The Alcoholic Self, Part II: Self as Transcendent

Continuing from last night’s post regarding Norman K. Denzin’s The Alcoholic Self

“Smith (1957: 279) has described the alcoholic in the following paradoxical words:

The [A.A.] member was never enslaved by alcohol. Alcohol simply served as an escape from personal enslavement to the false ideals of a materialistic society.

“[A]ccounts by alcoholics… reference three problematics of self that are displayed in the alcoholic experience. These problematics may be termed (1) self as loss, (2) self as false or illusive subjectivity, and (3) self as transcendent experience.

Self as loss” references the experiences of [a man] who is sober, but his life has no meaning for him. He can feel his inner subjectivity, but he feels an emptiness of self as he speaks. His selfhood is illusive. He is haunted by a sense of self that escapes his grasp.

Self as false subjectivity” is given in the account of [a man] who has everything: wife, job, new car, friends, house. Yer he drinks more than he wants to and suspects that he may be an alcoholic. The meaning of self he seeks in material things has failed him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASelf as transcendent” is given in the accounts of [one] who seeks self-transcendence in drugs and alcohol, [and one who seeks it] in the A.A. experience. The transendent-self seeks to be part of something larger than itself that is not materialistic. It seeks an immanence in a structure of experience that is both enveloping and… collective…. The self that is transcendent is processural, outside itself objectively, but subjectively aware of its own relationships with the world. It seeks to transcend direct empirical experience in the search for a broader and larger meaning of self and existence (James, 1961: 399-400).

The transcendence that is found in drugs and alcohol is a chemical transcendence. This is a personal, unshareable selfhood that is isolating, alienating, and individualistic. This inner state of experience is not immanent in a structure larger than itself, although such an immanence is sought. Interactional self-transcendence is given in the A.A. experience as described by the fourth speaker. He has found a non-competitive, complementary relationship with a world that is larger than he is (Bateson, 1972a: 335).

These three problematics of self are woven through every alcoholic’s experiences
. They reference modes of self-experiencing that move from the individual to the group. As the alcoholic becomes embedded in A.A., a shared, group conception of self is acquired. A.A.’s move, which is truly sociological, locates transcendence of self in the group, not the person. The active alcoholic, had, of course, the opposite position. He or she located individuality, subjectivity, and transcendence in alcohol, drugs, and in the self. A.A.’s self is in the group, not the person.

Denzin, Norman K. 1987. The Alcoholic Self. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications

Denzin’s in text references:
– Bateson, Gregory. 1972. “The cybernetics of self: a theory of alcoholism,” pp. 309-337 in G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine.
– James, William. 1961. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature New York: Collier. (originally published in 1904)
– Smith, Bernard B. 1957. “A friend looks at Alcoholics Anonymous,” pp. 273-283 in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (as quoted in Denzin, 1987).

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