Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about ideas of drinking to excess – and not simply because I was out with work colleagues on Friday night; mainly because the drinking studies network has a research ‘cluster’ on this topic.
The particular context for me has been ideas of transition. There have been a couple of articles that caught my eye describing a shift from drinking patterns identified as problematic to something more reasonable – specifically abstinence. The theme of both articles was to question why drinking should somehow be seen as the norm, whereby people don’t recognise that relaxation or fun is possible without intoxication.
What grabbed me was the statement by one of the authors that the reason she was comfortable not drinking was that she ‘liked’ herself sober. Initially, I tried to suggest this was in tension with ideas of Britishness – it’s not very British to admit you ‘like’ yourself. But then I thought this was perhaps more personal; it’s a journey of change and self-acceptance I haven’t been on.
And discussion of drinking – particularly this idea of drinking to ‘excess’, whatever that might be – are often framed in these terms: that there is a ‘better’ way of drinking (perhaps not drinking at all) that is more sophisticated, more adult.
This isn’t just the tone of media commentary on ‘binge’ drinking and young people. It’s also the tone of several academic commentaries on alcohol consumption. I’ve recently been reading a collection of essays edited by Tom Thurnell-Read, Drinking Dilemmas, which comes out of a conference of that same drinking studies network.
The book has many strengths (as well as a few weaknesses), which I’ll be writing about elsewhere, but here I just want to focus on the argument of one author: Oliver Smith. Smith argues that while we might tend to see the ‘night-time economy’ as the domain of hedonistic 18-25s, there are many older consumers – and perhaps an increasing number of these –who feel they can’t (or simply don’t want to) let go of this way of spending evenings. This, he describes in the context of Slavoj Žižek’s idea of ‘cultural infantilisation’.
My problem with this is two-fold. First, I’m not sure why some of the relevant markers are characteristic of ‘infantilisation’. I take the point that drinking bottles of wine after work isn’t necessarily an example of the ‘café society’ (p.183), but equally I struggle to see how this use of alcohol (or intoxication) as a reward is childish or teenaged.
Similarly, I’m not sure why a 1980s themed nightclub is childish (pp.174-5). The cultural markers (neon colours, references to Frankie Goes to Hollywood) say more about the decade than the age of any particular consumers. And if the consumers we’re talking about were children in the 1980s, this could be seen as the opposite of infantilisation: perhaps they’re not struggling to rediscover or extend their childhood so much as to behave in a way that was characteristically ‘adult’ while they were growing up.
But Smith’s core point is more fundamental than this. It is that these young (but ageing) people have been unable to claim ‘traditional’ markers of adulthood – such as stable employment, owning a home, or marriage – and therefore seek meaning in the night-time economy. And this is not presented neutrally; there is an undoubted judgement in describing ‘the birth of the infantile narcissist’ fostered by ‘consumer capitalism’.
I struggle with the ahistorical nature of these comparisons, which seem to owe more to a direct comparison with a generation born in the 1950s than any long-term aspects of British drinking cultures or wider social trends. You could equally look at the centrality of ‘having a laff’ (often practical jokes at work) to Paul Willis’ young participants, who were precisely being socialised into that modernist, class-based working culture. Home ownership is a relatively new (realistic) aspiration for most working people, particularly amongst the working class, who would often live with parents even after being married. There are plenty of examples of young (and not so young) people struggling to carve out identities in periods of high unemployment and full employment.
The account from Smith reminds me more than anything of the postwar novels of the ‘Angry Young Men’. Young men struggling not with the accessibility of those ‘markers of adulthood’, but their value. Using the night-time economy as a way of achieving status (even if that means drinking contests, falling down stairs and vomiting on well-behaved, more ‘adult’ drinkers). The narrative arc of stories such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving and Room at the Top leads to the main character getting married (though sometimes still living at home – or with the mother-in-law) and possibly having children – but is the achievement of these ‘markers of adulthood’ really seen as success, or something desirable? These aren’t happy endings.
Smith’s concern with these drinking practices seems to be that they are ‘almost entirely driven by the consumer economy’ (p.184) and somehow empty of meaning – apparently lacking, as they do, the ‘gravitas’ of workplace pranks.
And here we get to the nub of so many critiques of the night-time economy. Calling drinking in the night-time economy infantile narcissism is really a critique of consumerist pleasure. But what is better, and why? What does becoming an ‘adult’ mean in this world of ‘consumer capitalism’? Why is this any better than remaining ‘infantile’, if infantilism is pleasurable? As so often, we’re back to an idea that somehow drinking ‘to excess’ is inherently wrong, or undesirable. And as a recent article by Toby Seddon on the nature of ‘drugs’ makes clear, this is likely to involve stigmatising certain groups within society, and taking a view of pleasure and fulfilment that is far from universally accepted.