and chemical interactions (romantic!) he had apparently proven that complex emotions could be explained in rational, scientific terms. Suddenly, regardless of how many tear-stained pages of poetry you might have stashed away, the world was confronted with the idea that human emotion is nothing more than a jumble of chemicals wreaking havoc on our social lives. Then, in case things weren't weird enough, the Mail ran a story claiming that infidelity could be explained as a scientific inevitability (of course they did) and a 7-step guide on how to identify love as a "chemical process" popped up on wikiHow. While the complexities of love might have inspired much of history's greatest art, thanks to dopamine, oxycotin and cortisol, 21st-century science seemed happy enough to argue the immensity of human spirit away as simply a cocktail of chemical reactions. Time to re-think some of the old classics, don't you think? "Tears on my pillow, serotonin in my gastrointestinal tract."
Love and drugs came together with music, art and politics in a cacophony of self-discovery, each complementing the other and all united in the hope of toppling the sexual and social conservatism of the previous decade.
But this rather sad diagnosis isn't entirely the fault of a bunch of chemistry students with nothing better to do; the idea that drugs can recreate or intensify feelings of love is far from new. Where would The Summer of Love have been without LSD, after all? 1967 saw San Francisco spilling over with people keen to engage in social, sexual and political activism, rejecting consumerism, opposing the Vietnam War and generally offering free love to whoever might fancy it. With the memory of fascism still painfully fresh in their minds, the post-war generation fiercely rejected previously progressive ideas of what Paul Verhaeghe describes as an "engineered society". Instead, as Adam Curtis brilliantly explores in his documentary series The Century of the Self, psychotherapy and the intense exploration of individual identity became the watermark of progress. And what of love? Well, it was all around of course, and it was free. Love was chosen as the weapon of choice in the fight against homogeny, consumer-capitalism and greed, and naturally people wanted to make a lot of it. And with all the free love came other drugs, namely acid. It is no accident that the hippies (and the scientists) chose to experiment with LSD. Acid, with its simultaneously inward/outward gaze, hallucinations and visions, perfectly embodied the 1960s obsession with personal discovery and self-awareness. Verhaeghe writes compellingly on how the shift from an interest in collective to personal identity in the last quarter of the 20th century prompted a surge in experimentation with "mind-expanding" drugs. In a world overrun with advertising, machine guns, televisions and swarms upon swarms of people, searching for your true self became significant above almost all other things, and how better to understand yourself than to peer down the untravelled tunnels of your mind? Love and drugs came together with music, art and politics in a cacophony of self-discovery, each complementing the other and all united in the hope of toppling the sexual and social conservatism of the previous decade.
Eventually the free love of the late 60s faded into dreams of paisley and patchouli, as the no-nonsense 70s shook the whimsy out of revolution. Arriving in the 80s, the baby boomers were sufficiently disheartened. By the time the second summer of love rolled around, youth culture in the UK was verging on apolitical. Disillusioned by the violence of the mining strikes, post-war unemployment and high divorce rates, young people bore the brunt of a steadily increasing division between rich and poor, and as the Conservative Party preached the benefits of greed and ruthlessness, those left behind became increasingly alienated. Elsewhere, however, it was a different story. The late-1980s saw massive social upheaval in Germany as groups of protesters geared up to collapse the Berlin Wall, and in China students gathered peacefully in Tiananmen Square. Footage of young people fighting against totalitarian regimes began to pour into the UK. A growing sense of discontent, energised by news of revolution from around the world, came to a climax in 1989, which saw the UK sweltering under the hottest May for 300 years. Finally, 22 years later, Thatcher's children were having their own summer of love. And what was the catalyst? Well, ecstasy, of course. Oh and the newly built M25. People came together to champion love and empathy over individualism, and ecstasy intensified that bond. At the crux of football hooliganism, when working-class men found themselves the target of utter disdain from the police and government, house music and MDMA brought people together. It was a chaotic summer of impromptu Greenbelt raves announced on pirate radio stations, oblivious to class, colour or tribe.
Sadly, by the time the sun came up, the drug dealers had started selling dodgy pills and free love was nowhere to be found. Exactly 22 years on again brings us to the riots of 2011, but that summer felt swollen with hate. Clearly something counter-productive has happened to love, and maybe it's evident in our drug use. If the most culturally relevant drug for the free-loving, self-searching hippies of the 1960s was acid, I think our generation's must be ketamine. And what does that say about us? Well, it's an anti-depressant for a start.
Where there was once tension, there is immediate gratification; where there was sexual discovery and experimentation, there is the blunt, dullness of online porn. Love is still all around us, but it's not physical, it's not even chemical - it's digital.
Now, in 2014, we are well overdue for our own summer of love. So where do we start? Well, according to Verhaeghe individual identity in the West has come to be understood as "perfectible", meaning that as a culture we're no longer concerned with self-discovery but self-enhancement. There's love, sure, and there are drugs, lots of drugs, but there is no shared sense of spirit to bring us together. While the soundtrack to the second summer of love was an underground reaction against Pete Waterman's squeaky-clean popstars, for the VEVO generation the mainstream has become ubiquitous, and somehow it has even managed to become cool. Lacking any determined counterculture has left us complacent. It's hardly surprising that this generation is struggling to identify with its peers; our contact with each other has almost entirely shifted from eye to i. Where there was once tension, there is immediate gratification; where there was sexual discovery and experimentation, there is the blunt, dullness of online porn. Love is still all around us, but it's not physical, it's not even chemical - it's digital. Joy Division might not have anticipated the age of online in 1978, but their prophecy about loneliness is all too accurate. The hyper-social nature of the internet means we do forever feel it closing in. Being in constant contact with people is exhausting, as is being expected to constantly absorb new information while maintaining an entirely unique identity. Our bodies are even less perfect, our friendships ever more bloated with aspartame and flattery, and the social and political power of love seems a quaint trapping of the past.
Unsurprisingly, out of all the noise - all the identical beeps and vibrations and 24-hour emails, all the subliminal advertising - comes a kind of contagious loneliness which makes you want to be even more alone. I guess ketamine provides that isolation. It's not an ideas drug, nor is it a social one; instead it engenders a kind of paralysis. It doesn't make people aggressive or affectionate or creative, it hollows people out. Okay look, I'm not wringing my hands over ketamine use, it's up to you what you bump on a Thursday night and it's cheap and not enormously addictive and really nothing to do with me, but it is wholly uninspiring. If 21st century love is simply a chemical reaction, and life is routine and unremarkable, and consumer-capitalism has shaped our very definition of identity, then it's hardly any wonder the most prominent relationship we have with drugs is one that promises total oblivion.
We need to reject the idea that our lives are defined by our careers, or that merit is defined by commercial success, and understand that just because there isn't one easy enemy to topple that doesn't mean there aren't battles to be fought.
Maybe we're not quite ready yet, but if we're going to usher in the third summer of love I think we need to stop mistaking our own disillusionment for complacency and start believing in activism again. We need to reject the idea that our lives are defined by our careers, or that merit is defined by commercial success, and understand that just because there isn't one easy enemy to topple that doesn't mean there aren't battles to be fought. In 1967, acid helped to redefine how people understood themselves in relation to society and in 1989, ecstasy facilitated the rejection of race and class stereotypes. In 2014 neo-liberalism has left our faith in the importance of community and shared experience seriously knocked, and we're too overwhelmed by the cult of the personality to properly understand what we're losing. If we want to feel sunshine on our backs anytime soon, we need to rediscover love. Hopefully, the drugs won't be too far behind.
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Text Bertie Brandes
Photography Momilo Gruji