21st century binge and purge



I have a turquoise post-it on my wall inscribed with the word 'discipline'. It's a little severe, a bit over-the-top robotic, as if I wish I could become a finely-tuned engine.

Beer bottle and cigarette buttsBut I work from home, and freelance, so without a boss or externally-imposed deadlines, some measure of self-discipline is required to get work done.

For whatever reason, just looking at this word 'discipline' sends my brain a reward signal. Which is creepy, which should be creepy.

In 1936, Gertrude Stein criticised the intense over-regulation of European governments. The period she lived through in France saw war, hyper-inflation, famine, and the rise of fascism — scary upshots of, perhaps, extreme bureaucratisation and over-regulation.

She compares this against an idealised form of 18th-century Enlightenment liberalism in which she suggests that free from 'organisation', individuals possessed liberty. 'Organisation is a failure and everywhere in the world over everybody has to begin again.'

Looking into the 21st century, Stein anticipated a movement against organisation — 'perhaps they will begin looking for liberty again and individually amusing themselves again and old-fashioned or dirt farming' — and, well, she was right about that: union membership is at a record low, social capital is bottoming out, while the demand for organic food — dirt farming (!) — is booming.

But she didn't predict the flip-side of 'looking for liberty again': that faced with the task of imagining freedom anew, we'd content ourselves with the freedom to hyper-self-regulate.

When my alarm goes off in the morning I reach for my phone: check mail, check ABC, check Twitter. Get up, make filter coffee, pour one. Open my diary and spreadsheet, start working. Pour my second coffee. Eat something, clock calories in. Go for a walk, pick up whatever groceries, clock calories out.


"I am certain that the way we drink and take substances is just that: an outlet, based on a fantasy of freeing ourselves from the efforts of living."


At 10am I make a judgement about how I am feeling, file it in my mood app. Open my sobriety app, bank the money I have 'saved' on booze. Email a friend, text someone. Back to work. Am I cooking tonight? Look up a recipe. Go out to the garden, think about weeding, don't weed, sometimes weed. Back to work.

If whatever I am working on isn't very interesting, this accounting for a day, after day, after day, is fairly sad. But it's also just living a life in 2016.

The anxieties incurred by this intense self-regulation have to come out somewhere, and I am certain that the way we (Australians? We all, everyone?) drink and take substances is just that: an outlet, based on a fantasy of freeing ourselves from the efforts of living.

Binge drinking (or choose your substance) is the reward for a self-regulated existence, of contained autonomy, and one I happily indulge whenever I can. But because the overarching belief system operates along the lines of 'discipline = freedom', being momentarily out of control eventually results in shame. What did I say last night? What did I do? Whatever you did, it'll be up on Facebook, no worries.

And perhaps this shame is legitimate, particularly if and when over-indulging brings harm on ourselves and others (after smoking, drinking is the leading cause of preventable death and hospitalisation in Australia). But this binary of being 'in control' (self-regulation as freedom) and being 'out-of-control' (binge drinking as freedom) leaves a lot to be desired. Being all excess is chaotic, and being all control is terribly boring.

Perhaps this is why teetotallers are objects of fascination to me, why I am repulsed by them while at the same time wishing I could be one. I dislike their innate moralism, and their easy assimilation into an economic order that demands total self-restraint while valorising decadence. But wouldn't it be nice to be so content that slipping into intoxication for a night didn't cross your mind?

There's a moment in Renata Adler's novel Speedboat where the narrator, out for lunch with a man she does not especially like, feels compelled to prove to him she is not an alcoholic:

'He asked what I would like to drink. Nothing, I thought. Then I remembered that nothing would be the order of an alcoholic on the wagon. My normal Scotch and water would not do. I asked for an ouzo. No alcoholic in his right mind, I thought, would have an ouzo. I had two.'

And only an alcoholic would traverse through such convoluted self-regulation to settle on a drink order. When we drink, we placate ourselves with myths about alcohol's meaning, its naughtiness. And when we don't drink, alcoholism is implied.

Cycling between these two states of 'freedom' — excess and control — is a natural expression of the time we are living in. But considering that neither external 'organisation' nor intense self-regulation seem particularly free, perhaps the concept of 'freedom' has had its day.


Ellena SavageEllena Savage is Editor at The Lifted Brow, and is undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Monash University.

Main image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, binge drinking



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Existing comments

I'm an admirer of Alan Bennett's work and so take notice when he says "I'm all in favour of free expression provided it's kept rigidly under control." There's always a catch isn't there! And I wonder who invented post-it notes?

Pam | 13 May 2016  

Wisdom, or more probably old age have taught me that life is all about balance as this piece demonstrates clearly. It also reminds me of one of my daughters coming home from school, in the days before facebook etc, horrified that a could cope with being so drunk others in the class could tell them they had done certain things, and they had no idea whether what they were told was true. Thank God she and her sisters never learned to cope with being in that situation. A very good piece Ellena, Thanks.

Margaret McDonald | 16 May 2016  

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