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“The Truth About Stories” of Addiction

My name is Liz and I am one of the new interns at Pivot. Among the things I did last week was work with Carolyn Wong on Hope in Shadows’ statement of ethical practice. All this talk about the ethics of the artistic process and the politics of representation got me thinking about how this ties into Pivot’s broader mandate. But first, in line with Thomas King’s thesis that “the truth about stories is that’s all we are,” I begin with an anecdote.

The young man got on the bus at Jackson and Hastings, and wanted to know how to spell “Burrard.” Well, no, not just that. He really wanted to know how to get to Cactus Club. “Cactus Club?” said another guy, “That’s my favourite club. I’m from L.A. and it reminds me of the night clubs down there. Nice girls there too.” As this pony-tailed cosmopolitan continued by offering directions to the restaurant, the young man seemed unsure about their reliability; he wasn’t convinced that he should stay on this bus rather than board the Skytrain, not that he should turn left on Broadway when he could turn right.

As the bus passed “United We Can” and the lively crowd that bustled outside, the two men found common ground when it became apparent that they recognized the people who the bus cruised slowly past as figures in an allegory. Pointing at one woman, our American expatriate observed, “That’s Addiction. How sad is that.”

The young man enthusiastically replied, “I know, man. I don’t think methadone is the answer.”

The two men continued along these lines, and apparently established a rapport. Indeed, as the young man approached Granville Station, he rehearsed his travel plans with the interlocutor whose advice he initially was hesitant to take. Finally, after expressing thanks for the conversation, the young man cheerfully hopped off the bus, apparently secure in the knowledge that he had mapped out a way to the friends he had waiting.

I’m telling this story on the Pivot blog because I construe Pivot’s mandate to encourage our society to consider human life as a work of art—to be admired, respected, and that the broader social processes that influence people’s development should be critiqued. More specifically, I think this story is illustrative of the process whereby we use conventions like allegory to artfully assemble understandings of the world, and use these to test whether we can trust the judgment of other people. In essence, “does this person recognize a social text, and read it in the same way I do?” The two men in this story found that they were similarly literate as the bus dramatically slowed down when it reached the spot on East Hastings where the speed limit is reduced, prompting those on board to survey why features of the landscape this extra caution. At this point their eyes rested on the woman, who for a variety of reasons they both can cast as the art object: a static but central character in the discourse of addiction. In any case, these men did not arrive at a common conclusion about how this play of symbols might conclude (one subscribed to the logic of harm reduction, and the other to the logic of “cold turkey”) but their mutual identification of this feature of the landscape (who was first social problem, and second human) seemed to suggest to the young man the other man’s commonsense and knowledge of the city.

Now, don’t worry—the pivot point I’m trying to make is not that I spend too much time on the bus, and thinking about the bus; I really want to question why we treat the logic of the story of “Addiction” to be so unassailable that we are intuitively willing to accept that a particular woman who we have never met before is called “Addiction” (rather than some seemingly more “namely” alternative like “Liz” or “Luke Skywalker”). How is it that the features of this allegory are treated as so true and self-evident that we are willing to agree on trivial particulars (like how some random person should be categorized) when we cannot come to a consensus about how its logic plays out (e.g., causes, and the inevitable conclusion of certain interventions—legal and otherwise)? This is not to say that addiction is a concept that is irrelevant, or should be dismissed; clearly it is influential. However, as the foregoing story demonstrates, this contemporary discourse also represents a barrier to recognizing a person’s humanity, and our responsibility to each other. Indeed, consider that the young man, his partner in conversation, me, and everyone else on the bus could at once feel confident that we were reading signs that spelled out suffering, and be comfortable continuing on our way while “Addiction” (that confused concept-person hybrid) presumably still stood “sadly” on the street (a tension, I will add, that has been described more artfully by others) . It is only by interrogating the consequences of our stylized ways of speaking and doing things, as Pivot prompts governments and other decision-makers to do, that we will identify why our prevailing social system is unjust, and less oppressive alternatives to it.