Panel 04 Individual (Dis)Empowerment

Event Title

“Didn’t [She] Almost Have It All?”: Being Whitney Houston/Performing Addiction/Imagining America

Presenter Information

Heath A. DiehlFollow

Start Date

13-2-2015 3:00 PM

End Date

13-2-2015 4:20 PM

Panel

Individual (Dis)Empowerment

Abstract

Writ large against the exploitative and unforgiving glare of the media spotlight, Whitney Houston’s many struggles with substance dependence revealed in sharp relief the often violent and always devastating ways in which American national identity is predicated on an enforced sobriety that relegates the “wasted” addict to the margins of citizenship. Indeed, Houston’s celebrity persona dramatizes many of the most contentious and prominent conflicts at the heart of “The American Experience.” On one hand, Houston—an African-American woman whose ascendency to unparalleled superstardom played out against the backdrop of the ultra-conservative Reagan Era—“had it all.” At the same time, Houston’s celebrity persona was profoundly embattled by a series of “victim-obsessed” cultural narratives that repeatedly marked her life as tragic, Houston herself as a junkie, and Houston’s talents as wasted.

This project examines the celebrity persona of Houston, particularly as that persona is refracted through her struggles with addiction. Yet the conclusions that I draw extend beyond Houston to implicate the legions of garden-variety addicts who, in the everyday, also labor under the material and ideological burdens of their addictions. For those who struggle with substance dependence, addiction constitutes a locus of social control by which American citizenship is regulated and the “nation” itself is imagined, demarcated, and ultimately contained. The conflicting narratives of citizenship under which addicts forcibly labor exacerbate their struggles with substance dependence, casting relapse as an inevitability and rendering sobriety an impossible dream. In the end, Houston’s celebrity persona stands as a literal illustration of the extreme and systemic acts of exclusion faced not only by addicts, but more pointedly by individuals whose addictions are cross-cut by other marginal identities. What Houston’s own “wasted” life reveals is that escaping the stranglehold of addiction often is as impossible as fulfilling the exacting demands of the American Dream.

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Feb 13th, 3:00 PM Feb 13th, 4:20 PM

“Didn’t [She] Almost Have It All?”: Being Whitney Houston/Performing Addiction/Imagining America

Writ large against the exploitative and unforgiving glare of the media spotlight, Whitney Houston’s many struggles with substance dependence revealed in sharp relief the often violent and always devastating ways in which American national identity is predicated on an enforced sobriety that relegates the “wasted” addict to the margins of citizenship. Indeed, Houston’s celebrity persona dramatizes many of the most contentious and prominent conflicts at the heart of “The American Experience.” On one hand, Houston—an African-American woman whose ascendency to unparalleled superstardom played out against the backdrop of the ultra-conservative Reagan Era—“had it all.” At the same time, Houston’s celebrity persona was profoundly embattled by a series of “victim-obsessed” cultural narratives that repeatedly marked her life as tragic, Houston herself as a junkie, and Houston’s talents as wasted.

This project examines the celebrity persona of Houston, particularly as that persona is refracted through her struggles with addiction. Yet the conclusions that I draw extend beyond Houston to implicate the legions of garden-variety addicts who, in the everyday, also labor under the material and ideological burdens of their addictions. For those who struggle with substance dependence, addiction constitutes a locus of social control by which American citizenship is regulated and the “nation” itself is imagined, demarcated, and ultimately contained. The conflicting narratives of citizenship under which addicts forcibly labor exacerbate their struggles with substance dependence, casting relapse as an inevitability and rendering sobriety an impossible dream. In the end, Houston’s celebrity persona stands as a literal illustration of the extreme and systemic acts of exclusion faced not only by addicts, but more pointedly by individuals whose addictions are cross-cut by other marginal identities. What Houston’s own “wasted” life reveals is that escaping the stranglehold of addiction often is as impossible as fulfilling the exacting demands of the American Dream.