Trysh Travis


On her book The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey

Cover Interview of January 26, 2010


One of the things I’ve become most aware of while working on this book is the degree to which cultural critics inside and outside of the academy write about phenomena that reflect and reinforce their own tastes and worldviews.  There’s a lot of writing out there about addiction, because addiction, despite its tragic dimension, retains a sheen of cool.  Drug and alcohol use and abuse are dis-inhibiting; they de-stabilize social norms.  Without too much effort, we can see them as heroic challenges to the staid routines of our uptight bourgeois lives.

Recovery culture, by contrast, is really square, both as aesthetics and as politics.  One of the amateur authors I talk about drew inspiration from Lawrence Welk in many of his writings, for crying out loud—and not in an ironic way! It’s this squareness, I think, that has led critics to overlook the complexity of recovery—its existence as a cultural formation with a genuine intellectual and social history that both reflects and helps to construct the larger economic, political, and psychic realities around it.

Personally, I would rather listen to hip-hop than to Lawrence Welk, and prefer reading high modernism to the personal stories in the Big Book.  But that doesn’t mean that the culture of people whose tastes don’t run to transgressive or ironic texts is transparent or not worthy of scrutiny.  Neither belletristic nor academic critics of the popular expend much energy on square cultures, however, except to occasionally talk about how awful they are.  I wonder what other cultural formations besides recovery scholars of popular culture have simplified or overlooked in recent years simply because they don’t give us aesthetic or intellectual pleasure.