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Moyers' PBS Series on Addiction--Parts 1 & 2

by Ron Roizen
    The first two parts of journalist Bill Moyers' heavily promoted three-part PBS series,  Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home, initially aired at 9pm on Sunday evening, March 29, 1998.  RANES REPORT was there at screen-side, pencil in hand.

    My working assumption when I watch a show like this is very simple -- it is:  Let's suppose--just in order to throw the dramaturgy of the event into the sharpest possible relief--that nobody knows a damn thing about addiction...not even whether it exists, not a thing about causes, not a thing about treatment, and not even significant self-knowledge about "it."

    That is the methodological starting point for someone who is particularly interested in distilling out the theater that is being offered.

    1st Hour:  Portrait of Addiction

    From that starting point, the first show was an empathy drama.  It presented several remarkably attractive, engaging, and articulate specimens of the phenomenon.  Notably missing from the array, incidentally, were the two street addicts who made their appearance in the second show--and I'll say a bit more about that absence later.  Metaphor was the language of the show--and metaphor substituted for more determinate kinds of knowing.

    The first metaphor, which defined the 1st segment of the 1st hour, was "falling in love"--a valued emotional event transposed on to a disvalued initiation in order to give it emotional plausibility.  The stories of initiation varied--all the way from Wendy's negative experience with Seagram's 7, to the actor's account of simply coping with family, to the handling of shyness, to Maia's anxieties about class and social graces in a new environment.  The only commonality that mattered in this array were in effect moral--that each speaker had an essentially innocent introduction to the addictive experience, an innocence perhaps best reflected in the female cop who was virtually launched in her cocaine use by a job exposure or even requirement.

    Empathy required commonsense language and accounts--and, to a remarkable degree, the content of these accounts was cultural in character.  The story-line that commenced from there was one of eroding innocence, until each addict reached a crisis or a norm that struck a deeper plane of his character or morality.  The distance traversed between the "falling in love" and the "crisis" was not so much a denial as a kind of forgetting--a falling away of awareness of the moral distance being traversed until some roadmark came along as a stark reminder.  This aspect of the story-line in effect served to reaffirm the player's humanity, character, or moral worth--thus also restoring them to full or nearly full moral standing by the end of the drama.  The that-next-step-I-wouldn't-go was in effect the reaffirmation of moral being, and the difficult process of recovery, in turn, acted in effect as a kind of dues-paying for the inattention that had brought the actors from the innocent initiation through to the awakening experience.

    The drama's theme, then, was one of moral restitution--involving innocent departure, straying farther and farther from self, reglimpsing self, and restoration of self.  The denouement was thus redemption and restoration, an endpoint made all the more plausible and palatable by the attractive, articulate, and engaging subjects who provided the cast from the start.

    There was only a single moment when the drama--as drama--abruptly stopped tracking, and that was when the occupations of the players were flashed on the screen with their portraits at the end.  So many turned out to be working specialists in the addiction field, and even one who was not was an actor.  This, of course, threw the suspended disbelief of the preceding theater experience into question--and made the scriptedness and intentionality of the experience a much more marked aspect what was seen and the experience of seeing it.  This, in turn, threw into question whether it was the selves who were really the heroes of the play or instead the institution they represented and from which their schooled performances had been learned and honed.   Making a living from, or even being an advocate of, the drama threw off the delicate balance of moral redemption, thus introducing the faint possibility that just slightly more than redemption was being brokered.

    2nd Hour:  The Hijacked Brain

    The second hour bore no plausible connection to the first.  In it, the star player wasn't human at all but an impressive display of technology--CAT scan tunnel, color videography of the brain, spinelike models of neural systems, and the like.

    The actual content of the second hour was dizzyingly slender--again, made somewhat less apparent by the lavish use of substitutive metaphor.  The reporter acted less as an investigative agent, pressing hard questions to the offering of technologic feats of observation, and more as a kind of friendly dupe, helping the theater to find its best expressive paths.  In this, too, however, there lay a moral subtext--though not an entirely unproblematic one.  And that subtext was two-sided in character:  the first side proffered the mechanization of addiction, and thus the transformation of the addict into an almost-organic-machine (just exactly how much of a machine was one of the glaring problematics); the second side valorized the scientist and the symbolic message of control that the scientist offered to society.  "We're working on this, and we think we're getting somewhere" was the soothing, if itself not altogether plausible symbolic message.

    Perhaps the most striking features of this latter enterprise were the confidence and cheerfulness of the scientists themselves.  This hour had its failure-to-track moment, too--and it occurred when the psychologist who showed addicts craving-inducing movies or images was displayed with (now) two down-and-out street addicts.  The hubris of this element of the show was breathtaking--and it seemed altogether fitting that the mechanistic message of the 2nd hour and the great schism between the cheerful, confident scientists and their addict subjects should now call into use low-prestige, street-worn types.

    The winner in the 2nd hour was the (problematic) humanizing potentials of organic-mechanization (the de-shaming proffered by the disease idea, however problematic) and the powerful vision of agency--especially symbolized in the scientific equipment itself--offered by our establishment. There was then a denouement of a very different sort offered in the second show--almost directly in opposition to that of the first, ironically:  the prospect of social control, dressed up in its most humanistic available garb.  That prospect, it would seem, sprang at bottom from the convergence of moral and material interests of the two human parties--science and the addict--each having something to offer and something to gain from this particular social construction of the drama.

    I, for one, did not find it terribly hard to sustain my dramaturgic assumption of universal ignorance in watching this show--it made it easy.  It made no real attempt at intellectual content--perhaps best evidenced by the virtually complete lack of even the appearance of real challenge, debate, or serious-minded puzzling.  Addicts were waiting in the culture's wings to have their humanity regranted to them by society, and science-and-treatment were waiting in the wings to supply the solution to the problem.  It was all really quite as simple as that.

© 2007 Ron Roizen


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