Cultures of Intoxication

Cultures of Intoxication supplement

guest post by Phil Withington

School taught me to separate the work of a particular writer – whether philosopher, novelist, or historian – from the life that the writer may have led. We learned that it did not matter how Jane Austen or Immanuel Kant behaved as a person; what mattered was the work they left behind. This has always struck me as an artificial and probably erroneous distinction – surely the life in some sense or other shapes the work and vice versa – and I was reminded of its flaws when researching the introduction to a volume of essays I’ve just co-edited on Cultures of Intoxication with Angela McShane.


The writer in question was Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. I was interested in Weber because of his importance in popularizing the assumption that a defining feature of modern western societies was the fetishism of values like sobriety, rationality, calculation, and self-control, and the stigmatization of contrary behaviour such as willful intoxication. The billions of dollars made each year made from the business of intoxicants (licit and illicit) hinted at another story; and I was delighted to find that so did the biography of Weber the man.


It transpires that as a young professor Weber ‘suffered from obsessional thoughts and, especially after nights of drinking, sometimes imagined for the whole day that he was Jumbo the elephant and lived in a zoo’.[1] This was fairly often because ‘alcohol-tinged male company, even without deeper friendships, seems to have been what excited him par excellence’.[2]  According to those who knew him best, there was ‘a quite elemental kind of sociability in Weber: he was a buddy with all his soul, a buddy for the moment thought capable of creating happiness; a drinking pal, a song mate, an accomplice in furious story-telling and boasting’.[3]


Intrigued, I looked into the lives of other straitlaced theorists for similar incongruities. A pattern emerged. Marx and Engels were colossal drinkers who first bonded over several days of bingeing and continued to get intoxicated for the rest of their working lives. Thomas Hobbes, father of the modern state, boasted to getting drunk at least 100 times over the course of his life and to deliberately vomiting whenever he did so. William Harvey, father of modern medicine, was also a devotee of the new intoxicants, opium and coffee. The list could go on.


These stories were interesting for a number of reasons. Not only did they belie the link between sobriety and modernity that these very theorists, in their different ways, had helped establish. They also suggested a different history of intoxication to the kinds that often dominate academic scholarship. Until relatively recently, histories of intoxicants have tended either to be studies of a social problem or studies in cultural resistance. These vignettes, in contrast, hinted at many more complex and neglected themes and issues relating to intoxication – not least sociability, pleasure, affluence, power, identity, normative excess, and the experience itself.


These were also some of the themes of Cultures of Intoxication. Angela McShane and I have assembled a fantastic group of scholars to write new studies of intoxication for different eras and geographical contexts: from classical Athens to contemporary San Francisco, from the Middle East to Southern Africa, from Renaissance Italy to colonial Taiwan, from Reformation England to modern southern Africa, from Enlightenment Sweden to 1960s and contemporary America.


These comparative and inter-disciplinary essays offer a timely reminder that intoxication is an important subject of social and cultural history: a perennial, universal, and intrinsic feature of human societies that is nevertheless performed in specific ways, and with specific meanings and consequences, according to time and place. What they also show is that the concept of ‘drugs’ – with all the ideological baggage that it now carries – elides and obscures far much more than it illuminates. Just ask Jumbo the Elephant.

Read the Supplement


[1] Joachim Radkau, Max Weber: A Biography (Cambridge, Polity, 2009), 46.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] Ibid. Radkau is quoting Weber’s nephew, Eduard Baumgarten.


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