Filling The Void
Bruce K Alexander on the nature of addiction
March 20, 2019 • 4 minutes
About twelve years ago, when I was 18, I wound up in college. I remember lots of things from those times, but I often remember hearing how awkward everything was. Maybe it was a buzzword back in those years. I just remember the word being appended to almost every sentence any of my peers uttered. “Isn’t that awkward,” they would say, about having to talk to a teacher after class. “He’s so awkward,” about a student whose voice cracked when asking a question. Etcetera.
It struck me as weird that common, everyday scenarios were considered awkward. I figured awkwardness would pass with time. I felt awkward myself. But one place I differed from my peers was that I wasn’t into parties that much, and therefore not into drinking. But when I did go to parties, I’d sit in a corner and mostly observe what was happening.
From this lonely corner, I came to view alcohol as a social crutch, used to ease all this apparent awkwardness. And for some reason, after that first semester, I decided that I wanted to be OK without crutches—completely OK on my own, without substances to calm me down. No one told me to be that way. And it cost me a lot in terms of social aptitude: most of my friends wanted to go out and get drinks. You may not know this, but, if you’re the only person not drinking, the situation is usually not that fun. There’s also a pretty high chance you’ll be derided by your peers.
Nowadays, most of my peers have grown up and don’t drink often. I think many of them think about their health, and may not need alcohol to smooth things out these days. But there are others—some who need it still, and some who got habitually trapped, and drink out of habit or addiction. But I still have many questions about those earlier years. Why can some people can drink, yet make it out of the awkward phase without bad habits or addiction? Why do some feel a need to abstain totally (me)? And why do yet others get addicted?
I have been thinking about the state of society for a long time. I guess it’s something I can’t stop thinking about. I thought I would have figured it out by now, or given up, but so far neither of those things have happened. However, in regards to some of these questions about addiction and awkwardness , I read an incredible article recently. It’s called Filling The Void by psychologist Bruce K. Alexander. His work offers some alarming insights about the nature of addiction, namely, that it isn’t inherent to us as beings.
In my experiences it’s generally accepted that humans are prone to addiction. Addiction is seen as a powerful, dark force we have to resist at all times. But Alexander’s research shows that addiction comes from something else, a collection of conditions that political economist Karl Polyani called dislocation.
Chevalier: So if addiction doesn’t arise from properties of the drug itself, what causes it?
Alexander: Drug addiction of all kinds arises primarily from the relentlessly increasing dislocation in our society.
Chevalier: What do you mean by “dislocation”?
Alexander: It’s a word political economist Karl Polanyi used to describe alienation or disconnection, a state of being ungrounded and ill at ease. People are dislocated when their vital needs for individual autonomy and belonging are unmet. Dislocated people don’t have a place in the established social order, and they fill that void with addiction. For instance, some young people can’t stop playing video games, because a virtual fantasy world provides the excitement, identity, and meaning that are lacking in their actual world.
Chevalier: What causes all this dislocation?
Alexander: The social and political system past generations struggled to create has been twisted into a cruel and stupid imperial system dominated by multinational corporations. This is hard for people to admit. Who can bear to face the fact that the consumer society we were raised to cherish is actually making us apathetic, crazy, and vulnerable to addiction? The disconnected, fragmented nature of our culture causes addiction, which causes further fragmentation. Most serious addictions are actually an adaptation to dislocation. To some extent addiction is a functional way of dealing with the problem. Of course, what people really need is to be genuinely recognized and accepted and believed in — to have a purpose.
As a follow up to this, I’m writing a post about why I quit Instagram. You can read more soon enough. But for now I really recommend you read the article quoted above (link also below), and consider the subtle ways a person can be addicted to things.