Amy Winehouse, addiction, and the pity of capitalism

Amy Winehouse

The extraordinary response to the early death this weekend of Amy Winehouse reveals the extent of the affection in which she – and her music  – were held. But her life and public engagement with it says equally sorrowful things about life under capitalism, under whose ideological pressure we are all addicts.

Winehouse’s addiction to various drugs was well documented throughout her short career and has framed responses to her death. On Twitter many people have rebuffed remarks to the effect that Winehouse’s death is trivial next to the massacre in Norway by saying that anyone who fails to understand why people are moved by her death simply does not understand addiction. But do we understand addiction? Are some people not simply using the suggestion that they – and by implication not those who find the news of Winehouse an ignoble distraction from Norway – so upset because they are uniquely sensitive to the plight of addicts really just cloaking a less acceptable truth about their relationship with Winehouse? Tanya Gold suggests as much in the Guardian.

When an addict self-annihilates, stalked by paparazzi, it is easy to imagine the story belongs to us all. We all had a stake in Amy Winehouse, you might believe; her fall, and the redemption that will never come now, had a universal meaning. But it didn’t. Winehouse didn’t belong to us; she belonged to no one, not even herself. But you can forget that. Creative addicts – particularly female creative addicts – are always clutched to the cold global breast, even as the corpse is carried out.

She draws a stark comparison between the fate of other dead addicts and our collective public commitment to helping them. It is a comparison that raises serious questions about the sincerity of the claim that the response to Winehouse’s death is truly sympathetic.

Thousands like Winehouse die every year, and they are not venerated, or even pitied. We will not educate ourselves about the disease, or reform drug laws that plunge addicts into a shadow-world of criminality and dependence on criminals. […] even as her bewildered face splatters across the front pages, drug support charities are closing, expendable in this era of thrift.

Some might suggest in response that Winehouse’s death has the potential to become exemplary of our collective social failure in the face of addiction, and it would be good to hope so. But that would not explain why, this weekend, Winehouse’s death generated the response it did. It was not simply because she was an addict who died young (and that ‘not because she was the magical mystical twin of Janis Joplin’, Gold notes, ‘but because 27 is a normal age for the body of a compulsive user of hard drugs and hard alcohol to give out’) but because her public has a particular commodity relation to her.

Addiction is a capitalist disease par excellence. It’s a disease of consumption, of being unable to resist the pressure to consume something that your economic position makes it (just about) possible for you to consume. Although the word ‘addiction’ has a longer history, the noun ‘addict’ was not used till 1899: it literally hasn’t been possible to be an addict for much more than the last century of late capitalism. This is significant. In a sense, all human subjects under capitalism are addicts, haunted by the superego injunction to enjoy: for Winehouse it was drugs, for others it might be shoes, football, opera, soon (once it is fully privatized) university education: there is increasingly no cultural sphere free of the pressure to consume for consumption’s sake (rather than out of need), which is why negative judgements of people who are addicted to ‘lower class’ things are always wide of the mark.

It is clear in this context, as Žižek often points out, that Kant’s old basis for moral action has been turned on its head. Since Kant felt that you should only be able to do things that you should out of duty and an interest in the common good do anyway, his injunction was ‘you can because you must’ (du kannst, denn du sollst). Under capital the inversion becomes du musst, denn du kannst, you must because you can. That is to say that you have no choice but to enjoy, whether by buying a TV, taking drugs, having lots of sex and putting it at the centre of your life (and if you don’t, sex counsellors will explain to you why you’re missing something vital). This, then, is the superego injunction specific to capitalism. Whatever your poison, you must consume it, endlessly, without question. There is no other way to make sense of yourself except that you can list the things that you consume as constitutive of your character (this is why it’s under capitalism that sexuality emerged as a category that ‘explains’ people: previously, there were sexual acts and human beings, and nothing about the sexual acts made anyone ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ or ‘bi’ or whatever).

In the particular case of pop singers is seems that the superego injunction is to enjoy drugs specifically. Like all such injunctions it is a difficult one to resist. Winehouse was surely subject to enormous social and cultural pressures, and for that reason her death was tragic. But we should ask again the difficult question that clarifies the particular capital relation that Winehouse had with her fans. The question, suggested by Gold, is: how many addicts died yesterday unmourned because their music had never touched anyone? I haven’t the slightest interest in Winehouse’s music, and her death does not emerge for me out of the background of common suffering that all addicts constitute. I do of course understand and respect those who are deeply shaken by her death, but amid the sadness I think it important not to forget the additional factor here, that of ideology.

William and Harry at Diana's funeral

When Diana, princess of Wales died early during Blair’s first government, the powerful public response culminated in the pitiable image of her children at the funeral. Soon after, in one of his stand-up shows, Eddie Izzard observed with some bitterness that his mother had died when he was a similar age to William and Harry but that nobody cared at all. I don’t think he meant that he expected a national outpouring of emotion, but simply that even proportionately the response was different: his village didn’t shut down for the day, his garden wasn’t filled with flowers of sympathy, as would be the case if the response to Diana’s death was just on a larger scale than the usual response to such things. No, something made the suffering of Diana’s children different in kind and not just in scale. It isn’t difficult to see what that was. She was a future queen and mother of a future king, and therefore had a close symbolic relationship to people. She helped to configure the political sphere around a separation between rulers and ruled. Her very existence, like that of the royals today, was an externalization of something inside each of the mere citizens of their country, the embodiment of our subjection to their power. So, while on one hand Blair was simply trying to cement himself in the public mind as a man of the people when he called her ‘the people’s Princess’, there was a particular ideological aim too: to bolster royal hegemony into the next generation. We’ve just seen the effects of this in the euphoria over the wedding of William, that sad little boy at Diana’s wedding whose entire public reception since then has been coloured by sympathy for his loss. Diana wasn’t just a woman who died young, with young children mourning her under an unforgiving public gaze. She had a specific ideological relation to us and that made her inhabit us, feel close to us as an externalization of that ideology that we live by, and personalize the loss right down to us.

The logic is the same with Winehouse: her music established a material relation between her and her public who are just as much ‘addicts’ as she was, albeit not so obviously addicted to potentially lethal substances. Winehouse’s public partly needs her, as a way of responding to the injuction to enjoy, to consume her product, and that rather than the fact we know her face, her name, and her voice, distinguishes her from the nameless young dead in Norway, for instance. Winehouse was, via the commodity relation, ‘in us more than ourselves’. So although her death is tragic because her victimhood to capital expressed itself through addiction, it is worth noting that the entirely natural sadness the public feels is mediated through the commodity relation.

Winehouse is not mourned because she was an addict. She is mourned because the public is addicted to her commodities, which have now dried up (though incidentally, her record company and her estate will enjoy a bonanza of sales now, and will reap the rewards of this for the next 70 years unless the copyright laws change – far longer than Winehouse herself was able to benefit from her musical talent). Her addiction and her youth add a special quality to her death but they only explain the response to her death in terms of the commodity relation: she died young, while she was still producing commodities, and we will have to look elsewhere now to satisfy our own irresistible urge to consume; and her addictions have already, as Gold notes, congealed into myth, allowing us to conceal our mediated commodity relationship to her behind the cleaner moral façade of sympathy for the addicted.

In reality Winehouse was unremarkable. We are all addicts like her, and inescapably so because of the economic system we are committed to and refuse to destroy. It is terrible that she died so young, just as it is terrible that so many young Norwegians have been slaughtered by a man who hates them, if the latest reports can be believed (and given the rabidly anti-Islamic prejudicial reporting of the early stages of this news story across all media, I am reluctant to trust many reports on this story), partly on grounds that they were, he felt, believers in a ‘Marxist’ utopia of relations between people that are not mediated by cultural forms such as the gender binary or the capitalist model of exploitation.

Obviously those young Norwegians did not choose to die: they were forced. But Winehouse’s choice to keep abusing her body was forced too, by economic and ideological factors. The worst irony of the response to Winehouse’s death is that it is concealing the very thing that it should be revealing: not just her capital-enforced addiction, but ours.

One thought on “Amy Winehouse, addiction, and the pity of capitalism

  1. Thank you. This is a great piece. Can you recommend any books on this subject? (Capitalism and consumption) The connection to Freud and the super-ego ‘injunction to enjoy’ was interesting. I also found myself thinking of the flowers of evil of Baudelaire to in relation to this. It occured to me, (i may have read it somewhere) that nowadays we are regressed into an almost infantile state in the compulsive pleasures of consumption and how it preys on our appetites and insecurities while enlarging them all the more. You can see this in the primary color design of Tesco’s, Mcdonald’s outlets, and many other corporate chains. much like the bright and garish colors that attract children.

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