We asked scientific historian Mike Jay to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
As I’m curating an exhibition on the cultural history of drugs for the Wellcome in November, and writing an accompanying book, I’m thinking about why mind-altering drugs are so problematic in our culture (in contrast to most cultures throughout history and around the world). This is a question that pre-dates the culture wars of the Sixties, and engages with the origins of modernity itself. It relates partly to the emergence of individualism and its social dangers, and the ways in which consumer economies need to regulate appetites for luxury; partly to the modern idea of medicine that co-opts and overwrites private forms of therapy; partly to anxieties about foreign habits in a globalised economy. Historically, our international drug control regime is a coda to the failed prohibition of alcohol in the US. Its persistence and expansion today, at vast economic and social cost and without aplausible evidence base, suggests that intoxication remains not simply a problem to be managed as effectively as possible, but a deeper cultural taboo that needs to be underscored by formal prohibition.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
The idea of the sublime, as developed variously by Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and the Romantics. It transcends the religion/science divide by offering a language to describe the limits of human experience which is neither faith-based nor reductive.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
The idea of ‘ressentiment’, as developed by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere. Our public debates – not only over politics, but increasingly across society, ethics and science – are becoming ever more polarised between sets of oppositional ideas. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ become emotionally loaded categories, forms of alliegance or accusation according to which ideas are either embraced or rejected. ‘Ressentiment’, for Nietzsche, was a critique of morality that revealed its oppositional roots. We regard others as ‘bad’, from which we derive our idea of ourselves as ‘good’ – but a true idea of ‘good’ should emerge from our own convictions, not those of our enemies. For us, the same critique can help us to distinguish the ideas that we adopt in opposition to others from those that we adopt on our own principles and their own merits.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
There are many presents and there will doubtless be many future perspectives on them, but I suspect this may, surprisingly to us, be viewed as a golden age. It’s already striking how the 1990s, between the fall of communism and 9/11, seems with hindsight to be an age of optimism and innocence, economic boomtime and blossoming digital revolution – though, of course, the daily headlines represented it as an age of crisis and imminent apocalypse. The corollary of all our fears for the future is that the present is not yet as bad as it might be. It might seem Panglossian to regard our present as a golden age – but it would actually be far more optimistic to regard it as a dark age, because that pre-supposes a happier future from which our current state would appear bleak.
Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history and is a specialist in the study of drugs. His books include the award-winning The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness. He lives in London. www.mikejay.net.