Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness….
-Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) ·

Various commentators have targeted a wide array of causal explanations as shaping the dominant problems within American culture. Business leaders, for example, have long faulted governmental economic meddling, or unionization, or decline of a free enterprise spirit; ecologists point out environmental degradation or lack of human balance with the natural world; teachers may see failures of educational philosophies or maldistributed resources; social scientists study malfunctions in families, communities, institutions, belief systems, and the like. Psychologists, economists, philosophers, spiritual figures, journalists, artists, and many others have perspectives, as does the typical nonspecialized individual living in American society. Such an almost­ unending profusion of accounts suggests that something is quite problematic in American culture.

Although nearly all of these problem characterizations contain at least some elements that are intriguing and informative to any thoughtful person, in the end their heterogeneity makes for a fragmented view of American society. Is such explanatory disarray merely an accurate reflection of a host of unconnected situations? Or, more fundamentally, is everyday life underlain by an innately fragmented societal reality? Can such diverse views be interrelated coherently and comprehensively? In short, is there a potential for a radical theory; that is, for a unifying explanation of the problem situation at its roots?

A Strategy to Examine the Problem

The writings in the body of work generally termed “alienation” share the thesis that some psychological and/or social qualities that people experience or that they consciously or intuitively desire are strange to them or are estranged from them. These writings’ long, multifaceted, and rich history helps to give them standing as well-ripened, sophisticated, and insightful. Psychoanalytic views, especially that view termed object relations, have similar attributes from having been formulated by diverse and thoughtful clinicians through decades of psychotherapeutic work with a considerable variety of individuals. .,

The Strategy to Be Pursued

It is proposed, then, that the thinking of alienation and of psychoanalytic object relations can cohere well with one another. Each is a well-developed and radical theory of the relationships between individuals and their wider world, with psychoanalytic thinking concentrated more on humans as individuals (herein generally termed subjectivity), alienation thought more on humans in environment (objectivity). It is therefore proposed that, with enrichment from understandings that are grounded in psychodynamic object relations, the concept of alienation can help to unify and to deepen widely varied understandings of psychosocial problems.


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Gene RiddleGene Riddle earned his Ph.D. at The San Francisco School of Psychology and The Professional School of Psychology in 1997. His prior degrees were an MA in Clinical Psychology, before that a BA and an MA in Political Science. Gene Riddle’s doctoral dissertation, from which this essay is drawn, was titled “A Certain Laming of the Personality: The Alienated Dialectics of Subjectivity and Objectivity in Capitalist America.” For the past 15 years, Dr. Riddle has been a clinical psychologist with Kaiser Permanente at its Oakland California medical center, providing new patient triage services at the Adult Psychiatry clinic. He is currently researching a paper, provisionally titled “Lee Oswald’s Life of Unquiet Desperation,” examining the psychological makeup of Lee Harvey Oswald and how that bears on an understanding of the killing of President John Kennedy.

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