I’ve got my pride, I drink my wine I’d drink only the finest ‘cept I haven’t earned a dime in several months Or were it years The breath on that fat bastard could bring any man to tears We had our words, a common spat So I kissed him upside the cranium with that aluminum baseball bat My name is Mud.
Primus, ‘My Name is Mud’, Pork Soda, 1993
I’ve been reading Gregory Bateson’s ‘The Cybernetics of “Self”: A Theory of Alcoholism’ tonight (apparently that’s what sober people do after work while listening to Primus and drinking tea with a 25kg lapdog).*
Bateson was a serial overachiever – a true multidisciplinarian – like the McGuyver of the social sciences. The guy could argue philosophy with the best of them, take photos and write poetry, and publish some thoroughly thought-provoking anthropology based mainly on fieldwork in Bali and PNG. He also worked with and married the very famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.
All good right? Seems like a nice guy? No reason to be suspicious.
Yet I can’t escape the sensation that Bateson is reaching through the years to remind me that, if I drink again, my name is Mud – just like the murderous drunk in Primus’ song.
Then the penny finally drops that the object of Bateson’s powerful intellect for an entire chapter is …*gasp*… me, or rather we alkies.
And not only that, it’s good. Like, creepily, insightfully, peeling-open-your-cranium-for-a-wee-peek good. And it came out before I was born.
Is this a time-travelling, mind-reading, brain-peeling type horror story set to a funk metal soundtrack? Not quite.
Bateson’s primary research was two years (1949-52) hanging out with alkies in a Veteran’s hospital in California, many of whom suffered from schizophrenia and other comorbidities. In other words, these guys were seriously hard cases. His secondary data was the AA big book, also a product of the time (1939) in which it was written.
While the AA big book remains massively and embarrassingly sexist and misogynist, and wears its Christianity proudly (Bill and Bob did make some concessions for people from different religious backgrounds, and agnostics), the AA I know today values gender and ethnic equality as much as it does its open approach to spirituality. The Goddy religiosity of Bateson’s AA is not my own, where there is a strong and growing acceptance that, while we humanists and atheists are probably going to hell, at least we can get sober and hold atheist, agnostic or freethinker AA meetings while we are still living.
Also, Cybernetics of Self was one chapter in a massive volume that applied ideas from cybernetics – the study of how organic things (humans and other animals) and machines interact with each other – to a range of human experiences and issues central to psychiatry, philosophy, ecological anthropology and systems theory. In other words, it is heavy going and probably won’t help you get sober.
Bateson argues that sobriety for the alcoholic is characterised by an ‘unusually disastrous variant of the Cartesian dualism’ – in our case, ‘between conscious will, or “self”, and the remainder of our personalities. Bateson (1971:442) remarks:
Bill W’s stroke of genius was to break up with the first “step” the structuring of this dualism. Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender; it is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change, is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.
Epistemology is geek speak for the way we think about things, so Bateson is saying that, by taking the first step, we alkies must force a fairly profound change in our perspectives (I found it at Rock Bottom, as Bateson predicted). He also recognises that, in our cups, we alkies are a selfish, self-centred and self-seeking bunch of assholes, and that any change in perspective needs to be a radical departure from these default settings.
Without doing a deep dive at this stage into Bateson’s broader ideas about our maladaptive alcoholic behaviours and notions of pride, the nature of the individual, and society as a whole, I think he is spot on about AA’s first step and why it seems to work. Not only do we alkies have to own our addictions in the first step, we also require a radical change in perspective, and many people still refer to this as a spiritual experience in much the same language as Bateson would have heard.
My change in perspective has been more of a slow burn, built on the mutual support of my peers and a guided process of critical self reflection. No thunderbolts and lightning for this little black duck, nosiree. But it did, and it does, get better.
*Gregory Bateson, 1971, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, University of Chicago Press, pp.440-56.