Deconstructing Ecstasy : The Politics Of MDMA Research
Charles S. Grob
Addiction Research, 2000, 8, 6, 549-588
What is Ecstasy? Defined by the New Webster’s Dictionary as a state of intense overpowering emotion, a condition of exultation or mental rapture induced by beauty, music, artistic creation or the contemplation of the divine, ecstasy derives etymologically from the ancient Greek ekstasis, which means flight of the soul from the body. The anthropologist, Mircea Eliade, who explored the roots of religious
experience in his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, has described the function of this intense state of mind among aboriginal peoples. Select individuals are called to become shamans, a role
specializing in inducing ecstatic states of trance where the soul is believed to leave the body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld. The shaman is thus considered a “technician of the sacred”, having been initiated through a process of isolation, ritual solitude, suffering and the imminence of death. Such initiation into the function of ecstatic states of consciousness, always accompanied by comprehensive tutelage from tribal elders, allows the shaman to assume for his tribal group the vital role of intermediary, or conduit, between the profane world of everyday existence and the sacred domains of alternative reality (Eliade, 1951; Schultes and Hofmann, 1992).
Modern conceptualizations of ecstasy, however, have expanded far beyond the realm of scholarly inquiry on archaic religions to the reach of contemporary cultural politics and scientific inquiry. As a cultural commodity, ecstasy has become emblematic of a social movement attracting increasing numbers of disaffected youth in Europe and North America. Meeting together in the hundreds and the thousands,
large groups of young people have congregated to engage in collective trance dances, or raves, often fueled by the ingestion of a synthetic psychoactive substance, known as Ecstasy. Arousing apprehension among parents and civic authorities, perplexed by this changing pattern of behavior among youth, the phenomenon of ecstasy culture has riveted societal concern on the potential dangers of its increasingly
notorious chemical sacrament. In spite of substantial media coverage, along with millions of federal dollars for basic science research on neural mechanisms for possible brain injury caused by Ecstasy, however, full understanding of both its medical consequences and cultural impact have remained elusive.
Even within the current social context of harsh Drug War era legal penalties, Ecstasy use has climbed sharply among young people. A vast and unanticipated social experiment has occurred, with millions of adolescents and young adults worldwide consuming a drug which has eluded definitive understanding and over which societal and medical controversies persist. Given the magnitude of public health and cultural implications, an open and comprehensive review of the existing state of knowledge, from diverse perspectives, needs to be pursued. The outcome of such an inquiry into this modem rendering of the archaic technique of ecstasy should facilitate a more effective and salutary understanding and response to the condition Euro-American medicine and culture currently confront.