I love attending academic conferences where there’s talk of booze served with a side of ponderous throat clearing, a saucer of elbow patch, and a raising of eyebrow. So serious!
I dropped in on a few sessions at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting this week, and learned a lot about New Orleans, a lot about what profession not to pursue if you want security and income, and a lot about where the journalist and popular historian fit into the academe. (Way off to the side, it turns out, where they’re fixed with squinty stares from tenured professors who simultaneously look down on them for their lack of rigor and envy them for their wider readership.)
People joked about sessions where panelists outnumbered the audience, but that wasn’t actually a joke at the session I attended yesterday afternoon — four panelists, and three of us in the audience.
This involved three intriguing papers on various aspects of alcohol in the early 20th century France. (Mostly wine; I would have liked more than a chaser of distilled spirits.)
But I learned about connections I wouldn’t normally have made, such as between scrap metal and wine during World War II. Chad Denton of Yonsei University (Korea) spoke of how once the global embargo put the pinch on Germany and Vichy France, a drive was launched to get the citizenry to donate their chandeliers and grandmother’s tea kettles and whatever else to the cause. But the cause wasn’t the war, at least not according to the propaganda — it was the saving of the wine crop! Scrap metals were needed to make copper sulfate to spray the vines to kill the phylloxera aphids! To make the connection, posters and leaflets promised those who brought in their copper bottles of wine in return. Of course, the metal went not to the crop but to Germany which went into bombs that fell on London. Call it blood wine.
Another connection: between breathalyzers and the centralization of power.Until the 1950s, the local constabulary in France decided if you were drunk by observing you. But with the appearance of roadside alcohol detecting technology in the late 1950s, who was drunk could be decided by Paris — taking away local decisions about whether someone was in control of their faculties to drive. (The devices got a lot of push back from the public, who understood that context mattered.) I haven't yet read a social history of the breathalyzer in the U.S., but I'm guessing it's out there it would be worth tracking down. (A few days at this conference convinced me that every topic and subject has been researched exhaustively by someone.)
Where the connection between drinking and history was not made was in conference scheduling. Today (Sunday) there are no fewer than 35 simultaneous panels, talks, and presentations scheduled at four downtown hotels. At 8:30 in the morning. In New Orleans. I suspect history will show that three people in attendence will be considered a good run.