Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us
Almost without exception, traditional concepts of alienation highlight a subjectivity-objectivity gap of some literal or figurative sort between the individual and the wider world. Richard Schacht is one of the more influential skeptical inspectors of alienation theories. He notes that as the term “alienation” typically is used, “one can be reasonably sure that the matter under concern is some sort of separation” (p. 249), but nothing more specific until the writer has explained further. Schacht concluded from this lack of specificity that no useful ends for disciplined, verity-seeking thinkers such as empirical philosophers or sociologists were to be attained by lumping together widely disparate phenomena under a rubric of “alienation.” Coupled with changing political times and fashions, skepticism like this contributed mightily to the downfall of alienation thinking and rhetoric.
In sum, traditional notions of alienation are richly evocative. Perhaps, to many people who are thoughtful about their society, they also are rather unsettling in their formidable suggestion of widespread, inchoate malaise. However, these notions also are, it seems, sufficiently slippery and perplexing to feel untenable to many people.
An introduction of psychoanalytically-based thinking can be reparative toward this fatal-seeming critique of the concept “alienation.” Its quality of nebulousness does not reflect intellectual imprecision, but rather suggests that the condition of alienation flows from deep psychological processes, with wellsprings outside words or conscious logic. Instead of delimiting alienation to some sort of empirically identifiable or consciously describable subject-object rift, therefore, I urge it be understood in object-relational terms: Alienation abounds when preoedipal, paranoid-schizoid elements regularly predominate in the makeup and functioning of many individuals as a result of the developmental socialization and ongoing workings of their society, where other more mature personality structures and interrelationships are realistically attainable.
Defining alienation–or any other human condition–in such a psychosocial dialectic helps psychological and social ways of understanding ourselves become less mutually alien. The patterns, structures, and meanings of our society, when they are approached via this dialectic stance, form a sort of deep background that mightily, if quite subtly, forges our everyday understandings, functioning, temperaments. To most people in an alienated populace, though, such “deepness” of background means “remote from my experience.” This depth is more accurately termed “pervasiveness,” ironically so pervasive as to seem universal and, ordinarily, imperceptible. Thomas Mann articulates a similar view:
A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries. He may regard the general, impersonal foundations of his existence as definitely settled and taken for granted, and be … far from assuming a critical attitude toward them … yet it is quite conceivable that he may none the less be vaguely conscious of the deficiencies of his epoch and find them prejudicial to his own moral wellbeing…. Then, in such a case, a certain laming of the personality is bound to occur…. (p. 32)
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