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Chapter 1

Intoxicants as symbols and rituals

  1. "Having a glass of wine is so nice and cozy"
  2. Symbols generate moods
  3. Symbols are valuable tools
  4. The symbolic functions of the intoxicants
  5. Rituals and the spirit of community
  6. Drug use as a compulsory ritual
  7. Ceremonial chemistry
  8. The wine snobbery and cocaine snobbery
  9. Snobbery is not perceived subjectively

"Having a glass of wine is so nice and cozy"

A lot of people say that they drink alcohol because it is so nice and cozy.

 Why is a glass of wine or beer nice and cozy? Do inherent properties of the beverages or of alcohol generate a cozy mood? Does the total abstainer fail to achieve such cozy feelings?

A woman married to a Chilean refugee, recalls from the first time they were together:

To have a good time on Saturday evenings, she put a nice cloth and candles on the table, made pizza and served red wine in tall glasses. Full of expectation, she looked at her friend.
But for the poor Chilean, no special feeling ensued. At the sight of the table, he felt nothing at all!
Why did this plot work so well for the woman and not at all for the man from Chile?

Symbols generate moods

In his book "Kritik der reinen Vernunft", the German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes our ways of perceiving the world around us. We do not observe things as objectively as we like to think. Our perception and understanding of an object is often little influenced by its innate properties. We have learned of the object in our cultural surroundings, and our learning biases our perception of it. Therefore, our subjective impression of the object (Das Ding für mich) differs from its objective characteristics (Das Ding an sich).

There are numerous examples.

The Christmas tree certainly contributes to our Christmas mood. However, can a botanical analysis of the characteristics of the pine explain this? Colored fabric pieces can influence people's mood, if the pieces happen to be flags and the occasion is right.
In such ways, objects whose objective properties are very trivial can influence our feelings. The effect is due to the fact that we are used to encountering them on special occasions. The objects have acquired symbolic value. But our symbols have no effect on the moods and feelings of people who have been raised in other cultures and have not gone through the same learning process.

The emotional effects of symbols occur upon recognition. In most cases, this occurs by visual perception. For food and beverages, smell and taste also enhance recognition.

Symbols are not always identified as symbols.

When the Christmas tree influences our moods and feelings, all people know that the effect is not due to the properties of the pine tree. But the symbolic functions of intoxicants are not always recognized. They are often referred to as if they were chemical effects of the intoxicant. But it is often evident that the intoxicant's inherent chemistry cannot be the cause of the ensuing feelings:

Many people who "indulge in a glass of wine", only drink very small amounts of alcohol. Studies have shown that the effects of amounts of alcohol corresponding to one or two glasses in most cases are not discernible.

Many beneficial "effects" of alcohol turn into effect at the sight, smell and taste of the beverage. When two friends are "having a good time with a glass of beer", they do not sit waiting for the alcohol to be absorbed from the intestines and then reach the brain, so that the good feelings eventually appear. Their mood peaks much earler - at the first sip, or even at the mere sight of the unopened bottles!

The explanation of such events must obviously be based upon psychology, not upon chemistry. We cannot understand the use of intoxicants without understanding the functions of symbols and rituals in our lives.

Symbols are valuable tools

Symbols and rituals pervade our lives. Candlelight make winter evenings cozy. Expensive food, special clothing, decorated tables and rooms generate a festive mood. By means of well-established symbols we produce the mood of Christmas, New Years Eve and other special occasions. We separate Sunday from weekdays by corresponding procedures.

Symbols are valuable tools for evoking desirable emotions and moods. When we wish to be in a special mood, we can utilize things (symbols) which through a learning process have become associated with the mood we intend to achieve.

 A social anthropologist writes:1

"... members of specific social groups tend to share common understandings about many things in the world around them. Such shared understandings ... are sometimes mistakenly thought to have "objective reality"... The logic of many seemingly "natural" linkages is not intrinsic or inherent, rather it is a cultural artifact ... (They) may differ from one culture to another and can change within a given culture through time - far more rapidly than most people realize."
When we are asked if it is not "nice and cozy to have a glass of wine", the most appropriate answer seems to be:

It is nice and cozy to have a good time with one's symbols of nice-and-coziness.

For many people, wine is a well-established symbol of coziness. Others have grown accustomed to other symbols. The choice of symbol is not decisive for feeling the "effect". The decisive element is the learning process which has assigned the appropriate associations to the symbol.

Abstainers too, do of course, easily achieve a Saturday atmosphere and a feeling of coziness by means of other symbols and rituals.

The symbolic functions of the intoxicants

The most frequently used symbolic function of alcoholic beverages is their function as a token or signal, designed to indicate the distinction between the daily dull routines and the well-deserved leisure time, "Now, I (we) will truly indulge in a little luxury". In different cultures, different things are employed to perform this symbolic function. In addition to alcohol, our culture uses different clothes, expensive food, candlelight etc.

Intoxicants are especially well suited to denote "now-I-will-only-relax-and-have-a-good-time" situations. This is because the effect of intoxicants is a handicap in all kinds of useful work. In, for example, drinking alcohol, a decision is made for the rest of the evening, "Now I am neither going to paint the bathroom, clean up the kitchen or do my homework, but only relax and have a good time."

The majority of alcohol users do not use alcohol for the purpose of intoxication, but only for symbolic functions. This is a clear difference from the illegal intoxicants: In most cases, illegal drugs are used with the explicit purpose of getting intoxicated. But illegal drugs also have powerful symbolic functions. Most kinds of symbolic functions are the same for alcohol and illegal drugs.

Use of intoxicants is often perceived as a symbol of adulthood. Many things which are reserved for adults are perceived in this way. Smoking and coffee are other examples. Many teenagers demonstrate the use of or effects of intoxicants very deliberately, to make their adulthood clear. Young men sometimes boast of their drinking as if swallowing the beverage required extraordinary skills.

Users of intoxicants often joke about their intoxicant. This reflects the functions of humor, as it was analyzed by Sigmund Freud.2 He showed that a joke must meet certain formal criteria, and - to be perceived as funny - also should give an outlet for prohibited or taboo feelings. The dominant taboo subjects are sexuality and aggression.

The users' jokes about their intoxicants show that the intoxicant can symbolize broad-mindedness, a liberal rebellion against prejudices. Warnings against their intoxicant are seen as prejudices and perceived as giant exaggerations. Users of both alcohol and marijuana consider their intoxicant as safe when it is used in the "correct" way. They argue that most users they know have not suffered any health damage.

Although alcohol for many users symbolize independence and a liberal view, this is still more significant for use of illegal drugs. The establishment views illegal drugs as public enemy number one. This gives the drugs a powerful symbolic value for those who use them, in spite of the vigorous warnings: The use represents a total rejection of the values of the establishment.

Because of society's intense fear of the drugs, drug use can provide a tickling excitement similar to mountain climbing and hang gliding: Joy mixed with some fear. Status can be achieved in youth groups by taking risks and living hazardously.

Rituals and the spirit of community

Man is a social animal. People have a need for meeting other people, but often they will not say that they meet only in order to meet each other. Participating in some shared activity is perceived as less threatening. People can invite each other to "come for coffee" or to "have a beer". Informal rules determines the choice of shared activity.

The increased use of coffee during the 19th century seems to have been linked to the successful fight against "the evil of drinking".3,4 The intention was to remove a ritual which had very harmful side-effects. But rituals have meaningful functions in human gatherings. Therefore, one ritual was substituted by another, less harmful ritual. Coffee was an exotic beverage which many people could not afford to drink every day. Therefore, coffee was well suited for "Indulge-in-something-extra"-rituals.

Shared activities produce a feeling of togetherness. Toasting one another serves the same function as the marijuana pipe being passed among the group members. It would be naive to believe that the feeling of togetherness and solidarity produced by the rituals, is due to the alcohol in the glasses and the marijuana in the pipes. Temperance groups have rituals serving the same purposes.

The unique aspect of intoxicants is not their use for symbolic and ritual purposes, but the fact that they are believed to alter the user's personality. By selection an intoxicant as a ritual, there is an opportunity to utilize the privileges of intoxication (chapters 2 and 3).

For groups choosing intoxicants for their important rituals, the selection of substance also has a symbolic meaning. The selected substance belongs to the group's identity and image. Different social groups tend to gather around the glass of beer, whisky, French wine or the marijuana pipes. "Tell me which (if any) intoxicant you use, and I will tell you who you are".

A study based on interviews concludes:5

"Just as the need for nicotine is not the motivating factor when 10 year old boys smoke in secret, the need for intoxication does not make a 14 year old boy smoke hashish. The aim is acceptance as an equal member of the gang, as "one who dares"."

"We believe we can conclude that the real effect of the hashish is neither sufficient to initiate nor to sustain the smoking of hashish in teenagers. The symbolic value in the circle of friends is the essential factor ..."

The intoxicant which is used, indicates a set of shared values. The choice of values is most strongly communicated by the use of illegal drugs, which fuses the group into a "We-against-the-majority"-attitude. The existence of a collective external opponent or enemy strengthens the unity and solidarity in any group.

Drug use as a compulsory ritual

Social groups are often distinguished by clothing, jargon and other symbols. Illegal drugs mark a clear-cut symbolic demarcation of the group of users. If you are a drug user, you are "one of us". If not, you are "one of them".

The same phenomenon can also exist in drinking groups: The drinking symbolizes that you belong to the group. But in most cases, this only leads to some degree of peer pressure. Drinking is only compulsory in the most "wet" environments.

At the outskirts of drug-using cultures, individuals may have an ambivalent and irregular relationship to drugs. But at the center of drug-using groups, the use is compulsory for being a member of the group.

Ann had decided to join the drug-using group of the suburb. Her main motive was to get the attention of the group leader (who, in fact, became her boyfriend!) To be accepted as a member of the group, she felt hashish smoking was imperative. She could not stand hashish, but used it all the same.

After one year, she felt that her position in the group was so strong that she could belong to it without smoking hashish. But now and then, she used other drugs which she did not find equally disgusting.

In order to understand drug use, it is important to acknowledge the vital symbolic importance of drug use within the user culture. In treatment of drug addicts, it is often evident that use versus non-use of drugs is more a choice of companions and environment. Long-term addicts most often do not have friends other than drug users, and they often seem to be more dependent on their friends than the drug.

The life as an addict not only provides membership in a social group, but also an active, purposeful life, albeit a deviant one. The addict becomes intensely preoccupied with providing money for drugs, planning and committing burglaries, buying drugs and selling drugs. This life has been said to be analogous to the life of the compulsory hardworking business executive.6 It can fill one's life with some kind of meaning and purpose, substituting for emptiness and monotony.

Ceremonial chemistry

The supporters and opponents of intoxicants both focus strongly on the chemical effects of the substances. The supporters praise their intoxicant for possessing magical psychological effects. The opponents consider the use to be mainly due to the magnetic attractive force of the substances, their ability to paralyze the will and to enslave the user. The common reasoning against illegal drugs corresponds completely to the temperance movement's reasoning against alcohol.

Supporters and opponents both tend to underestimate strongly the powerful symbolic and ritual functions of the use of intoxicants.

The American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz may deserve more fame for his analysis of chemical rituals than for his controversial writings on mental disease. In his book "Ceremonial Chemistry", Szasz writes:7

"Many of these phenomena ... are now discussed in textbooks of pharmacology. This is as if the use of holy water were discussed in textbooks of inorganic chemistry. For if the study of addiction belongs to pharmacology because addiction has to do with drugs, then the study of baptism belongs to inorganic chemistry because the ceremony has to do with water. Baptism is, of course, a ceremony and is generally recognized as such. Many kinds of drug use ... also constitute ceremonies, but are not so recognized."

"As some persons seek or avoid alcohol and tobacco, heroin and marijuana, so others seek or avoid kosher wine and holy water. The differences between kosher wine and non-kosher wine, holy water and ordinary water, are ceremonial, not chemical. Although it would be idiotic to look for the property of kosherness in wine, or for the property of holiness in water, this does not mean that there is no such thing as kosher wine or holy water. Kosher wine is wine that is ritually clean according to Jewish laws. Holy water is water blessed by a catholic priest."

The fight for a symbol can also be dramatic outside the world of chemical substances. The history of religion offers many examples, with all its crusades and religious wars. In the individual's subjective experience, the need for the symbol originates from the depth of the self, legitimizing drastic methods to take hold of the symbol - whether it is chemical or religious.

The wine snobbery and cocaine snobbery

Wine is not only consumed, but is also praised and worshipped like an idol. Foreign hard liquor and cocaine may be embraced in the same way. This makes it interesting to take a closer look at the symbolic values represented by these intoxicants.

Especially outside the wine-producing countries, wine is mainly consumed in the cities and among the better-off. Cocaine use in the USA has similarly been associated with the middle and upper classes.

In several countries, wine drinking is at present increasing and spreading to new social groups. Studying the history of fashions, we can easily understand this spreading of the wine-drinking habit. Styles and fashions have largely been spread by common people's imitation of the life style of the upper classes. Many fashions can be traced back to the French court in Paris. At the international level, the clothes of the wealthy white man are being adopted by the middle class in all poor countries. In the same way, the intoxicants of the better-off is being disseminated: wine, cocaine and foreign liquor.

Choosing a life style means choosing who is attractive to copy. Do you want to resemble Blake Carrington in Dynasty, peasant Jim Johnson or rock star Bruce Springsteen? Cocaine should be measured in a spoon of gold and be located in the nostril by a folded dollar bill. Mass media pictures film stars and sports heroes using cocaine. The associations link pleasant feelings to the use. The process is the same as with champagne and Russian caviar: While the substance is physically located in the stomach, the accompanying associations are located in the brain.

In social life, wine should be drunk devotedly from tall glasses, while the drinker ought to demonstrate his knowledge of the background of this peculiar brand of wine. For those who do not originate from the upper class, but still want to use knowledge of wine to earn social credit and esteem, there are numerous textbooks. Wine columns in newspapers are also helpful, and if further advancement is wanted, there are wine clubs in several cities.

Knowledge of other agricultural products than wine (e.g., potatoes or cabbage) is associated with dirty fingernails and gives no high esteem. Therefore, no one eagerly gives such information at dinner parties. Knowledge of potatoes gives no membership in Noble Citizen's Club. But knowledge of wine gives a flavor of business executives, university graduates, Falcon Crest and other people whom many people want to identify themselves with.

The status-giving information is not only the wine's background, but also its "quality". The high priests of the wine culture are in command. In other areas, there is no need to account for tastes. Different tastes are met with equal respect. But not for wine: Some brands and vintages are the best, while others are inferior. The members of the wine congregation will not jeopardize their status by dissenting. The "scandals" which regularly emerge (when a smart French wine company has sold "inferior" wine under the label of "superior" wine) do not affect the congregation's trust in the high priests. The bottle's name and label have ensured a pleasant feeling and taste for the drinker.

Snobbery is not perceived subjectively

Wine lovers can say:
"Maybe some people drink wine out of snobbery, but I only drink wine because wine happens to taste extremely good."
Such a statement is an honest expression of the subjective feeling. But it is equally evident that taste preferences are socially learned. Why should wine have a peculiar affinity to the taste organs of certain social classes?

Marketing companies are well aware of the impact of associations upon taste preferences. They utilize it professionally in the manipulation of consumers. Advertisements and TV commercials stress the associations between wine/whisky/cognac and yachts/golf/Mercedes. And what kind of beverage would champagne have been without its image (plus the decorated bottle and the cork that pops up to the ceiling).

Esthetic preferences similarly arise from associations: Describing the beauty of Porsche cars or expensive furs may be entirely honest. But equally evident is the fact that preferences are based more upon socially learned associations than objective criteria for beauty.

Claiming that wine has a peculiarly attractive taste, is similarly an honest statement at the conscious level. It is hard to discriminate subjectively the chemical stimulation of the taste organ from the learned associations which are called forth by the substance.

At the unconscious level, the statement may just as much be a declaration of which social group the individual wants to be identified with and which image he wants to leave behind. Imagine an ambitious businessman preferring cheap brandy or even milk to French wine! Strong psychological mechanisms will prevent him from consciously acknowledging such a taste preference, which could have disastrous social consequences.

Symbols with snob appeal are normally imitated by other social groups. But this imitation undermines the symbolic meaning. This happened with cocaine in USA in the beginning of the twentieth century. When the former upper class symbol became the intoxicant of black people in the South, the substance was prohibited!

Hence, the high priests of the wine culture should hope that their manuals and wine clubs do not achieve too wide a distribution. If the cleaning women and mailmen become real wine lovers, the wine culture's high priests will have to look for alternative status symbols.


 1.Heath,DC (1983): Alcohol and Aggression: A "Missing Link" in World-Wide Perspective. P.89-103 in Gottheil,E et al (eds.): Alcohol, Drug Use and Aggression. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Ill.

2.Freud,S (1976): The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious. The Pelican Freud Library, Vol.6, London.

3.Schivelbusch,W (1980): Das Paradis, der Geschmack und die Vernunft. Eine Geschichte der Genussmittel. Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich and Vienna.

4.Skog,OJ (1985): Changes in Alcohol and Coffee Consumption in the 19th Century - a Case of Beverage Substitution? SIFA-mimeograph no.9/85, Oslo.

5.Ericsson,K, Lundby,G & Rudberg,M (1985): Mors nest beste barn. Ungdom, rusgift og kriminalitet. Universitetsforlaget, Oslo.

6.Preble,E & Casey,JJ (1969): Taking Care of Business - The Heroin User's Life in the Street. Int J Addict 4:1-24.

7.Szasz, T (1974): Ceremonial Chemistry. Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, NJ.

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