Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) is a worldwide fellowship for individuals to share their experiences, and to gain strength and support from one another in an effort to recover from alcoholism. A.A. is based upon a Twelve Step program to recovery that acts as a personal guide to sobriety. Countless individuals find their sobriety in this volunteer fellowship, in fact many find the Twelve Steps to be their personal miracle; this is eloquently articulated in Understanding the Twelve Steps: Working the Steps can create the miracle of sobriety, but the miracle isn’t magic. The miracle occurs because working the Twelve Steps allows people to use powerful principles of recovery. Those who are willing to dig beneath the surface and truly understand the principles upon which the Steps are based are better able to use the principles in their lives (Gorski, 1989, p.2). To reiterate what Terence T. Gorski has expressed, those who are willing to truly adopt and ‘work’ the Twelve Steps experience the persuasive nature of one of the most powerfully rhetorical texts of modern society1
To gain perspective on this very unfamiliar rhetorical text, I accepted an invitation to attend an open A.A. meeting as a guest. Before entering this meeting I underestimated and misunderstood Kenneth Burke’s complex notion of rhetoric as a phenomenon dependant on audience self-persuasion. I attended the meeting with this simplified notion of rhetoric in mind. I mistakenly expected to experience individual alcoholics express their personal gratitude to the Twelve Steps for their healing and sobriety. However, in opposition I experienced a fellowship, one where numerous individuals are able to understand and reiterate each other’s successes and failures, struggles with the Twelve Steps and above all, they share utmost gratitude for the honest and supportive community created through the Twelve Steps. While my first understanding of Burkean rhetoric is true, I ignorantly had not understood the power of a collective voice. Furthermore, Burke emphasizes that words are only effectively persuasive when they “speak the language of the voice within.” Persuasion is only complete when an audience member convinces himself or herself of what has been said by others”(Burke in Borchers, 2006, p.151). This experience reminds me of the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child; it takes the collective fellowship of A.A. for the Twelve Steps to rhetorically foster successful sobriety for so many individuals.
With this I am able to understand that discourse of any symbolic form involves rhetorical action as the means for an individual to link oneself to another and to collective social environments. The A.A. culture that embraces the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous does just this, it weaves together a number of individuals battling alcoholism forming a collective; “It is a fundamental means through which we create identification- what Burke sometimes calls ‘consubstantiation,’ whereby identification is achieved through a sharing of the ‘substance’ (the terms, the meaning potentials) of text” (Stillar, 1998, p. 6). I liken Michael Halloran’s theory of ‘spectacle’ with Burke’s theory of ‘substance;’ Halloran explains ‘spectacle’ as, “a public gathering of people who have come to witness some event and are self-consciously present to each other as well as to whatever it is that has brought them together” (Halloran, 2001, p.5). With this in mind, for the purpose of this analysis let us understand A.A meetings as a ‘spectacle’ where members of the A.A fellowship collectively understand the ‘substance’ of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Identification through and with this rhetorical text, one that is a communal substance, aids each individual to be stronger in their sobriety together as a fellowship, than he or she is able to be apart.
I am inspired by Glenn F. Stillar’s Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives, in...
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