Linda Takamine’s Alcohol, Virtue, and the Making of Persons in Contemporary America

Page 99 tells of how Gabriel, a thoughtful Latino man in his mid-30s, stopped drinking. In his drinking days, he was a guitarist with the attendant rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. He was incarcerated after committing a felony while drunk, and came to prioritize “knowledge and truth” in sobriety. The page encapsulates a major theme within my dissertation, which is a phenomenological and semiotic analysis of how alcoholics undergo a moral transformation using Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other cultural resources. I did fieldwork with self-identified alcoholics in Austin, Texas from 2011 to 2013, inquiring into a central problem they faced during drinking and sobriety: the ethical questions “Who am I?” and “How should I live?” The page demonstrates how studying addiction illuminates the importance of the will in how Americans conceptualize and shape personhood.

When asked about when he stopped drinking, his immediate response was that it was a choice. It took almost two years for his sentence to be carried out, and in that time, he did not go to AA meetings or receive any other treatment. He never overtly identified as an alcoholic, but did not vigorously oppose it, either. He had issues with the wording of the First Step, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” He thought it should be worded, “Admitted I believed that my life was unmanageable, that I was powerless over alcohol.” I asked what the significance of “believed” was. He explained:

“You think you can only do something this way, and it’s all about how you picture it, how you perceive it. When I was drinking, I tried to stop many times. I couldn’t. But I believed that alcohol had this grip on me, and that’s not true. Alcohol was just something I used to avoid things. To avoid dealing with things I needed to deal with. The [Twelve] Steps give alcohol this magical power. I kept myself from drinking. Before AA, I didn’t drink, and that’s because I made the decision. I’m not going to drink; this is it. I made a promise to Kerrie [his wife] that I wouldn’t drink…I still remember that feeling, of making that choice, and how it impacted me, saying that. I remember saying after hangovers, never again, but not meaning it… I’m willing to say that I’m doing it under my own power, so to speak. It is what I will, so in a sense it is willpower, and that would be totally rejected in a traditional meeting, although some people say, “It’s just us making choices.” I think that it is my choice. If I did relapse, I would have to make a conscious decision to do it. I would have to put myself within access of the drink, so it’s not gonna magically fall in my lap. Even if it does, it’s not going to magically pour in my mouth.”

AA members say alcoholics stop drinking when they “hit bottom,” a situation in which they receive “the gift of desperation.” Along these lines, Gabriel “meant” his promise, given his legal troubles and questions of what kind of husband he was. To him, this feeling was crucial in stopping drinking. Given his and others’ emphasis on affect, Heidegger’s concept of mood is useful.  Whether and how we engage with things in our world depends on our mood. I combined this insight with Peircean semiotics to theorize that mood influences what interpretations of a sign vehicle become available to an interpreter. Desperate alcoholics may consider alternate interpretations of what alcohol signifies and disengage from drinking. Gabriel’s circumstances generated a mood conducive to doing that.

His deliberations continued historical debates on will. Rejecting his Jehovah’s Witnesses upbringing, he disavowed free will, calling it “a Christian invention.” He also denied that addiction determines his behavior. His formulation of choice echoes 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, who wrote that although our wills are not free, each of our actions are free because we might have done otherwise. When Gabriel believed he could “only do something this way,” his choice was 1a) drink, or 1b) not drink, an impossible choice for him. When he “pictured” things differently, he reinterpreted his choice as 2a) avoid problems, or 2b) deal with problems, and 3a) disregard Kerrie, or 3b) keep his promises. Thus, Gabriel formulated a type of ethical personhood for himself when he reconfigured drinking and relapse into a series of choice-based actions, any point at which he could reinterpret his actions and act otherwise.

Takamine, Linda. 2017. “Alcohol, Virtue, and the Making of Persons in Contemporary America.” University of Michigan, Phd dissertation.


Julie Archambault on her new book, Mobile Secrets

Mobile Secrets

Interview by Anna Eisenstein

Mobile Secrets is an ethnography of youth, of mobile phone usage, and of uncertainty in a suburban neighborhood in southern Mozambique. What were your primary goals in writing this book? 

When I first set out to conduct research in Inhambane, I was interested first and foremost in youth—I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a young person growing up in postwar postsocialist Mozambique. I hadn’t originally planned to explore this question though the study of mobile phone practices but once in the field it soon became evident to me that in order to understand young people’s realities at that particular juncture, I would have to do so through their engagement with the phone. At the time, there was much hype around the spread of mobile phones across Africa, much enthusiasm about all the ‘useful information’ that would suddenly become available to a rapidly growing number of people. I didn’t want to write a book that would directly challenge this wishful thinking with ethnographic exceptions. I wanted to write a book about the spread of mobile phones in an African context, but I also wanted to write a book that was ultimately about young people’s struggles. In the end, the question of information—though not quite the kind of useful information that these observers were excited about—proved a major concern for my young interlocutors, and became central to my analysis. Continue reading

James Costa on his new book, Revitalising Language in Provence

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

You mention from the beginning that this book is not an ethnography of language but a critical reflection on language revitalization research. Was this your plan from the very beginning? What was your approach to writing this book, starting from your original research to envisioning what the final product of this monograph would be?

 Well, the book does result from ethnographic fieldwork, but in the end this is not how the book was framed, for a number of reasons. The main reason, then, was that I was looking for ways to interpret what I was observing, and I could find no satisfactory approach. I guess at the time I needed a framework to understand what language revitalization was, what it was about, and back when I started my PhD 2006 the two main currents were either works on endangered languages and, soon afterwards Heller and Duchêne published Discourses of Endangerment. I found neither approach entirely satisfactory, so I felt that, to paraphrase Bourdieu, I needed to constitute and problematize my own object, rather than be constituted by it. Hence the largely historical parts that seek to retrace the emergence of a reflection on language revitalization in linguistics and anthropology on the one hand, and the parts that try to retrace the birth of a language movement in Southern France roughly from the 16th century onward. It was only then, I felt, that I could say something worthwhile about what people were doing with language in Occitania, from a perspective that was my own and not that of language endangerment or critical sociolinguistics in the sense of Discourses of Endangerment. Continue reading

Reflections on a Community of the Heart: Ethnographer and the people of Juchitan, Oaxaca

by Anya Royce

Bido’ xhu—Earthquakes

On September 8, 2017, a Thursday evening, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast of Chiapas and Oaxaca.  It was the strongest on record since 1932, almost one hundred years ago.  Of all the towns in Oaxaca, Juchitán de Zaragoza, the second largest city in the state, suffered the most devastation. I could not communicate with my family for almost two days.  The city had no electricity, no services at all. I finally succeeded in messaging a niece in Oaxaca City and found that my family was safe though the three extended families were all now living in the one part of the house that seemed sound.

60% of the homes and public buildings were damaged, most rendered uninhabitable.  Many families chose to move into the street in case of further tremors.  After the second 6.1 quake, my family went to stay with friends whose house had escaped almost intact. Many private and public buildings have been razed or are scheduled for demolition.  These include some of the oldest and most cherished buildings—the Escuela Central Juchitán, the first large secondary school in the city, brought by the efforts of local hero General Heliodoro Charis Castro; the Capilla Guzebenda (Chapel of the Fishermen) a landmark beloved by the inhabitants of the 7th section; the Charis home; the list goes on as inspectors go around the city, surveying and filling out forms, weighing the value as opposed to the cost of reconstruction.  Spared and marked for restoration, thanks to the experts from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, are the parish church of San Vicente, the Casa de la Cultura, and perhaps the Palacio Municipal. Juchiteco architect Elvis Guerra has begun a project that would rebuild or build new structures that are traditional, that are in harmony with the landscape and traditions of the Isthmus Zapotec.  He has asked for my help by letting him use photographs of homes, building, and parks that I have taken in Juchitán since 1968.

Continue reading