Monday 30 November 2015

The pleasures of intoxication

My thinking on drugs and alcohol is often structured around the idea of pleasure.  I’ve written in the past about how this isn’t a terribly useful way to make sense of what we do around drugs and alcohol, as no behaviour – least of all drinking in the night-time economy – can be made sense of using such a black-and-white term.  But there is occasionally a use in having this kind of concept in the back of your mind.

As regular readers of this blog and/or my academic work probably know, I’m quite a fan of Pierre Bourdieu.  He basically argues that class is about something more than occupation, income or market position – it’s about how these attributes fit into society’s wider ‘symbolic economy’.  For the concept of class to be at all useful, it has to mean something more than any of these individually – it’s the thing that links all these and the other correlated attributes that mean we can identify someone’s ‘class’ by the clothes they wear, where they live, what car they drive and what they do for pleasure.

His work was concerned with how these different perceived groups are made, and what effect that has on our lives in terms of personal and political possibilities.  The groups are made by ‘distinction’ – features of taste that distinguish one person (and hence one group of people) from another.

Central to this mechanism of distinction is the idea that, for the bourgeoisie, form is separated from function.  For example, in relation to food Bourdieu suggests that while the working class eat food that is simple and high in calories – and eat it in a functional, unpretentious way – the bourgeoisie eats daintier food designed almost to hide the fact that the food is about taking on energy.

He builds his whole position as a ‘critique of the judgement of taste’, to suggest that the rules of ‘good taste’ always serve a social function of distinguishing people from one another, through hierarchies according to broader systems of value.

The relevance for alcohol studies is the stories people tell around their drinking – why their practices are pleasurable (and therefore valuable).  As James Nicholls notes, the pleasures of wine drinking are often quite divorced from one of the key defining features of wine: its alcohol content.  This can easily be analogous to Bourdieu’s discussion of food: some value drinks that get them drunk; others emphasise other, seemingly peripheral, features – that wouldn’t be obvious to those not in the know.

In a sense, this comes back to JS Mill’s ideas about happy pigs (or, actually, satisfied pigs).
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”  John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)
By positing something greater than intoxication (or immediate sensory pleasure), the thinking wine drinkers place themselves on the side of Socrates in this statement.

But having read Bourdieu on the subject, how can a thinking drinker stand by this claim?  Any statement of ‘I like this drink’ to mean something more than ‘I like the taste’ can immediately be analysed to show that there is nothing fundamentally valuable in this practice other than the meanings we create for it.

(I don’t mean to advocate complete moral relativism – I am assuming that the happy pig isn’t hurting other people.  And I’m exaggerating when I write that there’s ‘nothing’ valuable in the practice.  Watching football, for example, might be said to have benefits in terms of social solidarity, getting people out of the house and so forth.  But that’s not why people experience pleasure in the practice – these positive knock-on effects aren’t what get people down to the County Ground on a cold, wet Saturday in November.)

In the face of such criticism, how can we continue to find pleasure?  As soon as we’ve thought through that our liking for ‘real ale’ is partly down to the perceived resonances with some fictionalised version of the past, surely that pint suddenly doesn’t taste so sweet (or rather, bitter)?  Saying (or thinking) these things out loud makes them seem a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?

And in any case, you only like the taste of that drink because of the way you were introduced to food and drink, which is simply chance.

One response, of course, is to say ‘so what’?  Of course we’re products of our environment and like things that resonate with particular tastes, experiences and principles we’re familiar and comfortable with.

But that would reduce the distinctiveness of the practice.  The whole point of distinction is that ‘good taste’ is pure in the Kantian sense – it’s unsullied by function, and it shouldn’t be simply a product of our environment; it’s genuinely ‘better’ than other tastes, otherwise it’s nothing: there would be no hierarchy.

Again, you might ask, ‘so what’?  But my query now is: if this critical sociological/psychological approach was more widespread and took root in how people think, wouldn’t the ‘purest’ form of taste be the most immediate?  That is, the most genuinely ‘disinterested’ taste, that which would demonstrate one’s intellectual superiority by being able to critically analyse one’s own pleasures and place oneself outside of one’s position in social space, would be sensory pleasures.  Socrates would come over to the side of the happy pig.

This wouldn’t be such a new idea, given the ‘libertines’ of the 17th and 18th centuries or the status of drugs for intellectuals in the 1960s, but it does offer a way to have pleasure (and status?) for the sociologist or cultural theorist inclined to overthinking, and I can drink to that.