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short & insightful writing about a long and complex history

Joint Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy

ttravis | January 20, 2011

Points (n.)

1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.

Bill W.: A Remembrance and a Review, Part 2

U. Mass. Press, 2000

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part look at Kevin Hanlon’s documentary Bill W.  In yesterday’s installment, biographer Matthew J. Raphael recounted his own experiences trying to capture and contextualize the life of AA’s co-founder for the book Bill W. and Mr. Wilson.

Bill W., an excellent new film from 124 Productions, takes a qualitative quantum leap over My Name Is Bill W. (1989), an ABC made-for-television movie starring James Woods as Bill Wilson and James Garner as Dr. Bob Smith.  Bill W.’s widow, Lois Wilson, lived just long enough to read and approve that script, and the lead performances, especially Woods’s, are convincing. But as Norman K. Denzin asserts in Hollywood Shot by Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema (1991), the fusion of Bill W.’s life with the “origin myth” of AA makes this film “a piece of official A.A. ideology that reproduces this organization’s version of its place in American society.” In effect, it employs biography as a means to place Wilson and AA alike “outside history, politics, and power.”  What I referred to yesterday as “the bedtime story” becomes an agreeable fairy tale for the New Agey Twelve-Step Recovery communities of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bill W., by contrast, connects Wilson directly to the history, politics, and power that bore on his life both inside AA and, to a lesser degree, in the outside world. The film takes account of such social conditions as the Great Depression, the shady new devices (some invented by Wilson) for boosting Wall Street profits, the gaudy excesses of the 1920s, in which Wilson eagerly participated, and the stark racial divisions that Bill W. finessed by encouraging “separate but equal” meetings in the South.

The overall treatment of race, however, seems a bit underdeveloped and thus slightly evasive.  Only one of the shadow-enshrouded AA members interviewed for the film is African American – a detail viewers might fail to recognize if he did not (at the director’s prompting?) move his tell-tale black hand into the light. The film gives a brief depiction of the Bowery as the ultimate hell-hole into which alcoholics can fall. But while the context suggests white alcoholics, the illustrative old photographs show only black down-and-outers.

Not Pictured in “Bill W.”: Whiteness

Still, only a zealot of political correctness would find much fault here.

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Bill W.: A Remembrance and a Review, Part 1

Editor’s Note: Matthew J. Raphael is the author of the biography Bill W. and Mr. Wilson: The Legend and Life of AA’s Co-founder (U. Mass. Press, 2000).  He uses a pen name in deference to AA’s 11th Tradition of anonymity. Recently retired from a long career as a critic and historian of American literature, he here turns his attention to the latest Bill W. bio, Kevin Hanlon’s documentary film of that name.

The first and only time I was lunched by a literary agent, he offered to get me a 50K advance for a trade book biography of Bill Wilson.

The Setting was Something Like This

At the time, little in this vein existed beyond Robert Thomsen’s novelistic Bill W. (1975) and the official AA book, “Pass It On” (1984). But soon thereafter, things began to pop. In the same anno mirabilis, 2000, were published: Bill W.: An Autobiography, based on interview tapes he made with Thomsen; Mel Barger’s My Search for Bill Wilson; Francis Hartigan’s Bill W.; and my own Bill W. and Mr. Wilson– all of them soon to be followed by Susan Cheever’s authoritative My Name Is Bill (2004).

Obviously, I demurred about that advance, which might have been just the start of some hefty royalties if the book caught on. The agent knew I could write well enough for the job and also handle the research. My candidacy was enhanced by the AA membership we had in common. I even had a leave coming up, and the advance would have allowed its extension for an additional semester or two. If only I would put my scholarly project aside and take up the biography!

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CFP: Best Graduate Student Paper Prize, The Alcohol, Drug, and Tobacco Study Group (ADTSG) of the Society for Medical Anthropology

The Alcohol, Drug, and Tobacco Study Group (ADTSG) of the Society for Medical Anthropology requests submissions for the best graduate student paper in the anthropology of alcohol, drugs, pharmaceuticals, tobacco or similar substances. Qualifying submissions will be judged by a committee of ADTSG members.  The author of the winning paper will receive a cash award …

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Shanghai Reflections: A Final Postcard

Editor’s Note: As a final word, here are a few thoughts from Diana L. Ahmad of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and a participant at the conference.  Thanks to Diana for taking a moment to prepare these thoughts.  In late June, over forty scholars from four continents and eight countries gathered at Shanghai …

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“From Addicts to Athletes: Youth Mobilities and the Politics of Digital Gaming in Urban China”

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Marcella Szablewicz.  Marcy received an MA in East Asian Studies from Duke University and a PhD in Communication and Rhetoric, under the advisement of Drs. June Deery and Tamar Gordon, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Department of Communication and Media.  She is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in MIT’s department of Comparative Media Studies.  You can find more of her work online at www.feiyaowan.com.

 1)    Nothing’s more popular right now than taking potshots at over-specialized, overstuffed, jargon-y academics.  Prove the haters wrong by describing your dissertation in terms that the average man in the street could understand.

“From Addicts to Athletes” departs from a simple premise: Recent statistics have shown that over three hundred million Chinese play Internet games. But while many young people argue that games provide free space in which to achieve necessary release from the pressures of society, the government and media often depict games as a kind of “opium for the spirit” that adversely affects Chinese youth.

Smells Like Opium for the Teen Spirit

Motivated to understand the logic behind these drastically different perspectives, in my research I trace the shifting discourses and practices of digital gaming in urban China, paying particular attention to the various ways that digital games are socially shaped —both how young Chinese describe and remember the importance of games in their social lives and how gaming is portrayed in government and media discourse. Based on ethnographic fieldwork spanning six years, I explore the mechanisms by which different games come to be constructed as either “healthy” or “unhealthy” and the corresponding processes by which the gamers who play them are portrayed as either “addicts” or “athletes.”  Despite belonging to the realm of so-called “free” time, I show that digital games and those who play them do not go unencumbered by political realities.  To the contrary, I contend that such constructions are rooted in larger cultural debates about patriotism and productivity, class and the crafting of the “ideal citizen.”

This notion of the ideal citizen is set against the backdrop of the precarious economic futures faced by youth in contemporary urban China.

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Shanghai Reflections, Part Two: Talking Across Levels of Analysis

Editor’s Note: Today, the Points blog presents the second part of my (Joe Spillane) reflections on the recently-concluded meeting, “Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History.”  Part one of these reflections considered the problem of talking across substances, while today’s comments consider the challenges posed by integrating levels of analysis.

We interrupted the first day of the conference to gather for a group photo near the meeting room where we had already completed the meeting’s first session.

Drugs and Drink in Asia Conference Participants

The session, which I chaired, was “Drugs and Empire”–and it highlighted some of the challenges in talked across levels of analysis at our conference.  Let’s begin with Zhiliang Su (Shanghai Normal University) and his paper, “Opium and the Progress of Asian History.”  Prof. Su offered something of a traditional narrative we would hear repeated several times at the meeting, one in which engagement with opium initiated a series of developments through which, “China lost both its sovereignty and conception and dignity and confidence” (from the translation by Pan Zhang, a Fudan University graduate student).  Opium, imposed on China by the British and later by the Japanese, is both the tool and symbol of imperial domination–the antithesis of personal and national sovereignty, with a decided focus on the latter.

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Monetize the Blog!

Gentle readers, if  you felt a pang go through you when you read yesterday that co-founder and co-managing editor Joe Spillane was stepping down from his lofty perch at Points, you were not alone.  The blog has gained both maturity and momentum in the last eight months, and those have brought stability to our day-to-day operations. But steering Points remains a demanding job, and while Joe is kind to call me “indefatigable,” his departure does bring us to a kind of turning point. How fortunate for us that just this weekend I was contacted by a marketing firm whose client–a drug treatment facility– would like to place their “high quality content” dealing with addiction and recovery on Points!

And Your Content Too

This is not the first invitation we’ve had to commoditize.  More than one person (at least one of whom was somebody’s well-meaning family member) has suggested we sign up with Google’s “AdSense” and start generating revenue by selling space on the blog to advertisers.  Last winter, another marketing firm (actually, pretty clearly an independent contractor doing piece work from home in one of those jobs you see advertised on a telephone pole) approached us about embedding links to relevant products and services into our posts. The occasion was guest blogger Michelle Garcia’s post on “Border History as Drugs History”; the linked-to product in this instance was a guide to online degree programs in Homeland Security Studies. And the going rate? Fifty bucks per link.

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Shanghai Reflections, Part One: Talking Across Substances

Editor’s Note: This week, I’ll be offering up some reflections on the recently-concluded conference, “Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History,” which was held at the Shanghai University on June 22 and 23, 2012.  The conference itself was organized by Drs. Yong-an Zhang, James H. Mills, and myself (Joe Spillane).  The sponsoring organizations included James Mills’ University of Strathclyde, the Wellcome Trust, the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies at Shanghai University (headed by Yong-an Zhang), and the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.  As the current President of the latter organization, I was very pleased to assist with the meeting, and to help welcome attendees.  The late Professor Musto would have been very gratified, I think, to have seen this gathering of younger and more senior scholars–together, they provided ample evidence of the maturation of the field of drugs and alcohol history.  Our hope in organizing this meeting was to showcase the “new perspectives” promised in the conference title, and to develop conversations across the boundaries of nation, substance, discipline, and method.  In this week’s posts, I’ll step back and offer some preliminary thoughts on those conversations.

Before I begin, a brief bit of news for Points readers: this month, I’m stepping down as one of the Managing Editors’ for the Points blog.  It has been two years since Trysh Travis and I began preparing to launch this new enterprise, and about eighteen months since our first post.  Since then, we have published over 350 more posts, and attracted a modestly sizable readership.  Most of this success is courtesy of the indefatigable Trysh Travis, with whom it has been an absolute pleasure to work.  I will remain a fully engaged consumer of this blog’s content, and an occasional contributor as well, and look forward to seeing what new surprises Points has in store during the years to come.  Now, back to Shanghai…

Conference banner
Advertising drugs, drink, and discussion

Conference themes are a curious thing.  In theory, they promise a great deal, but all too often end up being nibbled at around the edges over the course of a meeting.  Broad enough to sound exciting, themes are generally also capacious enough to include a lot of conversations that happen simultaneously but largely separately.  The idea of talking about “Drugs and Drink in Asia: New Perspectives from History” provides us with just this sort theme–just coherent enough to tantalize the participant with the possibilities for engaging academic interactions, just big enough to make one worry that too much was going on.

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