Anti Vice Returns

A group of about 50 scholars met in early April at the idyllic Centro Stefano Franscini Conference Center at Monte Verità, over-looking Lake Maggiore in Ascona, Switzerland, to explore the enticing  topic of Global Anti-Vice Activism in the late 19th and early 20th century—Fighting Drink, Drugs, and Venereal Diseases.   The conference suggested a revival of an old topic–conceived in an entirely new way.  Organized by Harald Fischer-Tiné and Jana Tschurenev from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the conference was an outgrowth of their major collaborative research project on anti-alcohol movements at the turn of the century.   The site was particularly appropriate.  Monte Verità was originally founded in the late nineteenth century as a vegetarian and nudist commune and later attracted a wide range of political, artistic, and intellectual radicals.

The participants remained safely clothed, but Monte Verità’s radical tradition was very much in evidence in a rich program of papers and in three days of intense conversation and discussion.    Well-known alcohol and drug historians, David Courtwright and Emmanuel Akyeampong, presented two of the keynotes, but responding to the conference theme, both explored larger themes of vice and anti-vice.  The organizers had sought explicitly to situate their own particular interest in anti-alcohol campaigns in a wider historical context in which global organizations and networks defined and redefined vice and struggled to regulate and suppress it.  U.S.-based scholars were in a distinct minority; and among the Europeans, a number presented research on areas, chiefly eastern Europe, that have often been neglected.

Thirty years ago scholars of alcohol and drugs (initially focused almost exclusively on alcohol) moved the emerging field away from a narrow concentration on temperance movements toward the exploration of the histories of consumption, commerce and regulation, in effect shifting scholarship away from the moral realm.  The result was a separation of  the historical debates about drugs and alcohol from debates over other “vices.”  In her very suggestive opening remarks,  Jana  Tschurenev pointed to ways that these debates were linked beyond their obvious connections as responses to broader social, cultural and economic forces and in their overlapping memberships.   As Tschurenev suggested, all were linked by anxieties regarding national and racial health and the threat of degeneration that was a central concern of eugenics.  But these too were also “diseases of the will” that fundamentally implicated liberal ideas of free will and freedom.  These same themes came forward in Philippa Levine’s masterly keynote on “nakedness and the problem of modernity.”

The papers and discussions at the Monte Verità conference collectively provided a powerful reminder of the linkages that existed among the numerous anti-vice movements and among the vices themselves—in particular, as the conference title signaled, between drug consumption and sexual transgression.  There was no sign, however, of the institutional approaches that have defined much of the scholarship on moral crusades.   From the very opening session, participants began a discussion about the ways in which struggles over vice reflected and defined global borders, boundaries and controls—how vice defined global space.   The emphasis was less on the movements themselves than on their locations or spheres, on the practice of anti-vice through networks of organization and knowledge transmission.   The League of Nations surfaced repeatedly—not in terms of its institutional actions (as in drug control regulation) but as a vital site of anti-vice.

Emmanuel Akyeampong’s keynote on illicit distillation and venereal disease in West Africa used his particular case to open up a series of provocative interpretive questions—most important perhaps was his challenge to researchers to re-examine that tricky word, vice.   His talk vividly revealed the interconnection between alcohol production and consumption and sexuality and its commercialization (and how that interconnection resulted in rising VD rates), but also showed in those interconnections an on-going battle over the very notion of vice.  Especially intriguing was the repeated invocation, beginning even in the 1920s and reverberating globally, by various parties of the “failed” American experience with prohibition.   Similar questions, linked to race divisions and racial identity, also surfaced in Nayan Shah’s talk (and commentaries) on “Transnational Migration, Racialization and Regulating  Narcotics and Sex” in Vancouver.  Both talks explored the connections, in racially charged contexts, between local and global forces, and illustrated the historical contingency of a concept like “vice” – a term that some might have thought a synonym for sin.

As discussion progressed, methological and theoretical questions pressed for attention.  A number of the papers, typically stressing state power, displayed the influence of Foucauldian notions of institutional regimes of control, while others, paying more attention to the transnational circuits of activism, portrayed anti-vice in the realm of civil society.   In the one talk that very directly addressed methodology, a geographer, Stephegn Legg, explored “scalar” approaches, using as his example campaigns to regulate prostitution in colonial Delhi.  Legg forced consideration of a question that in fact  many of the papers struggled with—at least implicitly.  The discussion that followed turned on the question of the (nation) state:  on the one hand, the tendency in structurally complex transnational studies to reify the state and the nation and to privilege and essentialize their power; and on the other, the tendency for the state and nation to disappear in studies that are located in transnational space.

The application of Foucauldian approaches to anti-vice activism also raised the question of whether these movements were fundamentally Western and imperial.  A number of talks examined how anti-vice played out in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and even the European periphery, but these  were largely conceptualized in terms of the impact of anti-vice campaigns or the ways that these campaigns were captured and reshaped in local contexts.  In my own paper, on an official study of  the impact of the alcohol trade in Nigeria in 1909, I argued that Africans were not only bit players in a staged imperial and moral reform drama but contributors in important ways to the transnational anti-alcohol movement.  But by and large African, Asian and Latin American voices were muted, a fact that David Courtwright returned to in the closing keynote, a tour de force  in which with typical clarity he established the links among the vices, the movements to suppress them, and specific global economic and political developments.    Courtwright reminded us that Gandhi, whose life and history at been repeatedly if briefly invoked during the conference, was a powerful figure in international anti-vice and enormously influential, and that any effort to synthesize global anti-vice would have to contend with his story, and those of others like him—as well as much less historically articulate people from the slums of London or New York, or from West Africa, or Latin America or Asia and their diasporas.