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"Cultures of Intoxication": Conference Report

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s conference report comes from Dr. Alice Mauger of the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, School of History, University College Dublin. Dr. Mauger also organized the event.

“Cultures of Intoxication: Contextualising Alcohol and Drug Use, Past & Present”, University College Dublin, Ireland, 7-8 February 2020 – Conference Report

Screenshot 2020-03-02 at 7.35.09 PM

University College Dublin was delighted to welcome twenty-five delegates to the UCD Humanities Institute on 7 and 8 February 2020 to take part in “Cultures of Intoxication: Contextualising Alcohol and Drug Use, Past & Present”. Sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, this event featured speakers from institutions in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

The conference was part of my three-year Wellcome Trust research fellowship on “Alcohol, Medicine & Irish Society, c. 1890-1970”. Now in its final month, this project has explored social, cultural and political perceptions of excessive drinking and alcohol addiction in Ireland, especially the degree of influence the “drunken Irish” stereotype has had on medical responses to alcoholism. 

Expanding on these interests, the conference challenged us to consider how certain cultural groups are deemed prone to excess while others are linked with abstinence. It also sought to assess how “cultural norms” and stereotypes around alcohol and drug use can shape policies, practices, treatments, experiences and behaviour. Among the themes addressed were defining and changing “drinking cultures” and “drug cultures”; cultural stereotypes and stigma; realities and myths; hidden cultures, subcultures and countercultures; culture-specific marketing and advertising; cultural representation of intoxication and alcohol and drugs tourism.

Due to the rich array of abstracts received, the conference involved two very full days of proceedings throughout which participants responded with both energy and enthusiasm. Among the delegates, this interdisciplinary event featured especially strong representation from early modernists and twentieth-century historians, as well as members of the broader humanities and social sciences, policy advocates and health professionals. Broad-ranging in discipline, the papers focused in particular on Western societies and cultures.

Each day included a keynote speaker as well as several single-panel sessions of three speakers each. Sessions were specifically designed to interrogate the intersections between “culture” and “intoxication” and were generally found to provide plenty of scope for comparison and contrast across various temporal and geographical spaces. 

Day One – Friday, 7 February 2020

The opening session explored post-war responses to drugs and drug users, including changing attitudes to “crack” users in the US, opiate users in Ireland and harm reduction in 1960s Sweden. David Farber (University of Kansas), Lena Eriksson (Stockholm University) and Oisín Wall (University College Dublin) underscored the cultural significance of race and social class in drugs discourses, with scientific evidence often losing out to the anecdotal or, as Farber phrased it, the “spectacular”. As panellists noted on several occasions, outward anxieties surrounding intoxication have often masked coded criticisms of marginalised communities.

Session two, featured members of the Drinking Studies Network’s “Time and Temporalities” cluster and posed the question: “what is ‘acceptable’ drinking”? Mark Hailwood (University of Bristol), Pam Lock (University of Bristol) and Laura Fenton (University of Manchester) responded by interrogating seventeenth-century alcohol consumption discourses, Victorian literary defences of moderate drinking and shifting temporal frames of excess through life history interviews of British women in the twentieth century. Across this very broad timespan, the papers identified a surprising number of parallels in British frameworks for understanding excess, as well as the boundaries of acceptability. 

After lunch, Peder Clark (University of Strathclyde), James Grannell (University College Dublin) and Clark Terrill (University of Kansas) turned the focus towards the centrality of gender and sexuality in experiences and representations of intoxication. This included those of female ecstasy users in 1980s/1990s English pleasure raves, injecting drug users with HIV/AIDS in 1980s Ireland and male absinthe drinkers in the US at the turn of the twentieth century. A common trope among all three papers was the historical tendency for dialogues of irresponsibility or danger to attach more readily to certain “subcultures”.

The day’s proceeding ended with a lively and engaging keynote address from Geoffrey Hunt of the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences – Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research in Aarhus University and Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Scientific Analysis in San Francisco. Continuing with the theme of gender, Hunt mapped out the changing perceptions of women’s intoxication from nineteenth-century inebriate reformatories to the “ladette” culture of the early 2000s. He closed by urging future researchers to “step outside the confines of binary normative expressions” in their examinations of gender, stigma and experiences of intoxication. The discussion continued over drinks and then dinner in a nearby restaurant which was very well attended. 

Day Two – Saturday, 8 February 2020

On the morning of day two, Deborah Toner of the School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester, kicked off proceedings with a nuanced and thought-provoking keynote address. This talk delivered a concise survey of existing scholarship as well as Toner’s own extensive research on American and Mexican cultural representations of alcohol for the period 1850 to 1950. Among the major themes she touched on were temperance and prohibition, degeneration and modernity, and artistic perceptions of drunken consciousness. Overall, Toner stressed an emphasis on addiction and alcoholism in these portrayals, while adding a cautionary note that this should not be overstated.

Session four immediately followed, with papers from Dorota Dias-Lewandowska (Polish Academy of Sciences), Eunan McKinney (Alcohol Action Ireland) and Bas Teunissen (University of Groningen). These speakers sought to expose the historical drinking stereotypes and myths associated with nineteenth-century Poland, modern Ireland and early modern New Amsterdam. Again, in spite of the rather broad timespan, participants were struck by commonalities between the papers, and a lively conversation ensued about the ways in which drinking cultures can be perpetuated and internalised.

The fifth session was organised under the auspices of the HERA-funded research project “Intoxicating Spaces: The Impact of New Intoxicants on Urban Spaces in Europe, 1600-1850”. In a panel on “Intoxicants, Consumption and Excess”, David Clemis (Mount Royal University, Calgary), Stephen Snelders (Utrecht University) and Phil Withington (University of Sheffield) discussed predisposition, habit and dependence in early modern humoral medicine and twenty-first century addiction theory, the introduction of tobacco in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic and the problematic concept of ‘superfluity’ in early modern England. Together, these papers urged a more nuanced reading of the early modern discourses surrounding policies and attitudes towards excess and acceptable substance use.

“Cultural Representations of Intoxication” was the topic for session six, which included papers from John O’Brien (Waterford Institute of Technology), Kerry Rowberry (University of Cumbria) and Paul O Connor (Trinity College Dublin). Irish writers featured heavily, with explorations of the theme of alcohol(ism) in the lives and works of James Joyce, Nuala O’Faolain and Anne Enright taking centre stage. Popular representations of the substance, ayahuasca, were also presented, as was the idea of an “intoxicating city”.

The final session showcased emerging scholarship from talented postgraduates Adriaan Duiveman (Radboud University), Edoardo Pierini (Université de Genève) and Jenni Lares (Tampere University). All three centred on the early modern period and included examinations of the cultural significance of Dutch drinking games; the racialisation of opium addiction and alternative uses of alcohol in Finland.

As the conference drew to a close, and stormy conditions loomed outside, I concluded by expressing my hope that an edited collection might stem from this event. Following what was, I think, a very sociable and stimulating two days, I greatly look forward to meeting delegates again at future alcohol and drugs history events, a number of which are already on the cards.


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