Points Interview: John O’Brien

Editor’s Note: Today we present an interview with John O’Brien, a lecturer in sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland, and author of the new book States of Intoxication: The Place of Alcohol in Civilization (Routledge, 2019). Enjoy!

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The ‘publican’ who runs the ‘local’ is part of an ancient tradition of masters of ceremony who oversee drinking rituals. The public house is open to all, but a space of limits, where a ‘bar’ separates those in charge from the participants and a threshold is crossed to enter in a different space, with different rules from ordinary society based on controlled decontrolling. Pubs, bars, cafés, saloons have long been a source of anxiety as threats to the moral and political order. However, in the age of vertical drinking in superpubs, bar staff on short-term and insecure contracts who are unlikely to feel deep ownership over the space, concentrated ownership in pubcos with shareholders who may not even live in the country, preloading with cheap supermarket bought alcohol, they may begin to be seen as havens of informal social control, in contrast to anonymous, unstructured and individualised drinking. The book is interested in the role of ritual in structuring drinking occasions, and the threats to this. These always have masters of ceremony, rules and expectations, traditions and norms around reciprocity and excess that are obligatory to follow, and to make a generalisation, they hold problems in check. Government policy has an ambivalent effect on such rituals, tending to disturb and destroy them to various degrees, despite state’s supposed goal of minimising problems.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I am a historical sociologist, and my interest is not so much in a precise and detailed account of a particular era, but rather to try to get under the surface of events to identify the processes that shape them. The book is looking at the process of state formation and the role that alcohol has played in this. What sets states apart from other types of organisations is that it holds a dual monopoly of violence and taxation, as it establishes itself as the only agency that can legitimately use force and raise revenue. Alcohol and other psychoactive substances have played a very important role in this mechanism, funding the growth of states to a very significant degree, particularly before the mid-20th Century. But this created a contradiction, as states have been dependent on alcohol to fund themselves, thus promoting the alcohol industry, while at the same time fearing drinking establishments and their role in subversion, undermining the moral order, and health of the populace. The result is simultaneous promotion and repression, which produces ambivalence, contradiction and disturbances in how we relate to alcohol. As a contrast, many anthropologists have noted the relatively unproblematic relationship with alcohol that the small-scale societies they have researched have. These non-state societies universally use some psychoactive substance, but because their use is ritually structured rather than governed through policy, problems seem to be much less.

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John O’Brien

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What I found surprising in the course of researching the book was the extent to which alcohol and psychoactive substances have been critical sources of revenue for states. That the figure could be over 60% of revenue raised in certain periods of certain states is astonishing. Modern states literally were built on alcohol.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would love to write something on how spiritual and philosophical movements relate to alcohol. The book is very much focused on the institution of the state and its logic. Doing a proper study of the Abrahamic tradition, Greek philosophy and Asian philosophies and their contrasting perspectives on alcohol would be fascinating. There is such a dramatic contrast in attitudes towards and outcomes from drinking alcohol between the different civilizational areas, and this seems to be clearly based on the contrasting moral foundations that the worldviews based on their differing philosophies give. It is an intimidatingly huge and difficult topic though. But I will do it someday!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I’ll go for Cillian Murphy, but in the Birmingham accent he uses in Peaky Blinders. I’m sure he wouldn’t charge too much.

 

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Points Interview: Nancy Maveety

Today’s Points Interview features Nancy Maveety, Professor of Political Science at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and author of the new book Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019). At Tulane, she teaches courses in constitutional law, judicial decision-making, and her latest special topics class “Booze, Drugs and the Courts.”

Screenshot 2019-03-25 14.59.06Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

A cocktail-by-cocktail history of the Supreme Court and its decisions on alcohol and the Constitution. Eras of American drinking, in terms of practices and favorite potions, are superimposed on their corresponding time periods of the tenure of each chief justice in the Supreme Court’s history—with those chief justice eras looked at in terms of alcohol and the law.  

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

How both the social and personal behaviors and the decision making of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court reacted to as well as contributed to a (or to each) particular American “regime” of beverage alcohol’s restriction or enjoyment. Sometimes, restriction and enjoyment were simultaneous behaviors, and constitutional law was the vehicle for their uneasy coexistence in American life.

Alcohol and drug historians who are not U.S. courts or legal specialists might be surprised at how much rich material there is, with respect to “the Supreme Court bar.”

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Nancy Maveety

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The fact that the culture of beverage alcohol intersected so neatly with the justices’ own drinking behaviors and preferences, as well as so often with the major issues in constitutional law, across the history of the Supreme Court.

For instance, it was just too perfect that at the same time that vodka really emerges in the American spirits pantheon, by the early 1960s or thereabouts, Chief Justice Earl Warren was ordering the vodka gimlet as his cocktail of choice (at the many lunches and banquets where his predilection is remembered and recorded).

Likewise, Supreme Court cases that raised questions about states’ regulations as to who could drink (legally), or who could work as a bartender, for instance, were among some of the major twentieth century decisions on gender discrimination and equal protection of the law under the Bill of Rights. The regulation of alcohol is a pretty frequent factual element of a lot of U.S. constitutional law—on major constitutional issues, to do with congressional commerce power, federalism, 1st Amendment freedom of speech, 4th Amendment privacy issues…the list goes on. Contemporary social attitudes toward alcohol don’t line up perfectly with Court rulings, of course, but many alcohol-related controversies are definitely products of their times.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I’d love to see more archival work on alcohol in American political and legal life—more investigation into the nexus between political organization and social transformation in the U.S. and bars, drinking, and liquor as both a commodity and a vice.

Personally, I hope to be able spend more time immersing myself in the archival record of cocktail origins and fashions, and their connection to famous political moments or periods in American social history. Similarly, I want to do more detective work on the cocktails of choice of each of the justices of the Supreme Court!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Ken Burns—as long as he also agrees to serialize the book for PBS!

Points Interview: Lucas Richert

Today’s Points Interview features Dr. Lucas Richert, George Urdang Chair in the History of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of the newly-released Strange Trips: Science, Culture, and the Regulation of Drugs (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). Richert is also a co-editor of the ADHS’s official journal, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

Screenshot 2019-03-13 08.55.24Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Strange Trips is about “dangerous drugs and magic bullets,” terms that many of us have heard and used. The book investigates how and why these labels (may) change over time. Drugs and pharmaceuticals are far from fixed entities that exist in hermetically sealed bubbles! So I use a number of substances (such as heroin, LSD, cannabis, and others) to challenge the idea that scientific and medical understandings alone determine perceptions of drugs in the modern era. And I make the case that a complex negotiation is happening between medico-scientific knowledge and culture.

In 2019, I feel like we’re operating in an environment where drug policies and regulations are more fluid than ever before. At least as far as I can remember. Strange Trips offers a background for discussions surrounding medical cannabis or the opioid crisis in the present.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I don’t narrate a linear history of a single substance. Instead, I spotlight several different drugs and put them in dialogue with each other. I definitely enjoy singular biographies of substances or pharmaceuticals, don’t get me wrong. But I reckon that blended analyses will be of value to the historiography as well.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The character studies. The subtler moments. The finer details. Also: playing with the content and the form of an academic book.  Y’know, we have to take pleasure in the writing process.

Another thing I find intriguing about the book at this moment is the evolution: what was cut and why. Where (and who) I was when I started, versus where (and who) I am now. Silly, but true.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

For sure. There are always more avenues to explore. I look forward to seeing the results of various ongoing projects out there: pharmaceuticals and sexual politics (think LSD and conversion therapy); so-called lifestyle drugs; and stimulant use in Asia. I try and keep my finger on the pulse. This might also be a useful opportunity to invite submissions to Social History of Alcohol and Drugs: An Interdisciplinary Journal, which just moved to the University of Chicago Press.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

That’s a difficult one to answer. For the English language version, I’ll pick two: Dame Judi Dench and Peter Capaldi. I’d have to think more carefully about other languages.

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David Herzberg, Nancy Campbell, and Lucas Richert (L-R), the co-editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs journal