Saturday, December 19, 2009


On the night of December 31, we had suddenly enter into our room a troupe of maskers. One of them, dressed in white, held a scythe that he sharpened with a piece of wood. This one came right up to me and threatened me with the scythe, saying Christ willed my death. As much as the commencement of this farce seemed strange to me, the end of it was equally ridiculous. One was the devil, another was death, some were musicians, the rest were men and women who danced to the sound of the instruments. Death and the devil looked at each other, saying that all men would soon be in our power. We found very little to amuse us in this dance of the dead; we promptly gave death the wherewithal to drink to our health. As soon as we did so, the company bid us adieu. – Johann Georg Gmelin.

In Science, first hand, an odd, English language journal published by Akademika Koptyuga, there’s a fascinating article on the Gmellin-Mueller expedition to Siberia and the theme of alcohol by A. Elert, copiously illustrated with marvelous lubok – which are playing card sized woodcuts evidently produced for a mass audience.

The article is aptly summarized thus:

“This article will show our readers that the Russian people “took to the bottle” three centuries ago, which, however, did not prevent them from spreading over the vast area and building a most powerful empire in the world history. There is something wrong about it — too much passion in these talks about the “universal alcoholism” of Russians and too many extreme views. Our compatriots have long gotten used to treating vodka as something almost sacred, something exclusively Russian, but in the last fifteen years they have been able to compare. The comparison proves paradoxical — Europeans drink at least as much as we do but liquor is not a domineering feature of their national character.”

I’m not sure if it actually shows that Europeans drink at least as much, but it does show that the state did everything it could to promote drinking. One recalls Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism: “In a note to Molotov written in 1930, Stalin stressed the need to increase vodka production to pay for military expansion in view of the imminent danger of Polish attack. Within a few years, state vodka production had expanded to supply as much as a fifth of total state revenue; by the middle of the decade, vodka had become the most important commodity in state commercial stores.[44]

This was not new. Elert finds some amazing statistics from the Siberian expeditions of the 18th century. “According to regulations, a private of marine detachments was procured monthly with 16 charkas (cups) of vodka (a charka contained about 130 milliliters, that is privates were given about 68 milliliters of vodka daily) and 60 mugs of beer (a mug
contained about 1.625 liters, that is the average daily norm was 3.2 liters. “ Six pints of beer per day, plus a good sized vodka chaser.

The ethno-history of the psychoactive revolution – Courtwright’s name for the massive global trade in sugar, tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, opium, hashish, and then all the synthetics – which came in waves, from the 16th century up to this very moment – has been written either from the provincial perspective of crime, or the narratives of fiction. Epidemiology only gives us its statistical epidermis. Economics, of course, sees all commodities as ‘widgets’. Yet, stepping back, one notices a strange global pattern in which the state – the Imperialist state - operates as both pusher and cop. Not only did the slave labor that was massively enrolled to grow and refine these ‘necessary exotics’ decisively shape third world societies in the modern era, but the distribution of the psychoactives to indigenous populations served both as a buffer allowing for the acculturation of the harsh “free labor’ regime that succeeded slavery, and as an agent of moral disintegration to destroy rural idiocy – or nomadic idiocy, or the idiocy of island societies. Famously, North American Indian societies were demoralized by the alternatives of being marketed liquor and being ‘reservationed’ in order to protect them from liquor – among other things. The same thing has happened to the Australian aborigines, or the Papuans.

In a rather famous paper, ‘Alcohol and Ethnography’, Robin Room has claimed that anthropologists, who come from the ‘wet generation’ – the generation that, in reaction to the disastrous temperance experiment of the 10s and 20s, is ultra-cautious about the policy of alcohol control and inclined to see the social side of drinking – refuse to look at the epidemiological facts. However, he doesn’t extend his critique to all psychoactives. The sugar that has become a standard ingredient of processed foods has had a devastating effect, in terms of obesity and diabetes mellitus, on indigenous peoples around the world. Yet the epidemiological fact that this is happening has elicited little interest in the social forces that bring together sugar and the native – or natural, the old phrase from King James time. The naturals, the clowns, the marked down populations, the human product – the targets. Only an economics that is informed by ecology can really help us distinguish psychoactive commodities from others, and try to make sense of the history of modernity.

There is a nostalgic strain within anthropology that posits a twofold history of alcohol, in the first phase of which alcohol was controlled ritualistically. It was part of Bakhtin’s world of the carnival. But as the structures of ritual fell apart – as, in my vocabulary, ritual gave way to routine – the old controls on drunkenness were gone. The idea that drinking was, before, in a setting such that it would be controlled ‘naturally’ seems doubtful – one has simply to look at Gmelin’s description of Siberian villages to see that psychoactives have always possessed a chaotic force. But it may be true that old forms of demoralization – old forms in which demoralization was part of the entire life of the village – were supplanted by new forms that couldn’t be so controlled.
Because that world of routines is so defined by the division of labor, we don’t see other character types – it is as if they disappeared. It does seem to me that the drunk certainly has taken on certain characteristics of the holy fool, or yurodivya. One of the few papers that looks at drunks from the point of view of their social role – Philip Dennis’ The role of the drunk in a Oaxacan village (1976) notices the privilege accorded to the drunk.

IN AMILPAS, a village in the Valley of Oaxaca,2 a drunk wanders down the street, lurching from side to side and shouting insults at all he encounters. Little children run indoors, and people approaching from the other direction dodge off into side streets to avoid meeting him. Ordinary village street life ceases as he approaches and resumes after he has passed. Local residents seem to regard drunks as one of the hazards of village life, along with rabid dogs and loose oxen. There is a similar element of physical danger: if the drunk is armed, he may injure someone, and, in fact, most intra-village quarrels and homicides occur after drinking. My wife and I have vivid memories of dashing into our adobe house along with neighbors when bullets from a street drunk started zinging through the trees. We thought he was shooting at our Coleman lantern!

Drunks do present real physical danger, especially when armed with pistol or machete. However, the social danger represented by the drunk seems to be feared almost as much as the actual physical danger. The drunk does not have to observe the polite conventions which allow everyday life to go on in the village. Instead of a polite, "Good morning, how did you awaken?" he may greet a fellow citizen with an accusation of stealing from the village treasury, failing to repay an old loan, making someone ill (witcheraft), or some other kind of misbehavior. The visiting anthropologist quickly learns that drunks are likely to accuse him of nefarious purposes: being an evangelist, selling data to an enemy village, using villagers for his own gain. Like his informants, he learns to avoid drunks and situations where drunks are congregated. The drunk is likely to say things that were better left unsaid, to voice suspicions that are only suspicions, and by their nature are incapable of being either proved or disproved. He threatens to tear down the polite facade of ordinary social life in the village.”

And so we come to the character type on the very limit of the allowable, the one who exploits embarrassment, who turns shamelessness into an instrument of social power, facing a social power that has assiduously supplied him or her with the psychoactive means, the social power that manufactures the human product – here we face a contradiction worth pondering, no? “Death and the devil looked at each other…”

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