Cultural Histories of Substance Abuse and E-History: Creating an International Multilingual Research Network

E-Humanities and E-History, the digitization of historical data and the development of text and sentiment mining tools to explore these data, bring new challenges and possibilities for research into the developing field of the history of alcohol and drugs.

E-History

E-History

More in particular, E-History – when combined with more traditional historical methods – can stimulate and facilitate the creation of an international comparative and multilingual project of transnational drug histories. Such a project will tackle major problems of comparative research: the existence of various language barriers, and the vast size of the primary sources, especially when these become more and more available in an age of digitization.

Last year I discussed these tools in the Points blog. In my own research, e-tools turned out to be helpful in tracing and analyzing public perceptions of drugs use and trafficking, for instance as present in the work of the creator of Tintin, Hergé.

Hergé on drugs

Hergé on drugs

Since a few years we, Toine Pieters and Stephen Snelders, are working at the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities (Utrecht University, The Netherlands) on the exploration and development of E-History tools. At the end of this week we will be present at the conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society in London. In the discussions, fringes and corridors of this Under Control conference we would like to talk with those interested about concrete steps in creating a research network – a network that focuses on comparative cultural histories of substance use using digital software with an international user base.

We are planning an expert meeting later this year at Utrecht University, to solidify and deepen the outcomes of these talks. At this meeting we will discuss the necessary conditions for international research, the methods and tools that will be used, and possibilities for funding the research. We would like to make an inventory of researchers interested in future participation in the network, and in attending this expert meeting.

Toine Pieters

Toine Pieters

Stephen Snelders

Stephen Snelders

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We invite all people at the conference who are interested in discussing our ideas and in participating in their development to address us, Toine Pieters and Stephen Snelders, at the conference, or to react to this blog post by email. We hope to create an international group of researchers who enthusiastically but cautiously will explore new avenues in alcohol and drugs history.

Coca: The Survival of a Drug of the Dispossessed

In the beginning of this year, Bolivia gained the right to re-access the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation concerning the prohibition of the chewing of coca leaves. This is a small but perhaps not unimportant victory against the global War on Drugs. Especially it means some recognition of the right of indigenous people, the dispossessed of the earth, to their own drug use.

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

In my blog of 11 June 2012 I discussed how the knowledge of coca use among the Indians of Spanish America was disseminated by, among others, the buccaneers and pirates of the later seventeenth century. As a collateral result of their plunder voyages on the Spanish Main some of the Brethren of the Coast became key informants on American drugs for the botanists and trading companies of Western Europa. Some of these drugs became export products to the rest of the world, with varying commercial results. Coca, for some reason, didn’t. Was there in Europe in the early modern period no need for a drug that gave a slight stimulation throughout the day? Or did a drug used, not by wild and exotic Indian savages firing the imagination of European armchair adventurers, but used by poor Indian slaves adjusting themselves to Spanish tyranny, fail to have the necessary sexiness to be adopted in the lifestyles of Europeans? Was it just the case that Europeans weren’t used to and didn’t like the method of consumption of coca, chewing the leaves until their teeth turned green? Or was it a matter of too complicated logistics to export the leaves to Europe in a state of some potency? Continue reading →

Santa Claus, Mushroom Beer, and the Dutch

In my home country, The Netherlands, Santa Claus does not come for Christmas. By then he has already left. Santa Claus comes every year to the Netherlands to celebrate with us his birthday on 6 December. A few weeks before his birthday he sets out from his home in Spain by sea, on a steamer (he has arrived a week ago).  Santa Claus is accompanied by his assistants, the so-called Zwarte Pieten, or ‘Black Petes’. What is rather strange about Zwarte Piet or Black Pete is that his skin actually is black. To some this is offensive. To these people the fact that Santa Claus’ assistant (not himself) is a black person is a racist trait, a legacy from the age of slavery. The first appearance of the modern incarnation of Zwarte Piet in Dutch popular culture seems to date from around 1850, when slavery still existed in the Dutch colonial empire and when black slaves still worked the plantations in Dutch Suriname in the Guianas. Other interpretations seek the origins of Zwarte Piet in a more distant past. Might it already be a surprise to many children and their parents to learn that Zwarte Piet could actually be a Surinamese slave, it might be even more surprising for them to learn that he could be the descendant of a psychoactive plants or mushrooms consuming Germanic warrior.

Santa Claus and his Zwarte Pieten

Relating the Santa Claus traditions to ancient pagan beliefs and rituals is common in literature on psychoactive mushrooms – more in particular, in the literature on the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). In this perspective Santa Claus is Odin (Wodan), the Germanic god of ecstasy, warfare and poetry. Some nights he haunts the countryside on his Wild Hunt, with his warriors and his Valkyries, the immortal maiden who inspire the mortal heroes and select them for Valhalla. In ancient and medieval times Odin’s special warriors were the bear- and wolf warriors, the Berserkers and Ulfheonar who would fight naked (that is, without armor) in an uncontrollable and trance-like fury. This trance was, it is maintained, induced by the consumption of psychoactive substances. The fly agaric is routinely mentioned as the most likely candidate for the substance used. This mushroom is also commonly used as a decoration motif in Christmas trees and on Christmas cards. Continue reading →

Drugs in Everyday Life: Some musings, and thoughts about research directions

‘Life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’

I had to think of these sentences when reading this blog’s latest Weekend Read. The words are from the opening paragraph of The Society of the Spectacle, French Situationist Guy Debord’s fundamental critique of our society published in 1968. Why did they occur to my mind?

Living in the Spectacle

In the Weekend Reads our Contributing Editor Alex Tepperman enjoyably chronicles instances of celebrity drug scandals. This time he made a very important observation that deserves more attention. ‘The only perspective that Weekend Reads has not yet covered’, Alex wrote, ‘is that of the non-celebrity, the view that should matter most when we try to understand the broadest implications of American drug culture.’ And not only American drug culture, I would add from my Amsterdam study.

Celebrities are nice to read about, but they are a distraction as well. In fact, that is probably their most important function in our societies, American or European. They are the spectacle that we can gape at, but their lives are far removed from that of most of us. I fully agree with Alex’s remark that ‘while profiling [a celebrity] would be fun, however, it wouldn’t get us any closer to knowing the perspectives of those people early social historians referred to as the “inarticulate”.’ He then goes on to deal with instances of non-celebrities that have received media coverage in connection to drugs.

A very worthwhile exercise, let there be no doubt about that. But it only gets us of course to a limited extent to a better understanding of the “inarticulate”. Continue reading →

The Adventures of Tintin in the Opium Empire

Tintin in the Opium Empire

At a very early age we have been exposed to one of the most influential images of drug use in our culture. Reading as children the comic book The Blue Lotus, we see Tintin lying in an opium den in Shanghai (named The Blue Lotus) and pretending to smoke an opium pipe. To children the book is of course only a gripping and exotic adventure story. Opium dens have disappeared from our cities. But the image lasts, permanently fixing associations of passivity, otherness, and harmfulness with the smoking of opium.

High on Opium

The Blue Lotus shows that drugs are tools used by sinister dealers and foreign powers in their attempts to enslave free people. An image in a comic book that is so powerful that children and adults continue to read it up until the present day. In 1999 the readers of the French newspaper Le Monde elected The Blue Lotus the eighteenth best book of the twentieth century.

Of course there is much more to Tintin than the breath-taking adventure. Continue reading →

Pirates and Cocaine: The Buccaneer Spirit and the Psychoactive Revolutions

In January 1681 an English buccaneer ship, the Trinity, appeared on the coast of Spanish America. The intended target of the pirates was the port town of Arica, now in the north of Chile close to the Peruvian border. At that time Arica played a vital role in the economy of Spanish America, as port of exit for the silver from the Polosi mines where Indian slaves toiled for the riches and glory of Spain: a prime target therefore for “the Brothers of the Coast,” as the buccaneers called themselves.

Buccaneers appearing on the coast

One of them was an educated and intelligent observer whose journal of the voyage was subsequently published. Basil Ringrose was a pirate with more interests than gold and silver.  While the pirates landed on the island of Iquique to prepare for their attack, Ringrose observed the ‘poor Indian inhabitants’ of the island. They were forced by the Spaniards to carry fresh water from a river on one side of the island over a path over the mountains to a barque on the other shore that brought the water to the mainland. Exhausting work, and the Indians were treated as beasts according to Ringrose. And he noticed that they ‘eat much and often a sort of leaves that are of a taste much like our bay-leaves in England, insomuch that their teeth are dyed a green colour by the continual use of it.’

The leaves were obviously a species of coca, and were distributed to keep the Indians fit to work. Continue reading →

On Acid: LSD and the Sorcerer’s Apprentices

Editor’s Note: Readers coming to Points for the first time may be interested in some of our other posts treating psychedelic experience.  They include (but are not limited to) Religious Studies Professor Gary Laderman’s meditations on the place of LSD in the late 20th-century US; a two-part series by Comparative Literature scholar Tace Hedrick, looking at the influence of Gordon Wasson on US psychedelic culture and of psychedelics on feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldua; and some by Brian Herrera of Performance Studies.  Search under the Tag “psychedelics” for a complete inventory.

LSD is one of the most mythical drugs in history. As with regard to many other drugs, our culture is almost satiated with perceptions, sentiments and opinions about the substance. Most of them have a history that can be traced back to the Sixties, that strange and almost mythical period when the most fundamental certainties of western society seemed undermined – at least to those high on acid.  But more than myths and vague associations are hardly discernible when looking at present-day perceptions and sentiments around LSD in popular culture. Sixties and hippies are one set of associations often encountered; adolescent users becoming psychotic and jumping out of windows and of balconies or eating the bark of trees another. Or, on a more positive side, people envision mystical enlightenment and heightened sensual perceptions. As a mythical drug LSD can be everything to everyone, a focal point of contestations about social, political and metaphysical realities.

The recent Swiss documentary The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD, directed by Martin Witz and produced by Andreas Pfaaffi, tries to reconstruct the tumultuous history of LSD from its discovery by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the Sandoz laboratory in Basel in 1943 until the end of the Sixties. In must be said at the outset that the movie basically follows the story as outlined for instance in Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987), though adding some material from psychedelic therapy sessions in recent years and interviews with participants. [Editor’s note: an article on some of these experimental protocols appears in last Sunday’s New York Times.] To those viewers who are familiar with the story the documentary offers nothing new. What is most interesting is the documentary footage Continue reading →