I’m a bit wary of introducing too many social science terms on this blog, because not every alcoholic or addict I know has a working knowledge of Foucault’s theories on power relations. Still, it might help the reader to know what I mean by a few things.
Also, FYI, the reason most of my blog posts are structured like AA ‘shares’ is because that is the nature of AA narratives: these stories pour out of alkies like liquid from glass, or sweat from trembling pores, as catharsis.
Alcohol and alcoholism
When I started my PhD, settling on a research question was like opening a choose your own adventure novel. Picking an addiction was similar, but with a terrible payoff. Fortunately, I didn’t take a path in life that led me to heroin, but alcohol is a pretty close second on the scale of Shit You Don’t Want To Get Physically Addicted To.
Alcohol is no normal commodity.* Sure, it can be bought and sold. It has both a use value and an exchange value, it attracts various import duties and sales taxes, and is manufactured, distributed, marketed and sold. It is unusual because of its capacity to cause great pleasure and real harm, both to those who use it, and their loved ones, in addition to its highly addictive properties. Alcohol can be consecrated and transformed into the symbolic blood of a deity’s son. In the first British colony in Sydney it served as currency for a time, and continues to circulate as barter in the Australian beer economy (from memory, the going rate for moving a friend’s fridge is a six pack – if you move the entire contents of the house you could probably expect a slab). Drinking is a national pastime in Australia, playing into nationalistic notions of larrikinism and mateship. It is ubiquitous at social occasions. Australians drink to celebrate and they drink to mourn.
Alcoholic beverages are big business and readily available. Last year, Australians spent a grand total of $14.5 billion on alcohol they purchased from a liquor store (as opposed to a licensed venue). Almost three-quarters of this went to supermarket-affiliated retailers such as Dan Murphy’s and BWS (meaning Coles and Woolworths…down, down, trousers are down).**
Coincidentally, most alcoholics like me drink at home behind closed doors because a. It is cheaper, b. There’s literally less shit that can go wrong, and c. Have you tried pulling on trousers after drinking a 4 litre cask of Fruity Lexia ($10.99, Dan Murphy’s, further discounts available with Woolworths shopper dockets)?
Alcohol manufacturers are represented by powerful industry lobby groups, whose job it is to see the industry flourish under neoliberal, free trade conditions. Alcohol giant Lion itself gave $90,000 to the ALP and $55,000 to the Liberal Party in 2015/16.***
Oh, and did I mention alcohol-related harm?****
Begbie Barfight Scene, Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, 1996
Despite decades of chronic, alcohol-related harm accompanying structural inequality in many Northern Territory communities, and despite community-led campaigns for alcohol bans, the alcohol industry pours millions of dollars into the coffers of the two major political parties. The ABC reported recently that a single Darwin pub-owner had donated $100,000 in the last 12 months, split evenly between the ALP and the Country Liberals.*****
Remember that this is the same NT political class that introduced mandatory alcohol treatment as a sentencing option for recidivist drunks. Alcohol Mandatory Treatment was broadly criticised for offering little therapeutic benefits and for unfairly targeting Aboriginal citizens (for whom public drinking in the shade is perfectly acceptable, while their service in public bars can never be guaranteed.) Also, something NT policy makers failed to grasp was AA’s step one – you have to want to get sober in the first place to have any hope in hell of staying that way.
The former NT government also abolished a banned drinker’s register that recorded people’s identification when they bought grog, and banned repeat offenders because many of their white, conservative constituents complained about having to take their drivers licence to the bottle-o (liquor store). Poor petals. Immediately following the BDR’s abolition, the number of alcohol-related ER presentations at Alice Springs hospital doubled.******
So, when I talk of alcohol, I am talking of a constellation of things including, for example: a poisonous substance that can cause both pleasure and pain; an atypical, yet valuable commodity (which means it is inherently political); something that can carry symbolic meaning as a sacrament; and, a substance that binds a motley collection of people from all walks of life into the transnational fellowship we know of as AA.
Alcohol doesn’t care about the colour of your skin, and neither do people in recovery. If you’re a five foot three sistagirl you have as much right to be in an AA meeting as I do with my male, middle-aged, middle-income, white privilege.
Unfortunately, for most alcoholics our shared future lies either in a coffin or some other kind of uncomfortable box (nuthouse, inn-house, outhouse or divvy van). Despite huge leaps forward in the sciences that treat addiction, few alcoholics get sober today and fewer still remain that way until they die. AA offers the easiest, gentlest way in my humble opinion.
I’ll blog about the science of alcohol and how the physical addiction/withdrawal process works (and feels like) later. For now, I’ll just say that while I may have another drink in me, I don’t know if I have another recovery. It’s hard. The docs think I’d have to dry out under medical supervision because the shakes and tremors – Delirium Tremens – were so pronounced in 2014 and can be life threatening. But that’s, as we say, a problem for another day. My sole job today is to get my head on the pillow sober.
Approach to the anthropology of addiction
I think alcoholism and addiction is misunderstood, by and large, in the social sciences (including anthropology) and the medical profession. This is because, when asked about our addictions, we usually downplay them, withhold critical information or flat out lie. I know because I’m pretty sure I did this to every GP and psychologist I saw when I was drinking. He-ll-ooo Valium!) The point I want to make is that when it comes to our addictions, we are pathological liars.
How do you know an active alcoholic is lying? His lips are moving.
But, when we get sobriety (not just put down the bottle), most of us become pathological truth-tellers.
After all, they were still locking us up in asylums or attaching wires to our heads when Bill W and Dr Bob were getting sober and writing the AA Big Book. In parts of the world, they just leave you lying in your own piss in the street. In Duterte’s Phillipines, they use you for target practice. I am grateful that, where I live, alcoholics and addicts can get treatment and support if they want it.
In thinking about the way in which alcoholic drinking and addiction reach inexorably into peoples’ lives, Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s brilliant ethnography of homeless heroin addicts living in San Francisco, Righteous Dopefiend (2009), is a particularly good starting point. Bourgeois and Schonberg draw on the ideas of several very famous, but very dead, social theorists (Marx, Bourdieu and Foucault) to develop a theory of abuse, broadly referencing the misuse of power in social relations including those of gender, race and socioeconomic class.
Bourgois and Schonberg, by virtue of slumming it with San Franciscan smackies for more than a decade, get addiction. How could you not after such a long period of research? My problem with Righteous Dopefiend lies not in its heartbreakingly thick description and thoughtful analysis, but in the fact that it’s a very different thing to get addiction than it is to truly experience it.
This goes beyond the classic anthropological debates around emic and etic field research conducted either within a given social group or from the outside. I’m concerned about the difference between individual, deeply personal, subjective experience, and the rigorous observations of an ethnographer (or, in the case of Righteous Dopefiend, a team of dedicated ethnographers).
I’ve just finished a book about cancer to get a sense of how other anthropologists have written about the subjective experience of illness – S. Lochlann Jain’s excellent ethnography Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (2013).
It closes with the unforgettable scene of the author clearing out her cupboard full of cancer meds and wigs, while reflecting on what the future holds, including the chance of a relapse. Jain is both the object and the subject – a conflation of the two roles of observer and observed when she was diagnosed with cancer and joins what Susan Sontag has referred to as ‘the kingdom of the ill’.
So these are some of the theoretical, moral and philisophical questions I am grappling with.
Not much of a definition of terms, but it will do for a start. BYEEE
*See: Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, Research and Public Policy, Second Edition, 2010, Thomas F. Babor, Raul Caetano, Sally Casswell, Griffith Edwards, Norman Giesbrecht, Kathryn Graham, and others, Oxford Uni Press
****The McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth recently reported that, nationally, police spend one quarter of their budgets responding to alcohol related incidents. In WA alone, there were 5,092 alcohol related domestic violence incidents reported in 2011-12, representing almost half (47 percent) of all all domestic assaults that year – a 5 percent increase on the previous year. It’s also worth noting that these probably reflect only the more serious incidents.
The MCCAY report noted that alcohol causes 15 deaths and 430 hospitalisations each day across Australia. The report notes that the direct cost of alcohol-related problems to society in 2010 was conservatively estimated at $14.35 billion (not including the cost of harms to others). See: The McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, Alcohol: Drinking patterns and harms in Australia and WA, August 2017, https://mcaay.org.au/assets/publications/factsheets/alcohol—drinking-patterns-and-harms-in-australia-and-wa.pdf
******The BDR was in operation in the Northern Territory from July 2011 to August 2012, and was reinstated by the Labor government on 1 September 2017. A formal review of the original BDR wasn’t conducted (to my knowledge). Bits and pieces, e.g. below, paint a pretty stark picture.
Alice Springs Hospital Emergency Department presentations for conditions wholly attributable to alcohol before, during and after the operation of the Northern Territory Banned Drinkers Register
Source: People’s Alcohol Action Coalition 2014.