Straight Edge

Sobriety rebranded as an artisanal app

A certain subgenre of recent thinkpiece frames millennials not as reckless or distracted, but as rather uniquely, and maybe even alarmingly, abstemious. Citing the proliferation of things like juice crawls and day raves, as well as studies showing that younger people are less likely to consider it “cool” to get drunk, observers contrast millennial consumption habits to the Dionysian inclinations of their parents, who reputedly rebelled in a time of post-war abundance. “For millennials today, it’s become somewhat of a faux pas to drink,” reads a post at Forbes. “While our parents’ generation considered booze cool, we think it the opposite.” The Guardian reports that “Sober is the new drunk: why millennials are ditching bar crawls for juice crawls,” while Buzzworthy reports on how “millennials trade booze for mindfulness.”

This may be an economic choice: As Malcolm Harris ably outlines in his recent book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, these are anxious times; facing student loans, escalating rents and stagnating wages, it’s difficult to consume anything carelessly, or without a thought to how that consumption might affect one’s ability to earn and produce. And, while generational assumptions are always fraught, one could look at the evidence cited in such posts and argue that the difference isn’t one of consumption, but of motives for that consumption. People under 40 still drink and take drugs, of course, but often for different reasons than their parents. Controlled substances like Ritalin, Adderall, and antidepressants are taken illicitly in order to boost productivity, while even more willfully mind-altering drugs are subject to a process of rationalization: LSD is taken in nearly undetectable micro-doses geared to improve work performance during or after, while ayahuasca is penciled in over a long weekend’s break from work.

For “non-addicts,” sobriety is being presented as yet another lifestyle feature alongside dieting and exercise to be brought under incessant attention and control

In 2017, British journalist Rosamund Dean published Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, advocating for “the opposite of drinking without thinking.” While for most of us the point of drinking alcohol is precisely that it obviates the mind, or at least temporarily softens the pressures of productivity, Dean recommends administering alcohol with the same rigor as vitamins or sleep. Other recent self-help books like Unexpected Joy of Being SoberOne Year, No Beer; The Sober DiariesRaising the Bottom: Making Mindful Choices in a Drinking Culture; This Naked Mind, and many more have posited sobriety as a lifestyle choice somewhere between Pilates and radical decluttering. In this conception, substance use and sobriety are not opposed, but rather two sides of the same coin.

Addiction itself is not at issue here — Dean, for example, characterizes her target audience as those with “a lower-case problem,” a problematic description that most people, addicts and non-addicts alike, would arguably like to fit. Addicts usually have a physical and medical imperative to recover from their addiction; non-addicts, by contrast, are feeling the pressure to manage their consumption as a consequence of subtler societal cues. Alongside dieting and exercise, for them sobriety is being presented as yet another lifestyle feature to be brought under incessant attention and control with an array of technological tools — including apps, online forums, and activity trackers — emerging to ostensibly make these personal wellness decisions more manageable. Being healthy is just another factor in successful life-management, and sobriety a natural outlay of the desire, or imperative, to be more present.

What we are choosing to be more present for, however, is simply more of the same. Calculated inebriation and calculated sobriety work analogously, ingratiating power into modes of personal behavior, extending the pressure to be available while also entrenching an ideology of unfettered self-sufficiency. Unbroken productivity, or what Jonathan Crary described in 24/7 (2013) as an enforced “sleep mode” — in which the worker is never exactly off — is threatened by anything, including unregulated intoxication, that involves even momentarily checking out. While offering undeniable health benefits, it seems to me that the discourse of sobriety fleshes out an insistent imperative to be sober.

Early in January, I downloaded one of the most popular sobriety apps, the winningly to-the-point I Am Sober. The design is slick and clearly considered, with a logo — white triangle inside a circle, its three vertices hemmed in by slivers of purple, blue, and green — more evocative of a sanitized hipster aesthetic, an artisanal coffee roastery, perhaps, than the more vertiginous actuality of addiction recovery. Upon opening I Am Sober for the first time, the user is prompted to input their first day of sobriety — in my wholly predictable case, New Year’s Day. A large circle fills the screen, with the amount of sober days contained inside it; every day thereafter, we are invited to take a pledge that reaffirms our intention to stay sober, converting AA’s well-worn “one day at a time” mantra to an insistent, daily push notification. After a few days I became aghast to observe myself checking my progress compulsively — despite being very able, given my obvious sobriety date, to keep track of my running total on my own. Shortly after, I turned this setting off.

Apps like I Am Sober, as well as Sober Time, Quit That, and Sobriety Counter, function similarly to the Fitbit. They turn sobriety, understood simply as the conscious denial or removal of something, into something game-like and compulsive. It becomes something that is worn, that takes material form as an object of data: something tangible and measurable, and always bifurcated by outside, technological interests. The present as given by these apps must be constantly gauged against the past and future, constantly plotted along an upwards-directed trajectory. Sobriety becomes objective, which is also to mean it can always be better. As I constantly check my progress it becomes clear that I am competing against myself.

In contradiction with the group sessions of Alcoholics (or Narcotics) Anonymous — one mantra of which is to “put principles before personality,” and which urges practitioners to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” — sobriety apps transform success into a relentless mobius-relay between Self and more Self. Self-optimization is conceived of as a piety unto itself: increasing one’s productive capacity, improving one’s output, is a social and spiritual imperative. Here bonus points are awarded for going it alone: the idea is to tap into one’s exclusive, if always deferred, potential, and to direct every effort toward its maximization. As with the broader entrepreneurial imperative inseparable from contemporary capitalism, here success — for the addict and non-addict alike — becomes a question of subjective striving, and failure is a just reward for an insufficient work ethic.

Apps help turn sobriety, understood simply as the conscious denial or removal of something, into something game-like and compulsive

This situation is a question of biopolitics, a territory most famously charted by Foucault, whose work deals explicitly with the relationship of the body and life to power. As he shows in The History of Sexuality Volume One, power enfolds life itself into discourse in order to monitor and normalize it, and thus keep it in check. The birth of “sexuality” as a concept happened at the same time that new technologies of power — public hygiene, life insurance, safety protocols — remodeled the Sovereign or King’s right to kill as the right to let live. Life could be taken away when the individual presented a threat or degenerescence to life and the species more broadly. For power, Foucault claims, sex presented a singularly bountiful resource, inasmuch as it traverses life both on a subjective and collective, species level.

In the modern period, power was sustained through two, parallel modes: disciplinary measures that aimed to exert maximum productivity in labor power, as in forced labor, but also in the regimentation of the working day through technological means; the second involved an obsessional preoccupation with sex, with the aim of making it speak. Sovereign powers could rationalize sex and bring it under control, all the while perpetuating the idea, in a neat loop, that sex — “the noisiest of our preoccupations” — was in fact repressed, and required freeing. “Freeing” it simply meant transforming it into a subject of discourse, and subjecting it to normativity. Written in the wake of a so-called “sexual revolution,” Foucault’s ideas thus explicitly problematized the idea of sexuality as a conduit for any kind of liberation.

It seems to me that we can observe a similar mechanism at work in the contemporary discourse of sobriety. On first glance, this discourse is based on a repudiation of earlier freedoms — a two-fingers to the two-fingers, as it were. But a discourse of sobriety is similarly based on a desire for control, one that social forces task us with implementing ourselves. Making sobriety speak — and here technological tools are increasingly central — is also a means of making it subject to normativity, a means of further consolidating personal concerns within the competitive performance of the self so central to contemporary capitalism.

Technological sobriety apps are designed to be fully integrated into daily life, checked as much, and with as little deliberation, as any social media account. The point is to engage with them alone, and to isolate personal behavior from contextual variables that would hinder a broader ideology of personal control. A decision that might have been made and executed according to personal needs and circumstances is focalized around the template of an app; an undertaking that might have been done routinely, or gone unremarked on, is made visible.

Considering massive improvements in health care, cancer treatment, and longevity even over the last 30 years, one might argue, if recklessly, that now is precisely the time to enjoy ourselves, to let loose and enjoy these technological and medical gains. Of course, privatization of health care backtracks on some of these improvements. An ideology of self-optimization only further absolves the state from its failure to provide a social security net, by placing the responsibility, and the blame, on individuals to provide for their own health.

For individuals with addictions, sobriety is not a simple decision. For those who can simply opt in or out, however, current texts on sobriety assimilate it to an ideology of incessant self-betterment. They represent an attempt to bring something unruly, and doubtless unhealthy, under the singular remit of subjective responsibility and control. The subject is configured as the central proponent of success or indeed failure, and new tools just new means of making personal decisions speak.

Micro-managing one’s own health becomes, in a way, superstitious — a way of “taking control” of one’s fate at a time when the fate of the social contract is itself under threat, while anticipating even less support. Still, in racing each other and our selves to the bottom to become ever more self-sufficient, competitive and flexible, we divert our attention from the structural, biopolitical decisions of the state, over which we have little control. The subject, the interminable manager of himself or herself, becomes the site of the most effective work of neoliberal capitalism.

Sobriety appears as a positive supplement to subjectivity, and often, it is. It is difficult to argue with its health benefits, and similarly difficult to parse where it flips into something less benign. However, the problem concerns the illusion of self-determination therein; increasingly, sobriety, though it appears as a personal choice, is a social imperative. The notion of creative and free interiority — as a realm in some way safeguarded from power — has itself been rationalized, but in the guise of individual liberation and health. “This is what capitalism does,” writes Slovenian philosopher and theorist Marina Gržinić: “it changes every social and political dimension, or every common interest, so to speak, into an individual matter.”

Rebecca ODwyer is an Irish art critic and writer based in Berlin.