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Response to Review no. 894

I would firstly like to thank William Haydock for his careful and generous reading of my book.

I hoped to demonstrate that drinking, like all cultural practices, reflects, reinforces and, on occasion, challenges broader cultural values. There are few universal or ahistorical attitudes to alcohol, just as anthropologists have demonstrated that there are few universal or transcultural ways of being drunk. In both cases, alcohol serves to remind us that continuity of substance does not imply continuity of meaning. William’s review gives a very good sense of how I work this idea through in my book, and I am glad that he finds many of my claims convincing.

William’s salient criticism of my book is that I sometimes understate the extent to which dominant cultural values are absorbed into the day-to-day perceptions and practices of social actors: that I skate over the extent to which cultural hegemony – especially when expressed through taste – is experienced not as self-assertion, but rather as the normal and natural way of things. William is absolutely right to sound this cautionary note; it is indeed a mistake to assume that all social practice is somehow worked out in advance, designed to achieve some identifiable ideological end. However, social practice can also articulate more self-conscious challenges to hegemonic power – as many theorists of subculture have demonstrated. My claim (perhaps not nuanced enough, to be sure) is that this was, to some degree at least, the case with both Georgian coffee-house culture and with the early temperance movement. There is, in both the celebratory and satirical literature on coffee-houses, an emphasis on the degree of cultural distinction (real or illusory) consciously assumed by many coffee-house habitués: an emphasis on politeness as a performance, rather than a norm. Similarly, in the early days of temperance abstention from alcohol was sufficiently unusual that it could not be pursued without almost daily reminders of its social obtrusiveness. My own view is that while abstention from alcohol was not inconceivable in the early 19th century, conspicuous sobriety had not yet achieved the necessary cultural traction to make it a ‘natural’, or unself-conscious, articulation of taste.

William’s point is crucial, nevertheless, since it gets to the heart of why alcohol rewards social and historical analysis. In most cases, assumptions about drinking are largely a reflection of more-or-less unconscious attitudes: attitudes to leisure, to social interaction, to class, to gender and, indeed, to the value of intoxication itself. Because of this, studying attitudes to alcohol enables us to observe those broader social, political and philosophical value systems in action. William’s thoughtful discussion demonstrates how my book attempts to map some of these relationships, while rightly reminding us that the connections between value and practice are complex and diverse.