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Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

Chapter 1

The problems of intoxication and drunkenness: A brief background and history

I therefore turned my attention more particularly to the young; and as my residence was, for some years previous to 1816, on the south side of the river, the most direct way to which lay through the Saltmarket, the very “St Giles of Glasgow”, my eyes and ears were shocked several times a day by the profanity, indecency, filth, and vice, which were exhibited by hordes of young and old, and even infants, who were growing up pests to society, and ruined in themselves, for whose souls or bodies no one seemed to care, and whose wretchedness was enough to disgrace a professedly Christian community. Could nothing be done to stem this torrent of vice and ungodliness? […] My object was to seize a dozen of these wild human beings on the streets, and try what, by the blessing of God, might be done with them.

(David Stow, nineteenth century social reformer, cited in Hunter 1994, 10–11; see Appendix B)

An evening stroll in Sydney in the early 1990s: It was as if William Hogarth’s Gin Lane stretched for blocks. The streets were littered with drunks, some vomiting where they stood. The footpaths outside the hotels were strewn with broken glass. People argued with and hurled abuse at one another. Others with vacant eyes stood mumbling soundlessly to themselves, arms whirling like aimless windmills. Through the streets surged packs of feral teenagers with brutish faces and foul, mindless mouths.

(Graham Goodman, journalist/commentator in The Bulletin [not referenced], cited in Eckersley 1992, 7; see Appendix B)


The problems of intoxication and drunkenness – of their definition from different perspectives for different purposes; of their measurement; of the regulation, policing and management of their causes and consequences; of the ways in which they impact on different populations and groups; of the often moral dimensions and concerns that attach to them – are not unique to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Yet, in the often frenzied, often sensationalist, often politicised, often morally charged contemporary commentaries and public debates about intoxication and drunkenness there is a sense that these problems have sprung freshly from what is also, often, seen as the uniquely problematic, even declining, morally bankrupt, permissive social, cultural and economic landscapes of our times. Our opening quotes in this chapter attest to some of the problems with imagining the problems of intoxication and drunkenness in this way.

As indicated in the introduction to this book, a key concern of the discussion here is to identify, map and review the ways in which intoxication and drunkenness present as particular problems in different contexts and from a variety of perspectives. In order to provide a degree of contextual detail to this discussion this chapter will provide some background to these problems – both historical and contemporary. In saying this, our aims here are somewhat modest. There are any number of more detailed, in-depth historical accounts of the sorts of problems and issues that we have identified as being associated with intoxication and drunkenness. Included here might be accounts such as those of Eric Burns (2004) in his The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol; Iain Gately’s (2008) Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol; John Greenaway’s (2003) Drink and British Politics Since 1830: A Study in Policy-Making; or Mack Holt’s (2006) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History (see Appendix B). In addition, a number of these accounts might have a particular focus on a particular period, certain populations, or limited geographical/national contexts. We do not have these intentions or outcomes in mind here.

Alongside these qualifications about the extent and detail of our historical analysis we also want to make clear that in sketching some of the contours of the contemporary landscape from which these issues emerge, we draw extensively on diverse accounts in a number of key, mass circulation newspapers in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. As we indicate in Appendix A, our reasons for this approach are largely pragmatic and, determined by the fact that the print media presents a readily searchable archive in relation to these concerns. In addition, within these media spaces we are able to identify a number of concerns that will be examined in greater detail in subsequent chapters. The benefit of introducing a number of these problems at this time and in the form of media commentary is that in some important respects the various media platforms, and in this instance the print media, provide a more accessible space – but also, often, a less-restrained and less-scholarly space – in which problems associated with intoxication and drunkenness are aired, debated and translated from more specialised, arcane, expert contexts that, by definition, are not as readily accessed by the general, lay public.

With these qualifications in mind this chapter presents a historical account that focuses on a number of themes that appear to recur – often in different, but related forms – at a number of points during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which continue to echo through the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These themes include the following: the ways in which understandings of intoxication and drunkenness become attached to, and articulated with, particular concerns about sinfulness, delinquency and/or vice; the shifting and unstable ideas about the responsible, autonomous self who may be more or less accountable for states of intoxication and drunkenness and the range of consequences that might flow from these states; the ways in which personal and social consequences of intoxication and drunkenness – often related to concerns about health, public order, the regulation and licensing of the production, distribution, sale and consumption of alcohol, and ideals associated with prohibition and temperance movements – have tended to be filtered through concerns about the supposed moral delinquency of certain groups, social classes, and ethnic populations.

In the final sections of this chapter we present an account of the ways in which the media produces, comments on and translates contemporary concerns and difficulties associated with the problems of intoxication and drunkenness. As we have just indicated, our discussion at that time sketches much of the background to the analysis and commentary in chapters that will follow.

Historical roots?

The story goes that the night before the Battle of Hastings King Harold’s soldiers stayed up drinking while the Normans were at prayer and William of Malmesbury claimed that the success of the Normans can at least be partly put down to the drunkenness of the English soldiers, which led them to take on the Norman army “more with rashness and precipitate fury than with military skill” (quoted by Barr, 1995, p. 26 [see Appendix B]). Malmesbury went on to note that the Normans soon adopted the English habits of drinking and eating to excess. Although Barr does sound a word of caution about the bias of the Norman William of Malmesbury he also notes that: “…there is no doubt that the new Anglo-Norman nation that was formed by force in the eleventh century retained the reputation for drunkenness that had been created by its purely English predecessors”
(Barr 1995, p. 26).
(Herring et al. 2008a, 477)

Of course, alcohol, intoxication and drunkenness have been a part of human society for thousands of years (Ben-Noun 2002). How alcohol is used, individual and societal responses to it, and the consequences of intoxication and drunkenness change through time and place. In 1989 and 2006 Nordlund (2008), for example, conducted a follow-up study on an initial survey conducted in Norway in 1964. In this study she concluded that ‘the general view on alcohol use and abuse has changed radically in the last 40 years or so. People today accept both heavier and more frequent intoxication before they call it abuse and this applies whether the drinking takes place among friends or in solitude’ (Nordlund 2008, 90).

In Herring et al.’s (2008a) review of the historical precedents for the recent increased media attention and policy obsession with binge drinking in the English context, they argue, drawing from Barr (1995), that ‘heavy drinking has always been part of the British character and moreover this has distinguished the inhabitants of Britain from its continental neighbours’. Drawing again from Barr (1995, 25) they reach back to the eighth century to:

missionary and reformer Saint Boniface who although born in Britain spent most of his life in Europe, [and who] in his old age wrote to Cuthbert, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with reports claiming that: “In your dioceses the vice of drunkenness is too frequent. This is an evil peculiar to pagans and to our race. Neither the Franks nor the Gauls nor the Lombards nor the Romans nor the Greeks commit it”. (Herring et al. 2008a, 477)

So, are the various problems associated with intoxication and drunkenness recent phenomena? Do current concerns just revisit old ones? What might be novel about these issues? A useful starting point for this discussion can be found in the ways in which, at the start of the twenty-first century, sections of the media try to explain the issues related to the problems of intoxication and drunkenness in settings such as Australia, the UK and the US. A key theme in these discussions by media commentators (though not the only one) is a reference to the historical roots of these issues. Here there a sense that there are some national, culturally based traits or attributes that pre-dispose the English, or the Australians, or, often by inference or by comparison, some others – such as Mediterranean Europeans – to understand, think about or use alcohol in ways that lead to intoxication and drunkenness, or, indeed, to guard against these possibilities.

Sections of the British and American media, for example, consider Britain to be the archetype of a problem drinking culture. According to Julie Burchill (2001), the English are ‘a hedonistic, freebooting, swashbuckling race who, when not allowed to go around the world conquering other people, drown our sorrows any way we can, crouched out here on our cold, little island; as lonesome, untamed and hardcore as the Corsicans or Cypriots on theirs’. The inevitable result of such drinking is violence. As one teenage drinker told The Guardian, ‘it’s what Britain is all about at the weekend… getting pissed, causing a bit of trouble, having a laugh’ (Morris 2001; see also Lyall 2007; Midgley 2001a). And Sarah Lyall (2006) writes in The New York Times:

Britons have long been known for their love of alcohol and their belief that among the naturally repressed, drinking is an essential prelude to relaxation and joie de vivre… But Britons are just as notorious for their tendency to segue seamlessly from drinking into brawling, to overdo it and then behave like loutish hooligans.

Annie Britton, an epidemiologist studying the drinking habits of British civil servants, has observed that drunkenness is ‘certainly a national characteristic. Other countries, for example, tend to be ashamed or mortified by drunkenness. The UK is unique in glorifying it with programmes such as the appalling Booze Britain. And our drinking habits have got worse’ (The Guardian 2006). In an effort to find an historical precedent for the British drinking culture, Frank Boyce, writing in The Guardian, invokes the memory of Saint Pyr, a Welsh abbot, who ‘got so bladdered one night in AD520, he fell down a well and drowned’ (Boyce 2004), while Tristram Hunt, writing in The Times, describes the ‘British love of drink’ as ‘one of the great historical truisms’ (Hunt 2004). A review of a book on the history of wine even suggested that drunkenness only emerged as a cultural trait in the Dark Ages, and mainly in Britain, whose: ‘Anglo-Saxon inhabitants… were the worst offenders of all: there are more references to intoxication there than to the rest of Europe combined’ (Lourie 2002).

In the US, some media commentary seeks to explain and understand Americans’ drinking by pointing to historical figures who led successful lives despite their drunkenness. Writing in The New York Times Pollan (2003), for example, constructs a narrative of the history of the United States in terms of its struggle against alcohol abuse. This narrative begins with the denunciation of ‘the excesses of the “alcoholic republic”’ by several of the founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and continues through to Ulysses S. Grant, who was forced out of the Army because of drunkenness (Ramos 2000), only to redeem himself by leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, and ultimately to become President (see also Remini 2000; Brennan 2002; Felten 2006).

For Caleb Carr (2000) writing in The New York Times, Grant’s emergence from the scourge of drunkenness is reflected in the history of New York, which is celebrated for its ability to succeed in spite of the drunkenness of its residents. Carr (2000) writes, for instance, that one of the ‘enduring mysteries’ of New York is how it has ‘consistently produced some of the great engineering marvels of the world’, despite being ‘eternally plagued by drunkenness, filth, disease, violence and corruption’. One such plague, writes Kevin Baker (2001a), was the Five Points slum – at one time ‘the world’s most notorious slum’ – which was blighted by prostitution and public drunkenness.

Some sections of the Australian media also seek to frame their discussion of the Australian drinking culture in a historical context. Australia, too, is described as ‘a culture that elevates intoxication to national myth’ (Farouque 2007). These myths however, are understood and handled in an ambiguous, uncertain way:

In overall drinking, Australia’s population is not the worst in international rankings… We’re about in the middle for total per capita consumption among English-speaking countries. “This doesn’t mean that there is no problem in Australia, but rather that we, and other comparable countries, have become used to a good deal of problematic drinking as a part of ordinary life”. (Farouque 2007)

John Mangan (2004) suggests that the British ‘heritage’ underpinning Australian culture includes ‘Puritanism, drunkenness, pragmatism and distrust of theory, philistinism, dislike of anything showy, theatrical, arty or “too serious”, British good sense and the British sense of humour’. For Chris Middendrop (2004), writing in The Age, what Germaine Greer calls Australia’s long tradition of “ruinous drinking habits” can be traced back to white settlement. It began during initial settlement because white Australians couldn’t cope without alcohol. ‘It was accepted’, Greer writes, ‘that without alcohol life in the Great South Land would be unbearable’. In this sort of narrative it is claimed that Australians took to drink as a coping mechanism because they couldn’t comprehend the Indigenous people or deal with a surreal landscape.

Drunkenness in Australia is also described as being ‘entangled in the legend of male mateship’, and is traced to the use of rum as a ‘colonial currency’ in New South Wales (NSW), and to the nineteenth century gold rush (Farouque 2007; see also Farrelly 2007; Higson 2008). The ‘faint stirrings of the nation’s social conscience’ are attributed to punishments handed out for drunkenness in the new colony (New Zealand Herald 2006b), while Middendorp (2004) writes that ‘the conspicuous consumption of booze seems to have been one of early Melbourne’s more notable attributes’.

While the focus of much of the discussion of a history of drunkenness in the British and Australian print media has been to reflect upon their nation’s drinking cultures, they do so not only to revere it, but also to identity points of tension within it – especially with regards to drunkenness amongst young people and women. In nineteenth century Australia, the debates about women and drunkenness emphasised the frailty of women’s bodies. It was argued that feminine dispositions ‘made them especially prone to… lascivious [behaviour], and hence a danger to themselves and to men (both in terms of their condition in the temporal world and their future in the afterlife)’ (Killingsworth 2006, 362). The dangers to/for women in terms of drunkenness were not only framed in biological terms, but, Killingsworth (2006, 362) argues:

In the case of wives, it was felt that drunkenness reduced women’s capacity to (passively) manage and further the family’s material and spiritual interests: a drunk woman would not be capable of attending to her children and her husband; and, just as importantly, women who drank were deemed incapable of setting a good moral example for their family (drunken women were often placed with prostitutes at the bottom of the social/moral scale).

Women were not the only concern in relation to drunkenness in Australian history. Graycar (2001, 1–2) argues that nearly half of all convictions in Magistrates’ Courts in the first years of the twentieth century were for drunkenness: ‘From 1901 to 1906 the number of convictions fell from 57,212 to 45,843 – though convictions as a proportion of cases remained constant at around 90%. It can be seen that a great deal of police and court resources at the beginning of the century were devoted to drunkenness’. At the start of the twenty-first century, public drunkenness has been decriminalised in most parts of Australia, though Graycar argues that drunkenness is still a problem: ‘In the first half of the century drunkenness was seen as a crime in itself. Today it is seen as a precipitating factor’.

Paul Kingsnorth (2005) laments the disappearance of traditional pubs, which have ‘long been the cornerstone of British culture’. He writes fondly of the Luppitt Inn, which is little more than the front room of 84-year-old Mary Wright’s stone farmhouse, and which he describes as ‘one of the last custodians of a dying tradition’. He references the French poet Hilaire Belloc’s observation that pubs were ‘closer to the nation’s pulse than the monarchy, the Church of England or the mother of parliaments’. The pub was the ‘institution of the ordinary people’, the ‘indefinable something’ of ‘discussions… games… drunkenness, the foibles of the landlord, the conviviality, the unpredictable gathering of diverse people’. This is the culture that is lost, writes Kingsnorth, to ‘identikit’ bars and pubs which promote the kind of mass-drunkenness for which Britain’s youth are renowned.

Polly Toynbee (2005), writing in The Guardian, confesses that ‘British drinking culture as we know it is already repulsively uncivilized’. As it is described by The Guardian, the drinking culture in Britain today, especially amongst young people, is particularly problematic. The paper describes young Britons as ‘men and women who are fully committed to the cause of alcoholic annihilation’, emptying ‘both their bladders and stomachs’ in ‘the streets of capitals across mainland Europe’ (The Guardian 2004b). And this is despite evidence that:

the damage done by drink is increasing [in the UK], as alcohol-related deaths from cirrhosis, hepatitis and alcohol poisoning have soared by 18% over the past five years. Those figures are dwarfed by the 22,000 violent drinking deaths in car accidents and pub stabbings, with half of violent crime due to drink. Last week’s figures showed under-age “drunk and disorderly” prosecutions up by 25%. (Toynbee 2005)

Barton (2007) seeks to balance out such reports with evidence that Britons’ drinking habits are changing. He cites transformations in the ways in which cider is understood, branded and used as an example. Whereas cider was once ‘the tipple of bus stops, a route to quick, cheap drunkenness’ – ‘the preserve of teenagers’, who were attracted by ciders’ ‘exciting names and bright packaging’ (Morris 2001) – it has now been ‘made respectable’. Today, cider is ‘no longer swigged lukewarm from cans, it comes in glass bottles and is served over ice, while the emphasis is placed maturely upon the apple flavour, not cider’s ability to get drinkers inebriated at pace’ (Barton 2007). Here it might be considered that cider represents a certain maturation of British drinking culture, while also containing within it a source of the problems with that culture.

And as Leo Benedictus (2007) points out, studies suggest that cider might actually provide a counter to the health problems caused by alcohol abuse. Citing the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, he argues that cider ‘contains high concentrations of phenolics and antioxidants’, which are thought to play a part in preventing heart disease and some forms of cancer. However, Benedictus also suggests that cider contains far higher concentrations of cheap alcohol, leading to outbreaks of particularly energetic rural drunkenness on an epic scale. As a result, even though cider itself has transformed into a drink that is positioned as more sophisticated, the habits of its drinkers may not have matured in the same ways. Benedictus (2007) claims that ‘when the new season’s plastic flagons appear on shelves in the south-west, something takes hold of local men’. These men ‘take to the streets to celebrate together, and finally to fight one another, in scenes seldom seen elsewhere in Britain since the darker days of the hundred years war’.

Gin, ale, vice, sinfulness and personal responsibility: The changing face of the problem of intoxication and drunkenness

In this section we want to explore in a little more detail the ways in which concerns about intoxication and drunkenness take a particular shape at certain points in history. Our focus here will be on highlighting some of the shifts in understanding the causes and consequences of intoxication and drunkenness. These movements include changes in the ways in which the individual is held to be responsible – legally and morally – for their conduct and behaviours: both in terms of being and becoming drunk, and for what the person might do when drunk.

Herring et al. (2008a, 478) make a strong claim that current concerns about binge drinking are not new and that there is a long history of attempts to regulate consumption and the purchasing of alcohol. They argue, for example, that the first licensing act dates back to Henry VII’s reign in 1494. They identify three patterns of governmental responses to alcohol use in England at this time:

First, there is a discernable pattern of periods of inactivity interspersed by periods of heightened concern and activity, often in the form of legislation. Second, these periods of activity are usually the result of concerns about the socioeconomic impact of alcohol – generally drunkenness and especially public drunkenness. Third, women’s drinking is often singled out as a matter of particular concern.

A couple of centuries later, between 1720 and 1751, the gin epidemic, or gin craze, emerged as the ‘first modern moral panic over intoxication’ (Nicholls 2006, 133). At this time ‘gin consumption in England rose from half a gallon in 1688 to 19 million gallons in 1742’ (Barr 1995, 189; cited in Herring et al. 2008a, 479). In this moral panic alcohol use emerges as a marker of the supposed moral character of different social classes. It was gin more than ale, or any other alcoholic beverage, which raised the alarm bells of government concern:

One of the most famous public debates regarding alcohol concerned the relative merits of drinking beer or gin. This debate was underpinned by spatial metaphors of Gin Lane (a place of immoral behaviour – particularly by women – violence, slum life, disorder and potential revolution), and Beer Street (a place of joviality, business success, progress, modern civilized streets, houses and shops; see O’Malley and Valverde, 2004, [Appendix B] for a detailed overview). Gin was cheap and plentiful and hence was the favoured drink of the working classes. At the time, beer was considered to be a healthier alternative; hence gin became central to middle-class anxieties over working-class drunkenness, immorality and unruly crowds, and thus a necessary focus of legislation and taxation that ultimately led to reduced usage. (Jayne et al. 2006, 454)

While not focusing on divisions between social classes, Herring et al. (2008a, 479) argue that ‘gin drinking was an issue of grave concern for the contemporary policy makers and opinion formers’ and that ‘concerns were primarily around public drunkenness, high morbidity and mortality rates and the neglect of children by their drunken mothers’. In eighteenth century England ‘gin was seen as producing a new kind of drunkenness’, described by some as causing ‘“a Kind of instantaneous Drunkenness, where a Man hath no time to recollect or think whether he has had enough or no” (Tucker 1751, 21; quoted by Nicholls 2003, 129)’ (cited in Herring et al. 2008a, 481). We can see echoes of these forms of thinking in twenty-first century concerns with products like alcopops and energy drinks mixed with alcohol.

Understandings of intoxication and drunkenness have a long history of being linked to debates about individual responsibility. In England in the late seventeenth century, drunkenness was firmly associated with sin, and crime pamphlets of the time proclaimed the potential ‘“chain of sin” that would lead a person from a lesser infraction such as swearing or Sabbath breaking to fighting, theft, and the most heinous of crimes, murder’ (Rabin 2005, 457). At this time, the threat was perceived for both rich and poor, however, Rabin (2005, 457) argues that ‘English representations of the relationship between alcohol and crime shifted between the late seventeenth century and the middle of the eighteenth century’. A new discourse arose, Rabin argues, in which rich and poor were considered differently affected by alcohol, with implications for the evolution of the notion of responsibility and the acceptability of the excuse of intoxication in a court of law. Of course, at various points in time, legal theory draws from social, political and economic contexts, and it is that which we focus on here. Rabin (2005, 457) argues that:

Drunkenness among the wealthy was often described as a private vice, while drunkenness and addiction to alcohol among the laboring poor were said to pose “political mischiefs” that increased crime and threatened to break down gender roles and the structure of the family. The rise of this new discourse about alcohol did not displace older explanations for crime, but it did affect definitions of responsibility.

Rabin’s (2005, 459–461) discussion highlights how, in the context of intense religious faith, drunkenness was understood as a particularly evil behaviour in pamphlets published during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Drunkenness was identified ‘as “cursed and abominable,” the “queen” of sins, “the root of all evil, the rot of all good”’. Given the seriousness of the sin of drunkenness, ‘the crimes that followed… were to be punished severely with no room for mitigation or pardon’. However, Rabin argues that as ideas about an individualised, autonomous, responsible self began to emerge during the seventeenth century Enlightenment, the understandings of intoxication – particularly the notion of ‘responsibility for acts committed while intoxicated’ – also underwent a transformation. While intoxication was not considered a legitimate excuse for criminal behaviour, it can be found mentioned in court proceedings, and begins to be seen as a mitigating factor in understanding and punishing certain criminal behaviours:

defendants argued for acquittal, mitigation, or pardon based on their sense that drunkenness reduced their level of responsibility for crime. The number of cases in which drunkenness was mentioned rose between 1681 and 1751, but the proportion of cases did not. The rate of acquittal and mitigation for cases in which drunkenness was mentioned ranged from 50 percent to 100 percent, with an average of 71 percent over the whole period. (Rabin 2005, 466)

In spite of these transformations, not everyone agreed that intoxication was a reasonable excuse for criminal behaviour. Rabin (2005, 461–462), for example, comments on the liberal philosopher John Locke’s interpretation of such an excuse:

Locke cited the coexistence of sanity and insanity in the same person as “making them two persons”. For the insane, Locke argued that legal responsibility for crime was suspended because the “self was changed” and “the self-same person was no longer in that man”. Unlike the mad person, however, the drunken offender was held accountable for all of his behaviour. Within Locke’s understanding of a contingent self, displaced by circumstance, madness was the unique exception to legal accountability. Locke explained that the law could not excuse an offence committed under the influence of alcohol because human laws “cannot distinguish certainly what is real, what is counterfeit; and so the ignorance in drunkenness or sleep is not admitted as a plea”. For Locke, the fact that a jury could not corroborate a state of mind exposed the limits of law and disqualified the excuse of drunkenness.

Locke’s discussion of the problems of intoxication and responsibility contributed to more public debate about these issues at the time. These concerns were also addressed by the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who proposed the importance of using reason to balance our interpretation of experience. Nicholls (2006, 136) argues that: ‘By muddling up our sense of our selves and our capacity for rational thought, in addition to undermining our will (both in terms of the choices one makes when drunk and the decision whether to drink or not), drunkenness should be anathema to a Kantian’. However, as Nicholls (2006, 136) shows:

Kant himself was often remarkably indulgent towards alcohol – describing wine-parties, for example, as “merry, boisterous, and teeming with wit” (Kant, 1978: 60 [see Appendix B]). While insisting that “all stultifying drunkenness, such as comes from opium or brandy… which does not encourage sociability or the exchange of thought, has something shameful about it” (1978: 59). Kant only condemns specific forms of intoxication which he ascribes to specific intoxicants. He also asserts that the “openheartedness” that drink produces is a “moral quality” (1978: 71).

Rabin’s (2005, 476) discussion and analysis highlights the shift from the characterisation of drunkenness as a sin, to an approach that focused on the ways in which drunkenness should be considered in punishing criminal behaviour associated with it. In the seventeenth century so-called murder pamphlets ‘depicted drunkenness as a sin that signalled a criminal fate, threatened the social order, and demanded the most severe punishment’. During the next hundred years there was a shift in thinking about drunkenness, its consequences, and the nature of individual responsibility under its influence. Rabin (2005, 469) discusses how drunkenness was used in the courts as a mitigating factor, a situation that speaks directly to the ways in which the autonomous, responsible self of the Enlightenment – a self held to be ultimately responsible for its own behaviours and destiny – is compromised by states of drunkenness:

Drunkenness appeared as an excuse for a wide variety of crimes in pretrial depositions and trial transcripts. Along with the most common crime, theft, defendants introduced drunkenness as an excuse when charged with attempted rape, sedition, and arson. The alcohol plea was used to explain accidental deaths resulting from quarrels as well as domestic disturbances and other erratic, violent behavior. Defendants blamed the mental state induced by alcohol for relatively harmless effects such as memory loss and for more serious conditions in which a defendant’s intoxication made him or her susceptible to persuasion to commit a crime. Two kinds of excuses emerge: in the first, a simple drunkenness plea, offenders argued for diminished responsibility. The second linked the effects of intoxication with insanity.

So, by the eighteenth century, as Rabin (2005, 477) identifies:

Despite the legal commentators’ insistence that legal and moral responsibility had to be understood separately where drunkenness was concerned, testimony of participants in the courtroom reflected a belief that drunkenness could mitigate the offender’s guilt. Judicial authorities and defendants alike considered alcohol powerful enough to leave them “incapacitated” and “insensible with the effects of liquor”.

Rabin (2005, 477) argues that court reports reflecting questions ‘about both the defendant’s and the victim’s level of intoxication and capacity to reason reflected the court’s interest in the subject’. Further, this eighteenth century legal and judicial concern with reason reflected a Lockean ‘preoccupation with mental states and those circumstances that might compromise or displace one’s rational capacities’. In the courtroom, defendants and witnesses attempted ‘to separate a generally innocent character from a specific criminal act’. In these attempts to imagine a separation between the crime and the criminal ‘there was undoubtedly a connection between the kind of crime committed and the explanation attached to it’. However, a state of intoxication was not equally applicable to all criminal acts:

The excuse of drunkenness suited certain opportunistic offenses better than others: a brawl in an alehouse, a seditious toast to the Pretender, or an impulsive theft might more readily be explained with a defense of drunkenness. In all cases, defendants claimed that their mental state, induced by alcohol, absolved them from at least some of the responsibility for their crimes. The use of drunkenness as a mitigating circumstance was possible because the law had long recognized that various sorts of mental states were exculpatory. (Rabin 2005, 477)

While not working to completely free a defendant from guilt:

In this eighteenth-century dialogue of mitigation, the plea of drunkenness emerged as an important trope, a formula through which defendants and judicial authorities negotiated mitigation. Rather than absolute guilt, the plea of drunkenness suggested notions of partial responsibility, a spectrum of culpability in which drunkenness might place one closer to the excusable end without implying innocence. Judicial authorities may have agreed, and as attested by the high rate of mitigation in cases where drunkenness was mentioned, they often accepted this explanation; it did not serve as grounds for acquittal, but it frequently justified a less severe punishment based on the defendant’s “fuddled mind”. (Rabin 2005, 477)

Various literary and artistic figures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provide other interpretations of the character of intoxication and drunkenness at this time, and of the ways in which different individuals might understand these states. Alcohol, and specifically intoxication, was seen as providing an outlet for rebellion against bourgeois sensibilities and a way to participate in something bigger than oneself:

Oscar Wilde’s quip that “a glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world” for example, sums up the increasing use of intoxication among Romantic and early Modernist artists as a trope for the rejection of bourgeois sensibilities, the pursuit of “ironic transcendence”… and the celebration of all sorts of “higher pleasures”. George Moore, in his memoirs of life in bohemian late 19th century Paris, described the tavern as “a snort of defiance at the hearth”… while Charles Baudelaire ascribed the desire for intoxication to a highly refined, “yearn[ing] for the infinite”. (Nicholls 2006, 144–145)

Yet, as Rabin (2005, 466) argues, the ramifications of drinking to intoxication for rich and poor were not alike and, again, we find ourselves back in the courtroom. By the mid-eighteenth century:

excessive drinking among the poor was [seen to be] more serious and had more ominous ramifications than drinking among the wealthy. The notion that the poor had less of an ability to control the effects of alcohol on their emotions and their behavior was applied in the courtroom where defendants, their witnesses, lawyers, and even prosecutors introduced evidence about alcohol as a factor that could mitigate one’s responsibility for crime.

The courts both reflected changing public understandings of intoxication and drunkenness and influenced thinking of the time. In addition there were other influences, including governmental acts and laws which influenced the use of alcohol. As Mason (2001, 109) argues these Acts and Laws, which can be understood as both leading, and emerging from, social, cultural and political understandings of the problems associated with alcohol use and consumption – including drunkenness – were influential in shaping changes in the use of alcohol in nineteenth century England:

On July 23, 1830, Parliament passed “An Act to permit the general Sale of Beer and Cyder by Retail in England.” Commonly known as the Beer Act of 1830, this law called for a major overhaul of the way beer was taxed and distributed in England and Wales. In place of a sixteenth-century statute that had given local magistrates complete control over the licensing of brewers and publicans, the Beer Act stipulated that a new type of drinking establishment, the beer shop, or beer house, could now be opened by any rate-paying householder in England or Wales (Scotland and Ireland had their own drink laws).

Mason (2001, 109) argues that this new permit was welcomed and its use spread quickly throughout England: ‘So attractive was the idea of the beer house to both retailers and consumers, in fact, that within six months of the Beer Act’s taking effect, over 24,000 beer houses had sprung up throughout England and Wales’. Again, the possible range of consequences of this new permitting system was understood largely in terms of apparently self-evident difference between the social classes. The self-evident nature of working class vices is, from this perspective, heightened by the ways in which beer and ale were made available and regulated. Mason (2001, 110) argues that:

From the moment the new law took effect on October 10, 1830, many members of England’s privileged classes complained about the widespread debauchery the law had supposedly incited. In a steady stream of sermons, poems, crime reports, and stump speeches, the beer house came to represent intemperance, idleness, and a lack of discipline – in short, all the self-destructive vices of the working class.

Mason (2001, 110) also argues that evidence indicates that the Beer Act not only ‘initially increased levels of drunkenness among England’s working class’. Even more significantly, he argues that its long-term consequence was in its effect on the perceptions of working class drunkenness. Put simply, the long-term legacy of the Act was that the middle and upper classes saw drunkenness as a problem of the working classes:

From 1830 until the 1870s, it was counted as something of a truism in middle- and upper-class society that the Beer Act had touched off an irreversible course of working class drunkenness. Social commentators of all political persuasions, ranging from the conservative Henry Mayhew to the communist Friedrich Engels, viewed the Beer Act as a defining moment in the fortunes of England’s working class.

Was this a new kind of drunkenness, or a new set of ideas about the nature, causes and consequences of drunkenness as a social problem, or was it just a continuation of the Gin Craze from years before? One element of difference that appears clear is that the context or spaces of drinking events had shifted: ‘A working-class culture previously centered around the home, the church, and the work-site now quite clearly found its focal point in the neighborhood beer house’ (Mason 2001, 111). Drawing on the commentary of Friedrich Engels (1844; see Appendix B), Mason (2001, 121) points out that ‘beer shops had become the hubs of Manchester’s slums’ and the outcome of the Act was effecting the working class most prominently.

Engels, a colleague of Karl Marx, and commentator on the conditions of the English working class during the depths of the Industrial Revolution, was quick to note that the blame for working class drunkenness lay not with the workers themselves, but with the nation’s leaders and the system they had created. In ratifying the Beer Act, Engels argued, Parliament ‘facilitated the spread of intemperance by bringing a beerhouse, so to say, to everybody’s door’ (cited in Mason 2001, 152). As Mason (2001, 121) suggests: ‘Although he stops short of arguing, as some Temperance workers were wont to do, that the Beer Act was little more than a conspiracy of the rich to subjugate the poor, Engels insists that the poor should not be held accountable for conditions over which they have no control’. In many respects this is a markedly different view of intoxication and drunkenness than we find in religious and philosophical accounts which emphasise ideas of sinfulness and personal responsibility.

Not only can drunkenness in the late nineteenth century be understood through the prism of class, but also through geography and public space (though of course all of these three are related). Beckingham (2008, 306), for example, argues that the English city of Liverpool was considered the drunkenness ‘shock city’ of the nineteenth century. In this instance statistics and geography are used to explore various ways of understanding drunkenness:

Liverpool’s unenviable position can be seen in the evidence collected by the House of Lords Select Committee on Intemperance in 1878. Data from annual police reports presented to the committee revealed a clear north–south divide, with northern towns revealed as 3.5 times more drunken than southern towns and Liverpool as the most drunken town in England and Wales. The committee was presented with a cartographic realization of this data that located drunkenness firmly north of a line from the Severn to the Humber. Crucially, drunkenness was felt to threaten society as much as it did the drunkard.

It can be argued, however, that particular definitions of drunkenness, as both a ‘vice’ and as a ‘public offence’ actually provided statistics that ‘were both grounded in and helped to reinforce a problematic geography of drunkenness’ (Beckingham 2008, 306). For Beckingham (2008, 302–309) it is the public aspect of drunkenness that raised concerns: ‘drunkenness only became a problem, and therefore a statistic, when it became a public problem’. In his discussion Beckingham questions the reliability of statistics such as those which define levels of public drunkenness because, he argues, not only is such a state difficult to define objectively but also record keeping practices change from place to place and over time. As such, he argues that different cities have different approaches to drunkenness, and in order to understand it, intervention practices and magisterial actions must also be mapped, concluding that, ‘any statistics, therefore, are dependent upon contingency and context’.

Beckingham (2008, 309) goes on to illustrate the many contingencies of understanding drunkenness and intoxication in a particular time and place. He quotes a head Constable, Leonard Dunning, who claimed that:

Drunkenness may or may not amount to an offence against the law, if it does it may or may not come under the notice of a police-man, if it does he may or may not think fit to interfere either by arresting or reporting the offender, if he does his superiors may or may not consider the case a proper one for prosecution: to measure intemperance as a vice by the numbers of offences against public order which survive all these “ifs” is about as logical as it would be to measure the number of people who break their legs in the city as a whole by the number picked up in the streets by the police ambulances.

The difficulties associated with defining and identifying an individual’s state of drunkenness was acknowledged in the nineteenth century in England when it fell to individual police officers to make this call:

In 1871 the Liverpool Critic called for clarity from magistrates on what could be considered “drunk”. It noted that different people might appear to be drunk when staggering along the street but might be clear in the head, while others might be cloudy in the head but walking without trouble. (Beckingham 2008, 307)

The lesson from history here is one, as Beckingham (2008, 310–311) argues, related to the problem of defining, mapping and quantifying the problem of drunkenness. In nineteenth century England, as at other times in history: ‘statistics for drunkenness reflected the nature of policing, and therefore of public and governmental pressures applied through the Watch Committee, the body of councillors responsible for organizing the policing of the town’. Beckingham’s point is worth quoting at length here for its relevance to the approach taken to dimensions of the problems of drunkenness and intoxication today:

The greater issue is the use made of those statistics. Those uses did not just tell facts based on geography; the geography of drinking was there in the production of the epistemological “fact” of drunkenness. Significantly, deciding when reason and responsibility is lost such that that person enters the statistical food-chain remains discursively constructed today. Hence maybe it is just as useful to reassert the importance of contextualizing twenty-first century drinking and drunkenness in an understanding of discretionary and uneven policing of spaces of alcohol consumption. When this is done for the nineteenth-century, we discover that the numbers behind those ‘facts’ of drunkenness tell us more about their compilers and campaigners than about those who, as numbers, are recorded in them.

In a similar vein, Jayne et al. (2006, 455) recall a study by Monkkonen from 1981 (see Appendix B) which draws a distinction between official statistics of arrests for public drunkenness and life on the ground in 22 cities in the US between 1860 and 1920. Official statistics are connected with political concerns and the changing nature of definitions:

Despite statistical sources identifying a general decline over the period, Monkkenon shows that some cities (such as San Francisco, St Louis, Buffalo and Louisville) saw consistent growth in arrests for drunkenness and a further nine cities also showed increases at various times throughout this period. He also challenges the picture provided by such statistics by suggesting that, rather than drunken disorder significantly declining, it was political concerns and associated changing legal definitions (and different policing in different localities) that explain these statistics.

Temperance and prohibition: Some reflections from the United States

In this section we do not propose to provide a detailed history of temperance movements and of prohibition campaigns in the US. Again, such an account is beyond the scope of our discussion. Our purpose, instead, is to briefly sketch some of the tensions and understandings of alcohol and intoxication and drunkenness that gave temperance and prohibition movements their particular character in the US – up until the start of the twentieth century. This discussion references a number of the points we have developed to this stage. Namely, that the problems of intoxication and drunkenness take on different characteristics in different times, spaces and places, and in relation to the behaviours and dispositions of different groups and populations. These characteristics, however, can echo far beyond these times, spaces and places.

A point of entry into this discussion is provided by Stolberg’s (2006, 41–46) discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations about the always ambivalent and ambiguous ways in which alcohol was understood in colonial and post-revolutionary America. As Stolberg argues, ‘Alcohol was a pervasive part of the early American pharmacopoeia’. However, as in England at the time, drunkenness was, in many contexts, understood in terms of sinfulness: ‘alcohol tolerance was apparently widespread among Americans since despite relatively high levels of consumption, public drunkenness was rare’. The religious language of sinfulness was prominent in making sense of the problems that arose from drunkenness:

Drunkenness, perhaps influenced by Puritanical traditions, was regarded as a sin, as a “wicked example”. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville (1835/2002: 38 [see Appendix B]), in reviewing the legal codes of early America, noted that in the Connecticut Code of 1650 that drunkenness was severely punished; in addition, innkeepers were prohibited by the Code of 1650 from supplying their customers with more than a certain amount of wine (Tocqueville, 1835/2002: 38). Magistrates who “were guilty of drunkenness” were targets of early American social reformers.

This religiously shaped environment appears to have been influential in containing public displays of drunkenness. However, de Tocqueville notes a particularly American aspect of the relationship to drunkenness which led to viewing drunkenness in increasingly medicalised ways:

In a note to his Democracy in America, Tocqueville (1835/2002: 232) observed that more than 270,000 Americans were members of temperance societies and had pledged to abstain from strong liquors. He concluded that the tendency of Americans to engage collectively in associations, such as temperance societies to combat drunkenness, was a distinguishing feature of their democracy. There were, accordingly, ambivalent and, at times, contradictory views held during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries on the roles of alcohol in healing, in society generally, and toward problems associated with alcohol consumption in America. While alcohol consumption was an accepted part of early American life, including the medicinal roles of alcohol in health and healing, habitual excessive drinking was increasingly becoming a recognized problematic area of concern. (Stolberg 2006, 49)

Ferentzy (2001, 365) argues that in seventeenth century America a sense of ‘compulsion or loss of control is not central to pre-industrial ideas about drunkenness’. Indeed, a discouragement of drunkenness was only one aspect of religious-based moderation: immoderation was a sin with regard to the excess use of, or attachment to, many things – not just alcohol. In other words, the concept of alcoholism did not exist as something separate from so-called ‘diseases’ of sin. Ferentzy cautions against reading terms such as ‘sickness’ or ‘disease’ in relation to drunkenness in the same medicalised way that we would understand them today. As Ferentzy argues, ‘passionate preachers’, might have used these terms to denote any number of things that they considered immoral or sinful.

In framing drunkenness as a moral issue, alcoholism, or chronic drunkenness, was initially not considered a disease. Instead early temperance movements ‘looked to legislation as a way to control use’ (Stolberg 2006, 84). The medicalisation, or initially, the scientific interest in chronic drunkenness nonetheless developed out of early temperance movements. In the late eighteenth century, ‘Rush was the first American physician to identify chronic drunkenness as a distinct disease with a progressive nature and accompanying personal and social complications’ (Stolberg 2006, 42). The full history of the development of alcoholism as a specific disease is beyond the scope of our discussion. However, it is interesting to note here that there is indeed a history to this idea, and that it has not always been considered a specific medical phenomenon. Indeed, Stolberg explains that ‘by the late nineteenth century, it could also be observed that: “Many physicians, especially specialists who make treatment of drunkenness a business and source of profit, are positive it is a disease”’ (Stolberg 2006, 84). For our purposes here, to understand drunkenness and intoxication in a historical context, it is worth mentioning that drunkenness in itself was not considered the defining characteristic of alcoholism. Instead, ‘it was recognized from a medical standpoint that: “It is the internal craving for alcoholic liquors, and for their intoxicating effects, that constitutes the disease, and not the fact of drunkenness”’ (Stolberg 2006, 84).

Ferentzy (2001, 367) is concerned with the idea of ‘chronic drunkenness’ and considers this in relation to historical understandings of addiction. Ferentzy argues that understandings of chronic drunkenness as a loss of control over one’s drinking habits ‘first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century’. However, ‘in colonial America, large amounts of alcohol were consumed, and few considered drunkenness especially problematic’. As Ferentzy suggests, those who were most concerned were businessmen worried about productivity and clergymen worried about morality. Increasingly widespread concerns with drunkenness during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were formalised and given an institutional dimension through the development of organised temperance movements. Ferentzy draws from Levine (1978; see Appendix B) to argue that Enlightenment principles of autonomy, responsibility and rationality had an effect on the ways in which drunkenness was understood and dealt with. That is, ‘the changing conceptions of habitual drunkenness in America were related to a societal shift toward increased demands for self-control’ (Stolberg 2006, 88). Instead of being an inherently sinful self, the Enlightenment individual, as we have already discussed, was understood in ways that incorporated ideas of a free will and an essentially good human nature into decision-making. In this way ‘deviance’ came to be interpreted as ‘unnatural’ and as something that required intervention, disciplining and correction in this worldly life (Ferentzy 2001, 370).

As in England with the distinction between Gin Alley and Beer Street, the American temperance movement considered spirits more dangerous. For example, in 1885, the United States Brewers’ Association called for a ‘high tax on ardent spirits while asserting that the consumption of beer was a way to prevent drunkenness, and also the best way to secure temperance’ (Stolberg 2006, 62). Whilst the differences between classes were a defining feature of English approaches to drunkenness, in the US, drunkenness was also understood in terms of ethnic, or so-called racial characteristics: ‘Drunkenness, along with disease, poverty, and immorality, were, at one time or another, identified as characteristic of most immigrant groups, such as the “Irish race”’ (Stolberg 2006, 78). However, some ethnic groups were associated more with temperance than with drunkenness: ‘a study of industrial workers in Worcester, Massachusetts between 1870 and 1920, found that Irish Americans tended to engage in agitation against temperance, while Scandinavian Americans tended to agree with advocates of temperance (Stolberg 2006, 78). The relations between alcohol, drunkenness, temperance and cultural background were never clear cut, were never un-ambiguous: ‘Italians and Jews, for instance, were two ethnic groups characterized as drinking in moderation…’ Yet they were considered by some to be un-American in their ‘temperate home drinking practices’. Indeed, they were, in this sense, seen to threaten the ‘future of that most American of social institutions, the saloon’ (Stolberg 2006, 78).

We conclude this discussion of certain elements of the temperance and prohibition movements in the US during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a reference to concerns with drunkenness and intoxication in the military at the beginning of the twentieth century: ‘One large sector of American society routinely scrutinized by Progressive reformers for warning signs of moral decay was the military’ (Stolberg 2006, 76). Not only were temperance societies involved in petitioning the military to change its ways, but various levels of the Federal government held positions on these issues that were influenced by temperance discourses. Temperance movements used a number of strategies to articulate their positions on alcohol and drunkenness to various national security concerns. These included, as Stolberg argues (2006, 76–77), the following:

  • The possibilities of corruption, debauchery and moral decay among soldiers exposed to the temptations of alcohol:

In 1910, the U.S. Surgeon General suggested that temperance societies be formed within the military (Brandt, 1987: 98 [see Appendix B]). In 1916, reports were filed on the proximity of saloons to military bases and of the concomitant frequency of drunkenness among soldiers and sailors (Brandt, 1987: 53–55). The Secretary of War at the time, Newton Baker, recognized that excessive alcohol use could weaken the military (Brandt, 1987: 55–56) and, consequently, our national preparedness for war, a growing political concern. In March 1917, New York State banned liquor distribution near the army camp at Plattsburg (Brandt, 1987: 59).

General John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) largely accepted Progressive medical ideals, including those concerning the prevention of venereal disease, which accepted the causative association between intoxication and patronizing prostitutes (Brandt, 1987: 103). For example, in General Order Number 77, issued by Pershing to the AEF, troops returning from leave intoxicated were mandated to undergo initial treatment for venereal disease (Brandt, 1987: 103). “Drunkenness was seen as the first step on the road to the brothel and subsequent infection” (Brandt, 1987: 107–108).

  • The demands for raw materials for the war effort in World War I:

With respect to conservation, it was reported “that it requires almost one pound of coal to brew one pint of beer”. In fact, it was asserted that in 1917, American brewers consumed 3,250,000 tons of coal and over 3,000,000,000 cubic feet of gas. The implication clearly was that these resources could be better used elsewhere. Industry supported these efforts, as stated in the Manufacturers’ Record: “Every interest of the nation and of the world demands the closing of every saloon and the total Prohibition of the manufacture of alcoholic drinks during the war”. The WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League grasped the need to conserve grain to push for the wartime prohibition of alcohol as a patriotic conservation measure.

  • The framing of patriotic sensibilities by opposing German brewing interests:

Progressive reform efforts commensurately accelerated as American preparation for war led to our actual military involvement in World War I. The national mobilization accompanying World War I was an opportune time for progressive reformers to push forward with alcohol prohibition, both as a form of conservation, as grain not used in brewing and distilling could be used to feed the troops, and as an act of patriotism, as the major American beer brewers, particularly Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz, had clear German roots. For instance, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times taken out on November 3, 1918 by Dr. J. H. Kellogg proclaimed: “We are fighting three enemies–Germany, Austria and Drink”. In fact, in June 1917, William Faunce, then president of Brown University, had delivered this message in his speech to the graduating class titled: “Patriotism Spells Prohibition”.

The point to draw from this sort of listing is the ongoing, often strategic (and not just in a military sense) mobilisation of various concerns to support a temperance or prohibition agenda. In this sense we can again see the often conflicting, but also complementary relation between medical, religious, political and moral ambitions in defining the problem of intoxication and drunkenness.

Setting the agenda? Media commentary and twenty-first century concerns with intoxication and drunkenness

In this final section we want to move from sketching some of the historical dimensions to the social, cultural, economic, political and moral issues associated with intoxication and drunkenness. Much of the remainder of this book will be located in the ambiguous, unclear, and uncertain spaces in which experts, lay populations and individuals discuss, debate and argue about the meanings, causes and consequences of intoxication and drunkenness; and how, exactly, it might be possible to agree on the rules of engagement in this debate. Or the terms on which it might be conducted. Once again, we suggest that the public, mediated spaces of the major newspapers are a useful place to identify and map out the contested terrain of these debates.

In a very general sense in media coverage of intoxication and drunkenness we see evidence of the ambivalence, uncertainty and confusion that accompanies any debates about the issues that we are discussing here. Many of these ambiguities rest on the problem of defining what constitutes intoxication and drunkenness. Here the two terms often take on distinct, separate meanings. In many instances, the news media views intoxication as a scientific, legal and policy issue that can be defined empirically. In this context the media often draws on expert testimony in discussing intoxication. In contrast, the news media generally discusses drunkenness as the cultural correlate to intoxication. It cannot be measured empirically. Moreover, in the case of drunkenness the media rarely draws on ‘expert’ testimony, resorting instead to describing it in lay terms.

So, intoxication is often identified in the following ways: as a formal definition of how impaired a person is, in terms of their blood alcohol level, which is useful for legal and policy purposes; and as a generic term that describes the effect of illicit as well as licit drugs. In this sense media commentary often imagines ‘intoxication’ as the object of an academic study of alcohol (Lange 2000) – it is what experts tell us it is. On the other hand ‘drunkenness’ is regarded as the cultural correlate of intoxication – it is what people do, or the state that people end up in.

Media commentary might discuss intoxication as a practice engaged in by certain groups in society, such as celebrities (White 2002; Shepherd 2008; Jesella 2008; Frankel 2005; Satel 2001; Barron 2008; New Zealand Herald 2008a; Blundell 2005; Scott 2003; Dixit 2005; Kurtz 2006), musicians (Heaney 2003; The Sunday Times 2004), and as ‘a profound state’ or ‘total peace’ sought after by clubbers (Benedictus 2004; see also Britten 2007). Such commentary might also employ the term ‘intoxication’ as a catch-all term for the very worst effects of alcohol consumption. These are the ‘bitter rewards of intoxication’, as John Patterson (2005) writes. Discussions of the damaging effects of alcohol on the drinker’s health are sometimes framed not in terms of ‘drunkenness’, but in terms of the possible consequences of ‘acute alcohol intoxication’ (Chrisafis 2004; Bennett 2005). So Mike Barnes (2009) and Rebecca Hardy (2008) can claim that the gig-goer is in danger of doing damage to their health ‘not so much because [they] might be trashed and put their head in a bass bin – although that certainly wouldn’t help’ – but because ‘intoxication impedes the protective mechanisms of the inner ear’ (Barnes 2009).

We can also see that the media often sees its job to translate the one into the other: to make the formal definitions of intoxication understood in the practical terms of drunkenness. An article in The New York Times, for example, explains that ‘the legal definition of drunkenness would be when 0.08 percent of a person’s bloodstream is alcohol’, which is equivalent to ‘a 170-pound man with an empty stomach… having four drinks in an hour’ (McKinley Jr 2001). This translation from intoxication to drunkenness works in reverse as well, as shown elsewhere in The New York Times: ‘By 8 p.m., Mr. Gray had consumed 12 to 18 beers. His blood alcohol level an hour later was estimated by the prosecution’s expert witness at 0.23 percent, more than double the legal threshold for intoxication’ (Newman 2002). Such definitions rely on, of course, a prior understanding of what constitutes ‘a drink’, and that the formal definition of a ‘drink’ or a ‘unit’ is rarely equivalent to one serving of a drink. But this definition also varies. According to The New York Times, a drink is ‘12 grams of pure alcohol, the amount found in a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a shot of 80-proof distilled liquor’ (Brody 2002). In contrast, according to Melbourne’s Herald Sun, ‘a standard drink contains 10g of alcohol’ (Burstin 2003; Critchley 2008).

The majority of definitions of intoxication used in media stories and commentary are provided in relation to the legal blood alcohol levels for driving. What is immediately evident in the discussion of the formal definitions of intoxication in this setting is how malleable these definitions are. The American news media in particular encourages debate as to what can be considered a ‘safe’ blood alcohol level for driving, and whether the Federal Government should require states to lower the blood alcohol level from 0.10 per cent to 0.08 per cent, or ‘0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood’ (Gold 2002). The press, for its part, see itself as playing an integral part in facilitating that debate (Pradarelli 2000; Jackman et al. 2000; Montgomery and LeDuc 2001; Elliott 2000b). In these debates we witness media-generated discussions about such things as the following:

  • the lowering to 0.03 the level at which a driver “could be presumed to be impaired by alcohol” in Washington D. C. (Schulte 2005);
  • the 0.02 blood alcohol level for drivers younger than 21 in Virginia (Markon 2007);
  • the lowering of the legal blood alcohol content level to 0.05 in Victoria (The Sunday Age 2001).

When not being used in the formal context of policing, the news media regularly discusses intoxication as a metaphor for any kind of ‘high’. Understandings of intoxication in this sense apply not only to licit and illicit drugs, but to any number of other social phenomena (Healy 2002; Kiley 2001; The Guardian 2004a). Describing the effects of drugs as ‘intoxication’ helps the press to draw a distinction between ‘non-alcoholic intoxication’, as William Safire calls it (2002) – which is what ‘other people’ do – and the more socially acceptable alcohol intoxication. The effects of drugs are one such object of discussion, and one in which the news media usually adopts a paternalistic attitude in its condemnation of drug culture (Nussbaum 2001; Strauss 2001; Leland 2001; Gray 2001; Liptak 2002; Tuller 2004; Moerk 2006). This is reflected in the litany of drug-related forms of intoxication, including: lithium intoxication (Boodman 2008), inhalant abuse (Vedantam 2005), petrol sniffing (Brown 2000), caffeine intoxication (Sontag 2002; Bee 2008), kava intoxication (Riding 2004), cannabis intoxication (Sieghart 2001; Blakemore and Iversen 2001; Dodd 2005; Stuttaford 2001; 2005; Bainbridge 2004; Whyte 2006), ‘acute methadone intoxication’ (Blumenthal 2006), LSD intoxication (Stone 2008), cocaine intoxication (Depalma 2007; Warner 2004; Whitlock 2000; Thompson and Ly 2000; Whitlock and Fallis 2001; Ruane and Duggan 2006), and carbon monoxide intoxication (Dao and Barringer 2006).

The second way in which media commentary uses the term ‘intoxication’ is entirely unrelated to alcohol, drinking, and drunkenness. There is a body of articles that employ intoxication as a metaphor for social phenomena, including the intoxication of fame (Kane 2001), affluence (Brooks 2002), and of the ‘California dream’ (Waldie 2001). Elsewhere, the press describes aesthetic beauty, including the beauty of nature, as ‘an emotional state, somewhere between intoxication and death’ (Jones 2004; see also Bostridge 2006; Wood 2006; Ozick 2006; Hamilton 2001; Bilger 2001). Intoxication is also used as a metaphor for political power (Jacques 2006; Sciolino 2003), and war and revenge (Brewer 2002). Aida Edemariam (2004) describes the ‘certain madness’, a ‘frenzy’ and ‘paranoia’ that defined America under the George W. Bush Administration as a kind of intoxication, while young supporters of the Mugabe regime are described as having ‘eyes wild with intoxication’ (Philp 2008; see also Wines 2003). In a similar way, John Crace (2008) suggests that terrorists are driven by the ‘intoxication’ of ‘excitement and mayhem’, while Mark Edmundson (2006) and Minette Marrin (2002; 2007) describe people as being enchanted by the ‘collective intoxication’ of figures such as Hitler. Finally, an Iraqi journalist describes his profession in the post-Saddam Hussein era as an indescribable ‘intoxication’ that ‘you get from reporting the truths after so many decades of lies’ (Abdul-Ahad 2005). The point to make here is that what are being described are altered states of individual and collective consciousness brought about by a variety of stimuli. But it is a description that is metaphorical and allegorical, and which draws on the sense many of us might share of being excited, stimulated, possibly out of control, not entirely rational. The connection of intoxication to these emotional, embodied states is not dependent on the understandings of various experts. Indeed, in this context such meanings are very much about individual and collective feelings and emotions.

When we come to the ways in which the news media treats, understands and comments on drunkenness we enter a space that appears to be highly subjective. As such, we end up with definitions of drunkenness such as that given in a New Zealand Herald editorial on binge drinking: a space which suggests that ‘the best definition [of binge drinking] is drinking to drunkenness, that is, to a level where a youth would describe themselves as “wasted”’ (New Zealand Herald 2008b). In the same way, Deborah Cameron (2007) defines drunkenness as being characterised by ‘slurring and unsteadiness’, which is problematic, because those same symptoms are characteristic of ‘coma-inducing hypoglycaemia’ – a medical emergency that can all too readily be mistaken for drunkenness. Even the supposedly objective legal definitions of intoxication end up relying heavily on subjective judgements. Virginian state law, for instance, defines intoxication as having drunk enough to ‘observably affect’ a person’s ‘manner, disposition, speech, muscular movement, general appearance or behavior’ (Markon 2007). Alternatively, Claire Phipps (2004) offers a more precise definition of binge drinking – consuming six units of alcohol in one session – but that definition does not necessarily make it any easier to understand what binge drinking feels like. Tom Jackman (2002) gives a crude example of this when he describes a man as being ‘very drunk’ with a blood alcohol level of 0.35. Cathy Pryor (2008) describes the same difficulty with translating formal definitions of drunkenness into terms that make sense to the non-expert, writing:

Drinking is so ingrained in Britain it seems many people… are similarly unwilling to rein it in, even for the sake of their health and even though recent figures estimate that 15,000 Britons a year die from drink-related diseases. Getting the message across is also complicated by public confusion over how such limits – 14 units a week for women, 21 for men – can really apply. Don’t other health and lifestyle factors come into play?

While media commentary and stories may draw on a ‘broad spectrum’ of expert and non-expert knowledge on alcohol abuse – from physicians who ‘testify to the horrific damage being done to the national liver’, to police, ‘who vainly try to keep order on the streets at closing time’, to bar staff and to drunks themselves – The Guardian (2006) singles out epidemiology as offering a unique perspective on the problem of defining drunkenness. Distanced from the day-to-day consequences of alcohol abuse which physicians, police and bar staff have to deal with, it is claimed that epidemiologists offer ‘a peculiar kind of clarity’ that is ‘valuable if we want to make real sense of our nation’s love affair with the bottle’. The question that The Guardian poses is: ‘Is Britain in the grip of a booze epidemic?’ However, in this story it is suggested that epidemiology can give no concrete answer to that question, because while it grounds its research in scientific methodologies – blood tests, cognitive tests, and testing of the heart and other physical functions – the research still relies on the self-reported questionnaire responses of the drinkers themselves. Thus, even the most objective and ‘expert’ definitions of drunkenness are, in this account, obscured by the subjective appraisals of the drinker him or herself.

This reliance on the testimony of the lay person colours the news media’s attempts to define drunkenness overall. After all, the lay person reading the newspaper is less interested in the formal definition of intoxication, and more in how drunkenness affects them and those they care about. So we see attempts by the media to translate, mediate even, the expert definition into a lay definition. McKinley Jr (2001), who we referenced, in part, earlier, illustrates this point well:

The new standard would mean that the legal definition of drunkenness would be when 0.08 percent of a person’s bloodstream is alcohol. In practical terms, a 170-pound man with an empty stomach could have four drinks in an hour before being drunk. Under the current law, the same man could have five drinks.

Translation, though, can be a complex, ambiguous and uncertain enterprise. For example, Dr Mark Wright, a liver expert from Southampton general hospital, argues that mediations between expert and lay understandings can often lead to confusion:

“Even if people think they’re sticking to those limits, they’re often drinking two or three times that because they’ve got no idea how much alcohol is in the drinks they’re drinking”, he says. “There are large swathes of the population that drink half a bottle of wine a night: they’re not addicted, but they’re persistently drinking far too much”. (Pryor 2008)

A second tactic used in some media accounts for translating expert and legal definitions of drunkenness into lay terms is to cite the number of lives that will be saved by adopting changes to the ways in which various alcohol-related issues are governed and regulated. In one example:

Proponents of the lower standard [0.08] estimate about 500 people die each year in accidents caused by people with blood-alcohol contents between 0.08 percent and 0.10 percent. About 40 of those deaths occur in New York State each year, these advocates say. “It would save 40 New Yorkers a year,” said Marge Lee, a spokeswoman for the New York chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Just off the top of my head I can name three families in Long Island whose kids were killed by point-oh-eight drivers”. (McKinley Jr 2001)

One of the points of disjuncture between the expert and lay definitions – and perhaps one of the reasons why the lay are preferred to the expert – is that the expert definition serves to impose limits on, and therefore condemn, the drinker, whereas the lay definition often celebrates drinking. In a story in The Guardian, for instance, it is suggested that one of the reasons British slang has so many synonyms for getting drunk is that they represent ‘a proud sense of achievement of the advanced stages of inebriation’. The British take ‘a utilitarian approach to alcohol: what’s the point of consuming it unless we end up rat-arsed?’ (The Guardian 2004b). Comparing British slang to the Inuit’s 80 different words for snow, which ‘forms the limit of the Inuit’s horizon’, so too:

does drunkenness saturate the fabric of British life… It’s as if the condition of drunkenness for which we are striving lies beyond language – as indeed it often proves – and no word can hope to encapsulate the comprehensive dysfunction that is the proper result of “a good session”. (The Guardian, 2004b)

The cultural phenomena of drunkenness and binge drinking produces its own, non-expert, lay language that is taken up and used by the media in framing its conversations about the roles played by ‘booze’ or ‘hooch’, or ‘brew’, in producing these states (Yardley 2008). Much media commentary in Australia is particularly keen to use the term ‘booze’ to describe Australians’ drinking habits, rather than the more formal ‘alcohol’, which is reserved for discussions of intoxication. In doing so media reports circulate and shape the complex and contradictory ways in which we understand drunkenness. Australia is variously described as having a ‘cultural love affair with booze’ (Stark 2007), as a ‘booze-soaked society’ (Farrelly 2007), and as a country full of ‘booze artists’ (Summers 2008). On one hand the national capital Canberra, is described as being ‘fuelled by booze and ambition’, while former Prime Ministers John Curtin and Bob Hawke are celebrated for having ‘fought a valiant battle with booze’ (Middendorp 2004; Grattan 2003b; Strickland 2003; Totaro and Coultan 2004). Recently The Age was highly critical of the then–leader of the Australian Democrats Andrew Bartlett for letting his ‘reprehensible’ drunkenness jeopardise the future of the Democrats (Grattan 2003a). And, as we will see, ‘booze’ is also implicated in social disorder, drinkers’ health problems, and youth gang crime – especially in Melbourne (Middendorp 2004; Mitchell 2008; Simper 2007).

In this sense it is not surprising to see the difficulty the New Zealand Herald has in separating drunkenness out from binge drinking, since, in a broader cultural context the two blur into one another. The Age does a better job of separating out the two, giving a formal definition of binge drinking as ‘five or more drinks in one sitting for women and seven or more for men’ (Farouque 2007). Such a definition is inadequate, however, since it describes only the lower limit of binge drinking and does little to illustrate the scale of binge drinking. As Anne Summers (2008) writes, ‘if four glasses of wine enjoyed by adults over dinner is now going to be labelled binge drinking, we will need a whole new vocabulary to describe kids throwing down 24 vodka shots on a night out on the town’.

At this time, as we head into a more expert-oriented discussion in the following chapter, we can suggest that in Australia, New Zealand, the US and Britain, the news media is much more comfortable talking about drunkenness, which it considers to be a cultural activity, or something people do; and much less comfortable discussing intoxication, which it understands and uses as a formal, legal, or policy term it can only discuss in abstract ways. As a consequence, the most common method the news media employs to discuss drunkenness is constructing narratives that address the causes, problems, and solutions to problem drinking. However, while the media frames and facilitates much of this debate – even to the extent of setting the agenda in some settings in relation to particular issues – there are a number of problems with the way the press discusses drunkenness. These include:

  • that the news media tends to reinforce stereotypes about the drinking behaviour of certain marginalised groups within society, in particular Indigenous people and youth, and;
  • while the news media is quick to demand a government response to the problems it identifies in society, it is equally quick in its criticism of any responses the government comes up with.

So, while the media coverage of intoxication and drunkenness plays a significant role in informing, influencing and shaping the ways its audiences understand the problems of intoxication and drunkenness, the news media may be less helpful in facilitating a debate about the possible ways that these issues can be understood – socially, culturally, economically, politically and morally – and responded to. The nature of the news media, and its possibilities for explaining and covering these issues, offers no clear way through, let alone out of, the uncertainty, ambiguity and conflict in relation to these issues.

Cite this chapter as: Kelly, Peter; Advocat, Jenny; Harrison, Lyn; Hickey, Chris. 2011. ‘The problems of intoxication and drunkenness: A brief background and history’, in Smashed! The Many Meanings of Intoxication and Drunkenness. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 1–32.

Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

   by Peter Kelly, Jenny Advocat, Lyn Harrison, Christopher Hickey