As any historian of drugs or alcohol knows, drug use has typically been mapped onto a binary spectrum between abstinence and addiction. The implication of the binary is that the more drugs one does, the closer one gets to a problematic fall. By contrast, the fewer drugs one does makes the user safer from the drug’s negative side effects. While plenty of drug historians have challenged this binary representation, especially as it pertains to addiction and addiction treatment, scholars still have a much harder time thinking of heavy drug use as anything but problematic.
Historians, especially those intent on breaking down historiographical binaries, should read Tim Mitchell’s 2004 book, Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol’s Power in Mexican History and Culture. This book, though ultimately disappointing itself, is a helpful starting point the abstinence/addiction binary right from the source. In it, Mitchell questions the limiting tendency, even for the more critical observers, to view excessive drinking (binge drinking) only as a form of abuse. Mitchell’s bold suggestion – that in the right context heavy alcohol use can represent a mode of solution-seeking – serves to turn the logic of intoxication on its head.
Though disappointing in terms of its methodology and conclusions, Mitchell’s forays into representations of legitimate drinking open intellectual doors for historians of drinking and drug use. He argues that intoxication has an important functional role to play in Mexican culture and history. His is a subtle but significant corrective to previous studies of Mexico that relegated intoxication to the margins of that story. He uses much of this existing scholarship in his analysis, but by bringing alcohol use (and not just alcohol) to the fore, he complicates existing scholarship by reconceptualizing alcohol’s role to one of prominence and not mere incidence. For Mitchell, alcohol has been and remains an important element in social debates about gender and family relationships, as a phenomenological tool for altering time perception, and most importantly as a form of resistance and rebellion. This post will focus on the implications of Mitchell’s framework for my own research on cannabis users in 1920s New York. I’ve spoken about gender in a previous post, so I’d like to focus on the second two of Mitchell’s thematic threads: alcohol’s role in altering consciousness and as an identity-creating tool of resistance.