Conference Wrap-Up: Borders, Boundaries & Contexts

Editor’s Note: Today three of our contributing editors – Michelle McClellan, Adam Rathge and Sarah Siff – present their thoughts on the recent international conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, which was held from June 18 to 21 at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. This year’s theme was “Borders, Boundaries and Contexts: Defining Spaces in the History of Alcohol & Drugs.” Enjoy!

Michelle McClellan:

Thinking about the panels I attended and informal conversations I had between sessions, I am very optimistic that we are poised for growth and influence in terms of historical scholarship and in the contributions we can make to present-day debates about the consumption and regulation of psychoactive substances, about addiction, and about recovery. But to do that, we need to develop new tools for collaboration and the dissemination of our ideas.

The notion of a “big tent” for the history of alcohol and drugs came up in Friday’s plenary and in other sessions too. And while it is often framed in terms of substances and behaviors—alcohol and drugs, pharmaceuticals and dope, chemical dependence and process addictions—this kind of expansion has many other dimensions as well. Two important axes are place and time: how can we continue to move beyond a focus on the United States and Europe to become more international and transnational? In the plenary session on Saturday, Nils Kissel used the concept of “entanglement” as a way to move beyond purely comparative historical study—not just lining up the similarities and differences between two nation-states, for example, but actively looking for connections between them as well.

When it comes to chronology, in U.S. history (which is what I know best) we have learned a great deal about the nineteenth and early twentieth century—and for good reason. There’s a lot of action there! But even there, our periodization may have gotten stale. We need to know more about what happened in the second half of the twentieth century, and we need to look harder for continuities across the apparent divides of Prohibition and Repeal. And this is only one example with which I am familiar—there are many others from other times and places where a fresh look at chronology would add to our understanding of alcohol and drug history and to political and cultural history as well.

Some papers at the conference offered exciting new approaches, which made me think about the “big tent” not just in terms of content but method. Points’ own Claire Clark talked about her research using digital humanities tools to trace the growth of Alcoholics Anonymous groups throughout the U.S. in the 1940s. Contributing editor Matthew June reported on a Google Ngram in which he tracked the use of “drug abuse” as a term in the mid-twentieth-century United States. And as we all know, “digital humanities” is currently hot, even if many of us are unsure what the term really means. On my campus at least, colleagues in information science and related fields are eager to find partners to try out new techniques and tools. Let’s follow these examples from the conference and formulate research questions that can leverage digital humanities tools—and the resources presently devoted to them.

There was great discussion at the conference about concepts that we should continue to probe: intoxication, pleasure, and recovery just to name a few. At a session on the role of pharmacists in drug exchanges and regulation, David Herzberg made the point that the presenters all combined analytical sophistication with nitty-gritty social history that allowed us to appreciate the texture of human interactions of a century or more ago. This is a wonderful characterization of what historians can do—ground theoretical concepts in the reality of lived experience. And while alcohol and drugs history is far from the only subfield in which that balancing act is demonstrated, I think it’s time for us to more assertively broadcast our contributions into “mainstream” historiography. Imagine a U.S. history survey organized around the theme of alcohol and drugs, for example. We have shown one another that our topics illuminate many other aspects of history—now we need to remind other historians as well.

In her remarks, Claire Clark called for more collaboration. I completely agree, although I know from experience that it’s not always easy. One way to approach this is to ask: what can historical investigation contribute to a topic, question, or debate that otherwise would be missed? In other words, what do we as historians bring to the table, what can we do that no one else can? And then, how can we make sure that others can hear and make use of our analysis? The ADHS has a pretty good track record in attracting people from various disciplines, but at Friday’s plenary Alexine Fleck asked us to consider, who is not here? Many of us care deeply about present-day concerns in drug research, policy, and treatment and are working hard to cooperate with scientists, advocates and clinicians. But in my experience at least, much of the conversation about the challenges and rewards of these efforts happens in informal exchanges. It’s helpful and reassuring, but not necessarily building a shared knowledge base. I suggest that we draw on our experiences and lessons learned to assemble a toolkit or set of best practices so that when we seek to make history useful, we do not have to start from scratch.

Adam Rathge:

Last week, between Thursday, June 18 and Sunday, June 21, a group of more than one hundred scholars from across the globe assembled for the biennial international conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. This year’s conference, “Borders, Boundaries, & Contexts: Defining Spaces in the History of Alcohol & Drugs,” was graciously hosted by Bowling Green State University. By all accounts the event was a ringing success, complete with insightful and engaging panels and plenary sessions. In addition, there was a range of “Fringe Events” including craft beer and baseball, exhibits including a temperance collection, and a film screening. The state of the field appears as healthy, vibrant, and expansive as ever, with an excellent balance between graduate students, junior scholars, and eminent names in the field. The conference also lived up to its theme in many exciting ways, exploring spatial, temporal, and even linguistic boundaries in the field.

Holly Karibo of Tarleton State University and Martin Scott Catino of Henley Putnam University headlined a panel on “Drugs in North American Borderlands” that produced some lively discussion on present day issues of border security. For her part, Karibo offered a historical analysis of media representations of the “Drug Problem” along North American Borderlands between 1945 and 1960. Highlighting the importance of media and public rhetoric, Karibo focused largely on the U.S.-Canadian border towns, portrayed as centers of vice and drug smuggling. Scott Catino, who previously spent time as an intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, offered a more contemporary view of the situation along the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona. Catino argued that many of the present theories put forth about border violence and immigration often miss the mark. For Catino, the real story is about the narco-insurgency network and its ability to provide advanced movement and sophisticated organization in the face of ongoing anti-drug and border patrol pressures.

The discussions following presentations by Karibo and Catino spilled over into the next panel session, “Legal Lines and Social Realities in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” which was headlined by the work of Santiago Ivan Guerra of Colorado College. Guerra’s research followed the history of a single family in Starr County, Texas, chronicling its connections and cooperations with drug smugglers in the area. In conducting his ethnography, Guerra shows the shifts and changes from the 1960s when unemployed farm workers began supplementing their meager wages with marijuana smuggling through the consolidation of organized smuggling families in the 1980s and the subsequent violent transformation of drug cartels by the early 2000s.

Friday afternoon’s plenary session, “The Future of Alcohol and Drugs History: Perspectives from the Class of ‘79 to the Present” headlined another central debate of the conference: what, if any, classifications of substances, behaviors, or processes should define our work? Isaac Campos moderated and led the session with an open ended hypothetical about possibly altering the “Alcohol and Drugs History Society” moniker. He suggested perhaps collapsing the terms and simply becoming the Drugs History Society. Panelists Charles Ambler, Cynthia Belaskie, David Courtwright, W. Scott Haine and William Rorabaugh then followed with brief reflections on the question as well as the changing nature of the field over the past three-plus decades. In brief, the discussion that followed largely centered around the usefulness of the “tensions” between not only categories like alcohol and drugs but also between behaviors and addictions. Many audience members suggested that the boundaries of these categories, even false ones, often proved the most fruitful areas of research and scholarship. Historians and non-historians alike seemed to urge “a big tent” mentality, inclusive of not only a range of substances by also of disciplines and backgrounds. For his part, David Courtwright captured the essence of the session, asking in sum: are we interested in the history of a set of commodities, or are we interested in the history of behaviors and expanded consciousness?

For his part, Courtwright pushed an expansive definition of the field as part of an afternoon panel on “Rethinking Addiction.” There Courtwright asked, “Food as a Drug: How Good is the Analogy?” Outlining the research emerging around hyper-palatable foods and addiction, as well as the counterarguments, he concluded that, all things considered, it was a very good analogy. Food seems to fit the NIDA paradigm for addiction. Indeed, Courtwright suggests that food has been wildly corporatized, under phrases like the McDonaldization of the market. Quite simply, this is the hedonic weaponization of food companies – acting quite like tobacco companies of the past. This of course fits well within what Courtwright has often referred to as “limbic capitalism.”

Another quite fascinating look at addiction paradigms came from Timothy Hickman, who delivered what may have been the most attention-grabbing paper of the conference: “Leslie Keeley and the Nineteenth-Century Brain Science of Addiction.” Here, Hickman offered an illuminating comparison between the 1890s writings on addition of Leslie Keeley and the NIDA “brain disease” paradigm as announced by Leshner a century later, in 1997. Quite interestingly the similarities were many, including the belief that drug use changed the brain and that addiction was a disease. Keeley, though, became known as perhaps the ultimate quack – a peddler of a patent medicine known as the “Gold Cure” for addiction. Hickman, however, seeks to resurrect Keeley’s memory as a point of departure. In many senses, Keeley was deemed a quack because of his secret, special formula and for his wild claims of success in curing addiction. He was nevertheless a trained, professional physician for more than forty years. In many ways he was the victim of clashing medical paradigms. He defended his right to the profits of his own labor against the American Medical Association and medical professionals who insisted such a practice was unethical. Quite simply, Keeley lost the fight. The rules and nature of medicine turned against him. Hickman, however, believes there is still much to be learned from Keeley’s work and his place in addiction history.

Sarah Siff:

The biennial conference of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society (ADHS), held this past weekend at Bowling Green State University outside of Toledo, Ohio, remained true to its stated theme by questioning the organization’s very essence. Conference host and outgoing president Scott Martin, with his team of organizers, arranged a tantalizing slate of research paper sessions and plenaries on the history and problems of consumable substances “from water to ecstasy,” as one panelist put it. Wonderfully, there was time scheduled to ask meta-questions about the ADHS and its future: Is alcohol just another drug? Is every molecule on earth addictive? Where is the bar?

In my conference-going experience, such self-searching is unique. This group is small and feisty enough to air differences, find commonalities, and let every voice be heard.

The caterpillar in Disney’s 1951 rendition of Alice in Wonderland asks the all-important question, “Who are you?”
The caterpillar in Disney’s 1951 rendition of Alice in Wonderland asks the all-important question, “Who are you?”

But the opening session did not really produce as much disagreement as one might expect. Panelists involved in law enforcement, rehabilitation, and coverage of opioid-dependent drug abusers all generally agreed on the frightening severity of the problem, as measured in overdose deaths. International attendees expressed bafflement at the extent of opioid abuse in the United States. Blame was laid on uneducated doctors and rapacious Big Pharma, although historian Caroline Acker offered an alternative explanation involving large populations, flooded markets, and steep learning curves. As I recall, the “disease epidemic” metaphor went largely unchallenged, although one attendee did try to get Andrew Kolodny, a medical doctor and executive at Phoenix House, to admit he was really prescribing an escalation of drug prohibition.

For me, this session raised questions about the addiction paradigm that has been largely embraced by this interdisciplinary group. I believe this was the “framework” referenced by one fellow audience member during Friday’s plenary, who said he would not prefer to see the ADHS dominated by a single theoretical approach. I agree heartily, although I would never call for barring a paper comparing the addictive qualities of chocolate cake to those of french fries. That question is just too relevant to my own experience.

Friday’s plenary also aired the idea that separating our historical analyses of drugs from those of alcohol creates a false dichotomy and obscures important realities of substance use. Outgoing treasurer/secretary Cynthia Belaski disagreed by asking us to think about the cultural contexts of her collection of photographs depicting President Obama’s substance indulgences. Indeed, alcohol “just isn’t” a joint, and it does occupy a privileged place in our consumer society—circa 2015, that is. (We would not have to peer very far back into the past to find ashtrays on all our conference tables.)

“I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” Barack Obama said of marijuana last year. ADHS members discussed reasons for keeping “alcohol” separate from “drugs” in the organization’s name.
“I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” Barack Obama said of marijuana last year. ADHS members discussed reasons for keeping “alcohol” separate from “drugs” in the organization’s name.

Perhaps the manifest differences between drug and alcohol use form a sufficient, if presentist, argument for continuing the organization’s focus on “alcohol and drugs.” I’ll buy it. But sometimes it is ironic to exist in this habitus in which alcohol is permitted and most other pleasurable substances are not. I feel it most keenly in my physical disposition the morning after a craft beer tasting … a beer-and-wine reception followed by a late night at the local sports bar … a conference-capping lunch at the Irish-themed pub. Do you feel me?

5 thoughts on “Conference Wrap-Up: Borders, Boundaries & Contexts

  1. Bowling Green hosted an impressive conference, particularly strong on drugs. The publication of the multi-volume Cultural History of Alcohol, now in preparation, should energize alcohol historical studies. Expanding the range of the ADHS depends in part on finding and encouraging scholars who study neglected time periods, themes, and parts of the world. For instance, there was little on pre-industrial times and little on production. Travel money is needed especially for African scholars and independent scholars. Some people whom I had hoped would attend didn’t which is inevitable The missing included historians of drink in Latin America and South Asia. A German specialist told me that she spent her summers in archival research. Fair enough. No doubt conferences held outside North America will attract different paper-presenters. An idea that I heard suggested small local conferences to supplement the big international conferences. Let me end this ramble by adding that Dave Tripple’s exhibit of his personal temperance collection was unique and wonderful.

  2. Just wanted to express my gratitude to the re-cappers– it was a fantastic conference with too much quality material to cover in its entirety here. I also second David’s comment above: Dave Trippel’s personal archive was amazing and the Keeley material was a great complement to Hickman’s talk.

  3. Speaking of Keeley, see the announcement about the conference at Dwight, Illinois, 14-17 July 2016.

  4. Nice wrap-up. Sarah is correct that the “disease epidemic” concept prevailed on Thursday night, but I was impressed by one particular moment of clarity. Caroline Acker pointed out (I hope I didn’t get this wrong) that “epidemic” is an appropriate term when unusually large numbers of people are dying, even though the same term can be a symptom of moral panic when the death rate has in fact not changed. Dr. Kolodny is in a field where he sees the bodies, and has the figures to back up his claims.

Comments are closed.