Research Questions

Why is there such a fascination with alcohol? What does it mean when we designate certain spaces to imbibe it throughout time? Why has there not been more study on the subject? These are the questions I intend to ask in both my research and in my contribution to the larger mapping project we will be doing this semester. In particular, I will be investigating alcohol as a medium, or communicative tool, within the context of the speakeasy as it existed both in the late 19th to early 20th centuries as well as into the present day with its resurgence, demonstrating the speakeasy itself as a cultural media event.

Significance


This project hopes to follow Zielinski's view of an archaeology of media; to make the concept of “media” as wide open as possible. In this view, alcohol can and should be considered a form of media in a similar way that food can be approached as media, in that it facilitates communication in a given space – be it the bar, social gathering, or sporting event – and its presence informs and speaks to its context and overarching culture in a way that can be studied objectively. Alcohol carries with it messages of conviviality, danger, escape, and death that are fed into and reinforced depending on the cultural moment and context it inhabits.

With that said, the speakeasy as a mediated space both past and present offers a look into how alcohol as a medium informs other forms of mediation. The speakeasy is of interest because, by definition, it would seem to resist mediation; the Prohibition-era “speak” was a place of secret, illicit revelry that only those “in the know” could enjoy. The term itself is said to have been coined by a bar owner who did not want to draw attention from the authorities. However, their existence historically defies that notion due to the mythologized, often glamorized character the Prohibition-era has taken on. When we talk of the speakeasy, what would come to mind are gangsters, flappers in sequins and pearls, and long-headed jazzers playing (consider the new series Boardwalk Empire). This mythology, in turn, informs the speakeasies of today; modernized, hypermediated spaces that both take advantage of and mimic the mystique and counter-establishment allure of the original while also making use of present media to either inform and educate the consumer or attract a discerning clientèle that is, again, “in the know.” Here, there is an interplay between the counter-cultural and mainstream, what is actively mediated and what is not.

Another part of this inquiry is the fact that scholarly texts on the subject of alcohol as culturally significant is lacking. It seems that this kind of scholarly discourse has only begun to take place within the last decade or so.

Formats

In the course of this project, I hope to gather primary sources in the form of interviews from the owners of surviving speakeasies like the 21 Club on 21 West 52nd or nouveau speaks like Milk & Honey on 134 Eldridge Street, and taking photographs of said locations as well as the locations of speakeasies that were lost to time. In addition, I would like to compile news clippings featuring prominent individuals who frequented these speaks, music jazz players may have debuted or performed, and even films that feature notable New York locations in their narratives.