Alcoholics may appear to be stiff-necked, but they are not stupid. The part of the mind in which their policy is decided certainly lies too deep for the word "stupidity" to be applicable. These levels of the mind are prelinguistic and the computation which goes on there is coded in primary process.
Both in dream and in mammalian interaction, the only way to achieve a proposition which contains its own negation ("I will not bite you," or "I am not afraid of him") is by an elaborate imagining or acting out of the proposition to be negated, leading to a reductio ad absurdum. "I will not bite you" is achieved between two mammals by an experimental combat which is a "not combat," sometimes called "play." It is for this reason that "agonistic" behavior commonly evolves into friendly greeting.123
123 G. Bateson, "Metalogue: What Is an Instinct?," Aproaches to Animai Communication, T. Sebeok, Hague, Mouton, 1969.
In this sense, the so-called pride of the alcoholic is in some degree ironic. It is a determined effort to test some-thing like "self-control" with an ulterior but unstateable purpose of proving that "self-control" is ineffectual and absurd. "It simply won't work." This ultimate proposition, since it contains a simple negation, is not to be expressed in primary process. Its final expression is in an action—the taking of a drink. The heroic battle with the bottle, that fictitious "other," ends up in a "kiss and make friends."
In favor of this hypothesis, there is the undoubted fact that the testing of self-control leads back into drinking. And, as I have argued above, the whole epistemology of self-control which his friends urge upon the alcoholic is monstrous. If this be so, then the alcoholic is right in rejecting it. He has achieved a reductio ad absurdum of the conventional epistemology.
But this description of achieving a reductio ad absurdum verges upon teleology. If the proposition "It won't work" can-not be entertained within the coding of primary process, how then can the computations of primary process direct the organism to try out those courses of action which will demonstrate that "It won't work"?
Problems of this general type are frequent in psychiatry and can perhaps only be resolved by a model in which, under certain circumstances, the organism's discomfort activates a positive feedback loop to increase the behavior which preceded the discomfort. Such positive feedback would provide a verification that it was really that particular behavior which brought about the discomfort, and might in-crease the discomfort to some threshold level at which change would become possible.
In psychotherapy such a positive feedback loop is commonly provided by the therapist who pushes the patient in the direction of his symptoms—a technique which has been called the "therapeutic double bind." An example of this technique is quoted later in this essay, where the AA member challenges the alcoholic to go and do some "controlled drinking" in order that he may discover for himself that he has no control.
It is also usual that the symptoms and hallucinations of the schizophrenic—like dreams—constitute a corrective experience, so that the whole schizophrenic episode takes on the character of a self-initiation. Barbara O'Brien's account of her own psychosis124 is perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon, which has been discussed elsewhere. 125
It will be noted that the possible existence of such a positive feedback loop, which will cause a runaway in the direction of increasing discomfort up to some threshold (which might be on the other side of death), is not included in conventional theories of learning. But a tendency to verify the unpleasant by seeking repeated experience of it is a common human trait. It is perhaps what Freud called the "death instinct."
124 B. O'Brien, Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic, Cambridge, Mass., Arlington Books, 1958.
125 G. Bateson, ed., Perceval's Narrative, Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 1961, Introduction
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