We new puritans: varieties of sobering experience

Dost thou think, because thou art
virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night

I was a teenage teetotaller. From the age when my friends began experimenting with intoxication, I abstained from alcohol and other intoxicating substances. It seemed transparent to me that alcohol masked social anxiety, and by resolutely refusing I was embracing with clarity the condition of awkwardness. In fact, I turned myself into a killjoy (and not of Sara Ahmed’s kind), seeking the purity of ‘authentic’ consciousness and sobriety over what I perceived as the excess of drinking culture. Others nursed hangovers in a comradely spirit, regretting and celebrating the bacchanalia of the night before, while I found other routes for self-punishment and sought consolation for my anti-social version in some morally righteous dry ground.

The status of intoxication is oddly paradoxical. On the one hand, it is a site of social control and docility, rabid consumption and social problems. On the other hand, some claim it escapes precisely the same social control, inducts us into new pleasures, and helps us cope—more or less innocently—with genuine social problems that aren’t about to disappear simply because of a new wave of temperance. Intoxication is both denigrated as false consciousness, and sought as a break in false consciousness. Both positions posit a pure consciousness that is intended to signify some kind of moral achievement or political gesture.

Yet in order to understand the kind of political gesture sobriety aims to be, we need to formulate the alternative: otherwise, sobriety risks being a generic, abstract refusal that picks the sober out for having chosen well. My claim is that drunkenness and intoxication can intensify (without actually being the cause of) little fluctuations in experience that open to the unexpected. If sobriety represents an inward turn, intoxication can embrace a peculiar and de-stabilising kind of pleasure, as well as invite a more ragged, less formal conviviality. I am not defending any particular substance, nor suggesting that every effect of intoxication is wonderful. Rather, I am suggesting that the affirmation of intoxication signifies an acknowledgement of the difficulty of our pleasures and the compromising position they put us in.

It took until my early twenties to accept that intoxication need not be a form of false consciousness or a desperate escape from the reality of our selves. In my rigid attempt to overcome adolescence with the fantasy of pure sobriety, I had observed and reacted to the generational confluence of teenagers getting soused on alcopops (even with an added 70 per cent tax in 2008) and my parents’ daily wine habit. Suffice to say, ascetic self-denial taught me very little. If intoxication had led my friends to have regrets, they enjoyed recounting them together, while my regrets remained resentfully locked in sober solitude. Intoxication can lend itself to the discovery of new pleasures that may be sought anew in the aftermath, not despite but precisely because of its propensity to excess. It is a most human vice; there are no unproblematic pleasures.

The new sobriety makes a miniscule exception to the panoply of available pleasures, endorsing an overall consumptive hedonism by forgoing a single part which most threatens to de-stabilise the edifice. It attempts to siphon the ‘malignant property’ from the indulgence, like decaffeinated coffee, while still enjoying the consumption. It’s like a superhero movie without the CGI: pretending to see behind the curtain while still enjoying the show. The problem with the new sobriety is that it is divorced from more wholesale demands to refashion an ethics under capitalism, and as such it constitutes a care of the self with no attempt at real moderation or what Mari Ruti calls ‘opting out’. Instead, the aestheticized selection of pleasures operates as virtue without political bite, as Catherine Liu decries in her takedown of the Professional Managerial Class, Virtue Hoarders. Is it possible to affirm (or reject) certain pleasures without moralising, or endorsing consumption? Intoxication may be one of those pleasures that, while on the surface merely hedonistic and occasionally destructive, in fact, like sex, it is profoundly ambivalent, de-stabilising of the individual ego and threatening to the imperatives of productivity. Affirming intoxication has the potential to feel like the utopian leap Kathi Weeks recovers in The Problem with Work in the phrase: ‘eight hours for what we will.’

Buying sober: the consumption and management of the self

The trend towards what Yves Rees in Meanjin calls ‘the new sobriety’ and responses to it by James Rushing Daniel in Damage, as well as longer form reflections on sobriety and intoxicants by Maggie Nelson in On Freedom and Cressida J. Heyes in Anaesthetics of Experience reflect not only the desire for a clear head but also are a litmus test for the status of pleasure. It is easy to conceive of the ‘new sobriety’ as another iteration of ‘conscious consumption’, a capitalist mutation expanding the array of ways to spend our way into an identity and attain moral capital.

While the movements to de-criminalise drugs have their roots in abolitionist and de-colonial struggle, cannabis legalisation is increasingly divorced from this ideal, in both a political and practical sense. Proponents in the ACT confirmed that it was ‘not a revolution’, and decriminalisation in the parts of the United States have failed to address racist policing or cut police funding or power. This split between abolitionist demands and the effect of legislative reform means that it is primarily producing a new source of revenue for capital: recreational highs. The markets in growing and dispensing are increasingly captured by large agribusiness and franchises without the redressing the injustices of the drug war or mass incarceration. Similarly, tripping on acid is now advocated in the mainstream not as an enjoyable experience, or a way to reconceptualise our relationship to the world but as a source of mental hygiene and healthy clarity, as Ben Brooker points out.

Rees’ Meanjin essay documents a millennial trend of opting out of alcohol. They locate the impetus partly in a kind of conscious consumption-cum-health craze, and partly as a response to lockdown blurring of (white collar) work into everyday life. Each is associated more broadly with the intensification of the disciplinary entrepreneurialism of late capitalist workers funnelled into a fetish for health that subjectifies the body primarily as a site of continuous productivity. This new temperance operates at the intersection of the management of the health of a population, and the gospel of individual consumer responsibility.

A report from the Global Burden of Disease advised people under 40 not to drink alcohol. The lesson is clear: abstain to maximise health and reduce your burden. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare noted a slight reduction in alcohol consumption, but the reporting makes no attempt to link such consumption habits to the economic conditions that determine such decisions. The Australian Bureau of Statistics survey data reveals the poorest people in Australia drank to excess about half as much as the richest. Meanwhile, psychotherapists note a rise in anxiety (economic, social, political) that constricts young people’s perception of the acceptable boundaries of risk, creating ‘restricted comfort zones.’

But the ‘new sobriety’ doesn’t take anyone out of the circuit of consumption. Rees details the kaleidoscopic possibilities for ‘alcohol-free’ booze. In hipster suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, non-alcoholic bottle shops (otherwise known as ‘shops’ for ‘overpriced water’, as Rees admits) can be giddily browsed for their ‘cornucopia of ersatz booze… The entire scene is a seduction. I want to be the kind of person who consumes these drinks.’ The link between identity and consumption is reinforced in the ritual of connoisseurship imposed on the faux-alcohol with Rees joining a coterie of the sober who ‘swilled’ the varieties of non-alcoholic beers ‘around in our mouths, debated taste and mouthfeel, then issued a mark out of ten.’ As Pierre Bourdieu famously pointed out in Distinctions, such show trials of aesthetic taste function to reinforce class boundaries.

James Rushing Daniel, in his far more critical assessment of sobriety in ‘Dry Capitalism’ argues that the ‘kind of person’ who might consume such drinks is uncomfortably diverse: from the ‘alternative rich’, colouring book afficionados, ‘new agey types’, athletes (see Athletic Brewing) and ‘moms’ to ‘alpha males’ and all-out alt-right Jordan Peterson followers warned about ‘the dangers of alcohol’ from a daddy who demands discipline. Rees notes sobriety in the context of a ‘wellness’ industry that ‘peddles individualised market-based solutions to the structural problems of neoliberal capitalism.’ The market evinces an extraordinary capacity to sell you both the sickness and the cure, the latter as an appendage that moralises the former as a matter of personal responsibility. Consumption appears as individual choice under capitalism.

Working sober: facilitating productivity with sobriety

Sobriety contributes to what Daniel calls a ‘culture of ceaseless performance’ while Rees admits that ‘it was a no brainer to channel my sober vim into labour that might better secure my employment.’ Economic conditions forcefully determine the threshold of pleasure and abstinence. Sobriety obeys a ‘cult of work and wealth,’ Daniel asserts. ‘In serving the needs of a professional class whose lifestyle inheres—or, at least, appears to inhere—in ceaseless hustle and a mentality of rise and grind, sobriety serves as an aesthetic and performative accessory to the achievement subject.’

Cressida Heyes, in Anaesthetics of Experience, reflects on contemporary experiences such as the mild intoxication of (highly gendered) afternoon wine. She proposes that it responds to the demand for ‘tireless efficiency’, providing relief from the incessant flow of ‘disciplinary time’ whose relentlessness now exceeds that notably documented by E.P. Thompson in ‘Work, Time-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.’ Scholars such as Lauren Berlant and the sociologist Ben Highmore describe ways of ‘checking out’ of such a time regime through ‘interruptive episodes’ that involve the ‘slackening of intentionality’, or ‘drifts’ of consciousness that ‘diffuse’ rather than focus our attention. They all argue that these moments are both necessary in order to sustain our lives for the kind of pressures imposed by contemporary work regimes as well as petites morts that offer minor sites of opposition to those pressures.

These ruptures are very quickly re-routed into both work and consumption. For example, Daniel offers the book The Sober Lush whose authors detail alcohol-free activities like motorcycling, partying, collecting, curating, raising children, exercising, and ‘adult snow days—a strange and indulgent self-infantilisation that involves staying in bed all day’—as alternatives to having even the single drink allowed to us by ‘health experts.’ Daniel reserves particular distaste for the ‘righteousness’ with which sobriety is touted by ‘semi-elites.’ This righteousness takes itself for purity and casts the need for respite or the pleasure of intoxication as an indulgence. As a class-based practice, this maps onto the association of the working class with the body and lower needs and pleasures, while professionals can afford clean living (or rehab).

Historically, industrialised workers were subjected to sobriety since the danger their work posed to them made drunkenness a hazard not only to their safety but to the productive assembly line. Henry Ford pronounced that ‘booze had to go when modern industry and the motor car came in.’ Changing consumption patterns also made public houses sites of undisciplined sociality, while urbanisation and displacement removed the fermentation of alcohol from households, where it was conducted mainly by women, to mass manufacturing. Kathi Weeks reflects on the mutations of the work ethic under conditions of post-Fordist consumption in which the ‘worldliness of, for example, unruly bodies, seductive pleasures, and spontaneous enjoyment poses a constant challenge to the mandate for such focused attention to and diligent effort in properly productive pursuits.’

Similarly, drinking intercedes in the reproductive labour of the household, playing into what Heyes calls the ‘ideologically available audience’ constructed by ‘white femininity’ that attempts to reconcile the ‘contradictory relationship to stereotypes of passivity, on the one hand, and to norms of upward mobility at work, on the other.’ Recognising this and other social trends, Rees’ essay shifts uneasily between personal immersion and the historical contextualisation of sobriety. They note that while the ‘suffragists were focused on social reforms that would inhibit male drinking, 2020s feminism is oriented towards individual women’s sobriety.’ Yet all this is written with a willing embrace of the latter, leaving me wondering what lesson such historical context should offer.

Demanding sober: social movements and social problems with drinking

Early feminists arguably had much to gain from temperance. Not only was drinking perceived as a root cause of social problems, violence and male delinquency from responsibility, Rees writes that it could also be perceived as ‘a numbing agent that keeps women mollified in the face of continued oppression.’ Sobriety does double service. The perpetual risk of moral reform is that, as Maggie Nelson notes in On Freedom, it is difficult to determine sometimes ‘when a strategy of liberation has flipped into a form of entrapment.’ Moral reform is swiftly assimilated to the disciplinary apparatus of bourgeois virtue, and the repression and condemnation (even outlawing) of unwholesome pleasures or practices.

As Barbara Taylor shows in Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, it is such conditions that led British socialists to attempt to construct counter-institutions to pubs. The overlap between temperance and socialist organising in the ‘enforcement of moral discipline was in itself a modest vision of feminism… [because] cultural puritanism and moral discipline, although they served to protect women from some of the harsher features of male dominance, also had the effect of policing women themselves.’ Taylor acknowledges that ‘no doubt many women found the benefits of a teetotalling husband outweighed the loss of their own drinking rights; but it is important to see how the self-improvement mentality of the movement could actually serve to promote narrowed definitions of female respectability.’

Moral reform had the appeal for middle-class women of enabling their participation in public life. Yet, as Elizabeth Windschuttle notes in ‘Feeding the Poor and Sapping their Strength’ (in Women, Class and History), charity and philanthropy operated to morally excuse newly wealthy middle-class women from the charge of ‘idleness’ from moral reformers like Sarah trimmer and Hannah More, and were often marshalled to ‘prevent the spread of democratic ideals and social unrest.’ Drinking culture, however, has its own forms of collectivism and conviviality targeted precisely by the kind of puritanical social reform directed at working people. In ‘Boozers and Wowsers’, David Dunstan notes that an 1888 parliamentary committee in New South Wales lamented the practice of ‘shouting’ or ‘nobblerizing’ for turning the individual consumption of a single drink into a reciprocated round, six times over.  However, organising against drinking provided the incipient feminist movements in Australia and elsewhere with a clear target, as Patricia Grimshaw argues in ‘Women and Family in Australian History.’ ‘Excessive drinking was the vice par excellence of the colonial male. Women, and their dependent children, were the usual sufferers, both from the resultant economic deprivation and physical cruelty’ and reformers were radicalised by the limits to their power they encountered in appealing to public authorities.

More recently, Meera Atkinson points out that the issue with calling problems like misogynistic violence, sexual assault, atrocious health outcomes for poor and Aboriginal people ‘alcohol-related’ is that there is a tendency to target alcohol, rather than the socio-political problems that require better, well-funded healthcare or good sex education. Atkinson concludes by calling for ‘people who drink to excess… to be held by a society that believes them and believes in them by protecting them.’ This might also involve defending our desire to seek excessive experiences without the threat of punitive, moralistic recrimination or the predation on vulnerable people.

In ‘Dry Capitalism’, Daniel also aims to attune us to deeper problems, as did Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England, asking after detailing the ‘brutality’ of ‘intemperance’ what ‘are a few thousand teetotalers among the millions of workers?’ ‘That they drink heavily is to be expected.’ Connecting sobriety to ‘regimes of exercise and self-purification’, he suggests that ‘what sobriety unquestionably does not offer is either relief or deliverance from an intolerable system.’ This comment absolves itself of the need to make any positive claims for the experience or pleasure of intoxication by wanly pointing to the ‘system.’ But does intoxication simply offer the kind of mollifying relief that is its own form of entrapment, or can it provide a more substantive experience that is worth having for its own sake, or for the sake of some new kind of clarity and insight?

Testing sober: expanding the boundaries of the self in pleasure

In her reflections on writing about drugs and drinking, Maggie Nelson returns to a paradox in the desire for intoxication: it both affirms and denies the experience of the self. If Henri Michaux wrote, ‘To enjoy a drug one must enjoy being a subject,’ we can understand this as meaning both the enjoyment of being oneself, and the enjoyment of being subjected to something external. Paul B. Preciado’s experience of T involves being ‘neither more nor less myself… It is fundamental not to recognise oneself.’

The unsettling entanglements of inner and outer, contingency and similitude inflect classic writings on intoxication such as Walter Benjamin’s ‘Hashish in Marseilles’. Although ‘inner experience’ takes on ‘immense dimensions… of absolute duration and immeasurable space’, Benjamin finds that ‘beatific humour dwells all the more fondly on the contingencies of the world of space and time.’ Throughout his work, Benjamin attempts to connect individual experiences to collective significance in ways that are not standardising, moralising or compulsory. He documents the way intoxication can break open the ‘thoroughly mechanised and rationalised’ perception. The sidewalk transports his imagination: ‘These stones were the bread of my imagination, which was suddenly seized by a ravenous hunger to taste what is the same in all places and countries.’ The apparent interiority of the trip plays out its indulgence in the feeling of selfless affection for the world of other people, rather than indulging the privatised experiences of the selective ascetic.

Part of what transforms the intoxication from one of self-indulgence to an attempt to articulate revolutionary consciousness is that Benjamin reflects, later, on what he has written during his trip. The encounter with the record of thoughts such as ‘One should scoop sameness from reality with a spoon… enabled me now to confront the political, rational sense it had had for me earlier with the individual, magical meaning of my experience the day before.’ But in order to achieve this translation from intoxication to clarity, Benjamin must forfeit the fantasy of purity that squats in the notion that our experience occurs inside individuals.

Nelson notes the same phenomenon in a more literary warning that ‘drug writing needs to be enlivening, surprising, and gripping, whereas the experiences being narrated are often characterised by monotony, inattentiveness, and vacancy.’ For Cressida Heyes, this is the ‘junk time’ of post-war intoxication characterised by the likes of William Burroughs whose destructive binges are merely regurgitated rather than transformed in writing. This reflects the loss of the desire to transform the conditions of our lives, alongside the loss of the aspiration to transform individual into collective experiences. In one version, the ‘loss of temporal synchrony with the world’ enacts an irreparable break that spirals into the fantasy of pure (un)consciousness, while in the other, the break provides an opportunity to discover the ways social reality imposes inhuman rhythms on us.

Nelson expresses scepticism about intoxication or the writing that it produces, noting that many classic accounts from Thomas De Quincey to the beats (a male canon addressed by Olivia Laing in the spirit of equal opportunity alcoholism) are treated as ‘vessels of macho liberation’ despite their ‘abject, even explicitly feminised experiences of dependency, fragmentation, abasement, compulsion, and penetration.’ But Benjamin, for instance, is attentive to the ambiguity in the experience, including its claims to broader, collective significance. The intriguing phrase he uses is that, in the fugue, ‘I became my own most skillful, fond, shameless procurer, gratifying myself with the ambiguous assurance of one who knows from profound study the wishes of his employer.’ He undergoes a sequence of visions, deceptions which ‘vanished as deceptions vanish in dreams… peacefully and amiably, like a being who has performed his service’ which enable a peculiar form of self-relation.

Nelson wonders whether it is desirable, or possible, to wrest intoxication away from the fetish of pure consciousness or the adventures of the imperial imagination, both solipsistic and acquisitive in their attitude towards experience. But temperance and moral puritanism have not disappeared from the ‘new sobriety’, although it has shifted over time. Angela Carter, writing with characteristic humour in 1976, notes a transition away from counter-cultural asceticism, which was ‘part of a lifestyle embracing socialism, pacificism and shorts, a simple asceticism embracing a healthy contempt for the pleasures of the flesh.’ Such asceticism declared itself for what it was: the desire for an enlarged consciousness and a modestly utopian alternative to the consumptive lifestyle.

This asceticism recalled pre-capitalist traditions in which the good life could be won by avoiding false pleasures. Epicurus sought ‘freedom from pain in the body and disturbance in the soul. For what produces the pleasant life is not continuous drinking and parties… but sober reasoning which tracks down the causes of every choice and avoidance, and which banishes the opinions that beset souls with the greatest confusion.’ Epicureans like Porphyry in On abstinence saw ‘violent gratification’ of excess as leading quickly to ‘its opposite. What it contributes to is not life’s maintenance but variation of pleasures, just like sex or drinking exotic wines, all of which our nature is quite capable of doing without…’ To genuinely adopt such a stance, we need to consider the implications of condemning pleasures of the body, not only in its prurient form in moralism, but in its unappealing reverence for mendicant poverty.

Carter dates to Woodstock the abdication of this knowing renunciation and abstinence to a punitive imperative: ‘you’ve got to enjoy your vegetarianism, dammit.’ Older forms of temperance demanded discipline through repression of false pleasures, but the new asceticism moralises this demand into what Slavoj Zizek calls the ‘superego’s injunction’ to ‘Enjoy!’ that transforms an act demanding obedience into one demanding pleasure and self-investment. Such demands torment us with the constant imperative to invest in our true selves (effectively manage our identities), as if we knew and could achieve such a thing under these conditions.

The new temperance movements, Carter writes, demand that we all ‘start out on a new regime of positively conventual austerity in order to reduce the burden on a strained’ public healthcare system. Carter calls it an ‘atrociously Calvinist model of the world’ in which the ‘pursuit of health is a moral imperative’ without even the promise of salvation or reward. My individual good health does not improve the healthcare system, it rather moralises it in terms of neoliberal risk management and insurance regimes in which austerity and individual responsibility are the solution. Sobriety becomes the denial of pleasure with no end (but capital accumulation through labour productivity and self-incurred austerity).

Learning sober: the intoxication of experience

Nelson concludes her reflections on intoxication with a retreat from any positive claim, either for the pleasures of sobriety or those of a high, writing ‘no one can ferret out for us which pleasures are taken in an “experience without truth”, and which have truth-value; no one can figure out for us which modes of abandonment are wonderful and which do damage.’ As Carter identified, the new forms of conventual abstinence renounce any claim to a source of truth, insight or even good times. Cressida Heyes at least defends intoxicating experience at its limits in the midst of the calculating rationality of disciplinary work time. Even mild drunkenness impairs our ability to get anything done; it interrupts our compulsory productivity while, in certain circumstances, heightening the pleasure we take in not getting anything done.

Yet sobriety also rejects what Rees calls the ‘numbing agent’, or Heyes calls a ‘recreational anaesthetic’ that de-politicises, ‘downplays or simply ignores the personal and political struggles that precipitate drinking.’ Sobriety on its own, however, risks leaving individuals exposed to the raw edges of modern life without any of the anaesthetics, that, as Susan Buck-Morss details in ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics’, became part of the ‘synaesthetic system’ with which we encounter the world. Consciousness is bared to the abrasive effects of modern capitalism and urban industrialisation without the promise of either respite, or the loosening function of intoxication and anaesthetic that may give rise to unexpected thoughts.

Buck-Morss registers the critique of the ‘autogenic being’ by feminist scholars who criticised a conception of the body ‘impervious to the sense, hence safe from external control. Its potency is in its alack of corporeal response.’ Yet they were also cautious about the ‘elaborate technics’ of biomedical science and its manipulation of consciousness in the pursuit of objective clarity. Instead, bodies (that) like pleasures are ‘open’, they ‘reach out’, and ‘leak’ in ways that don’t obey either moral or voluntarist rules. In his obituary for the late Barbara Ehrenreich, Gabriel Winant quotes her paean to ‘surprising’ ourselves in the streams of desire that crumble barriers: ‘In this fantasy, the body expands, in its senses, its imaginative reach, to fill the earth. And we are at last able to rejoice in the softness and the permeability of the world around us, rather than holding ourselves back in lonely dread. This is the fantasy that makes us… sometimes, revolutionaries in the cause of life.’

Eve Sedgwick in ‘Epidemics of the Will’ warned against submitting ‘not only every form of substance ingestion, but more simply every form of human behaviour’ to the ‘propaganda of free will’, in which Nelson identifies the ‘constant need of awakening, salvation, purification or liberation.’ Nelson suggests that, for her, sobriety ‘signifies the indeterminate or the unknown’ in contrast to the monotony guaranteed by alcoholism. The ‘new sobriety’ offers no such possibility, embracing an individualistic negative freedom from the hangover in the service of a Puritan work ethic. It fantasises a free, pure, and clear consciousness, when instead, as George Hoare writes, ‘we should take seriously the possibility that the hangover reflects the basic structure of human experience and consciousness under capitalism.’ Instead of endure a perpetual hangover like stupor, then, we might want to affirm the pleasure and possibility of consciousness receptive to the substances and stimulations of the world, rather than the cornucopia of alcohol-free beers desperately mimicking the real thing (and priced as such).

Walter Benjamin celebrated the pleasures of intoxication, the ‘amorous joy dispensed by the contemplation of some fringes blown by the wind … And when I recall this state I should like to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us—for less egoistic purposes—that squandering of our own existence that we know in love.’ Benjamin affirms the pleasure of intoxication and the chance it offers for transforming our perception of the world not through isolating or protecting ourselves from it, but by a modest, convivial and active receptivity.

Image: John Cafazza

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique.

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